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    Acknowledging Other Ears

    Somewhere in Acra, New York, a rover-esque contraption skims the surface of a pond and listens. It captures the bubbling, gurgling, buzzing, and spontaneous sounds that happen underwater daily, from dawn to dusk. Zach Poff, a media artist, created this ongoing project, which is broadcast online for anyone to encounter. We tracked Zach down and asked him to share what this sculpture has taught him about anticipating future technologies, collaborative structures, and the perks of deep listening.

    BY ZACH POFF

    To see something is to believe that you know it completely. Sound is less straightforward. It bends around obstacles and leaks through borders, complicating binaries like interior and exterior.

    As I sit down to write, the future seems precarious. The world has been paralyzed by a deadly virus and our leaders refuse to engage in real conversations about the climate emergency and systemic racism. Collective action has been hampered by the attention economy as algorithms sort us into self-segregated online communities. Through my sound work I have been exploring an alternative engagement with technology: open works that rely on collaborative or aleatoric structures more than individual authorship. In my Pond Station installation (ongoing since 2015), I livestream the underwater sounds of a pond at Wave Farm, a transmission arts organization in New York state. The installation invites us to practice listening to our more-than-human neighbors as carefully as we listen to our own speech and music.

    Vision enforces a separation between subject and object and imbues the gaze with a mirage of knowledge. To see something is to believe that you know it completely. Sound is less straightforward. It bends around obstacles and leaks through borders, complicating binaries like interior and exterior. In his book Audio-Vision, Michel Chion writes “…we can trace the evolution of a scraping noise (accelerating, rapid, slowing down, etc.) and sense changes in pressure, speed, and amplitude without having any idea of what is scraping against what.” This suggests a form of sonic knowledge that operates outside the indexical gaze. In a listening encounter we can develop affective connections without assuming that our perspective is singular or complete. We can embrace our subjectivity rather than erasing it, acknowledging that others may be hearing the same vibrations but listening with other ears.

    Photo of Zach Poff and Pond Station.
    Zach Poff with Pond Station. Photo courtesy of the artist.

    [ID: Zach Poff, a white man in a bright yellow T-shirt and brimmed hat wears thick headphones, and stands waist deep in the water, taking a reading from the pond station structure. Poff and the platform are reflected in the water beneath them. This mirror image is dimpled by ripples and water plants.]

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    I felt humbled as I heard voices not intended for my ears, but which nevertheless communicated the ecosystem’s complexity in aesthetic terms, demanding that I listen differently.

    When I first built the underwater microphones at the heart of Pond Station, I was struck by the density of the sounds I heard. The pond looked silent and serene, but the microphones revealed a polyrhythmic tapestry of insect stridulations, gas bubbles, weather effects, and the low rumble of passing cars. I was reminded of computer scientist Claude Shannon’s statement that highly complex signals are indistinguishable from noise if the receiver doesn’t understand the language. Composer John Cage formalized an adjacent belief that all sounds have value if we can learn to appreciate them. I felt humbled as I heard voices not intended for my ears, but which nevertheless communicated the ecosystem’s complexity in aesthetic terms, demanding that I listen differently. I established a livestream on the Locus Sonus sound map (a worldwide network of open microphones) so I could share this micro sound world on a massive scale. From where I sit in my Brooklyn apartment, I have heard the stream undergo years of daily and seasonal cycles, as well as more dangerous challenges: the pond fell silent during an outbreak of invasive aquatic plants, which prompted a difficult mitigation effort and a gradual return to audible diversity. Other artists and musicians around the world have sampled the stream, played live “duets” with it, or simply invited it into their homes.

    Photo of Pond Station
    Pond Station, 2015 – ongoing. Aluminum, solar panels, custom electronics by Zach Poff. Photo courtesy of the artist.

    [ID: Photograph of a pond on a sunny day. The Pond Station platform, a three-sided metal structure with solar panels, sits on the surface of the water. In the background, water plants give way to trees and a bit of blue sky.]

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    I hope that projects like Pond Station provide a glimpse into how technologically mediated listening might foster collaboration between humans and more-than-human ecologies. By extending the reach of the audible, perhaps we can appreciate the enormous complexities of other lives more generally, encouraging a more empathetic relationship toward each other and our environment.

    Headshot photo of Zach Poff
    Photo courtesy of the artist.

    [ID: Zach, a white man wearing headphones, smiles as he looks down at a potted plant with a microphone inserted in the soil. He is listening.]

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    Zach Poff
    He // Him // His
    Brooklyn, NY

    Zach Poff is a New York-area media artist, educator, and maker-of-things. His artwork is rooted in open systems that eschew individual authorship in favor of collaborative or generative models. His algorithmic remixes of popular media uncover hidden subtexts lurking inside familiar forms (“Parallel Rhetoric,” Radio Silence, Video Silence). Other recent work employs unique sound tools to explore the web of social and ecological relationships that challenge and sustain us (Pond Station, Sferics). He considers his artmaking, teaching, and software development to be contributions toward a culture of sharing and empathy, in direct opposition to commercial media’s cult of the individual.

    zachpoff.com

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