TreeShell (2013, 2010)
Sliced birch tree, laser etching, speaker, rechargeable battery, circuitry. 3.5" diam. x 1.5" high.
A small disc cut from a birch tree magically plays sounds of the forest when held up to the ear – wind blowing through trees, leaves crunching, birds chirping. A mysterious soundscape unfolds as you listen, and stops when put down, waiting to be picked up again. If you listen long enough, changing weather and different animals are heard. The etching on its face is a 19th century engraving of the inner ear; the cochlea is often noted for its similarity to a seashell, but here rather than the ocean, the memory of the forest is heard. (The German word for cochlea, ohrmuschel, literally translates as “ear-shell.”) The underside has a recessed cutout reminiscent of an old phone earpiece.
Electronics, a speaker, a rechargeable battery, and a sensor that detects when it is picked up are hidden inside. If you listen again weeks or even months later, TreeShell will remember your place in the sound journey.
TreeShell was selected to be part of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Design Store 2013 “Destination:NYC” collection. It is now being sold in a limited edition series. Purchase here.
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Conceptual Background: scroll past images to read more...
When we wish to remember a place we often take pictures but rarely do we capture sound. Yet sound is often more evocative in bringing back a mood or atmosphere. With TreeShell and the Sound Object series, re-experiencing a place and time is further complicated by the fact that the memory belongs to someone else. Footsteps are audible; the listener projects herself into the landscape yet is reminded it was someone else who was there. In this time of rapidly accelerating media we turn more and more to other people’s experiences to augment our own. The combination of natural material with electronics and the magic of another soundscape pulls you in, but deeper lies the continued alienation between an urban inhabitant and the natural landscape. There is an intimacy and childlike posture when holding the shell up to the ear, which sets it apart from the more accurate and immersive technology of headphones. Ambient noise continues to leak into the soundscape, which oddly enhances the private feeling of the experience. The sound may be from elsewhere yet listening to it always happens here and now.
The mechanism of representation used by TreeShell is technological while its form is analog, and the moment of surprise relies on the former remaining hidden. The interior is explicitly “secular, scientific, and individual” [Stefan Helmreich, Seashell Sound], yet it refers to the mythical at the same time, and as such it places itself within “changing models between hearing, the world, and the self.” The effect is both magical and technical – unlike a seashell, where the imagination transforms a misperception, here the sound really happens. Despite that reality, the very presence of the sound hints at a displacement, an escape, even a kind of teleportation to another space.
Although I have modified TreeShell to be suitable as a design object, just beneath its accessible surface is a more complex artwork. The sound and its representation takes an elaborate path from the initial recording via vibration of a microphone, to its digitization in binary data, to decoding with a microcontroller, to translation from digital back to analog, to micro-pulses of electricity, to the vibration of the speaker hidden inside, and finally to the vibration of the cochlea in the inner ear. Translations of this sort are ubiquitous in the modern world and all of our media consumption depends on it. The Sound Object series addresses our increasing drift way from direct experience, yet gently reminds us it is not a substitute for it.