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HORTUS: a soundscape of birdsong

With the process to select 2014 IWP Fall Residents in full swing, we thought it might be fun to look back at one of the highlights of the 2013 Fall Residency.

[Click to Enlarge] Portela leading a guided tour of the HORTUS installation in downtown Iowa City.
[Click to Enlarge] Portela leading a guided tour of the HORTUS installation in downtown Iowa City.
The 4,000 plus literary visitors to the 2013 Iowa City Book Festival got an unexpected treat: a soundscape of synthetic birdsong. The birdsong was part of an innovative sound installation project, HORTUS, organized by 2013 Fall Resident Patrícia Portela (Portugal), IWP’s inaugural Community Engagement Fellow, in collaboration with Belgian artist Christoph De Boeck. For four days in October, festival-goers, pedestrians, and community members gazed up curiously into the trees or paused to read the digital plaques along Iowa City’s downtown Pedestrian Mall.  
 Speakers in the trees on the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall.
Speakers in the trees on the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall.
All the while, a network of sensors was measuring the wind and light harvested by trees and plants as part of photosynthesis, and translating these natural economies into bird calls.  The installation also reacted to human movement: a financial algorithm, taking into account solitary and crowd movement, transformed and remapped the soundscape.  Then, each time visitors stopped to read or reflect, the original sound design for the landscape returned, reflecting only the readings of natural energy.  The digital plaques featured looping micro “stories” that compared economic, political, or natural terms such as growth, beauty, regeneration, and time.  In addition, a guided tour led community members through the installation; a salon stirred debate on sustainability; and an evening lecture shared Portela’s experiences interviewing Iowa farmers and agricultural experts.  As the IWP looks ahead to all the future ways in which our visiting writers can engage with the land and people of Iowa and Iowa City, we will be guided by the echoes of those invisible birds, and by the inspiration of passersby looking up at the trees in wonder.

 A glimpse of a similar 2012 HORTUS exhibition:

For more on Portela's present whereabouts, visit her blog, Seeds of Culture.

Visit IWP's archives to read panel papers on topics such as "Freedom's Limits," "The New Sexualities," and "Religion and Writing," presented by 2013 Fall Residents at the 2013 Iowa City Book Festival.

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