After disembarking a crowded coach from Aberystwyth, I joined almost two hundred warmly dressed spectators in the chilly moonlit car park at the entrance to Ynys-hir Nature Reserve, in the centre of the UNESCO designated Dyfi Biosphere. Moving slowly on foot we spread out along a narrow track lit by a string of a thousand LEDs that guided our nighttime journey through wet grassland, salt marsh and sessile oak woodland.
A team of individuals in dark clothing, who remained largely hidden in the shadows, sensitively facilitated our passage through the landscape. In this respect, Jony Easterby’s For the Birds was an example of how to orchestrate the movement of a large audience over difficult terrain at night with minimal distraction and interference. The path was also marked by trees that glowed eerily green and red and lo and hi-fi installations of mechanical objects, audio, light and video that led me to pause, move, inspect and reflect.
Borrowing its title and inspiration from minimalist composer John Cage, For the Birds was produced in collaboration with RSPB Ynys-hir and Aberystwyth Arts Centre. This National Theatre Wales and Arts Council Wales supported event was framed as a collaborative pilot project that posed two questions. The first, ‘What important messages do they [birds] offer in creating a home that affirms all life for a sustainable future? And what inspiration and strength can we draw?’ Easterby’s collaborators in this practical investigation included artists with established reputations for making site-specific and audio artworks, including Esther Tew, Dark Spark and Kathy Hinde.
For the Birds drew attention to width and depth in this dark landscape by using light, sound and movement to direct our attention to the very close – on the ground and in the nearby trees – and the very distant – as sounds and lights flashed and echoed across this part of the biosphere. Inspired by the physical form, movements and songs of birds, various installations populated the sides of the muddy three-kilometre track. Light displays illuminated the trees and tall grass, bringing them out of the shadows, making flat black objects three dimensional and drawing us into relation with this ever changing terrain.
Projected images of birds in flight flickered among the leaves of a tree and an array of mechanical objects and small electronic speakers tweeted bird-like sounds, encouraging us to listen to the landscape in new ways. Cage’s influence could be seen and heard in mechanical musical installations that included the exposed innards of a piano plucked by the ghostly winged shadows that flitted between the wires, a display in which sound was produced by rotating bird feathers that stroked long vertical bass strings sending reverberations through the ground, and mechanically interpreted musical scores generated from photographic images of birds captured in the act of formation flying.
This collaborative experiment had aspirations towards a more sustainable art-making practice. However, I did wonder what the birds, and indeed other creatures that inhabit the reserve, thought of the flashing lights, audio interventions and many hundreds of spectators passing through terrain normally occupied by nocturnal creatures. At times I imagined that some of the calls that I could hear were from the real avian inhabitants in concert with mechanical and electronic representations. As I ventured deeper into the reserve I began to wonder whether there were any real birds there at all. In this respect, my experience of the event became about the absence of the creatures to which the work’s title refers. Shadows of birds ghosted the landscape in anticipation of a bleak future in which a human lack of respect for non-humans and the environment threatens the existence of many species. There was something almost taxidermic about the mechanical representations. I was invited to view skeletal remains through a telescopic lens, a grim prediction for the future amidst an enchanting Alice in Wonderland journey that at times bordered on the awesome, beautiful, terrifying, sublime.
In many ways, the work didn’t provide answers to the questions posed above, but rather opened up a space in which I was encouraged to reflect upon my relationship to the natural world, its representation and our collective responsibility for it and the birds for whom it is home. While I eagerly await the follow up to this pilot project, I am drawn to return to Ynys-hir, to visit in the daytime and to explore the ways in which my memory of the event leads me to look at, and listen out for, the birds in new ways.Originally published in Culture Colony Quarterly Online