When L is for listening: Catherine Clover’s B is for Bird, C is for City

More than a ubiquitous and annoying backdrop to our cityscapes, seagulls can give us pause to “reflect on our species prejudices”. In this post read Evelyn Tsitas’ fascinating and thought-provoking response to Catherine Clover’s audiovisual installation piece B is for Bird, City is for City. Her review explores the questions the piece asks of the audience and way it entangles species and spaces. Also, visit the B is for Bird, C is for City Flickr gallery to see Evelyn’s entire photographic record of the event.IMG_0786

So many things that we take for granted as being part of the human condition are not in fact the privilege of our own species. Avarice, greed, love, lust and betrayal, and the tight bonds and fierce disputes that enmesh social groups also belong to a species that we take for granted–seagulls.

Catherine Clover’s audiovisual installation piece “B is for Bird, C is for City” that was presented as part of Liquid Architecture, the 14th National Festival of Sound Art in Melbourne, challenges the audience to rethink–and rehear–the ubiquitous sounds of the gull in our cities.

IMG_0788Melbourne is a city that has traditionally turned its back on the water so it comes as something of a surprise to see how the old Mission to Seafarers Building at the water’s edge on the edge of the CBD has been enveloped by new development. It now stands, with its intriguing dome, as a reminder of how vital the work of those who risk their lives at sea has always been to our island continent. Melbourne might have turned its back on the water, and now has turned about face to embrace it, but the Mission to Seafarers remains where it always has, serving still as a vital safe haven for those who work hard on the sea and need a place of rest and recreation on land.

It is in this highly evocative space, in the domed gallery (formerly a gymnasium, now called the “Norla Dome”) that Clover chose as the setting for her performance piece. With the festival’s theme of “sonic city”, Clover’s “B is for Bird” invited the audience to listen afresh–and look at–the tight social bonds and factions among the bird populations that inhabit the city.

It’s easy to take seagulls for granted, but after the performance, walking back along Flinders Street to the heart of the city again, there they were, lined up on fences and bridges, in packs, flying, resting, squabbling – all the mannerisms and pretensions that Clover captured in her work. As Clover writes in her introduction to the work: “They are social, gregarious, breed quickly and are adaptable to changing conditions…in terms of the environmental debate, there is little constructive discussion about these birds, and their abilities to adapt and survive in the conditions we provide for them is rarely applauded.”

How do you sing gull? Or perform as a bird? In her performance piece, Clover incorporated field recordings and live performances by IMG_0784Melbourne performers Penny Baron, Vanessa Chapple and Kate Hunter. The three singers were dressed elegantly in black to sing a libretto of gull. To do so, the singers had to inhabit the bird, expanding their mouths, raising their necks, mimicking the seagull gestures as they fought over each other, their space and available food. Without any Hollywood special effects artifice, they were utterly convincing as seagulls.

The visual space for listening to sonic art is important, as simply ‘hearing’ is a passive process but ‘listening’ is different altogether, requiring as it does both curiosity and concentration. Clover provides a visual world to accompany the audio visual one–engaging with our memory, emotions and imaginations by displaying the libretto on the walls in bold, elegant script. Highlighting the written version of a gull call provides gravitas to the language of birds. It prompts us to ponder, why shouldn’t the language of another species be given due importance?

By using singers to re-enact the gulls’ daily routines, and allow us into their highly social world, we are invited to consider the similarities rather than the differences between “us”–the people–and “them”–the birds. It flips around, as we become the idle bystanders, and the flurry of activity that we usually ignore are the birds, standing in now as the bustling city populace.

IMG_0783Humans have long regarded themselves superior to animals because of their use of language, but as Clover illustrates, the highly complex language of birds is in no way an inferior model. And yet, to humans, they remain the eternal outsiders. Clover emphasizes this with the sparse but effective visual props–an elegant table laden with books on birds, containing countless observations and descriptions that analyse what we do not understand. In fact, what separates us from them isn’t flight or feathers, language or love, but just the difference of species that should be celebrated.

Who owns the city? Us or them? Who inhabits the city? Both them and us. Under the Dome of the Mission to Seafarers, the invitation to slow down and listen up to sonic art provided an opportunity to reflect on our species prejudices.

As the last gull call sounded, and the three singers fought over a hot steaming packet of chips, the audience left with one lasting impression. When it comes to the city, both B is for bird and H is for human share the same space–a parallel space, but the same space none the less. Both visually and aurally, Clover’s work resonated long after the last gull call sounded.

Seagulls have become very adept at finding the cracks, and the scraps, and the space in the harsh urban environment in order to survive. In that sense, seagulls and humans are very similar. Perhaps, by deep observation and deep listening, this is what Clover would like us to reflect upon.

What: B is for Bird, C is for City (2013)

Field recordings and live performance by Catherine Clover with Melbourne performers Penny Baron, Vanessa Chapple and Kate Hunter.

When: Wednesday 4 September, 6.45 pm – 8 pm

Where: Norla Dome, Mission to Seafarers, 717 Flinders Street, Docklands, Victoria.

As part of: Liquid Architecture, the 14th National Festival of Sound Art in Melbourne


4 thoughts on “When L is for listening: Catherine Clover’s B is for Bird, C is for City

  1. During my undergrad literature course, I wrote an ‘Ode to the Seagull’ to try and point out something similar; not only how we choose to ignore these ubiquitous companions in our lives, but why. My conclusion was that we are uncomfortable with what they reflect of us: greedy, competitive squabbling over scraps.
    On another note, I once had an epiphany on Flinders St station, regarding those other common city birds, the little brown finches. Stop and look at one closely one day; they are really beautiful, once their commonness is put aside. Each one. Unique. Like us.

  2. I’d love to read your “Ode to the Seagull” if it’s still squawking on your shelves somewhere!

    Extending and combining your conclusion (“we are uncomfortable with what they reflect of us: greedy, competitive squabbling over scraps”) with my own experience of seagulls snatching at MY hot chips, it seems that seagulls not only reflect but have the capacity to bring out our possessiveness and greed. I remember getting really angry as a child over their wiley ways!

  3. They still piss me off! My revenge as a little tacker was to always toss a chip to the runt of the pack … little did i think that this was probably only helping the breeding population of ’em continue to rise! 😉

    • That instantly reminded me of this scene from Breaking Bad. And in a beautiful moment of circularity, the person who uploaded the clip noticed the same similarity between the competitive nature of birds and humans that you noted in the comment above!

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