Art and the Saturday Gardener's Secret Weapon
You’re fast asleep in your cookie-cutter house in a decent suburban night. A stinking feral cat slinks onto your property, bent on wreaking havoc among your flowerbeds and spreading cat-disease to little Junior. But never fear. You’ve got an Ultrasonic Animal Repeller! The infiltrator trips the motion sensor, and your faithful military-green box-on-a-stick starts shooting powerful ultrasounds and blinding lights. The intruder (cat, bat, rat, hedgehog, fox, raccoon, squirrel, skunk, mole, or dog) feels deafening sound spearing its brain. Scared out of its wits, the enemy turns and runs. Meanwhile you continue snoozing in your bed, dreaming perhaps of football, having noticed not a thing. Humane And Guaranteed.
It’s not as if you’re setting off firecrackers. That’s what people do in Asia to scare elephants out of the mangos. Of course since that’s been shown to damage elephants’ hearing, not to mention wake the neighborhood, we’ve developed subtler approaches. In India there’s a machine that roars like a tiger. In Sri Lanka people rub together bits of metal to mimic the sound of someone loading a shotgun. Elephants have extensive personal and cultural memories, after all; they know what became of their long-tusked grandfathers. But none of these tactics work for very long. The elephants figure us out soon enough. It’s nothing but a dose of fear, really. Which perhaps is why most people prefer the firecrackers.
If humans did this to each other, they’d call it sonic warfare, terrorism, or crowd control, depending on who did it and whom they did it to. They’d call the end result (for the victims, that is) post-traumatic stress. But skunks aren’t human, they’re not even pets. Not like your spaniel, who clearly enjoys notions of his own. Can a skunk suffer post-traumatic stress? Aren’t they just wild animals?
Yes and yes. Sound is contact. Fear is a weapon. The wild is here.
The artist Robbie Judkins says even though he cannot hear the noises blaring out of Ultrasonic Animal Repellers, his ears hurt when they’re nearby. Imagine hearing them with hypersensitive dog ears. Now dream back to London, 2017, where Robbie’s made a sonic arsenal into a 22-minute artwork. He calls it Pest.
With him onstage is the Murpower Solar Ultrasonic Animal Repeller. Two of them, actually. Robbie stands between them with his laptop on a table. In real time, his computer shifts the ultrasounds, which are too low for us to hear, into a higher pitch range that’s detectable to human ears.
Sometimes Robbie leaves the table. He walks back and forth across the stage. Pacing as if on patrol. Or imprisoned in a bare cell. He keeps having to hop or duck the wires strung across the stage at chest level and ankle height. They’re high-tension wires, the kind farmers use to keep birds out of their crops. When the wires move in the wind, Robbie says, they make “a droning, humming noise . . . really noisy and really loud.” And so he layers that noise with Solar Ultrasonic javelins stretched into long, loud, lancing wails. Every time he leaves or returns to his laptop, he must wriggle between wires, stepping up and ducking under (he dings his head once), and then bending or crouching over the computer, having nothing to sit on. Later he admits it’s somewhat painful to perform.
And that’s the point. The artist literally ensnares himself. He doesn’t spare himself as he blasts the only species on this planet that would purchase UPRs with the noises of those very things as the outcasts might hear them. Audification as subversion. The whole thing is physically awkward for all humans present.
Even for a fan of drone music, Pest is discomfitingly piercing. These drones are sonic walls, as if magnifications of ultrasonic fortresses. Pest is an invisible fortress that makes my body feel like liquid. It sounds out the ambiguity of resistance. Resistance as rigidity, refusal to give ground even to a squirrel. Resistance as critical effrontery, revolt; the very force of change.
Now, there are no mice and moles in Pest. No nonhuman-animal sounds at all. What does their absence tell you about the kind of threat they are? And where are the pests? What are they? Which species is trapped in emptiness here with nothing but itself and the traps it has invented—and wildness trembling inside it?