How art and biology bring the environment into the computer
Data are everywhere. They are processed and transmitted incessantly, but their nature is barely ever questioned. The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) project “Listening to Data Flows” by artist and ZHdK lecturer Hannes Rickli and his research collective investigates how digital data in climate impact research are created. Do they have a body? Can we feel or hear them?
Eva Vögtli: In June 2022, the “Listening to Data Flows” project will be presenting an exhibition at the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven. Why there?
Hannes Rickli: We’ve been working with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven since 2007. It collects climate impact research data in Spitsbergen. This involves observing a section of the underwater coast and how the rapidly rising water temperature at the North Pole impacts organisms and habitats. The measuring device records underwater growth of debris from a blown-up ship pier. The RemOs1 underwater observatory has two viewing windows for cameras, a webcam and a flashlight. Every half hour, a stereometric image pair is created. These images enable observing the change in bioactivity — the successive colonization by worms, algae, starfish, fish and marine mammals.
What does the artistic work explore?
I’m interested in how these data are created. How do the research diagrams come into existence? And how can the underlying work processes be made tangible? We listen to the research devices and their infrastructures.
Listening? Doesn’t the device take pictures?
The cameras, the on-board computer and the flashlight are supplied with power from a socket installed on the seabed. The electric activity builds up every half hour until the apparatuses trigger a pair of images, which the on-board computer packages, uploads to the Internet and transmits via submarine cable to Bremerhaven and then terrestrially to us in Zurich. We listen to these electromagnetic activities with induction coils, which we’ve built into the research equipment as small parasites. For two years, we’ve also been operating a hydrophone. This allows us to hear animal sounds, the breaking off of a glacier on the other side of the fjord or, for example, the sounds of ship engines — in other words, the immediate audiosphere of the device.
What happens to these sounds?
Our installation will enable seeing and hearing images and sounds transmitted live from Spitsbergen. On the one hand, these are live images from a webcam above sea level as well as stereometric images created underwater; and on the other, the corresponding sounds. The images recorded since 2012 are archived on the walls of a corridor measuring 70 meters. The small-format photographs, over 300,000 in total, trace the biological working process. This is characterized by black data gaps of electrical blackouts caused by corrosion and iceberg collisions, or by colour changes resulting from the ocean currents or bioactivity. This immersive audiovisual production makes it palpable that data and their collection generate an incredible amount of noise and are co-shaped by environmental forces. Besides the art exhibition, we also have various outreach projects. At the computer centre in Bremerhaven, where the image data is converted into numbers using machine learning, participants can listen to the supercomputer working in situ. An open call invites sound artists to use our database for their own productions.
Whom does your work address?
Besides people interested in art and digitization, my work reaches out to anyone using electronic media devices and thus considering related environmental issues. While there is an awareness that private data are worth protecting, the materiality of circulating data has hardly been explored, although this would be ecologically fundamental. My work contributes to this discourse.