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MTF Podcast

MTF Podcast

The MTF Podcast features interviews with some of the most brilliant minds from the worlds of technology, innovation, music, creativity, arts and sciences, academia and industry. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Latest episode:

118. Robertina Šebjanič – Aquatocene

Robertina Šebjanič is an internationally awarded artist, whose work revolves around the biological, chemical, political and cultural realities of aquatic environments, and explores humankind’s impact on other species and on the rights of non-human entities.    Based...

118. Robertina Šebjanič – Aquatocene

Sofia Crespo

Robertina Šebjanič - Aquatocene

by MTF Labs | MTF Podcast

Robertina Šebjanič is an internationally awarded artist, whose work revolves around the biological, chemical, political and cultural realities of aquatic environments, and explores humankind’s impact on other species and on the rights of non-human entities. 
 
Based in Ljubljana, her research into the sound worlds and everyday realities of aquatic environments serves as a starting point to investigate and tackle the philosophical questions on the intersection of art, technology and science, and the role of humans not only in damaging the environment but also potentially helping to repair it. 
 

Transcript

Dubber      Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. You’ll be familiar by now that one of the main interests that brings this amazing global MTF community together is the intersection of science and art. But it’s not just that it’s cool or interesting to bridge those worlds in new ways, although, of course, it is that too. It’s also becoming central to our understanding of how the grand challenges of our world - not the least of which involves our stewardship of the earth, its ecosystems, and diverse species - can be urgently addressed.

With that in mind, over the course of this podcast we’ve explored the built environment, new ways of mapping the world, new ways of understanding biological lifeforms, and new knowledge through the perspective gained with the view from space, but perhaps one of the richest seams of seldom explored potential for the kinds of new knowledge we need to ensure our ongoing existence is to be found in something that there is more of than pretty much anything else in this world: ocean. And someone who doesn’t just bridge but blends oceanic science and art is MTFer Robertina Šebjanič. Robertina is an internationally awarded artist whose work revolves around the biological, chemical, political, and cultural realities of aquatic environments and explores humankind’s impact on other species and on the rights of non-human entities.

Dubber      Robertina, it’s really great to have you on the MTF Podcast. Of course, you were involved in MTF Aveiro in Portugal last year, but I remember we first met at MTF Central in Ljubljana back in 2015. Do you want to start by telling us a little about how you connected with MTF in the first place?

Robertina  It’s true. It’s quite some while ago that we met and all this started to happen. So I was at that time working on a performance together with a colleague. It’s an audiovisual performance together with colleague Aleš Hieng Zergon, and we had been doing different experimental stages, I would say, with ferrofluidic structures, which we went into showing the micro and macro situations real-time with the sonic interpretation of it also.

And, actually, Miha Ciglar organised IRZU Festival at that time, also in Ljubljana. And he was the one who connected with Michela and with you and with the Music Tech Festival and with organising the Music Tech Lab also in Ljubljana, and he invited me and Aleš to encourage us to be part of it, and he was very happy to introduce us also to Michela Magas and you. This was how we started to meet. And then when you spend time together physically at the event, when you exchange a lot of thoughts… Especially with Michela. We had quite nice conversation flow. And then since then, I’m following what is happening, and I think it’s great to have this kind of base hub to follow how the communities are developing also.

Dubber      Because IRZU was a long-running Slovenian sound art festival. Had you done a lot with Miha at that before?

Robertina  Yeah. With IRZU, I was collaborating with different hats, I would say, because I was also for some while in the beginning of 2010/2012 and so on working in the media lab in Ljubljana as a producer. So with Miha, we organised together events also many times. So it wasn’t only me as an artist, but also me as an active member of the bigger organisation structures, also sometimes collaborating with Miha inside of that. And it was great because his festival… Was that it was very boutique. It was small, but it was very interesting. The people he managed to bring to Slovenia also. And I have to say, at that time, I didn’t travel yet so much. For me, it was great opportunity to really get to know different branches of experimental improvisation and sound art in general, so it was really good platform to be involved with.

Dubber      And you say sound art. You’re an artist and you’re a researcher, but it’s mostly underwater related things, isn’t it? It’s sound from beneath the sea. It’s sound from aquatic animals. Why? Why is that interesting?

Robertina  It started very organically. 2012, when I stopped working as a producer and started to be much more involved as an artist, an independent working in different projects, I was invited to take part in Triennial of Contemporary Art in Turkey in Izmir, and there… Actually, they invited me specific with the idea of combining the knowledge of the local scientists and local artists. So I was in the same way working as a mediator between these two different communities. And at the same time, I was also developing some conceptual frame for a new research which I was… Looking into it, and then spending lots of time in the Izmir Bay at the marine station there. And first, it was more on the shores, and then also sometimes with boats and so on. I started to be more interested what is happening.

And sound-wise, I have to say that first time I put the hydrophone into the water, it was… Getting just immersed into something which I didn’t heard before, and this effect is still, even though I work on this now since several years, it’s still very, very engaging and it’s very interesting because it’s the sound of something which we don’t hear on the daily basis. It’s quite foreign. It’s sometimes quite hard to understand what it is, which animal it is. It’s full of different kinds of structures. And also physicality of the sound by itself in the water, it’s like having absolutely different shape, if I call it like that, because it travels wider, it’s stronger, it’s…

Dubber      It’s a very different medium, isn’t it?

Robertina  Yes.

Dubber      I’ve got a couple of hydrophones myself. Hydrophones - if you haven’t come across the term, if you’re listening - it’s basically a microphone that you can stick in the water. But one of the things that you notice the first time you use a hydrophone is when you record sound underwater, mostly what you hear is people. You hear motors. You hear boats. You hear those sorts of… How big a problem is that? Is that having a particular effect, or should I just try and block that out?

Robertina  That’s a very good question because, actually, this is something which I came across in the beginnings a lot. I was trying to block out all the human imprint. And then after some while, I realised more than I will try to delete and clean that sound from the boats and ships and everything else what is around, I realised that then I would be just showing half of the soundscape, which is us being there and our presence. The noisy presence is something which I really started to point out on the end of the day. And then from this, I’ve started to develop body of work of the sound artwork which is called ‘Aquatocene’ where I’m mixing together bioacoustics and the sounds of all these different sounds and songs from fish and shrimps and everything which is… All the creatures of the sea, I would say, and then also us humans, from the boats and similar. And it happens many times that I go out on field trip to record and most what I get is us humans with different technological imprints being there.

Dubber      Is aquatocene your word, or is there a literature of that?

Robertina  Aquatocene is actually my word. I was playing around with the Anthropocene defining how the human is actually imprinting everything. And in my conceptual frame about my work, I started to develop also… I call it aquaformations. It’s the way how we are changing the water from inside out. Then in this kind of play of words…

Dubber      You mean like terraforming but underwater?

Robertina  Yes, exactly.

Dubber      Okay. I’m with you.

Robertina  This is happening a lot, and this is something I think in next few years, the topic will be much stronger because I see already the pace… I remember, when I started to work on this in 2012 and when I started to do compositions in 2016 and so on, there was not such a big interest into this. People have been always asking me “Why this? It sounds very esoteric.”, or there had been different ideas because if you don’t know it, we apply something to it and not always say something, but it’s actually there. I was quite persistent with this because I really wanted to bring this out. And in my work, I try to invite also scientists, which they’re working on daily basis with this, to also give them the platform which we artists have and share it with them because I think it’s very important to have this mergence of different knowledge coming together.

Dubber      Sure. But you are an artist in a very scientific domain. To what extent are you a scientist?

Robertina  Well, I always joke with scientists that I’m scientist until they let me go. No, but it’s a tricky question because, yes, I’m actually trained as an artist. I finished sculpturing. But since ten years, I’m working very in-depth and very interested into marine… I’m specifically interested into marine science. So, of course, marine science has many different layers, and it’s not only one or another. Oceanography is… It’s a combination of biology and so on. What I see is people working in this kind of scientifical field, they’re used to have different combinations of people working together, so I’m then not such a disturbance then anymore, I would say, as an artist. I would say that I am very interested into it. I try not to be just fascinated with it, but understand also the context and then work with that further.

Dubber      Okay. Well, as someone who may not be a marine biologist but works near them, I have what might be a really stupid question. Do fish have ears?

Robertina  I would say first, Andrew, there is no stupid questions.

Dubber      Okay. That’s very kind of you.

Robertina  No, no. But it’s a very important question, actually, because we are not aware how very loud and talkative the underwater world is in the sense of, yeah, there’s dolphins, whales, everything what is big and has some…

Dubber      Yeah. Those are mammals. I know enough about marine biology to know that those aren’t fish, so my question stands. Do fish have ears? Because I know whales have songs and I know dolphins chatter and all the rest of it. I’m not aware of fish talking, if that’s the right word. Do they, and…

Robertina  It’s the right word, yeah. They like to talk, and they’re very chatty, especially smaller fish like clownfish and so on. They’re very talkative. They really exchange lots of information between each other when they communicate. And how much I was reading and listening into it and also talking with different marine scientists, especially the ones working on this kind of topic of bioacoustics, they all say that they also have their own social structures, and they debate them also while they’re happening, so it’s quite interesting to observe that. Definitely, they have ears. And what is the annoying thing with us humans being so loud there with boats and ships and all this is that they cannot close these ears, so they…

Dubber      Well, nor can we. We have eyelids but not earlids.

Robertina  Exactly.

Dubber      Do these different species communicate with each other? The dolphins and whales example. Do dolphins talk to whales, or are they completely oblivious or unaware of what each other is saying?

Robertina  I would say it like this. First of all, there should be more extensive research about this. But how much I know and how much I came across and how much I spoke with different marine biologists, it’s definitely… There have been occasions that there have been interactions between different species. And this interspecies communication, it’s happening there because it’s either there’s the same danger or they go for the same hunt, like towards the smaller fishes and schools of fish and so on. So I do believe that they also exchange somehow between not only…

Because there are very interesting thing I came across of an excellent scientist who is working with whales, and she’s observing when and how they are, as families, moving from one part to another and why this is happening. And, of course, there is different parameters because there is never only one why something is moving somewhere, but one of very interesting things is she told me that they know which kind of family it is because they have different dialects. So they figure it out that “Huh, this is the same species, but a bit different dialect than the other ones.”.

Dubber      I like that it’s a dialect and not a language or an accent. It’s that in the middle thing.

Robertina  Yes, exactly, because… I think that’s quite interesting and engaging, I think. I was quite interested in it, and I did read a lot about this kind of stuff because I think it’s important, even though that in my projects, I do speak mostly about these kind of underwater noise pollutants and our presence there. But also, I try to explain why our presence is so disturbing, and this is exactly because of this. How and what is happening with all the life.

Dubber      It’s interesting because noise pollution, as bad as it is, it’s the one kind of pollution where you can just turn it off. If it was air pollution or chemicals in the water or anything like that, there’s a real problem long term, but for noise pollution, you just flick a switch and it’s gone. Is that something that we can actually have some control over and make an impact?

Robertina  Definitely. That’s absolutely true, but the problem is that most of our goods and our… Whatever we consume and whatever we use on daily basis and buy in shops and so on is coming from the transport on cargo ships, and transport on cargo ships was inflating in the last fifty years. It was like 150 percent more boats. And as we speak, just last week there was the Suez Canal Evergreen boat stuck, and I think you also… Everybody was following that.

Dubber      Sure. But now I’m thinking did it get quiet in the Suez Canal?

Robertina  Definitely, but it was just less traffic. But most of the boats, they could be still running because they could have been waiting that they will drive through, so it didn’t help. And what it showed, how something like this can break everything and which kind of panic is started to happen. And mostly, what I was finding quite odd in this media frenzy was that it was constantly reporting about the billions of dollars of…

Dubber      Global trade.

Robertina  Exactly. And this shows you how very fragile it is and how very important it is also at the same time. Important because the global economy is relying on it. So this means that, in this case, it’s really hard to just switch the motors down.

Two years ago, I was on one very interesting boat, Celtic Explorer. It’s research boat from the Irish government. I was there as an artist in residency through Galway 2020 and the Aerial/Sparks project, and it was great to experience that because that was a silent boat. This means that the machinery, the technology, how the boat was put together and where the main machinery, main propellors, they had been stationed, it was done differently than other boats. And if we would even drive slower, it’s already impacting the levels of the noise pollution which is present. I think there is a long road.

And definitely, noise pollution is one of the most stupidest pollution, and I call it like that. It’s like I like to say, it’s very stupid pollution because, yes, we could just turn it down because, as you said, chemical pollutants or microplastics and plastic in general and so on, it’s much more harder to get rid of it because it gets interweaved into the environment on the molecular levels, which we don’t have even the knowledge how to be able to prevent that.

Dubber      Yeah. If you stop putting microplastics into the ocean, the microplastics that are there are still there, but you stop putting sound into the ocean, it’s all gone. That’s really interesting. Do we have any clue how damaging the sound is?

Robertina  I think the clue will be soon much more present because the numbers of fish is drastically disappearing. This means that fisher industry is having lots of problems. And then, of course, they go with bigger boats with bigger nets, deeper, which causes many different levels of problems. But definitely, it’s changing everything.

I always like to explain it that this noise pollution which is happening in the oceans, the sea, is the same like in the cities. Okay, in the time when we could sit in the cafes next to the crowded road. It’s very normal that you do start to yell towards each other because you have a coffee, but there’s lots of cars around you and you start to shout, and this is happening also in the oceans, the seas. The communication which was before on much lower decibels starts to be louder and louder, and it’s called the Lombard effect, and this is just present.

Dubber      So the fish are shouting at each other?

Robertina  Exactly. Fish are the same like us. We just like to communicate.

Dubber      Yeah. It’s interesting. When you say, for instance, the impact of COVID, which has made cities quieter, at least to a certain extent, I guess it’s the same with waterways. We were invited to come and do something with Venice Biennale about the sound in the canals. Because of COVID, the assumption was the canals had become very, very quiet because there were no boats going up and down. But, of course, we couldn’t go to Venice because of the COVID pandemic. So we never, unfortunately, got to do that, but it’s really interesting to me that there is this impact that can be had that can go away so quickly. And do the fish continue to shout when the sound goes away, or has it become naturalised?

Robertina  This I don’t know, and this is something which I would like to research further on. In my prediction, I think that with generations, of course, this changes. And then depending how long the lifespan of which organism is quicker, generational gaps can be longer or quicker depending on that, so definitely would be interesting to explore that and…

Because waterways, yes, maybe on the beginning of COVID they have been a bit less, but the routes are still happening. There is so many boats out there, and especially because… I will go back to Suez because that’s just the recent thing which happened, but it was just interesting to… I was just quite amazed to explore how much we don’t know about these kind of logistics and how something is coming from somewhere to somewhere else, because I think we are quite unaware of how much we abuse and use the water traffics, because it’s not only oceans and rivers, it’s also rivers and…

Dubber      And, of course, different species depend on different senses. I know dogs are really big on smell and etc., but it’s quite dark underwater, especially when you go down deep. I assume that sound becomes very important.

Robertina  Definitely, yeah. After two hundred meters, we come to this more twilight-y area. You can see something, but it’s really hard. And then very quickly you are in darkness, so sound is one of the main orientations. As humans, I like to say that we are visual animals, and in water, this changes. So the aquatic organisms, they’re more or less very sound and also touch dependant, to the pressure of the environment. And then, of course, there is this world of bioluminescence, but…

Dubber      Well, that’s another topic entirely. And it almost connects with the thing that I’ve been fascinated about with your work, is because there are lots of fish and there are lots of aquatic creatures and all the rest of it, and you were drawn to jellyfish for some reason, and I don’t know… They’re beautiful. Particularly your installations with the jellyfish and communicating with them. Particularly when they’re lit, they’re incredibly beautiful creatures, but what was it about them that led you to want to interact with them and communicate with them, essentially?

Robertina  With the jellies I was actually started to work when I was also in Izmir in Turkey, and it was just… There is always few things why something starts to be happening and so on. So on one hand, I was really fascinated with one particular jellyfish species which is called immortal jellyfish. It’s a really tiny one. You can find it in the Mediterranean and near the Japanese shores. And it has this ability to just shrink back to the polyp stage when the parameters around it are not best and can go back to the full adult organism when everything is good around it, and this was very interesting.

Dubber      Wow.

Robertina  And at the same time, there was huge jellyfish blooms in February, which was really unusual because this should happen few months later, and this was full of moon jellyfish. It’s one species which is very common species, and they use it also a lot in biology as model organisms, so I could find lots of info about it. And they have also very interesting regenerative possibilities and so on. And when there was full bay of them… Just one morning we woke up and they had been there, so I started to be interested why they came, what is happening, how come. And they are very interesting as a… Jellyfish are one of the oldest organisms living in the oceans and seas. They say that they are dating back to 500 million years, which is unimaginable.

Dubber      Wow, yeah.

Robertina  It’s really hard to grasp this kind of long geological information.

Dubber      And more or less unchanged in that state.

Robertina  Yes, exactly. This is very interesting. And then also depending how they move, what is happening, and how they are done, because they’re so foreign to us. They have totally different system of being. So here was something that I was quite intrigued.

So one was this immortal jellyfish which is quite a myth. It goes into this theoretical biological immortality which is something which I like to explore in my art. And then, on the other hand, these creatures which, yeah, they can be fragile, but they are very, very robust also at the same time. It’s quite interesting. In the ecological sense, they predict. They are quite interesting bioindicators. The bigger the numbers, more of them, then you know that there is some bigger changes also happening.

Dubber      Describe your art. What do people encounter? What do they experience when they come across your work?

Robertina  It’s depending. We speak about the work which we mentioned now which is referring to the jellyfish. It’s immersive installations, but they try to give you also visual guidance into the bigger research which is done in the backbone also. And through the years, I see that people do follow that. Of course, it’s hard to say how others are perceiving my art.

What I try to bring to the public is to present this in-depth interest of mine which I have for these interspecies relationships. This means between us and the others, but not only between us and the others but also what is happening between other species by themselves and how all of us are coexisting and coliving in the same world and how we are still quite failing in sharing that in the quality ways, I would say.

Dubber      So are you communicating science? Are you interpreting it? Are you asking questions about it? Are you creating meaning from it? What is the thing that you do to science when you present it to people through art?

Robertina  What I try to do is, first of all, to ask questions and to communicate it in the sense of interpretation of the knowledge which I’m able to grasp, together with all the collaborators, of course, because in the bigger projects, you’re never alone. There is always lots of quite big team of people which we’re all working together towards the presentations and showing the projects.

And I also try to bring it also to some other levels because science has its own limitations also as art sometimes. And when I combine it together, I try to bring also some other questions in which they wouldn’t be raised because of economy, politics, or some other issues, which… It can happen in scientifical research also because there are some restrictions also which they can be put out, and I think that with artistical kind of approaches we can open up the discussions which they sometimes wouldn’t be perceived as something that is important.

And in my art, I combine it many times also with citizen science. So next to projects, I’m many times also developing different, more workshop-y debate platforms because I think that installations, especially earth science… It’s a field which is very fascinating for me, and I think it’s a field that I’d be very comfortable in because I’m very curious also about it.

Dubber      When you say citizen science, do you mean groups of people coming together to contribute to the research?

Robertina  Yes, exactly, and also to develop different modalities. In 2019, I was working together with team of Matadero in Madrid, and we had been doing group workshop with five hundred people at the river Manzanares, and what I developed was the methodology how to bring five hundred people to the river without damaging the river at the same time.

Dubber      Wow.

Robertina  How to navigate that. So it’s always a bit of dramaturgy also, how you perceive the knowledge of somebody. And with citizen science, what I try to bring out is also to share the knowledge in sense of opening up the science to the wider public so that we can all understand why something is happening. And now especially, I think, in the time post-corona or in between corona or… We’re not post yet. We’re quite deep inside of it. So I think it’s very important to be able to understand what is the scientifical levels, like “Why do we need to understand?”, “What does it mean, biodiversity?”. I think that this was a lesson in the last year which we all got to understand. This interconnection. So what does it mean if we cut the forest out and why these animals are coming to us and why these kinds of viruses are jumping, and that this was always the case, which was that we started to be too comfortable.

Dubber      Sure. And that relates to climate change. I was going to ask “Does climate change affect underwater communication?”, but it affects everything. So I guess my question is, how does climate change affect underwater communication?

Robertina  It definitely affects it. More traffic there is in the aquatic areas, more changes are happening at the same time. I was just recently reading into this deep-sea mining, which is quite scary prospect.

Dubber      Because that can’t be quiet, can it?

Robertina  They can’t be quiet, and they manage to damage huge areas. Especially this kind of fishing which when they throw huge fish nets into the sea and drag them. These can be huge. This is like… I don’t know. Twenty football fields big. One net.

Dubber      Wow.

Robertina  So this kind of deep-sea mining, of course, this machinery and everything what they plan to use, it’s like this. Massive.

Dubber      And are things like ocean acidity a problem? Does pH level affect sound travel or anything like that?

Robertina  Absolutely. The more acid it is, the more pitchy the sound starts to be, so the sound starts to change. So in the long term, I think this could also happen that fish or animals would not understand each other anymore.

When I started to research this underwater pollution and when I started to read about it, I came across Douglas Adams’ lecture about it. He is great writer, but he was actually also working a lot on the biodiversity and understanding that. So he was with a biologist…

Dubber      Was it Mark Carwardine was the writer he was with? They did ‘Last Chance to See’, I remember, about endangered species.

Robertina  Exactly. I was really struck by when he was explaining why the Yangtze river dolphins disappeared, because these had been dolphins which they didn’t saw nothing. They were river dolphins, so they had been quite blind because the Yangtze river is such a dense river. But then because it was also so noisy, they couldn’t meet each other anymore because they just couldn’t hear each other. So you don’t see and you don’t hear…

Dubber      Right. If you don’t see and you don’t hear, you don’t breed.

Robertina  Yes. And then you don’t have kids anymore and so on. I think that you can explain in two sentences what is the danger and why this is not good. And, yes, acidity, as you mentioned before. That the changes in the pH are influencing sound very much. It starts to be really pitchy and uncomfortable, and it starts to travel differently. And all these changes, of course, are interconnected into bigger system.

Dubber      I’m really curious, do you eat fish? It must be strange to consume something that you can have a conversation with.

Robertina  I kind of don’t consume so much. I’m more a plant eater because it starts to be weird after some while, especially when you start to develop these kinds of different relationships with different species. When we’re at the sea, we do… It’s a bit different, I would say. It’s depending from the environment. And definitely, what I’m encouraging everybody to avoid is this kind of buying stuff from these aquatic farms or farming in general. Industrialisation of the meat in general. I think it’s something which can be very dangerous also because the amount of antibiotics which are used and different stuff. We don’t want to have this inside of our body, I think.

Dubber      Sure. So that’s from a health perspective. I just was wondering about once you start thinking about creatures that are having conversations with each other, you start to think about the sentience behind that and those sorts of things, so, yeah. No, it was just interesting to me because you talk about trawler fishing and all these sorts of things, but I guess from an ecosystem perspective, balance is the ambition for this. It’s not that you want all ships to suddenly go away, but that we should treat this environment a little bit more carefully. Would that be fair?

Robertina  Definitely. I think the sustainable way of thinking - if the sustainable way of thinking would be actually sustainable - I think it will be very fair and also ecologically produce meat, or farms which they’re not big and so on. I don’t believe in any extremes are good. I’m just a bit afraid that we went quite far, we as consumers. People using this planet in different ways. That the ways which we went, they are quite scary. And health is one of the ways how to explain it because I think, okay, maybe I’m also under the influence of corona, but it’s definitely something where we can see how this kind of stuff is changing and how something like a small virus can change the common reality of everybody.

Dubber      Yeah, absolutely. Are you a diver? If you go underwater, does it sound the same as dropping some microphones down? Because I haven’t been down deep. I’ve snorkelled. I haven’t done deeper diving than that. Does it sound like what you hear when you put microphones down?

Robertina  With diving, I just went few times because I’m having some of my own personal health issues that I can’t do it for the long term and so on. But definitely, the sound is different because also as a diver or also when you snorkel, you produce the bubbles. You produce the sound. You can hear something, but with hydrophone, it’s like… Hydrophones are having this kind of passive receiving of the sounds which are there around them, so it is a bit different. But when I perform and when I show this, especially this work ‘Aquatocene’ which is dealing with this underwater noise pollution and stuff, lots of divers, they tell me that it’s exactly how they hear it also. That they perceive it. Especially people which stay longer down. They can tell us how that is perceived.

Dubber      I guess after a while you would stop hearing yourself and start hearing other things, and that would probably put the twist on it. Tell me about the ‘Adriatic Garden’. That is something that I came across and I think requires a little bit of explanation.

Robertina  So the ‘Adriatic Garden’ was one of the reactions of last year situations, I would say. So together with Gjino Šutić from UR Institute in Dubrovnik, we had been… It has a bit of a history.

Dubber      As most things do.

Robertina  Most things do have that, yeah. So when me and Gjino in 2008… And we had been artists in residence at Ars Electronica. And in our project, which is called ‘aqua_forensic’, we had been looking a lot especially on the chemical pollutants and presence of them in the oceans and seas and the rivers, and we did also some quite interesting researches with in vitro experiments with microorganisms and microalgae to see what is happening on that level. And so with the project, we developed an installation where the public can get this information but also perceive this in quite poetic way to understand that these chemicals, like the pills and everything what we digest… Because our bodies are quite wasteful, I would say, in this sense. They produce lots of waste. Not wasteful. So when you take the pill, only twenty percent stays inside of your body. Eighty percent of the pill is going to the dark water sewage and to the rivers and, of course, ends up in the oceans and seas. So, of course, this is through the microorganisms then going back to the bigger organisms, and sooner or later comes to us back with the…

Dubber      Wait, wait. So what you’re saying is if I take an ibuprofen, twenty percent of it does its job and eighty percent of it ends up in the ocean somewhere and affects fish, for instance.

Robertina  Something, yes.

Dubber      Wow.

Robertina  It’s of course different percentage depending on the different pharmaceuticals, and it’s also depending which kind of absorption our body is able to be done, but this was research we came across with Gjino when we had been doing this ‘aqua_forensic’ project.

So the project is actually a combination of… There is installation. We developed also workshops so people could see direct impact of chemicals on things, and also scientifical paper which Gjino and his colleagues are publishing I think in two years time because it takes time that this goes through. But then last year, especially in beginning of the year - I think it was something like this time - the guys from Ars Electronica, Martin Honzik and Christl Baur, contacted me and Gjino, and we started to talk how they planned to do their programme because they had been starting to prepare for online presence because it was quite logical that in September it would be really hard to…

Dubber      Not everyone is going to Linz.

Robertina  No. Especially, what I have to say that Ars team did very good when they had been thinking was, yes, not everybody is able even to come there, and if you do international festival which tries to involve people not only from the same continent but different continents, it’s really hard to push people to travel in this kind of very hard, harsh, and unknown situations, so they started to develop these online gardens, how they called them. Like different points. And with Gjino, we proposed at that moment to start to work on this kind of ‘Adriatic Garden’ because I live in Ljubljana, but I am one hour drive away from the Slovenian coast, Koper, and I collaborate there with PiNA organisation a lot, and Gjino is living and working mostly in Dobrovnik. So we decided to have two points at the Adriatic coast and start to open these discussions of what is happening with these kind of water bodies, how we can prevent them.

There had been exhibitions. In Dobrovnik, Gjino organised group exhibition which was part of this Ars Electronica event. On the both points, we had workshops. We organised also round-table debate with different organisations, institutions, like with the aquariums and with the institutes and so on and also artist to debate how to connect what would be needed to be done and which kind of organisation or ways we would need. And then, of course, because I’m working as a sound artist, I invited also other sound artists to present, and it was some kind of podcast-y version of it, of a sound exhibition, of under and above water of Adriatic. And I think those examined works which they had been presented because I think it’s quite a challenge to rethink also all these kind of new ways how we can show things online, but then because there is lots of stuff also happening, I think that especially podcasts and with listening you can also be a bit less involved on… I think that visual is sometimes overrated.

Dubber      I’m one hundred percent with you there. As someone who is short-sighted and colour blind and loves a microphone, I know exactly what you’re talking about. You record a lot of sound underwater, and you don’t just use that sound recording. You make compositions out of it. What does that sound like? How do you do it, and where can people hear it?

Robertina  Yes and yes. I do record it a lot, and I do work on compositions. So I try to record on… I would say it like I come to some locations and I do different levels of recordings depending on the length of my hydrophone, is the limitation here. But because the water is such an interesting material and sound travels so wide and far, it’s quite good. You can get quite a lot from specific locations. So then I condense these compositions when I’m…

One thing is, as a field recording, when you listen from the beginning to the end is one situation. But in compositions, I try to mix these different vibes of different day, and my intent is always to present what was present but then also to bring out all these anxieties which we are also bringing towards the animals. So in some compositions, this is stronger, and some less strong, and then it’s always a bit mixture also with bioacoustics. It gives this idea about how we perceive and what we perceive there, but also to help the public to understand that there is so many vivid and different sounds there that it sounds sometimes… Especially some reefs where there’s lots of corals and so on, there’s also lots of other organisms mostly, and these are areas which they’re very talkative, very chatty, I would say. There is lots of chit chat happening. Shrimps, for instance. Shrimps are very loud.

Dubber      Yeah. Making the snapping sounds, right?

Robertina  Yes.

Dubber      Do you have to see that they’re there before you drop the mic down, or do you just drop and hope?

Robertina  Sometimes I drop and hope, and if I’m lucky and if I have good local guides, they can tell you where there is some more animals which you can encounter or not. So it’s always combination. Because this is quite artistic research, I call it, it’s not scientific in that sense, and that’s why I like to invite always different scientists to talk with me because they can present what they find on their daily basis, and this is more like sound imprint of the environment, I would say.

Dubber      Okay. Well, this is a very self-interested question. I have two nine-meter hydrophones, some lakes, the Gulf of Bothnia - which leads, obviously, into the Baltic Sea - a big river, and a small river. What would you do first?

Robertina  What I would go first to record?

Dubber      Yeah. What would you do?

Robertina  Definitely I would be interested… There is a lake also, you said.

Dubber      Yeah. There’s multiple lakes.

Robertina  Lakes can be interesting, especially where the water comes into the lake and goes out, but then also the middle of the lake. I would go to try to get that on different levels. And then also to… Because the streams, the rivers, mostly they have some flow, and when there is a movement, you can hear that. So definitely I would try out lakes, record some of the rivers, of course, also, but then go to the sea and try to record it near to the rivers, by the deltas of the rivers, and then also go a bit further down to see how this is mixing. Because for me, it’s always interesting to figure it out which kind of animals are living where and what is there because… Which kind of species is around.

Dubber      Interesting. Fantastic. Robertina, it’s been really fascinating. I really appreciate your time. Thanks so much for doing this.

Robertina  Yeah, the same. And thank you for inviting me, and hope to see you soon.

Dubber      Yeah, I look forward to it.

Dubber      That’s Robertina Šebjanič, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can find Robertina’s work at www.robertina.net. I’m Dubber, @dubber on Twitter, and MTF Labs is @mtflabs and on the web at www.mtflabs.net. Thanks as always to the team - Sergio Castillo, Mars Startin, Jen Kukucka, and Run Dreamer - and to airtone and cellist Romi Kopelman for the music. Thanks to you all for listening. You have a great week, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.

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118. Robertina Šebjanič – Aquatocene

“Smaller fish, like clownfish, they’re very talkative. They exchange lots of information between each other when they communicate, they have their own social structures, and they debate among themselves as well so it’s quite interesting to observe that.”

118. Robertina Šebjanič – Aquatocene

Sofia Crespo

Robertina Šebjanič - Aquatocene

by MTF Labs | MTF Podcast

Robertina Šebjanič is an internationally awarded artist, whose work revolves around the biological, chemical, political and cultural realities of aquatic environments, and explores humankind’s impact on other species and on the rights of non-human entities. 
 
Based in Ljubljana, her research into the sound worlds and everyday realities of aquatic environments serves as a starting point to investigate and tackle the philosophical questions on the intersection of art, technology and science, and the role of humans not only in damaging the environment but also potentially helping to repair it. 
 

Transcript

Dubber      Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. You’ll be familiar by now that one of the main interests that brings this amazing global MTF community together is the intersection of science and art. But it’s not just that it’s cool or interesting to bridge those worlds in new ways, although, of course, it is that too. It’s also becoming central to our understanding of how the grand challenges of our world - not the least of which involves our stewardship of the earth, its ecosystems, and diverse species - can be urgently addressed.

With that in mind, over the course of this podcast we’ve explored the built environment, new ways of mapping the world, new ways of understanding biological lifeforms, and new knowledge through the perspective gained with the view from space, but perhaps one of the richest seams of seldom explored potential for the kinds of new knowledge we need to ensure our ongoing existence is to be found in something that there is more of than pretty much anything else in this world: ocean. And someone who doesn’t just bridge but blends oceanic science and art is MTFer Robertina Šebjanič. Robertina is an internationally awarded artist whose work revolves around the biological, chemical, political, and cultural realities of aquatic environments and explores humankind’s impact on other species and on the rights of non-human entities.

Dubber      Robertina, it’s really great to have you on the MTF Podcast. Of course, you were involved in MTF Aveiro in Portugal last year, but I remember we first met at MTF Central in Ljubljana back in 2015. Do you want to start by telling us a little about how you connected with MTF in the first place?

Robertina  It’s true. It’s quite some while ago that we met and all this started to happen. So I was at that time working on a performance together with a colleague. It’s an audiovisual performance together with colleague Aleš Hieng Zergon, and we had been doing different experimental stages, I would say, with ferrofluidic structures, which we went into showing the micro and macro situations real-time with the sonic interpretation of it also.

And, actually, Miha Ciglar organised IRZU Festival at that time, also in Ljubljana. And he was the one who connected with Michela and with you and with the Music Tech Festival and with organising the Music Tech Lab also in Ljubljana, and he invited me and Aleš to encourage us to be part of it, and he was very happy to introduce us also to Michela Magas and you. This was how we started to meet. And then when you spend time together physically at the event, when you exchange a lot of thoughts… Especially with Michela. We had quite nice conversation flow. And then since then, I’m following what is happening, and I think it’s great to have this kind of base hub to follow how the communities are developing also.

Dubber      Because IRZU was a long-running Slovenian sound art festival. Had you done a lot with Miha at that before?

Robertina  Yeah. With IRZU, I was collaborating with different hats, I would say, because I was also for some while in the beginning of 2010/2012 and so on working in the media lab in Ljubljana as a producer. So with Miha, we organised together events also many times. So it wasn’t only me as an artist, but also me as an active member of the bigger organisation structures, also sometimes collaborating with Miha inside of that. And it was great because his festival… Was that it was very boutique. It was small, but it was very interesting. The people he managed to bring to Slovenia also. And I have to say, at that time, I didn’t travel yet so much. For me, it was great opportunity to really get to know different branches of experimental improvisation and sound art in general, so it was really good platform to be involved with.

Dubber      And you say sound art. You’re an artist and you’re a researcher, but it’s mostly underwater related things, isn’t it? It’s sound from beneath the sea. It’s sound from aquatic animals. Why? Why is that interesting?

Robertina  It started very organically. 2012, when I stopped working as a producer and started to be much more involved as an artist, an independent working in different projects, I was invited to take part in Triennial of Contemporary Art in Turkey in Izmir, and there… Actually, they invited me specific with the idea of combining the knowledge of the local scientists and local artists. So I was in the same way working as a mediator between these two different communities. And at the same time, I was also developing some conceptual frame for a new research which I was… Looking into it, and then spending lots of time in the Izmir Bay at the marine station there. And first, it was more on the shores, and then also sometimes with boats and so on. I started to be more interested what is happening.

And sound-wise, I have to say that first time I put the hydrophone into the water, it was… Getting just immersed into something which I didn’t heard before, and this effect is still, even though I work on this now since several years, it’s still very, very engaging and it’s very interesting because it’s the sound of something which we don’t hear on the daily basis. It’s quite foreign. It’s sometimes quite hard to understand what it is, which animal it is. It’s full of different kinds of structures. And also physicality of the sound by itself in the water, it’s like having absolutely different shape, if I call it like that, because it travels wider, it’s stronger, it’s…

Dubber      It’s a very different medium, isn’t it?

Robertina  Yes.

Dubber      I’ve got a couple of hydrophones myself. Hydrophones - if you haven’t come across the term, if you’re listening - it’s basically a microphone that you can stick in the water. But one of the things that you notice the first time you use a hydrophone is when you record sound underwater, mostly what you hear is people. You hear motors. You hear boats. You hear those sorts of… How big a problem is that? Is that having a particular effect, or should I just try and block that out?

Robertina  That’s a very good question because, actually, this is something which I came across in the beginnings a lot. I was trying to block out all the human imprint. And then after some while, I realised more than I will try to delete and clean that sound from the boats and ships and everything else what is around, I realised that then I would be just showing half of the soundscape, which is us being there and our presence. The noisy presence is something which I really started to point out on the end of the day. And then from this, I’ve started to develop body of work of the sound artwork which is called ‘Aquatocene’ where I’m mixing together bioacoustics and the sounds of all these different sounds and songs from fish and shrimps and everything which is… All the creatures of the sea, I would say, and then also us humans, from the boats and similar. And it happens many times that I go out on field trip to record and most what I get is us humans with different technological imprints being there.

Dubber      Is aquatocene your word, or is there a literature of that?

Robertina  Aquatocene is actually my word. I was playing around with the Anthropocene defining how the human is actually imprinting everything. And in my conceptual frame about my work, I started to develop also… I call it aquaformations. It’s the way how we are changing the water from inside out. Then in this kind of play of words…

Dubber      You mean like terraforming but underwater?

Robertina  Yes, exactly.

Dubber      Okay. I’m with you.

Robertina  This is happening a lot, and this is something I think in next few years, the topic will be much stronger because I see already the pace… I remember, when I started to work on this in 2012 and when I started to do compositions in 2016 and so on, there was not such a big interest into this. People have been always asking me “Why this? It sounds very esoteric.”, or there had been different ideas because if you don’t know it, we apply something to it and not always say something, but it’s actually there. I was quite persistent with this because I really wanted to bring this out. And in my work, I try to invite also scientists, which they’re working on daily basis with this, to also give them the platform which we artists have and share it with them because I think it’s very important to have this mergence of different knowledge coming together.

Dubber      Sure. But you are an artist in a very scientific domain. To what extent are you a scientist?

Robertina  Well, I always joke with scientists that I’m scientist until they let me go. No, but it’s a tricky question because, yes, I’m actually trained as an artist. I finished sculpturing. But since ten years, I’m working very in-depth and very interested into marine… I’m specifically interested into marine science. So, of course, marine science has many different layers, and it’s not only one or another. Oceanography is… It’s a combination of biology and so on. What I see is people working in this kind of scientifical field, they’re used to have different combinations of people working together, so I’m then not such a disturbance then anymore, I would say, as an artist. I would say that I am very interested into it. I try not to be just fascinated with it, but understand also the context and then work with that further.

Dubber      Okay. Well, as someone who may not be a marine biologist but works near them, I have what might be a really stupid question. Do fish have ears?

Robertina  I would say first, Andrew, there is no stupid questions.

Dubber      Okay. That’s very kind of you.

Robertina  No, no. But it’s a very important question, actually, because we are not aware how very loud and talkative the underwater world is in the sense of, yeah, there’s dolphins, whales, everything what is big and has some…

Dubber      Yeah. Those are mammals. I know enough about marine biology to know that those aren’t fish, so my question stands. Do fish have ears? Because I know whales have songs and I know dolphins chatter and all the rest of it. I’m not aware of fish talking, if that’s the right word. Do they, and…

Robertina  It’s the right word, yeah. They like to talk, and they’re very chatty, especially smaller fish like clownfish and so on. They’re very talkative. They really exchange lots of information between each other when they communicate. And how much I was reading and listening into it and also talking with different marine scientists, especially the ones working on this kind of topic of bioacoustics, they all say that they also have their own social structures, and they debate them also while they’re happening, so it’s quite interesting to observe that. Definitely, they have ears. And what is the annoying thing with us humans being so loud there with boats and ships and all this is that they cannot close these ears, so they…

Dubber      Well, nor can we. We have eyelids but not earlids.

Robertina  Exactly.

Dubber      Do these different species communicate with each other? The dolphins and whales example. Do dolphins talk to whales, or are they completely oblivious or unaware of what each other is saying?

Robertina  I would say it like this. First of all, there should be more extensive research about this. But how much I know and how much I came across and how much I spoke with different marine biologists, it’s definitely… There have been occasions that there have been interactions between different species. And this interspecies communication, it’s happening there because it’s either there’s the same danger or they go for the same hunt, like towards the smaller fishes and schools of fish and so on. So I do believe that they also exchange somehow between not only…

Because there are very interesting thing I came across of an excellent scientist who is working with whales, and she’s observing when and how they are, as families, moving from one part to another and why this is happening. And, of course, there is different parameters because there is never only one why something is moving somewhere, but one of very interesting things is she told me that they know which kind of family it is because they have different dialects. So they figure it out that “Huh, this is the same species, but a bit different dialect than the other ones.”.

Dubber      I like that it’s a dialect and not a language or an accent. It’s that in the middle thing.

Robertina  Yes, exactly, because… I think that’s quite interesting and engaging, I think. I was quite interested in it, and I did read a lot about this kind of stuff because I think it’s important, even though that in my projects, I do speak mostly about these kind of underwater noise pollutants and our presence there. But also, I try to explain why our presence is so disturbing, and this is exactly because of this. How and what is happening with all the life.

Dubber      It’s interesting because noise pollution, as bad as it is, it’s the one kind of pollution where you can just turn it off. If it was air pollution or chemicals in the water or anything like that, there’s a real problem long term, but for noise pollution, you just flick a switch and it’s gone. Is that something that we can actually have some control over and make an impact?

Robertina  Definitely. That’s absolutely true, but the problem is that most of our goods and our… Whatever we consume and whatever we use on daily basis and buy in shops and so on is coming from the transport on cargo ships, and transport on cargo ships was inflating in the last fifty years. It was like 150 percent more boats. And as we speak, just last week there was the Suez Canal Evergreen boat stuck, and I think you also… Everybody was following that.

Dubber      Sure. But now I’m thinking did it get quiet in the Suez Canal?

Robertina  Definitely, but it was just less traffic. But most of the boats, they could be still running because they could have been waiting that they will drive through, so it didn’t help. And what it showed, how something like this can break everything and which kind of panic is started to happen. And mostly, what I was finding quite odd in this media frenzy was that it was constantly reporting about the billions of dollars of…

Dubber      Global trade.

Robertina  Exactly. And this shows you how very fragile it is and how very important it is also at the same time. Important because the global economy is relying on it. So this means that, in this case, it’s really hard to just switch the motors down.

Two years ago, I was on one very interesting boat, Celtic Explorer. It’s research boat from the Irish government. I was there as an artist in residency through Galway 2020 and the Aerial/Sparks project, and it was great to experience that because that was a silent boat. This means that the machinery, the technology, how the boat was put together and where the main machinery, main propellors, they had been stationed, it was done differently than other boats. And if we would even drive slower, it’s already impacting the levels of the noise pollution which is present. I think there is a long road.

And definitely, noise pollution is one of the most stupidest pollution, and I call it like that. It’s like I like to say, it’s very stupid pollution because, yes, we could just turn it down because, as you said, chemical pollutants or microplastics and plastic in general and so on, it’s much more harder to get rid of it because it gets interweaved into the environment on the molecular levels, which we don’t have even the knowledge how to be able to prevent that.

Dubber      Yeah. If you stop putting microplastics into the ocean, the microplastics that are there are still there, but you stop putting sound into the ocean, it’s all gone. That’s really interesting. Do we have any clue how damaging the sound is?

Robertina  I think the clue will be soon much more present because the numbers of fish is drastically disappearing. This means that fisher industry is having lots of problems. And then, of course, they go with bigger boats with bigger nets, deeper, which causes many different levels of problems. But definitely, it’s changing everything.

I always like to explain it that this noise pollution which is happening in the oceans, the sea, is the same like in the cities. Okay, in the time when we could sit in the cafes next to the crowded road. It’s very normal that you do start to yell towards each other because you have a coffee, but there’s lots of cars around you and you start to shout, and this is happening also in the oceans, the seas. The communication which was before on much lower decibels starts to be louder and louder, and it’s called the Lombard effect, and this is just present.

Dubber      So the fish are shouting at each other?

Robertina  Exactly. Fish are the same like us. We just like to communicate.

Dubber      Yeah. It’s interesting. When you say, for instance, the impact of COVID, which has made cities quieter, at least to a certain extent, I guess it’s the same with waterways. We were invited to come and do something with Venice Biennale about the sound in the canals. Because of COVID, the assumption was the canals had become very, very quiet because there were no boats going up and down. But, of course, we couldn’t go to Venice because of the COVID pandemic. So we never, unfortunately, got to do that, but it’s really interesting to me that there is this impact that can be had that can go away so quickly. And do the fish continue to shout when the sound goes away, or has it become naturalised?

Robertina  This I don’t know, and this is something which I would like to research further on. In my prediction, I think that with generations, of course, this changes. And then depending how long the lifespan of which organism is quicker, generational gaps can be longer or quicker depending on that, so definitely would be interesting to explore that and…

Because waterways, yes, maybe on the beginning of COVID they have been a bit less, but the routes are still happening. There is so many boats out there, and especially because… I will go back to Suez because that’s just the recent thing which happened, but it was just interesting to… I was just quite amazed to explore how much we don’t know about these kind of logistics and how something is coming from somewhere to somewhere else, because I think we are quite unaware of how much we abuse and use the water traffics, because it’s not only oceans and rivers, it’s also rivers and…

Dubber      And, of course, different species depend on different senses. I know dogs are really big on smell and etc., but it’s quite dark underwater, especially when you go down deep. I assume that sound becomes very important.

Robertina  Definitely, yeah. After two hundred meters, we come to this more twilight-y area. You can see something, but it’s really hard. And then very quickly you are in darkness, so sound is one of the main orientations. As humans, I like to say that we are visual animals, and in water, this changes. So the aquatic organisms, they’re more or less very sound and also touch dependant, to the pressure of the environment. And then, of course, there is this world of bioluminescence, but…

Dubber      Well, that’s another topic entirely. And it almost connects with the thing that I’ve been fascinated about with your work, is because there are lots of fish and there are lots of aquatic creatures and all the rest of it, and you were drawn to jellyfish for some reason, and I don’t know… They’re beautiful. Particularly your installations with the jellyfish and communicating with them. Particularly when they’re lit, they’re incredibly beautiful creatures, but what was it about them that led you to want to interact with them and communicate with them, essentially?

Robertina  With the jellies I was actually started to work when I was also in Izmir in Turkey, and it was just… There is always few things why something starts to be happening and so on. So on one hand, I was really fascinated with one particular jellyfish species which is called immortal jellyfish. It’s a really tiny one. You can find it in the Mediterranean and near the Japanese shores. And it has this ability to just shrink back to the polyp stage when the parameters around it are not best and can go back to the full adult organism when everything is good around it, and this was very interesting.

Dubber      Wow.

Robertina  And at the same time, there was huge jellyfish blooms in February, which was really unusual because this should happen few months later, and this was full of moon jellyfish. It’s one species which is very common species, and they use it also a lot in biology as model organisms, so I could find lots of info about it. And they have also very interesting regenerative possibilities and so on. And when there was full bay of them… Just one morning we woke up and they had been there, so I started to be interested why they came, what is happening, how come. And they are very interesting as a… Jellyfish are one of the oldest organisms living in the oceans and seas. They say that they are dating back to 500 million years, which is unimaginable.

Dubber      Wow, yeah.

Robertina  It’s really hard to grasp this kind of long geological information.

Dubber      And more or less unchanged in that state.

Robertina  Yes, exactly. This is very interesting. And then also depending how they move, what is happening, and how they are done, because they’re so foreign to us. They have totally different system of being. So here was something that I was quite intrigued.

So one was this immortal jellyfish which is quite a myth. It goes into this theoretical biological immortality which is something which I like to explore in my art. And then, on the other hand, these creatures which, yeah, they can be fragile, but they are very, very robust also at the same time. It’s quite interesting. In the ecological sense, they predict. They are quite interesting bioindicators. The bigger the numbers, more of them, then you know that there is some bigger changes also happening.

Dubber      Describe your art. What do people encounter? What do they experience when they come across your work?

Robertina  It’s depending. We speak about the work which we mentioned now which is referring to the jellyfish. It’s immersive installations, but they try to give you also visual guidance into the bigger research which is done in the backbone also. And through the years, I see that people do follow that. Of course, it’s hard to say how others are perceiving my art.

What I try to bring to the public is to present this in-depth interest of mine which I have for these interspecies relationships. This means between us and the others, but not only between us and the others but also what is happening between other species by themselves and how all of us are coexisting and coliving in the same world and how we are still quite failing in sharing that in the quality ways, I would say.

Dubber      So are you communicating science? Are you interpreting it? Are you asking questions about it? Are you creating meaning from it? What is the thing that you do to science when you present it to people through art?

Robertina  What I try to do is, first of all, to ask questions and to communicate it in the sense of interpretation of the knowledge which I’m able to grasp, together with all the collaborators, of course, because in the bigger projects, you’re never alone. There is always lots of quite big team of people which we’re all working together towards the presentations and showing the projects.

And I also try to bring it also to some other levels because science has its own limitations also as art sometimes. And when I combine it together, I try to bring also some other questions in which they wouldn’t be raised because of economy, politics, or some other issues, which… It can happen in scientifical research also because there are some restrictions also which they can be put out, and I think that with artistical kind of approaches we can open up the discussions which they sometimes wouldn’t be perceived as something that is important.

And in my art, I combine it many times also with citizen science. So next to projects, I’m many times also developing different, more workshop-y debate platforms because I think that installations, especially earth science… It’s a field which is very fascinating for me, and I think it’s a field that I’d be very comfortable in because I’m very curious also about it.

Dubber      When you say citizen science, do you mean groups of people coming together to contribute to the research?

Robertina  Yes, exactly, and also to develop different modalities. In 2019, I was working together with team of Matadero in Madrid, and we had been doing group workshop with five hundred people at the river Manzanares, and what I developed was the methodology how to bring five hundred people to the river without damaging the river at the same time.

Dubber      Wow.

Robertina  How to navigate that. So it’s always a bit of dramaturgy also, how you perceive the knowledge of somebody. And with citizen science, what I try to bring out is also to share the knowledge in sense of opening up the science to the wider public so that we can all understand why something is happening. And now especially, I think, in the time post-corona or in between corona or… We’re not post yet. We’re quite deep inside of it. So I think it’s very important to be able to understand what is the scientifical levels, like “Why do we need to understand?”, “What does it mean, biodiversity?”. I think that this was a lesson in the last year which we all got to understand. This interconnection. So what does it mean if we cut the forest out and why these animals are coming to us and why these kinds of viruses are jumping, and that this was always the case, which was that we started to be too comfortable.

Dubber      Sure. And that relates to climate change. I was going to ask “Does climate change affect underwater communication?”, but it affects everything. So I guess my question is, how does climate change affect underwater communication?

Robertina  It definitely affects it. More traffic there is in the aquatic areas, more changes are happening at the same time. I was just recently reading into this deep-sea mining, which is quite scary prospect.

Dubber      Because that can’t be quiet, can it?

Robertina  They can’t be quiet, and they manage to damage huge areas. Especially this kind of fishing which when they throw huge fish nets into the sea and drag them. These can be huge. This is like… I don’t know. Twenty football fields big. One net.

Dubber      Wow.

Robertina  So this kind of deep-sea mining, of course, this machinery and everything what they plan to use, it’s like this. Massive.

Dubber      And are things like ocean acidity a problem? Does pH level affect sound travel or anything like that?

Robertina  Absolutely. The more acid it is, the more pitchy the sound starts to be, so the sound starts to change. So in the long term, I think this could also happen that fish or animals would not understand each other anymore.

When I started to research this underwater pollution and when I started to read about it, I came across Douglas Adams’ lecture about it. He is great writer, but he was actually also working a lot on the biodiversity and understanding that. So he was with a biologist…

Dubber      Was it Mark Carwardine was the writer he was with? They did ‘Last Chance to See’, I remember, about endangered species.

Robertina  Exactly. I was really struck by when he was explaining why the Yangtze river dolphins disappeared, because these had been dolphins which they didn’t saw nothing. They were river dolphins, so they had been quite blind because the Yangtze river is such a dense river. But then because it was also so noisy, they couldn’t meet each other anymore because they just couldn’t hear each other. So you don’t see and you don’t hear…

Dubber      Right. If you don’t see and you don’t hear, you don’t breed.

Robertina  Yes. And then you don’t have kids anymore and so on. I think that you can explain in two sentences what is the danger and why this is not good. And, yes, acidity, as you mentioned before. That the changes in the pH are influencing sound very much. It starts to be really pitchy and uncomfortable, and it starts to travel differently. And all these changes, of course, are interconnected into bigger system.

Dubber      I’m really curious, do you eat fish? It must be strange to consume something that you can have a conversation with.

Robertina  I kind of don’t consume so much. I’m more a plant eater because it starts to be weird after some while, especially when you start to develop these kinds of different relationships with different species. When we’re at the sea, we do… It’s a bit different, I would say. It’s depending from the environment. And definitely, what I’m encouraging everybody to avoid is this kind of buying stuff from these aquatic farms or farming in general. Industrialisation of the meat in general. I think it’s something which can be very dangerous also because the amount of antibiotics which are used and different stuff. We don’t want to have this inside of our body, I think.

Dubber      Sure. So that’s from a health perspective. I just was wondering about once you start thinking about creatures that are having conversations with each other, you start to think about the sentience behind that and those sorts of things, so, yeah. No, it was just interesting to me because you talk about trawler fishing and all these sorts of things, but I guess from an ecosystem perspective, balance is the ambition for this. It’s not that you want all ships to suddenly go away, but that we should treat this environment a little bit more carefully. Would that be fair?

Robertina  Definitely. I think the sustainable way of thinking - if the sustainable way of thinking would be actually sustainable - I think it will be very fair and also ecologically produce meat, or farms which they’re not big and so on. I don’t believe in any extremes are good. I’m just a bit afraid that we went quite far, we as consumers. People using this planet in different ways. That the ways which we went, they are quite scary. And health is one of the ways how to explain it because I think, okay, maybe I’m also under the influence of corona, but it’s definitely something where we can see how this kind of stuff is changing and how something like a small virus can change the common reality of everybody.

Dubber      Yeah, absolutely. Are you a diver? If you go underwater, does it sound the same as dropping some microphones down? Because I haven’t been down deep. I’ve snorkelled. I haven’t done deeper diving than that. Does it sound like what you hear when you put microphones down?

Robertina  With diving, I just went few times because I’m having some of my own personal health issues that I can’t do it for the long term and so on. But definitely, the sound is different because also as a diver or also when you snorkel, you produce the bubbles. You produce the sound. You can hear something, but with hydrophone, it’s like… Hydrophones are having this kind of passive receiving of the sounds which are there around them, so it is a bit different. But when I perform and when I show this, especially this work ‘Aquatocene’ which is dealing with this underwater noise pollution and stuff, lots of divers, they tell me that it’s exactly how they hear it also. That they perceive it. Especially people which stay longer down. They can tell us how that is perceived.

Dubber      I guess after a while you would stop hearing yourself and start hearing other things, and that would probably put the twist on it. Tell me about the ‘Adriatic Garden’. That is something that I came across and I think requires a little bit of explanation.

Robertina  So the ‘Adriatic Garden’ was one of the reactions of last year situations, I would say. So together with Gjino Šutić from UR Institute in Dubrovnik, we had been… It has a bit of a history.

Dubber      As most things do.

Robertina  Most things do have that, yeah. So when me and Gjino in 2008… And we had been artists in residence at Ars Electronica. And in our project, which is called ‘aqua_forensic’, we had been looking a lot especially on the chemical pollutants and presence of them in the oceans and seas and the rivers, and we did also some quite interesting researches with in vitro experiments with microorganisms and microalgae to see what is happening on that level. And so with the project, we developed an installation where the public can get this information but also perceive this in quite poetic way to understand that these chemicals, like the pills and everything what we digest… Because our bodies are quite wasteful, I would say, in this sense. They produce lots of waste. Not wasteful. So when you take the pill, only twenty percent stays inside of your body. Eighty percent of the pill is going to the dark water sewage and to the rivers and, of course, ends up in the oceans and seas. So, of course, this is through the microorganisms then going back to the bigger organisms, and sooner or later comes to us back with the…

Dubber      Wait, wait. So what you’re saying is if I take an ibuprofen, twenty percent of it does its job and eighty percent of it ends up in the ocean somewhere and affects fish, for instance.

Robertina  Something, yes.

Dubber      Wow.

Robertina  It’s of course different percentage depending on the different pharmaceuticals, and it’s also depending which kind of absorption our body is able to be done, but this was research we came across with Gjino when we had been doing this ‘aqua_forensic’ project.

So the project is actually a combination of… There is installation. We developed also workshops so people could see direct impact of chemicals on things, and also scientifical paper which Gjino and his colleagues are publishing I think in two years time because it takes time that this goes through. But then last year, especially in beginning of the year - I think it was something like this time - the guys from Ars Electronica, Martin Honzik and Christl Baur, contacted me and Gjino, and we started to talk how they planned to do their programme because they had been starting to prepare for online presence because it was quite logical that in September it would be really hard to…

Dubber      Not everyone is going to Linz.

Robertina  No. Especially, what I have to say that Ars team did very good when they had been thinking was, yes, not everybody is able even to come there, and if you do international festival which tries to involve people not only from the same continent but different continents, it’s really hard to push people to travel in this kind of very hard, harsh, and unknown situations, so they started to develop these online gardens, how they called them. Like different points. And with Gjino, we proposed at that moment to start to work on this kind of ‘Adriatic Garden’ because I live in Ljubljana, but I am one hour drive away from the Slovenian coast, Koper, and I collaborate there with PiNA organisation a lot, and Gjino is living and working mostly in Dobrovnik. So we decided to have two points at the Adriatic coast and start to open these discussions of what is happening with these kind of water bodies, how we can prevent them.

There had been exhibitions. In Dobrovnik, Gjino organised group exhibition which was part of this Ars Electronica event. On the both points, we had workshops. We organised also round-table debate with different organisations, institutions, like with the aquariums and with the institutes and so on and also artist to debate how to connect what would be needed to be done and which kind of organisation or ways we would need. And then, of course, because I’m working as a sound artist, I invited also other sound artists to present, and it was some kind of podcast-y version of it, of a sound exhibition, of under and above water of Adriatic. And I think those examined works which they had been presented because I think it’s quite a challenge to rethink also all these kind of new ways how we can show things online, but then because there is lots of stuff also happening, I think that especially podcasts and with listening you can also be a bit less involved on… I think that visual is sometimes overrated.

Dubber      I’m one hundred percent with you there. As someone who is short-sighted and colour blind and loves a microphone, I know exactly what you’re talking about. You record a lot of sound underwater, and you don’t just use that sound recording. You make compositions out of it. What does that sound like? How do you do it, and where can people hear it?

Robertina  Yes and yes. I do record it a lot, and I do work on compositions. So I try to record on… I would say it like I come to some locations and I do different levels of recordings depending on the length of my hydrophone, is the limitation here. But because the water is such an interesting material and sound travels so wide and far, it’s quite good. You can get quite a lot from specific locations. So then I condense these compositions when I’m…

One thing is, as a field recording, when you listen from the beginning to the end is one situation. But in compositions, I try to mix these different vibes of different day, and my intent is always to present what was present but then also to bring out all these anxieties which we are also bringing towards the animals. So in some compositions, this is stronger, and some less strong, and then it’s always a bit mixture also with bioacoustics. It gives this idea about how we perceive and what we perceive there, but also to help the public to understand that there is so many vivid and different sounds there that it sounds sometimes… Especially some reefs where there’s lots of corals and so on, there’s also lots of other organisms mostly, and these are areas which they’re very talkative, very chatty, I would say. There is lots of chit chat happening. Shrimps, for instance. Shrimps are very loud.

Dubber      Yeah. Making the snapping sounds, right?

Robertina  Yes.

Dubber      Do you have to see that they’re there before you drop the mic down, or do you just drop and hope?

Robertina  Sometimes I drop and hope, and if I’m lucky and if I have good local guides, they can tell you where there is some more animals which you can encounter or not. So it’s always combination. Because this is quite artistic research, I call it, it’s not scientific in that sense, and that’s why I like to invite always different scientists to talk with me because they can present what they find on their daily basis, and this is more like sound imprint of the environment, I would say.

Dubber      Okay. Well, this is a very self-interested question. I have two nine-meter hydrophones, some lakes, the Gulf of Bothnia - which leads, obviously, into the Baltic Sea - a big river, and a small river. What would you do first?

Robertina  What I would go first to record?

Dubber      Yeah. What would you do?

Robertina  Definitely I would be interested… There is a lake also, you said.

Dubber      Yeah. There’s multiple lakes.

Robertina  Lakes can be interesting, especially where the water comes into the lake and goes out, but then also the middle of the lake. I would go to try to get that on different levels. And then also to… Because the streams, the rivers, mostly they have some flow, and when there is a movement, you can hear that. So definitely I would try out lakes, record some of the rivers, of course, also, but then go to the sea and try to record it near to the rivers, by the deltas of the rivers, and then also go a bit further down to see how this is mixing. Because for me, it’s always interesting to figure it out which kind of animals are living where and what is there because… Which kind of species is around.

Dubber      Interesting. Fantastic. Robertina, it’s been really fascinating. I really appreciate your time. Thanks so much for doing this.

Robertina  Yeah, the same. And thank you for inviting me, and hope to see you soon.

Dubber      Yeah, I look forward to it.

Dubber      That’s Robertina Šebjanič, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can find Robertina’s work at www.robertina.net. I’m Dubber, @dubber on Twitter, and MTF Labs is @mtflabs and on the web at www.mtflabs.net. Thanks as always to the team - Sergio Castillo, Mars Startin, Jen Kukucka, and Run Dreamer - and to airtone and cellist Romi Kopelman for the music. Thanks to you all for listening. You have a great week, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.

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