15 Jul 2010

Radio d’Oiseaux : attempts at the non-linearity of a nest 1 & 2 at the Blue Oyster Gallery, Dunedin

'attempts at the non linearity of a nest' comprised two works. both were exhibited as part of the group show Media Povera, at the Blue Oyster Gallery, Dunedin, 13 July - 7 August, 2010.

'attempts at the non linearity of a nest #1' was a live sound piece recorded in the office of the Blue Oyster gallery, direct from radio transmitter to the gallery’s telephone answering machine, to be heard only by callers to the gallery when no-one was present to pick up the phone, and erased without being recorded anywhere else, at the conclusion of the show. this work comprised me re-vocalising the only extant recording of a Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), the original sound recording of which is itself not a recording of the actual bird, which became extinct before sound recording technologies were widely available, but a human imitation of the bird (or, if you like, a playback by an organic/mnemonic recording device) by a Maori guide who remembered the song from his childhood. I also recorded myself singing and playing on the violin The Huia Song (a Maori Lament), a NZ popular song written by O. M. Shakespeare in 1932. Playing these recordings back in a live performative manner through the Radio Cegeste transmitter, direct to the blank 'audience' of the gallery telephone, the recordings were fragmented and augmented by the naturally occurring electromagnetic and radiophonic noise to be found in the space, to produce a soundscape that seemed lost in time, evocatively filtered by traces of other signals, erasure, and interference.

'Nesting' this work in the gallery's telephone re-imagined the 'phone - normally a pragmatic, humdrum part of the gallery operations, an invisible sonic conduit of its office - as a small gallery space, the work's housing of itself in a part of the Blue Oyster's 'corpus' not normally open to artworks had a slightly parasitic quality which drew out the 'cuckoo' thematic of the work. It also opened up the real-time poetics of the telephonic space. In a time when 'land lines' are becoming less common as they are replaced by wireless communication devices, we arguably have just as much opportunity to reflect on the materiality and usage of older telecommunications technologies as we do newer ones (a situation which is mirrored by the situation of radio : I was not tempted here, for example, to make this work as an application for iPhone, in the same way as I prefer to use a home-soldered analogue Mini FM transmitter rather than make a digital podcast radio show), as a framework with potential to re-invest itself with imaginative or artistic possibility, retro-fitting the intimation of wonder that Marcel Proust (who himself used to listen to opera and theatre live from Paris over the 'phone) described as waning so quickly in the early 20th Century, when he wrote about the telephone in 1907 as "a supernatural instrument before whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream." In the development of this work, where two older communications technologies set up a listener-speaker relationship, I was also reminded of an interview with Peter Jefferies in which the musician talks about artistic inspiration as a 'tuning in' to possibility : "The last line on the last song on the "Last Great Challenge in a Dull World" goes, "I'm a tape recorder talking to a telephone line, listening." He continues : "I don't know where the songs come from. They come from somewhere. I don't feel that I write them per se. I feel like a radio set who just happens to be tuned in some kind of of way that I pick this stuff up." I didn't know where the songs came from either, suffice to say that the after-hours caller to the Blue Oyster for the duration of the exhibition Media Povera might be lucky enough to hear, instead of the usual message detailing the gallery's hours and the show's title and duration, a supernatural answering machine message transmitted from an extinct bird.

The Huia Song
A Maori Lament

The pohutukawa trees,
Wave on the morning breeze,
The bellbird is carolling,
The wild duck is on the wing,
But you, but you have gone!

Ah! see how the silver fern,
And once laughing waters yearn,
And there 'neath the skies soft blue,
Tui notes they faulter too,
Pining, pining for you!

Sacred Huia, none can trace,
Your far distant dwelling place,
Kauri trees night watches keep,
We can only grieve and weep,
Seeking, seeking in vain!

Te Pohutakawa e
E mihia nei e te matangi
Koe komako e hotu nei
Koe parera, e tangi ra
Mo huia ka ngaro nei

Nga wao o Tane tenei
Nga uri o Tangaroa
O taina me te iwi
Kei te koingo ki a koe e
Huia ka ngaro nei koe

E te manu tapu nui
E te kura rangatira
Kei hea koe e kimihia nei
E tangihia nei e matou E Huia hoki mai ra.

'attempts at the non linearity of a nest #2' had, in contrast, a physical presence in the gallery space, but contained its own set of gaps and erasures, mainly based around ideas of the found object, memory, recording technologies, representations of nature, and the post-Victorian technologised paranormal. The work comprised a found bird’s nest - which I chanced upon one day lying in the middle of a path in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens and had kept ever since - containing an unwound spool of magnetic audio tape, a response to specimens of nests I had recently seen in the endemic ornithology collections of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in particular a nest which seemed to be lined with a shiny brown material which, as the curator of birds pointed out to me, looked remarkably like audio tape. Fascinated, I recorded the sound of this empty nest in a subsequent visit in the back-room storage areas of the ornithological collection of the Museum using the Paranormal Research method of Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), then transferred it to blank audio tape, and placed the audio tape in the Botanical Gardens nest. The Mise en Abyme aspect of this work seemed to hint at an infinite regress of emptinesses, a 'cuckoo' of blank potential around which the 'host' nest and its silence wound a careful cradle of tiny, perfectly arranged sticks and moss, lined with soft feathers.

future plans are to place this (currently unplayed) audio tape, still in its nest, outdoors in a tree, for a set period of time, and subsequently make a work ('attempts at the non-linearity of a nest #3') with the results, whatever the condition of the unspooled, and as such sensitive and brittle, tape (exposed to the elements, decayed, or missing). i figure this proposed aleatory experiment in exposed natural-material sound, whose material has additional status as a EVP recording, might potentially result in a complex imprinting of myriad traces, becoming a potential reversal of the moment of technological/spiritual encounter by Swedish painter, archaeologist and former opera singer Friedrich Jurgensen on June 12, 1959, when visiting his country house one summer.

Jurgensen brought along his tape recorder, to record the singing of wild birds (especially the chaffinch, of which he was evidently quite fond). Later when listening back to the tape he "heard a wild noise, vibrating like a storm, where you could only remotely hear the chirping of the birds. My first thought was that maybe some of the tubes had been damaged. In spite of this I switched on the machine again and let the tape roll. Again I heard this peculiar noise and the distant chirping. Then I heard a trumpet solo, a kind of signal for attention. Stunned I continued to listen when suddenly a man's voice began to speak in Norwegian. Even though the voice was quite low I could clearly hear and understand the words. The man spoke about 'nightly bird voices' and I percieved a row of piping, splashing and rattling sounds. Suddenly the choir of birds and the vibrating noise stopped. In the next moment the chirping of a chaffinch was heard and you could hear the tits singing at a distance - the machine worked perfectly!"

Jurgensen continued after this incident to investigate the phenomenon, which he came to believe was "from the other side", i.e. the voices he was recording were the voices of the dead. Over the years, he made thousands of recordings of these voices, ranging from his family and friends to, more strikingly, people such as Vincent Van Gogh and Himmler's masseur. Jurgensen believed he heard the voice of his dead mother on one such tape, an experience he described as life-changing : "I was outside with a tape recorder, recording bird songs. When I listen through the tape, a voice was heard to say "Friedel, can you hear me. It's mammy..." It was my dead mother's voice. 'Friedel' was her special nickname for me."

The recordings in Jurgensen's archive are claimed to be the world's first recordings of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), the paranormal appearance of strange voices on magnetic tape. In this he was very close to earlier inventors and users of technologies of transmission : both Guglielmo Marconi and Thomas Edison believed in the possibility of using new recording devices to contact the dead, and Sir William Crooks, President of the Royal Society and inventor of the cathode ray tube, and Sir Oliver Lodge, one of the leading contributors to radio technology, believed the other world to be a wavelength into which we pass when we die.

The questions I often ask when thinking of Jurgenson's experiments are many : was the recording of his mother really just an imperfectly erased recording from former times? Does that still mean it was a transmission from the other side of the reproductive-technological time divide, anyway? And : how did he know that the birds he was listening to were not voices of the dead, as well? While I think about this further, the recorded silence of an empty nest will at some point take its chances in my garden, perhaps in the coming spring, where I am hoping some live birds might be encouraged to interact with it, too.

Until then the last word on the subject of nests goes to Gaston Bachelard. In chapter 4 of his book 'The Poetics of Space', he writes, "A beginning of a philosophical phenomenology of nests would consist in our being able to elucidate the interest with which we look through an album containing reproductions of nests, or, even more positively, in our capacity to recapture the naive wonder we used to feel when we found a nest. This wonder is lasting, and today when we discover a nest it takes us back to our childhood or, rather, to a childhood; to the childhoods we should have had. For not many of us have been endowed by life with the full measure of its cosmic implications."

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