Temp Expert: Communicating with Coral

After my unsure feelings and branching out last week, I took some time to re-visit all the different ideas that I’ve had so far for the project.

What I landed on was that I’ve been unsure about how to deal with this feeling of distance that I’ve been experiencing. How does one who has never visited a coral reef before begin to be able to speak to its existence? How do I decenter the human from my project – not wanting to speak for those who I’ve never met and not interested in putting myself at the center of this project, either.

Ultimately, I decided that it was the exploration of coral subjectivity and the natural network structures of coral that I find most compelling. I’ve been interested in network theory since before coming to ITP – how it exists as an abstract concept as well as a way of organizing telecommunications. Oliver actually brought this thought to my attention when we talked about my presentation. How the relationships amongst coral and the surrounding species sustain the diverse ecoysystem, how it is a nature-engineered balance with tipping points. That I should consider other ways of thinking about organized communication relationships, like Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of smooth vs striated space from “A Thousand Plateaus.”

So how to create something that re-inserts the subjectivity of coral, perform an ethnography of the coral subject. Based on Oliver’s recommendation, I want to take a look at the book, “How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human” by Eduardo Kohn. A summary: “Can forests think? Do dogs dream? In this astonishing book, Eduardo Kohn challenges the very foundations of anthropology, calling into question our central assumptions about what it means to be human—and thus distinct from all other life forms.”

I feel that conceptually this direction is really strong, as it pushes me as an anthropologist beyond the human and enables me to further explore my technological interest in networked communication.

Now. What I really would love to do is find a way to bridge the distance between the us here in New York and Coral Reefs through telecommunication. I would love to see what a conversation between us and coral could look like. If coral could speak, what would we hear? What would we want to say back? What questions would we ask?


I was reminded of a the piece, A Hole in Space (Oakland Redux), by Ellen Sebastian Change that took place in Oakland this past year, where concurrent live streams of two different neighborhoods were projected in windows, creating the sense of one world sutured into another right there in the streets. No longer was it possible to ignore the decay and sirens.

My ideal project would be a way of installing a form of wireless communication in the vicinity of a coral reef and live streaming video/audio to several locations across New York City. Or installing some kind of visual that encourages passerbys to visit a page to see a livestream and send messages to the deep (using Twilio?).

I’m interested in how these messages can be encoded and translated…a bubble machine that emits bubbles based on morse code? Slight vibrations/waves? And is it simply capturing audio/visuals as they exist underwater or do they also undergo some kind of language conversion?

This idea reminds me of FutureFarmers Ethnobotanical Station (2012) project. Particularly the spade stethoscope.

There’s also a possibility that these messages are directly connected to the ongoing physical conditions of the reef. Could this be a way for researchers to remotely track the health of reefs? Or could they be connected to sculptures used for artificial reefs and rehabilitation efforts?

Also interesting is the presence of undersea cables, through which 99% percent of international data is transmitted and the long history of undersea cables for telecommunications but our lack of actual dialogue with the creatures whose ecosystems they lie in.

So as it stands, I propose creating a wireless communication device that enables humans to speak with coral and a way for coral to speak back.

I like this idea of desire, longing that is present…wanting to speak with someone but unable to reach them.

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05. April 2016 by zoe.bachman.itp
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