Sticks, Everyday Materials and Energies in Recent Australian Art


Vicky Browne is a New Zealand artist based in the Blue Mountains of Australia whose work engages in sound as a core theme. Browne works in a speculative manner, building her own record players, iPods, and radios out of found materials, and it is this handmade quality that reveals a close connection to materials. Materials have always played a central role in her sound-generating artworks. Trained as a sculptor, her installations both produce sound and direct us to think about sound culture (for example popular music) and its relationship to technology. Her sculptural works – with their handmade quality and incorporation of unusual materials such as twigs and sticks – seem like they could have been created in an arts and crafts workshop in which doing rather than consuming was the key objective.

Browne looks to objects as having a sound-making potential, stating:


I do think that everything/object/material has a known sound. The way we know a material is not only through sight or touch, part of knowing the material is sensing the sound it makes. For instance, if we take a piece of wood we sense the sound of what it would make if we drummed our fingers onto it; hence it is part of the way we know the material. (Interview with author, 2014)


Browne takes these objects and creates unexpected sounding outcomes for them and, in doing so, the known and expected sound of the object becomes unknown and unexpected. For example, she has made records from sticks with Dead Wood (2006), placed a recording of her voice within a conch shell in Sound Shell (2004), and fashioned a gramophone out of a large tree stump for Gramophone (2013). For this latter work, Browne dug up a tree stump from a clear-felled forest and cut a disk out from the stump. This disk formed a “record” that was played with a metal spike connected to a bronze horn. The sound produced is actually quite a shock as the rasping metal on wood creates a brutal sound – loud, grating, and nasty. The amplified noise produced from the rasping of the spike on wood sonifies the violence of clear-felling in a tangible manner that leads audience to consider the history of the tree trunk and timber in general.

Vicky Browne – Grammophone (2013). Found wood, found copper, metal.

While Gramophone is what it seems, Browne speculates and perhaps deceives in works such as The Sound of Plants and Music (2012) that employ recording technologies that have been ostensibly fashioned out of sticks. Her stick microphones and stick speakers spark speculation as to who would have created these incongruent objects. They seem to have been made by some Arts and Crafts inspired movement, handmade from easily accessible wood. Unsurprisingly, these technologies have not been made entirely out of sticks, as Browne has covered regular microphones and speakers with wood. In the installation, the audience is tasked with reading stories to the plants through these stick microphones and speakers. A peculiar relationship is built between the story readers and the mediatization of their voices through the plant technologies.

Vicky Browne – The Sound of Plants and Music (2012). Found sticks, microphones, speakers and books.

Alongside the story table is a large cardboard dome in which the audience places themselves, and upon entering the dome they hear the sound of plants in conversation. This conversation has been sonified by means of a sensory plant device built by the Damanhur Community, located in Italy. The device captures the electromagnetic variations of the surface of plant leaves and roots and turns them into sounds which the community believes represents the conversations between plant life.


Browne’s approach is often speculative, while Sydney-based installation artist Tully Arnott’s approach is practical. His work Bottle Song (2013) is created from an array of beer bottles or soda bottles, each of which is mounted with a small fan, the type found in PCs, that blows across the top of the bottle. This blowing action produces a continuous tone that, when combined with the other bottles, creates the soundtrack to the installation. The installation itself engages the activity of up-cycling, taking an unwanted and discarded object and reusing it in a manner that adds value to it.

Tully Arnott – Bottle Song (2014). Bottles, fans, microcontrollers, electronics, air, sound.

Within the viewing of the installation, a renewed relationship to these objects is formed: soda bottles are things that we know and which we see on a daily basis. However, after their contents are consumed, the bottles become rubbish, and we are tasked with finding a way to rid ourselves of them. Most of us have blown across the top of these bottles as a child, hearing the tone produced and perhaps experimenting with the change of tone as the liquid inside decreases. When we experience Bottle Song, while being reminded of this activity, we also hear the bottle afresh and think about the materials, cheap and readily discarded, in a new way.


Brisbane-based artist Ross Manning also recycles and reuses everyday objects. At the center of his practice, which encompasses sculpture, installation, sound, and music, is a prolonged engagement with materials. Manning assembles familiar items whose original purpose did not include becoming part of an art installation into works that are hung from the ceiling, collected on the floor, or perched on the white walls of the gallery. These works engage light and sound in ever-moving conglomerations. Through his use of high- and low-end consumer technology – fans, data projectors, flat-screen TVs, fluorescent and LED lights – he presents a persistent critique of media and questions digital production. A post-digital sonic critique is witnessed in his self-built musical instruments and live performances.


The works that most embody Manning’s core interests and ongoing artistic enquiry are his mobiles entitled Spectra (2012–ongoing), of which there have been thirteen iterations to date. The works are produced from fluorescent tubes that are attached to long beams, counter-balanced by cheap plastic fans that also serve to gently rotate the tubes. Manning uses the plain white fans to keep the sculptures in constant fluid motion high above the heads of the audience. Colored light of different hues, emitted by each fluorescent tube, combine and mix on the gallery walls. The tubes mirror real-time environmental light mixing and electronic image color mixing used by monitors and displays.

Ross Manning – Spectra II (2012). Fluorescent lights, fans and timber.


The Spectra series is an example of Manning’s ongoing engagement with the sonic. While the work itself creates low-level sound from the fans, it is the musical quality of the light mixes that Manning understands to be compositional. The sonic is understood less literally here than it usually is within the field of sound art; rather, it is engaged with on a conceptual level, a play between light waves and sound waves, the frequency spectrum of light imagined as sound. For example, in Spectra, light stands in for sound frequencies, creating an imagined series of harmonic notes and indeterminate compositional outcomes.


Manning exhibits a continuous engagement with everyday objects throughout his installations. Many of his works are produced using objects or technologies that most people have an established history with. In the case of Spectra, the lights and cheap plastic fans are an intrinsic part of the lives of those of us who visit the installation. We know these materials well, but their being assembled into the floating and spinning kinetic sculpture causes us to rethink our relationship with them. Likewise, our regular relationship to everyday objects is reconceptualized through the presentation of other items that feature within Manning's installations: LCD televisions, clock chimes, overhead projectors, a pianola, LED candles, and plenty of rope.


A final element of Manning’s media critique can be understood through his treatment of inputs and outputs. We generally think of art as being centered around outputs; even in heavily process-based works, we almost always look at the outcomes before we consider the process that created it. In Manning’s ongoing use of photovoltaics (solar panels), input and output are combined, in a similar manner as his amalgamation of light as sound.


Not only do many of Manning's installations produce light, but they also capture light as a signal to run or feed the system itself. More precisely, Manning’s use of photovoltaics employs light to generate a signal that is transduced into sound. In his paper “PV Aesthetics,” Sydney-based experimental artist and musician Peter Blamey points to practices that include photovoltaics as never having “just one process, characteristic or function taking place, but all of them occurring simultaneously” (Blamey 2015). In this approach, output is input, and input is output. Manning’s light-generated signals are produced by plugging cheap garden-lighting solar panels directly into his mixer; fluctuating electric current generated by light hitting the panels are then directly amplified as sound. Sound here becomes the vehicle for perceiving the energies that create the signals – here, the energy of light – making Manning’s interest in sound/light crossovers explicit.


Blamey himself produces feedback systems from discarded and repurposed electronics, including PC motherboards found in computers that have been dumped on the street. His work thus involves scavenging e-waste to produce computer music that foregoes the digital. The motherboards in his performances are activated by sending a signal through the circuits that are closed in an indeterminate fashion by thin copper wool. In performance, he coaxes the steel wool onto and across the surfaces of the boards to produce various signals. Describing Blamey's performances, Douglas Kahn states, “The microscopically restrained complexity of the tightly controlled circuitry on the motherboard is met by the airy, rat's nest complexity of the jumbled copper wire: a chaotic caricature of connectivity" (Kahn 2013: 238-9). In installation, these systems are run from solar power, but within these systems the usual critique of electrical power's sustainability is short-circuited. This is achieved through the conflated employment of solar energy via a light that is itself powered by mains-electricity. Thus, clean energy is powered by dirty energy (or at least an unknown source of electricity). Of this approach Blamey states:


By tracking the relationship between materials and processes, what is of interest is how this ‘direct solar’ approach has been used by artists to make available energy both the source for and the subject of their work—in other words, a simultaneous incorporation of an investigation into available energy phenomena. (Blamey 2015)


Various energy sources and emissions form both the input and output of his systems, but the source of both input and output is a feedback system itself, one that turns back onto itself. Thus, the seemingly straightforward “good” electricity of “clean” energy is called into question, as good energy is generated from bad energy.

Peter Blamey - Circuit hut (the future is other people's garbage) (2012). Scavenged circuit boards, copper wool, photovoltaic cells, electric light.