…we have been incredibly reluctant to accept that birds, or any animals, see the world differently from ourselves. Is it possible to replicate that world through art?
When the germ of a new work comes to you in the middle of the night, it can be a blessing or the start of something that completely posesses you. I’m not sure you call the latter a blessing…such is Eye of the Corvus: Messengers of Truth.
I’ve long obsessed over how we respond to the environment in an increasingly urbanised world. It’s been central to my art practice now for almost two decades. Birds have been the conduit for exploring the concepts behind my various works, as they’re an indicator species of the health of the environment. As such, they tell us much about how we cope in a rapidly changing world…and what is art if it’s not to make sense of the world around us?
…we have been incredibly reluctant to accept that birds, or any animals, see the world differently from ourselves. – Tim Birkhead, “Bird Sense” (2012)
When I was a child, I had the privilege of growing up on many thousands of hectares in rural NSW, mostly on the back of a horse riding down sandy laneways and across country, but sometimes on foot exploring the tree belts and bore drains criss-crossing our property. Watching the movement of birds, searching for their tracks in the sand and on muddy dam flats, gathering feathers, broken eggs and abandoned nests is something I carried into adulthood.
All of the information I glean through my observations tells me much about where I live and the state of the environment around me. The sound of birdsong, or absence of it, is one of the first things I notice about new environs.
Hitting the books
With more questions than I have answers for, I often turn to the growing collection of books and Google searches to better understand my observations. My project concepts often take shape from this research.
So, when the idea of looking at the world from the perspective of birds (not just a bird’s eye view), I knew it would require a much better understanding of not only the environment in which birds live, but their biology, physiology and sensory ecology. Having long wanted to do a work with ravens and crows as the heros, I chose to make them the focus of my studies for this project.
Seeking expert advice
By mid-2018, I was keen to see if there was someone studying corvids (ravens and crows) at this level in Australia, who might be interested in pointing me in the right direction with my research. I rang a couple of local contacts through the Office of Environment and Heritage and Dubbo Field Naturalist and Conservation Society, and the first person I was directed to was Professor Darryl Jones. A behavioural ecologist with a particular interest in how humans interact with and understand nature, he was an incredible first contact, particularly regarding the ability of crows to adapt to an environment.
Darryl also gave me a few ideas of where to start reading more. This led to books on the topics I was reading online and if you read enough books on birds, several names keep cropping up.
One of those names was Professor Graham Martin in the UK. An ornathologist with an international reputation for his research into the sensory worlds of birds. His expertise has been applied to understanding why some bird species are particularly vulnerable to collisions with wind turbines, power lines and fishing nets – manmade structures in the environment. On a punt, I emailed him. He responded immediately, going on to raise even more questions and the need to read his book, The Sensory Ecology of Birds.
With a notebook fast filling with notes from my research, prompting more questions to email Darryl and Graham, at some point I knew I’d have to apply this knowledge to the production of a new work. While helping me informally, both have been generous with their knowledge and understanding of the challenge of what I’m trying to achieve.
Informed technical direction
I now know there are three types of visual field amongst birds (Martin), the most typical of which has some forward vision, excellent lateral vision, and a blind spot behind; that there’s a trade-off between eye acuity and sensitivity; and some birds see UV light – but not corvids. Or that the left and right eye are often used for diffent tasks e.g. keeping an eye on predators while eating (one eye on each job) but that they have rich colour perception, seeing vibrant colours with great clarity. I also know we really see with our brain, the eyes are only the instrument.
So, is it really possible to create an experience that allows us to see the world as a bird might, given the limitations of human-created technology that often only seeks to replicate what we already see?
As I’ve told the professors, my job is to use my research findings to inform my production, post-production and installation – what to shoot and record, camera movements and placements, editing, effects and colour grading, and the shape of the final install. Yes, there’ll be a degree of creative licence applied as I’m still trying to work out how much lateral vision is feasible, but there will be conscious decisions made about the treatment at every step.
Production has to start sooner rather than later, as I’ve got seven months in Australia (January to July 2019) to decide what’s working and what’s not before I head to Iceland for a two-month artist residency (September to October 2019), where I’ll have only the essentials in my field kit to record with. While it’s been hugely challenging getting a grip on the video and sound technology I need to achieve what I want from this project (more on this soon), the research must continue – the dialogue around this project depends on it.
Please feel free to comment here on my Facebook Page. I’m happy to talk about what I’m doing and the issues it raises. You’ll also find me on Instagram and Twitter. You can see past works on my other website.