Research indicates we are living through the “Sixth Extinction”1. Loss of species and biodiversity is
occurring at an alarming speed. Seen by many to be barometers of changing habitats and environmental
health, it has been estimated that almost a third of all bird species will have disappeared by the end of
this century2. Declining bird populations in
practically all habitats signal profound changes over our entire planet. At times representing particular
gods or ascribed supernatural powers, across culture and continent birds have served as important
symbols in art, song and ceremony. Historically, birds have also been seen as “message bearers” able to
communicate the future, announce changes in weather and warn of coming disaster. In certain
indigenous communities of South America, birds have been said to “save people from total destruction,”
and so one must be able to recognize, observe and interpret changes or variation in bird song and
behavior in order to properly respond3. Such indigenous and local knowledge has been vastly underrecognized,
but can aid in the process of disaster prevention in effective, participatory and sustainable ways.
What does it mean that we can only see and hear extinct species through technology? What might happen as the messages of birds are increasingly being silenced? How can traditional ecological knowledge be combined with technological advances to increase awareness of our role in the environment?
Birding the Future is an interdisciplinary project that explores these issues and current extinction rates while specifically focusing on the warning abilities of birds. The project combines notions of site-specific and site-adaptable to highlight regional specificities while simultaneously mapping global commonalities. An outdoor sound installation is paired with a stereoscopic image walk as participants are guided through a journey of extinction.
The sound material includes calls of endangered birds particular to the specific region, extracted to create Morse code messages that warn of disruption and urgency. The strict rhythmic patterns of the Morse code signal imposes a mechanized quality on the bird calls, underlining technological reproduction as the only means to hear certain species. Unmodified calls of extinct birds act as a memory of the past and point to a future of less biodiversity. The bird calls are manipulated via a Pure Data (Pd) control algorithm (Figure 1) and played back on a number of small, custom-made loudspeaker enclosures4. Projected rate of extinction for the end of the century is scaled down to the duration of the exhibition period by decreasing the density and diversity of bird calls. As different regions around the world can expect different rates of extinction depending on factors such as climate, geography, habitat patterns and human activity, the extinction rate implemented into Birding the Future is based upon projections for the specific region in which it is presented5.
Using sounds that are recognizable as bird calls generates a sonic overlap with birds from the area, who become participants in expanding perceived boundaries of the installation. This is further emphasized by utilizing a type of stereoscope that resembles binoculars, which reference the practice of birding and invites people to engage their surrounding environment. Similar to the function of technology in the soundscape, the stereoscope becomes the visual tool to see what is now extinct. Stereoscopy (or 3D imaging) has the ability to play with perception, as it is a technique for combining a pair of 2D images in the brain to enhance the illusion of depth. Popular from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, the stereoscope has been chosen as the viewing instrument for its potential to heighten perceptual awareness and provide a historical link to human impact on the environment. The viewer’s gaze wanders back and forth between foreground and background, and by doing so continuously challenges perspective and shifts one’s point of view within the frame6. In this way the stereoview plays with the act of looking and the viewer is challenged to consider how the filters through which one looks then translate into ways knowledge is constructed. A series of stereoscopic cards (Figures 2 and 3) are created specifically for each site and offer a loose narration through the soundscape described above to explore the current status of birds both globally and locally. On the back of the cards textual analysis including poetry, statistical data and other relevant habitat and behavioral information is included, while the composites on the front layer original content with found photographs.