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An audible amble

Mixing art and sound in a drive through the Driftless.

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This year’s Farm/Art DTour, where art installations mingle with a celebration of rural life in southwestern Wisconsin, wrapped up a few weeks ago. It was the only piece of the annual Fermentation Fest, organized by the Reedsburg-based Wormfarm Institute, that really made sense this year: viewers can stay safely spread out as they drive or bike a roughly 50-mile figure-8 loop, stopping to get a closer look at large-scale artworks in farm fields, eat tacos, or pet some farm cats. We’ve had a lot of praise for the once-annual, now-biennial event in years past, but this year it was especially immersive thanks to the addition of a new audio component.

Sound has played a role in the DTour before: There is some live music along the route, and you can still pick up a CD copy of the Farm/Art Dtour soundtrack, which features Wisconsin musicians including Appleton’s Tenement and Madison-based Croaker. For 2015’s Fermentation Fest, artist/musician Joshua Pablo Rosenstock filled a Reedsburg storefront with his Fermentophone, which translates the microbial bubblings of fermented foods into music. But an art proposal that’s just sound usually wouldn’t make the cut with the DTour’s jury, which wants proposals to have a visual component.

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Oakland-based artist Hugh Livingston’s Farm/Art DTour Sound Experience changed that. It’s an app (though you need to run it in your phone’s browser) that provides GPS-tagged layers of music, field recordings, and literary readings as one moves along the route. 

“In another year, the proposal probably wouldn’t have gotten much attention,” admits Philip Matthews, Wormfarm Institute’s Director of Programs. “But this year, we thought this could be perfect…suddenly it had all these elements to it that were desirable, as we realized that this event was going to have to be modified significantly for social distancing.”

Planning for the soundscape started in May, but Livingston did most of the actual recording and editing in the two weeks before the DTour opened, Matthews says. He took field recordings of tractor noises to accompany an outdoor exhibit of immaculately refurbished vintage farm tractors. Other sounds that pop in along the route include an Amish buggy, brewers working at Vintage Brewing Co.’s Sauk Prairie location, and the singing of the nuns at the Valley of Our Lady Monastery. For safety’s sake, Livingston also made sure to include gaps of silence in the app, especially in the busier areas of the route. 

The music—from contributors including Rosenstock, Tory Tepp, Michael Bell and Eleanor Mayerfeld—often took on an atmospheric quality that paired well with the pleasant abstraction of art installations, especially the graceful disembodied hands of Brian Sobaski’s “Volunteers.” Bell plays in Madison band Graminy, and he contributed to the DTour on another front in his role as a professor of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bell and his grad students at the Grassland 2.0 project wrote some of the DTour’s series of “Field Notes,” signs that offer concise blurbs of history and context along the route. Readings, timed nicely to fill the drives between installations and other stops, included passages from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Why I Love Wisconsin and Ben Logan’s The Land Remembers

Idiosyncratic audio tours are a welcome idea in the absence of live events. American Players Theatre recently experimented with the medium, letting visitors enjoy the company’s woodsy grounds even if they can’t pack the seats for some outdoor Shakespeare. Wisconsin Public Radio’s Politics Podcast issued an audio tour of the Capitol last year. I’d love to see more people experiment with these, for walking or driving—if you know of one I’m missing, let me know.

In the meantime, you can also see if Livingston’s DTour audio app holds up as a standalone piece. While the DTour’s art installations are gone, Matthews says the audio app will remain available for at least the next year—giving the curious a chance to drive the route again and experience Livingston’s rich blend of sounds with just the landscape to accompany it. 

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