An epic installation by artists Annie Lewandowski, Kyle McDonald, and Amy Rubin exploring the interior and exterior worlds of humpback whales.
Annie Lewandowski is a composer, performer, and senior lecturer in the Department of Music at Cornell University. In 2017, she began studying humpback whale song with pioneering bioacoustician Katy Payne. Lewandowski’s 2018 composition Cetus: Life After Life, for humpback whale song and chimes, explores the evolution of Hawaiian humpback song from 1977-1981. She has been awarded grants from the Atkinson Center for Sustainability for her research exploring the creative minds of humpback whales and collaborated with Google Creative Lab to create the broadly adopted public web tool Pattern Radio: Whale Song for teaching AI to recognize patterns in humpback whale song. She has released nine recordings with her band Powerdove, and has presented her work at festivals and venues across the United States and Europe, including the Casa da Musica (Porto, Portugal), the Hippodrome (London), the Frieze Arts Fair (London), and REDCAT (Los Angeles). She is a 2014 Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellow.
Artist and Coder
Kyle McDonald is an artist who works with code. He crafts interactive installations, sneaky interventions, playful websites, workshops, and toolkits for other artists working with code. He explores possibilities of new technologies—to understand how they affect society, to misuse them, and to build alternative futures—aiming to share a laugh, spark curiosity, create confusion, and share spaces with magical vibes. He works with machine learning, computer vision, social and surveillance tech in projects spanning commercial and arts spaces. He has been an adjunct professor at NYU’s ITP, a member of F.A.T. Lab, a community manager for open Frameworks, and an artist in residence at STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at CMU and YCAM in Japan. McDonald’s work has been commissioned and shown around the world, by organizations including the V&A, NTT ICC, Ars Electronica, Sonar, Today’s Art, and Eyebeam.
Amy Rubin designs environments for theater, opera, dance, and live events. Her visual storytelling creates intimate experiences through the manipulation of space and how the audience views and interacts in the performance. Rubin’s New York credits include Octet, Thom Pain (Signature Theatre); Gloria: A Life (Daryl Roth Theatre); Miles for Mary (Playwrights Horizons); All the Fine Boys (The New Group); Aging Magician (New Victory Theater); and Ike at Night (Public Theater). Regional credits include Gloria (American Repertory Theatre, McCarter Theatre); Cyrano (Goodspeed Musicals); and Mahagonny/Medium (Philadelphia Opera), as well as projects at La Jolla Playhouse, Walker Arts Center, MASS MoCA, Z Space, the Kimmel Center, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Bushwick Starr, HERE, the Flea, Cherry Lane, 3LD, and numerous TED Talks. She previously taught at Harvard University and University of Rochester, and has lectured at MIT and NYU/Tisch, where she received an M.F.A.
Fifty years ago, the groundbreaking research of Roger Payne, Scott McVay, Katy Payne, and others, revealed to the world that humpback whales vocalize highly structured sequences of sound. In other words, like us, humpbacks sing. Each song contains a variety of notelike units that are organized into repeating groups, called phrases. Phrases of one kind are grouped together to create themes. These themes, numbering under ten, are sung in an unvarying order that then repeats, often without pause, for hours on end. Over time and across seasons, all elements in the song of a humpback whale population change through the process of social learning, with singers within the population contributing to the changing song. This is an incredible example of not only horizontal cultural transmission, but also of the creative mind at work in another species.
Produced collaboratively by sound artist Annie Lewandowski, artist and coder Kyle McDonald, and scenic designer Amy Rubin, the installation draws visitors into both the interior and the exterior worlds of the humpback singer. The sound design immerses listeners in the songs of three distinct humpback singers over the course of the forty-minute piece amidst the asynchronous background chorus of other singers. Lewandowski recorded these humpback singers in 2019 with Katy Payne and the Hawaii Marine Mammal Consortium off of Hawaii’s Big Island. The lighting design uses changes in color, duration, and contour to visualize each singer’s unique take on this humpback population’s song, the creative result of analyses employing both manual annotation and machine learning.
Siren marvels at humpbacks’ creative intelligence while also reckoning with the dire circumstances threatening their survival. As technologies for taking life from the ocean exceed our ability to protect it, Siren focuses also on marine entanglement, one of the leading causes of death in the endangered North Atlantic right whale population. According to research at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, seventy to eighty-five percent of humpbacks and North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine show signs of entanglement scarring. The creative team is grateful to Laura Ludwig from CCS for supplying net and rope waste and debris removed from the ocean to build the Siren installation. CCS removes between eight and twelve tons of debris from the waters around Cape Cod every year.
This is a time ripe with urgency. Siren invites you into the tangle to consider how we can use technologies in a way that escapes their deep connections to extractive capitalist structures to provide instead protection for our ancient mammalian relatives.
Commissioned and produced by Media Art Xploration (MAX), Siren: Composers of the Sea is emblematic of MAX’s work and the first installment in its series Listening to Another Species On Earth (LASOE), which incorporates science and technology to decipher the more-than-human and to connect us to the communications among other species and their ecosystems. LASOE projects employ sound, light, movement and music to provide immersive experiences.
MASS MoCA | January 22, 2022
The Neuroverse | November 5th – 7th 2021
SIREN flooded the streets of Brooklyn in November 2021 for MAXlive: The Neuroverse.
Martha’s Vineyard | August 15, 2021
Siren previewed outdoors on Martha’s Vineyard.
Siren: Composers of the Sea was originally commissioned and produced by: Media Art Xploration, Inc. with support from the Ensemble Studio Theater/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project.
This work was also made possible by the generous support of Diana Barrett and Bob Vila, Jennifer Allen and Jonathan Soros, and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, with technical support from the Hawaii Marine Mammal Consortium, and the Center for Coastal Studies Marine Debris and Plastics program.
This piece was developed with the advisement of the Center for Coastal Studies and Katy Payne.
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