The Pixel is a Note of Birdsong: Josephine Michel’s Mercures
Sceptical, the bird peers at you with a squint eye. If we knew more about its memory, the animal might tell a story in which the post-industrial human is the dominant protagonist. In this narrative, the bird’s own identity plays out in subordinate relationship to the self-centred actions and environmental destruction inflicted on the planet by humankind. Our actions have rendered many of its habitats functionally unable to sustain diverse species, depleted its food sources and nesting locations by way of deforestation, agricultural land clearance and urban development. The IUCN predict that conservatively one in five bird species could be extinct within fifty to eighty years. So the present story of the bird goes.
Often with the bird, an act of disappearance. As John Berger writes, ‘everywhere animals disappear.’ In pre-industrial societies this was not so vividly the case. Perhaps then the bird might have stayed a while. Today, it cannot be faulted for flying away. As it does so, the bird might be asking why, or for what purpose, we have driven the earth into such disharmony? The daedalian patterns of birdsong should reveal this some day. Birds know a thing or two about harmony and we shouldn’t presume they are leaving quietly. The question of how to respond to the bird is now more prescient than ever. As Donna Haraway has suggested of our relationship to animals, it is our task to ‘become together’.
The bird appears in the oldest forms of cave art, and in the visual and literary symbolisms of the earliest human civilisations. The bird has always been an animal of wonder and mystery: a god with wings that connects the celestial to the earth through the sky. In Phaedrus, Socrates calls the wing of a bird ‘the corporeal element most akin to the divine.’ The bird is offered the status of a sky-god in the cultural practices of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. In visual and literary cultures from classical antiquity to the present day, the bird most often occupies a subjectivity not quite its own through the guise of human-centric analogy, anthropomorphism, proverb or metaphor.
Josephine Michel’s birds are represented differently however. The anthropocentric narrative of the bird as a symbolic device for understanding human cultural and religious practices is coming to an end. We must now think of the bird as something that “became” before us – that will most likely continue to become after we are gone – and is therefore integral, in its diverse species, to the ecological continuity of the planet. In short, the bird has its own identity and we do not yet know it.
Michel’s project Mercures considers the sound of birds as equally important to the way in which the animal might be imaged. As the artist states, birds are both visual and ‘eminently audible’ creatures. Perhaps Michel might suggest that in order to get to know the birds she engages, we might look and listen not as two distinct perceptual acts, but as a single interrelated process of understanding the animal. Here, the usual mode of photographic representation which favours indexicality is taken apart by presenting the digital photographic image as a form of noise, both visually and, as we are asked by Michel to imagine, aurally. In these images the pixel is a note of birdsong that confounds the easy anthropomorphising of the animal.
The bird’s sonic notoriety recurs in the history of human music. In twentieth century Western composition, Oliver Messiaen’s La Merle Noir (1952) sounds the bird in staccato movements: his Blackbird, in flute and piano, is an animal of vibrancy and dexterity. Jim Fassett’s Symphony of the Birds (1960) is composed entirely using ornithological field recordings. The composition takes heavy influence from Musique concrète, a movement in experimental music that uses acousmatic sound – sound that has no apparent source of origin – as its principal material. Music here exists in a state of perpetual confusion, much like the concrete sounds of day-to-day life. Like the bird in its habitat, we humans often struggle to locate a sound’s source in amongst the clamor of noise from the street or our workplaces. Michel’s images evoke some of this confusion by photographing the bird in relation to other objects or sources of visual noise.
Like the noisy image, the acousmatic sound is a thing that hides: its location is not clear, its distance from the listener is equally vague, and often the nature of its source is nebulous. The vocal sound that opens Fassett’s recording is at first listen a human voice – a whistle perhaps – yet close study of the sleeve notes reveal not a single sound is anything other than recordings of various bird species. Our brains in this regard seem hardwired to anthropomorphise birdsong as human whistle. The noise of trains or sauce pans in the French acousmatic composer Pierre Schaeffer’s Cinq études de bruits (Five Studies of Noises)(1948) are close and far, far and then close, and then both and neither all at once. Similarly, but photographically, Michel’s images seem to reflect this strange relationship between sound, noise and proximity.
Focusing in on what Michel calls ‘interstitial moments’ these images document the bird in-between states, be they flying, sleeping, waking, or looking. These are pensive birds; thinking animals conscious of the presence of a human subject close by. And they’re not entirely comfortable with it. Their sentient gaze meets our eyes and tells us so. Mercures counters the problematic tendency for animal art to anthropomorphise by considering the role of sound and noise as central to the way in which we conceive of the bird – indeed in the way in which we might choose to imagine it, or as Michel puts it with another allusion to music, to “transcribe”, or ‘grasp’ its ‘vibration’.
This essay was published by SOURCE, issue 85, March 2016.