Published October 23, 2014
The thick weeds and ungainly overgrowth of urban wilds are not usually mentioned in the same breath as the manicured lawns and trimmed shrubs of formal gardens, but these disturbed landscapes have qualities and value that are illuminated through an audio art piece produced by a UB faculty member and a Harvard researcher.
“Other Order” is a sound walk through the Bussey Brook Meadow at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University created by Teri Rueb, a professor in the UB Department of Media Study, and Peter Del Tredici, the Arnold Arboretum’s senior research scientist, who also teaches botany at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
It opened on Oct. 18.
A sound walk is fundamentally similar to a jogger listening to music through a set of headphones. The jogger’s playlist, however, is merely a succession of personal preferences. “Other Order” is an artistic catalog of sounds with specific selections played when a GPS recognizes a listener’s location within the meadow. If beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, “Other Order” hopes to show how that vision is shaped as much by what’s heard as what’s seen.
Sound walks are not new, but new technology has made them more convenient. Visitors download an app that tracks their progress through the grounds. Laptops were once required, but today visitors need their own headphones and a mobile device. The profile of the modern sound walk is now the size of a smartphone.
“Other Order” has an undercurrent of natural sound, but it’s also filled with the voices — neighbors, dog walkers, site workers, the homeless and that of Del Tredici, who serves as the sound walk’s botanical guide — that Rueb collected over two years of site recording. The natural ambient base layer is meshed with the landscape. The seamless layers lend an ambiguity to “Other Order” that can make the source of the sound unclear. Visitors might be hearing an element of the sound walk or it could be a sound heard that moment from within the environment. The result is an art piece that gives visitors an audio cross section that reveals the forces and personalities that influenced and shaped the existing landscape.
“My hope is that visitors will be able to view these landscapes that may initially look unkempt, shaggy and even in moments appear a little derelict and recognize that these places have a beauty of their own because they have been allowed to evolve according to their own spontaneous processes,” says Rueb.
The catalog of sound is more than two hours and staying on the meadow’s main path would give visitors a complete experience. But Rueb explains the explorers who venture off that path will encounter surprises, including an audio passage that recalls the romance of a former arboretum staff member that was captured in a 1970s photo shoot.
Bussey Brook Meadow serves, in a sense, as the Arnold Arboretum’s foil, its random and emergent ecology situated beside the carefully arranged structure of the arboretum. “Other Order’s” name is, in fact, a reflection of formal expression juxtaposed with the new order represented by Bussey Brook, a kind of alter ego to the arboretum, says Rueb.
“Or as Peter calls it: the arboretum gone wild,” she says.
Del Tredici’s recorded segments of the sound walk are a further articulation of that juxtaposition. “Other Order” is without scholarly language. Instead, Del Tredici’s speaks as someone familiar with the meadow’s native, non-native and invasive species, yet equally interested in presenting its beauty and sharing its benefits.
“As much as you have this spontaneous vegetation within Bussey Brook, there are also escapees from the arboretum,” Rueb says. “Occasionally, you see an incredible ornamental species from China growing next to a grove of sumac, for example, or a common street tree like the ailanthus — a tree that has important ecological functions in urban environments, including shade, carbon-fixing and oxygen production. Peter brings out these strange juxtapositions and points out what we value as precious and how that changes over time.”
Urban wilds are all over and Rueb says these open, untended natural spaces are essential to our well-being in many ways. They are not planned landscapes, but they serve an environmental function that’s an alternative to the expensive and resource-intensive designed park.
“If we can see the beauty of this other kind of aesthetic that has its own logic and its own resilience, then we might see ourselves in relation to ecological processes differently, perhaps creating a little more room for a version that doesn’t see us as the center, always in control,” says Rueb.
“Other Order” was funded with a donation by Janine Luke. The project was commissioned by the Arnold Arboretum and funded with an Artist Residency at the Harvard metalab.