On October 14, the historical West Philadelphia cultural and ecological destination Bartram’s Garden was transformed into a symphony of sounds, samples and visual art for the Switched-On Garden 002. Now in its second year, the artists and musicians at Data Garden in association with DesignPhiladelphia take over the oldest botanical garden in North America for a day of music-meets-nature that is as transporting and entertaining as it is interactive.
Wandering around the grounds of the garden, one is immediately aware of their place in the soundscape. This realization leads to feeling inextricably linked to one’s surroundings and provides a degree of transcendence beyond a typical day in the park. Natural sounds like rustling leaves intertwine with the cadence of voices and the blips and beats of electronically produced sounds. Structures of human design mingle with the branches of plants while groups of onlookers pool around them, testing the machines and their own intuitions as they participate in the musical menagerie.
For the beginning part of the day, bio-interactive sound installations whirr and hiss over the 46 acres of Bartram’s Garden. Of particular note is “Duet,” a reinterpretation of “Quartet” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in which tropical plants’ electrical impulses produce tones in response to their environments. Others include “Electricity for Progress,” a display of circuit-bent instruments by Sam Cusumano and “Newest Sounds of Nature,” a noisy autumnal totem by Dan Scofield and Patrick Proctor.
Artist Tim Eads and sound designer Austen Brown’s “Environmental Otological Research Device.Beta.V01” confronts visitors with kinetic sculptures that swish grass and rotate through strands of fabric to produce sounds which are projected through giant megaphones. The central area allows the microphones to be adjusted in order to focus on specific regions of audio and amplify them, bringing those noises to the forefront of the mix.
On a wooden walkway, Steven Litt arranges red drum sequencers on music stands in a circle around a variety of resonant objects: turtle shells, wooden buckets and ceramic vessels for “Crudblocks.” Every sequencer controls a solenoid – a spring-loaded hitting device – attached to one of the objects. Each setup of percussive controls takes its turn, playing in a perpetual circle of programmable rhythms. Anyone can press the buttons to adjust the number and placement of hits, producing a real-time crowd-sourced beat.
A massive, solitary tree takes on the role of naturalist John Bartram in Leslie Zacharkow and Kyle Stetz’s “Flora Catalogus.” The two artists attempt to wrap their minds around what a tree would do if it were to analyze and confront human beings the way that scientists classify plants. Long, sock-like strips of fabric dangle from the tree’s limbs holding a microphone and number of speakers. When participants enter the zone around the tree, their sounds are transferred and altered through the speakers as if interpreted by the tree’s perceptions of us.
Upon the arrival of dusk, the installations were silenced so that the concert could begin. A number of Data Garden recording artists and DJs were on hand to produce their own sounds along with vocalists, a viola player and a Theremin. Among the performers were DJ Ryan Todd, Cosmic Morning and Dino Lionetti of the chiptune band Cheap Dinosaurs. The night also served as a dual release party for an EP by Spaceship Aloha and the album “The Bee and the Stamen” by King Britt.
Near the exit, and backlit by the Philadelphia skyline, the Klip Collective’s “Meadow 1.0” offered attendees a farewell. Buzzing tracks mixed with the familiar sound of crickets eased everyone out of the garden for their departure home. A blanket of smoke from a machine served as the screen for an accompanying lightshow that straddled the line between firefly and sine wave.
Data Garden’s Switched-On Garden 002 proves that although technology and nature often seem at odds, they can also exist in harmonious balance through artistic and musical experimentation. When we accept that we are part of both our creations and our environment, it is simultaneously empowering and humbling. They say that the third time’s the charm, and surely next autumn’s third installment of the Switched-On Garden cannot come soon enough.