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Portrait Of A City Through Sonic Fiction

John Pemble / IPR
In a dark room at the Des Moines Art Center, Alex Braidwood stands by one of six speakers generating sound for his audio art piece "Listen Right Here: DSM."

Portraits are often a visual experience with a photograph or painting, but Alex Braidwood created a portrait of Des Moines exclusively with sound. His project was commissioned by the Des Moines Art Center as part of its annual “Iowa Artists” spotlight.

Most of the source audio for this work was captured in May with four black boxes in different areas of the city.  Braidwood calls them listening machines and they recorded two minutes of sound every 20 minutes.  One was mounted to the second story of a small building in an alley, a location Braidwood chose because it is out of the way.

“It’s kind of a non-place like you’re not supposed to stay here,” says Braidwood. “This is where people will pass through if they’re coming from like one of the bars to the taco restaurant. There’s a whole different kind of like transient nature to this place.”

Credit John Pemble / IPR
Alex Braidwood takes down one of his listening machines in a downtown Des Moines alley.

After taking all of the listening machines to his home studio in Ames, he compiled short excerpts from these recordings for his sound art piece titled “Listen Right Here: DSM.”  This work is now being heard in a small dark room at the Des Moines Art Center.

There are six speakers, each playing a separate track of urban ambience.  One has the distant chatter of pedestrians, another the roar of a vehicle’s engine. Some of these recordings have been slowed down and processed, resulting in a low end rumble and drone. It’s like an ocean of noise.  Alex Braidwood calls his art a form of sonic fiction.

“Because it’s like I’m taking things that exist in the real world but I’m putting them together, creating a new space, creating a new story in maybe the same way like a fiction writer would draw from experiences, but develop a new type of narrative," he says.  "A new space for the reader. In my case, it’s a listener.”

Braidwood wants the often-ignored city sounds to be heard with no distractions.  That’s why there aren’t any images on the wall of this bedroom-sized gallery. He says being here helps someone learn something new about the city.

“Right now music and sound compositions are often in the background," he says. "We use music to fill space. So part of the challenge I think is also first, bringing focus to sound but then making it something that the people can engage with and potentially get something out of themselves.”

Credit John Pemble / IPR
Braidwood's listening machines were able to record two minutes of sound every 20 minutes for a month thanks to solar panels recharging the batteries.

He started making sonic installations in 2009 while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Los Angeles. Before that, he spent the first ten years of his professional life in his home state of Michigan as an interaction designer. This is someone who bridges the gap between computer and human communication.  For example it’s the kind of work needed to create a smartphone app.

It’s Braidwood’s non-audio background that brought him from California to Iowa in 2012 for an Iowa State University job as a graphic design assistant professor. He says the process of making visual or audio art is more connected than it may seem.

“If graphic design is about anything, it’s about communicating in contemporary culture effectively," he says. "Communication is experiential.  It’s about connecting with people on different forms of media through a whole variety of channels and those things are constantly evolving and changing, and I am unable to decouple these worlds because they all fit together so seamlessly.”

Braidwood’s piece “Listen Right Here: DSM” will continue generating sound at the museum through October. He says because the playback of elements is random, every listening experience is a unique sonic immersion.

Credit John Pemble / IPR
Listening machines are mounted 15-20 feet above the ground. This allows the conversation of anyone walking by to be distant and hard to understand.

John Pemble is a reporter for IPR