Sunday, February 18, 2007

Dawn Chorus

When I was about sixteen, I was introduced to a friend of a friend of mine. He wanted to talk to me because I was going down to London to stay with a fellow young scientist for a lecture and he was looking for a bed for the night (or two) to tout his portfolio to Arts College. He showed me his collection and explained his current meme. He was good at drawings & cartoons, the artists thematic joke being that he drew Irish workmen with spanners, all of which were too big for the nuts & bolts that needed adjusting. He explained it very well and I found it both entirely different from my own experience and rather clever, once it had been explained to me

One all-night bus journey a few days later, we landed at my friend's house in Penge, South London. He was called Robert Spackman and had the proverbial brain the size of a planet. I had met him a year or two earlier through Young Scientists and we got on well despite our dispirate backgrounds. He listened to my friend's friend's meme with a wry impatience of the easily unimpressed and this was my first stark demonstration of the "so what?" style of assertive disinterest so useful in getting rid of those who want to sell you snake oil (or IT solutions). I watched as the confident artist eventually ran out of patter and visibly wilted. He left with his tail between his legs and I never saw him again...

Why had the simple act of polite indifference been so caustic? Probably because the artist had been constantly told how clever he was and how original his ideas were by all of those "modern parents" arty-farty types at school and college. A bitter reality pill effortlessly applied by someone massively better informed than him had brought him down to earth with a big bump.

The Spackman world view introduced me to a healthy skepticism for modern art. Skills in crafting the actual work of art are to be much admired (as I am personally strongly lacking in them) but many of the memes are contrived, contrary or just kidology.

However, after my recent trip to the Baltic, I've now realised that I might have the makings of a contemporary artist. Consider the following scenario:-

First of all, I'd go to a quarry somewhere in Northumberland with some sound equipment in a camper van. As the birds started chirruping the dawn chorus, I'd record as much as possible with a set of fourteen micrphones. I'd document this very accurately so that I had identified what each bird was and when it was singing. Not content with this, I'd visit other locations and repeat the exercise so that I have amassed hundreds of hours of birdsong.

Now, on to phase two. I'd need to identify a number of singers willing to impersonate birds. To help them, I'd slow down the original recordings so that the sounds were in human range, record them and speed them up again afterwards. For some birds this would be very straight-forward, but for some birds such as the blackbird, it would be incredibly difficult as they have two windpipes. The technique wouldn't just be singing, it would require grunts and clicks.

Stage three would be to film the singers performing their bird impersonations, but for the twist, I'd film them in their own natural habitats such as bedrooms, living rooms, waiting rooms, cars, baths and sheds. I'd also film them in the room not singing or the empty room as well. As I'd have to film the entire song and speed it up, an hour's worth of filming would equal about four minutes on the screen.

Then for the installation. I'd find a suitable darkened space in a gallery of contemporary art, say the Baltic in Gateshead. I'd lay out fourteen screens around the gallery in the same position as the original microphones were in the quarry at head height or above. I'd wire them up for multi-channel audio to play the re-created birdsong and arrange multiple video projectors to show the footage. I'd plan a performance cycle of just over eighteen minutes and then have fun arranging the show to entertain and amuse visitors.

Would you come and see it, especially if you hadn't heard of me? You probably would if it was on in the Baltic and the £3 suggested admission fee was optional. The other niggle with my future potential success as a Young British Artist to rival Tracy Emin is that someone else has thought of it first, the British Artist Marcus Coates.

From the exhibition catalogue...

"Marcus Coates' practice has continually questioned the ways in which we relate to other species. His films and performances address definitions of humanness through the investigation of cross species consciousness. Metamorphosis through voice and sound is a state that Coates has long been exploring, and he has established a reputation for producing fascinating films in which the human voice accurately mimics complex and beautiful birdsong. Dawn Chorus is the latest and most ambitious project in this series."

Oh dear, this is where I would fail miserably as a contemporary artist, having the effect of an inverse shit sandwich. I could quite merrily carry out all of the planning and implementation for a project such as the above. The trouble would be that I lack original creativity. Armed with a proverbial blank canvas, I would have an equally blank mind. (My strengths come in reflecting and expanding the sparks of others). The other point where I would fail miserably would be at the end, where I had to come up with some equally deep, trite and credible bluster to justify the installation and also justify the large sums of money I would have to tap someone up for (probably the Arts Council, a bit like our Town Coiuncil in that we spend other people's money but it doesn't really make any difference either way). Why would I fail miserably? I'd have trouble keeping a straight face...

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