Ecological Observatories: Fluctuating Sites and Sensing Subjects

I presented recent work on citizen sensing and environmental computing as part of the “Sense of Planet: The Arts and Ecology at Earth Magnitude” symposium, an event organized by Jill Bennett and Douglas Kahn at the National Institute for Experimental Arts (NIEA), University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia (25 August 2012). The presentation drew on fieldwork conducted at the Kilpisjärvi biological station as part of the “Politics and Affect of Environmental Computing” working group that I participated in at the Field_Notes / Cultivating Ground arts and sciences environmental data workshop, hosted by the Finnish Bioart Society and held at the Kilpisjärvi biological station, Finland (26 September – 2 October 2011).

I have developed this presentation into a written text, “Ecological Observatories, Fluctuating Sites and Sensing Subjects,” for the collection, Field_Notes: From Landscape to Laboratory, which discusses environmental computing and sensing in relation to fieldwork conducted while at Kilpisjärvi biological station.

The text also draws on analyses made in my paper, “Sensing an Experimental Forest,” published in Computational Culture.

A draft version of this text follows below. Please refer to Field_Notes: From Landscape to Laboratory for the final version.


“Ecological Observatories: Fluctuating Sites and Sensing Subjects”
chapter in Field_Notes: Field and Laboratory as Sites for Art Science Practices (2013)

Introduction: multiplying sites

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us.”

John Muir 1

“We are in the world and the world is in us.”

Alfred North Whitehead 2

In late September 2011, I traveled as far North as I had previously ever previously been to spend a week in the Finnish Bioarts-sponsored arts and sciences field laboratory at a biological field station in Finnish Lapland. The coordinates, 69°03’N, 20°50’E, might locate this site on established maps. But during the time I spent here I found this northern location began to multiply and fluctuate as a concatenation of numerous and ongoing sites, processes and subjects.While the participants on the residency program were here as a group of international artists and scientists focusing on developing experimental modes of fieldwork, we were also located in varying proximity to exurbanites and lifelong natives, tourists and seasonal workers, fishers and farmers, Sámi, Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes. Also in this region were reindeer and dueling lemmings, crowberry juice outlets and imagined cloudberry sightings, forests dense with mushrooms, moss-covered granite boulders, drifts of mountain birch and Arctic scrub, grazed-over lichens, fjords with rivers emptying deliveries of trout, as well as northern lights, chainsaw art, gift shops piled high with sauna kit, and mythic mountain giants once engaged in a wedding brawl.

Fennoscandia, as this area is also known geologically and geographically, might then be referred to as multiple sites—sedimented, in process, or yet to come. I would like to focus on one set of particular ways that sites—and the senses of sites—emerge here through the context of sensing technologies, since the central “site” in which we spent our time was in and around a biological field station for monitoring ecological processes in the Arctic environment. Our working group, Environmental Computing, also focused on ways in which environmental sensing unfolds, and how this influences engagements with sites.

Kilpisjärvi Biological Station is a site of long-standing environmental monitoring, and it has become a site where a considerable amount of computational environmental sensing also now takes place. Environments might be seen to be under increasing surveillance. Within this apparent tracking and tracing of sites, however, more than a simple approach to sites as the zone of surveillance emerges. 3 The monitoring that takes place then consists not just of closed-circuit television installed to track and trace everyday human activity, but also of sensor technologies deployed to monitor ecological processes through distributed and micro-sensory modalities. 4 Environmental sensors, particularly wireless and computationally networked sensors, have become an increasingly common device within ecological study. While scientists are increasingly deploying sensors in order to take ongoing rather than discrete measurements of ecological processes, creative practitioners are also developing new practices in relation to computational sensors in order to gather and repurpose distinct sense data about environmental phenomena

In this chapter, I will walk through fieldwork and observations gathered from my time spent at the Kilpisjärvi biological field station, and connect this up to environmental sensing projects across science and creative practice that seek to monitor environments with computational technologies. Based on this material, I will consider how sensor technologies give rise to new modes of environmental sensing through distributed and multiple configurations of sense. I will ask how these new arrangements of environmental monitoring and distributed sensing shift the spaces and practices of environmental participation, both within environmental citizenship actions and through creative practice projects that take up “citizen sensing” as a tactic for engaging with sites of environmental concern. How do these modes of monitoring within the context of ongoing environmental change influence practices of sensing, articulations of citizenship, and senses of sites?

Monitoring environmental change at Kilpisjärvi
Kilpisjärvi is at once a specific site for field study, as well as an environment connected to ongoing changes in the Arctic and beyond. From greater concentrations of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to increasing temperatures and shifts in land use, the Arctic is a region undergoing considerable changes. Kilpisjärvi Biological Station is a participating field station within the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), the international governmental body working under the Arctic Council that gathers and reports scientific findings to influence policy and environmental practice.

Numerous monitoring initiatives connect up in the Arctic. AMAP links to these initiatives, and is an entity that is also developing a network, the Sustaining Arctic Observing Network (SAON), to improve Arctic observation in relation to environmental change. 5 AMAP reports on radioactivity have indicated that “artificial radionuclides” travel from as far afield as Sellafield in the UK and La Hague in France to drift toward the Arctic and accumulate in food chains over several decades. 6 Energy politics, cold war experiments, and industrial accidents in other locations may travel in one way or another to settle in the Arctic, so that sites in and around Kilpisjärvi receive, process and are transformed through events in other localities.

And as is by now well known, the warming of the planet is taking place in much greater intensity in the Arctic regions due to the circulation of atmospheric and ocean currents toward the northern regions. Climate change monitoring is then a key activity in the Arctic that demonstrates how this region fluctuates and is subject to the migrations of other site events as they travel toward and accumulate in the North. These environmental changes are detectable across organisms, ecosystems, as well as cultural practices.

The extensive monitoring infrastructure and observation networks now in place and ongoing as way to assess sometimes rapid changes in Arctic environment due to climate change, long-range transport of pollutants, and more. The collection of ‘sense data’ through computational sensor technologies can establish how sites are changing, and how planetary events register at different locations and through different organisms and ecologies throughout the Arctic. While these monitoring initiatives are largely based in biological stations, there are some initiatives developing to include artists as well as Indigenous Peoples in different types of monitoring projects.

Our working group on Environmental Computing was interested in this particular use of sensors across arts and sciences and how these practices generated distinct if not new ways of understanding environments. At the same time, it was clear this was a cross-cutting area of interest, since numerous participants within other working groups of the residency also had their own mobile sensors for undertaking field investigations, including geophones and hydrophones, YSI water sensors, light sensors, and more. The station where we were based also prominently held an array of meteorological sensors on its rooftop. A webcam regularly produced images of the site, and these were also streamed online. In addition to the many mobile devices used in the field, environmental sensors in use at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station were connected up to the Pachube (now Cosm) platform, where relatively continuous data streams provide indications of site processes. 7

As part of our experimental field laboratory, questions arose as to what the particular objectives of environmental monitoring are, who is monitoring, and what types of monitoring are taking place. Monitoring, as a practice of sensing, raises questions about who or what is undertaking sensing practices, how this informs what counts as “sense,” and what types of sites emerge in the process. Does monitoring in some ways already presuppose a certain set of practices that assume distinct ways of accessing and studying environmental phenomena? Perhaps processes of sensing sites with computational sensor technologies demonstrate the ways in which these devices do not so much detect data “out there,” but instead give rise to distinct ways of accessing environmental sensing across multiple organisms and processes. Given that the aim of this residency was to generate experimental fieldwork engagements, we took a walk to the nearby Mount Saana in order to consider these different approaches to monitoring environments, and what new arrangements of sensing and sites emerged.

Walking to Mount Saana
Mount Saana as a key site of Arctic mountain lake research, as included in the Arctic section of the IPCC fourth assessment. 8 Poster presentations and scientific reports held in the library of the Kilpisjärvi station captured research on studies of how warming temperatures in the Arctic and at Lake Saana lead to increased levels of biota. As Lake Saana’s average temperature has hovered around -2.7º Celsius, it has historically had an absence of biota. But through the collecting and recording of sense data including temperature, water samples, sediment samples, oxygen measurements, and more, evidence of increasing levels of biota was beginning to emerge.

Yet how does this decades-long gathering of measurements of set variable compare to the more itinerant sense gathering of a walk in Saana? In what ways does a possibly more random or momentary recording of field phenomena with sensors compare to these practices? Do sensory investigations need to be guided by more than technical “probing”: a documentary tracing of audio, video, tracing and indexical capture of momentary phenomena? Scientists are typically collecting data to research particular questions about environmental change, for instance, while many artists’ experiments seem to focus more on the phenomenal or sensory aspects of data gathering (to put it simply), or are often focused on visualizing or sonifying already collected scientific data. What counts as data in scientific and creative practice differs, as do the motivations for the collection and use of data. Calibration, measurement and set-up as aspects of the quality of data gathered might then be seen to be responding to the variables studied. These variables might be very different, or complementary, within creative and scientific practice.

Beyond the different ways of monitoring environments across arts and science practices, however, this perspective also shifts when we consider the ways in which the multiple other inhabitants of sites, including more-than-humans, sense environments. In this way, during our environmental computing group we also found ourselves engaged in discussions of indicator species, of lichens and mosses and other organisms that can be studied as expressions of environmental processes, whether for atmospheric pollutant levels, radioactivity or different types of mineral depositions in soil. 9

These different sensory engagements could be seen as ways to open sites up through different sensory encounters or distributed ways of expressing environmental processes. Sites are expressed through effects and experiences expressed within human and nonhuman inhabitants of sites. This approach suggests that fluctuations and expressions of sites run through and are differently carried by the multiple inhabitants of and visitors to sites. In this sense, while rooted in place, fieldwork sites also travel and change within the subjects and communities they affect.

On one level, the Scottish-American environmental writer John Muir captures this sense of sites when he writes of his travels in the High Sierra mountains of California, “We are now in the mountains and they are in us.” As captured in the epigraph to this chapter, Muir’s statement seems to be a recognition of the ways in which sites and subjects commingle. Yet on another level, when the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead writes, “We are in the world is in us,” he is signaling toward one of his key concepts about the ways in which subjects are always part of specific and concrete occasions in the world.

In Whitehead’s approach, all entities are in some way ‘taking account’ of their environments. In this way, subjects are always what he calls “superjects,” which are bound up with and emerge through concrete occasions. 10 In Whitehead’s analysis, a subject/superject is not only a human figure, but also necessarily includes rocks, animals and plants. At the same time, these entities and relations are not fixed nor are they singular or necessarily always overlapping, but emerge through the distinct types of ‘interpretation’ or expressive experience that each organism undertakes. Perception, as Whitehead suggests, is distributed in the world through multiple subjects and processes. What is interesting about Whitehead’s insights is the ways in which modes of planet sensing might extend here not just to encompass sites as always in process, but also to multiple modes of sensing that are emergent through the expressive activities of multiple subjects.

Sensing systems also generate distinct articulations of environmental relations within and through data and across sensing ‘subjects/superjects.’ Sensor technologies are constitutive of sense—they too ‘experience’ the world and generate perceptive capacities. 11 The selection of temperature, vibration, light levels, humidity, and other measurements across primarily physical, although to some extent chemical and biological criteria, informs the instants that are sensed, the forms that are documented, and the processes that might be reconfigured.

Texting fish and talking with dolphins
While environmental sensing technologies may have developed through applications at ecological observatories such as Kilpisjärvi, among many other sites, these devices are then being taken up in creative practice projects that begin to demonstrate how across arts and sciences sensors are constitutive of new relationships and ways of understanding the sensing capacities of more-than-human organisms. Moving beyond visual or sonic renderings of data, these projects might be seen to focus on the ways in which environmental monitoring is a practice whereby new processes of sensing, new articulations of sites, and new practices and formations of citizenship emerge.

In fact, creative practice projects that deploy environmental sensors often focus on ways of using monitoring to combat urban air pollution or improve environmental health, including projects such as Area Immediate Reading (AIR) by Preemptive Media or Feral Robotic Dogs by Nathalie Jeremijenko, Proboscis and others. In another way, projects such as Amphibious Architecture by Living Architecture Lab raise questions about how monitoring and sensing take place through extended environmental relationships, here where the transmission of text messages becomes a sort of “spectacle” for connecting up usually disparate human and more-than-human urban dwellers. How might we begin to understand the environmental health conditions of fish, and to do so through the use of environmental sensor technologies? Who or what counts as a citizen if citizenship is articulated through cross-species sensing practices? Can fish become citizens?

During my time in Kilpisjärvi, we organized an evening salon discuss a series of issues that came up in relation to our topic areas. Within our specific open discussion of environmental sensing and computation issues, our sub-group considered the topic of how to understand the citizen in citizen sensing. We began our conversation by asking who or what is a citizen, and how different notions of ‘citizen’ might inform the type of sensing that might take place.

We discussed examples of citizen sensing projects from Beatriz da Costa’s Pigeon Blog, to the project, which uses proximity sensors to inform New Yorkers when to avoid flushing the loo when the sewer system may be at capacity and in danger of dispersing waste into the harbor. Environmental monitoring and data gathering as practices seem to assume a certain hypothetical “citizen” that is already built into mobile devices and social media. By using social media, citizens are seen to be empowered to undertake newly informed, connective and collaborative projects.

While we had initially hoped to develop speculative practices around what other forms of citizen sensing practices might look like if new ideas about citizens were introduced, many participants were concerned about the use of the term “citizen” to describe more-than-humans. Don’t citizens have free will and rights? Aren’t animals simply the props for human experiments into sensing? Are these sensing practices perhaps even exploitative? How could a tagged reindeer possibly be counted as a citizen? In this way, one salon discussant asked, “Is this about trying to talk with dolphins? I know of an artist who tried to do that and he went a bit mad, actually.”

Other examples of citizen sensing emerged in our discussion at this point, which began to test the idea of new arrangements of citizenship. One project reference, the Million Trees NYC project in New York, was cited as an example of a practice where crowd sourcing was used to identify where trees may be planted in the city. Once planted, the trees may be monitored and reported about in order to ensure their longevity. Such a practice of urban tree stewardship implies a relationship with the trees, and environmental ‘citizenship’ might be practiced through ‘sensing’—with or without computational devices—the trees and their local environment.

While the extension of citizen practices to more-than-human entities might press at the limits of common sense, in many ways expanding the scope of citizenship through sensing may be one way to develop strategies for finding new politics of subjects, as Rosi Braidotti suggests, which are environmentally connected. 12 In another way, and working laterally from the subject/superject discussions developed by Whitehead, generating a new politics of subjects also entails generating a new politics of sites. Sites in this way might be understood not as populated by humans sensing and acting on environments, but rather as emerging sensing arrangements that might produce new possibilities for engaging with sites.

Conclusion: becoming a (sensing) citizen
The fluctuating sites and sensing subjects that are the topic of this paper then suggest that new arrangements of citizen sensing—and environmental practice and politics—might emerge at this intersection where citizens are no longer conceived of as exclusively human subjects endowed with rights, but rather through relationships that at turns might make us responsive to changes in our environments, or otherwise generate alternative ways of engaging with the multiple modes of sensing that take place in sites.

Citizens, in this case, might be defined less through those more traditional inheritances of a subject bound to a nation-state, but rather a subject that emerges through environmental practices that are constitutive of citizenship. These practices within environmental citizen sensing projects often consist of monitoring, gathering and reporting. The relationship between digital technologies, practices of environmental sensing, and citizen engagement becomes an important point of focus, since environmental monitoring activities involve not just gathering data, but also performing particular types of citizenship through sensing technologies.

Citizen is an ambiguous term and attractor that travels across environmental discourses and practices. What does this term mobilize—in concrete occasions, and as Whitehead suggests, how does it act as a “lure for feeling?” 13 As Isabelle Stengers writes, “What Whitehead calls a subject is the very process of the becoming together, of becoming one and being enjoyed as one, of a many that are initially given as stemming from elsewhere.” 14 Subject/superjects are then diversely distributed, continually in formation, and also generative of and generated through practices such as citizen sensing and environmental monitoring.

Environmental computing and monitoring projects raise questions about who or what sense data are for, what interpretive practices are productive of citizenship, and what new collectives sense data might mobilize. Such an approach to the multiple if divergent and differently captured expressions of site may be a way to open up speculative citizen sensing scenarios that consider new arrangements of citizenship, expanded entities and processes of sensing, and new ways of articulating ‘sites’ within practices of environmental monitoring that attempt to respond to the ongoing event of environmental change.


1 John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998 [1911]), 15-16.

2 Alfred N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1966 [1938]), 165.

3 N. Katherine Hayles, “RFID: Human Agency and Meaning in Information-Intensive Environments,” Theory, Culture & Society 26, nos. 2-3 (2009), 47-72.

4 A version of this discussion was presented at the “Sense of Planet: The Arts and Ecology at Earth Magnitude” symposium, hosted by the National Institute for Experimental Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney (25 August 2012).

5 Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) Report 2010: 8, AMAP Strategic Framework 2010 + (Oslo, December 2010). This report calls for “a sustained, robust circumpolar monitoring network effective at detecting change and discerning trends over the entire Arctic Region related to a range of environmental stressors including pollutants, climate change and the interaction between them,” 8.

6 Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) Assessment 2009: Radioactivity in the Arctic (Oslo, 2010).

7 The Kilpisjärvi Pachube / Cosm feed is available at A related discussion on environmental data presented as “The Art of Gathering Environmental Data,” Pixelache, Helsinki (12 May 2012).

8 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Chapter 4: Observations: Changes in Snow, Ice and Frozen Ground,” Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

9 A discussion of the ways in which organisms “incorporate” and sense environment can be found in Jennifer Gabrys, “Becoming Urban: Sitework from a Moss-Eye View,” in Environment and Planning A. This piece discusses an urban walking event focused on mosses, and staged as part of the This Is Not A Gateway festival in London, October 2010.

10 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1927-28; repr. New York: The Free Press, 1985), 88-89; and Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 158. Also see Jennifer Gabrys, “Sensing an Experimental Forest: Processing Environments and Distributing Relations,” in Computational Culture, no. 2 (2012).

11 Adrian Mackenzie develops such a notion of distributed experience in his study on wireless technologies, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

12 Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).

13 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 88.

14 Isabelle Stengers, “A Constructivist Reading of Process and Reality,” Theory, Culture & Society 25, no. 4 (2008), 103.