Agents for Change | Facing the Anthropocene: Two projects – Three creators

As part of the KMDI Speaker Series, KMDI-Semaphore hosted a panel discussion on the theme of environmental change, presented by Kristine Diekman (Professor of Art, Media and Design, California State University) creator of “Behold the Tilapia” along with Caroline McCaw (Associate Professor of Communications, Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand) and Vicki Smith (Artist, New Zealand) co-creators of “Sounding” moderated by Nina Czegledy (Curator, Artist, Leonardo Fellow and KMDI Member).

In the first presentation, Prof. Kristine Diekman spoke about the hydro-social cycle.  The hydro-social cycle reflects water’s social nature, which includes how water is produced, controlled, conveyed and commoditized.  Also, it proposes a framework for political ecologies of water, recognizing the existence of income equality and the role of environmental justice.

For example in California, water is bought, sold and conveyed to agriculture, cities and industries over hundreds of miles. In the Central Valley, California due to an drought from 2014 – 2017 , farms and municipalities did not receive their allocation. This lead to both mandatory and voluntary water reductions.

“Fifty-five gallons of water a day was allocated to individuals in these regions where normally people use 100 gallons a day. For comparison, in Toronto the average use of water is 173 gallons a day.”  Professor Diekman explained.

Diekman’s media project, Run Dry (, documents stories of families and communities that struggle for access to clean, safe, affordable water. The projects addresses how water is accessed and resourced, what systems govern water resources, how they have developed over decades, and how they impact human well-being today. Residents in the California’s Central Valley, a large agricultural region, are caught in the middle of power conflicts between different powers (ex. government, corporations..)  controlling water distribution.

Growing almonds in the dry climate of California leads to a clash between local families’ need to access clean water and the big, multinational farmers need for water to meet their investors’ demands.  During the drought, large multinational farms needed to pump groundwater to supply their crops, resulting in the water table sinking below the level of domestic wells. Families’ well ran dry, leaving them no alternative than to buy bottled water.

In addition to water shortages that affect human lives, another environmental topic that was discussed focused on noise pollution in our oceans.

SoundingCA – Echolocation and disruption in our oceans

Dr. Caroline McCaw and Captain Vicki Smith in the second presentation explained their project, SoundingCA, which is an immersive installation and a pod of electronically augmented umbrellas creating sounds when they enter ‘electronic oceans’ (located around the gallery).  This exhibit is supported by Blunt Umbrellas, Creative New Zealand and Otago Polytechnic and made with thanks to Dr Lindy Weilgart (CA) and Dr Liz Slooten (NZ).

(Sounding) aims to create awareness and understanding regarding noise pollution caused by human activity that impacts marine mammals. In the presentation, the audience had the opportunity to see glimpses of the origins of Sounding through photos documenting some of the installations, tools and technologies used by Dr McCaw and Captain Smith in their work.

The Sounding exhibit has two elements. An ambient oceanic space with hanging umbrellas  sharing individual mammal sounds (whales and whale scientists).  A very disruptive live physical sound would blast intermittently.  This introduces us to what marine life experience when they hear sonar, sonic blasting of oil and gas exploration, pile driving for underwater structures and shipping noise.  The anthropogenic sound marine life experiences can be so deafening it can cause extreme stress and physical damage and is experienced far more loudly than in the exhibition and at an inescapable rate of every 10 seconds for oil exploration.

“If you think about the term ecology it’s about your home. We generally strive to live in balance and harmony with what is around us. This is not possible for our marine neighbours with disruptions to navigation, communication and finding food caused by the noise introduced through our interventions in the oceans  ” Artist, Vicki Smith

Using non-visual communication these exhibits seek to create empathy for sea mammals. The second part of the work is a set of Blunt umbrellas that visitors are invited to take through the rest of the exhibition space. These they can use to echo-locate three ‘oceans’ that trigger different sound files of whale researchers from Aotearoa/NZ and Canada. This provides further opportunities to learn about echo-location, whale dialects and ways we can help curb the damage that human activity causes underwater life.

Caro explains, “if you could see a whale suffering you would want to do something about it.  It’s this enormous animal that is part of our vast ecosystem.  As life on this planet we are all interconnected“.