BIRDSONG

Proposal/work in progress

Lament for the Song Sparrow

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.

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Birdsong is an installation in two parts designed for a gallery with adjacent park; one part is installed 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 ornithologist Zena Casteel at the Cornell Ornithology Lab in New York to create a fabricated version of what this missing bird might have sounded like using measurements of its beak morphology taken in 1925. 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 drawings and watercolor paintings of "reconstructed" 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? . . .”

 

The camera curls around the singer: it’s a realistic-looking computer-generated mouse standing on its hind legs and gazing at the sea.


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.

An original song written by the accomplished composer Garry Eister has been performed by soprano Risa Larson as the voice of the mouse. The CGI animation was realized by CGI artist Sonya Sofiya Fayzieva.


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 one's spirits in order to work toward more than survival. The viewer can stop and simply listen—even if they’re only listening to ghosts.

Example: Barnsdall Park and LA Municipal Art Gallery

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