Bird alarms and popcorn morse code

This week’s School of Art lecture featured Nina Katchadourian. An artist creating work a number of different mediums, her pieces are often closely tied to exploring language and communication.

"Natural Car Alarms" (2002) began with Katchadourian’s residency in Trinidad. While on a hike, she heard a noise in the woods; she thought it was a car alarm, but it was actually a birdcall. When she returned to New York, Katchadourian used this misunderstanding as inspiration for a public installation, "Natural Car Alarms." For "Alarms," Katchadourian inserted timed car alarms into three cars, using sounds made from composite birdcalls. This installation created an acoustic chaos; Katchadourian’s intention was to explore contradictions within the world, and question how one is willing to accept things as false.

Started in 1993, "The Sorted Books Project" is Katchadourian’s ongoing effort to question the organization of information. Katchadourian examines book titles in personal collections; she flips some of the books around so you can’t see their titles, while preserving others to form sentences. For example, “A Day at the Beach/The Bathers/Shark 1/Shark 2/Shark 4/Sudden Violence/Silence” describes the plot of jaws using seven book titles. The sentences themselves are relatively playful, as the subjects of the various books put each sentence fragment into a different context.

Another piece dealing with language is "Talking Popcorn", a popcorn machine fitted with a microphone that translates popcorn pops into Morse code, and from Morse code, to text. Most of the machine’s words are gibberish, though some are words and phrases. Katchadourian kept a journal of the machine’s speech, with popcorn samples for each entry. She also cast its first words in bronze; for example, the word “we” was made from three popcorn kernels.

Finally, "Please Please Pleased to Meet’cha" (2006) is an installation that deals with nature and communication. While creating the piece, Katchadourian recorded 11 United Nations workers reading the phonetic pronunciation of birdcalls from bird-watching books. In the installation, she placed speakers at the bases of trees, which blasted mulitated birdcalls as visitors approached. While some of the sounds were frightening composites, others were relatively playful.

Katchadourian deals with language and communication by examining systems and processes found in everyday situations. She causes the viewer to stop and question where communication systems exist.