Sonus Maris_V2

Download the Sonus Maris – Catalogue (mobile)

Download the essay from ISEA 2022 Sonus Maris_Helyer_ISEA22(small)

Part 1; an orientation.

We are neurologically predisposed to seek patterns in our surroundings, in fact, pattern recognition is our core cognitive ability, vital to our evolution and survival as a species—as it affords the capacity of prediction.
In life, as in art, we take delight in the symmetries, growth patterns and morphologies of the natural world as through them we recognise our own formation. However, there is a constant flux between the regularity, or predictability of a pattern and a counter-current of instability or turbulence that might threaten to render it indecipherable. This is embraced in creative practice as we always require a twist to a narrative; a dissonant metaphor in a joke; or an unpredictable note to conclude a melodic series. This is the sweet spot, the point at which our expectations of regularity in a pattern is disrupted, but not too much, just enough to throw the brain into mild confusion. It is the fissure, the reveal, and the punchline that reflects back on the narrative arc and plays with our assumptions. To walk this tightrope between order and chaos is one of the central techniques of art. By contrast, the task of Science is to distil clarity from chaos; to disambiguate the signal from the noise.

Technicians at work on Landsat 1

This subtle distinction has frequently placed art and science in a polarised position, seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum of human endeavour, where in reality neither has the monopoly on imagination; creativity or inspiration. Now more than ever the disciplines need to communicate; collaborate and hybridise.

The Sonus Maris project at the Water Research Laboratory (UNSW) established a collaboration with Valentin Heimhuber, an environmental researcher & engineer working on the integrated management of river systems, wetlands, and estuaries in the context of climate change and the pressures of population growth. His work focuses on the use of large satellite datasets and machine learning to develop new tools for the improved management of water resources and water-dependent ecosystems.

An initial sketch for converting Inlet Tracker data to musical pitch

Valentin has developed an algorithm InletTracker that draws upon more than three decades of public-domain satellite imagery (Landsat 5, 7 and 8 and Sentinel-2). His new analytical tool can reconstruct the dynamics of ICOLLs by retro-analysing the relatively low-resolution satellite images to identify the flow patterns and frequencies of these water bodies, thus providing a historical perspective that demonstrates the cyclical nature of interactions between fresh-water and salt-water bodies. InletTracker reveals when and how they open and close to the ocean and this data can then be correlated with the associated climatic and oceanic data to illustrate a complex web of environmental interactions, which may hopefully indicate future behaviours under the influence of a changing climate.

Johnathan Wheeldon hard at work playing the four monophonic scores

The ingenuity of InletTracker is that it functions to recreate observational data of environmental events that are geographically and temporally distant. This potential caught the author’s imagination as it presented a form of data archaeology, capable of exploring not just a single location but able to compare hundreds of similar systems around the globe. In effect, the system facilitates a look back at environmental water events that, at the time, were mostly unremarked and certainly not intentionally observed or recorded.

An accumulation of ICOLL’s channel tracks

The InletTracker system can trace inlet channels along and across the coastal barrier/berm, and analyses the resulting data to infer the location and shape of entrance channels, their width at the throat and their status as either open or closed to the ocean.

The principal drivers of such interactions are; terrestrial rainfall; fluvial action; wave and tidal action; atmospheric pressure and associated storm events. All of these combine to set in motion a constant but irregular cycle of opening and closing water bodies, that have implications for coastal integrity, human habitation and coastal land use, as well as changes to the micro and macro ecologies.

As in many of my environmental works, the dominant concern is how to manifest such complex data in a way that will make it palpable, visceral and emotionally engaging. How can these complex webs of information become something that illuminates the fundamental connection between our human activities and planetary dynamics, as it spins out of control? My initial and immediate response was to imagine the complex web of climatic and oceanographic interactions in the form of a musical instrument, voicing and modulating as the environmental conditions fluctuate; an organic composition, the melody line constructed directly from an analysis of the pixels present in legacy Landsat images.

Concern for the environment has become a central political and artistic issue in the contemporary world. Environmental and climate change science now perform crucial roles in analysing, and forecasting the increasingly precarious state of the global environment as it teeters towards a cascade of irreversible tipping points.
Siân Ede, in his book Art and Science, has proposed that ‘the fragile environment’ might well become ‘the most crucial matter for the future concerns of both artists and scientists.’[1]

However, in the broader public and political realm, the realisation that art and science can form powerful and symbiotic relationships with benefits that extend into all aspects of social, economic and cultural life has been a long time coming.

L’art c’est la science faite chair’[2]

‘Art is science embodied’ these words by the French poet Jean Cocteau written in 1918 neatly encapsulate a perspective in which art and science are imagined as two expressions, as two voices of the same spirit of enquiry, but perhaps delivered in a different register. Cocteau’s short phrase employs the French word ‘chair,’ in English quite literally ‘flesh,’ emphasising that art brings science into the visceral world as a palpable experience, and by so doing it can become something that we can relate to directly—a narrative behind the data! It is this embodiment of curiosity, knowledge, and sheer wonder that the melding of art and science is all about.
The Oceans are front and centre of the climate emergency. Sonus Maris hopes to elucidate this in a way that draws people into dialogue with the issues rather than polarise the debate.
[1] Siân Ede, Art and Science, p. 12.
[2] Jean Cocteau, Le Coq et L’Arlequin, 1918, p. 11.

Part 2; Sonus Maris video work No.1 for the International Conference on Coastal Engineering

The first output from the Art and Science collaboration at the Water Research Laboratory (UNSW) was focused on the creation of a single-channel video work that sought to embrace the concept of digital data archaeology, showing the environmental complexity of the coastal systems on the East coast of New South Wales.

Part 3; the Sonus Maris exhibition at UNSW, Sydney.

Exhibition: From 6 February to 5 May 2023, UNSW Main Library Level 5

Download the Sonus Maris – Catalogue (mobile)

Download the essay from ISEA 2022 Sonus Maris_Helyer_ISEA22(small)

Sonus Maris is an exhibition navigating the intersections between art and science emerging from an ongoing collaboration between artist Dr Nigel Helyer and water engineers and scientists at the UNSW Water Research Laboratory (WRL). Working in close partnership with WRL postdoctoral researcher Dr Tino Heimhuber, Helyer employs audio-visual media to reinterpret data charting the unique dynamics of intermittently closed and open lakes and lagoons (ICOLLs). ICOLLs are the most prominent type of estuaries found on the NSW coastline and are unique in that they alternate between open and closed oceanic entrance conditions, driven by the dynamic interplay between oceanic and land-based forces. Through data archaeology and a novel algorithm, Heimhuber extracts valuable information from a three-decade archive of public satellite imagery, drawing attention to long-term morphological and eco-hydrological variations in these crucial sites. Helyer interprets this detail-rich source material to compose a musical score translating the changeability of ICOLLs as a multisensory experience. Helyer’s experimental music invites audiences to rethink knowledge systems by seeing, feeling, and hearing the flows and patterns of coastal environments.

This exhibition is developed in collaboration with UNSW Water Research Laboratory and UNSW Engineering with funding support from the UNSW Global Water Institute.


Exhibition information labels

Audio descriptions

The Exhibition Gallery

A short essay presented at ISEA2022 (Barcelona Spain) which gives a general context of my work in environmental data sonification and visualisation.
Sonus Maris_Helyer_ISEA22(small)