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February 21, 2007

Natural Car Alarms


A Chaotic, jungle-y effect

Natural Car Alarms--by Nina Katchadourian--is a project consisting of three cars rigged with modified car alarms whose typical six-tone siren has been replaced with a similar one made only of bird calls. Some of the bird sounds are shockingly electronic in character; others are very bird-like in the quality of their sound, but very alarm-like in their patterning. While on an artist's residency at Caribbean Contemporary Arts in Trinidad during summer of 2001, I decided to travel to a small coastal town called Grand Riviere for a few days. This place was known for its natural beauty and wildlife, including giant leatherback turtles that came up onto the beaches there to lay their eggs during a brief window every year. Trinidad hosts an incredible variety of plant and animal life, and is particularly well known as a bird watcher's paradise.

During my time in Grand Riviere I decided to spend an afternoon hiking with a local guide who took me far up into a remote mountainous area in the rainforest. We climbed up narrow mountain paths into areas thick with vegetation that surrounded and disoriented me. It was an environment unlike any I had ever been in before. Stopping to take a breather on the way down the mountain, I suddenly heard a very familiar noise in the midst of all unfamiliar natural surroundings: a car alarm. I stood listening to it for a few moments before things snapped back into context and I realized that this sound couldn't possibly be a car alarm. It was in fact a bird.

I'm a great believer in misunderstandings as fruitful starting points for art works. Moments of confusion can be incredibly expansive mental spaces, where you hover in a kind of vastness, trying to extend this state as long as possible until some clue provides context, or some bit of information anchors you once again to what's actually going on, delineating and determining what you should be understanding about things. Most people have had the experience of sleeping in an unfamiliar place and for a moment having no idea where you are when you wake up. Standing there in the rainforest was a bit like this: I tried to stay with both interpretations of that sound for as long as I could, but I also made a mental note to remember the error for later.

In Spring 2002, SculptureCenter was finishing renovations on their new exhibition space in Long Island City and wanted to commission a work that didn't need a roof over its head. I proposed a project called Natural Car Alarms: a flock of three cars, each outfitted with a different car alarm modeled on the ubiquitous six-tone siren so common in New York City cars. Although they would behave just like the real thing, the alarms would all be composed of bird sounds.

I contacted the Macauley Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They were known for having a vast archive of animal sounds, and agreed to work with me on the project. I sent them a recording of a car alarm from a screaming car on my street one day, and they set about finding bird calls that roughly matched those sounds. A few weeks later, I had a CD in hand with 33 different birds on it and I set to work to edit the sound.

Each car had a different alarm soundtrack, and each alarm had six different birds, so there were 18 birds involved in all. The choices were tough. I wanted to find a good balance of sounds that were both shockingly alarm-like but also distinctly still bird-like in their quality. Almost as important as matching the sounds was finding a patterning that mimicked the swooping cries and punctuated honks of the familiar six-tone siren. They also needed to be as loud, intrusive, obnoxious and surprising as the real thing. Ideally, I wanted to replicate some of the ambiguity I had experienced in the forest, where the urban and the natural were suddenly very continuous. Car alarms were after all a completely natural part of the Long Island City landscape where the piece would be shown.

The piece was shown at several locations during the summer and fall: MoMA QNS, PS1, Socrates Sculpture Park, and Sculpture Center, where the flock came home to roost at SculptureCenter's opening of their new space. In each case, the cars were parked adjacent to one another and left there for the day. The alarms ran on timers, not synchronized to another in any particular way. There were moments were one car was screaming and another would seem to respond a few minutes later, and occasional moments when all three cars would go off at once — a completely chaotic, jungle-y effect.

Posted by jo at February 21, 2007 09:45 AM