Science Professor

Deadzones in Irish seas; culture and climate soundworks

This post comes to you from An Arts and Ecology Notebook

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Image: Recording with hydrophone in Killybegs

‘We, as many others, have been concerned about the world we live in and climate change ever since we started the Bliain Le Baisteach project over 10 years ago. In fact, most of our work has in some way been reflections and explorations of our relation to and understanding of nature, expressed as multimedia artwork and performances’, Softday (2010)
In 2008, Virginia Institute of Marine Science Professor Robert Diaz showed that the number of “dead zones”—areas of seafloor with too little oxygen for most marine life—had increased by a third between 1995 and 2007. Diaz and collaborator Rutger Rosenberg of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that dead zones are now “the key stressor on marine ecosystems” and “rank with over-fishing, habitat loss, and harmful algal blooms as global environmental problems.” The study, which appeared in the August 15, 2008 issue of the journal Science, tallied 405 dead zones in coastal waters worldwide, affecting an area of 246,000 km2, almost the size of New Zealand. It is currently estimated that there are 20 such ‘dead zones’ in Ireland and two were identified in the study at both Killybeg’s Harbour (1999) and Donegal Bay (2000). Geological evidence show that dead zones are not a naturally recurring event in marine ecosystems; dead zones were once rare, now they are common place and increasing, which poses a serious threat to indigenous marine habitats and the human food chain. It is currently estimated that there are 20 such dead zones in Ireland and two contested dead zones were identified in the study at both Killybeg’s Harbour (1999) and Donegal Bay (2000).
I’m really delighted to have this guest post from Margaret Mc Lauglin on another of the remarkable Lovely Weather Culture and Climate Change projects in Ireland (Softday’s video-sound piece was my favourite at the opening). Margaret is an artist who is currently studying on the MA Art in the Contemporary Programme, National College of Art & Design, Dublin Ireland.

It’s Saturday 16th October 2010 and I’m standing in Mooney’s boatyard , Killybegs, Co. Donegal for the first time, even though this is the area where I grew up.  It is a space where I feel that I’m not supposed to be entering but I’m here today to watch a sound performance by two artists; Sean Taylor who is an art-scientist and Mikael Fernstrom, a computer-scientist; a collaborative partnership called Softday. Today they are about to realize a project that they have been working on for several months.  The project entitled Marbh Chrios which in translation from Irish means Dead Zone. This was an Artist’s Residency that was part of the Donegal County Council’s Lovely Weather Art and Climate Change Public Art Programme (2009-10). This project was co-curated by the Regional Culture Centre’s John Cunningham and Leonardo’s Annick Bureaud.

The Softday artists were one of five artist/s taking part in Lovely Weather Art and Climate Change project.  Other artists include Peter d’Agostino (USA), Seema Goel (CAN), The League of Imaginary Scientists (USA) and Anthony Lyons (UK). Below is the a fantastic documentary of all the projects directed and edited by Maria Mulhall and produced by Jeremy Howard and the Regional Cultural Centre under the Sharing Stories Project (funded by the International Fund for Ireland).

Softday have been engaging with issues of climate change and its global effects for the past 10 years. They have worked on projects such as Blain Le Baisteach,  which translates as ‘a year of rainfall’ (2000) – a soundvision project focusing on the  fluctuating annual rainfall patterns in Ireland; Coisir an Tsionainn which translates as ‘The Shannon Suite’ (2003), focusing on the four-year life cycle of the wild Atlantic salmon and the following effects of over fishing and pollution on the species.  Next was their Nobody Leaves till the Daphnia sing (2009) which looked at the contamination of domestic drinking water in Galway and West Limerick.

But today I’m about to witness their newest project; Marbh Chrios: Dead Zone.  Dead Zones are areas on the sea bed with too little oxygen for most marine life to survive. The artists worked with Met Eireann, The Marine Institute of Ireland, Dr Brendan O’ Connor of Aqua Fact International, Dr. Robert Diaz and Dr. Rutger Rosenberg, who have conducted the most comprehensive scientific studies of marine Dead Zones in the world and have identified two contested Dead Zones in Killybegs Harbour and Donegal Bay.  Along with Softday’s performance came a pamphlet with dead zone information so I am now informed of the background of their research, the meaning of a Dead Zone, and the unfortunate fact that my local area has two dead zones!!  Softday described the Marbh Chrios Dead Zone work as  a computer-generated music composition, constructed using eight years of related marine data mapping two ‘contested’ marine dead zones in Killybegs Harbour and Donegal Bay.  (A specially designed USB artefact in the shape of a fish containing a video and audio from the performance was recently launched in the Contemporary Music Centre’s new Platform for Performance space on 9 February 2011 and you can see an interview here ).

data points

Proceeding the performance, the Softday artists had collated sound information which they later turned  into algorithms, visualisations and sonifications. These algorithms, visualisations and sonifications were then carefully put together.  A projection of digital images was set up to be played throughout the entire performance.  The Boatyard was set up for a community performance of Softday’s compostions and included the local :

  • Youth Orchestra
  • a Ceili Band
  • and a Marching band that were later to appear (you can catch glimpses of the project in the video above)

As the space started filling up with eager spectators, an acoustic composition ‘Cuir glaoch ar Ghatar’ (distress call) was performed by the Softday artists to set the tone.  Onlookers were both apprehensive and excited.  Viewers were ushered to one side paralleling the orchestra and the artists which were wearing white lab coats, which highlighted the crossover between art and science. They then performed their second composition called ‘primordial soup no. 1’.  Some of the locals were unsure what to make of the music, which was a mix of electronic sounds.  This was followed by the traditional band playing Bathu Phrioclais ‘Drowning at Bruckless’, followed by Vattuskrack ‘fear of drowning’, a composition by Softday.

At this point a door to the boatyard opens and St. Catherines marching band pound forward,  passing the spectators, performing to marine themed songs; Ta na Baid, Fisherman’s blues and  the Boys from Killybegs.  They stay in the position between the artists and spectators for the duration of these songs, and then proceed to march out the opposite exit.  The door closes and the deadly silence consumes the space once more.  The spectators assumed a somber mood.  The orchestra, which have been in our view the entire time, then began to sound softly and become more and more dominant until the duration of the song was complete.  Boatyard workers were harmonizing with the orchestra, through the use of the machinery in the boatyard.  It’s mainly the sound of a saw that was resonating.  This was followed by Softday’s compilation, primordial soup no. 2. I look around the room, people start to mill out of the facing door.  The show is complete. Speeches are made and the artists and viewers go their separate ways.

After the show I wanted to know more about these dead zones and from talking to a few of the spectators they were equally intrigued.  I approached Mikeal Fernstrom, Softday artist, shortly after the show.  He described that ”Sean or I had been to Killybegs before when we started this project in October 2009.  We took the approach of explorers of an unknown land, and happily went about the place during several expeditions.  It took some time to get the inside stories from people, but at this stage we have so much material that we could probably do a couple of more Marbh Chrios works! One of our main data sources was the M4 buoy, located approximately 45 nautical miles (83 km) west north-west of Rossan Point, Co. Donegal. We analysed 8 years of data from the M4, including hourly readings of air temperature, sea temperature, wind speed, gusts, wind direction, wave height, wave frequency and barometric air pressure – a total of 648,800 data points”.

Mikeal also sent me on some interesting observations while working on the Donegal project:“it seems to be impossible to buy really fresh, locally landed fish.  The stuff sold from the fish van“ (a merchant selling fish along the Killybegs pier) “is from Castletownbere! It seems that all fresh stuff is loaded up on foreign trucks at night and exported.  He commented on the local music too.  “Everytime there’s something going on, Fish festival, Bank holiday, etc., the St. Catherines Marching Band plays, followed by a couple of local, very good, rock bands.”


An Arts & Ecology Notebook, by Cathy Fitzgerald, whose work exists as ongoing research and is continually inspired to create short films, photographic documentation, and writings. While she interacts with foresters, scientists, and communities, she aims to create a sense of a personal possibility, responsibility and engagement in her local environment that also connects to global environmental concerns.
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