[This post was originally written for the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture Blog while I was the artist in residence there.]
As mentioned in my earlier post, the village is built around a lake created as the result of damming two rivers. The hydro-scheme that runs through the Bogong High Plans is a massive example of humans modifying nature for their own use. The damming of these rivers coming out of Rocky Valley and Pretty Valley create Lake Guy. I haven’t been able to forget that this recreational village populated by temporary residents is actually the result of infrastructure development.
When working with the nature sound recordings I’ve been making each morning, I am constantly amazed by the variation in bird song and critter noises that I am collected. They are rich in tone and highly variable in structure. There are a few that have really gotten my attention because of how unnatural they appear. They are reminiscent of some type of digital compression artifact or synthesizer glitch. Maybe this is the copy of a copy effect. For example, early synthesizers were attempting to replicate classic pianos and now modern synthesizers are attempting to emulate those earlier versions. Maybe it’s just a frame of reference for a particular type of frequency and structure that I don’t encounter on a daily basis other than in the digital environment. Then when I do encounter it in the wild, it points back to these digital experiences from memory. There’s also the chance that all of the bird calls are fake and being broadcast from small amplified speakers hidden in trees like some Disney resort mountain village and what I am hearing is one of these speakers breaking down from years of neglect. Interesting premise for a critical design piece or JG Ballard novel, but probably not the case. I have seen quite a few birds and as far as I am aware, our robotics technology isn’t that good yet.
The dam is a massive concrete structure. It defines the northeast corner of Lake Guy and has a narrow walkway that tunnels through. The walking track around the lake goes down into the valley on the non-water side of the wall and through the dam’s 14 separate chambers The chambers at the beginning and end are open to the outside. The chambers in the middle are enclosed and completely cutoff from the forest except for very small openings at the bottom about 2 feet high and 1 foot across. The echo and reverb within these enclosed chambers is amazing. The first evening I was here, my host took me on a hike around the lake. Walking through the dam was a phenomenal listening experience. Every small sound resonated in the chamber. Several of them had sounds of water trickling in. A couple were very silent. After thinking about this experience for a couple days and passing through the dam on various nature sound hikes and exercise runs, I knew this was somewhere I wanted to project sound compositions into and record the results.
While obsessing over the community notice boards, I decided that I was going to create an intervention that took advantage of my temporary Australian phone number ( feel free to ring me @ 043 234 7156 ) and play with the idea of man’s attempts at controlling nature. I designed and posted SHOPPERS cards in the local grocery asking people to call and leave impressions of local birdsongs on the voicemail. Since this is a temporary number, I have no issues giving it out to anyone and everyone. Seriously, feel free to call. Even it’s just to say you hate me. It’s cool. A couple days after posting on the community boards, I got 2 responses and they sounded amazing. This also solidified how I was going to present the sounds I was working with.
Inside the dam, the compositions being projected are all created using only the nature sound recordings made in and around Bogong Village. The sounds are manipulated to created new tones, textures and frequencies. This manipulation is the same as the attempts made to control and divert the water in this area. The electrical company plays a large role in how water moves and what it is used for. Streams and rivers are diverted through large pipes that cut under the mountains and pour back into areas where it can be converted into electricity. During that travel, it has not only been relocated but removed from it’s natural ecosystem and redistributed in an unnatural way. The modified nature sound recordings are no different. Presenting them inside the dam creates a relationship between the manipulation of the water ways, land and soundscape. The lake is as artificial as the sounds. The dam becomes an echo chamber literally for the sounds to reverberate and figuratively as the creator of electricity that results in noise which drives people to get away to a place like Bogong Village, which is created by the dam that created the electricity. Feedback loop complete. Inside the dam, the sounds are presented through a speaker that has been painted with black and white diagonal lines. This direct formal reference to railroad guards and caution signs serves to aesthetically connect the space to the larger infrastructure of energy production it is a part. It appears both cautionary and official. Hing on the chain link fence barrier and flanking the speaker on both sides are collages created to visually present the notion that the dam is responsible for various forms of development that we often have fluctuating relationships with. We love mobile devices because they provide the world’s knowledge in a pocket-sized object. We hate mobile devices because they are always going off in the theatre or we are being run into as some walks and texts. We love wireless technology because we can get messages anytime, anywhere. We hate wireless technology because people expect us to respond to their message at anytime, from anywhere. We love metro trains for their ease of use. We hate metro trains for their noise and traffic delays. The collages each have a small speaker attached and are performing modified nature sound recordings that align with the emphasis of the collage. One being more about communication, the other addressing urbanization. They both have images of the dominant birds from the recordings perched throughout. All of the visual elements are place on the narrow tunnel through the dam and lit by the single industrial light over head.
Each of the three pieces – the designed speaker cabinet and the two collages – plays a looping modified nature sound. The overall composition is created by the three separate sounds playing simultaneously. The sounds are all different lengths. As the larger piece is heard, the individual elements are looping at different times creating a unique listening experience throughout the installations entire duration. Similar to nature sound recording, from one session to the next you might hear similar elements but the overall composition is going to be different each time.
As the piece plays, the sounds fill the chamber and reverberate around the listener. It can be heard before entering the dam. As the listener approaches, there is a distinct change passing from one chamber to the next while getting closer and closer to the source. The sound of the installation mixes with the natural sounds from around the dam. On the day of installation, this included the sounds of kookaburras, crimson roselas, the rush of the day-lighing tube that routes water around the dam back to the “river” and the gentle sounds of rainfall. Inside the enclosed chambers there were various amounts of water noise. In the chamber of the installation a small amount of trickling mixed with the composed audio. Moving down the tunnel away from the piece the sound then noticeably decreases as each chamber is passed through. One chamber was filled with the sound of rushing water. The combination of this with the composed soundscape in the neighboring chamber created a performance of two different forms of manipulated nature. The modified recordings in the piece and the blocked water from the dam. Passing through the different chambers of the tunnel created a very distinct audio representation of the infrastructure of the dam. The sound changed with each passing chamber and was mixed, at varying levels, with the other sounds occurring in that space. Each chamber takes on it’s own audible identity. It’s a small neighborhood. Each being similarly different. As the listener exits the dam, the sounds of the installation fade and the soundscape of the natural surroundings return.
Manipulating the familiar and presenting it back in this unique acoustic environment inspires thought and consideration regarding the ways we engage with nature. We put a lot of noise out into the world. We do a great deal of manipulating. It’s what’s gotten us to where we are now and that’s both positive and negative. The decisions that we make have consequences. The history of this place – Bogong Village, the Junction Dam and the hydro-scheme – represent this same sense of tension between wanted, unwanted and unexpected. As we work to find more renewable ways to generate the electricity that our modern lives depend on it’s worth reflecting on what’s been done before. Some good has come from it. Some negative things have happened too. I firmly believe that part of this process has to be about appreciating nature and working to understand how we can be better participants. It’s also worth spending time exploring the unique aspects of what has already been done. Maybe, it’s just about making time to listen.