Deep in the tropical rainforest of Trinidad, over remote mountainous slopes and under cover of lush green foliage, Nina Katchadourian heard an irritatingly familiar sound. It was the unmistakable wail of a car alarm, piercing the primordial scene with its tinny, mechanical siren. Or so she thought — it took Katchadourian just a few moments to realize her mistake. The car alarm, so out of place in the middle of a jungle on a Caribbean island, was really the call of a nearby bird.
That fertile mistake marked the beginning of Natural Car Alarms, and Katchadourian returned to Brooklyn eager to incorporate that dizzying state of auditory confusion into her work. Within a few months, the artist was working with SculptureCenter (a New York arts institution that was in the midst of a cross-river move to Long Island City, Queens) to produce a public art project that would not be tied to any particular location. Remembering her experiences in Trinidad, Katchadourian’s proposal involved equipping a small flock of cars with birdcall alarms systems. These cars would make visits to various arts venues in Queens through the summer and fall of 2002.
After approaching ornithologists at Cornell University’s Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds for help in uncovering the bird sounds that would best match the screech, buzz, and moan of the city’s ubiquitous six-tone alarm, Katchadourian — armed with samples of thirty-three contending birdcalls — set to work producing her own alternative security system. She started by selecting eighteen songs, and then patched them together with a convincingly alarm-like patterning and pacing. The calls were grouped into cycles of six sounds each, ultimately making three unique alarm sequences. Once the sonic content of the Natural Car Alarms was determined, the actual devices were built from car stereo parts and micro- processor chips. The three cars outfitted with the alarms were distinguished from other species of automobiles by their canary- yellow markings: bird silhouette decals across the upper windshield, and a bumper sticker that firmly declared, “THIS CAR PROTECTED BY NATURAL CAR ALARMS.”
It was important to the artist to choose a set of sounds that struck a balance between electronic and lifelike qualities. The disorientation and shock that Katchadourian first felt at hearing a natural noise that sounded artificial — to her urban-adapted ear, at least — was honest. Natural Car Alarms is meant to replicate that feeling for her audience: the uneasy yet invigorating condition of hovering between two temporarily plausible explanations. Context is, perhaps, the key aspect of the whole enterprise — what’s “natural” in one site or for one group of people may be more arbitrary than is typically thought, and it is the seemingly static boundaries between “nature” and “culture” that are teased out in Katchadourian’s project. As an adjective, the word “natural” is often used as a surrogate for all things wholesome and pure — and it is automatically considered superior to those that are manufactured or artificial. By most accounts, a virgin rainforest in the tropics, filled with thick vegetation and diverse wildlife, is the epitome of a natural site. But for a New York artist, crowded city streets may be a more comfortable habitat. Could her mistake have been a subtle way of grounding herself, of sparking some kind of familiarity? For humans in general, must our conception of the natural world always include evidence of our own existence — our mark on the land?
Such philosophical debates aside, Natural Car Alarms represents both an absurdist intervention within the contemporary urbanite’s native territory and a careful investigation of the universal language of alarm. After all, the birds whose calls are sampled for Katchadourian’s car security systems are not singing just for our enjoyment; they sing to send warnings, to delineate territories, to impress upon fellow creatures their importance and virility. With that in mind, the secret logic of Natural Car Alarms emerges. In the concrete jungle, the screams that emanate from under the hood of the Thunderbird down the block take on the same function as the warble of a loon on an Adirondack lake. Can this make the song of city’s own nightingale — the car alarm — a bit more bearable, or at least understandable, for everyone else who shares its habitat?