Billions of birds have vanished from north America since 1970 and a mass die-off was reported this year in the southwestern US. Like most of us, I’ve been haunted by the implications. In response, I designed an installation where a person can simply pause to listen to birdsong and, when exiting into the park, they can hear the sound of a native bird that's been extinct since the nineteen-sixties. The room and park will provide weary citizens a few minutes to rest and collect themselves and to hear the song of a creature that has been lost for decades.
Right now, I think it would be a service to offer a resting place for tired people. I imagine that a viewer might go to a museum or gallery to experience release from some of the fatigue produced by recent losses, the fear of contagion, and by worry over the violent division that’s consumed our country. I want my audience to feel free to pause and relax—to listen—to be embodied away from small screens.
Birdsong is an installation in two parts designed for the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery; one part in a large room inside the gallery and the other part unfolds in the park just outside.
Approaching the gallery through the park, the viewer will have a chance to hear the call of the extinct Santa Barbara Island Song Sparrow as it is sung by real birds. I have been working with the Cornell Ornithology Lab in New York to create a fabricated version of what this missing bird might have sounded like. The living mockingbirds in the park outside of the gallery will “learn” the call of the extinct song sparrow by our playing the simulation on speakers in the park until they mimic it in their own calls. Hence, the lost bird will be resurrected—brought back to life in song through the living bodies of other birds.
After listening to mockingbirds mimic the song of the extinct sparrow in the park, the viewer can enter the building into a gallery containing gentle lighting, a padded bench, and birdsong issuing from various locations. It’s subtle and dynamic, and, with the help of the Cornell Ornithology Lab, will sound exactly as if the viewer was sitting on the hill prior to the city’s building; they will hear the original creatures. Small watercolor paintings of each of the recorded birds line the walls.
The room lights subtly raise and lower every ten minutes when one of the walls lights up with a video projection depicting a rocky landscape near the sea. We see a figure at a distance—the camera glides toward it across the terrain. As the camera gets closer, we hear it’s singing a song of lament to a once real bird which has become extinct—the Santa Barbara Song Sparrow. “. . . Oh my lost little bird, did you fly, did you fly? . . .”
Very simple and touching. The camera curls around the singer: it’s a realistic-looking computer-generated mouse standing on its hind legs and gazing at the sea.
The original song has already been written by the accomplished composer Garry Eister and recorded by soprano Risa Larson.
Finally, the video zooms away from the mouse, the wall goes dark, and the viewer is returned to the room, the bench, and the sound of birds. The three-minute CGI video will be a fabrication of the natural, a re-creation; since there are no recordings or surviving photographs of this extinct bird, it seems fitting that the “natural” here would be entirely artificial.
For the visitor, the “Birdsong” project provides a structure for experience—a durational frame to process the recognition that nature is failing. It’s distressing, yet time spent in the room is consoling and uplifting. Restful. It’s a welcome pause to restore our spirits in order to work toward more than survival. Let’s stop
and simply listen—even if we’re only listening to ghosts.
Barnsdall Park and Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery