5 Jul 2014

a memorial silence for Sceloglaux albifacies, on the centenary of its extinction.

On the 5th July 2014, I headed into Canterbury Museum to record the mounted specimen of the Laughing Owl/Whekau (Sceloglaux albifacies) to be found, grouped humbly under the designation "forest birds", with various other New Zealand endemic species both extinct and still hanging on, in the Museum's extensive, old fashioned 'bird hall'. A sonic still life which was quietly significant, this 10 minute recording occurred on the 100th anniversary of the day (05.07.1914) the last officially acknowledged member of this species was found dead by the side of the road at Blue Cliffs station, not far from here in South Canterbury, by an 18 year old girl named Airini Woodhouse.

It seemed appropriate to commemorate this small, bleak anniversary, not mentioned in the New Zealand public media (unlike the 100th anniversary of the First World War, which has diverted much arts funding towards various memorial projects this year), with a private mourning ritual, a memorial silence which mirrors the silence of the bird itself, from Airini's sad discovery in 1914 onward, despite the rich prior textuality of description which attends this bird's voice, the eerie "doleful shrieks" and startling, unsettling, mad night forest laughter documented so frequently in the late 1800s, when the Whekau was still found in South Island forest and plain. This took the form of recorded listening as a form of meditation, an inhabitation of a listening space, rather than merely a form of archiving, mixed in with a paranormal ritual investigation, via the practice of Electronic Voice Phenomenon - a nod to radio's long association with attempts to contact the dead.

The Canterbury Museum Whekau specimen was collected in the late 1800s, while the species was still able to be rescued from habitat loss, the introduction of mustelids, and the attentions - ironically - of museum collectors and ornithologists. This particular museum specimen already has a history of artistic counter-portraiture, which addresses such issues. The above image is Fiona Pardington's photograph of the same Whekau (Fiona Pardington, Whekau Laughing Owl, 2004. C-type print mounted on dibond. 160 x 120 cm) - Pardington's photographic interventions into museum collections, particularly of Taonga, have been written about as resurrections: "Through her lens, these inanimate objects undergo a resurrection—an allegorical dialogue traces its path through lost histories, forgotten memories, and nameless lives."

In recording this Whekau's silence 100 years to the day of the officially recognised extinction of its species, I added it to a growing collection which attempts to "re-collect" specimens of this bird held in Museum permanent collections. Worldwide, there are 52 feathered specimens (24 mounts, 28 study skins), 2 alcohol specimens, 3 part skeletons, and 17 eggs. (Worthy, T. H. A survey of historical Laughing Owl (Sceloglaux albifacies) specimens in museum collections. Notornis, Vol. 44, issue 4, 241-252)

As many of these silences as possible will be collected as an archive for a future transmission project (if you have a Whekau in your local Natural History museum and would like to contribute to the collection, by all means get in touch, via the contact details elsewhere on this blog...). This as-yet nebulous, unnamed project will serve as both a performative radio memorial, and an accumulated counter-archive of "collected silences". It aims to investigate an alternate model for collecting practice which mirrors, in an uncanny way, the historical collecting practices of individuals and institutions, becoming a form of subtle intervention, by way of a revelation of negative space, within the completist taxonomies of colonialist ornithological science and Museum collecting practice. In this, I will be turning collecting back on itself to become an analytical tool, a method of political criticism and articulation that can reveal ideologies and power structures underlying the circulation, display, and discussion of specimens; one which can perhaps be applied to a wider variety of disciplinary spaces and institutions.

More to come on that, soon. In the meantime, R.I.P, Sceloglaux albifacies. I wish I had been able to hear your "doleful shrieks" at night, just before rainstorms; and had been able to play the accordion to call you out of the forest to listen to a sound - perhaps analogous to your own cries - made by human folk instrumentation, as one unnamed 19th century bushman claimed (in a letter to Walter Buller) to do on repeated occasions. If only such a reciprocal listening, grounded in a non-exploitative acknowledgement of the other, a bird-human relatedness, was still possible for both of us.