I met Johann Diedrick at a recent conference at the Environmental Performance Agency, an artist collective that functions as kind of a think tank for finding new ways to interact with the environment in an urban context. Wearing a bright orange fanny-pack that I liked in and of itself, Johann took the floor to talk about his recent project, Good Vibrations.
It turned out the fanny-pack was even more awesome than I had originally assumed.
This, in point of fact, was Good Vibrations, a mobile listening device complete with headphones 3 different types of microphones: a contact mic, a hydrophone and a probe mic. Each type of microphone allows listeners to tune into different types of surfaces. You can listen to what’s going on under the soil with a probe mic, checkout how a stream in Central Park or the gutter in the East Village sounds with the hydrophone, or tune into the vibrations of the sidewalk with the contact mic.
My mind immediately began race with all the new ways Good Vibrations could interact with City Plants and I had to find out more. Luckily, Johann was happy to answer a few of my questions.
City Plants: What inspired you to create Good Vibrations?
Johann Diedrick: Vibrations came out of a desire to find new, personal ways to connect to nature through sound. My former collaborator Christie Leece and I wanted to find ways that we could earnestly engage with the world around us. We were coming from a place where normal ways of connecting to nature had become tired, dull and cliché – which made responding to changes in nature difficult or impossible, and maybe worse, irresponsible and problematic. For us, using sound as a jumping off point for reengaging with nature gave us all of these novel ways to insert ourselves into new situations and come out with unique, personalized relationships to the natural world.
CP: Have you used it to listen to the vibrations of plants? Of soil?
JD: Yeah! About a month ago I used one of the kits to listen to the sounds of the Environmental Performance Agency digging up soil in their urban weeds garden. I was mediating a listening experience as Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco buried their Next Epoch Seed Library in the ground. As part of a month-long residency in Kyoto, Japan this past April, I was listening to the quiet sounds of the city and recorded the sounds of bamboo and flowers near the city’s western mountain side.
CP: Listening can be an uncanny and unhinging activity. To really hear a new idea for the first time can upend one’s view of the world. To me, Good Vibrations has the capacity to make participants think about the world in a completely different way. To have a sonic quality is to have a different kind of presence, one that is unignorable. After first creating Good Vibrations, did you find yourself looking at the world and its objects in new ways? How? Do you find this is a common experience of users?
JD: I do tend to look a objects and think about what sounds they might be emitting, or what sounds it might make if you hit it with a stick. I’m definitely one of those people who walks into a room and gets distracted by the high-frequency pitchings of a noisy light or, in the absence of any loud sounds, the overwhelming quietness of some spaces. I think my acoustic explorations have given me an enhanced sense of mapping out spaces. Instead of describing a place by landmarks or things to look out for, I can describe a place by what sounds are there, and I’ve started thinking about how you might create a new cartography based on sound alone. The users of the kits start to develop this sensibility as well, while on the tours. I think it starts to organically reoriented them to the world around them as something that can be navigated sonically, not just visually.
CP: What’s the next iteration of Good Vibrations? How can readers participate or get a kit of their own?
JD: For the past year or so I’ve been focusing on teaching workshops on how to build my mobile listening kits. The next iteration of the listening kits improve on the internal circuitry and will include microphones for listening to liquids and the inside of materials. You can purchase a kit online at ThinkingHz or attend an upcoming workshop at EPA.