Monday, 24 May 2010

Guitar-playing Zebra Finches....Music to My Ears

On Friday, I tried to swing past the Barbican Centre for one more visit to see those remarkable zebra finches imitate Jimi Hendrix, but I was foiled.

I’m referring to the Céleste Boursier-Mougenot exhibition, where a flock of zebra finches live in an exhibition space furnished with several electric guitars and bass guitars placed flat, perpendicular with the floor, on stands and plugged into amplifiers, amongst cymbals (the bottom of brass toned Paiste hi-hats). The birds frequently land on and hop along the strings of the guitars, and indeed sometimes drag a twig across them in an attempt to build a nest on it, which makes an extraordinary random sound punctuated by the occasional perfect strum. Or, as the Barbican literature describes it, the artist ‘orchestrates a magical promenade with distinct, yet overlapping auditory experiences.’ Yep.

I was in two minds about this exhibition. I saw a clip at the end of an episode of The Culture Show that fascinated me and drove me towards it, yet the wildlife-loving RSPCA member in me thought it was wrong to keep birds trapped in an art gallery ogled by strangers when they should be out in the wild. I knew that the birds’ welfare had been carefully vetted by ‘the relevant authorities’ but it still seemed wrong....until I saw it.

First, the birds aren’t creatures someone caught from the wild and imprisoned in the Barbican Centre. They have been provided by a specialist who provides animals for artistic projects, we are told, as though they’re from the same acting agency that provided Eddie the dog in Frasier. So presumably they were raised in captivity and are used to being in an aviary. I’m almost just repeating that to try to convince myself that it’s okay, and I hope it is. Second, I had pictured the birds being contained in a low-ceilinged section of a small room, with the crowd lined up on the other side of a glass partition, peering in as though at a cramped caged animal in a Victorian zoo. Instead, the birds fly freely around an airy, sizeable space with a roof perhaps 30 feet high, with the people walking amongst them, and although they could fly away from us if they wanted to, they were so used to people walking around them that they would fly right past our faces and even land on our bags—at least they did on mine (they have discerning taste).

The description of the exhibition describes this interaction as creating a different visit for everyone as the installation was ‘in a constant state of flux’ and ‘to be fully activated, the piece relies on the visitors’ movements around the space, which elicit counter movements by the birds, resulting in a subtle choreography.’ Well, I will say it was neat to be able to observe beautiful wildlife so closely, and fun when they sat for an age on my briefcase and later my handbag (and very kindly left nothing behind). I wouldn’t suggest I was tap-dancing with them, but an artist wouldn’t be an artist (and a marketing person wouldn’t be a marketing person) if they just said ‘there’re a lot of birds flying around and they be cute.’

Although the well-lit room was white and a bit sterile, there were sandpits on the ground in which arid grasses had been planted so the birds had plenty of natural things to grab and use when building nests, which they seemed to be doing with tremendous commitment. Although they clearly loved landing on the guitars, sometimes several birds doing so on one at a time, they were also quite happy sitting on the fire extinguishers, ‘break glass’ and exit signs. I was pleased to see a series of nesting boxes placed in a long row high above our heads on one wall, almost all of which were occupied by a female practically hidden by the nesting material. Apparently, a friend linked to the Barbican has told me, this was a result of a panic when one of the birds had laid an egg, I think on a guitar, forcing the staff to clear the exhibition of customers and close it down until they got advice from the RSPB or another ‘relevant authority’, who said they really should provide nesting boxes, so voilà.

But before visitors get to that room, we walk through a dark corridor (also with high ceilings; nothing is claustrophobic) with video projections of white-silhouetted ‘flying fingers’ playing electric guitars, against a black background. And you can hear electric guitar as well, albeit not in the style of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, but a random droning and, as I mentioned, the occasional impressive deliberate-sounding strum. The soundtrack is, of course, provided by the birds around the corner (or around the curve, as the exhibition is in the part of the Barbican aptly called The Curve). One can also hear crickets, stressing the feeling of night-time, but I think that was a recording unless we were crushing innocent crickets as we walked through the darkness.

It’s difficult to remember that this first bit is part of the exhibition. Everyone seems to see it as a corridor to rush through to get to the real things, the darkness perhaps helping your transition from the Arts Centre outside to the unusual experience you will soon meet, or perhaps discouraging the birds from flying out into the Centre and interrupting a play or a film or escaping into the City. It probably does that, but the (uh) flyer one can take (by ripping a printed page from a pad hanging on the wall that had a large sign containing a description of the installation and the artist, which I overlooked on the way in and only paused to read on the way out) explains that this first element is part of the ‘multi-sensory experience.’

Let’s face it; we’re all racing to see the birds. And they were no let-down. I’ve never seen or heard of zebra finches before, and they are stunning, a bit odd but truly amazing. Rather tiny, I realised when they landed on me, and they have deeply orange beaks that give them a tropical air, with a small white patch and black stripe by their eyes, then the males are mostly pale grey, with a light brown undercarriage and black and white tail feathers. The females are mostly white, but also with the black stripe by their eye. Just observing a living creature that is so unusual and beautiful in close proximity was a delight, and they just didn’t seem to mind us being there as they flew around and tried to build nests in Gibson guitars. Yes, they were guitars of quality. I wondered whether they were just toy plastic replicas so as not to waste the real thing on a bunch of wild creatures, but they were Gibson Les Paul models—about 10 of them. The artist apparently had tuned the guitars so that whenever a string was touched, it produced a clear chord. That was key; everything sounded impressive and interesting; never did we wince, even when different guitars were played by different groups of birds around the room at the same time.

Added to the random guitar sounds was a great deal of sweet chirruping, almost like quick high beeps, and the busy flutter of wings, which added to the delightful soundscape. I pressed record on my Dictaphone for a bit and came home with an amazing snippet of sounds. Most of the birds were paired off (so no solos) and quite dear. They had endless patience; I observed one fly up to a nesting box with a long, thick piece of grass that was about seven times his size, but after he landed in the box, the unbalanced long blade of grass would fall out, far below onto the floor. Without any look of scowling, rolling his eyes or cursing, the bird just flew down, picked it up again, flew all the way back up to the nesting box, again drop it back onto the floor because most of it was hanging heavily outside, and then he would fly down to retrieve it again. He did this several times until eventually another bird decided he’d rather like that ginormous blade of grass, and he swiped it the next time it was dropped before the first bird could return to the floor for it for the umpteenth time. Frankly, I was a relieved.

The environment was so soothing, I almost wished for a park bench so I could sit and write whilst enjoying the atmosphere, being surrounded by (and landed on by) happily chirruping unusual finches as though I were in a park in Australia or Indonesia, where they’re native. But then, benches would mean people would stay longer, and fewer people would then be allowed in. The Centre only let a few people in at a time, which was the right thing to do so as not to freak out the birds or spoil the experience (or invoke disturbing ‘choreography’!), although it meant there were always queues, particularly as people would usually spend at least 25 minutes in the company of these birds. We would smile at each other as we shared the experience, sometimes talking about how grand it was to be near such exquisite creatures, and I became a part of the exhibit when, as I said, a finch landed on my handbag and remained there for an age, which caused several people to gather around me and point (or maybe it was my Thatcher-like suit). Later, one landed on the top of my briefcase, which was slung over my shoulder, and I remember worrying a bit that I might accidentally leave with it, which partly sounded fun but then I doubt I could look after it properly, though I probably wouldn’t have to after my cats greeted it. So good thing it got bored and flew away to do some guitar-picking.

The birds eat grass seed and there was plenty of seed around. The cymbals weren’t being pecked as percussion but instead were filled with either water, where the birds sweetly splashed themselves in a rapid dance, or seeds that they scoffed happily. The floor (around the sand pits and arid grasses) was made of wooden planks with surprisingly no evidence of bird droppings, so the Art Centre must scrub it regularly. But no one did so while I was in there. There were only two attendants—one outside monitoring the numbers entering and leaving, and one inside covering the entire airy room.

That wouldn’t have been enough to prevent me from taking a photo, as he would have been unable to see me do so when my back was to him and he was chatting to people on the other end of the curve. But I’m a terrible goody two-shoes and the big sign outside prohibiting photography, which I had plenty of time to stare at whilst queuing to come in, weighed heavily on my mind. I hate myself for not stealing a photograph, which would have cheered me no end, allowing me to relive this pleasant experience as soon as I got home and to smile when it came up on my screensaver slideshow. Plus, I go to so many things and I get so little sleep, I always worry I will forget what I’ve been to altogether unless I have a photo for revisiting.... But nay, I’m a wimp and took nothing. A woman near me did get told off (very politely) for taking out her camera, but she must have got a shot, and that would be worth it. I hate myself, the same way I did when I was prevented by the South Bank Photo Police from snapping Ray Davies when he came out in a union jack suit, and I was in the second row with an unimpeded view. I should have just taken it; why didn’t I?

So my only complaint about the exhibition was that I couldn’t take a photo or two, obviously without a flash. What harm would it have done? I wonder if the artist felt doing so would steal the soul of his exhibition or something. Immediately after I visited this exhibition, I went upstairs to the Ron Arad exhibition where the public were encouraged to take photos and post them on Flikr and link them to the Barbican website. And boy did I take photos, and I’ll add those here soon, but a million pictures of chairs—no matter how unusual—just aren’t as cute as a bunch of zebra finches, particularly ones playing Gibson guitars. (I did Tweet from the exhibition though, which I thought was rather fitting.)

Had I managed to return on Friday as I attempted, I might have tried to snap a quick shot of these adorablenesses, but I doubt it. Not with a big sign telling me not to be naughty. But I’ll never know. I didn’t manage to leave work as early as planned so got there at 7.15pm, and the gallery closes at 8pm, and there was a significant queue, which the attendant closed just as I arrived since all those people were unlikely to get in. It was a disappointment, given that the exhibition was to close on 23 May, but perhaps a second visit would have been less magical and ruined the memories for me. I doubt it though.

A small comfort is that there are videos on YouTube shot of other such installations, including one that appears to be the official Barbican clip (probably what I saw at the end of The Culture Show), although it wasn’t filmed at the Barbican as what appears is a much smaller space, more like the Victorian zoo look that I had worried about encountering. If it works, I’ll put the link below. Enjoy it, but if you ever get the chance to see such a thing in person (or in bird?), make sure you fly to the exhibition as quickly as you can.

(I've replaced the previous video, and if one doesn't appear below, try here: )