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Bug Songs: A new sound art exhibit at Sediment Gallery explores the effect of climate change on the way insects communicate 

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Dana Ollestad

Listen closely. A cooing or murmuring sound is interspersed with one that sonically resembles Velcro separating.

Another is similar to ticking tones that resonate and subside at random intervals. Melody and harmony are absent. The noises played in "Singing Amongst the Weeds," a four-chapter sound composition played across six speakers at eye level in the white cube of Sediment Arts are guttural, deep, and electronic as if produced by machines.

But this is nature. Insects to be exact.

More precisely, the mating signals or vibrations — what scientists refer to as singing —of tree hoppers, oak tree hoppers, stink bugs, ebony bugs and Japanese beetles. As the male insect moves from plant to plant he sends off vibrations, which are detected by the female insect through her legs. I the female is interested, she initiates a vibrational song that leads to mating.

The vibrations, however, are undetectable to the unaided human ear.

Sound artist and Virginia Commonwealth University kinetic imaging professor Stephen Vitiello and biologist and assistant professor at St. Louis University, Kasey Fowler-Finn, have taken a series of these recordings by attaching scientific devices to trees, leaves, weeds and other flora and fauna at the University of Virginia's Mountain Lake Biological Station, a residential research and teaching facility in Pembroke. With the collaboration of graphic designer Kika Tuff and lighting designer Dana Ollestad, "Singing Amongst the Weeds," which includes the six-channel sound composition of the same name, six didactic posters and a light installation, is an exhibition currently on view at Sediment Arts.

In her research, Fowler-Finn studies the effects of climate change on insects' songs. As the climate warms, she has discovered that male and female songs may be altered possibly leading to a mismatch of signals. To indicate the relationship between the insect songs and a shift in temperature, Ollestad's installation emits lights overhead flowing from cool blues to hot reds. The six posters at the front of the gallery present in scientific terms, alongside infographics and photographs, the research behind the insects' songs and broader global-warming implications.

Research-based art can be overwhelming in its breadth sometimes, but the best presents a balance between art and research and leaves visitors feeling intrigued, perplexed or transfixed like any great art, while not becoming pedantic.

How does one edit the amount of research necessary when displaying the final product? "Singing Amongst the Weeds" seems to be in the midst of that dilemma. Rather than one cohesive project, it presents itself as sound art and scientific project with creatively interpreted supporting evidence. The installation design corroborates this — notice how the posters are placed on the wall farthest from the speakers, to avoid distracting visitors. Yet the they are conspicuously present and the first things that greet visitors and establish the context.

By presenting Vitiello's complex and beautiful sound composition akin to an illustration of a scientific phenomenon, complete with corresponding colors that are meant to indicate such literal phenomena as changing temperatures, it diminishes the impact of the sound piece.

Instead, I closed my eyes to focus on the sound, to listen and feel each tonal vibration in the 9 minute and 4 second composition. The enveloping immersive noises from the six speakers from the sound composition mimicked a type of place-making that transported me to another world filled with pairs of actors speaking back and forth. It was as if I were eavesdropping on a conversation spoken in an unknown language. Alone in the intimate dimly lit space of the gallery, I recalled the words of the late poet W.S. Merwin:

While we talk
thousands of languages are listening
saying nothing

while we close a door
flocks of birds are flying through winters
of endless light

while we sign our names
more of us
lets go

and will never answer
— W.S. Merwin, "At the Same Time" (1970)

"Singing Amongst the Weeds," is on view through April 7 at Sediment Arts. An artist talk will be held April 6 at 4 p.m. For information, see sedimentarts.org.

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