Exhibiting sound in an art context is always challenging. It is experiential by nature and requires time. It also invades space with little respect for measured boundaries. If made interactive, or moderately controllable, how can the experience be more than what is already common with pressing on screen buttons and clicking links? This is what I’m looking address with the use of physical media and the very tactile devices that perform them. Most recently, this was part of an installation in an abandoned seed drying facility on a heritage farm in central Iowa.
-n 1. a noisy confused place or situation.
This is a recording of the beehives at The Prairie Flower, a massive natural prairie nursery in northwest Iowa. Owner and all around amazing human Dwight Rutter gave me permission to record on his property during my time as artist in residence at the Lakeside Lab.
[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.
It’s too rainy to hike out for any more early morning naturesound recording sessions. Instead, I’m setting up in the bcsc annex garage each morning before sunrise to capture the sounds of the rain and the dawn chorus in this part of the village. I’m definitely not going to say the rain has ruined anything. In fact, it kind of sounds amazing.
While in residence at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture, led a Listening Walk in the Mt Beauty area. The Listening Walk began with a very short introduction to the core ideas of acoustic ecology and active listening. Participants were then led on a walk that allowed for the investigation, appreciation and critical analysis of the surrounding soundscape. During the walk, participants were invited to experience the modified headphones, part of my larger Listening Instruments project. The walk concluded with a discussion in which participants shared and reflected on their experience.
The hike back down from today’s early morning naturesound recording was beautiful. Hiking up before dawn means I don’t get to see much on the way. Just the narrow view provided by my headlamp. The hike up to today’s location was very steep. 1 mile, all incline equalling 67 flights of stairs, with gear. This was one of those days where the trip back was far more amazing than I imagined it as I descended back into the valley and the sun rose in front of me.
The real experience is the hike up the mountain before the sun rises and the hours of listening as the forest wakes up. The added bonus is the naturesound recording for my archive. Sometimes things are going to go sideways but moments like this early morning recording session helps keep everything in perspective.
I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with these community notice boards. The SHOPPER cards that folks from the community can fill out are really interesting. Especially once they use pictures and highlighters. These boards aren’t new to me. I’ve seen them in grocery stores in the United States and I remember them in the grocery in the town where I grew up. There’s even something similar at the local market I go to but it is less official and less systematic. I originally spotted them on our way up to Bogong Village as we hung fliers for the Listening Walk that I will be leading as a way to engage the community. I began wondering if this board system could be another way of reaching out to the community. So I quickly filled out a card and posted it. I grabbed a couple extra because I wanted to be better prepared next time I came down the mountain.
I designed my own card to resemble theirs but included my own messaging. It’s a request for birdsong impressions. In Bogong Village the birdsong is wonderful. It’s rich with character, dense and persistent throughout the day. The village however is a temporary community left over from the when the hydro-electric scheme was being built and in the early days of it running. There’s a dam that has created a lake and around the lake are a series of cabins that can be rented throughout the year. The dam and the recreational water way are evidence of attempts at controlling nature and the idea of imitating birdsong seemed like an interesting way to investigate the sounds of that intersection. The lake asks questions of “nature” and “real” while this intervention poses a similar request.
Each morning I get up before the sun to hike out and record the sounds of the forest as it comes to life. Each morning the performance is different. I am so grateful for the opportunity to experience Australia’s Alpine National Park in this way. This is me on the morning of New Year’s Day. My hike around the mountain started at 4:30 am and the place I found to record did not disappoint. It was a great way to start what I feel is going to be a great new year.
[This post was originally written for the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture Blog while I was the artist in residence there.]
This morning I got up to return to the dam that I walked around after first getting into town. It’s an amazing structure that carries with it a great deal of mixed emotions. Right before leaving the United States for the artist residency here at BCSC, I co-taught a graduate seminar in the Masters of Design in Sustainable Environments (MDesSE) program at Iowa State University where water was a key subject of research and inquiry. We had several discussions about water management and use in a variety of environments and scales. The dam in front of me represented a point of tension within these previous discussions. However, I wanted to go there early in the morning to record the wildlife surrounding it and get a sense for it was like to engage with the dam by listening on the back side of the structure. I found a nice spot up the hill to set up my microphones, cleared a little spot to sit, started everything up and just began to listen. The bird song was incredible. There is so much life and activity in the area. I have yet to go through and estimate the number of different species calls I captured but it was many. As I sat perfectly still, listening to the environment, I began to think more about the dam in front of me. The positive and negative effects of the dam began to swirl as a cycle of thought emerged.
The dam was created as part of a much larger hydro-electric scheme. At four different places down the mountain these systems where introduced to convert moving water into electricity. That electricity is used in the communities all down into the city. That electricity, in many cases, is converted into some form of unwanted sound. It’s the charging of a neighbors phone that goes off at all hours of the night. It’s the power behind that tram that rumbles through the city. It’s the guitar amp down the street. It’s the dance music next-door at 9am Monday morning. It’s the leaf blower before church. It’s the blender in the apartment above while you’re trying to fall asleep. It’s the large HVAC units on the way to the subway. It’s the hum of the street lights overhead. The result of this dam is the electricity that creates a soundscape that we work to ignore and that we feel the need to escape from.
The village around the damn is a resort destination. It’s the type of place that people go to get away from everything. Family holidays and fishing expeditions. Maintaining a status of tourist destination is part of the mission of the village after having fought to remain on the map. Originally, the village was intended for the workers connected to the dam and the power company. Everything had been developed with very temporary intentions. Infrastructure was all done quite quickly with no real sense of longevity. It only needed to last a short amount of time and serve a few people. Once the village had served it’s purpose it was to be leveled and allowed to be reclaimed by nature. This sounds pretty interesting as premise. Temporary neighborhoods with a plan for elimination. Maybe suburban planned communities could take not. After having been a few different iterations of functional town and then resort village for the power company employees, people fought to save it. They were successful and now it is a very small yet busy destination, especially in the winter during ski season. There’s a large ski resort just a few kilometers up the road.
The dam has now served dual roles in the complexity of our relationship with nature. It has provided a valuable resource but at some expense to the surrounding habitat. It has resulted in electricity that we convert into things that we want. The dam has created a lake and a surrounding village used to escape these very same things. The cycle of cause, effect, problem and solution folds back onto itself in a complex way in this area. The soundscape also reflects this. The space is rich with birdsong and the interactions of these sounds with the infrastructure are very compelling. The electrical hum of the transformers sit behind the dawn chorus as a gentle sustaining tone through which the wildlife punctures. The echo chambers in the dam and the parabolic feature of the valley result in a unique listening experience that connects place, memory and the consequences of man’s manipulation of nature.
Water is electricity is noise.
The research is clear that living near or spending time around water has positive affects on health and well being. And as always, the ocean #soundsAmazing.
The O’Hare Urban Garden is built from recycled and reused material such as structural steel, water proofing membranes, security doors, airport furniture and electrical panels.
Photo by Rick Braidwood
All content ©2014 Alex Braidwood unless otherwise stated.
- mysterious hum
- sonic fiction