Discovering a Bold New World at Sea


Observe, enquire, imagine: Composer and writer Ailís Ní Ríain discovers a bold new world at sea for Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture Aerial/Sparks project.

Ailís Ní Ríain, a contemporary classical composer and writer, spent three weeks at sea this August on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer, an experience she describes as ‘unique on every level: physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally.’ The residency forms part of Aerial/Sparks, an interdisciplinary art project created by artist Louise Manifold for the Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture programme, in collaboration with the Marine Institute.

Ailís is one of a number of participating artists who have been invited to spend time at sea on board the marine research vessel as part of Aerial/Sparks, an interdisciplinary art project exploring radio connectivity and its relationship to ocean space.

The ‘boldness of the idea’ resonated with Ailís when she accepted the invitation to take part in Aerial/Sparks, one of seven European artists joining marine research expeditions over a three-year period, “I loved the fact that I couldn’t really renegotiate with it in any way. You need to go to sea and you need to be completely in that situation. You’re signing up for something that you can’t know in advance and that doesn’t often come up for me.”

The SeaRover 3 ROV Survey is the final expedition on a three-year programme investigating the extent and distribution of coral reef habitats in offshore Ireland. Led by the Marine Institute and INFOMAR, the national seabed mapping programme, the SeaRover project was designed to protect and monitor marine biodiversity and to promote good fishing practice, with close to 350km of seabed surveyed along Ireland’s continental margin since 2017 in order to contribute to our assessment of vulnerable reef habitats in Ireland’s marine territory.

Having never been to sea before in any capacity, Ailís needed to figure out quickly the practicalities of ship-life and the roles of everybody on board. As she acknowledges, “‘People who work in that environment all the time won’t know what you don’t know.” Ailís’s nature is to ask a lot of questions and she saw her own role as one of observation and enquiry. She felt the three weeks on board were crucial in gaining an understanding of people’s responsibilities and backgrounds, “For me, it was about every single person on that ship and what they did. So I made it my business to have more than one conversation with every crew member. And if that meant getting up at night time to work their shifts with them and have the conversations at 3am I would do that.”

Previous experience of creating music installations for historic and unusual places (a decommissioned lighthouse, a K6 red British telephone box, a Grade I listed castle keep amongst others) developed Ailís’s interest in research-intensive projects with a broad range of outcomes: ‘I think that background has stood to me on this because I know how to ask questions and to listen and to distil all of that over time into something that might actually communicate to an audience about the experience in terms that are rich artistically and culturally.’


‘I’m interested in what happens when you don’t give an audience what they’re expecting in terms of connecting music with visuals. It’s something I’ve done throughout my practice.’

Learning about the work of both the crew and the scientists has led Ailís to carefully consider what she will draw from her experiences in creating a new work, “I see how important it is that this research is done. One of the scientists mentioned that a parasite on one of the corals is being used in tests for cancer treatments. So we’re not just looking at colourful things on the sea bed. The point is we don’t know what is there, we don’t know what benefit it can be to us. I want to be respectful in my approach having seen what it takes to do this work.”

Ailís kept a daily diary, filmed extensively and took over 1900 photographs, resources that she will draw from in formulating ideas that will create compelling and immersive stand-alone artwork for the Aerial/Sparks project.

She points out that her interest lies in storytelling rather than presenting abstract sound. The deepwater ROV used to search the seabed and collect biological and sediment samples proved a particular source of fascination: ‘Greek mythology wasn’t far from my mind, the idea that something that we remotely operate is sent down to the “underworld” and the experience he has down there.’ Ailís is keen to work with visuals as well as music in developing the piece: ‘I’m interested in what happens when you don’t give an audience what they’re expecting in terms of connecting music with visuals. It’s something I’ve done throughout my practice.’

Aerial/Sparks will be presented on the island of Inis Oírr in September 2020. For Ailís, creating work as part of the European Capital of Culture programme is an important consideration in itself: “What is it we want to say as part of Galway 2020, having brought all these artists out on surveys? What is it we actually want to say to the public about that? There’s a lot that I’ve witnessed on the survey about what it means to work at sea that I didn’t know about, that those who live and work on the land wouldn’t generally know about. I hope I can bring some of this experience to a broader audience.”

The SeaRover (Sensitive Ecosystem Assessment and ROV Exploration of Reef) project was commissioned and jointly funded by the Irish Government and the EU’s European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). The cross government initiative was supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht, and Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment as part of the Marine Institute’s implementation of the EMFF Marine Biodiversity scheme. Survey operations were led by the Marine Institute, INFOMAR and National Parks and Wildlife Service and supported by scientists from Geological Survey Ireland, NUI Galway, University of Plymouth, Norwegian Marine Institute and Aquafact.

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