How do we feel when the ecosystems we know and love start to vanish? What happens when our memories no longer match our physical surroundings? And what about the ecosystems we don’t see? These are the kind of questions inspiring the work of Megan Harton, the latest Ocean Networks Canada Artist-in-Residence.

A passionate composer, audio engineer and sound artist currently pursuing a Master’s in Music Technology at UVic’s School of Music, Harton is the fifth artist-in-residence in this continuing partnership between ONC and the Faculty of Fine Arts. Their proposed project, solastalgia [soon to be what once was] is envisioned as an immersive intermedia art installation employing nostalgic retro iconography to create a multisensory experience delving into the emotional and psychological effects of environmental change.

“My artistic practice is primarily about using sound technologies in artistic ways,” Harton explains. “I found that Ocean Networks Canada had all these hydrophones in the Pacific Ocean and there are new recordings every hour on the hour, both visual and audio. My main impetus was to see if there was a way to juxtapose the same recordings over a period of time, and the idea just grew from there to incorporate ideas of ecological loss and grief.”

A graduate student partnership between Fine Arts and ONC, previous artists-in-residence include Neil Griffin (Writing, 2023), Colin Malloy (School of Music, 2022), Dennis Gupa (Theatre, 2020) and Colton Hash (Visual Arts, 2018).

Exploring solastalgia

Proposed for Fall 2024, solastalgia [soon to be what once was] will explore themes of grief and nostalgia, emphasizing the delicate state—and impending loss—of our ecosystems. As well as creating a crafted sonic composition based on natural sounds, oral histories and contemporary environmental data, Harton is also interested in incorporating visual elements by presenting the materials with iconic vintage and somewhat antiquated apparatuses like a Viewmaster, film photography, a Speak & Spell and VHS tapes to create an engaging narrative highlighting the tension between past and present.

“The installation will foster a deeper connection between individuals and their evolving surroundings, while also raising awareness of environmental issues and bridging the gap between art, science and the community,” Harton explains.

Inspired by the book Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief—a call to eulogize ecological loss in creative worksand drawing on environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s concept of “solastalgia” (“the distress caused by environmental change”), Harton intends their installation will evoke a sense of connection, reflection and empathy in the audience by blending elements of nostalgia with the stark reality of environmental change.

“That idea really interests me,” they explain. “Yes, it’s a little bit existential and sad, but it hits home in a different way than just statistics or charts and graphs.”

Connecting with the coast

Growing up in Oakville, Ontario (midway between Toronto and Hamilton), Harton has limited experience with the West Coast, or oceans in general. “My grandmother lives in Tsawwassen, but I’d only been out here a couple of times before coming to UVic, and my only other ocean experience was going to the Atlantic Ocean on the East Coast. The largest body of water for me for a long time was Lake Ontario.”

Given their Ontario roots, Harton’s own experience with solstagia is rooted in Toronto’s 21st-century urban sprawl. “When I was a kid, sections of my town were mostly farmland, with fruit stands and horse stables, but are now townhouse subdivisions with schools due to a huge development and urbanization plan,” they recall. “Now this commuter suburb has more than twice the population of Victoria.”

Well-aware of their lack of personal connection with the Pacific Ocean, Harton sees themself as more a third-party information collector who can then respond  artistically. “I’m hoping to connect with  ONC’s scientists and community partners to incorporate Indigenous oral histories of the waters around here and contemporary scientific knowledge. This is some of the data and memories that I would like to draw from.”

Community connections

Indeed, collaboration is a key component to this project. While Harton’s primary graduate research is focused on gender bias in music production, they are eager to work with ONC’s team to ensure the installation is informed by current environmental knowledge.

A project as fascinating as the sounds it will harness, Harton’s immersive intermedia project aspires to be a transformative exploration, marrying art and science to provoke reflection, connection and empathy. solastalgia [soon to be what once was] promises to be a poignant testament to the intricate relationship between humanity and the changing environment, urging us to consider our role in preserving the delicate balance of the ecosystems we inhabit.