Art, engineering team up to tackle oyster issues for new exhibit

Two people viewing an exhibit.

A rendering of the immersive installation design. Image: Stephanie Rothenberg

by Victoria Santos

Published August 22, 2022

Can an oyster listen? What kind of sound environment is needed for oysters to thrive? Those are the kinds of questions UB faculty member Stephanie Rothenberg is exploring in a new art exhibit.

“I have really enjoyed the collaboration with Stephanie and the interdisciplinary nature of the project. In engineering, we focus on making things more efficient and making things perform better, but artistic endeavors have other factors to consider, such as aesthetics, visualization, human appeal and others."
Karthik Dantu, associate professor
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Rothenberg and her collaborator, sound artist and researcher Suzanne Thorpe, have received a 2022 Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center residency to create an immersive media artwork. “We are partnering with the Billion Oyster Project, a New York City-based nonprofit working to ecologically restore the city’s waterways through oyster reseeding/repopulating initiatives,” says Rothenberg, professor and chair of the Department of Art, College of Arts and Sciences.

The project Rothenberg and Thorpe are working on, “Tending Ostreidae: Serenades for Settling,” is an interdisciplinary project exploring how anthropogenic noise in New York City’s busy waterways impacts marine organisms, specifically oysters. Since oyster reefs provide habitat for hundreds of species, prevent erosion along the shorelines, and can filter about 30 to 50 gallons of water every day, oyster restoration in New York Harbor is a priority.  

According to an article by Thrillist, New York Harbor and its surrounding waters used to be home to about 350 square miles of oyster reefs. But in the early 1900s, between overharvesting and 600 million gallons of untreated sewage being dumped into New York City water every day, the oyster population declined so much that by 1927, the last of the city’s oyster fisheries were shut down. However, through legislative acts like the Clean Water Act of 1972, water quality began to improve enough that in 2000, oysters and other life were found to be surviving in New York Harbor. In 2010, for the first time in a century, whales returned to the harbor, and in 2014, the Billion Oyster Project was created with a goal of restoring 1 billion oysters to the harbor by 2035.

As part of their collaboration with the Billion Oyster Project, Rothenberg and Thorpe are collecting underwater sounds in the harbor at locations where oysters are being grown. Underwater microphones, called hydrophones, collect the audio, which will be used in a multimedia installation to trigger sound-responsive robotic oysters that simulate how oysters listen and question what constitutes safe harbors for both humans and other species.

As a vital member of our ecosystem, Rothenberg says the oyster can identify suitable settlement habitats by differentiating sound signatures in underwater soundscapes. The project builds on soundscape studies that investigate alternative ways that knowledge is received and produced through a “listening body.” Leveraging data derived from harbor port movement and local underwater sound, the project queries the dynamic relationships between human activity and the well-being of oysters. According to Rothenberg, the project will express thematic content through an immersive, sound composition and visual, sculpted environment, and by virtual and in-person means — dependent on exhibition and performance opportunities.

“Through the simulated sense of this sonically navigating being, and participatory and responsive engagement mechanisms, we will animate questions, such as how do we listen for safe harbors, and what do they sound like; how do we tend to the more-than-human world, and how does it tend to us? And can the listening oyster guide us to a politics of mutual tending?”

Two students with a model they created and a poster showing the details.

Computer science students Chetan Palker (left) and Ralfy Chettiar display their robotic oyster prototype at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' end-of-semester poster sessions in May. Photo: Stephanie Rothenberg.

Rothenberg and Thorpe are developing the work during the artist residency and through collaborations with the UB Department of Art and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The immersive installation design is modeled after children’s scientific sensory water tables within the natural architecture of a tidal pool.

“The exhibit will display an organic pool that will contain oyster shells to create reef structures upon which a collection of robotic oysters at different stages of their lifecycles resides,” Rothenberg says. “The robotic oysters will respond to an immersive audio system that mimics aquatic acoustics. For example, a mature, adult-sized robotic oyster might close its shell, depending on sonic landscape. A baby (spat) oyster might slowly move to another area of the reef.

“The movements and gestures are based on scientific data about how oysters ‘hear’ sound and the resultant responses,” she says.

There will also be a video component to the installation featuring video projections that circulate through various imagery —including real-time, maritime traffic data in New York Harbor; a live camera feed from the pool; and hydrodynamic modeling that visualizes water and noise pollution.

Other video footage will be mapped to the composed live sound and will include microscopic imagery of oysters in different stages of their lifecycle, underwater drone footage of New York Harbor and visualizations that sonically map industrial, commercial and recreational shipping and boating in New York Harbor.

“We are currently working on various aspects of the immersive installation that will all be combined,” Rothenberg explains. “For example, the first prototypes of the robotic oysters have been created. These are being further streamlined to more effectively mimic oyster behavior.

“We have also collected underwater audio from several oyster field stations in New York Harbor, which is being composed to a score that will be used to activate the robotic oysters,” she says. “We are developing visual tropes that reference the sea, such as using color-coded waves to represent the speed, draught and weight of water vessels moving through the harbor.”  

A prototype of the sound-responsive oyster was created by UB computer science students Chetan Palker and Ralfy Chettiar under the guidance of Karthik Dantu, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. A demonstration of the prototype was held during the engineering school’s end-of-semester poster sessions in May.

“I have really enjoyed the collaboration with Stephanie and the interdisciplinary nature of the project,” Dantu says. “In engineering, we focus on making things more efficient and making things perform better, but artistic endeavors have other factors to consider, such as aesthetics, visualization, human appeal and others.

“This makes this collaboration unique for me and a very interesting one,” he says. “It has also been one that has made me think outside the box and a welcome change from my typical research.”