Soapboxing for the middle of the food chain

from the first installation of Soapboxing. photograph by James Winters.

Soapboxing for the middle of the food chain is an eight-channel sound installation consisting of an electronic music composition and raw speakers mounted on a wall. Eighteen discreet sound files are heard in a quasi-stochastic sequence across the eight audio channels. These sound files contain the sounds of at least twenty-six different central Maine species (although it is possible there are more which I might have failed to identify).

The piece focuses on the familiar sounds of locally audible birds, frogs and crickets. (One mammal, a red squirrel, is also heard.) Accordingly, eighty percent of these recordings were gathered within less than half a mile from Lord Hall Gallery; the remaining twenty percent were recorded within fifty miles.

An accompanying booklet contains an essay which extends the titular “soapboxing.” The wall text for the installation follows:

Insects: 50% population reduction, world-wide, since 1970 [1]
Amphibians: 40% of all species now threatened with extinction [2]
Birds: loss of 2.9 billion individuals in the North American breeding population since 1970 [3]

This work presents the sounds of singing insects, birds and anurans (i.e., frogs and toads), focusing on the familiar sounds of locally audible species, at a time when statistics such as the foregoing indicate that there is real trouble in the middle of the food chain. One would think that upon reading these headlines, humans beings might be horrified into action, but when each of these statistics was reported in the news, there was a brief flurry of consternation and then stony silence.

At the very beginning of the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2020, released in September of that year, we read the following:

“The global Living Planet Index continues to decline. It shows an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016.”

This figure, focused on wild vertebrate animals, glosses and amplifies the statistics above, lending yet additional urgency as if such was needed. Not that additional urgency will amount to real action, it would seem, given our track record.

But unfortunately, and notwithstanding our unwillingness to take action, it is a fact that we human beings must immediately cease our instrumental plundering of the non-human world and realize that our ecosystem is kept in balance by laws which we flout at our mortal peril. Regardless of our efforts to dominate nature, and our conviction that in these efforts we are successful, we will ultimately be answerable to those laws; they do not answer to us.

Below is a very brief “trailer” for Soapboxing made by Jim Winters from video taken during its first installation, at Lord Hall Gallery on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono, Maine, in the Spring of 2021.

Soapboxing species list : read a list the species heard in Soapboxing HERE.

Soapboxing essay booklet : read/download the essay booklet for Soapboxing HERE.

Soapboxing essay presentation : in late March, 2021, I presented the Soapboxing essay to the University of Maine Philosophy Department as part of their annual Colloquium Series. Due to the pandemic, the presentation was given via zoom. You may watch the recorded presentation HERE. This page will open in a separate window.


I want to thank N.B.Aldrich for his thorough Max/MSP work, incisive critique and very generous loan of equipment and materials, without which this piece would not have been possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Jacobson for her philosophical guidance and assistance with the essay text. Thanks as well to Susan Smith and the University of Maine Intermedia MFA program for providing this opportunity.


1.^ Damian Carrington, “‘Insect apocalypse’ poses risk to all life on Earth, conservationists warn.The Guardian, November 13, 2019. Accessed on December 17, 2020.

2.^ P.J. Bishop, et al. “The Amphibian Extinction Crisis - what will it take to put the action into the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan?Sapiens, 5.2, 2012, IUCN Commissions. Accessed on December 17, 2020. See table 1.

3.^ Kenneth V. Rosenberg et al. “Decline of the North American avifauna.Science, October 4, 2019: Vol. 366, Issue 6461, pp. 120-124, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw1313. Accessed on December 17, 2020.

P R O J E C T   H I S T O R Y

May 14, 2021 – June 25, 2021 :  Lord Hall Gallery at the University of Maine, Orono, Maine

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