Being Bird
by Tracy Warr
19th August 2009

Curator and writer Tracy Warr explores Marcus Coates' facination with the interspecies boundary between the human and bird.

We can only guess at what a frog or cat sees, what a dolphin or bat hears. The same world is sensed and resonates differently for different species. Whilst exploring these alien sensory worlds Marcus Coates asks questions about being human. Although he demonstrates that there is no shared language between human and animal worlds, we can discern points of connection and analogy - habitats, communication and possibly cultural artefacts.

Coates' installation recreates a dawn chorus using humans mimicking birdsong. He worked with wildlife sound recordist, Geoff Sample, recording six choruses from 3am to 9am across three locations in Northumberland. They set out 14 microphones - placed up trees, in bushes, between rocks which fed back to their recording studio, a camper van - to collect the songs of 14 birds simultaneously each morning. In total Coates and Sample collected 576 hours of birdsong. The quest for knowledge on how birds communicate in such a dense acoustic environment is one that occupies animal behaviourists and neuroscientists. The fieldwork for Dawn Chorus captured valuable data contributing to these scientific quandries.

Each of the birdsongs from a single morning was then digitally slowed down up to 16 times. Human singers were then filmed reproducing this sound. Some of these songs were relatively easy to mimic however a few were virtually impossible. The blackbird and songthrush, for instance, sing a seemingly random sequence of unpredictable and unfamiliar sounds, their songs have a very wide ranging pitch and they often sing two notes simultaneously (they have two windpipes). The human singers replicated the bird sounds with a variety of vocal techniques including sucking in air, grunting and clicking. An hour of this singing by each performer was then speeded back up to the original ‘bird speed' resulting in four minutes of film footage.

The screens in the exhibition represent each microphone placement from the fieldwork. The singers were filmed in habitual locations - offices, houses, garden sheds, bedrooms, hotel rooms, cars - representing their ‘natural environments'.

Coates explores the relationships between nature and culture. In his films and performances either he, or his collaborators, attempt to become birds, animals and marine mammals. Coates tries to understand an alien world through absurd and effortful mimicry and masquerade. His experiential approach draws on anthropology, mythology and empirical scientific methodology, using the human body as an unlikely instrument to understand something other by attempting to be or become it. There is wonder, in both senses of the word, in Coates' work. His interest in both the magical and the rational, makes us recognise that there is not necessarily a difference between belief and knowledge.

As an artist Coates tolerates an immersion in not knowing, occupying an area of uncertainty and doubt, and taking us, his audience, into that rich territory with him. The interspecies boundary between the human and something else - animal, machine, alien, bird - is an uncanny space of possibilities. Coates conjures up a world of potential metamorphosis, of mythical and actual hybrids. The singers in Dawn Chorus flout our concepts of what is natural and normal, but they are also figures of possibility, escaping the physical and social constraints of the merely human.

Tracey Warr is a writer and curator. She is Researcher, Art in Social Contexts at Glasgow School of Art. She is the Editor of 'The Artist's Body'(Phaidon, 2000) and has written on many contemporary artists' work including an essay in 'Marcus Coates' (Grizedale, 2001).

Related Items:

Marcus Coates

Coates has long been exploring metamorphosis through voice and sound. He produces fascinating films in which the human voice mimics complex birdsong.