Everything is interconnected, living and non-living. Entangled in mesh. The planet’s soundscapes reveal this vast interconnection. Human noise, climate change and resource extraction are silencing these choirs that are rapidly fading in richness and complexity. Meshed is an immersive ambisonic soundscape that is interactive to human movement and the growth of a slime mold.
When walking into the installation Meshed you will hear a mix of sounds that together reflect the ambience of forest. You will hear choruses of various insects, birds, frogs and animals calling each other. To the right of you there will be a stream flowing and all around you there will be wind blowing through the trees. What you will also hear are tools used for deforestation, resource extraction plants and vehicles. This ambisonic soundscape is designed to immerse the viewer in a familiar world that invites them to think further about their place within in, what impacts they might have on it and what impacts it might have on them.
When listening to soundscapes from “natural” ecosystems over time you can hear the loss and deterioration of biodiversity in the areas. You can hear it dying, fading out of time. Millions of years of evolution being undone in a heartbeat. Human impact on the environment and the decimation of ecosystems is the main cause for this loss of these acoustic worlds. We are vastly interconnected to the world and there is no escaping it. We need to be more attentive to listening to our world, understanding and preserving it.
In Meshed the interconnection of all things is communicated by bringing together two seemingly separate organisms, human beings and a slime mold called Physarum Polycephalum. Although very different they are part of the mesh that holds everything together. Within the installation the movement of humans in the space and the growth of the slime mold create and manipulate the various elements that make up the soundscape you hear.
Concept and Background Research
I have become increasingly fascinated with the study of natural soundscapes. This influence first started by studying the work of Bernie Krause, a musician and soundscape ecologist. His work inspired two of my previous projects, a soundscape installation Sumbios and a research project Presence of Biophony and Geophony in the Anthropocene. Krause has dedicated his life to recording and preserving soundscapes of ecosystems from all around the world. Over his many years he has personally witnessed the deterioration of these wonderous choruses. The time it takes to record and soundscape for a project has increased by over x100 since when first began. With careful listening to these ecosystems we can learn a lot about them, understand our impacts on them and how the climate is changing them. ‘Every soundscape that springs from a wild habitat generates its own unique signature, one that contains incredible amounts of information.’
Part of this installation is to get people to listen to the soundscapes around them and be more attentive to what they are hearing. R. Murray Schafer has been a great influence when it comes to his work on rediscovering our acoustic environment. Schafer talks about the pollution of our sonic environment and emphasises the importance of perceiving the sounds that enrich and feed us and use them to create healthier environments. We as humans have created an over dense population of noise that is affecting us and everything around us.
As part of my research I wanted a documentary called Dusk Chorus by Fragments of Extinction a project founded by David Monacchi, an Italian sound, researcher and eco-acoustic composer. Fragments of Extinction explore the eco-acoustic complexity of equatorial forests, trying to find undisturbed habitats to record and preserve their soundscapes. In this documentary many factors are revealed on how these soundscapes are decaying more intensely each year due to human presence in these ecosystems and effects of climate change.
Human noise, such as an oil refinery, around ecosystems can interrupt animals that vocalise in a certain range making it incredibly difficult for them to communicate, find food, evade predators and find mates. This forces them to die out or migrate then becoming an invasive species to a different habitat having drastic impacts on its balance, millions of years of coevolution being undone. Deforestation, exploitation and climate change also have massive impacts on these confused animals forcing them to migrate and seek refuge.
The documentary Dusk Chorus was also a good source for understanding spatial sound of wild habitats. The whole documentary uses binaural sound so with headphones all of the animal sounds feel like they are around you. It was very important for me to capture this essence in my installation, so the participant feel like they are in a wild area surrounded by animals.
Timothy Morton, a philosopher of ecological studies became a huge inspiration when it came to understand the importance of these acoustic chorus and our place within them. Morton argues that all forms of life are connected in vast entangling mesh. More and more we as humans are realising our interconnection with everything and that we cannot exist independently from the ecological entanglement, ‘existence is always coexistence’. Morton exhibits the darkness in ecology, the realisation of this interconnection sucks because there is no comfortable background to hide behind anymore, where we see everything there are no shadows. We see all of the changes our planet is going through and how we have impacted and created them.
The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists was the installation that first inspired me into researching the soundscapes of the wild. In the room you experience recordings that Krause has collected from different ecosystems from around the world, where you sit and listen to their complexity, the sound is also visualised using a spectrogram that moves around the wall giving the participant the chance to picture the animals and understand what frequency they vocalise in.
Another installation that focuses on acoustic environments is Passifolia by Lab212, the beams of light that you see resemble the sun passing through gaps in the tree canopy and when the user passes through one they will hear a vocalisation of a bird, these sounds will only be able to be heard by the person under the beam of light as they use directional parametric speakers that accompany each beam focusing the sound on these specific spots.
Body of us by curator Rebekka Kiesewetter helped me explore ideas of relationship between different participants in an installation. These relationships that Kiesewetter explores are not just with the people in the room but with everyone who has been there before. In the centre of the room, located in the Somerset House, is a large petri dish that grows strains of bacteria which have originated from the participants passing through the installation. As the days go on the visitors could observe the constantly evolving relations between humans and their environment.
Bernie Krause indicated that a soundscape is made up of three basic sources. First there is the geophony, which is non-biological sounds from any given habitat, wind in the tree’s, water in the stream, movement of the earth. Next we have the biophony that is generated by organisms in a given habitat, at one time, in one place. Lastly there is the anthrophony that comes from all sounds generated by humans. I decided to collect sound samples from each of these categories and build my own soundscape out of them. Not having access to good recording equipment, experience or the ability to travel to exotic wild habitats, I was forced to gather my samples online. I managed to gather all of my 55 samples from freesound.org. The three sources of the soundscape where split up into smaller categories. The biophony consisted of insects, birds, frogs and other animals. The geophony consisted of water and tree sources. Finally, the anthrophony was made up of sounds of resource extraction, industrial noise, vehicles and deforestation tools. Depending on the sample they were played one of two ways. The first being a fading loop which means that the sample would loop but the end of the sample would merge with the beginning making sure there weas no disrupting jump in the audio. The second way was by using a randomised metro, a metro would trigger the playing of the sound but with added randomisation so there didn’t seem to be any direct repetition in the sound but still giving it a sense of timing (for some).
To create the spatialisation of the sound I used the Spat package in Max/MSP. Spat is a real-time spatial audio processor that allows the developer to control localisation of sound sources in 3D auditory spaces, this can be done through loudspeakers or headphones. When setting up the package the speakers need to be set up in relation to the speakers in the installation, it is very important this is done exactly as it can have sizeable impacts on how the audio is spatialised. In the operator parameters need to be changed for each sample and for the room to make sure the sounds reverberate around the speakers and the space correctly. This takes a lot of time to do and with the number of samples I had I feel I could have spent many more hours on this if I had the time.
The samples from the geophony and the anthrophony were easy to position as they mainly didn’t move from their set location, although movement for some like the tools could be added in the future. As the tools take over land they could progress through and the animals in turn loose that space to vocalise in.
The biophony sources did move around the space, when standing in the installation and listening you can hear the animals moving around the space, some moving quickly and the others a slow change. The movement was determined by using a boids flocking algorithm in Max/MSP using the dada.boids object. With this I was able to create different swarms for the animals, insects, birds and frogs and tried to match their parameters to suit how I imagine them to move around the space, for example larger animals avoiding each other’s territory.
As I have mentioned the interactivity of the soundscape comes from two sources, human movement and slime mold growth. To capture the people’s movement in the space I set up a PS3 Eyecam that looked over the installation, this fed into openFrameworks where I used a frame differencing algorithm to capture movement in 6 sections of the screen that matched the locations of each speaker. I also used an optical flow algorithm to detect direction of the movement. The participants movement effected the volume of the geophony and anthrophony samples, the more movement detected the louder the human made noise was around the given speaker and the quieter the water in the stream might be. This was a direct reflection of our actions in these habitats and our effect on the climate.
To control the biophony the slime mold’s growth was used, a USB microscope was fed into the Max patch to detect how much the slime mold had grown over the petri dish. With the slime mold being bright yellow I wrote a small algorithm to give a value that would determine the average amount of yellow pixels there were, the less smile mold there was growing the quieter the organisms would be but as it grew over the days the louder they would vocalise.
The audio was output from my laptop into a GIGAPORT eX an 8-channel output USB audio interface. The 6 channels were using where then individually wired into an array of 6 TPA3116 D2 mono amplifiers powered by a power supply. Each of these amplifiers send the audio information to 8” 25w full range speaker drivers.
When doing a project that focuses on ecology I try to use as many sustainable and recycled materials as possible. It something as an artist I think is important to do even if it isn’t a direct part of what the project stand for. The wood that I used to build the plinth was sourced from a ‘free stuff’ page on Facebook where people give away items that might be useful to others. Inside the plinth I build a stand within the structure for the laptop to sit on with space underneath for amplifiers, power supply and audio interface. The speaker stands where made by combining scaffolding poles that were originally converted into table legs and slices from a tree that had to be removed from the seller’s garden.
Future Development & Self-Evaluation
Over the days of the installation it was interesting to see how the soundscape changed due to the slime mold’s growth, eventually it ran out of food and grew out of the petri dish looking for another source while an invasive organism took over the dish and started to grow. Being darker in colour this had a large effect of the biophony which diminished significantly from the day before. This gave the defined the concept of the project further when thinking about how an invasive species in an environment can have unfortunate consequences for its residence and the soundscape it produces.
The human movement also revealed some interesting findings on how it impacted the soundscape. If the participant was moving carefully though the space the noises from the anthrophony would be a lot quieter but if they were moving through fast and carelessly it would have a greater impact on this change which I thought was a perfect reflection on how we can neglect the local environments we are meshed with.
There are many more ways that the algorithm can evolve, at the time it was really hard to take it any further as my computer’s CPU was running at 250%. In the future it would be a better idea to split up some of the tasks the computer performs for better efficiency.
Rather than the growth of the slime mold and the participants movement controlling separate things I might be more interesting to bring more elements into how the interactivity effects it. A more unified and interconnected algorithm and with more depth in the experience. The interaction could have more impact on how the organisms move around the space and the amount and rate at which they vocalise. It would also be interesting to incorporate a circadian rhythm into the installation, giving the soundscape a dawn and a dusk. To do this though a lot more research will need to be done to understand the animal’s behaviours and patterns to build a more realistic interpretation of a wild habitat.
I can see a future for this project that I can keep expanding on for a long time, the possibilities on how this can develop are still growing in my mind and I hope to carry on this research into the future.
Physarum Polycephalum - https://microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Physarum_Polycephalum
Physarum Polycephalum - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physarum_polycephalum
Decomposition by Physarum Polycephalum - https://www.carolina.com/teacher-
Biology of Physarum Polycephalum - http://www.phychip.eu/objectives/about-physarum-polycephalum/
Bernie Krause: The voice of the natural world - https://www.ted.com/talks/bernie_krause_the_voice_of_the_natural_world?language=en
R. Murray Schafer: Listen - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOlxuXHWfHw
‘The Mesh’ by Timothy Morton - https://ecohustler.com/nature/thinking-ecology-the-mesh/
‘Dusk Chorus’ by Fragments of Extinction - https://www.fragmentsofextinction.org/dusk-chorus-film/
‘The Great Animal Orchestra’ by United Visual Arts - https://vimeo.com/364836175
‘Passifolia’ by Lab212 - https://lab212.org/oeuvres/3:featured/46/Passifolia
‘Body of us’ by Rebekka Kiesewetter - http://bodyofus.ch
Freesound - https://freesound.org
‘ofxKinect’ by ofTheo - https://github.com/ofTheo/ofxKinect
‘ofxPS3EyeGrabber’ by bakercp - https://github.com/bakercp/ofxPS3EyeGrabber
‘ofxOsc’ by hideyukisaio - https://github.com/hideyukisaito/ofxOsc
‘Generative Soundscape in Max/MSP’ by Klatko Baracskai - http://www.zlatko.hu
‘Spat’ by ircam - https://forum.ircam.fr/projects/detail/spat/