Feb 18, 2011

how to explain radio to a dead huia

This is where we must begin; with the magical power of replication, the image affecting what it is an image of, wherein the representation shares in or takes power from the represented — testimony to the power of the mimetic faculty through whose awakening we might not so much understand that shadow science known as magic… but see anew the spell of the natural where the reproduction of life merges with the recapture of the soul”
— Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity

"In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting... Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are."
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought

on the afternoon of Friday February 11, 2011, radio cegeste transmitted a Mini FM radio programme within Orokonui Ecosanctuary, a 307 hectare regenerating forest ecosystem located just outside Dunedin in New Zealand's South Island.

this transmission - an experimental, site-specific nature documentary - involved gathering location recordings of birdsong and ambient sound in the sanctuary during the morning, these sound files being re-transmitted the same afternoon in a natural clearing, demarcated by three giant Rimu trees, deep within the forest. 17 small radios were hung in this clearing; most in trees and others placed on the surrounding ground, these then picked up the signal from a mini FM transmitter, layering the recordings back into the space.

the show was about an hour in length and without human listeners, apart from the crew (one visual documenter, as well as myself; in fact as an aside i was thinking while sorting through the photos here showing the process of making the radio station, just how satisfying it was to engage with the notion of the implication of human presence within the bounds of its invisibility in the narrative of the traditional nature documentary).

the re-transmitted birdsong emanating from this 'flock' of decentralised small radio receivers filled the clearing and augmented and interfered with its sound, ultimately attracting many endemic birds. particularly distinguished guests were two large endangered kaka (nestor meridionalis), as well as many smaller birds which in more populated times would have often travelled together in multi-species flocks, including piwakawaka (fantail/rhipidura fuliginosa), some miromiro (tomtit/petroica macrocephala), pipipi (brown creeper/mohua novaeseelandiae) and titpounamu (rifleman/acanthisitta chloris) - the latter New Zealand’s smallest bird.

exploring the relationship between birds and radios has become somewhat of an ongoing, extended multi-layered research project for radio cegeste, with this programme the continuation of a line of thinking (or flight?) taking the materiality of radio waves, a focus on the territorial delimitation of mini FM, the traditions of the natural history museum and the birdsong as a NZ cultural sonic trope into various site specific territories and exploratory notions around 'environmental radio'. this work in progress will continue with future iterations under the general programming title of radio d'oiseaux, in part-homage to composer Olivier Messiaen.

the radio d'oiseaux project asks some broad questions about the relationship of the museum to the living world it catalogues, progressing with the assumption that the modernist natural history museum, with its mounted specimens in vitrines, is in some sense the shadow other to the national park, or ecosanctuary, the latter being a more contemporary conception of 'natural heritage', or a 'living museum', albeit with a related focus around the notion of the archival preservation of species as museological. as a sound project, radio d'oiseaux is also interested in the materiality of the sonic object and the functioning of sound recording as a form of memorial museology, and the fact that the impulse toward field recording of birdsong has, in new zealand, historically found a home on the radio, and within the audible texts of national identity.

this particular iteration of the project also trucks with the notion of documentation being the only trace of performance, and asks whether (and if so : how), the deliberate non-spectatorship of an event in an overmediated world can lend clarity to that event, and, relatedly, that if we posit that there is no such thing as an event without an audience (or a tree falling in a forest, or silence, variously), what might happen if we imagine a spectatorial base that is non-human, or "natural". how can we approach non human animals, in other words, as listeners that are "equal but differ
ent", and what might this mean? what is it to understand a non human species, to approach an encounter outside any propensity to anthropomorphise, to get around 'figurative appropriation' - using animals as symbolic, reductive, sentimentalised, illustrative metaphors - and can we
make steps to do this by tracing observations about the history and development of the human-nonhuman animal bond? i.e. how does reciprocality function in this relationship - in a general situation, as Erica Fudge puts it, where “we lack a language at present in which we can think about and represent animals to ourselves as animals, in ways that are not metaphorical" (Fudge, E. (2002). Animal.)

a touchstone here is the event-work for which Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys is perhaps most famous, in which he claimed he preferred to explain pictures to a dead hare than to human, western, cultural, head-based beings, saying “A Hare comprehends more than many human beings with their stubborn rationalism ...I told him that he needed only to scan the picture to understand what is really important about it” (Jones, A. The Artist’s Body, p.77)

a delayed response to this statement might be found in an interview with the German artist Wolfgang Müller, talking about his 2009 project Séance Vocibus Avium, a book/record whose reconstructed sound-poetics of human imitations of extinct birds won its author the Karl Sczuka-Preis for radio play as radio art:

"Q : Your installation features drawings and the reconstructed sounds of extinct birds. What does the name mean?

A: Séance, you know, is from French, a spiritual meeting with dead people. Vocibus avium is ‘voice’ and ‘bird’ in Latin. It sounds like abracadabra: mystic and magical. Our society believes they are not mystical and not magical – that this is something exotic other countries have. They say we are very rationalistic, very serious, but I don’t think so. There are different descriptions of these bird sounds in every language: French, German, English. You cannot hear the original sound so only the different interpretations make the truth. The drawings work a bit like this too – similarities and differences. I thought it was a nice idea to get musicians and singers, including a Grand Dame of the National Icelandic Theatre, to reconstruct sounds of birds that were never tape-recorded. I wanted a natural record."

my piece's methodology was inspired somewhat variously by recent bioacoustic studies into bird listening and mimicry, notions of EVP and the perpetuance of ghost-signals signal via transmission, the potential for a radio station powered directly from the sun, how birdsong is affected by human changes in the soundscape, and some general wondering around how Deleuzian ideas about the birdsong as refrain and the sonification of territory relate to small scale, bounded radio transmission.

some specific formal elements were inspired by a story reported on the Radio New Zealand website on the 8th August 2009, under the header :

Birdsong recordings to lure kokako to new homes


Thirty rare native kokako are to be relocated in the North Island with recorded birdsongs being played to help them settle in.

The birds are being moved to help re-establish kokako populations in Whirinaki Forest Park near Murupara and in the Waitakere Ranges.

Waikato University PhD student David Bradley will use recordings made from the birds' home territory, including the Urewera National Park and forests in King Country and Waikato, to encourage them to stay in their new surroundings.

Mr Bradley says the pre-recorded birdsongs will be played through speakers that will be hoisted by ropes into trees."

many thanks are due to Ben Smith, Orokonui guide, and Campbell Walker, photographer.