Ohr-Weide — Salix aurita
A Work for 150 floating loudspeakers by île flottante
It is a sunny Sunday afternoon in early June 2018 at the Merian Gärten in Basel, Switzerland. Families, elderly people and couples with sun hats enjoy a stroll through the botanical gardens and park, where the celebrations to mark its 50th anniversary are taking place. There is a stand that sells organic ice cream, a booth where children can get plant decals and, in the middle of lush green trees and bushes, the western branch of the St. Alban-Teich that traverses the entire park.
Visitors turn their heads at the sudden appearance of a sound fast approaching. From around the corner of a small hut filled with rare seasonal plants comes a woman in a blue shirt on a bicycle. She turns to the water and stops at a spot where the branches part and give access to the water. After removing a basket full of small, sounding loudspeakers from the frame of her bike, she hands it to a second person — who we now realize has been standing in the water awaiting her arrival. One by one the speakers are carefully laid on the surface of the water and released, the current carrying them away.
Further downstream, a group of children running along the elevated path that runs along the bank of the canal excitedly point down to the water: “Look, there are two more coming. Oh! Another one got caught amongst the reeds!” Slowly, almost ceremonially, small groups of loudspeakers are floating downstream. Each at its own pace. Each emitting an individual sound. Sitting on the water surface, they hurl, hum, caw, cough, sing and bubble. After a journey of approximately 15 minutes and nearly 500 m, they are retrieved from the water and transported upstream by bike to begin their journey anew.
Artificial Nature and an Eared Willow
The idea of using floating loudspeakers in this collaborative project originated when île flottante (Nica Giuliani and Andrea Gsell) and Lilian Beidler visited Merian Gärten Basel to explore the site. The “artificial nature” of the human-made gardens struck us at first sight — the plants, the greens, the trees and the stream all look natural even though this particular habitat was entirely cultured by humans. This led to the idea of creating a work that focuses on the interplay of wilderness and taming, naturalness and cultivation. In our imagination, the loudspeakers represent a colony of a new species that has settled in an unfamiliar environment, trying to adjust to its new living conditions.
Even the title of the work came to us while walking around the gardens and sending some of the first loudspeakers down the stream for testing. We discovered a sign along the banks in front of a tree indicating that it was a “Salix aurita: Ohr-Weide” — the “eared willow” that gave our work its name.
150 Floating Loudspeakers
For Ohr-Weide we used a set of 150 floatable and waterproof Bluetooth wireless speakers. After testing different models, we decided to use Shenzhen Lenodell Technology’s “IPX7 waterproof Bluetooth speaker” by reason of their æsthetic appearance and because they seemed to offer decent sound quality and be of resilient material construction. Although they are meant for leisurely use in the bathtub or while swimming rather than as professional sound tools, they served Ohr-Weide’s purpose quite well. They float on top of the water (and proved to be 95% waterproof!) and have a battery life of around six hours when playing at full volume. They can be used either through Bluetooth or with an SD card.
Sound and Composition
The sound recordings that were stored on and played back using the floating loudspeakers were made entirely from recordings of my voice. One of the goals in the creation of the sound component of the work was to use the entire spectrum of possible sounds and noises that the voice can produce: sounds that range from singing and speech-like utterances to more abstract sounds and imitations of animals that might be encountered in the surrounding habitat of the stream. I also employed different objects as resonating bodies and placed them in or in front of my mouth while vocalizing. In post-production, I worked with minimal electronic tools to mix and adjust the recordings to the sound spectrum of the loudspeakers and the playback environment.
According to the concept that the loudspeakers are a new “sounding species” adapting to the gardens as their new living environment, we developed a sonic narrative. During the 500 meters the loudspeakers travel along the stream, they seem to react and adapt to their environment. The sounds they emit slowly change, going through five different states of assimilation. At first they are nervous and agitated because they lack orientation, then they realize where they are and become quite fearful and exhausted. In their third state they find hope again and then prepare to fight and strike out to assert themselves in triumph. Eventually, they adapt to their habitat and calm down in harmony.
This narrative approach to sound composition worked well. Using the voice helped emphasize the creature-like appearance of the loudspeakers: by giving them a “voice” they were easily identified as a living entity. The media itself encouraged me to use my own voice to create a certain quality of sound. Additionally, it was a handy way to communicate our idea to the audience, who often asked us to explain and situate the work.
While each of the five states is slightly different in length (18–36 minutes each), one whole run lasts for approximately 2.5 hours. For each state there are 17 individual tracks, each one being played on a total of 8 or 9 loudspeakers. So there are always 8 or 9 loudspeakers playing the same track. However, as we are not able to start all the speakers at the same time there are time shifts of up to 10 minutes between the tracks. These temporal deferrals also result in transition periods between each pure state, during which the sounds of different states blur into one another. Also, because we place them one after the other in the stream, there are no loudspeakers playing the same sound next to another.
At Merian Gärten, Ohr-Weide — Salix aurita ran over the course of eight hours per day for two days — which meant replaying the 2.5-hour loops roughly three times a day.
Collaboration with île flottante
I have been collaborating with île flottante on different art and art education projects since 2010. Usually, the work share depends on the specifics of each particular occasion. Oftentimes, île flottante are approached by a cultural organization to present work and come up with an idea and then involve me as a sound arts specialist.
This was the case with Ohr-Weide — Salix aurita. Each artist was loosely given a primary responsibility: Andrea was the main contact person for all organization and communication matters, Nica took care of the technical equipment and I was mainly responsible for the sound composition. That said, all decisions — especially the artistic ones — were always discussed and made by the three artists collaboratively.
Almost the entirety of our work is site-specific. It is important for us to create work that equally considers the space, the audience as well as other conditions such as time frame and date of the performance, for example. The event of the 50th anniversary of the Merian Gärten was intended to be an outdoor, summer celebration attracting casual visitors rather than a traditional arts audience. We wanted to devise something that was artistic but at the same time approachable for people who might not usually go to a concert of New Music or an art exhibition and most likely would not have expected to encounter sound art at this particular event.