Bird is an interactive audio-video installation using an overhead infrared camera to track the presence, number, and location of visitors in real time. This data triggers changes in both image and sound.
The project was inspired by the remarkable melodic and timbral variety present in the songs of the Eurasian Blackbird. Blackbirds are found in urban areas as well as forests. A sustained encounter with these distinctive songs can leave the indelible impression of having experienced the indigenous artifacts of a non-human culture. Adult males sing in the spring to establish territory for breeding, and an individual will typically choose an elevated perch that oversees the territory he is claiming. This singing may even be competitive; males can sometimes be observed listening to, and singing in response to one another at a distance. Presumably females choose their partners with melismatic virtuosity and soloistic inventiveness as key criteria.
Version 1.0 (single channel video, stereo sound) was premiered at the University of New Mexico Art Museum in March 2012; version 1.1 (with four channel audio) was presented in November 2012 by the Taipei Digital Art Festival, at the Songshan Cultural Center, a large industrial complex with a former life as a tobacco factory. In 2014, Zone2Source presented Bird for two months in the Glass House in Amsterdam’s Amstelpark. This unique venue has a large square glass pavillion in front, connected to an adjacent oval room. For Version 2.0, all aspects of the project — sound, video, and interactivity — were expanded and enhanced. Spatialized audio could be heard outside as well as inside, where a hexagonal array of speakers created an immersive sound field. The installation features an unseen, virtual blackbird, whose actions are modeled in software. The sound design in our new version explored what we are calling “experimental bird grammar”. While previous versions used authentic blackbird phrases, now our virtual bird was algorithmically improvising artificial phrases from a taxonomized database of individual notes and lexemes.
In order to activate the viewer’s awareness of the expansive glass windows, we mounted computer-cut vinyl prints of graphic leaf-and-seedpod silhouettes at eye level, like organic QR codes. These visual elements referenced the habitat of the birds, and some of the video content. Another new development in the work was the addition of trail masking, whereby the positions of viewers in the oval room were mapped by the computer and displayed as a transparent layer on top of the video projection. The rear chamber had three related video streams. These documentation materials are meant to represent a typical sequence of video events as might be experienced by a visitor, with close-up footage of blackbirds where the soundtrack is made from digitally processed birdsong, to outdoor environments shot only where we had heard them singing (as a reference to Douglas Huebler's conceptual photographic series "Duration Piece #5, New York, April 1969"). Also new were 3D animated fantasies inspired by the bird’s habitat and anatomy. One dream sequence metaphorically takes the viewer down inside the blackbird’s double-chambered syrinx, or vocalizing mechanism. Another shares its inspiration with the window graphics as it derives from the horse-chestnut, a type of tree that we have often encountered as a favorite perch for a European blackbird.
During the course of the exhibition, several of our visitors even remarked on noticing how some of the birds resident in the park seemed curious enough about the sound of an unfamiliar bird to approach the pavillion for a closer look...
Bird is dedicated to the memory of Regina Verhagen.
Supported in part by a Faculty Research Grant from Northwestern University and the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Individual Arts Grant Program.
Premiered at the University of New Mexico Art Museum, 23 March-29 April 2012.
Asian premiere: 12th Taipei Digital Art Festival, “Artificial Nature”, 16-25 November 2012, Songshan Cultural Park, Taipei, TW.
European premiere: Zone2Source, “Secret Signals”, 21 June-24 August 2014, Het Glazen Huis, Amstelpark, Amsterdam, NL.