Immersive forest experience features auditory art project

By Caroline Drew

Step behind the Fields Center for Visual Arts and you will soon stumble upon a neatly crafted, freshly mulched walking path. If you follow the roundabout trail and peer into the surrounding trees, you will find 16 strange new creatures perched there: weather-proof speakers. The Experimental Art Research (EAR) Forest opened on Thursday, Nov. 2 with a reception offering hot cider and donuts to students and community members.

The soundscape emerged from the vision of Associate professor and Head of Sculpture Jess Perliz and Visiting Professor of Art and Digital Media Dann Disciglio. They collaborated with numerous teams of students, faculty and facilities staff members to create an immersive audio venue in nature. At the opening ceremony, the sun shone overhead as professors, staff, community members and students traversed the trail, listening intently to a variety of audio arrangements from Disciglio’s digital media classes. Some guests looked out into the forest as they listened, taking in the fall beauty, while others closed their eyes, perhaps hoping to glimpse the inspiration behind students’ arrangements. It was important for Disciglio and Perlitz that the EAR Forest be inaugurated with student projects. 

“Something magical happens when the students see the really splendid, incredible parts of being an artist like having an opening and sharing your work. There’s nothing better than that moment when you symbolically walk off the stage and you’ve finished your performance,” Disciglio said. 

The new venue offered a particularly poignant stage for students.

“We are defining the space as we go,” Disciglio said. “Not only are you some of the first works that are going to be playing back on the system, you are some of the first brains that are plugging into the system.”

Disciglio’s audio artists took eagerly to the opportunity to share their pieces with the community and help shape the EAR Forest for artists to come. 

“I would say the general consensus was a curious excitement, like, ‘there’s this new space and I’m going to help activate it. I’m going to be part of an opening ceremony,’” Disciglio said. “To see the different methods that they discovered, or developed themselves to actually create new pieces was inspiring.”

Poetry, music and carefully recorded everyday sounds—the breathing of a cat and boiling water in a pot, to name a few—animated the forest at the opening reception, sparking countless possibilities for the EAR Forest’s future. The reception featured two different timed audio programs, one featuring work from Disciglio’s Digital Media I class and the other work from Digital Media II. The 16 speakers functioned separately for Disciglio’s Digital Music I class: Each student composed their own audio work which was played over a single speaker. Standing at the center of the path, the individual works came together in an intriguing, calming soundscape. The second session featured compositions from Digital Media II students in which each speaker emitted a different arrangement, played simultaneously. Each student approached this task differently, but the captivating effect was the same.

The EAR Forest’s speakers create sound that surrounds and envelopes the listener and the natural setting creates an embodied, sensorial experience of listening. Shifting natural elements exacerbate and illuminate this unique aspect: Perlitz said, “it’s just as beautiful in the rain.

“I was out there yesterday. It was windy, the dead leaves were falling, it was raining yellow and red leaves and I had a similar experience. There’s this immersive (quality) that felt so different from our opening weather-wise. It was windy and there were so many more leaves on the path and it’s just so immersive—it felt completely different,” Disciglio said.

The sensorial, engaging elements of the EAR Forest were at the heart of Disciglio and Perlitz’s conception of the project from the beginning.

“We were curious about how (to) acquire technology that doesn’t become obsolete, that allows students to actually become more present and engaged in their surroundings. How can technology actually bring us closer to ourselves and our surroundings?” Perlitz said. “We decided, well, we’re going to use technology to create a venue or a platform for people to use.”

Now that the venue has been created, and students have begun to explore the exhibition possibilities, Disciglio and Perlitz are intent on expanding the EAR Forest’s reach. In spring 2024, they’ll welcome their first visiting artist.

“We’ll be able to bring in some folks who work deeply with sound or with audio paths or have practices that lend themselves to this kind of a venue. We’ll be able to integrate them into classes and have them give an artist talk,” Perlitz said.

Visiting artists give students an opportunity to learn from new perspectives and envision new artistic possibilities. Beyond more traditional art forms, the EAR Forest also holds potential as an institutional creative venue to be used across disciplines.

“There is potential for poetry, you know. We have students and faculty interested in doing theatrical events … doing historical classwork … looking at literature, looking at mythos. I think we’ll probably even get to a point at which there’s a way that a math class could use it, or a physics class,” Disciglio said. 

As different scholars and artists experiment with the EAR Forest, Perlitz and Disciglio plan to build an archive of the recordings to inspire future projects. 

“We’re excited as other disciplines start to use it too, then there will be examples of what it sounds like to have 16 poets, or to have oral histories, or to have field recordings. Particularly in the fields that maybe don’t often have creative ways of displaying research, it’ll help them imagine what’s possible,” Perlitz said.

The very first dabblings into interdisciplinary work at the EAR Forest are close at hand. The EAR Forest will be part of this year’s Festival of Artists and Scholars. Disciglio and Perlitz are hoping to collaborate with the 2024 Gender Studies Symposium as well. 

“It’s a place of celebration,” Disciglio said. 

It is intended, much like a theatre or concert stage, to bring people together in shared experience and to foster creative communities. In response to the inaccessibility of the EAR Forest’s path, each programming played there will be recorded using binaural microphones—which mimic the experience of hearing through ears—and uploaded to a Soundcloud archive. 

The EAR Forest is open from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. on Fridays. Programming begins on the hour and repeats throughout the time window. The EAR Forest archive can be accessed on Soundcloud at any time. Stay tuned for future EAR events and programming changes.

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