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  • Phase to Phase:On Oceanic Oscillations, Measurements, Predictions, and Chronographs
  • David Gauthier (bio)

Measuring time is essentially such that it is necessary to say "now"; but in obtaining a measurement, we, as it were, forget what has been measured as such, so that nothing is to be found except a number and a stretch.

—Martin Heidegger1

Those who live near the sea know how well the tides clock an afternoon, a day, a week; anyone who has captained a boat at sea knows how important reading tide tables is to schedule departure and arrival from one port to another; and even a casual observer knows how different landscapes at high tide look in comparison to low tide—just think of Mont Saint-Michel or even the banks of the Thames, whose uncanny treasures are revealed along its shoreline only at low tide. Strange the rhythms of these tides, and very slow, too.

The ups and downs of tides are some of the slowest earthly oscillations one can observe with the naked eye. I say oscillation here because that is what they are: sinusoidal waves. Tides are primarily caused by the gravitational pull of the moon around the planet, which literally and relentlessly moves oceans and, in so doing, distorts the entire shape of the earth. Lunar tides occur twice a day and are thus termed semi-diurnal, with a period of 12 hours, 25 minutes, and 12 seconds—a strange half diurnal cycle, a little off the full diurnal cycle of the sun's twenty-four hours.

The movement of the tides was the starting point for two commissioned sound art installations that I produced for the group exhibition The New Observatory at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), in Liverpool in the summer of 2017. The works address oceanographic instrumentation used to measure and/or predict the diverse periodic oscillations of the sea.

The first piece, an installation entitled Measure for Measure for Measure, explores the phenomenon of oceanic tides in their relation to simulations and reflects the ways in which traditional tide-level measurements have been replaced by predictive mathematical models that are able to accurately forecast what sea levels should be at any given time and any given place.2 The second piece, 53°32.01N, 003°21.29W from the Sea, a dual-channel video featuring a lone waverider buoy deployed at sea that measures the height, period, and direction of waves, foregrounds the elements of information-gathering that are lost by numerical and geographical data depictions: [End Page 487] the wild forces of the world and the angst of the instruments that face them.3

Using these works as vantage points, in this article I focus on possible strategies in producing artwork with earthly temporalities—that is, tempos that are slower than human perceivable registers—to discuss the juxtaposition and articulation of different times and intervals that prevail between physical phenomena, instruments, and human perception.


During the research phase of the project, I was enticed by the devices, numbers, and science that are used in observing and predicting the movements of the sea. I came across bewildering tide table almanacs, books composed of only numbers that forecast the tide levels of a given port hour-by-hour, day-by-day, month-by-month, and year-by-year. As a sound artist, what fascinated me was that this numbering described sinusoidal waveforms, which are similar to sound waves, although significantly slower.

This brought to mind a seemingly ridiculous question that has always plagued me: What if you could slow down the playback of sound to an almost standstill?4 Absurd indeed, yet in looking at the tides I was faced with an oscillation that moves in a wavelike manner at a decelerated speed that, for humans, might resemble just that: an almost standstill.

Early during the project, I contacted the National Oceanographic Centre (NOC) in Liverpool, an internationally renowned center for the studies of tides. The NOC oceanographers showed me a fascinating diagram depicting how waves and tides, as periodic waveforms, relate to each other and have different energy (power) constituencies depending on their respective periods (frequencies) (Fig. 1). The...


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