WATERY DISCOURSE AND OCEAN MEMORY IN CROSSINGS (2023)
Project Summary and Outcomes:
- Can the ocean be a composer?
- How might discourse be transformed in ocean memory?
- Does the ocean remember the global migration crisis?
- Crossings—generative sound design (~90 mins).
Crossings examines cultures of passage on the English Channel/La Manche. It is a site- specific work of sound design that flows beyond international borders. You listen as you cross the water between Dover and Calais, likely on the ferry, but theoretically on any vessel. An archive of seventy-five audio samples (spoken word and environmental field recordings) evolves in real-time according to GPS location and the velocity of waves on the ocean’s surface. The work aims to highlight the saturation and leakiness of public discourse around migration.
This iteration of Crossings was filmed and recorded on June 14, 2023. The excerpt below is just a fraction of the full 90-minute duration. Wear headphones for best listening.
- Depth Sounding—digital print on silk (183 x 91cm).
Depth Sounding is a visual complement to Crossings. The print combines a bathymetric map (ocean depth) of the Channel with an archive of transcribed discourse in English and French. For the MA1 Public Event, I printed this work on silk and mounted it on a flagpole.
“Discourse” and Watery Epistemology:
I refer to the English Channel/La Manche with a hesitancy to give it just one name, and with a healthy suspicion of discrete categorisation as a linguistic function. Crossings called for fluidity in language. I used two, English and French, in a lengthy process of translation and transcription wherein discourse frequency came to an international impasse. Great Britain in the post-Brexit climate meets France in a pivotal moment of reckoning for national identity. “Illegal immigration” becomes “l’immigration clandestine”, adjectives with divergent notes of bureaucracy and secrecy respectively. Language is the material vessel for ideology, and discourse is the dynamic process by which meaning is transferred between the material and semiotic. In this project I take Norman Fairclough’s understanding of “discourse”—with three possible definitions—as a departure point: “(a) meaning-making as an element of the social process; (b) the language associated with a particular social field or practice (e.g. ‘political discourse’); (c) a way of continuing aspects of the world associated with a particular social perspective” (Fairclough, 2012).
Once understood as a dynamic process, discourse might then be framed differently within various epistemologies (systemic epistemology the most tempting within the IED context). I am here guided by the watery materiality of Crossings, and drawn to what Astrida Neimanis calls “watery logic”, with reference to fluidity as a post-structural metaphor (Neimanis, 2017). Within this framework it is convenient to imagine discourse as slippery, to float in the pool of absence between signified and signifier, and to think of ideology as leaking from its linguistic vessel. In other words, watery logic calls for a fluid understanding of meaning as it manifests in language.
Although slipperiness is a useful and transgressive metaphor in the current climate of hard borders and absolutism, over-reliance on post-structural thinking risks detachment from material and abject reality. Suspicious of an over-reliance on wet metaphor, Neimanis proposes a pragmatic solution: “I am not interested in fluidity and watery logic only in the abstract… It seems important that we pay attention to the specific ways in which water travels, and the specific kinds of bodies that certain waters comprise, transform, and dissolve” (Neimanis, 2017). It is in this spirit of specificity that Crossings is anchored between the ports of Dover and Calais, and identifies migration across these waters as a zone of political contention. In critically identifying asylum seekers as subject to oppression within a greater cohort of migrating bodies across the Channel, this project aims to demystify the discursive arm of power employed against this demographic.
Site Specificity and New Cartographies:
The research for Crossings necessarily began on-site at Dover Port and the surrounding landscape. I conducted fieldwork in April and presented my findings at the Term 2 WIP show the same week as an exercise in quick and intuitive making. The outcomes of this fieldwork included photography and videography, field recordings, and cyanotype prints. My observations can be broadly categorised into the following: the bureaucratic extremity of the port, replete with legal and ideological borders; the tension between the static (and largely conservative) local community and the immense flow of migrating bodies through the area, and; the geographical significance of the port due to its proximity to Europe. I made a short video of the non-human bodies washed up on the beach, and gave them cyanotype passports (which became over-exposed as they were exhibited at the WIP show). I also printed the Australian and British Illegal Immigration Policies on silk, a process that obscured the bureaucratic language during the watery development, and a material that moved like water when suspended. These works, and other found objects, served as a material departure point for the rest of the project.
Crossings belongs to an ancestry of site-specific art practices, the most relevant of which is GPS-located sound design. The relationship between environment, landscape, and form is foregrounded in these works. How might we imagine composition as geography? The function of space collapses in temporal media, as movement—or migration—becomes implicit for form unfolding in time. Early in this project I came across composer Ellen Reid’s Soundwalk, a spatially dispersed composition for audiences travelling through Regent’s Park (Reid, 2022). The composition necessarily relies on repetitive and/or slowly evolving motives, which allow for duration to be determined by the audience. Furthermore, the music is organised in geo-located cells, each of which has a close formal relationship with the directly adjacent cell, such that the transitions remain smooth as the audience passes between them. Soundwalk is an early model for Crossings and marked the beginning of my investigation into geography and movement as formal devices.
Tangentially, I began to work on a medium for visualising Crossings in its site-specific context. Cartographies have long been a subject of interest for composers, who see parallels in music notation and visualising geography; the axes of longitude and latitude function as a means of navigation for travellers just as the axes of the stave are a means of navigation for performers. Daniel Miller outlines a cartographic theory of notation: “Scores are maps that are isomorphic with the spatial and temporal structures of the musical works they represent. In essence, scores translate a specific subset of acoustic and temporal features of their referents to a visual representation” (Miller, 2017). My research led me to several innovative examples of cartographical notation, including a volume of works edited by UK composer Jez Riley French entitled OverBorders (French, 2021).
The practice of cartography has adopted a certain criticality in the post-colonial context, wherein artists, designers, and scholars have sought to uncover the mechanisms of power implicit in historical mapping (Dávila, 2019). The very act of cartographical mark-making—of inscription upon a landscape, of superimposition—comes with significant baggage in post-colonial Britain, wherein a contentious discourse of belonging is charted in the legislative ink of an isolationist government. A critical cartography is currently practiced by many artists to counter hegemonic forces, and it is in this context that I designed Depth Sounding, named for the practice of measuring the depth of a body of water. Returning to the slippery nature of discourse, I sought to show language in water, flowing beyond fixed borders and international signification, using the metaphor of depth in a discursive context.
Ultimately, I am unsure as to whether cartography—or any fixed visual media—is the most appropriate correspondent for a lively and emergent sound work. Certainly, the fugitive audio easily escapes the stasis of Depth Sounding. Nevertheless, I was glad for the presence of the complete archive of transcribed text in my installation, as it gave a sense of scale to the Crossings that could not be conveyed by dipping into just a few minutes of the sound work. Importantly, Depth Soundingis not a score, after all; it is not instructive—rather, the audience is invited to make audio-visual correspondence without any imperative. The looser correspondence algins more closely with Salomé Voegelin’s geography of sound, the ephemeral nature of which is key to its political possibility:
A geography of sound has no maps; it produces no cartography. It is the geography of encounters, misses, happenstance and events… Performing the impossible territories of a poet on the night-time sea—on the ocean in the dark, she hears the rhythms and textures that are the material and content of an invisible terrain that leaves no trace… Thus we have to enter into its undulations, to feel our bodies perform the geography of the waves.
Archiving and Ocean Memory:
A similar ephemerality is observed by Kenneth Goldsmith regarding digital archives—an impermanence brought about by their very immateriality. He describes the way data transforms and mutates as analogous to the way water moves through the hydrologic cycle, quoting James Joyce in his comparison: “I have begun to think about digital material as an ecosystem, of which we are custodians… Joyce speaks of water the way data flows through our networks with ‘its vehicular ramifications in continental lake contained streams and confluent ocean flowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents: gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses’” (Goldsmith, 2016).
This model of a digital ecosystem contributes to a broader conversation about the role of the immaterial in archival practices. Within the historical archive, as in cartography, are a series of manifested hierarchies and entrenched power relationships, the disestablishment of which is the object of concerted efforts in many contemporary art-archival practices. Goldsmith would argue that the materiality of digital media resists essentialisation—stretching notions of originality and replica especially when recordings are made of temporal phenomena. In Crossings, digital media is arranged and re-arranged by the ocean, each “performance” unique, a kind of information processing akin to the function of memory within an archive.
The earliest conceptual scaffolding for Crossings concerns ocean memory, defined by the Ocean Memory Project as “the ability of biological and physical oceanic systems to encode, store, and release information across a variety of timescales, from hourly to geological, impacting the future” (Ocean Memory Project, 2023). Currents of temporality and memory are present in all my projects this year, and their confluence is in Crossings. I ask: how does the ocean remember the global migration crisis, and how might discourse be transformed in ocean memory? This project hands over compositional agency to the ocean in answering these questions, the dynamism of the tides as the generative source of the sound design: “as a concept born at the intersection of disciplines and cultures, [ocean memory] is not one thing but a multitude of intersecting points of view through which humans might attempt to fathom the ocean as a dynamic living thing” (Ocean Memory Project, 2023).
The iteration of Crossings that I recorded on June 14th serves as a decent prototype. The sound design as it stands currently is not at a level of aesthetic sophistication that I usually expect from my composition practice. The patcher in MaxMSP needs further work to refine the processes by which OSC data becomes sonic texture—for example, I would like to adjust the shape of the envelope so that the audio is not so choppy and sharp as it is sorted by the altitude data. Similarly, I would like to rethink the density of the speech samples, as well as their relationship to the drone in the mix. Having recently attended Kate McMillan and Cat Hope’s premiere of Never at Sea at King’s College (Hope & McMillan, 2023)—wherein the use of bass frequency undulates to mimic the movement of the ocean—I am unconvinced as to whether the stasis of a drone is the right aesthetic match for a generative, fluid work.
If I had more time and resources to develop this work I would fully orchestrate the ninety-minute duration (in the style of Ellen Reid’s Soundwalk) with more intricate ensemble writing. The harmonic structure that I outlined, and the crowd-sourced improvisations I subsequently collected were place-holders in what I imagine could be a much larger-scale work. Whilst the diverse individuality of each solo instrument brought a narrative structure to the Crossings, collectively they felt structurally weak, and did not engender the homogeneity of longer-form, quasi-minimalistic music that truly encourages deep focus. Furthermore, with more resources I would create my own field recordings rather than rely on the BBC Sound Effects Library (which are free to use in academic contexts).
Crossings feels unfinished in other ways. The exact mechanisms by which an audience member would receive the work are unresolved. In the test run on June 14th, I sat at my laptop on the open-air deck of the ferry, a technologically clumsy and logistically difficult configuration to organise at scale. There are two possible future interfaces for the work that I imagine, the first being a bespoke app—rather like Reid’s Soundwalk collaboration with Echoes—whereby an audience member would receive an individualised experience using the OSC data from their own phone. The second possible future iteration would be to construct a physical installation piece for the ferry, within which would be embedded micro-controllers for a central point of data collection for several listeners. I prefer the second option for the poetic possibility of the installation piece, and the collectivity of the listening experience.
Copeland, M. & Goldsmith, K. (2016). Archiving the Immaterial: A Digital Ecosystem. In Miessen, M. & Chateigné, Y. (Eds.), The Archive as a Productive Space of Conflict. Sternberg Press.
Dávila, P. (Ed.). (2019). Diagrams of Power: Visualizing, Mapping, and Performing Resistance. Onomatopee.
Fairclough, N. (2012). Critical Discourse Analysis. In J. P. Gee and M. Handford (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Routledge.
French, J. R & Law, P. R (Eds.). (2021). OverBorders. (1st ed.). Self-published.
Hope, C. & McMillan, K. (Artists). (2023). Never at Sea [performance-installation]. King’s Culture; Science Gallery London; St Mary le Strand Church; Lewisham Refugee Resettlement Program, Refugee Council; King’s Sanctuary Programme.
Miller, D. (2017). Are Scores Maps? A Cartographic Response to Goodman. TENOR 2017: International Conference on Technologies for Music Notation & Representation: Proceedings, 57-68.
Neimanis, A. (2017). Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. Bloomsbury Academic.
Ocean Memory Project. (2023). About Ocean Memory. Ocean Memory Project. https://oceanmemoryproject.org/about/
Reid, E. (Composer). (2022). Soundwalk [GPS-enabled public art]. Eclipse Projects; ECHOES.XYZ; Playtime Studios.
Voegelin, S. (2019). The Political Possibility of Sound: Fragments of Listening. Bloomsbury Academic.