Innovative Audio Art Project Ponders Life Without Human Companion Species

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Some natural scientists theorize that, if environmental degradation continues at its current rate, Earth will experience a die-off of half of all species of plants and animals by the end of this century.

As an artistic response to this notion, Elizabeth Demaray, an associate professor of art at Rutgers University–Camden, created a series of site-specific audio installations, which feature human voices making birdcalls that blend into the surrounding natural environment.

“I pondered just what it would be like for humans to lack companion species in a postindustrial Western landscape,” says Demaray, whose artwork concerns the interface between the built and natural environments. “I concluded that humans may soon have to create fictive environments in order to experience a sense of calm and beauty.”

The unusual human-made birdcalls recently serenaded those on the Rutgers University–Camden campus, when an installation titled “The Songs We Sing, Camden” was featured in the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts’ recent “Sounds of Camden” exhibition. The pieces have also been created and installed in Europe: “The Songs We Sing, Marnay,” in Marnay-sur-Seine, France, in 2014; “The Songs We Sing, Berlin,” in Berlin, in 2013; and “The Songs We Sing, Amsterdam,” in Amsterdam, in 2013.

In advance of each site-specific installation, Demaray digitally records participants attempting to make the birdcalls of local songbirds. Click here and here for sample audio recordings from “The Songs We Sing, Camden.” The participants’ vocalizations are then randomly sampled and played back on a wireless audio system, which is installed in multiple locations at the particular site. The resulting audio tracks blend with the preexisting natural and urban soundscapes, but are not intended to sound completely natural.

“The experience for a listener is often one of recontextualization – these new sounds may call many of the elements of the immediate environment into question,” says Demaray.

After completing “The Songs We Sing, Camden,” installation, Demaray invited a group of participants, including students in her Conceptual Art class at Rutgers–Camden, for a happening – a live, group birdcall performance titled “The Songs Cycle” – in the Stedman Gallery. In the spirit of the performance art form, the Rutgers–Camden artist wanted the participants to perform a series of actions involving chance, in order to create an experience that was unknowable in advance.

Elizabeth Demaray

Elizabeth Demaray

Conducted by Stefán Örn Arnarson, theater programs director and an instructor of music at Rutgers University–Camden, “The Songs Cycle” was a completely unrehearsed, three-part performance aiming to create a new form of orchestrated soundscape.

“Much like instruments in an orchestra, each animal has its own niche, its own acoustic territory, in healthy ecosystems,” explains Demaray.

In the first movement, Arnarson taught the participants basic conductor movements and instructed them to make their birdcalls whenever they felt that it was appropriate during the performance. Click here for the audio recording.

“So the first time that Stefán motioned for us to begin vocalizing, everybody suddenly became avian, and it was astounding,” recalls Demaray. “The throng of human-generated birdsong just astonished everybody.”

In the second movement, Arnarson conducted the assemblage to make individual birdcalls and different choirs of birds calling at different times.

“Although this section is conducted, this is still a spontaneous, completely unrehearsed performance, with the conductor navigating this completely new assemblage of human animal calls,” says Demaray. Click here for the audio recording.

In the final movement, Arnarson and Demaray asked the group of 23 performers to physically move, to walk around the soundstage until they found other birds in or close to their species via simply listening to their calls. The performers thus migrated around the stage until they were able to find their own kind or flock. Click here for the audio recording.

“Just making animal noises is a tough thing to do; we’ve been trained our whole lives to make culturally acceptable speech type sounds,” says Demaray. “From a social perspective, gathering as a group and making non-human noise was an unusual experience. Ultimately, we hope that the project increases awareness of the lack of biodiversity around us by attempting to fill a void left in the natural world.”

For more information about Demaray’s eco art, visit elizbethdemaray.org.

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