It is late October 2020, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is sweeping across central Europe. It is not the best time to travel, but one year of planning and unique opportunity awaits me in a rural part of Belgium, making it hard to refuse. The annual OORtreders Festival is taking place on the grounds of the Klankenbos open-air sound installation park. The theme this year is ‘Changing ecologies & new narratives‘. I was invited to build a wind harp installation, lead the 5-day Site+Specifics workshop and screen several of my films. In the end I was able to build the two wind harps and conduct the workshop with 5 dedicated participants. Unfortunately the majority of the public program of the festival was canceled due to restrictions on cultural events.
Site+Specifics Workshop: 5 days, with 5 participants (5 cancelled), inside the pandemic. I have a plan but it’s time to rethink things. Plan good, improvise better. That’s my motto for 2020. So the revised plan is; introductions. attention. play. creation, production.
Day one, Introductions: Ine, Wim, Melia, Gregoire and Flavia… diverse backgrounds and experiences, always a good sign; voice, music, theater, movement, theoretical physics, ecology, cinema and sound studies. We are a group but also an ecology; connecting, giving, taking, exchanging, building relations, adapting to environments, building niches. Do we have objectives, or do we allow ideas to emerge, playing off dynamics and the conditions at hand?
Day two, Attention: We start off with a 30+ minute sound walk (spatially distanced), focused, let your ears be the guide. There are soundscapes but there are also details and events that trigger responses. There are subjectivities but there is also cultural memory, embedded within and shared between us. Sensing passing fragments: surfaces, paths, roads, a canal, autumn foliage, a bridge, a neighborhood and finally we end up at the wind harps. On our return, we forage and collect organic objects which draw our attention. Pockets and bags fill up. Afterward, we make a different kind of recording. Mine ends up being 6 pages long. Here is an excerpt.
Cool damp weather, light winds, changing seasons. Acorns crumble underfoot, de-materialization/re-materialization, it depends on which part of the cycle we focus on. Dommelhof (forest park) is full of birds, the highest concentration in the area from what I’ve heard. This becomes more obvious as we transition into a neighborhood where there is a familiar silence, but the lull in animal activity allows us to hear wind brushing against dry leaves in the trees that line the canal, almost 100m off. One house has a ‘wild’ garden (untended), a refreshing contrast from the rest, with their human geometries imposed on living plants, reminding us of who is in control…my notes from the sound walk
Outside again, splitting up, exploring the park. It’s not a big park but there is diversity here with various levels of management. Within this, many small places can be found, micro-ecological niches we call them (none of us is a biologist). There are relations to be discovered, host and parasitic organisms building up around debris in various degrees of decay, from freshly fallen leaves to mosses and mycological communities. Old stumps tended to be a favorite. Is there sound here or do we see this and an imaginary composition? A ‘soil sound’ device gives us hints of life activity below, but this season is better left to the micro-organisms and their silent chemical transformations.
Day three, Play: Never underestimate the significance of play. Our playground; Open and closed systems, mapping relations, constructing a dynamic or kinetic system with various objects on hand; wires, sticks, dried branches, acorns, cans, leaves, strings, chestnuts, stones, seed pods, springs etc… while it is easy to build, we quickly realize that for sounds to emerge, we need energy input into the system. Our closed system, human devised, needs human energy. So we play, improvise in fact, experimenting with sensing and amplifying. Any one point in the system sounds different than another, a localized vs global acoustic listening.
In the afternoon we move outside, into the open system. There is seemingly boundless energy as the winds gust at 30+ kilometers per hour creating a symphony of pink noise among the rustling leaves. It’s not steady wind, it’s tricky and chaotic, shifting direction and speed. The wind harps are temperamental. The open field where they stand is lined with trees on two sides which effectively act as wind blocks. On this day they happen to be down wind from the harps adding to their stuttering starts and stops. Aeolian logic much prefers steady even wind, in many cases, the lighter the better so long as it moves at a constant speed. So we pack up and bike to a location where wind conditions have been optimized by a certain structure, a wide highway bridge that crosses the canal. Indeed, on this day, it is a perfect wind tunnel. The wind never starts or stops, it just moves, and there are no obstacles to create distracting patterns, allowing the air to flow evenly. We break out numerous elastic bands that effortlessly (with the help of the wind of course) yet dramatically oscillate, whistling with tonality. The demonstration should make it clear how much energy wind carries with it and how much the quality of the air movement affects objects like strings, wires and elastic bands. Cycling back to our base ‘is a breeze’ as they say because the wind is at our backs.
Day four, Creation: What is it we are creating here? I want to relieve the pressure of an outcome because it’s clear that any form of public presentation (i.e. potential groups), increases the risks of viral transmission. Yes, we are relatively safe in this part of the country but why add more tension to an already stressful situation. So far we have been decidedly non-technical, more hands-on and responsive in a cognitive bodily way. We have explored the area, it’s climate and tuned our sensory awareness. But the challenge remains as to what kind of site-specific intervention can we make that doesn’t involve a good deal of human input and minimizes public interaction. We split up and again head out into the Klankenbos forest to localize ourselves, looking for sites or locations that trigger our interest and try to imagine what kind of sonic interventions might be possible. There is a dune that makes movement of the tree canopy visible, soil and the amplification of footsteps, imaginary soundscapes of micro-organisms, mycelial networks and the communication they facilitate and ‘wild’ spots that go unmaintained. So many possibilities. To keep things simple, we split into two groups and head out to choose a spot to work with. The task is to create a score for a specific location that we can perform. I have worked with scores a great deal over the years and it seems to be an effective way to to handle our task (and ultimately the outcome of our workshop as we will see). It is a great exercise, involving communication and coordination between each other and the site or being ecological as we might say. One group creates sonic responses to various sounds that can be heard, while the other group creates a performative intervention using objects and amplified tree roots. Everyone participates.
Day five, Production: By Friday morning it becomes clear that the public program of the festival weekend will be cancelled. The installations will remain open for visitors as long as people remained distanced. In some ways, being confronted by the impending restrictions imposed by the growing pandemic situation around us, helps us arrive at a flexible outcome we can offer to Klankenbos from the Site+Specifics workshop. We pool and reflect on our activities of the previous four days and come up with lists of listening activities derived from our experiences. As we chart them out on a large sheet of paper it becomes aparrent that we hit upon many different ways of listening. This is not a new realization. Many artists and researchers are exploring ways of listening. But what I found intriguing was how the ways emerged on a group level as natural subjectivities based on activity we engaged in up to that point. If we chart these listening ways or methods as spectrum on two basic axis (active<->passive, analytical<->creative), it offers a clear frame as to how we can use different ways of listening to tune-in, connect and respond to this specific environment. It also challenged us to understand our own ways of listening. This makes having a range of listening techniques available valuable tools for certain aspects of environmental awareness. How did we do this? In this case, with a set of listening scores. We came up with 20 scores for listening catered to Klankenbos for anyone to try out. They have been arranged into a small booklet that can be printed on a single A4 sheet of paper and will be available at Klankenbos for visitors for them to work with at their own pace.
I want to thank all the participants of the workshop for their ideas and energy that week. None of this would have been possible without the artistic direction of Maud Seuntjens and the incredibly helpful team at Klankenbos, especially Louis, Tom and Ludwig who helped build and install the wind harps and Marijn and Willem who helped get me to Pelt and back safely.