Motion Studies (Prairie)

Shawn Decker: Motion Studies (Prairie)

Motion Studies (Prairie) is the latest of my works exploring the complexities of rhythm, small motions, sounds and the dynamic behavior of natural systems.  This piece, which references the dynamic rhythms of grasslands and the rich soundscape and eco-systems found within them, evokes insect sounds, as well as rain, wind, and other rhythms of life within the prairie, enacted within a architectonic minimalism.

The work consist of 36 thin brass rods mounted vertically, each with a vibration motor at the base and a small speaker at the top.  The entire piece is controlled using a microcontroller, which sends pulses of on/off voltages to both the speaker at the top, and the motor at the bottom simultaneously causing the speakers to buzz and click, and the “grass” stem to shudder and sway, suggesting causality between sound and motion.

The patterns that are employed within the piece are generated by simple rules that are applied to each stem, so that each acts independently.  These rules are defined by actions to take based on what each stem’s neighbors have just done. Subtleties of rhythm are of particular interest to me – exploring algorithmic relationships between many individuals in order to produce dynamic group rhythmic and spatial systems.  The emergent behavior that develops within these systems is often unpredictable, and I particularly like creating artworks whose behavior can still surprise me long after they have been turned on.

Various indeterminate decisions are made within the algorithms of each individual.  I do not use pseudo-random number generators (mathematical models that “simulate” randomness, but are in fact deterministic) but get my random values by sampling the light, sound, and electro-magnetism surrounding the piece, using actual low-level changes in the environment that are too small for us to perceive. These random deviations also accumulate over time – in a self-similar process often seen in the natural world.  This accumulation also moves the piece gradually through various stages of behavior, perhaps in a manner like that of an eco-system responding to gradual changes in its natural environment.

This piece adopts the manner of operation of natural systems. However, its artifice and electro-mechanical construction are never disguised. At various points in time – the program will create somewhat formal changes in behavior by constricting the activity to smaller groups of stems – only the center four, or the four on the outer corners, etc. almost like the imposition of a social structure onto the individuals.  This constriction alters the perception of the behaviors – in small groups it seems very much like a conversation going on between individuals – whereas in the larger group it feels much more like a natural environment.


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