The Altering Shores

Roderick Coover with Bethany Wiggin

Roderick Coover and Bethany Wiggin join in a conversation about The Altering Shores ( The Altering Shores is an immersive work filmed in tidal areas of the Delaware River watershed and Thames River watershed that addresses questions of land-use, industrial contamination and sea-level rise through richly layered images, sound and generated language. Created by artist/filmmaker Roderick Coover, computational poet Nick Montfort and composer Adam Vidiksis, work is designed in VR for locative experiences, installations and performances and included both the installation of VR head-mounted display experiences at several outside locations around Penn’s campus and a large scale performance with projection and live orchestration at the Annenberg Center For The Arts. The talk includes a brief introduction to the project and responses to the installations and performances.

14 replies on “The Altering Shores”

Thanks for this! First, a comment: I see a bit of commonality between your project and its contaminated shorelines and our “Wilderness Suite” project. Both are collaborative, multimodal projects that try to get at something impossible to grasp. I’d say that even though wilderness is traditionally associated with solace, solitude, or replenishment (bracketing settler colonial issues for the moment), Ruby and the Icarus Quartet’s musical composition—especially the inclusion of human voices from her team’s interview data as part of the piece—creates an anxious, unstable mood that conveys a sense of uncertainty about change. I hope you’ll give “Wilderness Suite” a listen and tell us what you think; it’s on the “gallery” page.

Now, a question (or several, some of which echo Bethany’s smart questions!): Are multiple modes of storytelling, or is multimodal art, uniquely suited or even necessary to addressing the “wicked” problem of climate change? How does poetry, or this fragmented, “halting” line of words your team has created, compare to more fully articulated narratives in terms of generating an emotional response in viewers? Is there an advantage to combining art, music, and words in this multimodal way, in terms of making people feel something?

Looking forward to connecting virtually with you all!

Jennifer – Thanks for these great thoughts; yes addressing the crises of language is very different from the conversations we were having about Ed Abbey, the west and so on, way back when, this work addressing perhaps more a crisis of language. Let’s be in touch!

Thanks so much for sharing this amazing collaborative work. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to share its origin story? What were the sparks or dialogues that gave it life?

Jennifer – Thanks for these great thoughts; yes addressing the crises of language is very different from the conversations we were having about Ed Abbey, the west and so on, way back when, this work addressing perhaps more a crisis of language. Let’s be in touch!

Thanks so much for your questions – the origins of the material come through several other works on the Delaware (including Estuary, Toxi•City: A Climate Change Narrative) which involved both scholarly research and observational research and filming on kayak and through long, repeated walks. But also as per origins, past works on disruptions to the narrative forms of addressing climate, extinction and migration (Penelope, Catastrophe Trilogy) and several collaborations with Nick Montfort on technology and language (Currency, Fathoms, Three Rails Live). Those were some of the internal dialogs.

What were the logistics to get this project got off the ground? Particularly, I’m curious about funding sources and the amount of technical expertise that it ultimately required? This seems like the kind of digital project that many of us may want to pursue at our institutions, but the technical aspects of VR also seem a bit daunting!

Hayley, thanks for your comments. If technical aspects of VR also seem a bit daunting I suggest collaboration with filmmakers/artists in your institution; collaboration has so many benefits. The final stages were completed with a lovey residency through PPEH at Penn. VR itself is not expensive at all, that is cameras and software are inexpensive and available on many campuses, and in this case the evolution was slow developing aspects of the research and approach over the past 8 years.

I watched the film version in the Gallery and then this talk. One of the things in the film that struck me was the use of “some” — aside some flow, aside some gush, aside some ebb. So I wondered about the “some” here. It could mean an indeterminate thing (“some shoreline”, “some river” but we don’t know which) or it could be interpreted as people (“some people”) who ebb, gush, flow. Or even “some ideas” which ebb, gush, flow. As I was contemplating this, in the talk I was struck by the lack of the specificity of the “we” — it was “we” who are implicated and “we” who need to build consensus. To me the “some” and the “we” need to be teased out more. Who are the “some” and the “we”?

What was particularly impressive about this piece was how it actually felt immersive even on a digital platform. Really well done!

This is an amazing project–truly mind-blowing. I particularly appreciate the way that the live performance, in particular, simulated the disorienting nature of catastrophe, the lack of control (which is what people tend to find terrifying), and the immersive toxicity of climate change–making all of that visceral for people. I’m curious about the live participation of the orchestra. Was each musician responding to preestablished cues with the visuals, or did they free-style their responses to the visuals. Truly fascinating. Thanks for this amazing work.

Marsha, thanks so much for your insights. Yes, in the large scale live performance, there was actually quite a lot of choreography that related to visual cues; progressions were structured into the system. The musicians also had to respond to the presence of people on stage with them, which also tugged them this way and that, as if all caught up in moving waters. We should have a 28 minute concert video to promote new expressions of the live work coming forward soon. In the meantime, I’ll be posting updates on line.

First, I’d echo Dominic in conveying how immersive the indirect experience of viewing the documentation of this project and piece on a two-dimensional screen is. I also was struck by your suggestion at the end of the conversation with Bethany that this type of durational, participatory aesthetic experience and performance can foster consensus about climate crises. Have you observed that effect from this or other project? How do you see the political and cultural work of this project in relationship to, or as distinct from, that of activism and social movement organizing?

Allison, thanks so much for these comment and also I really enjoyed your presentation. Yes, I have been very interested in the power of larger format immersive experiences and group decision making and then also how technologies figure in the ways thoughts and action take shape. It’s maybe a bit long to get into in this brief comment area but I’d enjoy following up on at some point. In terms of your follow on question, perhaps the provocative shock of the kinds of works I was discussing is quite different from the daily sustained actions needed for social movement organizing, but then the function might be more in the areas of catalyst. I look forward to talking more at some point. Thanks again for your comments and thoughts.