Sound Substituting for Substance: An Interview with Artist Sarah Edwards

When all the Growling Grass Frogs are locally extinct, all that remains are memories and field recordings. In this interview, Melbourne artist Sarah Edwards offers a delicate reflection on Remember Me: What Remains, a work of frogs and field recordings, of the future and the memories.sarah+frogRemember Me: What Remains is a re-presentation of archival field recordings of the locally extinct Growling Grass Frog. What drew your attention to this animal?

My initial interest in the frog calls was piqued during my professional role at Museum Victoria. A unique collection of frog field recordings was brought to my attention, which included some species that had become extinct since they were recorded in the wild. As an artist, I engaged the collection with the intention of providing audible evidence of the impact we have made on this highly susceptible amphibian. The Growing Grass Frog (Litoria raniformis) is listed as a Threatened Australian species, and is locally extinct due to loss of habitat resulting from building, housing and freeway development.

Remember Me: What Remains was an opportunity to provide an avenue through which to consider new ways of engaging with and raising public awareness about the plight of these vulnerable amphibians. This was enabled by participation in the Liquid Architecture sound festival, Sonic City.

When were the field recordings of their calls recorded?

Since 1954, Dr Murray Littlejohn, Honorary Associate Professor, Department of Zoology, The University of Melbourne has conducted field recordings of Southern Australian frog calls for scientific bio-acoustic research.

Dr Littlejohn generously donated his sound recordings and equipment to Museum Victoria. Most of his 300 hours of field recordings have been digitised from their original reel-to-reel tape format, enabling access to the sound recordings beyond the museum’s storage facility.

How would you describe the sound made by the Growling Grass Frog?

The sound of the Growling Grass Frog is best described by the first director of Museum Victoria, Frederick McCoy in 1854. He referred to it as a Bell Frog due to its vocalisation, and observed that it occurred “in abundance over the whole colony” of Melbourne. McCoy likened its sound to that of a stonemason chipping away at bluestone, a signature building material used in the construction of 1800s Melbourne.

IMG_3239What factors have made the once prevalent Growling Grass Frog now locally extinct?

Referred to as “environmental indicators”, frogs live both in water and on land, and breathe through their skin. Therefore, any changes in their surroundings directly impact on their livelihood.

More broadly, in 2007, Professor McCallum of The University of Queensland, claimed that 32% of frog species were globally threatened, at least 43% were experiencing some form of population decrease, and between 9 and 122 species had become extinct since 1980. McCallum reported that this represents the highest extinction rates for any vertebrate group. Although many of the causes of amphibian declines are still poorly understood, and the topic is a subject of ongoing research, it is acknowledged that human activity has significantly impacted on this decline due to destruction of habitat, air and water born pollutants, introduced species and increased ultraviolet-B radiation caused by ozone deterioration.

towerYou chose to re-present the frog calls in the tower at the System Garden at the University of Melbourne and also in the Carlton Gardens. What is significant about these sites?

Both of these sites have links to two former sites of Museum Victoria. In the System Garden at the University of Melbourne, the call of Litoria raniformis is re-presented as an acoustic overlay within the Garden’s original heritage-listed tower.

Frederick McCoy, Museum Victoria’s first Director, was also The University of Melbourne’s first Professor of Natural History. He designed the System Garden in 1856 to teach evolutionary botany. The Garden has served continuously in its original role as a scientific research facility to the present today.

The other broadcast site was the Missing Persons bench in the Carlton Gardens. I chose this location because it was just across from the Royal Exhibition Buildings (REB) that was constructed to house the first International Exhibition in 1880. On a note of interest, the heritage-listed REB is also Museum Victoria’s largest collection object.

What do you feel about your own relationship to the missing frogs in the urban area? Were these feelings further influenced by your experience of sitting on the Missing Persons Bench at at dusk listening to the re-presentation of their call? 

Broadcasting the call of the Growling Grass Frog (Litoria raniformis) from the Missing Persons seat in a verdant man-made garden was both meditative and curious. Passing traffic stopped to listen and read the information provided on a sandwich board. No-one talked. As I looked onto a lake where it could well take up residence, I pondered on how re-presenting the call of this humble amphibian could send a profound and long ranging message. I thought about the impact this loss has had on the biodiversity in this corner of our planet. And I wondered who was listening in this small quiet place. I listened. I looked. I waited. Litoria raniformis. No evidence.

I requested an image of the Growling Grass Frog from Edwards’ to include in this post, but instead of an image the artist supplied me with a poingant insight.

The Growling Grass Frog is a beautiful looking animal (a favourite of mine) but I don’t want to include a picture of it–its absence is more pronounced without an image.

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