Tending Ostreidae: Serenades for Settling

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

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?  

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 have been in discussion with community coordinators at the Billions 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. 


Sample of sound and video.


Working prototype of installation. 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.