Lindsay Olson creates art that helps strengthen the connection between scientific research and the health and well-being of communities. She takes what she calls “accurate science” and then transforms it into science that is accessible to everyone.
In this interview, Lindsay Olson talks about her latest project, Sounds in the Sea: The Art of Ocean Acoustics. She also shares what it’s like to work at sea, and discusses what she’s learned from her attempts to bridge the worlds of art and science.
What inspired you to initiate the project Sounds of the Sea: Ocean Acoustics?
I make art about science and, because of this, my work takes me out of the studio to some extraordinary locations. Recently, I was invited to work side by side with scientists working round the clock to uncover the mysteries of the ocean soundscape using acoustic analysis. Working with scientists at sea for three weeks, I was able to have a full immersion experience. Out of this scaffolding, I filter what I’m learning through my training as an artist and create artwork that helps explain the science.
The Atlantic Deepwater Ecosystem Observatory Network (ADEON) project is run by a collaborative group of scientists collecting long-term data from the sea to study the US Mid and South Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf (OSC). Scientists are working hard to collect data from marine life, human sounds, and abiotic sounds like wind and waves to help understand the ocean ecosystem.
Science at sea poses unique challenges. For starters, heavy equipment is deployed and retrieved by cranes on a constantly rolling, heaving surface. “One hand for the ship and one hand for science,” was one phrase (among many) we learned from the crew during our safety training. Toward the end of our trip, we experienced a huge challenge related to weather.
One muggy morning, after two and a half weeks at sea, the Endeavor crew and science team pulled in to our last study site off the coast of Virginia. The weather was warm and overcast: the sea state calm. Dr. Miksis-Olds had just given the word to “pop the lander” and all of us scanned the immediate vicinity, searching for the orange floats attached to the hydrophones and data collection equipment. This 20-minute journey to the surface was a waiting game we had performed successfully six other times: siting and retrieving the lander, downloading the data, and plunging the equipment back to the ocean floor to continue collecting data.
But this time, as soon as Jen gave the word to release the lander, everything changed. The wind shifted, the sea state kicked up, heavy rain drenched us and a curtain of fog descended. All of this made finding the equipment a huge challenge. This is science at sea: unpredictable, challenging, nerve-wracking and exciting.
“This is science at sea: unpredictable, challenging, nerve-wracking and exciting.”Lindsay Olson
The Ocean is not only beautiful but also seemingly endless. What aspect of oceans thrills you the most and why?
The ocean is unimaginably vast…something we are accustomed to hearing in words but rarely experience firsthand. We have only explored a tiny fraction of the ocean. The ocean moderates our climate, supplies half the oxygen of our planet, provides us with food, supports our shipping and commerce, and, yet, we know so little about its systems, ecology, and processes. One of my aims with this project is to call attention to the necessity of ocean research. The ocean is one of the last frontiers we humans have yet to systematically explore. I’m excited about what scientists, like ocean acousticians and others, have to tell us about life in our oceans. The findings from their research provide us with data necessary to make intelligent decisions on how to manage ocean resources.
Why use ocean acoustics to study marine environments?
We are visual creatures. But at sea, light only penetrates a few hundred meters underwater. Visibility falls off dramatically in deeper water so the kinds of visual observations that biologists use to study terrestrial ecosystems are not particularly illuminating. Studying what is happening under the ocean requires a different approach. Ocean acoustics uses sound to describe what’s happening in the ocean soundscape.
Land ecologists study landscape, geology, and weather. Ocean acousticians talk about soundscapes. A soundscape is just like a landscape: it’s a picture of what’s happening in the ocean environment using sound instead of images to describe the ecosystem. Scientists collect sounds from biologic life, humans sound (shipping), and abiotic sounds like wind, waves, ice, and seismic activity.
“A soundscape is just like a landscape: it’s a picture of what’s happening in the ocean environment using sound instead of images to describe the ecosystem.”Lindsay Olson
Active acoustics uses sound to visualize what life forms inhabit the water column. A ping of sound is transmitted down from the ship and those sound waves collide into the life forms that inhabit the water column. The returning echoes (sound waves)—help define the life forms found in a particular layer of the ocean.
On the Active Acoustics artwork, I’ve included the echo sounders ping and returning sound waves. In the artwork, you can see the orderly waves emanating from the equipment and radiating down into the water column. In the first, third, and fifth panels, I’ve shown what happens to the energy waves bumping into the organisms and generating their unique sonic signature.
One example of how active acoustics illuminates ocean life is how it describes a particularly dramatic event. The deep scattering layer (several meters below the surface) is a mix of tiny life forms: zooplankton, small fish, and squids. Zooplankton and small fish form the foundation of the ocean food chain, but this also means that they themselves are food for many predators. They travel a daily migration route to the surface of the ocean at sunset where they feed all night. At dawn, they scoot back down to the gloom a few hundred meters down to hide from predators. This is a very clever survival strategy, because, in the open ocean, there is nowhere to hide.
Passive acoustics uses underwater microphones called hydrophones to collect data. The equipment collects information in all directions and listens in on marine life—including sounds generated by marine mammals, sounds of human activity, seismic activity, and abiotic sounds like wind ice and waves.
Because of limited visibility, marine mammals and fish are highly adapted to producing and perceiving sound in the ocean. Animals rely on sound for many purposes such as navigation, maintaining social interactions, finding food, and attracting a mate. This is what makes the science of acoustics so valuable for illuminating life in the oceans.
What is the most exciting part of working on Sounds of the Sea: Ocean Acoustics?
My projects consist of three parts. I learn accurate science, then, out of this scaffolding, translate the information into accessible art that helps explain the science I am learning. The third part of my projects is all about finding ways to share the art and information with the public. I’m especially hoping to reach the science phobic among us.
“I’m especially hoping to reach the science phobic among us.”Lindsay Olson
Last October, Dr. Miksis-Olds invited me to visit the University of New Hampshire for Ocean Discovery Day. Seeing the adults and children excited about not only my artwork but the scientific research that it supports was a thrilling experience. The three weeks at sea, the hours of research, study, and stitching all came together in the launch of the project.
This summer, I’ve been invited to share the project at the Smithsonian Museum’s World Ocean Day on June 6th. It will be thrilling to be in Washington, DC during the busy summer season and share the artwork and science of ocean acoustics. I want my work to be out in the world doing the job of making ocean research accessible, interesting, and, most of all, approachable. I want everyone to know what I have learned: that you don’t’ need a PhD to fall in love with science.
“I want everyone to know what I have learned: that you don’t’ need a PhD to fall in love with science.”Lindsay Olson
How do you and your team deal with the unpredictability of oceans and the weather?
One of the things that impressed me the most about science at sea was how well the ship’s crew, the science crew, the equipment and even the ship itself, functioned as a highly choreographed marine ballet in the service of science. The early part of the trip involved training from our dedicated ship’s crew on what to do in case of emergencies. When the weather turned rough, all of us depended on the professional expertise of our captain and his crew. Several times on our trip we saw foul weather in the distance but we were able to continue conducting science activities because the crew assured us the weather was moving away from the ship. They kept us safe!
You’ve mentioned previously that you use embroidery for your artwork. How does embroidery help you capture the science of ocean acoustics?
I knew early on that I wanted to work with a silk weave called dupioni (dupion silk). This particular silk fabric has a pronounced grain line, and, by shifting the gridded fabric squares of the background, the surface of the art shimmers like the light on the ocean surface.
These two pieces have been created entirely with hand stitching and beading. Historically, heavily embroidered and beaded clothing would have been created as a sumptuous sign of status among royalty and the wealthy. By using these labor-intensive processes, I was trying to create a visual link that helps to elevate the status of the science content that I’m illustrating.
I also want my art to stand on its own, independent of the science concepts expressed in the work. Even if a viewer has no interest in science, I want them to be able to appreciate beautiful materials, the use of design principles, and the timeless quality of exuberant handcrafted labor.
“I…want my art to stand on its own, independent of the science concepts expressed in the work.”Lindsay Olson
Blending art and science requires finesse. Shifting between my training as an artist and my activities as a citizen scientist, I created two, large, densely-embroidered silk panels (see above) to help describe what researchers are discovering. The works illustrate the largest daily migration of zooplankton, the naturally-occurring sound-carrying SOFAR ocean channel (SOund Fixing And Ranging channel), phytoplankton, and the dramatic vocalizations of marine life. All of these are studied using data gathered by underwater microphones.
As well as using the scientific data, I drew inspiration from the work of the Swiss embroidery artist Lissy Funk. Funk created tapestry-sized embroidery works. Monumental embroideries like these are rare and labour-intensive. Her work is even larger than the famous Bayeux tapestry [depicting the Norman Conquest of England] in 1066. Before I left on the research cruise last year, I had the opportunity to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see this artist’s work. The textile staff was kind enough to roll out her monumental works so I could study them. Her work remains fresh and unique even today and among embroiders.
After having worked offshore for so long, what is one thing in the marine realm that you would want to study or work with again?
My next project, The Plankton: Living in Light and Dark, is on my work table right now. I am using the data collected by Dr. Joseph Warren and his team aboard the R/V Endeavor.
The visible life in our oceans—fish, squids, octopuses, and marine mammals—comprises only 2 percent of its biomass. The remaining 98 percent is mostly comprised of organisms that drift on the ocean’s currents, some living their entire lives in the top few hundred meters of the water column, others taking up residence until they mature enough to swim away.
Comprised of small fish fry, tiny crustaceans, mollusks, jellyfish, scalps, the mighty oxygen-producing phytoplankton, bacteria, and archaea, this dynamic ecosystem holds stories of the dramatic daily struggle to survive. As these imperiled organisms struggle with rising sea temperatures and increasing ocean acidification, the fate of our oceans is intimately tied to their survival and ultimately our own.
“As these imperiled organisms struggle with rising sea temperatures and increasing ocean acidification, the fate of our oceans is intimately tied to their survival and ultimately our own.”Lindsay Olson
Marine life is highly adapted to perceiving and generating bioluminescent light to capture prey, avoid predators, attract mates and create burglar alarms. Dr. Edie Widder, founder and chief scientist of ORCA is helping me learn about how organisms use bioluminescence in the low light of the ocean environment.
Sebastian Velez, crewmate and specialist in larval fish, is helping me understand the adaptive strategies used by fish larvae in the plankton. When fish larvae mature, they are able to break free of the ocean current and escape the confines of the plankton ecosystem.
The project makes visible the denizens of this diverse community that not only supplies half our planet’s oxygen and forms the base of the entire food chain for the world’s oceans.
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