Tending Ostreidae: Serenades for Settling

A collaboration between visual artist Stephanie Rothenberg and sound artist Suzanne Thorpe


Awarded a 2022 Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center residency

Created in partnership with the Billion Oyster Project


Concept Video

Sketches of immersive installation designs

Underwater Recordings collected at Billion Oyster Field Stations in New York Harbor

Project Description

Tending Ostreidae: Serenades for Settling is a speculative operetta focused on the listening body of the heroic oyster. A water filter, sea level mitigator and food source, the oyster is a vital member of our ecosystem that knows habitats for settlement by sensing sound. Specifically, research conducted at North Carolina State University’s Department of Marine, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences found that the bottom-dwelling oyster knows suitable settlement habitats through a distinction of sound signatures in underwater soundscapes. For oysters, sound is a more reliable indicator than chemical exudates or patterns of light. Building on soundscape studies that feature the listening body as an onto-epistemological site, the project leverages data of harbor port movement and local sound to query the dynamic relationships between human activity and the wellbeing of oysters. The project will express thematic content through an immersive sound, visual and sculpted environment, and by virtual and in-person means, dependent on exhibition and performance opportunities. Through the simulated sense of this sonically navigating being, and participatory and responsive engagement mechanisms, we will animate questions such as: how do we listen for safe harbors, and what do they sound like; how do we tend to the more-than-human-world and how does it tend to us? And can the listening oyster guide us to a politics of mutual tending?  

The project is being created through research with the Billion Oyster Project (billionoysterproject.org), a NYC based nonprofit working to ecologically restore the city’s waterways through oyster reseeding/repopulating initiatives. We will be developing the work during a 2022 artist residency with Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center in NYC and through collaborations with the University at Buffalo Department of Art and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

In our preliminary project development we have worked with researchers, and resources from the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology at North Carolina State University and the Billion Oyster Project in New York Harbor. In addition, Stephanie Rothenberg has developed research partners through a Fellowship at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (2019) where she advanced her inquiry into oyster habitats with access to their marine science facilities and also local oyster nurseries and aquaculture farms (Mook Sea Farms). Suzanne Thorpe is also in consultation with retired Navy sonar/oceanic acoustic expert and audio engineer Al F. Jones on matters of underwater sound propagation. 


Immersive installation design

The design is modeled after children’s scientific sensory water tables within the natural architecture of a tidal pool. The organic “pool” form will contain oyster shells to create reef structures upon which a collection of robotic oysters at different stages of their lifecycles reside. The oysters will respond to ambient sounds in the space and directed sounds from the overhead sound dome. For example, a mature adult sized robotic oyster might close its shell depending on sonic landscape. A baby (spat) oyster might slowly move to another area of the reef. The movements and gestures are based on scientific data about how oysters “hear” sound and the resultant responses.

Video projections will circulate through various imagery including real time maritime traffic data in New York Harbor (left), live camera feed from the pool (center) and hydrodynamic modeling that visualize water and noise pollution (right). Other video footage which will be mapped to the live sound will include microscopic imagery of oysters in different stages of their lifecycle, underwater drone footage of New York Harbor, and visualizations that sonically map industrial, commercial and recreational shipping and boating in New York Harbor.

Click on image for full size.


Prototype of sound responsive oyster

Created by UB Computer Science students Chetan Palker and Ralfy Chettiar under the guidance of Professor Karthik Dantu. Demonstration at the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences end of semester poster sessions in May 2022.

View the poster created from the event here >> 


Underwater Sound Recording

First round of underwater hydrophone recordings at three of the Billion Oyster Project (BOP) oyster field stations in New York harbor. The field stations, Bushwick Inlet, North 7th St pier and East 90th St pier, were selected to reflect different sound qualities based on each location’s maritime traffic and surrounding environment. Big thanks to BOP team Agata Poniatowski, Robina Taliaferrow and Chris.

Spectral Analysis

As part of our acoustic research for the project, we recorded underwater sound samples at three Billion Oyster Project Field Stations in New York City’s harbor. With these recordings we were able to familiarize ourselves with the soundscape at each of the sites and reference point for future comparison. We recorded data at sites in the Williamsburg Field Station, including the Bushwick Inlet and North 5th Street Pier, and in Manhattan at the East 90th Street Ferry Terminal. Each station had unique sonic qualities and shared acoustic feature. Following are some sound samples from the sites.

North 5th Street Pier Sample #1, Williamsburg, NY, recorded June 8, 2022 12:29pm

In this sound sample we hear water and waves against the pier and toad fish. Most prominent is the sound of a NYC ferry as it berths at the adjacent pier, where the North Williamsburg  ferry terminal is located. The sound of the ferry as it hits wooden pilings at 0:35 in the recording is particularly note worthy.


East 90th Street Ferry Terminal Sample #2, Manhattan, NY, recorded June 8, 2022 4:10pm

In this sound sample we hear a NYC ferry as it departs from the adjacent terminal. Listen for a sudden break in audible intensity as the ferry briefly cuts its engines at 0:03 and 0:28 in the recording. During those breaks we hear water flowing, air bubbles popping and a resonant drone from an unidentified source, which is the sites soundscape baseline.


Bushwick Inlet Sample #4, Williamsburg, NY, recorded June 7, 2022 @ 10:38am

In this sound sample we hear water flowing within the inlet, air bubbles popping, toad fish, and a NYC ferry as it passes by. The ferry was about 2500 feet away from our recording location in the inlet. You can hear the peak of its passing at about 0:25 in the recording. Also audible are waves caused by the ferry passing, and a rope as it rubs against the rocking dock, agitated by waves.