McKinlock Court, situated on the lower level of the Art Institute of Chicago outside the museum café, is often regarded for its quietness and serenity, as well as providing a scenic outdoor patio environment for lunch and coffee during the summer months. Throughout summer 2019, the open-air interior garden was filled with atmospheric frog sounds. Those seeking a reprieve from the crowded museum or Chicago’s bustling urban streets stumbled into the late Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson’s most technologically ambitious environmental sound installation When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti (2016–17).
Upon its acquisition of the artwork in 2018, the museum received a digital audio file containing 192 individual soundtracks, divided into twenty-four channels, each with eight layers of collaged sound designed to be amplified on a ninety-four minute and twenty second loop through twenty-four weatherproof speakers furnished by the hosting institution. These weatherproof speakers—either 360-degree or directional output depending on the site and configuration and small enough to be hidden in in bushes or planters—are then camouflaged, or concealed within the trappings of an outdoor environment, ideally near water, approximating a frog’s natural habitat. The site, speaker models, and specific camouflage techniques are selected and staged in accordance with an installation guide and in collaboration with the artist’s estate and the Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden. The resulting “sonic graffiti” is encountered by audiences in public and quasi-public sites without preconceived notions or expectations of its composition.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, this meant a strategically minimal interpretation strategy: no press release and no advertising signage, except for a website description and an interpretive plaque installed within the courtyard to be read only once the visitor had been immersed in the acoustic situation. The work was originally conceived for documenta 14 (2017) in Athens and Kassel, where green, 360-degree speakers were camouflaged amidst foliage, as well as covered with piles of sticks and branches, in public gardens emitting recorded sounds of both real and fake frogs. (figs. 2–5) While maintaining its core concept and terms of acoustic engagement, Patterson’s When Elephants Fight It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti mobilizes a migratory politics of site-specificity—the work is a context-driven sound installation that was initially conceptualized in response to the literary, political, and ecological realities and histories of Athens and Kassel, while meant to open itself up to the possibility of accruing new meaning as the work is exhibited in new institutional spaces, conditions, and contexts.
The base audio elements create a sonic collage of recorded frog sounds and human imitations in English, Greek, and German—each culture having their own specific onomatopoeia for the amphibian’s call. In addition, intermixed and emitting from the landscape are audio excerpts from public addresses by Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and President Barack Obama, and choirs chanting political and philosophical idioms and passages from the German fairytale The Frog King (Brothers Grimm’s Children and Household Tales, No.1, 1812) and Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy The Frogs in multilingual frog tongues. It is fitting, and somewhat comically on-the-nose, that both The Frog King and The Frogs—canonized texts in Greek and German literature, respectively—prominently feature dialogue between frogs and humans, and their dynamic interspecies relationship is key to the protagonist’s character development.
The sounds recorded in the frogs’ natural habitats originated from eight species once native to Athens and Kassel, since displaced due to the destruction of their ecosystems via industrialization and global capitalism. The title of the work—When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs that Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti —is derived from a Greek proverb of African origin and used by the media during the time of the work’s conception to characterize the fallout of Greece’s economic collapse. The proverb suggests that in times of financial and political instability, it is the small creatures, those who are most at risk, who are most affected. Patterson extends this urgent address to contemporary ecological crises, as well as structural issues of race and class-based oppression, addressing both human and nonhuman concerns.
Patterson intended that the “project could be easily modified and re-mounted” allowing the frogs’ migratory life to be continued through its recurrent presentation over time following the work’s acquisition by a museum, in this case, the Art Institute of Chicago. Patterson was still at work on this piece when he died in 2016, and prior to his death, he relayed his conceptual score for the work via email to documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk, instructing:
Re-populate the whole garden with invisible frogs! That is to say, introduce frogs that can only be heard! The mechanism for realizing this could be quite simple…perhaps 20+ amplifiers/speakers spread around the gardens broadcasting a ‘symphony’ of croaking frogs. This ‘symphony’ would be composed of real frog croaks...and a chorus of humans trained to imitate frog croaks...The sounds produced by these ‘human frogs’ would be lightly camouflaged political messages—short texts, sentences, proverbs (such as ‘When elephants fight, it is the frogs that suffer’) intoned to sound like frogs calling. This ‘symphony’ would be omnipresent throughout the garden, but not overwhelming or abusive...a kind of ‘sonic graffiti’…
In Athens and Kassel, the work was realized as a multi-channel outdoor sound installation, consisting of sixteen and twenty-four speakers, respectively, concealed within the natural environments of both exhibition cities. Across both European sites and the Art Institute of Chicago, the work unfolds by way of multiple migrations, or displacements—audio recordings, digital file transfers, cross-cultural and transhistorical citations, linguistic translations between Greek, German, and English, interspecies ventriloquisms, and architectural and ecological infiltrations.
Patterson’s deliberate invocation of humor, and the voices of Black political orators, can be better understood through recourse to the artist’s own background and multivalent experiences of race. An erudite double bassist, Patterson was unable to secure a position in a United States orchestra following his graduation from the University of Michigan in 1956 due to racial prejudice, and subsequently moved to Canada to join the Halifax Symphony Orchestra, and later to Europe, where he would co-found Fluxus in the early 1960s, affected by pivotal encounters with John Cage and the experimental music scenes of Stuttgart and Cologne in the early 1960s. This marked a radical transition from classical and serial compositions to indeterminate scores that privileged improvisation, chance, and the use of everyday materials.
However, his experiences of racism coming of age in the United States left a lasting mark, as did his Fluxus colleagues’ lack of critical engagement with racial politics and the civil rights movement. Patterson was acutely aware of his status as the sole African American member of Fluxus, and perhaps one of the only to participate in the 1963 March on Washington. Despite this, Patterson’s tactics for critiquing social and structural inequities often relied on humor and indirect modes of engagement that existed in excess of his race and identity, circumventing and expanding representational politics beyond the visual. On humor as a critical strategy and form of protest, Patterson asserted: “I prefer to use humor as it often provides the path of least suspicion/resistance for the implanting of subversive ideas. Remembering, as I mentioned before, that I grew up as a black in an America of legalized racial segregation, which allowed few means of protest (please know that we blacks used satirical humor as a protest form).” Intermittently throughout When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti, Patterson’s voice interrupts the atmospheric croaks with both incisive and ridiculous humor: “Arm 100 men, now do you feel better, worse, or the same?” and “Well, this works speaks for itself, water is the Urquelle of the Demokratie” give way to “geegeek, geegeek, geegeek, geegeek geegeek” and “Oink, oink, oink, oink, oink, oink.”
Beginning in the early 1960s, Patterson began scoring performances and participatory situations in which the production of sound was critically linked to interspecies relations. Presaging recent discourses of the Anthropocene and human and nonhuman relations, Patterson’s poetic ecologies posited graphic and three-dimensional representations of animals as both cues and instruments for actions, and even prompted performers to imitate and reinterpret their calls. This interspecies engagement, as modeled through When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti, is one of Patterson’s unique critical contributions to the Fluxus repertoire. Even prior to the first official Fluxus festival in Wiesbaden in 1962, Patterson was composing event scores incorporating nonhuman species including ants and frogs.
As Patterson reflects in his autobiographical introduction to a 2009 score: “The easy part is the ‘FROGS.’ In the countryside, near Pittsburg, PA, where I grew up, there were several small ponds, where many frogs lived, breeded [sic] and ‘sang’. Since 6 years old, I know their songs.” Ever since his childhood Boy Scout experiences, Patterson became attuned to frog calls and listened to them with a care and attentiveness not unlike an orchestral composition. This is the kind of listening to the everyday human and nonhuman vibrations that Patterson promoted through his work, reflecting: “Many years ago—during my days as a double-bass player in symphony orchestra—I came to realize that the listening audience was experiencing less than 20% of what I was experiencing during the performance of a Beethoven symphony. Why? Because all they could do was passively listen and look.” Engaging audiences as co-producers in his most groundbreaking and signature scores and instructions such as Paper Piece (1961) and Pond (1962), Patterson not only directs physical performance—crumpling pieces of paper or releasing wind-up toy frogs—but also plugs participants into the creative dimension of listening, cultivating a heightened sensitivity to the material sounds and reverberations of everyday life.
Patterson’s immersive twenty-four channel sound installation When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti expands and builds upon the foregoing strategies as well as the artist’s lifetime engagement with small creatures—particularly frogs—as a notational device and structure, as well as a stand-in for the artist himself and marginalized groups, whether human or nonhuman. While Patterson rarely addressed racial politics directly in his Fluxus scores and instructions, When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti provides both a material and speculative framework for investigating his social orchestration of nonhuman sounds in shared spaces of human acoustics. Indeed, the itinerant sound installation evokes what new media theorist Brandon LaBelle articulates as “sonic agency” and “acoustic justice”—staging an acoustic mise-en-scène in which the visitor-turned-participant is urged to become a hospitable listener, and must choose whether to ignore or heed this call for attentiveness and attunement to both the intelligible and incompressible utterances that reverberate throughout the space, its architecture, and human and nonhuman inhabitants. Listening to the frogs enables a gesture of listening as a creative and communal act of learning and care—acknowledging the cries of the other and cultivating an empathic ear through an experience of radical acoustic hospitality. As Elke Gruhn, director of Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden, posthumous steward of the installation, and longtime champion of Patterson’s work reflects on the Athens/Kassel installation: “In whose artificial idyll the singing of a new synthetic frog population exists, Patterson’s work invites the audience to philosophize and to discover their ‘inner frog.’”
This is further demonstrated in the game-oriented performance piece Pond (1962) which marked the artist’s initial foray into the sonic domain of frogs. In this work, Patterson scores their calls—artificial and imitated—as a notational strategy for enticing participation and play, while also valorizing their reverberations and acknowledging their marginalized position in the world of humans. Patterson shifts the terms of engagement with these amphibians, as their material sounds structure the performance, and the actions and reactions of performers. The score instructs eight performers to stand around a grid, taped or chalked onto the floor, and make chance phrasings of sounds “intoned and accented in a manner exhibiting the general characteristics of natural animal calls,” corresponding to the movements of wind-up toy frogs. As more frogs are released, a clamor of human and artificial croaks intermix to emulate the aural ambiance of a frog pond. The floor grid—the center stage of the performance—is populated by frogs, or rather their stand-ins, and the human performers operate at the periphery, their sonic actions contingent on the indeterminate hops of their nonhuman collaborators. This reversal, while humorous and playful, also carries political undertones as the small creatures take on structural agency in this reimagining of the field of performance. The mechanical clicks and clacks of the toy frogs, once dissonant noise, become the guiding principle and provide the cues for action and performance. Patterson’s Pond and his subsequent and expanded engagements with frogs call for listening as a mode of production, tuning participants into alternative and marginalized sonic ecosystems. Through this work, Patterson sounds a sonic and acoustic politics of interspecies and interlingual communication and care that complicates, exceeds, and extends the representational and corporeal limits of the body.
Pond echoes and anticipates the poetics of interspecies play and politics in When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti. This provides a critical framework for investigating these works in relation to racial discourses of visibility and invisibility, audibility and inaudibility. As Fred Moten speculated: “Within the strictures of an ethics of dematerialization, Patterson disappears. He reemerges in republication, in enactment, in repertory, by way of the recording and its digital and cybernetic reproduction.” Patterson emerges then, not only as a “radical presence,” to quote Valerie Cassel Oliver, but also a radical reverberation. Patterson’s presence in When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti is via his physical absence, his voice and performances interjecting and intermingling with the frogs. Camouflaged amongst the frogs, like the speakers in the foliage, Patterson directly addresses the audience from a critical remove. This refusal of the representational politics of identity evokes the sonic dimension of resistance as sounded by the riotous ribbits of the frogs, whose collective croaks of dissonance resonate as emancipatory calls reverberating in the urgent soundings of Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama, and Nelson Mandela: “I have a dream”; “It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they glazed the trail towards freedom to the darkness of the night—yes we can; The time for the healing of the wounds has come.”
In investigating the migratory effects of the work as it transitioned from Athens and Kassel to Chicago, it is important to reflect on the contextual politics of the work at the time of its production and reception in these different locations. Within Chicago and the wider United States, the work’s title potentially signals a more direct address of democratic politics: wherein the elephant also becomes the characteristic emblem of the Republican Party along with the divisive rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration in 2019. And especially so as the work was installed during the mobilizing months of the Democratic presidential campaigns, including those of recently elected President Biden and Vice President Harris. A former Chicago resident and community organizer, President Obama’s voice is particularly resonant in this site, as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s emancipatory calls for racial equity and solidarity in the United States, whereas the site-specific reverberations, nuances, and contemporary implications of The Frogs and The Frog Prince are to a degree diminished in an American context.
Chicago is also a city of measurable segregation on racial lines—vis-à-vis strategic urban design and gentrification, as well as self-elected cultural affiliation—speaking to issues of displacement, as well as calls for solidarity across race and class. Patterson’s own experience as an American expat also comes more clearly into focus in the context of ecological displacement and the search for home and a sustainable livelihood. The sonic dimension of resistance is perhaps also amplified in the context of Chicago, where demonstrations spanning demographics during the 1968 National Democratic Convention—fifty years prior to the work’s acquisition in 2018—were met with excessive police brutality. These soundings of protest, met with those of violence, reverberate today, perhaps resonating louder than ever.
Issues surrounding equitable access to the museum and the work also enter the installation’s political framework, as it was staged in admission-free environments in Athens and Kassel, evoking another dimension of class and cultural oppression. Of course, it is important to note that in staging the installation, neither the curatorial team nor the artist’s estate had any fixed intentions nor projections for how the politics of the work would reemerge or transmute, focusing rather on the material and conceptual conditions of the work’s realization, and allowing the work to unfold indeterminately for each participant, as Patterson intended for all of his scores, instructions, and performances, irrespective of site
The frogs croaking from the trenches elicit and entice a more empathetic ear and higher tolerance for dissonance within habitual and convivial spaces of human leisure—the Byzantine Gardens in Athens, Karlsaue Park in Kassel, and the patio dining of the Art Institute of Chicago’s McKinlock Court. As critic Andrew Russeth observed during the Kassel iteration at Karlsaue Park: “Here the frogs are fighting back, shifting the aural landscape and potentially the surrounding ecosystem. It’s a protest by means of sound, and the artist termed the work ‘sonic graffiti.’” This leisure destination, however, is also transformed into a dissonant site of sonic antagonism as the ambient-turned-militant frog sounds disrupt conversations, at times shocking both children and adults, and altering the acoustics of a quasi-private, controlled dining experience in a public setting. Throughout the run of the installation, the museum’s visitor services team worked with the curatorial team to record visitor feedback and responses, which now serve as an archive of dissonance, registering the conflicting ways in which audiences experienced the acoustic situation. Notes of complaint and disappointment exaggerated the work’s capacity to function as unwelcomed and unanticipated “graffiti,” demonstrating the affective success of the installation—its ability to elicit an emotional response and action, even if this runs counter to the aspirational ideal of careful and empathic listening. While the listening subject is encouraged to be hospitable, with the militaristic connotations of camouflage and graffiti, it is equally urgent to account for those listeners who refuse to exercise care when occupying a once convivial space now infiltrated with foreign sounds.
The performative tactic-cum-technical parameter of “camouflaging” the loudspeakers becomes integral to the work as a conceptual score, an act of refusal, and a media object, extending the performance from the curatorial planning stages to physical installation and public realization to indeterminate acoustic experience and audience engagement. In Athens, where the work premiered, the “sonic graffiti” was staged in the gardens of the Byzantine and Christian Museum—the former site of “the Frog Island Vatrachonisi” at the center of the now barren river of Ilissos, and in close proximity to the ancient parcours of Aristotle and other philosophers of his Lyceum. The combined Greek and Byzantine references of the work’s original site and Aristophanes’s The Frogs made McKinlock court an ideal location for the work’s installation at the Art Institute of Chicago due to its Greek and Byzantine architectural and landscape accents. Indeed, Carl Mille’s Triton Fountain (1926) served as an anchor to the site. Triton is a mythological Greek god of the sea, and thus the fountain fittingly contextualizes the sound installation through its shared references to Greek mythology, as well as through the central motif of water and the power of amphibian creatures. The site also bridges the museum’s Modern Wing and Greek and Byzantine collections—an anachronistic cultural connection achieved in the work itself. The convivial café atmosphere provided an ideal social setting for encountering the installation, shifting its acoustic terms of engagement, as camouflaged croaks escalate from ambiance to riotous ribbits.
In the spirit of Fluxus, the acquisition and realization of Patterson’s When Elephants Fight at the Art Institute of Chicago was a networked collaboration, including the artist’s estate, landscape engineers, gardeners, time-based media conservators, designers, and technicians, and ultimately the audience.  The estate provided an installation toolkit, or guide, that outlined notes for the “adaptation of the homogeneity and noise level of the sound field to the individual surrounding.” The selection of the site was key, not only in terms of its visitor traffic and behavior and ecological mise-en-scène, but also for audio intelligibility. An interior garden with a central fountain, McKinlock court provided a relatively controlled environment for establishing, monitoring, and adjusting sound levels in relation to visitor occupancy and activity throughout the day. Additionally, the site provided the opportunity for a focused sound field, with each speaker (now directional, as opposed to 360-degree as in previous iterations) emitting sound inwards towards the center of the space where patio furniture provides leisurely accommodations. Following the artist’s intentions and the guidelines provided, “camouflage techniques which best fit the local environment” were used, so that the audience could not optically discern the physical source of the sound or related media equipment. Incidentally, adding to the scenic effect, newly born ducklings and their parents occupied the fountain and strolled its perimeter throughout the course of the installation, becoming an unexpected and welcome attraction to the site—with a ramp being built for their access and their being featured on the museum’s social media.
The courtyard’s rectangular architecture outlined by a dense perimeter of hedges provided ample coverage for the speakers, which were staked into the soil and camouflaged amidst the foliage. To further ensure that the sound was a surprise to visitors, cables connecting to the hidden equipment rack were run behind the hedges; and tucked into cracks and crevices in the pavement that were then concealed. The central fountain was also a key feature, both conceptually and architecturally. Not only did it provide the scenic and sonic framework for a frog pond, but its location at the center of the sound field allowed for speakers most prominently featuring Patterson’s “voices and noises” to be buoyed in the water and radially emit from “somewhere central within the whole sound field—functioning as the conductor of the human and natural frog choirs.”
The overall distribution of the speakers was also determined in relation to the presumed demographics of the site. Whereas German and Greek were less likely to be the native languages of the primary visiting public, the eight speakers with English audio were staged closest to the entrance, along with a speaker that played Patterson’s voice welcoming the visitor: “Hello, my name is Ben, can you tell me what time it is?”
In the process of staging the installation, an architectural plan of the courtyard was sent to the artist’s estate and the Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden to determine the location of each speaker and the according distribution of each unique audio channel. This plan migrated from a digital rendering to a highlighter color-coded, hand-drawn version mapped onto paper, suggestive of a graphic score. (fig. 6) It’s fitting that this map, together with the installation guide, proposed the installation of the work itself as a Fluxus performance in its own right. And the humorous nature of the work and Patterson’s Fluxus oeuvre was not lost on the installation team, who seriously took on the tasks of climbing through bushes and wading through water in galoshes to successfully camouflage the speakers. The team’s attentiveness—and my own—was piqued as we walked the perimeter of the courtyard in the mornings prior to the museum’s opening, determining whether or not we could discern the source of the sound and if it felt natural, at times finding ourselves wondering whether or not the sound was working during the segments of silence punctuating the dissonance. This act of listening as maintenance, and maintenance as listening, embodies the work’s aspirational call for interspecies relationality, care, and solidarity.
Jordan Carter is Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he has curated and co-curated numerous exhibitions, including Mounira Al Solh: I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous (2018); Ellen Gallagher: Are We Obsidian? (2018–19); Benjamin Patterson: When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti (2019); and Richard Hunt: Scholar’s Rock or Stone of Hope or Love of Bronze (2020–21). Upcoming projects include Ray Johnson ℅ (2021); a solo exhibition of the work of Shahryar Nashat (2022); and stanley brouwn’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States (2023). Prior to his time at the Art Institute, Jordan was a Curatorial Fellow at the Walker Art Center. He has also served as the 12-Month Fluxus Collection Intern at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; a curatorial intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem; and a research intern at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He holds a BA from Brown University, where he earned his degree in Modern Culture and Media; and an MA in Art History from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, where he focused on Fluxus and global conceptual art.
 For video documentation of the Art Institute of Chicago installation, see: https://www.artic.edu/videos/24/ben-pattersons-when-elephants-fight-it-is-the-frogs-that-suffera-sonic-graffiti.
 Following Patterson’s death in June 2016, Berlin-based composer Bernd Schultheis followed Patterson’s instructions to compose and produce the audio soundtracks for the installation in collaboration with the artist’s estate and the Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden.
 Recordings not initially secured by Patterson were sourced in collaboration with Frogs & Friends e.V., a Berlin-based organization dedicated to the preservation of frog species through new media technologies.
See: Elke Gruhn, “Benjamin Patterson / When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti (2016–2017)” translated to English by Julia Elizabeth Neal. Available in original German via Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden: https://www.kunstverein-wiesbaden.de/follow-fluxus/das-stipendium/ben-patterson. Gruhn cites media sources including: Giorgos Christides, “Greeks see cash run out in undeclared default” (BBC News, Thessaloniki, Greece: May 4, 2015): https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32580919.
 As Elke Gruhn contends, “Patterson’s work seems to suggest a certain dynamic: in times of unrestrained capitalism, neoliberalism and various financial crises, the society of ‘small creatures’ becomes increasingly overrun, crushed and destroyed, powerless against overpowering systems and internal conflicts. But we should not forget, it’s been the small amphibian beings, by their courageous leaps, who have made human life possible on this planet.” See: Gruhn, “Benjamin Patterson.”
 See Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2020) and Brendan Labelle, Acoustic Justice: Listening, Performativity, and the Work of Reorientation (New York: Bloomsbury Academic), 2021.
 Andrew Russeth, “The In Sound from Way Out: Benjamin Patterson at Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens,” ARTnews, June 8, 2017, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/market/the-in-sound-from-way-out-benjamin-patterson-at-documenta-14-in-kassel-and-athens-8486/.
 As Art Institute of Chicago time-based media conservator Kristin M. MacDonough reflects: “When Benjamin Patterson’s sound art piece—his sonic graffiti—was installed outdoors in McKinlock Court in the summer of 2019, we consulted with the artist’s estate on the intention of the artwork and received instructions that the speakers should be camouflaged, among other guidelines for installation. This led to the exhibition team selecting outdoor speakers that are water resistant and small enough to blend into the courtyard foliage, but still powerful enough for an immersive aural experience as the artist intended.” See Kristin M. MacDonough, “Further Tales of Saving Digital Media,” Art Institute of Chicago website, January 16, 2020, https://www.artic.edu/articles/785/further-tales-of-saving-digital-media.