Oliver Skelton

"Sonic Cartography: River Lea"

Section MS16, Sonia Levy

Keywords: sound music, water

Digital 9 minute stereo audio track, with digitally printed work on paper.

Since the Enlightenment, Western thought has established an ideological division between society and nature. This conceptual split becomes evident in the way we create maps and manage rivers.

The River Lea flows from the Chilterns in Bedfordshire to the East end of London, where it meets the Thames. At one time, it was the most polluted river in Europe. The Lea Valley was a significant contributor to the Industrial Revolution, and the river used to power mills and transport goods. Over the past 250 years, the river has undergone significant changes to accommodate these industrialisations, such as diversion, channelisation, and pollution. Recently, the construction of the Olympic site has been the most notable work carried out on the river.

Image-based orthographic projection, the prevailing method in contemporary map-making characterised by distinctive graphic elements such as lines and colour fills, tends to generate a detached, frozen depiction of the world captured at a singular moment. While adept at illustrating relative distances, this approach falls short of comprehensively conveying the dynamic nature of the environment. By prioritising spatial relations as fixed, it neglects other critical dimensions of understanding.

This cartographic style significantly influences our perceptions and treatment of rivers, which inherently undergo changes: meanders, rise, and floods over time. The rigid delineation of river edges on a map fosters a perception of the river as an unchanging entity that can be modified to suit industrial needs. This perspective often overlooks the far-reaching ecological consequences, as the emphasis on static representations can lead to decisions that undermine the intricate dynamism of ecosystems.

In contrast to visual mapping, this project utilises sound and hydrophone field recording as an embodied method of mapping the river. Unlike image-based orthographic projections, such as those derived from satellite imagery, which captures a snapshot from above, field recording media distinguishes itself by its sensory ability to embrace temporality, context, and situatedness.