Art and Design

The Sounds of the Sea, Performed

June 1, 2010

June 8 is World Oceans Day, but with British Petroleum’s leaking well still out of control in the Gulf of Mexico, the oceans can use all the help they can get. In the Bay Area, two men have teamed up to both mark World Oceans Day and to remind us how personal and essential our oceans are.

Hasley Burgund, a sound artist, and Wallace J. Nichols, a naturalist and artist, started a project four years ago seeking to collect, form as many people as possible, answers to simple yet probing questions, including “Where did the ocean come from?” and “What does it feel like to be in the ocean?”

Those questions are at the heart of Burgund and Nichol’s Ocean Voices project, which has received more than 1,000 responses. On Thursday, June 3 (at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m.), selections from those recordings will be debuting as a multimedia sound collage at the California Academy of Sciences, during an event marking both World Oceans Day and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacques Cousteau. (Get the event details.)

Burgund and Nichols’ project seems simple enough: collect answers to pre-set questions, and from those create an interactive world map of the memories, fears, and hopes people have about the ocean.

But Nichols says that simply getting the responses was much more difficult than he and Burgund anticipated. The artists’ hoped the effort would go viral, but Nichols was surprised to find that the same people who live through Facebook and have numerous videos on YouTube are surprisingly reticent to simply record their voices.

But these voices do have a lot to say, with recordings from people of many different backgrounds and positions. “Some people are very technical,” Nichols says. “Some are poetic. Some are very blunt.” They include fishermen, seafood connoisseurs, scientists, and even children. There are a few celebrities and well-known scientists, but their voices are not given any special treatment; they are mixed in with the rest. “The best responses,” Nichols added, ” are the ones that are the least rehearsed.”

When asked what the most thought-provoking and surprising posting has been, Nichols admitted that it was not a scientist, but a small boy, who, in response to “describe a world without oceans,” answered “I like the ocean, I’d rather keep it.”

About the Author

Photographer and writer Melanie Jones lives in Oakland and enjoys coffee, books, urban gardening, and cool, foggy mornings.