Hope is the thing with feathers

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On darting around the many branches of Birdland and the Anthropocene by Bret McCabe

A ghost haunts the attic of 225 North Holiday Street in downtown Baltimore. A few, actually.

If you climb all the stairs inside the Peale Museum, reach the fourth-floor perch of hardwood that faces three doors and look right, you’ll spy the spectral presence of Benjamin Andrew’s “Menagerie” (2017), a hologram of a series of birds that appear to wander into the empty space of the attic, look around, make eye contact with you, and then continue on their way.

Like all ghosts, at first you’re not entirely sure what they want, or even if they see you. But after travelling through all four floors of Birdland and the Anthropocene, a group exhibit curated by local artist Lynne Parks, you have a pretty good idea what may have led to their demise: us.

The 28 artists and artist teams included in Birdland deliver a history and mediation on human-bird interaction, coexistence, and the ways in which our lives have so affected birds’ natural habitats over the centuries that many of them are dying off.

As an avid birder, Parks brings a sense of urgency to the blunt facts that scientists have been repeating for years: that the biodiversity of bird species is on severe decline, and that emerging trends such as extreme weather events pose new threats to native species. Just this month, Rare Species Conservatory Foundation founder and biologist Paul Reillo noted that Hurricanes Irma and Maria passing through the Caribbean Ocean may have pushed two species of birds to the brink of extinction.

Like Abigail DeVille’s Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars commission with the Contemporary, Parks’ activation of the Peale threads together the building’s original impetus to be a museum for both art and natural history. How the human pursuit of the scientific and creative expressions entangles one another winds through the brain as you take in Birdland‘s smorgasbord of ideas.

The first floor’s three rooms and the outdoor garden offer a precis on human-bird coexistence through history, as objects of study and even creative collaborators. Edgar EndressProject Santos series of prints remix botanical and zoological illustrations of Enlightenment-era colonial exploration. In the exhibition catalog, Endress cites naturalist explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt and Eduard Rüppell and botanist explorer José Celestino Mutis as examples, and the illustration style also recalls the work of English naturalist Mark Catesby in his The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas, whose bird drawings teenage 1980s science nerds may recall from Mark Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America.

Endress combines the birds and fauna of these documentarians into colorful illustrations mounted in oval frames; an array of them devours nearly an entire wall. It’s a sly way to comment on the debated notion, the “Anthropocene,” included in the exhibition title. Some environmentalists suggest that the current era of earth’s history should be called the “Anthropocene” to emphasize the deleterious effect humankind has had on the planet in the modern era, in the form of pollution, mass extinction, etc.

While yes, it is a bit 21st-century daft for humans to put themselves front and center in an era of geological time—a stopwatch that starts with the Earth’s formation some 4.6 billion years ago—Endress’ Project Santos gets at something more politically sharp.

Just as political scientist Jairus Victor Grove noted in the Boston Review last year that it was the “European elite that developed a distinctively mechanistic view of matter, an oppositional relationship to nature, and an economic system indebted to geographical expansion,” Endress is assigning a critical vector to those who did the knowledge creation and production during the colonial era of capitalism’s rise. It’s not that the global man has ushered in this epoch of worldwide environmental crisis, but the European man.

Other artists explore this intersection of art and science on the first and second floors. Elisabeth Pellathy makes space-age sculptures out of endangered birdsongs by using software to turn recordings of their voices into 3D models that can be printed. The results, which Pellathy mounts as if specimens on wood planks under glass domes, look like a woodturner used a lathe to turn small branches into tiny versions of Seattle’s Space Needle hovering horizontally in the air.

Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy straddle fine-art photography and scientific documentation with the photographic works form their Ornithology project. “Velocity” is a six-by-five grid made of 30 photographs of white bird droppings splatted on streets, sidewalks, and cobblestones, and from across the room the array has the abstract temperament of a Gerhard Richter.

Cathy Cook’s Cranes in Motion is the result of three years of fieldwork observing the whooping crane, North America’s tallest bird, in the wild. The UMBC assistant professor‘s “Mimicking Whooper” installation allows you to interact with a digital crane. A large screen fills one side of a room; on it is the projected image of a grassy plain.

When you step in front of the screen, video-game motion-capture drops a crane into the plain before you, and it mimics the motions you make. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a whooping crane looks like when doing the funky chicken, Cook’s installation allows you to find out.

The installation made by Ian Nagoski and the Center for PostNatural History provides an uncanny bridge between studying birds and the effect we have on them. Nagoski is a music researcher whose ethnomusicology projects I’ve written about before—note: in previous lives, he wrote for me during my stint at the City Paper—and I mention those projects here because his research drew him into the world of recorded birdsongs.

Before recorded sound technology, birds were our radios and record collections, kept around the home to sing. For Birdland Nagoski put together a brief precis of human’s interest in such music, from the earliest known textual transcription of birdsong—in Aristophanes play The Birds from 414 BCE—to field recordings made by a Cornell University ornithologist in the 1930s. Titled “Birdlike & Wingless,” the installation doesn’t merely illuminate this lesser known source of musical divertissement, it offers a snapshot into a time period when people and birds had a much more intimate relationship. We didn’t simply keep birds as pets, we trained them and prized them for their beautiful songs.

Jieyu Zhang

Humans imitating birdsong eventually replaced them in performance and on records. As you ascend the Peale’s staircases up through Birdland, Parks’ curatorial organization begins to show how we’re displacing birds today. On the third floor of the museum, works by Monique Luchetti, Jieyu Zhang, and Parks’ own work occupy a large room. It’s a room filled with death. Both Luchetti and Zhang depict dead birds, forcing you to reckon with the visual beauty the creatures conjure even in death.

Luchetti’s large pencil and gouache on paper drawings feel almost like shrouds, depicting birds on their backs and flowers seemingly bursting from their chests. Zhang’s paintings capture dead birds as you may have come across them in the park, on the ground, legs tucked beneath their bellies, a wing partially extended as if in midflight. Both Luchetti and Zhangs’ works vibrate with a quiet tension, as your response flits between the curiosity of seeing these wild creatures and the empathy you may feel when looking at a corpse.

Parks lands a more forceful punch. Her “Missing Birds” installation is an array of birder photographs with the birds themselves cut out. Individual examples of this series don’t do the whole shebang justice, they just look like an close-up image of a tree with white empty-space in the shape of a bird. With many of these stretching across the wall, and with the cut-out birds scattered across the floor, you realize you’re looking at a graveyard.

How, exactly, are we killing off birds? The artworks in the exhibition don’t stoop to become environmentalist public service announcements; the supporting wall text provides the tone for understanding that human actions are driving it without getting into too many specifics. That’s not a knock, as the emotional headspace stirred by passing through this exhibition is more lastingly powerful than any call to conservation effort tagline I can think of off the top of my head.

While doing some research after visiting Birdland, I looked up “bird” in the Oxford English Dictionary just to get a sense of the word’s etymology. There’s the expected definition, about any “feathered vertebrate animal: a member of the second class (Aves) of the great Vertebrate group,” and being closely allied with reptiles, with forelimbs adapted to wings for flight. But that was the secondary definition. The first, derived from old English, was the “general name for the young of the feathered tribes.”

The feathered tribes: that suggests a disarmingly close kinship with birds that we used to have, something we may have lost as language, and ourselves, have evolved over the centuries. Some sense of that relationship still seems to animate the imagination in Emily Dickinson’s writing,  but, speaking only for myself here, is entirely lacking from the 21st-century life I lead today:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

This sense of something we’re losing—not just animal species from the world at large, but something intrinsic to being alive—as human enterprises endanger wildlife runs a shock through Laure Drogoul’s installation “Friends of Friends of Friends.” In a darkened nook Drogoul has set up a black screen behind a plushy sculpture of a rhino, laying on its side, presumably dead.

Projected onto the screen is a simple nature film, almost silent, of a bird moving about a marsh. I know it’s on a loop because the motions repeated, but I couldn’t really discern its length. It’s short. Nothing really happens. But the longer you sit and watch the more you start to feel like you’re getting a glimpse of something you shouldn’t—as in, a scene of animal life as it takes place with the nearby presence of a natural predator: us. And the longer you watch the more you’re overcome by a profound sense of longing and loss for a sense of nature that you may have never actually witnessed with your own eyes, and probably never will.

Wordlessly, “Friends of Friends of Friends” reminds you that unless we do something, anything to halt what we’re doing to our planet, that that hope that perches in our soul may, in fact, stop.

Birdland and the Anthropocene closes Sunday, October 29, with public hours on Thursday and Friday 6-9 p.m. and 12-6 on Saturday, October 28 with a  closing costume party Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. that includes a 10-minue extinction ritual at 8 p.m. Sunday, October 29 the exhibit is open from 10 – 4. Free and open to the public.

Photos by Joseph Hyde and Glenn Ricci courtesy of Birdland and the Anthropocene.

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