Other artists

Shawn Decker – Prairie

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The work

Prairie by Shawn Decker is a large, sonic, partially generative installation. It is mimicking a natural sonic environment which could be found, as the title suggests, on a grassland prairie. The installation generates a range of simple clicks and buzzes, none of which are (at individual inspection) very natural sounding. The immersion that is intended rather comes from the vast duplication of the simple system. The complete piece is made up of 432 vertically fixed metal rods, with some space in between them, all of which are acting as individuals and as individual sound making objects. What makes this piece, and Deckers creative intention, interesting is that it is internally communicative. Each rod is “listening” to what sounds its neighbours are making and, using code that imitate organic systems, make decisions on what to respond to this input. At times this leads to what can be heard as “conversations” between rods, and at times the system creates a smoother flow all over the room, rather imitating natural phenomenon such as wind.


Decker has made previous work with a similar subject matter, even using similar technology to execute the ideas (http://www.shawndecker.com/node/7). In comparison, the immersion that seem possible with a installation in this grand size, and (as far as I can tell) the refined technical execution proves this piece immensely interesting. Decker has managed to build, code and construct a completely inorganic physical installation, which generate an auditory space which is manifesting itself as an organic object.

Decker states

While developing this piece, Decker documents as follows:


“Motion Studies (Prairie) is the latest of my works exploring the complexities of rhythm, small motions, sounds and the dynamic behavior of natural systems. This piece, which references the dynamic rhythms of grasslands and the rich soundscape and eco-systems found within them, evokes insect sounds, as well as rain, wind, and other rhythms of life within the prairie, enacted within a architectonic minimalism.


[…] The entire piece is controlled using a microcontroller, which sends pulses of on/off voltages to both the speaker at the top, and the motor at the bottom simultaneously causing the speakers to buzz and click, and the “grass” stem to shudder and sway, suggesting causality between sound and motion.


[…] The emergent behavior that develops within these systems is often unpredictable, and I particularly like creating artworks whose behavior can still surprise me long after they have been turned on.


[…] Various indeterminate decisions are made within the algorithms of each individual. I do not use pseudo-random number generators (mathematical models that “simulate” randomness, but are in fact deterministic) but get my random values by sampling the light, sound, and electro-magnetism surrounding the piece, using actual low-level changes in the environment that are too small for us to perceive. These random deviations also accumulate over time – in a self-similar process often seen in the natural world. This accumulation also moves the piece gradually through various stages of behavior, perhaps in a manner like that of an eco-system responding to gradual changes in its natural environment.


[…] This piece adopts the manner of operation of natural systems. However, its artifice and electro-mechanical construction are never disguised. At various points in time – the program will create somewhat formal changes in behavior by constricting the activity to smaller groups of stems – only the center four, or the four on the outer corners, etc. almost like the imposition of a social structure onto the individuals. This constriction alters the perception of the behaviors – in small groups it seems very much like a conversation going on between individuals – whereas in the larger group it feels much more like a natural environment.”


– http://www.shawndecker.com/node/45


Kathleen Kirk: “It’s a lovely combination of sound and silence that, without an inch of nostalgia, creates an impression of a lost natural world. That is, the outdoors is implied indoors, the natural world is conveyed through technology and artifice, and an interior space reminds us of an exterior space with subtlety and restraint. […] I could come up close and look at a tiny motor or stand back and gaze at the whole field. I could see each thing for what it was, a meticulous machine, or notice resemblances—first to grasses, yes, but the metal prairie “stems” also resemble tiny fishing rods that “catch” both silence and sound”


– http://www.escapeintolife.com/blog/poetry-in-ecomotion-prairie-by-shawn-decker/


Newcity Art: “Decker’s electro-kinetic soundscapes reveal an uncanny relationship between nature and the machine. Inspired by the dissonant and harsh sounds of avant-garde compositions of twentieth-century Futurism, the artist uses industrial materials to create music of the machine age.”


– http://art.newcity.com/2013/04/09/portrait-of-the-artist-shawn-decker/#more-13450


My reflections

This project manifests the essence in one part of my Dropworks installation. It captures great technical execution and a sterile visual aesthetic, with a result that is surprisingly life like and organic. The stripped down and bare bones installation leaves a technically minded visitor a transparency to what is actually producing the sound matter, and creates a very interesting contrast between the visual and sonic experience. This contrast is something I will evaluate further, and most probably take inspiration from in the visual representation of my own installation work.


The sonic output of the installation seems fairly different from what I wish my work to sound like, but the concept of technologically produced sound that imitate naturally occurring patterns and shapes interest me a lot. For my Dropworks installation, I am looking to produce a very easily accessible melodic sound world, but with inspiration from nature to control modulations and note data. My algorithms will be less scientific, and of a simpler quality, but as I found this quote in my research, I will be looking into how I could experiment with these concepts in my own work:


“I often use configurations of Brownian motion of particles or fluctuations of 1/f noise to translate and reimagine the sound of leaves falling on the ground or raindrops hitting a blade of grass.”


It seems from the documentation available online that the sonic output of the installation is quite continuously active, and I for one would love to hear it in minimal action as well. I can easily imagine being quite overwhelmed if the installation was always making sound. Standing in the centre of the piece, with only a few rods communicating with each other would be a beautiful experience.


All in all, this installation is the most comprehensive piece I have found to this date that work this closely to what I have during the years at UAL gathered interest in. I would, and will, enjoy expanding my technical abilities in order to improve and expand my future work.