Art and science merge in the Thames

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by Bridget French, Griffith Sciences

A project led by Griffith University has combined art and science in assessing the ecological health of the River Thames.

“Listening to the Thames” is the brainchild of Dr Toby Gifford, Dr Simon Linke and Dr Leah Barclay and in July saw two hydrophones submerged in one of the world’s best known and most significant waterways.

The resulting audio was streamed, processed and visualised in real-time from the HMS Belfast on the Thames, and featured prominently as an installation at the 25th anniversary of the Electronic Visualisation in the Arts Conference in London’s Covent Garden.

Spearheaded by Dr Linke and Dr Gifford, the project is part of a Griffith initiative to develop freshwater bioacoustics for ecological health assessment.

Dr Linke is a Senior Research Fellow in the Australian Rivers Institute (ARI), the country’s largest university aquatic ecosystem research group. Dr Gifford is Lecturer in Digital Arts at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University (QCGU), while Dr Barclay is a composer, sound artist and creative producer who recently completed her PhD at the QCGU.

The group spent five days monitoring the sounds of the Thames and held a VIP launch at the Savoy Hotel to officially launch the project, with guests including the Director of the River Thames Society.

By unveiling the usually hidden sonic aspect of the underwater environment, the Griffith team hopes to increase awareness of the value of aquatic bioacoustics in comparing and gauging the health of rivers.

View across the River Thames

View across the River Thames

“Our installation in London was a great example of art and science learning from each other by revealing the impact of the surrounding urban environment through digital composition” says Dr Gifford.

Adds Dr Barclay: “We found that the water quality of the Thames was dramatically different from rivers in Australia, but it’s often quite a surprise to hear exactly what sounds emerge once you drop the hydrophones in the water.”

“We heard lots of urban aquatic soundscapes, tourist boats and ferries, but we did hear fish too. In our current state of environmental crisis, this type of assessment is critical to understanding the rapid ecological changes taking place across the globe.”

Dr Linke says non-invasive environmental monitoring has blossomed in the past decade.

“There has been a particular focus on the importance of soundscape conservation, the impact of noise pollution and the value of these soundscapes to assist in biodiversity analysis,” he says.

The Griffith team has been awarded a prestigious Synapse residency from the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) enabling collaboration between artists and scientists.

The residency will further Dr Barclay’s long-term engagement with soundscape ecology and bioacoustics and will continue in Australia from now through to December as the group explores new methods for acoustically monitoring the Brisbane River, Mary River and Noosa River.

The trio also intends to return to London and extend the project to multiple locations along the Thames in collaboration with local communities.

Dr Toby Gifford speaking before visual display

Dr Toby Gifford says the installation in London was a great example of art and science learning from each other

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