Alex Last Art Tasmania
Local Avians
Residency (Testing Grounds, 2018)

In cityscapes across the world, a host of introduced and native birds form assemblies of resistance to the abrasive encroachment of ongoing petro-capitalist development. This work was developed over the course of a two-week residency in a modified shipping container at Testing Grounds in October 2018, centered in the colonial city of Melbourne on the traditional lands of the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung peoples, where sovereignty was never ceded. The overall aim of this residency was to observe, listen to and commune with the local avian population, and to produce a material response based on these daily interactions.

During this time, one bird in particular became a primary focus: the precocious and resilient Common Myna, also known as the ‘Indian Myna’ by its detractors. Introduced to Melbourne in the late 1800s by the problematic Victorian Acclimatisation Society, the Myna quickly proliferated and established itself in dense populations across the eastern portion of the continent. Thriving in human-modified habitats replete with urban waste, the robust sociality, adaptability and cunning of the Common Myna has allowed it to outcompete certain native birds across backyards and city parks, earning itself a national reputation as an invasive pest. Citizens and government employees alike target and cull the Myna by the thousands, yet there is little scientific consensus concerning the extent of its impact on native birds [1] Meanwhile, alongside a society of resilient species including seagulls, doves, sparrows, weeds, rats and insects, the Myna thrives. Despite the ever-expanding toxicity of necro-industrial processes, life continues.

Still image of a Common Myna from HD video loop, Carried Over.

With the Common Myna as a focus, several hours of audio recordings were made and archived into a primary resource drawn from throughout the residency period. Sifting through these recordings using software designed for multi-layered bioacoustic analysis, it became rapidly evident that local birds, and Mynas especially, were producing hundreds of unique sounds and phrases. Additionally, when these recordings were slowed to half-speed, they revealed still greater complexity. Many utterances can best be described as millisecond-long bursts of high-pitched scramble and yet, when slowed, they reveal a discernible and highly-structured waveform of heterospecific elements. This coincides with new research [2] which is discovering that, due to their much finer temporal-auditory discrimination, birds are able to hear the very complex nuances contained within their own vocalisations. This shouldn't come as a surprise, yet we are often vexed when something is revealed which adds to the expansive complexity of the non-human.

In listening to these unique utterances, there was a loss of explanation. The communicative world of Aves cannot be adequately explained using conventional ethological analysis. In the case of bird behaviour, there are absolutely immense swathes of auditory data which are being ignored. Over fifty individually-unique sound elements found across five minutes of communication might be compressed by contemporary researchers into a single behavioural description, i.e. the bird is 'defending its territory,' or 'attempting to attract a mate.' These reductions are based on conventional theories of evolution and natural selection, the insuffiency of which could be considered a biological equivalent to the Standard Model in physics [3] 

Close-up of hand-woven nest made from a local grass and bird feather, part of the Conservation Tactics installation.

One of the few early biologists to reach beyond dominant biological theory was Jakob von Uexküll. His theory of Umwelt (translated as 'surrounding-world') emphasised the singularity of animal perception, located in a phenomenal world rich with signs and significance. Although this biosemiotic turn was in itself incomplete, it represented an important shift of approach within the field of animal studies by emphasizing the agency and creativity of non-human organisms. Unfortunately, many biologists and ethologists continue with research goals that are thoroughly shaped and inhibited by an incessant desire to frame animal existence by standards which anchor it to, and value it against, human capabilities. Fortunately, there are researchers out there following alternative lines-of-inquiry, and these studies played a significant role in informing this research [4]

Ornithologists and citizen-scientists alike are desperate to discover: how do we classify the communicative richness of birds? Is it non-linguistic, or comprised of meaningful sounds equivalent to 'syllables' and 'words' – or both? As Mikaela Barad highlights below, is this even the right question to ask? Working with Mikaela on an alternative to this question, what seemed possible was a translation in the original sense of the word, derived from the Latin translatus, 'carried over.' This seemed doubly appropriate since the Myna was itself ‘carried over’ to the continent by human beings in the late 20th century. 

By transmuting individual sound elements into physical gestures, it was hoped that we might reveal some of the structure and specificity inherent to each vocalisation. There would be no insight into exactly what was being communicated, instead, we would try to unravel some of the structural and rhythmic features of the communication itself. This involved identifying 'unique sound elements' within a Myna utterance and matching it with a corresponding gesture. In order to categorise one sound element as separate from another, we made a subjective analysis based on listening to the sound at multiple speeds, coupled with a visual discrimination based on examining the shape of the sound on a spectrogram. 

(Top left) Video still of the hand gesture devised for ‘the long whistle’ sound element.
(Top right) The spectrogram for the long whistle element highlighted in red - it features five times within this roughly 5 second phrase.
(Bottom left) A close-up view of ‘the long whistle’ at a higher time resolution.
(Bottom right) Video still of a Myna uttering the long whistle.

During translation, the sheer difference in speed between what we were physically able to gesture with, and the original temporality of the phrase being translated, was immense. Hence, in the video, there are two versions of the same call: one at the original speed, and another version anywhere between 70-85% slower. In those versions reduced to a slower speed, our hands move in what would be dubbed 'real time,' which is of course deemed 'real' in terms exclusive to human perception. In an avian world-view, how would these gestures be perceived? Interestingly, when these gestures are made to conform to the temporality of the birdsong as it would sound 'normally' to our own ears, the translating gestures suddenly become uncanny and kinetically impossible according to human skeletomuscular logic.

The result of this research was Carried Over, a video loop 3 minutes and 53 seconds long. Gestures were devised and performed with the help of Mikaela Barad and Lyndon Blue. The length of this piece is arbitrary and simply represents all that we were able to translate within the residency period (representing barely 3% of what was recorded)

In addition to this video, the purpose of this residency was to produce an artistic response that didn't wholly rely on networks of global finance and ecocide in order to exist (e.g. something that wouldn't draw on electricity fired by brown coal [5], computers and other Coltan-reliant products, or industrially-produced paints and glues) This involved scavenging materials from the local environment and experimenting. Tree resin, bone, local grasses, discarded timber and other found objects were all manipulated and used to produce the works described below.

Common Phrases mimics the spectrographic data of local Myna vocalisations. The wood was foraged, and the resin used as paint was collected from Red Ironbark, a native eucalypt. The resin was shaped from a hard crystal to a viscous liquid through successive heating and re-heating with fuel foraged from neighborhood green waste.

Brain Food represents an attempt to make a bird feeder out of an organic waste product, in this case a sheep skull. The feeder is designed to contain either water or seeds. The skull was found in a local forest near some farmland in the Macedon Ranges. The bone was burnt and chipped away until only the cranial portion remained. Small porous areas were sealed to prevent water loss using resin harvested from the Red Ironbark.

Conservation Tactics incorporates two objects: a trap/cage custom-built by an anti-Myna group based in Canberra and given to me for free on the presumption that I would be culling Mynas, and a small 'nest' woven using native grass, string and feathers.

Post-Holocene Mobility combines old fishing wire and leftover hot chips. In trying to encourage local seagulls to visit Testing Grounds, I tried to feed the seagulls whitebait (a small fish) believing it would be the most high value, healthy option available for them to eat. However, the seagulls immensely preferred hot chips.

Neo-Neolithic incorporates cement uprooted from its foundations by the powerful roots of a large exotic London Plane tree in the city. These pieces were arranged around a mound of bird seed, visited regularly by a pair of Spotted Doves.

Slideshow of images available below.

Do birds have language? by Mikaela Barad (2018) text written for Local Avians studio opening.

Installation view of Post-Holocene Mobility, 2018. Chips, used fishing wire. Dimensions variable.

[1] “there is little scientific consensus concerning the extent of its impact on native species”
• Griffin A, Sol D, Bartomeus I (2011) The paradox of invasion in birds: competitive superiority or ecological opportunism? in Oecologia 169(2):553-64
• Grarock et al (2013) Are invasive species drivers of native species decline or passengers of habitat modification? A case study of the impact of the common myna (Acridotheres tristis) on Australian bird species. Austral Ecology.
• K. M. Haythorpe et al. (2014) The native versus alien dichotomy: relative impact of native noisy miners and introduced common mynas. Biological Invasions August 2014, Volume 16, Issue 8, pp 1659–1674

[2] “This coincides with new research which is discovering that, due to their much finer temporal-auditory discrimination, birds are able to hear these very complex nuances contained within their own vocalisations.”
• Dooling R, Prior N. (2017) Do we hear what birds hear in birdsong? Animal Behaviour, Volume 124, February 2017, Pages 283-289.
• Prior N, Smith E, Lawson S, Ball G, Dooling R (2018) Acoustic fine structure may encode biologically relevant information for zebra finches. Scientific Reports Volume 8, Article number: 6212 (2018)

[3] the Standard Model in physics does not adequately explain gravity, dark matter, neutrino masses and other key universal phenomena. In the same way, natural selection fails to adequately explain the complex behavioural nuances of many non-human species.

[4] Some important studies include:
• Brown E, Farabaugh S, Veltman C (1987) Song Sharing in a Group-Living Songbird, The Australian Magpie.
• Kaplan, Gisela (2015) Bird Minds: Cognition and Behaviour of Australian Native Birds.
• Bertram, B (1970) The Vocal Behaviour of the Indian Hill Mynah.
• Dooling R, Tu H (2017) Perception of warble song in budgerigars. Animal Cognition.