What is this research about?
The Halifax Harbour plays a significant role in the lives of the local community, as a source of sustenance and economic livelihood as well as historical and cultural identity. It is also an unpredictable, even treacherous, natural force that has shipwrecked vessels and ended the lives of many individuals. This research-creation project provides audiences with a realistic experience of immersion in the ocean at sites where working sea vessels were once cut down as they were engaged in military and commercial activity. This experience is designed to deepen reflection about people’s storied relationship with the sea and to raise our collective awareness of how human bodies and bodies of water interact in important and complex ways.
What did the researchers do?
Chris Myhr, a multimedia artist and researcher, created a series of films and photographic projects focused on water. Myhr captured deep water images and sounds using high-definition video and surround-sound technology above several shipwreck sites along a 40km stretch of the North Atlantic. The 10-minute experimental film Approaches to Erg includes underwater recordings that move from the SS Daniel Steinmann, sunk off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1884, to the ruins of the Erg tugboat, a vessel built and owned by Halifax Steamship Ltd. in 1915 which now lies with its ill-fated crew in the waters of Halifax Harbour. To date, nine bodies of Erg crew members have never been recovered. Myhr located the recording sites with the help of community members, especially the local diving community and citizen historians/writers engaged in studying and sharing the history of nautical disaster in the region.
What did the researchers find?
Approaches to Erg has been presented as a public exhibition that enables audience participants to experience what it might be like to sink into the obscure depths of the North Atlantic ocean. The image moves from the water’s surface, illuminated by the sun, to the darkened sea floor. A “sound map” of this movement is created by arranging the speakers in the gallery space to correspond with the audio recording’s original geographical locations, the several “approaches” taken by Myhr. Sound and image together create a visceral experience composed of both abrupt and smooth transitions, increased and slowed motion, heightened and dampened sound. Linked to the knowledge of the tragic loss associated with the vessels’ demise, participants are able to feel how the physical dynamics of water movement mirror the human experience of “cyclical patterns of crisis and recovery, stability and instability, ebb and flow.”
Myhr’s film, which is available for the general public to access online, is part of a larger set of work that invites us to consider the “tension between water as life, vitality and industry; as well as a source of immense, unpredictable, and unimaginable destructive power.” In doing so, it raises awareness of the importance of water for human survival – particularly those working on the water – but also the importance of water for our humanity, that is, for helping to inspire meaningful ideas of how we are human beings.
How can you use this research?
Community members in Halifax as well as other coastal cities who have experienced life and loss next to a dynamic force of nature like the Atlantic Ocean are able to celebrate, mourn over, and learn from the countless stories that reveal a delicate balance between human life and the sea in the present and the past, above and below the water. Approaches to Erg allows audience members to place themselves within history – to think about how the human experiences that became stories as they travelled through the water continue to affect us today by listening closely and interpreting the resonances that come through the film’s sound and images.