Disappearing Soundscapes at the North Sea

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Sound designer Gillis Van Der Wee explores the relationship between soundscape and music. Lotte Nijsten is a documentary maker, working in audio, and focuses on the relationship between humans and the acoustic environment. Together, they collaborated to create Booreiland, a sonic portrait of the North Sea told from three perspectives: a team of marine biologists, a group of workers from the oil and gas industry and the invisible soundscape of the North Sea itself. On a sunny Sunday, Gillis and Lotte explained their artistic process, the meaning of interdisciplinary storytelling and the importance of listening to our environments.

Can you tell us about your collaborative practice?

L&G: In terms of artistic practice, we aim to create immersive environments through sound and bring it to the stage through performances. In terms of content, our work is often centred around climate and ecology. Specifically, we are interested in giving a voice to human and non-human entities through field recordings. A majority of our practice emphasises listening. We like to go into the fields and listen, then record. We believe that through listening you can understand the world differently than through visuals. We hope our practice will promote a mindset of interconnectivity and inspire new ways to think about ecological issues.

We are interested in giving a voice to human and non-human entities through field-recordings

<img class="editorial-image-50-left" src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/644693b6f37e72482dd02803_Different%20Class%20Lotte%20Nijsten%20%26%20Gillis%20Van%20Der%20Wee%20(c)%20Marit%20GalleMaritGalle_Booreiland__0002b.webp"/>

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In what ways do you think sound and field recordings give insight into research that visuals don’t?

L&G: Sound is an immersive element. It provides a very active way of experiencing the world. Looking at visual objects is sometimes a passive experience, but with sound, it's engaging because it's time-based and slow, thus you are always getting immersed into worlds you don’t know. For Booreiland specifically, we can’t see what’s underneath the water and by listening we get a glimpse of what’s there. It’s also a way to create an immersive setting for the audiences to experience these inaccessible landscapes.

Yes, I also think we have been bombarded with a visual language that is often seeped with symbolism. We often subconsciously revert to these symbols and therefore our perception is always biased. Sound on the other hand touches the fantasy of the audience since it's not always clear what is it we are listening to. We have to tune in and enter a mediative-like state that unlocks our imagination.

Can you talk us through your research journey in making Booreiland

L&G: We wanted to sketch an auditory portrait of the North Sea from three perspectives: a team of marine biologists, a group of workers from the oil and gas industry and the soundscape of the sea itself. Through these perspectives, we wanted to ask and attempt to answer questions such as: What is our relationship with the sea? What do the soundscapes of the North Sea tell us about its current state? And what ecological issues does it reveal?

<img class="editorial-image-50-left" src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/644693b58615095eb777a426_Different%20Class%20Lotte%20Nijsten%20%26%20Gillis%20Van%20Der%20Wee%20(c)%20Marit%20GalleMaritGalle_Booreiland__0054.webp"/>

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L&G: As field recorders, we had always been interested in inaccessible and mysterious places and in recording new sounds. We attempted to actively engage with the seascape by recording different organisms. Initially, we took time to just listen and by doing that we got an idea about the dynamics and various agents present in the place. The first part of this research involved accompanying a group of scientists from the research project ReVIFES, which attempts to revitalize the North Sea ecosystem in order to restore the reefs that had vanished due to overharvesting. As we journeyed together in search of one of the last remaining biogenic reefs in the Dutch part of the North Sea, the scientists were unable to find it. It had already vanished.

<img class="editorial-image" src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/644693b6ba1b290c7f709b2c_Different%20Class%20Lotte%20Nijsten%20%26%20Gillis%20Van%20Der%20Wee%20(c)%20Marit%20GalleMaritGalle_Booreiland__0162jpg.webp"/>

L&G: In the second part of the project, we approached oil and gas companies that were active in the North Sea too. There are more than 900 oil and gas platforms in the North Sea that are spread over various European countries. While our demand for energy is increasing, the oil and gas fields in Europe are gradually being exhausted. The oil rig we visited went into shutdown as the field had run empty.

While our demand for energy is increasing, the oil and gas fields in Europe are gradually being exhausted

L&G: It was interesting to see the parallel in both of these stories. Looking at the two situations, you see human actors from different fields looking for something in the North Sea and finding nothing. In the end, the audience realizes that both fields have run empty – they had taken up all the gas, as well as all the natural resources.

<img class="editorial-image-50-left" src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/644693b5c4385f1d72b42c12_Different%20Class%20Lotte%20Nijsten%20%26%20Gillis%20Van%20Der%20Wee%20(c)%20Marit%20GalleMaritGalle_Booreiland_0008.webp "/>

<img class="editorial-image-50-right" src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/644693b73c851dcf95a80cbf_Different%20Class%20Lotte%20Nijsten%20%26%20Gillis%20Van%20Der%20Wee%20(c)%20Marit%20GalleMaritGalle_Booreiland_0009.webp"/>

Booreiland is an interesting performance because it is a layered research that reflects on the complex relationship between three different agents: scientists, technology, and the environment. How did you, as artists, contribute to the production of knowledge that evolved from this setting? 

L&G: The scientists we collaborated with were interested in spreading the outcomes of their research in a different and more inclusive format. Typically, scientists share their results by publishing their findings and data, however, the layered narratives they encounter and the ambiguities are not usually communicated. For example, when the scientists were unable to find the reef, they were certain it vanished due to fishermen, but because they could not tangibly research it nor prove this hypothesis, they had no 'data' to present. Still, they were keen to communicate this finding to make people aware of the environmental dangers of overharvesting.

<img class="editorial-image-50-left" src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/644693b79cfddf9183818e54_Different%20Class%20Lotte%20Nijsten%20%26%20Gillis%20Van%20Der%20Wee%20(c)%20Marit%20GalleMaritGalle_Booreiland_0119.webp"/>

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I guess artists have more freedom and space to share layered narratives. In a way, this interdisciplinary collaboration and artistic presentation brings forth new information that you wouldn’t find in a research paper. 

Artistically, how did translate your research into a coherent performance?

L&G: The scenography we created, together with our scenographer Fleur Roggeman, features three platforms made of cubes, with each platform representing an agent: marine biologists, oil and gas industries, and the sea itself. Thematically, the two parallel storylines we discussed are woven with sound compositions and poetic texts. For this, we collaborated with musician Thomas Van Walle. The performance introduces two ways of listening. On the one hand, we used field recordings and sounds of found objects and materials to make the seascape tangible in sound. On the other hand, we approached the performance as an archive – that’s the impression we wanted to give to the audience. During our field recordings, we had the impression that the sounds we were capturing were dying out and disappearing, and our performance functioned as a reservoir for these disappearing soundscapes.

Our aim was to present all perspectives and leave space for the audience to arrive at their own conclusions. We hope that our performance will make these landscapes and encounters tangible and alive with sound.

<img class="editorial-image" src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/61eebcc683107b99137f4423/644693b7a135324685974407_Different%20Class%20Lotte%20Nijsten%20%26%20Gillis%20Van%20Der%20Wee%20(c)%20Marit%20GalleMaritGalle_Booreiland_0187.webp"/>

<div class="editorial-banner"> <div class=“editorial-credits”> @_landforms @lottenijsten @gillis____  </div></div> 

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