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At ‘Prairie’ and ‘Orniphonica 2,’ Machines Make Nature Sound Awesome

Circuits and synthesizers mimic the natural world in two free art shows at the Cultural Center and Lincoln Park Conservatory.

Photograph: Cathy Tschannen

Although I live in the Midwest, I’ve never seen a Midwestern prairie. Instead, I savor Chicago’s plentiful manufactured nature-experiences: the parks, the greenhouse conservatories, the lakefront bike path, and the produce aisle.

This month, on the cusp of spring, two artists show a similar fondness for the virtual countryside, in Prairie and Orniphonica 2.



Prairie, by Shawn Decker, masterfully reenacts the sound of twilight in a shrubby landscape as if performed by a robot orchestra. Hundreds of miniature speakers atop brass poles, at the height of tall grass, emit a clicking symphony of randomized pulses and rhythms. The poles are attached to a programmed circuit-board (pick up the gallery brochure to see a cool diagram), which controls the infinite song. It sounds like takatakata, or a thousand crickets pecking away at typewriters.

The clicks bounce off the Cultural Center’s coffered ceilings. Skyscrapers peek through the windows. It’s a calming hush in the middle of downtown, and you can really lose yourself there. It’s quite meditative.

There’s also ample programming, such as a terrarium workshop on April 6, a talk with the artist on March 28, and performances by Atom-r on April 20, 21, and 24.

On view through May 3 at the Chicago Cultural Center, fourth floor, 78 E Washington. Free to attend.


Orniphonica 2

The fern room at the Lincoln Park Conservatory is one of my favorite places to spend a cold afternoon. It is humid and smells unabashedly verdant. The place hardly needs anything extra to make it more perfect, yet Orniphonica 2, a digital sound composition by Bob Snyder, animates the glass-and-steel greenhouse with synthesizer birdsong.

The all-electronic chirps accent the fern room with a surreal lullaby, accompanied by the fat drips of condensation from the glass ceiling and the primordially slow sound of fronds unfurling. Conservatory signage describes the fern room as a place where “a dinosaur would feel at home.” Indeed, Snyder’s soundtrack adds an eerie, time-warp mood to the lush indoor garden.

On view through May 31 at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, 2391 N Stockton. Free to attend.


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