Birdsongs of the Anthropocene: Wintec academics’ new exhibition spotlights our changing relationship with the natural world
Wintec researchers Matthew Bannister and Vicki Kerr at Ramp Gallery where their exhibition Performing Nature Unnaturally is currently showing. Image: Supplied
It started off with a curiosity around seabirds.
“They’re a great indicator of the health of the planet,” says Dr Vicki Kerr, co-creator of the exhibition titled Performing Nature Unnaturally.
The new exhibition at Ramp Gallery in Hamilton explores overlaps between bird calls and human modes of communication through music and photography genres, open from 21 February - 17 March.
Wintec | Te Pūkenga academic’s research addresses the Anthropocene: the geological epoch of the time we’re in, in which human activity emerges as a dominant earth shaping force.
What’s at the heart of this exhibition, however, is this question, how do we build a better relationship with other species? Kerr references American scholar Donna Haraway as a key influence in her thinking process around this idea.
Birds can be sentinels of ecosystem health, says Kerr, “they are the canary in the coal mine,” and deeply embedded in our culture.
“The visual work you see in the gallery explores our relationship with birds as they are increasingly mediated via screens. The installation speaks to the changing, and somewhat unnatural, relationship we have with the natural environment. In imaging and imagining birds we run the risk of obfuscating or overlooking them. It’s become a relationship, once removed,” says Kerr.
Repeated sequences are reflected in both the visual work and in the sound you hear in the multimedia exhibition.
Kerr approached colleague Matthew Bannister, asking him if he was interested in creating soundtracks based on the calls of four different birds, from which she composed responding images. The question she posed to Bannister was, "what is it like to listen to birds in the Anthropocene? How do we know a bird?”.
A theory tutor and researcher at Wintec School of Media Arts, Bannister is also a musician, performer and songwriter since his first band, Sneaky Feelings in the 1980s. So naturally he was a fitting collaborator to develop creative soundscapes for the exhibition.
At first the idea was to focus on New Zealand seabirds.
“Seabird calls are harsh, although they can be rhythmic,” says Bannister.
It was agreed a combination of seabirds and non-seabirds would be used to access a wider variety of calls. Bannister wanted to examine “birdsongs as understood through human activity”. He was thinking about the association between New Zealand and nature, bringing in components of technology and human listening.
Bannister mixes drums, some “squeaky synths” and some vocal elements with bird calls that have been sampled, digitally manipulated, and sequenced.
“If you take a piece of sound and repeat it, it becomes music,” he says.
The results are an interface between music, sound, and birdsong that speak to the visual work.
“Nature is endlessly creative and artists are trying to do the same thing,” says Bannister.
“The Anthropocene is probably one of the most important things to think about for humanity now,” says Kerr. “We have to build new relationships with other species.”
Exhibition runs: 21 Feb — 17 March 2023
Where: Ramp Gallery, Collingwood Street, Wintec city campus.
Ramp Gallery is located at Te Pūkenga Wintec city campus at The School of Media Arts.
Find more research from Dr Matthew Bannister and Dr Vicki Kerr.
Learn more about studying at The School of Media Arts.
Performing Nature Unnaturally at Ramp Gallery is currently showing from 21 Feb — 17 March 2023. Photo: Geoff Ridder