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An Artist’s Hunt for Singing Sand from Deserts Around the Globe

Artist Lotte Geeven is hoping to make the sandy symphonies of the desert more accessible.

Rendering of Lotte Geeven’s Sand Machine (all images courtesy the artist)

It’s a sonic phenomenon that occurs in only certain pockets of desert around the world. The sound of sand grains shuffling down hot slopes that can recall the angry buzz of bees or the deep, groaning thrums of a didgeridoo group. Scientists refer to these shifting dunes as “singing” or “booming” sands, which for centuries mystified explorers from Charles Darwin to Marco Polo. We know now that these strange sounds are caused by the vibrations of grains avalanching, at relatively slow speeds, down dunes, and that the grain size and speed influence the notes of these curious hums of nature.

You can hear it yourself if you are fortunate enough to visit these remote locations that include the Resonant Sand Gorge in Inner Mongolia; Reg-I-Ruwan near Kabul, Afghanistan; and the Dumont Dunes in the Mojave Desert. Artist Lotte Geeven is hoping to make these sandy symphonies more accessible, however, through a machine that replicates the singing. To do so, she’s trying to collect samples of singing sand from around the world, which is no easy feat.

Rendering of Lotte Geeven’s Sand Machine

Her Sand Machines, designed in partnership with two scientists, are circular drums, one meter in diameter, that each feature rotating blades that will whirl grains around to produce sound, amplified by microphones. Geeven hopes to eventually build 12 machines to represent 12 different kinds of singing sand, which she intends place in a circle to form an immersive installation. The Amsterdam-based artist already has plans to show the piece in an exhibition next spring in a fortress near her city as well as at cultural center De Electriciteitsfabriek in The Hague.

The Sand Machine grew out of a recent residency at Satellietgroep during which Geeven was researching the relationship between nature and man with regards to the Sand Engine, a manmade peninsula off South Holland built to manage a depleting coast. With sand on her mind, thinking about what the grains sound like came naturally, as she’s long been interested in the personification of the landscape, particularly through its mysterious noises. Her previous work includes investigating the sounds of one of the deepest holes in the world, as Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier explained.

“I wanted to bring the sounds from the desert to people so they could experience this extraordinary phenomenon live.” Geeven told Hyperallergic. “I have always been fascinated with how a natural sound is able to transport us to an atmospheric mental space disconnected from logic or reason.”

A remote location of acoustic sand in the desert of Mongolia at N 34° 35′ 50.9″, E 101° 38′ 1.3″
Najibullah Sedeqe‎ collecting sand from the Moving Sands in Afghanistan

All she needs now is the sand. Geeven has launched an open call for submissions on her website; interested parties who email her will receive further instructions and a box with a pre-paid shipping label. Of course, you have to live near one of these singing dunes or at least have the means to access it. Geeven has a list of some locations on her website, along with recordings of the sand she has sourced from the internet. In return for your efforts, she will provide a small fee and also name a machine in your honor.

Geeven already been in contact with some people. In the project’s early stages, she tracked down individuals who live near these deserts, largely through information on their social media pages. She admits feeling like a stalker at first, but has since had many engaging conversations with intrigued strangers who were excited to hear about her interest in singing sand. Many also immediately provided their own theories or shared traditional stories from their culture on the origin of the hypnotic howls. These narratives, too, struck Geeven, and she intends to collect and display the stories alongside her machine to share how people around the world give meaning to the unknown.

“Whenever a sound has a debatable origin, it tends to get even more interesting,” she said. “Here, the vivid friction between reason and fiction comes into play. These tones emitted by the deserts are a perfect example of something that can trigger the process of story making … How we attribute personal and cultural meaning to these natural happenings speaks about the way we relate to the abstract unknown.”

About a dozen people, from a woman in Nevada to a man in Afghanistan, agreed to send Geeven sand. But she has yet to actually receive any samples. Four, she explained, got stuck at customs, while others seem to have gotten lost in the mail. (Restrictions on mailing sand vary by country, but small samples, properly packaged, are probably fine.) For now, she’s waiting on three other helpers who will soon send her more sand and more participants to aid in this global search. And she’s remaining optimistic about it all, seeing the complications as part of a puzzle that she hopes, when complete, will provide others with a mystifying, moving experience.

“I always like an artwork to be like a kōan — an unsolved puzzle that provokes great doubt, not meant to be solved but to open up a space in your head that allow new thoughts,” Geeven said. “I hope the sound of the machines will be able to do this, just like the sound in the desert has been doing for centuries.”

Aerial view of the Namib Desert
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