Speculative listening

Image: Screenshot of ‘Arctic*

Kaya Barry is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social Cultural Research (k.barry@griffith.edu.au), Michelle Duffy is Associate Professor in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle (michelle.duffy@newcastle.edu.au), Michele Lobo is Lecturer in Human Geography, Deakin University (michele.lobo@deakin.edu.au)

This blog post relates to the Global Discourse article Kaya Barry, Michelle Duffy & Michele Lobo: Speculative listening: Melting sea ice, and new methods of listening with the planet          

Saltwater incursions, mangrove loss, species decline, ocean acidification and declining sea ice are expressions of global environmental change that are incredibly hard for the average person to fathom. Such slow emergencies are closely monitored by a complexity of scientific measures, yet the general public can often find this hard to digest and understand. Even as authoritative reports and global agreements – such as the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment or the Paris Agreement – emphasise the need for shared responsibility for planetary futures, these ‘big’ questions of how to act can lead to paralysis and paradoxically strengthen narratives of climate denialism and scepticism. When seeking to understand things that exceed our human grasp in the diverse planetary worlds we inhabit, the philosopher Bruno Latour urges us to learn ‘how to get our bearings, how to orient ourselves’. Speculative listening with the planet opens up possibilities for thinking and acting otherwise.

Speculative listening provides a way of telling new stories with the planet that experiment with the mergers of scientific data, creative and philosophical practices. This can help us make sense or give meaning to long-term effects that use the language of “extinction” but are not immediately visible or felt. We take up the invitation offered by Isabel Stengers for an adventure in thought and action as ‘an experiment, “just to see”’. Her speculative philosophy is playful and lures us to consider possible futures of the not-yet or “yet to come” that might be about imaginaries of abundance rather than catastrophe and extinction. Our playful practices engage with listening to the melting of polar sea ice.

NASA and NSIDC remotely measure the extent of polar sea ice daily, and this data is freely available in text and imagery online. When presented as static photographs, satellite images of sea ice are distant and abstracted snapshots of the planet, making it difficult to discern what changes are taking place. Sea ice is always in flux; water freezes, moves, the ice melts, and re-freezes, connecting land and sea on a planetary scale. These seasonal changes distort our measures of sea ice. While graphs report the increasing declines forecasting an ice-free Arctic in the not too distant future, it is the moment-to-moment sensing across scales that draws our attention to planetary forces, the fluidity and temporal nature of sea ice that exceeds our everyday grasp.

We looked for examples of how we might “listen” to these vast changes taking place. First, based on an artwork that one of the authors (Kaya Barry) created, we attempted to listen to a decade of measures of polar sea ice. A time-lapse video artwork of satellite imagery and daily extent of sea ice measures from the past decade offer alternatives – of speeding up and slowing down that enable us to comprehend the seemingly ‘slow’ changes that take place over yearly seasonal scales.

Second, we were mesmerised by the work of composer Andreas Bick, who’s interest in the sounds of ice led him to recordings of seismic tremors in Antarctica by scientist Chrstian Müller. The recordings were captured 70 metres beneath an Antarctic ice shelf and 90 metres above the ocean floor, as well as sounds of seals, whales, and birds. Yet, Müller also managed to record something unexpected – the sounds of a collision of a large iceberg as it slid along the continental shelf. Incorporating it into his composition, frost pattern (2006), Bick used sound-processing techniques to “translate” the subsonic sounds Müller had recorded into an audio range that the human ear can detect.

“Deep listening”, an approach proposed by composer Pauline Oliveros, seeks to expand our perceptions of sound and help us ‘encounter the vastness and complexities’ of the whole space/time continuum of sound. Such an approach is a significant means to respond to the urgent call to re-attune ourselves because as André G. Pinto describes, “in an ecologically threatened existence we need to reinvolve ourselves within what we have been distanced from”. But it is more than simply a state of awareness. Bick considers how we frame locations like Antarctica in terms of the sublime, those places that arouse both awe and terror. Bick asks, ‘what happens when we free fire and ice of these images, when we regain access to a state of awed listening and focus on the inner quality of hot and cold sounds?’ Inspired by thinking on speculative pragmatism and “slow science”, such data and imagery on climate change, which focuses on distant places, becomes part of everyday experience that can be thought and felt.

In both examples of listening through sea ice—the satellite video and the recordings as well as sound compositions of ice—the data shifts across many forms and audiences. It is precisely this experimentation and translation of one form of data to another, expert audiences and interdisciplinary techniques, which makes listening a collective process that brings together many planetary worlds that are incommensurable.

Practices of speculative listening do not attempt to solve the issues or causes of environmental crisis, but instead might open up possibilities that urge people to think and act differently. Instead of weaving a bias of guilt, or pointing the finger at causes, we experiment with speculative philosophies and the creative act of planetary listening to lure thought and action of the “yet to come”.

*Antarctic Sea Ice 2009-2018’ video artwork by Kaya Barry. The artwork uses data from the following sources: National Snow and Ice Data Centre (2016). Daily Sea Ice Extent Data Files, [Northern and Southern Hemisphere Daily Files]. Boulder, Colorado USA: NASA National Snow and Ice Data Center Distributed Active Archive Center. Images sourced from the LANCE Rapid Response MODIS Terra 4km satellite, 2009-2018. Images drawn from the Rapid Response imagery from the Land, Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE) system operated by the NASA/GSFC/Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS).

Further reading

Nik Baerten: Practitioner afterword: the debate

Kaya Barry, Michelle Duffy & Michele Lobo: Speculative listening: Melting sea ice, and new methods of listening with the planet          

Shawn Bodden & Jen Ross: Speculating with glitches: keeping the future

Paul Cureton: Reply to Investment in the imaginary

Lewis Coyne: Review of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston: Reply to Reviews of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston

Joe Deville: Reply to Speculating with glitches: keeping the future moving

Marketa Dolejšová: Edible Speculations: Designing Everyday Oracles for Food Future

Maria Luján Escalante: Reply to Beyond Speculation: using speculative methods to surface ethics and positionality in design practice and pedagogy   

James Fathers: Foreword to part 3: speculative ethics

Laura Forlano: Foreword

Ann Galloway: Foreword to part 2

Jack Griffiths: Review of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston          

Michael Hauskeller: Review of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston

Anna Jackman and Maximilian Jablonowski: Investment in the imaginary

Naomi J. Jacobs: Reply to Touring the carbon ruins: towards an ethics of speculative decarbonisation

Arjen Kleinherenbrink: New Images of Thought – On Two Kinds of Speculative Realism

Vivienne Kuh: Practitioner afterword

Melanie Levick-Parkin: Beyond Speculation: using speculative methods to surface ethics and positionality in design practice and pedagogy

Michael Lewis: Review of Against Nature by Lorraine Daston

Clare McCracken: Dystopias for discourse

Luke Moffat: Reply to Science fiction, reconfigured social theory and the Anthropocene Age: Exploring and thinking about planetary futures through fictional imaginaries     

Luke Moffat, Christine J. Mortimer & Maria Luhan Escalante: Introduction

Christine J. Mortimer: Reply to It Matters what Designs Design Designs: Speculations on Multispecies Worlding   

Angela Piccini: Reply to Dystopias for discourse  

Serena Pollastri: Reply to Edible Speculations: Designing Everyday Oracles for Food Futures

Paul G. Raven and Johannes Stripple: Touring the carbon ruins: towards an ethics of speculative decarbonisation

Yannick Rumpala: Science fiction, reconfigured social theory and the Anthropocene Age: Exploring and thinking about planetary futures through fictional imaginaries

Stuart Sim: Reply to New Images of Thought – On Two Kinds of Speculative Realism

Bronislaw Szerszynski: Reply to Speculative listening: Melting sea ice, and new methods of listening with the planet                 

David Tyfield: Interview: Governing Complexity and Reconceptualising Liberty

Georgina Voss: Practitioner Afterword: Three Decks And More

Michelle Westerlaken: It Matters what Designs Design Designs: Speculations on Multispecies Worlding