Michaela
Schwentner
 

re-BIRDING

In this project I try to establish a connection between (song)birds and humans, starting from the similar singing technique of humans and birds, and to interweave the narrative about modern bird extinction and the technique and function of singing in a poetic way. I’d like to realise a project that deals with the current situation of songbirds in Europe or in colonised regions in particular. Based on studies conducted by (transdisciplinary) research projects and bird stations, also taking into account the current status of Red Bird Index lists, I develop a script that lets representatives of various endangered or already extinct bird species reflect on current society, its ecological and economic structures as well as their view of the environment, and to ask how far our treatment of nature affects biodiversity and ultimately us humans again. For this purpose, bird sounds will be digitally reconstructed and adapted.


Background
Birds are indicators: their population changes provide information about the state of landscapes and natural areas. Like many other creatures, they are essential for life on earth. Considering the planned and partially already realised deforestation of various forests, the largest of which is certainly the Amazon rainforest, we need to rethink and develop and disseminate strategies to protect the earth from multiple abuses. In Europe, too, the number of birds has dropped drastically. Bird species that live in agricultural landscapes are particularly affected. The change in food production due to industrially organised agriculture, hunting, the lack of suitable habitats and food, water pollution, deforestation, radio towers, sealing and climate change are responsible for the progressive bird mortality and the reduction of existing populations, especially of bird species living in meadows. According to BirdLife, domestic bird populations have shrunk by up to 40 % in the last 20 years.
The landscape of endangered species includes not only birds but also plant species, yet I refer exclusively to bird species due to my interest in the voice (of humans and birds), its production, functions and possibilities.
A charming side-effect of the inherent territoriality of birds, their mere manifestation, is that, with their song, they are able to enrich the environment. Of course, the current situation of many bird species is anything but enchanting and needs to be disenchanted in a technical sense in order to develop and implement strategies to counteract the extinction of birds and species.

I’m also interested in the historical course, in historicity and narrativity: the definitive, the completed, which can no longer be intervened in; the present, the expected extinction of species, above all through human influence, and finally the coming, which still can be changed.
In terms of time, I focus on the "modern" situation of bird species: species that became extinct worldwide after 1500. In the middle
of the 16th century, European countries started to explore the
so-called New World and began to colonise even the most remote regions of the world, which resulted in the extinction of many endemic animals, among them numerous bird taxa. Scientifically substantiated study results state that today about 12% of all bird species are acutely threatened with extinction and another 12% are considered endangered.
As far as the region is concerned, I limit my research to Europe, where the conditions of bird species are relatively similar. For this purpose, I’d like to assemble a selection of recently extinct bird species. The reason for the extinction of many bird species is clearly due to alien species or hunting (for food or for their plumage). Thus, in my film some bird figures that can’t be assigned to this region, but are interesting because of certain aspects: their significant appearance, their idiosyncratic way of life or their particularly tragic fate. Especially in colonised regions, bird species were rapidly exterminated. Thus, dozens of bird species have become extinct since or with the arrival of humans on the Pacific islands — some already since the settlement by the Polynesian population about 1000 years ago, most finally with the beginning
of European expeditions and land grabbing. Probably about 30-50 of the endemic species are extinct today.
The question of the awareness of (ex-)colonial European countries about the damage inflicted on their colonies must be raised quite clearly. But the damage is not only great there — in our closest surroundings, in the (Central) European cultural landscapes, already a great number of endangered bird species is recorded.
How does our present Western society relate to the historical treatment of bird populations? How do historical economic and ideological infrastructures reverberate today? What about contemporary rural capitalism, the right to kill or the question of ownership? How are property relations constructed today?
For this purpose, I’d like to shed light on the current situation of bird species in Europe. What dangers and threats are they facing today? How can the progressive bird mortality be prevented
or at least slowed down? What strategies can we develop or apply to protect birds (and of course other species)?
Contentwise, I refer to Donna Haraway’s critique of anthropocentrism and her concept of collectivation, composting and composing, developing social constructions, techno-sciences and emancipatory ideas against capitalist economies and structures, to Bruno Latour’s critique of our society’s modern conception of nature and culture, to Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock as well as to Vincianne Despret, who speaks of the Phonocene, meaning the age of the sound-producing world. These theoretical aspects will be translated into a poetic language that not only looks back at the cultural history of our society, but also articulates strategies on how to slow down or stop the decline of bird populations.


Tracing a world without recording systems
The project would result in an essayistic musical arrangement which can be installed, performed and screened. Digital (re)constructions of bird sounds and bird phenomena, sketches for costumes based on bird depictions, and short film sequences would be assembled in a model setting that sketches a temporal, spatial and structural background, enabling contextual orientation. Through the staged reconstruction and narration of extinct bird species, the retrospective view is directed to questionable scenes and actions of the past. Thus, the colonial history of European countries, its principles and structures, its settings and consequences will also be questioned. The second part of the film, the narration of contemporary endangered bird species, will be staged in a real environment by an ensemble of performers.
To open up the film structure and to allow contemporary scientific insights, the film also includes 3D models or other forms of digital simulation of bird figures, film sequences in museum collections, interviews with ornithologists and songs of bird figures that tell of their fate or extinction.

The musical layer of the film is as important as the visual layers.
The lost birds’ sounds, essential tools of communication and territorial manifestation, are (re)constructed or invented anew by the use of artificial, instrumental sound. What might an extinct bird have sounded like? (How) can a song be translated into a contemporary, artificial sound? Varying translations of bird sounds are developed from collected natural sounds (field recordings) and the development of artificial sound material (compositions). For providing material for composition pieces for voices and instruments, I refer to tradition, records and interviews as well as to poetic-technical translations of archived bird recordings, revisiting musical sources, historical as well as contemporary.
All collected and generated sounds will later be instrumented by voices, recorders, transverse flutes, electronics, synthesizers, etc. Especially the use of transverse flutes, recorders is obvious, since recorder derives from Latin: recordārī – to remember, recall, memorise, repeat, recite, make music, from French: recordeur – someone who retells.
All sounds are simulations, invented sound objects, poetic approximations of the unrecorded sounds of the past. By reconstructing and reanimating the blank spaces, lost or unknown information of the disappeared, the non-real, the no longer existing is emphasised even more – the sonic act as becoming world (again). Here, the vocal act will not only be reproduction or invention of sounds but also an expression of artistic and collective thinking.

Cybirds?
Birds have to defend themselves against (especially urban) man-made noise or develop strategies to be able to communicate and ultimately survive. Do such strategies turn birds into cybirds?