Some thoughts on artistic representations of the complexities of biodiversity change.
LCAB PhD student Chantal Berry suggests that non-visual forms of communication has great potential in conveying the complexities of biodiversity change
In the last twenty years, interdisciplinary research into environmental and biodiversity change has been approached not only by usual suspects as ecologists and biologists, but also by historians and artists, wishing to portray contextualised implications of environmental change to convey qualitative complexities of biodiversity change. These approaches have welcomed fresh perspectives into the accessibility of ecological research, and have broadened the scope of environmental history and artistic interpretation and portrayal of environmental issues. But less quantifiable impacts such as emotional, historical and spiritual values of biodiversity change are rarely calculated in datasets of quantitative data such as biodiversity indices. Perhaps due to the lack of methodological practice to measure qualitative data within a scientific and numerically focussed field, there are limited explorations of ways in which qualitative information can be represented and communicated to a non-specific audience. The benefits of interdisciplinary research between subjects such as environmental history and sound studies in relation to biodiversity change has not yet been fully realised and could be beneficial to the scope of not only sensory history, but also an improved contextualisation of current research in biodiversity change within historical timelining. Inter-disciplinary research across radically different subject areas could explore the possibilities of improving communication of previously two-dimensional datasets in single numerical values. Biodiversity indices are representative of numerical datasets of information about specific habitats, and whilst this information is useful to scientists calculating the change in biodiversity as a matter of material and ecological change, qualitative values are not often considered in calculations of biodiversity indices. This lack of engagement and presentation of qualitative information could be detrimental to the impact of biodiversity indices and also the success of policy action taken when biodiversity indices are implemented and the oversimplification of biodiversity change and its impact upon any one habitat or community could be detrimental to biodiversity in ways which are not only qualitatively different, but also impact economic development.
I would like to suggest that non-visual forms of communication, particularly auditory communication, has great potential in conveying the complexities of biodiversity change and when accompanied by numerical calculations such as biodiversity indices, artistic auditory representations of qualitative data could contribute to a ‘complexifying’ of biodiversity research from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives. I argue this case with a view to developing approaches to implementing environmental policy change and reducing the over-reliance upon generalised global mapping techniques to represent single numerical data-sets and the prescription of visual-based knowledge. It is also intended as a thought experiment for considering methods of improving lay-awareness of the importance of combining qualitative and quantitative data in calculating a balance for implementation of environmental action and lifestyle change, as well as presenting a suggestion for public engagement with artistic manifestations of ecological research. The most common source of existing research in relation to soundscapes and biodiversity change is unsurprisingly that which relates to birds and their songs. This is also true of interdisciplinary historical research into soundscapes and in sensory history, where birdsong is either studied within the context of changing human relationship with birds, or as historical acoustic studies.
In September 2020, the BBC reported on ‘How lockdown birds sang to a different tune’, which discussed the impact of lockdown quietude and the reduction of noise pollution on increased human awareness of birdsong, despite birdsong actually becoming quieter during this period because birds did not need to compete with human-generated noise. Again in February 2021, the Guardian reported on a similar topic, but noted how “Millions of people were not just hearing but actively listening, perhaps for the first time, to the songs of birds – ancient songs, perhaps unchanged from the stone age.” What is perhaps most striking about the reports is not actually the content of the report - it is safe to say that everyone noticed that lockdown featured sunny weather and beautiful birdsong, but the fact that the noticeable sound of an event had been the primary concern for the reporters.
Berlin-based sound artist, Kat Austen exemplifies approaches to presenting ecological research in multi-media installations which aim to “address factors affecting human behaviour with respect to non-human agents in the environment, for example: empathy for other species or ecosystems” and are “shaped in order to transfer and democratise knowledge-making practices to diverse communities, and to foster social, political and environmental agency through active participation and intervention in environmental and social systems.” She also regards her art to be important to the furthering of improving co-habitation of the earth species and “acts at the boundary between what we think of as the self and other(s). It redefines and enriches our relationship to the environment and society.” One example of Austen’s work which demonstrates these qualities is Stranger to the Trees (2020) which not only considers the sound qualities of plant species in question, but produces through recorded sound waves, a translation of this plant ‘language’, produced initially in vibrations, recorded and re-distributed into meaning and “queries the response of forest ecosystems to the ubiquitous and irrevocable dispersal of microplastics around the Earth.”
We exist within an entirely sensory world, and so one wonders why we do not see or hear more about what we hear. News reports question what other visual-based representations of biodiversity change might be lacking in their representations of whole ecosystems, and leads one to consider how we might present information about both environmental sound to policy makers or the public, and what value presenting sonic semiotics through auditory communication might have for improving the complexity of biodiversity indices. These news reports and artworks have inspired me to consider the approaches taken to represent meaning, and have resulted in my research into boundaries of semiotic resemblance, how art could benefit distribution of knowledge in biodiversity, and consider whether calculations of biodiversity indices could be complexified by artistic interpretation when representing biodiversity change.
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