Waveform is a speculative instance of ‘drone generated poetry’, meditating on the role of digital sensors in contemporary environmental monitoring, and exploring modes of capturing and expressing sensory data that depicts it not as an autonomous mirror of the observed, but as emerging out of exchanges between different sensing and interpreting agencies, both human and nonhuman.
In this project, coastal shorelines are imaged using an airborne camera drone. The data gathered is then analysed using a machine vision algorithm that attempts to trace the nebulous boundary between wave and shore—a process whose inherent ambiguity exposes the functional contingencies and encoded thresholds of the system. The marker points that define this boundary then supply variables for another algorithm that generates enigmatic, poem-like texts, which are curated to engage themes concerning the maritime environment, the perils and absurdities of life in a rapidly degenerating climate, and the interrelated acts of sensing, measuring, and knowing.
Both the process and its outputs entangle and unsettle the varied liminal markers distinguishing land and sea, the visual and the textual, and machinic versus human modes of sense-making, in order to inspire reflection on their combined roles in mapping, across science and culture alike, the epochal threshold of the Anthropocene. Here, the production, expression, and interpretation of digital sensory data manifests not in isolation of other modes of sensing-making, and nor does it enjoy any presumptions concerning its supposed empirical omniscience, objectivity, or rationality. Instead, Waveform presents digital technologies as forming part of a diverse spectrum of sensibilities that each play a role in articulating the world that they seek to understand. In particular, the myriad unquantifiable phenomena that characterise life in the Anthropocene, such as the powerful affective impacts engendered by a rapidly deteriorating climate, are allowed to manifest within the context of digital architectures that otherwise give no heed to these dynamics—despite enabling the socioeconomic behaviours that power these very changes and their corrosive fallouts.
In so doing, the goal is not to condemn digital sensors for their limitations, but to consider, along a speculative, adventurous vector, how they might be reoriented as part of a project to inspire a wider, richer, and more creative approach to characterising a damaged world, and so catalyse ways of seeing, thinking, and acting that are better able to engage with, and adapt towards, its complex and contingent realities.
Book and Film
A collection of images and poems for this project was compiled into a dedicated artist’s book in 2018, and in 2020 this collection was reprinted in a large-format edition for exhibition at the British Library (pictured below). You can order the book by completing the purchase form here.
In 2019, a version of Waveform was turned into an animated short film for the Peripheries: Electronic Literature and New Media Art exhibition held at the Glucksman Gallery, Cork, as part of ELO2019. Programme entry here.
Waveform is due to be featured in a dedicated chapter, entitled “Drone Poetry”, in Ambient Stories: Digital Writing in Place. Ed. Amy Spencer. Emerald (forthcoming).
Waveform receives a mention in the article “Electronic Literature and the Anthropocene” for Electronic Book Review. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7273/rt06-ts14.
Waveform has been discussed in the article “The Book and its Algorithm” for Artist’s Book Yearbook 2020-2021. It can be purchased here.
A detailed article, covering the early technical and conceptual background to the project, has been published by the journal Arts, in their special issue “The Machine as Artist (For the 21st Century).” It is available here.
In the spring of 2018 an output from Waveform featured in a publication entitled But There is No Land Near the End by A+E Collective. This publication showcases the work of over twenty internationally based contemporary artists, poets, and writers whose practices engage with ecological questions. Both the publication and the launch event were named after a poem included within the Waveform collection. Poet Maria Sledmere (@mariaxrose), whose work is also featured, wrote a guest blog for Creative Carbon Scotland that offers an extended overview.
A short article concerning the initial work on the project was published by the online journal The Writing Platform in 2017. It is available here.