Fern up the volume
Experimental Sound Studio teams up with the Lincoln Park Conservatory.
It’s so warm and humid in Chicago’s tropical forest, you’d never guess we have three months of winter left.
One normally finds the lush plants known as cycads in Africa, Asia and Central America. Yet they grew in Illinois hundreds of millions of years ago, and they still thrive in the Lincoln Park Conservatory’s Fern Room—along with Florasonic, an unusual series of art installations coordinated by the Edgewater-based Experimental Sound Studio (ESS).
The latest Florasonic project, Baltimore-based artist Jenny Gräf Sheppard’s “Osmosymbiotic Echo,” fills the Fern Room with recorded birdsongs, electronic sounds and ultrasonic noises that only birds and insects can hear. According to ESS executive director and Florasonic curator Lou Mallozzi, 51, Sheppard reminds us that although plants and animals are interdependent, we humans are still defining our place in the natural world.
Florasonic began in 2001, Mallozzi recalls, when local sound artist M. W. Burns suggested the conservatory would be an ideal place for audio installations. “In a tactile and visual sense, the place has a fairly strong identity. I mean, it has its own weather! But it could be responded to in a number of different ways,” says Mallozzi, who cofounded the ESS with three other Chicagoans in 1986. He finds the conservatory’s “collision between the natural and the artificial” especially intriguing and observes that sound art doesn’t have to disturb the site’s “strong context.” Instead, it can “explore a dialogue with that context.”
Mallozzi found it easier than he’d anticipated to gain the support of Lisa Roberts, the conservatory’s director at the time, and Adam Schwerner, the Chicago Park District’s director of natural resources. Both believed cultural programs would attract more visitors to the Lincoln Park Conservatory and its sister institution in Garfield Park. (Coincidentally, Schwerner’s late uncle was a famous avant-garde sound poet.) Roberts and Schwerner couldn’t spare any funding for Florasonic, but Mallozzi says they enabled ESS to “navigate the potentially lugubrious bureaucracy of the Park District.” In November 2001, the first artist, Ernst Karel, set up a four-speaker sound system in the Fern Room that became the template for subsequent projects; since then, ESS has presented about three installations per year there.
Most artists who’ve participated in Florasonic, including Fred Lonberg-Holm, Mark Booth and Olivia Block, live in Chicago; ESS helps the others travel here to visit the Fern Room so that their installations address the space as specifically as possible. Even so, the series has featured an eclectic range of text-based, musical and conceptual work: Karel generated synthetic sounds with waveforms that matched the shapes of the ferns. Amnon Wolman, a prominent composer who taught at Northwestern before moving to New York, incorporated sounds “from the world outside” into his piece, Mallozzi explains. “He had a lot of recordings of things like street fairs in Chicago that would come up very quietly, just at the level where you weren’t quite sure if they were outside or not. So he reinforced the isolation of the space and its separation from the city.”
Mallozzi has already lined up SAIC professor Bob Snyder for Florasonic once Sheppard’s show ends, but he fears the series will slow down this year due to funding cuts. In 2007, the nonprofit Lincoln Park Conservancy, which helps the Chicago Park District carry out improvement projects, stopped underwriting one third of Florasonic’s costs. The music-oriented Argosy Foundation, which partly supported three projects including Sheppard’s, only accepts grant applications every other year. “I’m not sure where the money will come from, but we’ll do it one way or another,” Mallozzi promises. “It’s the only project of its kind in the country.”
Experience “Osmosymbiotic Echo” at the Lincoln Park Conservatory through February 28.