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Sensing the Sea: Seashells and Shellfish Research in the Baltic Sea

Ville Aslak Raasakka investigates the sonic and sensory world of the Baltic shellfish.

Ville Aslak Raasakka

Anu Riihimäki, Läntinen Suomenlahti, Hanko, Sinisimpukka, Metsähallitus, 2011

When I pick up a seashell on a shore, it evokes a series of tactile, aural and visual sensations in me. I want to place it on my ear to ”hear” the sea, I want to swipe its surface and all the carvings the shellfish has collected, to ”feel” the seabed. In the softly undulating visual lines of the seashell, I want to ”see” the movement of the water.

With regards to sensory information in general, sensations and data are of course two very different things. The sensations mentioned above are not sensory data, but free associations. What sort of artistic ”sensing” and environmental data would then connect in a meaningful way and contribute to one another?

When dealing with an entity like a seashell or a living shellfish, the artist’s self might not be the most purposeful point of itinerary. What could be asked instead is: What are the shellfish sensing of their environment? And if that is impossible to establish, in what ways are they reacting to their environment, possibly adapting or changing altogether? What is the environment they inhabit like, and how could we ”sense” the sea from the biological research done with shellfish populations?

From a philosophical standpoint, marine animal sensing and sensory data have been discussed. Yves Citton has drawn interesting comparisons between sepia “clouds” and data clouds, and between deep-sea octopuses and filters (2), diving into media philosopher Vilém Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (3), a well-known treatise investigating the vampire squid from a posthumanist phenomenological perspectiveAnother remarkable phenomenological investigation into animal perception and especially aural sensing is Thomas Nagel’s ”What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (4). What could an artistic project bring into this discussion, and particularly an aurally focused artistic work dealing with marine life?

Contamination and Filtering

The Finnish Environment Institute, The Finnish Forest Administration and the Ministry of the Environment launched in 2021 a project called Life-Ip Biodiversea dedicated to protecting the species and the biodiversity of the Baltic Sea. The project bulletin states the Blue mussel to be a key species that provides shelter and nutrition to numerous other Baltic Sea species and that the mussel is also a remediating species, filtering the water constantly (5).

The near brackish water of the Baltic Sea is challenging to a number of species to begin with, and the specific blue mussel species surviving this environment is a cross-breed of two ocean species (M. trossulus x edulis) (6). The Blue mussel population of the Baltic Sea has been monitored from 1926 onwards, and the monitoring is nowadays managed by the Zoological Station of the University of Helsinki in Tvärminne. The data published by the station shows a near-total collapse of the population during the 1930s and a return in the 1990s. (7)

Various kinds of contamination has accumulated on the Baltic shellfish during the monitored decades. The research on Baltic Sea shellfish contamination include bioaccumulation of TNT in Baltic mussels from disposed ammunition in World War II (8, 9), Cadmium concentrations in blue mussells (10), effects of Mercury on Baltic shellfish (11) and shell deformations in the Baltic clam due to contaminants (12). Helsinki University’s researcher Mats Westerbom who has studied the Blue mussel in the Baltic Sea from 1996 onwards, states that the biggest threat to the Blue mussel in the near future is the decrease of salinity in the Baltic Sea caused by increasing rains and the rising temperatures of the water (13).

Seashells and Sound

Seashells are associated with sound and hearing in a number of ways. In Buddhism seashells are associated with hearing and the voice of Buddha, and in Greek mythology to Triton’s trumpet. The common folkmyth ’seashell resonance’ (hearing the sound of a sea inside a seashell) lives on tenaciously, and the human hearing system has a seashell of its own, the Cochlea. The cochlea is called simpukka (clam) in Finnish language, while the origin of the word cochlea comes from the Greek word “Κοχλίας” (kōhlias) meaning snail. The resemblance is not only poetic but very physical.

14. ”Surgical anatomy : a treatise on human anatomy in its application to the practice of medicine and surgery”, John B. Deaver (John Blair), Blakinston’s, Philadelphia, 1901, 430

As a composer and sound artist, what could be my approach to seashells and sensing the sea? The overall answer is: I do want to hold on to the tactile, aural and visual sensations, despite my focus on sound. For ”hearing” the sea, I want to record underwater field recordings, process them musically, compose electronic music from these elements and incorporate composing for my artistic collaborator, the Italian-Swiss flutist Livia Schweizer. For ”feeling” the seashell, I want to record soft brushing of the surface of the seashell, and also use much larger seashells as actuator-speakers that the audience members can pick up close to their ears. For ”seeing”, I want to incorporate the physical seashells as well as seawater to the installation. 

In my approach, the sensations are in some way hierarchical: Hearing taking the lead, touch being the secondary sense, and seeing being the tertiary sense.

I am acquiring underwater field recordings in specific locations with dense Blue mussel populations. For these field recording trips I am seeking collaboration with the Tvärminne Zoological Station and Helsinki University researchers currently working on monitoring the populations.

In a studio setting I am making close distance recordings of seashell surfaces. The surfaces will be excited with minimal friction, resulting in extremely silent sounds which will be amplified in the resulting work. With this I am aiming to achieve a kind of ”aural topology” of the seashell surfaces. This is a kind of poetic translation from tactile to sonic matter. There are also more straightforward translations to sonic matter, which I will present later.

Contaminations and Filterings in Sound

The shellfish, the seashells and the sea are the sound sources of my work. But what about the processess they are subjected to and to which they react and adjust to? The changes that contribute to sensing?

What would contamination, filtering, warming, de-salination, eutrophication or hypoxia mean in sound or sound processing? Some of these processess bear a close resemblance to sound and are immediately translated to sound processing, and some require a more poetic translation to move from a tactile reality to an aural reality.

The blue mussels filter the Baltic sea, and Filtering is a sound process as such. There are two main approaches to sound filtering: It either refers to selecting and higlighting something interesting in a sound recording and cleaning the rest out, or to a general ”cleaning up” of a sound from unwanted background elements. 

A suitable opposite to filtering would be Eutrophication. In sound this could possibly mean for the silent, unwanted background elements to multiply and ”take over” to the point that the wanted elements become harder and harder to differentiate, the result becoming muddled. This kind of process in sound processing is usually referred to as Masking.

Contamination could be achieved in sound in two possible ways: Either by introducing incompatible and extremely irritable sound elements to a recording in microscopic doses, or, processing a sound recording almost imperceptibly, but in a highly incompatible and irritating way. The irritation would have to be such that the overall enjoyability and functionality of the sound is destroyed with minimal exposure.

What would Hypoxia mean for a sound? Certainly some sort of impoverishment of a sound, a reduction in the overall quality of a sound could be a suitable translation. A sort of ”suffocation of a sound”. A simple example of this would be to reduce the bit-depth of a sound, resulting in an overall degredation of the sound.

Warming could possibly be achieved in sound using feedback loops. This also overlaps conceptually with the feedback-loops of a warming climate system. A sound is fed back to itself, resulting in overall saturation, uncontrolled outbursts and distortion. 

De-salination in seawater could possibly translate to a sound that has somehow lost its ”pungency” or ”edge”. A simple application to such an appearance would be to compress (the life out of) a sound. This would result in an undistinguished, bland and overly soft version of a sound.

Environmental Data, Sensing and Sound

Jennifer Gabrys’ book Program Earth presents and discusses various cases of environmental sensing technologies. In the chapter ’Ocean Sensing’ Gabry raises the issue of microplastics, citizen-sensing initiatives like the Marine Debris Tracker, and how little is known on the long-term effects of microplastics to ”endocrine disruption, alterations in plankton feeding habits, decreasing biodiversity”. (15)

Finnish Environment Institute presented in 2021 their research on microplastic effects on mussels. Researcher Pinja Näkki atributed that a long-term exposure to ”car tire rubber caused intracellular stress responses in the mussels” and that damage was indeed observed in cell organelles and in the genome of the mussels (16).

Regarding environmental data monitored in the Baltic Sea, The Finnish Environment Institute is building data models on various human effects to the water body and biota. The monitorings and modelling have showed for example the detrimental effects of nutrients leaking from inland farming and the surprising amount of emissions as side-effects from the fishing industry (17).

I am currently looking into how such data could be sonified as part the current artistic project, and how a 3D visual model could translate in to a 3D sonic model (18). Environmental data sonifications have previously been implemented for example on weather (19) and nuclear tests (20).

What comes even closer to sound is the research on noise pollution in the Baltic Sea. According to the The Finnish Environment Institute, underwater noise causes ”disturbances in communication, changes in behaviour and even physical injury have been observed in fish and marine mammals. The soundscape is vital to fish because they use sound and hearing for communication, locating mates and avoiding predators. Marine mammals also use sound to locate food.” Existing underwater noise pollution field recordings are sonic data which I will be looking into during this project as well. In addition to the Finnish Environment Institute, underwater noise pollution has been actively monitored and researched at Helcom, which provided in 2016 soundscape maps of the Baltic Sea in a project called BIAS (21, 22). 

In the working process of the artistic work, I am aiming towards a reflectivity between the data and the musical outcome. As the work progressess, the environmental data and the musical thinking need to be in a discursive relation to one another. It means that when necessary, a further focus might be induced by one to the other, and steps can be also taken backwards in the project if needed. What is even more important for me is that the two domains maintain a dialogue also in the finished work. The environmental and artistic ”data” flow into and from one another freely.

How to achieve a sensing, self-reflective and breathing artistic work? I feel that in a project like this, the proper requisite is a sound art work, which immerses itself with its subject completely, but also has the ability to listen to itself. It has the ability to observe and react to itself and its surroundings, and has the ability to reach towards its audience as well: Offering hypotheses and speculations for environmental and artistic remediation and healing, both as an experiential and as an informative exchange.


1. Anu Riihimäki, ”Läntinen Suomenlahti, Hanko, Sinisimpukka”, Metsähallitus, 2011

2. Yves Citton, ”Navigation or filtration: Vilém Flusser and the vampiric alternative of the digital imaginary”, Journal of arts and Human Mediations, no. 3 (2016): 11-26

3. Vilém Flusser and Louis Bec. Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. Translated by Valentine A. Pakis. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

4. Thomas Nagel, ”What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (1974), 435-450

5. ”Itämeren lajien ja luontotyyppien suojeluun historiallisen suuri satsaus Suomessa”, Finnish Environment Institute, Last Modified December 2, 2021, https://www.syke.fi/fi-FI/Ajankohtaista/Itameren_lajien_ja_luontotyyppien_suojel(62041)

6. ”Sinisimpukat ovat yksi Itämeren merkittävimmistä ja yleisimmistä pohjaeläimistä”, Finnish Environment Institute, Last Modified November 14, 2022 https://www.ostersjon.fi/fi-FI/Luonto_ja_sen_muutos/Elinymparistot/Kovat_pohjat/Sinisimpukkapohjat

7. ”Simpukat ja äyriäiset kertovat tutkijoille Itämeren tilasta — satavuotinen seuranta auttaa myös ennakoimaan tulevaa”, Last Modified August 17, 2022, University of Helsinki, https://www.helsinki.fi/fi/uutiset/luontokato/simpukat-ja-ayriaiset-kertovat-tutkijoille-itameren-tilasta-satavuotinen-seuranta-auttaa-myos-ennakoimaan-tulevaa

8. Höher, N., Turja, R., Östin, A., Ratfeld-Nyholm, J., Brenner, M., Bickmeyer, U. and Berglind, R., ”The toxicity of chemical warfare mixtures on the Baltic mussel Mytilus trossulus”, SETAC 24th Annual Meeting, Basel, Switzerland, 11 May 2014 – 15 May 2014 

9. Romina Schuster, Jennifer S. Strehse, Aino Ahvo, Raisa Turja, Edmund Maser, Ulf Bickmeyer, Kari K. Lehtonen, Matthias Brenner, ”Exposure to dissolved TNT causes multilevel biological effects in Baltic mussels(Mytilus spp.)”, Marine Environmental Research, no. 167, 2021

10. Linda Johansson, Salinity effects on cadmium concentrations in blue mussels in the Baltic Sea, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 2014

11. Rune Dietz, Jérôme Fort, Christian Sonne, Céline Albert, Jan Ove Bustnes, et al., ”A risk assessment of the effects of mercury on Baltic Sea, Greater North Sea and North Atlantic wildlife, fish and bivalves”, Environment International, Elsevier, no. 146, 2021, pp.106178

12. Katarzyna Smolarz, Katarzyna Bradtke, ”Bioindicative potential of shell abnormalities occurring in the clam Macoma balthica (L.) from the Baltic Sea”, Marine POllution Bulletin, no. 62, 2011

13. ”25 vuoden seuranta Itämeressä hälyttää: lämmin ja makea vesi uhkaa sinisimpukoita”, Last Modified April 7, 2021, https://verdelehti.fi/2021/04/07/25-vuoden-seuranta-itameressa-halyttaa-lammin-ja-makea-vesi-uhkaa-sinisimpukoita/

14. John B. Deaver (John Blair), ”Surgical anatomy : a treatise on human anatomy in its application to the practice of medicine and surgery”, Blakinston’s, Philadelphia, 1901, 430

15. Jennifer Gabry, Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational PlanetUniversity of Minnesota Press, 2016

16. ”Simpukat kärsivät stressistä ja soluvaurioista – Tutkimus paljasti autonrenkaista irtoavan kumijauheen haitat merieliöille”, Last Modified September 9, 2021, https://www.mtvuutiset.fi/artikkeli/simpukat-karsivat-stressista-ja-soluvaurioista-tutkimus-paljasti-autonrenkaista-irtoavan-kumijauheen-haitat-merielioille/8229778

17. ”Meriekologia ja mallinnus”, Last Modified March 18, 2022, Finnish Environment Institute,https://www.syke.fi/fi-FI/Tutkimus__kehittaminen/Meri/Meriekologia_ja_mallinnus

18. Laura Tuomi, Elina Miettunen, Pekka Alenius, Kai Myrberg, ”Evaluating hydrography, circulation and transport in a coastal archipelago using a high-resolution 3D hydrodynamic model”, Journal of Marine Systems, no. 180, 2018, 24-36

19. Ng Yi Kee, Lim Kok Yoong, Sonification of weather data as a non-human-centric artistic approach, F1000Research, 2022, 11:96, https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.73543.1

20. Mark Peter Wright, Post-Natural Sound Arts, Journal of Sound Studies, no. 13, https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/292319/292320/0/0

21. ”Underwater noise in the Baltic Sea a risk for fish and marine mammals”, Last Modified January 25, 2017, Finnish Environment Institute, https://www.syke.fi/en-US/Current/Press_releases/Underwater_noise_in_the_Baltic_Sea_a_ris(41852)

22. ”Underwater Noise”, HELCOM, https://helcom.fi/action-areas/marine-litter-and-noise/underwater-noise/

Ecological Thinking

This is the course blog for K-JI-11-23A – Ecological Thinking. In 2023-24, we explore “Vertical Ecologies” by visual arts, film and performance. The course is co-organized by Giovanna Esposito Yussif and Samir Bhowmik. Previously, in 2022-23, we organized a year-long collaborative research studio with Aarhus University, DK, Research Pavilion 2023 and Helsinki Biennial 2023 on the themes of environmental data, sensing and contamination.

Header image credit: Abelardo Gil-Fournier and Jussi Parikka / Seed, Image, Ground (2020)- With permission from the authors.

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