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Sounding Walks: Evoking Empathy through Social, Sound and Walking Practices

Published onMay 19, 2021
Sounding Walks: Evoking Empathy through Social, Sound and Walking Practices


This paper explores the artist project Sounding Walks, developed by three digital artists in collaboration with marine biologists, zoologists and archeologists at Otago University. Together, a group of walkers undertake a 60-minute journey through public space, carrying technologically-augmented umbrellas that respond to ‘wi-fi oceans’. When an ocean is encountered, Sounding Walks umbrellas play soundtracks of scientists talking about whales and the acoustic ecologies of marine landscapes off the shores of Otago, New Zealand, and recordings of endemic and migratory whales and dolphins communicating. The work draws together different types of knowing: it creates personal audio spaces through listening, and social space through the act of walking together through space. It encourages conversation between people, landscapes and whales. Sounding Walks is considered as an example of site-specific social art practice, identifying the ocean and its mammals as a part of our shared local context. Through a combination of known and imagined environments, Sounding Walks creates an opportunity to empathise with the more-than-human, and helps us understand our potential relationship with whales as a species we can know without needing to see.

Keywords: Listening; More-Than-Human Sociality; Walking Art


Sounding is a group of artworks first developed in 2017 that investigate the connections between anthropogenic noise pollution and marine mammals. Developed in collaboration with marine biologists, zoologists and archaeologists at Otago University, the work shares recordings of endemic and migratory whales and dolphins living off the coast of Aotearoa New Zealand in a range of installed and ambulatory environments. Although the southern oceans surrounding New Zealand are usually relatively quiet – and home to growing populations of Southern right whales – a 2016 government oil and gas exploration tender of the oceanic area surrounding New Zealand (covering over 500,000 square kilometres) threatens significant increase in noise pollution through seismic exploration. Sounding is the name given to the work when it is installed in a static exhibition space – a blue-lit oceanic environment using ceiling suspended clear vinyl umbrellas as acoustic mirrors to create personal sound zones, set amid surround sound ocean noises. Marine mammals use echolocation – reflected sound – to navigate, communicate and find food. In the installation, visitors physically immerse themselves in exhibition space and listen to a range of mammals communicate about and in our seas. Sounding Walks use the ubiquitous umbrella as a human reference for protection while walking. Walkers take one of our electronically-enabled umbrellas for a guided walk around a pre-determined public space and move in and out of ‘oceans’. Like whales and dolphins, these ‘oceans’ are discovered through listening as the umbrellas respond and trigger sound files embedded in their handles. Parallels are made to the digital networks (such as wi-fi) that also surround us – like an ocean. We cannot see these networks but we access them to communicate, usually using devices rather than sound.

This paper is based on the Sounding experiment, comprising an ecological weaving of walking, writing, and our social, participatory art practice. It both describes a particular iteration of Sounding Walks, and uses explicit relationships between writing and social and listening experiences to imply connections we hope are relevant and useful to the themes of the artworks. Anecdotally, both artworks have been described by visitors as deeply engaging, immersive and encourage reflection. Although no formal data has been collected, we see the walking experiences as both time-based performances of facts and ideas, and performative expressions that include whales, time scales and technological relationships. Through employing sound as the primary medium as well as the subject of the works, the experience of Sounding Walks moves beyond science communication, and towards a participatory ecological art practice which references both specific sites and species, and implicates our own roles and behaviours.


Whales are really acoustic animals rather than visual animals, and that is because underwater you’d be lucky to get 50 metres visibility, and so vision isn’t all that much use….the vast bulk of their communication is done with sound. (Slooten, Sounding Walks recording, 2017)

As we start out from Allen Hall Theatre, a participating audience of ten hold onto their umbrellas. It is raining cats and dogs, as they say, so the umbrellas – as well as an integral part of this artwork – will play a suitably protective role today.

Here we begin by listening to an introduction – our first wi-fi ocean – spoken calmly by collaborating marine zoologist Professor Liz Slooten. Her voice is emitted from our umbrellas through technology embedded in our umbrella handles – grey bulbs that resemble the timpanic bulla or earbone of a whale.1 The technology is responding to a radio transmitter, discretely located nearby. As mentioned, the work Sounding Walks2 is part of a larger set of Sounding artworks, all linking technology, sound files, umbrellas – and whales. The works each involve collaborative practices and ideas that form knots, connecting these four unlikely components. Donna Haraway is another biologist whose work considers our human entanglement in knots with non-humans, including technosocial situations, animals and ecologies, and Sounding Walks may be usefully considered using Haraway’s entanglements to help unpick the experience of the work that we have come together to experience.

Haraway insists on a recursive relationship between technical and social organisation, where every new iteration of this relationship provides opportunities for alternative architecture to emerge. Within these emerging spaces are opportunities for action and empowerment. These relationships make room for “temporalities, scales, materialities, relationalities between people and our constitutive partners, which always include other people and other critters, animal and not, in doing worlds, in worlding” (Gane & Haraway, 2006). The notion of ‘worlding’ is first used by Heidegger in Being and Time (1927), referring to a dynamic interplay or network of associations between possibilities, locations, places and things. It has been employed by many authors since its initial introduction for a variety of purposes and blends of material and semiotic relations. But it is Haraway’s re-definition of the term that we are particularly referring to in this case. In When Species Meet, Haraway (2008) suggests that this network of associations requires that we forget previous categories and come together in a new ‘composition’. “To get ‘in the presence of’ demands work, speculative invention and ontological risks. No one knows how to do that in advance of coming together” (Haraway 2008, 83). In this way, each new iteration of Sounding Walks affords a dynamic and new composition. The sound tracks played through the umbrellas may be the same, and the species they reference are too, but the contextual environment and the knowledge and sensibilities of each walker bring new dynamics and new possibilities to the work. Embedded in Haraway’s definition (alternatively known as “autre-modialisation” (2008) and “Terrapolis” (2016)) is the implication of our own embedded responsibility. For example Haraway suggests that the "Thou shall not kill" commandment should read, "Thou shalt not make kill able" (Haraway 2008, p.82). She identifies living responsibly as our capacity “to respond in relentless historical, nonteleological, multispecies contingency” (ibid.). It is within this open and hopeful sense of contingency that Sounding Walks is both a response to our own conversations with scientists, and a sharing of these as a response-ability, drawing together knowledge and practice.

I will walk us through Sounding Walks as it was co-performed on November 21 2018, to consider three knots: the New Zealand settler landscape and territories that don’t end at the beach; the scale of a whale and cetaceous time as a metaphor for becoming-with; and the noise of our information and things as a call to action. These knots, their tying, loosening and retying, will help us consider our own empathy and accountability in the more-than-human situation encountered through this art walk, an albeit curious form of worlding, in which knowledge is performative, embodied and connected (Bear & Eden 2008).3

The use of walking practices in art is not new,4 and is usually considered to have begun in Western art history nearly a hundred years ago with Dada artists in 19215 (Solnit 2001). In the 1960s artists such as Situationist Guy Debord employed walking as a way of crossing urban spaces in critical ways, that brought the walkers’ awareness to the ‘psychogeographical’ effects of being in movement, an “unconventional methodology of awareness and letting go” (Mendolicchio 2019). Just as Debord sought new psychological effects in these walks through Paris, environmental artists such as Richard Long used walking art practices to respect and connect conceptually and relationally to non-urban landscapes in which both walkers and landscapes were affected by each other. Our paths, and where the earth meets our feet, for Long, opened up a mode though which to question, challenge or emphasise our place in a physical environment (Mendolicchio 2019). Contemporary U.K. artist Simon Pope calls upon “participatory and dialogic art to invent ways that all things human and non-human alike, can take part in hybrid social worlds, collectives, assemblages, ecologies, publics, communities, however we choose to define them” (Pope 2015, pp.ii-iii). Whether in urban or rural landscapes artist engagement with lands by walking through them, alone or with a group, seeks social engagement beyond the scopic preference of seeing landscapes. Walking art practices, although in this case identified within art contexts, reach out to other ideas and practices developed across social sciences and humanities that are committed to concepts of place, memory, imagination, improvisation and intervention (Pink 2015).

Figure 1

Sounding Walkers in conversation with Professor Liz Slooten (carrying the white umbrella). Otago University, 21 November 2018


Our first knot ties us to settler notions of landscapes. This walk begins outside Allen Hall Theatre, one of Otago University’s older stone buildings, originally opened in 1914 as the University’s first student union hall, replicating English tradition in both architecture and use (Otago Connection 2017). New Zealand was colonised and settled by Britain in the mid-late 19th century at a time when British landscapes were undergoing a reimagining. Brought with the settlers by ship to our shores, these perspectives of landscapes reflected ideals of Romanticism, including an extending of the world’s boundaries.6 Images reflecting monumental European-styled architecture and Romantic idealised landscapes continue to both shape and limit our experiences of this nation state, and provide content for many visual representations of New Zealand. Romantic ideals coincided with the emergence of British domestic tourism, and so perhaps it is not surprising to see them still utilised and employed to sell these New Zealand landscapes to British (and other international) visitors. These dominant European histories are tenacious. However, looking at landscapes as a dominant way to identify our sense of belonging in these lands is limiting. Aside from the clearly Eurocentric perspective, taking no account of the deeply social relations with lands of indigenous Māori, this scopic approach to ‘seeing is believing’ is restrictive, partial and relentlessly human-centric. As noted above, whales are not really visual animals. On Sounding Walks, we engage through listening, a first and simple step towards empathising with the marine mammals we are walking with and better understanding their acoustic environment.

As the seagull flies we are not far from the ocean, a kilometer perhaps, and when the University was first built the original estuarine harbour basin would have been much closer. Even when considered using an economic framework, New Zealand’s territories do not start and finish at the beach; our Economic Exclusion Zone extends 200 nautical miles offshore, and this oceanic territory includes numerous endemic and migratory cetaceous species. Here, in this very colonial University setting, we are reminded of forebears who arrived by ship, and among those earliest were hunters of whales. Otago Harbour, still so close, was a calving ground for the Southern right whale.

Walking, according to Andrea Phillips, can be used a tool for the loosening of these knots. “Superficially, walking connects us as an audience. We are also connected by a desire to loosen our affiliations, in each of our disciplines, with monumentalism. These connections, this transdisciplinarity, produces conceptual movements that seek to undermine the static terms of representation that dog us all” (Phillips 2005, p.509). In this work, walking and listening seeks to loosen the knot that ties us to understanding ourselves through primarily visual means. Haraway describes “interspecies knots” of connection and experience (Haraway 2008, p.36). Listening to and about whales reminds us that we don’t need to see whales to know about them, connect and relate with them.

We head out from the shelter of the theatre and up the street, the rain persistent. Around the corner of the next stone building, and through a courtyard, we encounter a second wi-fi ocean, triggering audio in our umbrellas, and, asynchronously, each umbrella starts to talk to us. Walkers slow as they focus on the story being told. They start to separate from each other, and the immediate huddle of uncertainty the group first demonstrated has turned into a more focused and introspective individual experience of listening. Our immediate surroundings fade from focus as we are drawn into an underwater world, that of the whales we are hearing about.

For right whales living in Boston Harbour, about 50-70% of the time they can’t hear the other right whales that are in the area. So a ship comes into the area and it masks the whale noise. And of course whales use sound, to find food, to find each other, to communicate… so it’s a little bit like taking sight from a human being, it’s their primary sense. Chris Clarke says even their sense of self or consciousness is probably based on sound rather than on vision.7 So while humans are very, very strongly visually-oriented, whales and dolphins are very strongly sound-oriented… they need sound for every different life function. So … if you make a lot of noise in an area, say, airguns that are used for finding oil and gas, whales will literally leave the area, and, or maybe, shut up, while the noise is happening, and they won’t start making sound again until after the airguns stop. (Slooten, Sounding Walks recording 2017)


The soundtrack changes, and we are no longer listening to a scientist, but the sounds of humpback whales singing local dialects, and a haunting blue whale calf calling to their mother, finally fading out. The rain a persistent drumming on our umbrellas, our bodies protruding beyond the shelter of the umbrella and the paved path we follow. We re-emerge to find our group paused in front of another old stone building, the site of the University’s geology museum. We peer into a window that barely rises above ground level, allowing light into a basement room.

I stop and talk about this room to the group of walkers, not as an expert but as a former Sounding Walk-er who had previously been at this juncture, in another Sounding Walk iteration. This basement window allows us to peek into a collection of fossils, and my second-hand talk describes this room’s relationship to another nearby place, some 100km north, and inland, where many of the pelagic fossils held within the museum were found. Previously all this land was undersea, and long ago rumblings of the Alpine fault that created New Zealand’s South Island lifted up, to leave early whale creatures marooned. The remains of these animals allow those with expertise to better understand the evolutionary division of whales into two suborders: Odontoceti (those that have teeth) and Mysticeti (which have baleen plates that filter food).8 

Figure 2

Sounding Walkers take shelter in a stone and tile archway, the site of a wi-fi ocean. They listen. Otago University, 21 November 2018

At this point I introduce one of our walkers, Professor Liz Slooten, whose research expertise focuses on marine mammals and their conservation, including work with students on the impacts of fishing, tourism, mining and noise in the marine environment. She generally agrees with my lay-person’s description of these fossils, adds a little detail and invites walkers to ask her questions about anything they encounter or consider on our walk today. Her expertise is woven into the conversation, and Liz has joined us on most of our walks so far, engaging and hugely generous, usually walking with her dog, and tossing a stick as we encounter our oceans.

While we critique the kind of looking at landscapes that has centred Romantic representation in New Zealand landscapes’ popular culture, archeological looking presents another kind of knowing or worlding. Imprinted in the earth-once-sea is a gentle reminder that earth and ocean are not so separate, and can be imagined as a practice of dynamic co-composition. Forms of life, forms of responsibility and forms of deterritorialisation are drawn together through this window, aligning with the thoughts of geologist Kathryn Yusoff (2013). These fossils are “a material form that provokes thought to travel along the cusp of a geologic corporeality, that is at once geologic, biologic and social in its composition” (Yusoff, p.779). When we designate humans as beings capable of geomorphic earth-changing force, we become implicated in geologic time, and responsible for geologic futures too. Ontological and ethical considerations are inseparable. In Haraway’s terms, living responsibly involves acknowledging our response-ability, beyond our own species’ times and spaces.

We move along and seek shelter from the rain under a stone and tile archway. I stand at one end, and I share with our group that the space we fill, from one edge of the archway to the other, is around the length of an adult Southern right whale, around 14 metres, or – two steps closer – a sperm whale at 12 metres. If we could see whales in this context, comprehend their size and presence and the harm human noise has on them, I ask the small group, would we continue industrial activity that causes them to suffer? Together, our imaginations fill the space between us with the body of a whale.

Our umbrellas start to talk to us; this time it is a man talking:

I’ve done research all around the world really, but it was only recently that I discovered how important the habitat just off the Otago coast is. We’d had a few clues before because we’d had a few opportunistic sightings of interesting whale and dolphin species off the Otago coast…

… I really wanted to go and have a look and see what we could find out there, and so I set up a system of surveys to go and have a look over the Otago canyons. We used the University of Otago’s research vessel, Polaris 2, and we did visual surveys and acoustic surveys just off the Otago Peninsula. Just a voyage of discovery really, just to see what we could find. And I was blown away when we got out there. We did a series of eight surveys over the course of a year, and every time we went out to deep water, we found sperm whales. Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales, these really enormous majestic animals that live in these deep habitats feeding on squid in particular. And every time we went out to the thousand metre line, we would see or hear sperm whales out there. I was so excited; I’ve worked with sperm whales around the world, the Gulf of Mexico, the Tropical Pacific, lots of work in Kaikoura, but we had this population just on our doorstep. I didn’t realise they would be there, so finding them out there was super exciting. We found a range of other species out there too, lots of dolphins: dusky dolphins, bottle-nosed dolphins, a reasonably unusual species called a Southern right whale dolphin, we saw other species of whales, lots of pilot whales, we saw humpback whales out there. But the most exciting thing we saw out there was the Shepherd’s beaked whale. The Shepherd’s beaked whale is one of the least known cetacean species in the world, there are a handful of sightings from anywhere... In our eight surveys to the Otago Canyons we saw Shepherd’s beaked whales three times, this was really exciting… we saw them in summer and winter, and this suggests that they might be resident out there… so this appears to be a hotspot for Shepherd’s beaked whales. … This is super, super exciting, I was just blown away by what was out there… this made it really clear that this is a habitat that we really need to protect. We don’t know much about it, we are just starting to understand what is out there, and it’s really important that we protect this. (Rayment, Sounding Walks recording 2017)

Will Rayment’s words end with the clicking of sperm whales echo-locating. Their percussive notes blend with the pattering of rain and a dripping pipe nearby.

In both scenarios we – umbrella-ed listeners – are dwarfed by the scope of these stories, discoveries across vast spans of time and deep ocean canyons, both far away and yet close by. What is becoming clearer is that whales do not need us to discover them, and yet they are thoroughly present in this formation and enactment of the “messy business of living together” (Hinchcliff & Whatmore 2006, in Hobson 2007, p.257). Performed through multiple places and times, this ecology is fluid and we are floating in its ocean, in Whatmore’s terms, “heterogenous entanglements of social life” (2002, p.3) – hybrid geographies that are always contextual and relational, forming and reforming each other through our encounters.

Donna Haraway chooses to use the term ‘becoming-with’, which she identifies as a kind of respect: “To knot companion and species together in an encounter, in regard and respect, is to enter the word of becoming with, where who and what are is precisely what is at stake … Species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth, and that game must be one of response and respect” (Haraway 2008, p.19). ‘Becoming-with’ involves becoming more aware of the multi-dimensional relationships we humans are capable of and implicated within. For Haraway, this “… demands work, speculative invention, and ontological risks. No one knows how to do that in advance of coming together in composition” (Haraway 2008, p83).

This particular knot involves sharing space – 12 metres apart – and we form roughly the amount of space a sperm whale inhabits; 1000 metres deep, not so far from the beach, and sperm whales share a habitat with many other whales and dolphins. This knot also reaches back into time, when land and sea met with different boundaries and whales meet us here, as fossilised messages. These knots are loosened through the stories told, those discovered marine mammals become stories conjoined with our own.

We move on, this time stopping outside a large concrete building. I clap. One, two, slow, loud claps. The concrete surfaces reflect the sounds. This is how echolocation works, the same process we heard in our last ocean as sperm whales searched for food. CLAP ... [clap] CLAP … [clap].

Sarah Pink developed the term ‘sensory ethnography’ to define a “reflexive and experiential process through which academic and applied understanding, knowing and knowledge are produced” (Pink 2015, pp.4-5). Pink considers walking in both scholarly and arts practices as a potentially rich medium for sensory ethnographic representation. Emplaced and active participation occurs when we start to consider all our senses, and with others. In this case, we are engaging in an experiential performance-based sound walk, and through even simple actions such as clapping and listening, we are sharing the construction of knowledge and meaning in space and in time. We are sending and receiving signals drawing upon both material sites and invisible energies, and using these to better understand whales and the process of echolocation. In Pink’s terms, these are ways in which we can embed a “process of learning through participation and shared experience, thus offering participants an embodied way of knowing that [can go] beyond what we were told verbally” (Pink 2015, p.184). Pink suggests that a “sensory ethnographic place” is unique to each participant: “it is constituted through the practices of, and occupied by, the consumers of ethnography” (Pink 2015, p.185).


We continue through the rain and into a nearby building: the Information Services Building and the Link. Rather sodden now, we walk into the large open vestibule in the University’s Central library, where our third and final ocean begins to play. This context gives us a pause from the rain and helps us connect our technology and the flow of information that we swim in daily. Information, like whales, we know without seeing. More-than-human ontologies make room for machines and plants, for animals and oceans.

Figure 3

A Sounding Walker listening to Liz Slooten’s recording, at the third ocean, Otago University, November 21, 2018

Sounding Walks umbrellas use PICAXE technology, simple Microchip PIC devices, with pre-programmed embedded systems that can be coded directly from a computer, to communicate with our radio network and play MP3 files.9 The device in the umbrella handle responds to 433 megahertz (MHz) radio frequency, emitted from our portable ‘ocean’ transmitters, triggering the pre-programmed sound files. The technology is fairly simple and employs ubiquitous hardware (umbrellas) and common radio frequencies – 433 MHz is the same audio frequency used by garage door remotes. While earlier Sounding Walks prototypes employed free wi-fi networks, our current use of the term ‘wi-fi oceans’ is a misnomer. These oceans are not triggered by wireless internet networks, but radio transmission in a local area network. We continue to employ the term to draw connections between wireless networks that are bounded in space, invisible communication networks in which we are participants, actively connecting and communicating through these social communication spaces surrounding us. These, we suggest, are a form of social space that surrounds us, like oceans surrounding our marine mammals. Our wi-fi oceans can be considered, in Ian Bogost’s terms (2011), as a microhabitat (in terms of media ecology) with “the value of the specialized media being less important than the variety and its application” (Bogost 2011, in Shafer 2014, p.258). Rather than augmenting wilderness, we are wilding urban space through the knots created with technology, hardware, software, sounds and species.

The amount of shipping noise is doubling every decade, and if you are looking for drives, like what is causing that, well its globalisation… if you go into a shop these days, whether it’s a supermarket, or you may be buying some furniture or a mattress, you are more likely to encounter products from other parts of the world than from New Zealand, and those products are being shipped backwards and forwards across the oceans, and that is making a heap of noise for whales and dolphins to have to put up with. You have to really go out of your way, go to a farmers market, or search around and find a local product, to limit your contribution to this. (Slooten, Sounding Walks recording 2017)

Our engagement through Sounding Walks, and with each other, demonstrate “acoustic and sonorous entanglements” (Springgay and Truman 2018, p.48). With our entanglement comes responsibility. Beneath our ubiquitous umbrellas we are simultaneously protected and exposed, curious and implicated. Through walking, Rebecca Solnit suggests, the mind and body and world are aligned. However, on these seismic shores we cannot rest. As Springgay and Truman suggest, “as an ethico-political tending, walking demands that we respond beyond systems of management, containment, and concealment, to think-with the affective entanglements of which we are all part” (Springgay and Truman 2018, p.48). Reflecting Haraway’s earlier call for response-ability, our final conversations lead us to consider our own choices and consumption of imported food, clothing and goods. We are reminded in this network of associations that we are able to reassemble our ways in a new ‘composition’. The sound of the rain drumming on the roof is persistent and encompassing, like the oceans that surround us.

A Sounding Walk can occur almost anywhere. Transformation of space occurs through a combination of narrative, collectivity, and the loosening of space. Where there are markers of space, including the walkers ourselves, we can create the scale of a whale. Sites in the local urban landscape can evoke time, and we can continue to open time, geologic, human and cetaceous time through conversation. When we walk together, we enter into a practice of co-composition: with our environment, with each other, and by bringing whales ‘with’ us, an assemblage of tensions that takes shape and shape us. The work opens new opportunities in Haraway’s terms, for different sorts of power relationships to unfold, that require us to urgently listen, speak and act.


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