20 Dec 2013

transmission for a lazarus taxon: radio cegeste's 'the new zealand storm petrel' out on flaming pines' 'birds of a feather' series

radio cegeste's homage to the New Zealand Storm Petrel was released as FLP025 alongside (and inversely twinned with) a composition for the Rainbow Lorikeet by Sydney based musician Seaworthy on December 20 2013 by small independent Australian label Flaming Pines as part of their limited run Birds of a Feather series of EPs, themed around the sounds of birds, and their role in music. As label head Kate Carr puts it "The role of birds as muse, as musical guide and inspiration has been well documented in classical music, from Mozart's pet starling to Beethoven's birdsong filled Pastoral Symphony and Sibelius's swan hymn to Messaien's birdsong compositions (...) always birds inspire us with their mastery of flight, their epic migrations, their tragic vulnerability and their against the odds tales of survival."

The New Zealand Storm Petrel (Oceanites maorianus), seemed an apt conceptual figure for such a project, with its recent dramatic re-discovery in 2003, after being declared extinct in the 1850s. The small black and white seabird is now included under that most miraculously evocative of categories in natural history, alongside the small number of other species which have been declared extinct only to appear again, often much later. In paleontological classification, such a creature is known as a 'Lazarus Taxon', and the various examples, including the Lord Howe Stick Insect, the Coelacanth, and New Zealand's other famed avian example, the Takahe, seem to slide a place holder, however marginally, into a collective imagination facing the global landslide to oblivion within the sixth wave of human-influenced extinction. In the case of the New Zealand Storm Petrel, the gap between disappearance and rediscovery was over 150 years. In New Zealand settler culture terms, that is roughly analogous to the official age of our nation, although humans have of course been on these islands, interacting in complex cultural ways with bird species, since the 1100s.

Until 2003 The New Zealand Storm Petrel was known only from three specimens collected in the region of Banks Peninsula in the 1800s. One, collected by a Mr G. Garrick, is currently housed in Lionel Walter Rothschild's collection (now the collection of the British Museum) at Tring in Hertfordshire, UK, and a further two in the collections of the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris. These specimens, some additional photographs of which can be seen here, were used in DNA matches which identified the return of the species in 2011, almost ten further years after initial sightings by birders in 2003.

The story of the New Zealand Storm Petrel would seem immediately to beg a variety of questions, the most pressing of which being: where on earth has it been? And the answer is at least twofold: lost at sea, but also, in flight somewhere off the taxonomical map, outside of the reach of human classification systems. It has, effectively, escaped from the narratives of Western scientific history, and it has done that by being in a space we could not see, an unclassifiable space, for over 150 years. Where exactly is that space? It exists, to the birds, just as it always did, outside the hubris of human attempts to capture totality.

This is an intriguing proposition, for an art of radio which privileges small pockets of transmission, room sized portals which are not constant but open and then close up again, in domestic and public spaces, to leave a trace on a recording or merely in the air. The return of the New Zealand Storm Petrel to the world, a return which upsets the fictions of the completist project of taxonomy as it collapses linear notions of time and space, would seem to be an incidence which gestures toward what Michel Foucault called heterotopias, the parallel space configurations, or small pockets within the nineteenth century's conception of history as a gigantic historical arc, whose existence turns the modern project into a dimensional multitude. Stories taking place in other spaces, which then return to make complex the utopic vision.

Foucault writes that "Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time - which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies. The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time."

Further: "there are heterotopias of indefinitely accumulating time, for example museums and libraries. Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and toppling its own summit, whereas in the seventeenth century, even at the end of the century, museums and libraries were the expression of an individual choice. By contrast, the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organising in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity."

What is radio space, and what was radio space doing in 1850, when the signal of the New Zealand Storm Petrel was lost for a slice in time? What is it doing, in 2013, when the only solid ground upon which this bird lands, after months on the wing, is finally known to science, itself landed through the etherial medium of radio transmission? Bracketed here in this temporal stretch we seemingly have the a whole life and death of a medium, its opening and closing. But the notion of communicative spaces sitting outside the linear fields of human knowledge, parallel to but not included in the teleological conception of history, and mediumistic hierarchies, is perhaps heightened by such an example.

The Storm Petrel's inhabitation of space is the least terrestrial of birds'. Like other members of the storm petrel family, the species is Pelagic, meaning that rather than inhabiting the littoral zone of the coastal waters or shoreline, it is a bird which spends its whole life in flight over open ocean, landing only to breed. This is apparently not quite as exhausting a feat as it initially appears: Storm Petrels as a group are the smallest of oceanic seabirds, their size allows them to hover, almost weightlessly, on the ocean's surface, sometimes seeming to walk on its meniscus, while feeding on various kinds of small surface-dwelling crustacea and other sealife, a habit which originally earned them their name: a diminutive of 'Peter' in reference to Saint Peter's water walking episode in the gospel of St. Matthew, and then also the further vernacular extrapolation of the trope: 'Jesus Bird'.

On my 38th birthday, in early April 2012, while I was a New Zealand Department of Conservation artist in residence on the biosecure bird sanctuary of Kapiti Island, I accompanied two ornithologists in their work, tramping around the bush-covered mountain landscape of Rangatira and down to the coastline, the scientists occasionally stopping to hoist radio aerial arrays to shoulder height in order to tune in to the small, faint signals of radio transmitters strapped to the legs of those most secretive of New Zealand nocturnal avifauna, the Little Spotted Kiwi. This same transmission technology has, this year, been used to pinpoint the breeding location of the New Zealand Storm Petrel. In 2005/6 three Petrels were released with radio transmitters attached, although it took until February 2013 until researchers were able to to track their breeding area to a site on predator free Little Barrier Island. 

In more general, although no less intriguing terms, the order of birds to which the New Zealand Storm Petrel belongs figures variously in the European cultural imagination. Storm Petrels are variously connected to seafaring superstitions and often figure in nautical mythology as the souls of drowned sailors. Superstition-influenced nicknames for the birds in various contexts include waterwitch and oiseau du diable. There is a pragmatic, observational basis to the legends of storm petrels being commonly associated with the appearance of stormy weather, as the birds would often seek shelter in the hulls of ships. Breton folklore additionally considers its local Storm Petrels to be the spirits of sea captains who, having subjected their crew to maltreatment, were subsequently doomed to spend a restless, ghostly eternity flying over the deep ocean, never to land.

The connection of the Stormy Petrel to the critical discourse of revolutionary anarchism is another intriguing footnote to this bird's rich appearance in cultural mythos. Even before the publication of Maxim Gorky's 1901 poem Song of the Stormy Petrel, later to be called "the battle anthem of the revolution" in Russia, the politically/poetically appropriate motif of the bird (the Russian name of which translates as "the announcer of the storm") had been associated with a German anarchist paper in the late 19th century, and the association also appeared when the London group of the Anarchist Federation produced a set of pamphlets under the imprint of the Stormy Petrel.    

Returning to the Birds of a Feather project, it seemed fitting to consider immensity and scale, the sheer size and density of the volume of the earth's oceans, as set against the "sparrow sized" New Zealand Storm Petrel, when considering casting out my own transmitted signal for this bird; a process which involved speculating on the cultural aporia of the bird's disappearance and re-emergence into human scientific codification, the question of the archival, of presences that exit and re-enter written history, the poetics of having been swallowed up by oblivion and then 'choosing' to return, to disappear from the rapidly mapping exploratory realms of the colonial-era antipodean ocean only to emerge into the more shrunken globe of the neo-liberal capitalist twenty first century. An ambiguous angel of history. What coming storm, political or ecological, is it here to witness, to warn us is about to come to pass? In our willingness to codify birds, and other creatures, with such portent we enact a kind of translation, but one that risks leaving out the fact of bird's own otherness. Or as the 20th century American poet Lorine Niedecker put it, rather more eloquently:

A monster owl
out on the fence
flew away. What
is it the sign
of? The sign of
an owl.

The process of composition was, unlike much of my recent work with birds, based less on empirical observation of the birds themselves, or their habitat, both an impossible imposition for a species so critically endangered, a breeding site so fragile, a situation with so many unknowns in play, scientifically speaking. I had corresponded briefly with ornithologists working with the birds, but at the time of writing this text and composing the piece itself, their songs and cries had not yet been documented as audio recordings. This very fact of the sonic and observational gap between collected data and the unknown, between the bird's supposed extinction and its coming back from the blanks of history, seemed to be one of the more compelling aesthetic factors to consider. So Maritime radio static, morse code and mini FM radio transmission, the sounds of a slowed down lock groove of a 78rpm recording of Asleep in the Deep, string instruments, a broken squeezebox accordion transported to New Zealand by ship in Colonial times which itself seems to breathe like ragged sails, recordings of the sea and seabirds on Kapiti Island, all contributed their signal and noise to the transmission, its exploration of the non-linear space between endings and beginnings, land and sea, death and life, old and new technology, the edge of radio transmission before it falls into the blankness of static.

The piece was also conceived partly as a response to Jean Epstein's film, Mor'vran (The Sea of Ravens) (1931), set in Breton and one of a series of intensely beautiful film-poems made by the French director (who was afraid of the sea) in the 1930s. These sub-documentary regional explorations of the people and folk culture of the islands of Brittany, often using non-professional actors, were set in locations battered by the force of the Atlantic Ocean, among houses built from the wood of shipwrecks, and cultural mythologies which also focused down on on recurring themes of shipwreck and loss, tragedy and hope, reflected by Epstein in recurring motifs: lighthouses, storms, boats setting out, boats in peril, islanders waiting for boats to return.

Last word, in this instance, goes to Foucault. As he puts it in Of Other Places :"if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development (...), but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates." 

I figure that means radio pirates too, as well as those other species, like the New Zealand Storm Petrel, adrift between modes, classifications, and knowledges. If you substitute 'transmitter' for boat' and 'aether' for 'sea', if in fact radio cegeste is this kind of vessel, as I think it is, then we might be getting somewhere.

the piece is purchasable in charmingly semi-obsolete 3" CD format at the Flaming Pines site here, and also listenable in part / preview form at the Flaming Pines soundcloud page: