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The Art of Listening: How sound practices are giving voice to an environment in crisis

Jan 24, 2023

Image: Leah Barclay during the creation of Listening in the Wild, Credit: Dr Tricia King.

Learning to listen has been at the core of Leah Barclay’s practice for more than a decade.

The Queensland-based sound artist is best known for dropping hydrophones, underwater microphones, deep into river systems and sharing their sounds through live streams, field recordings, performances and installations. She has listened to and recorded rivers across Australia including the Murray River, Yarra River, Brisbane River, Mary River, Noosa River and Logan River as well as rivers in the United Kingdom, India, South Korea, Mexico, the United States and Brazil.

In doing so she is revealing new knowledge about ecosystems, detecting presence and drawing attention to their lifeforms in un-invasive ways, whilst also unlocking new scientific data.

“Sound gives us this really powerful, visceral and embodied way to connect with ecosystems that we don’t traditionally have access to,” she said. “But it can also be a measure for environmental health,” she said.

Leah’s work forms part of a growing set of artist-led, interdisciplinary practices centering the act of listening to engage audiences with an environment in crisis. River Listening, which was launched as part of an ANAT Synapse residency in 2014, sits within the emerging field of ecoacoustics, that explores how sound may be used to monitor biodiversity and map changes to environmental patterns over time, also enabling communities to join in the conversation through live streams, sound walks, workshops and other participatory acts that are both urgent and vital.

“The kind of impacts of climate change are very visible in terrestrial environments, but often go completely unnoticed in freshwater environments where we can’t see beneath the surface,” Leah said. “River Listening has been about that urgent need for conservation and understanding of freshwater ecosystems across the planet, as environments that are in rapid need of engagement and conservation. And the creative possibilities of that are endless in connecting communities to their river systems.”

So what does a river sound like?

“They’re full of sound, truly sonic environments” Leah said. “In North Queensland for example, they’re this kind of dynamic, rhythmic, engaging soundscape that’s rich and complex and sounds just incredible.”

But the more rivers Leah listened to, the more complex her understanding became of what sound actually tells us about river conditions and ecological heath.

“In north India, I was putting the hydrophone in the water and hearing dead silence,” she said. “So there’s a huge contrast with the sound of a river that has been dammed. But the reality is, the sounds of  aquatic life that we record can actually be an indicator of environmental degradation in particular areas too. An invasive species might sound incredible underwater. So we needed to think far more about what those individual sounds actually mean to the health of that river in that particular context,” she said.

These considerations of what constitutes listening as a method began to generate far deeper questions about ethical practice and transparency of process.

“Often we make creative or aesthetic decisions around recordings based on something that sounds good, where I feel like I have an ethical responsibility to present recordings in a way that is authentic to the environment at that point in time,” she said. “I’m really committed to ensuring that there’s a sense of authenticity in my digital practice and creative work. I’m always very transparent about what I’ve done and why I’ve done it, so I’m not presenting the material in a way that gives a different narrative to what’s actually happening in that environment.”

As a collaborative practice, River Listening also offers a means to bridge scientific knowledge with cultural knowledge, driving growing collaborations with First Nations people in areas in which she is working.

“When we’re talking about ethical field recording practices, it’s really about a process of engaging with place and that means undertaking a consultation process, getting permission to listen to ensure we are being respectful about how and when we record.”

Leah’s next collaboration Beeyali, led by Kabi Kabi artist Lyndon Davis with photographer Tricia King, is questing further into the interdisciplinary unknown, using cymatics to visualise acoustic energy or sounds of threatened species, connecting technological, environmental, scientific and First Nations knowledge systems in new ways.

While Leah’s work is revealing the impacts of the climate crisis as they are unfolding, other artists are taking a more speculative approach, using sound to surface possible worlds to come.

The Sound of Flooded Futures

Image: Immersive sound and visual installation After the Flood by Triage Live Art Collective

Rocking on swings and lying on cushions under a large hanging kelp forest, young listeners are transported through sound into an underwater future. They find themselves in a world after ‘the great melt, when the oceans grew and the mountains shrank’. Guiding them there are the voices of a narrator but also children, like them but not like them, that have adapted to living and working on water, on floating cities made of boats, five centuries away,

After the Flood is an immersive, audio installation by the Melbourne-based Triage Live Art Collective. The performance uses sound, and a delicate kelp forest to manifest and explore the realities of climate change and rising sea levels with children aged seven to eleven years-old and their families, commissioned by the Sydney Opera House in 2020, with funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and Creative Victoria.

Artistic director of Triage, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy and her collaborators wanted to be honest with young people by offering a gentle and hopeful story of survival via cooperation and creative adaptation.

“The idea was to make a climate work for children that doesn’t paper over the fact that we are in a climate crisis but instead addresses it, not realistically, scientifically or intellectually, but as a broader story of the problems that humanity is currently facing,” she said.

“Rather than saying to kids ‘everything will be alright’, what we decided to say is, ‘this is scary. The world will change.’ And we wanted children to feel that they had the capacity within them to make the best of whatever world they ended up in. We were inspired by many writers and thinkers – and David Attenborough who at 94 still has faith in our capacity to work together.”

The narrative is supported by an evocative soundscape – the lapping of water, the creaking of wooden boats, soft winds, birds, a storm – all familiar, yet somehow other-worldly, the sounds of a new world where most people live on and under the sea. 

Katerina says the choice to use sound as the dominant medium was based on the reflection, quietude and embodiment that it enables for children and adults. The work is dream-like, offering a time to be still and to listen, like a bedtime story.

 “Sound is so much more bodily engaging than flipping something on a screen. The ears are so sensitive, and stories are something that we’re hardwired for. We love stories.”

Yet it was a screen-based development process that made the work what it was. Developed in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, After the Flood accidentally spawned a new cross-disciplinary development process, that Triage Live Art Collective has already used again in subsequent projects. 

“Sound and video artist Zoe Scoglio and I wrote the work through a series of online writing workshops,” Katerina says. “That might not sound that interesting, except that we decided to include our lighting designer John Ford and visual designers Eloise Kent and Thomas Kokkinos-Kennedy who do not identify as writers or normally engage with that part of our process and it was amazing. Basically all the material that went into the show was generated by these five very different minds working creatively and digitally. It was a fantastically rich process, writing under the playful kind of pressure of lockdown.”

In addressing some of the biggest challenges of our time, the methodologies being deployed by the Triage Live Art Collective and Leah Barclay are increasingly interdisciplinary, expanding who works are made by and for. In doing so, they’re casting the net wider, sending an urgent call to audiences, for empathy, attention and reconnection to those who choose to listen.