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Buried Sound Series 1: Bower

September 8, 2010

I have begun work on a new series of pieces I am calling Buried Sound. They are outdoor sound installations that involve physically placing speakers under the ground. I have been doing a lot of research into animal architecture techniques and I am exploring the process of creating sculptural forms inspired by the algorithms these creatures use to build. In particular I am intrigued by the way we as humans form assumptions about what something is, who built it, and why, based on the artifacts we find. I want to call these boundaries (human/animal) and inductive biases into question.

I completed the first piece in this series which I have titled Bower, during my recent residency at I-Park in East Haddam, CT. It was a wonderful and productive two weeks in nature, reminding me of how beautiful our environment is if we simply stop and pay attention. It was actually quite overwhelming at times.

The piece that I made there works with all these ideas, weaving them together into what I think came off well as a complete experience. It is very rare in the city to get the opportunity to control the physical experience of your work to this extent. In this case I got to decide how people would arrive at the site, what they would see first, how they would know (or not know) it was art, etc. It was rather cinematic.

Cliff swallow nests image

The structures are made of red sculpture clay using a technique the cliff swallow uses to build its nest. I love the emergent nature of these nests, the way they pile up one on top of the next. The process the swallows use is to scoop up a ball of mud and smear a bit of muddy slip on the tops of their beaks, then to fly back to where they are building, smear the slip on the existing structure, place the ball of mud on top, and then vibrate the mud ball until it fuses with the existing form. I copied this process for the clay forms (minus the flying). I wasn’t sure how well it would mesh with the traditional sculptural process of kiln firing but they came out perfectly with out a crack.

Bower bird

The site is framed by ritualistic piles of treasures I found nearby, inspired by the incredible creative work of bowerbirds. The first red and yellow leaves of autumn, sun-bleached white moss, stones and pinecones framed the viewers path and the piece itself.

The sounds are designed to blend into the natural sound environment such that you don’t realize it is a sound piece until you get quite close.

Under the hood is an arduino mega with 5 PIR sensors, a photocell, a thermistor and an atmospheric pressure sensor. The arduino is constantly datalogging its senses and updating an internal self-organizing map it uses to categorize its sensations. In this way, over time, the piece comes to have prototypes in memory that symbolize different environmental conditions. Prototype states are vocalized as very tiny high frequency sounds and are arranged in intervals around the 5 structures such that one form outputs a base frequency, the next outputs 3 higher, then 7 higher, etc. up to 100 higher. The effect is a soft, subtly shifting sound experience. But of course, as you walk around the piece to hear another perspective you trigger a change in the environment and the sound shifts, so you never really can know what you missed.

The documentation for this piece (or some of it anyway) is up online on my website:

Buried Sound

Let me know what you think.

Buried Sound #2 (and possibly even #3) is coming up in two weekends at the Flow Slow conference on the Delaware river in upstate NY/ Pennsylvania. The event is the co-creation of Issue Project Room, Mildred’s Lane and SkyDog Projects who are hosting me for a short residency in a cabin in the woods next week. I am excited to be truly out in nature without electricity, running water, etc. to work on the next phase of this project, so stay tuned for that.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ellie permalink
    October 1, 2010 11:37 am

    I love this post Heather! Bowerbirds are entirely fascinating. Have you scene the Life of Birds segment on them? We have it, you should borrow, if not! Oh, and I’m subscribing to your blog, finally. Don’t know how I failed to do that before 🙂

    • October 1, 2010 12:42 pm

      I would love to borrow it! Sounds perfect for a horrible rainy day like today… but unfortunately work must be done… Sunday evening perhaps!

  2. Janne permalink
    November 7, 2012 3:40 pm

    This is really impressive work!!

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