The Scratch Studies are a series of works that explore the rhythmic sounds of scratching. These pieces make use of piano wire and other metallic elements that are connected to digitally controlled motors which then scratch steel and aluminum plates in various ways. These "scratchers" in this series are of different scales, ranging from 4' x 4' square floor pieces to smaller 6"x18" pieces which are hung. Documentation here is from an installation of this work at the Block Museum,at Northwestern University, in Evanston (just outside Chicago) from Sep. to Dec., 2000. This installation used two of the larger Scratch Study #3: Mitosis pieces in the center of the gallery, and eight of the smaller Scratch Study #1: Moths piece sdistributed around the walls.
These pieces explore rhythmic patterns that are derived from various natural processes that are simulated within a microcontroller controlling the motors' movements (and thus the scratching activity). These computer algorithms investigate various patterns found in nature ranging from highly ordered patterns to sporadic and disorganized patterns. The patterns themselves are based on natural processes as diverse as Brownian motion (the movement of particles in fluids), bird song rhythms and bird migratory patterns, and statistical studies of large populations.
In "Scratch Study #1", a piece which uses two 6" X 18" piano-wire "scratchers", these patterns range from rhythms which are reminiscent of two tabla players playing a duet (at their most organized) to rhythms more akin to furtive animal noises, or a dried leaf vibrating in a stiff breeze (at their least organized).
However, in this in the series, the issue of the simulation of nature by machines is even more directly explored by utilizing rhythmic relationships between multiple "scratchers" which ranges from machine-like synchronization to complete independence. The works electronically listen to each other, imitating the scratching rhythmns in various ways. The entire network of individuals begins to take on group "emergent" behaviours which are impossible to predict, and which simulate the way a natural system might work.
Within the group rhythmic dynamic, exact synchronizations between one or more scratchers will occur. When extremely complex and subtle rhythms are duplicated exactly in various parts of the room, these patterns contrast drastically with the other more natural rhythms, instead seeming mechanical and "industrial.", In this way then, this series of work is ultimately primarioly concerned with the relationship between multiple independent activities (and rhythms), as they are with the individual patterns that each work plays and our varied perception to these simulations as natural vs. mechanical or robotic. Obviously, in addition to the sounds they produce, each of these works also has strong kinetic and visual elements as well. For instance, in Scratch Study #3, one of the works exhibited at the Block gallery,, two large 4' x 4' plates sit on the floor side-by side, each with a stepper motor in the center of the plate attached to a long gangly wire snaking up and then back down to the plate. As the motor jumps forward and backward, the wire skitters across the plate, gradually scratching a circular mark into the steel plate through time.
This series may be installed in many different configurations, ranging from a single pair (because they must communicate with each other, the minimum installation is two of the pieces) of the smallerwall units, which needs only a small amount of wall space in a conventional gallery setting, to a large and immersive arrangement of the floor pieces (200lbs each) and wall units filling an entire room.