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Celeste Boursier Mougenot at the Barbican Curve Gallery

Published 1 May 2010

The installation begins with a long dark corridor, the walls sporadically illuminated by projections of hands fingering melodies on guitar necks. What is heard is something else; a murmur of twittering sounds, somewhere between bird and grasshopper, emanate from the processed video signals.

Stepping into a bright expansive room, the visitor experiences a powerful transition from digital abstraction to acoustic reality. The room is filled with zebra finches, Gibson guitars and cymbals on stands. All of these are amplified, the guitars set to high sustain, every touch to their strings sending softly distorted tones to an array of speakers. They are mounted in oasis’ of sand and tufts of grass, and you can walk among them listening and watching at an intimate distance.

There are two obvious layers of sound here; the tuneful chatter of the finches, and the acoustic impressions produced when they touch the strings and peck grain from the cymbals. As the audience moves through the gallery the birds are provoked into flight. We are occasionally surprised by snatches of ephemeral beauty; a number of birds alighting on a guitar neck in quick succession create a fragment of melody, a group pecking grain from a cymbal surface creates a glitchy staccato rhythm. The result is a sonic map of the birds’ movements, stimulated in part by human presence as the audience participates in an indeterminate interspecies composition.

The actions of the birds fascinate; they form nesting couples, exhibit territorial attachment to particular guitars, and display a curious preference for perching on the fingerboards. As the exhibition progresses, nests are painstakingly constructed among the strings, and layers of droppings begin to cover the instruments, temporarily naturalising human artifice into the habitat of the finches

Yet the interplay between the finches’ songs and the world of sound teased from their movements remains in the mind of the perceiver. Zebra finches learn their song from their parental pairs as well as from the sounds of their surrounding environment. It becomes stratified at puberty and remains relatively stable for the remaining lifetime of the bird. Only after generations could we perceive the impact that the guitars will have on their song and the installation will necessarily end before any eggs hatch. The constraints of the exhibition space limit the possibility of mimesis.

We are forced to wonder what the birds make of all this sound? Can they grasp a link between their movements and the sounds generated? It is a rare mystery that prompts such speculation, and refreshingly, one leaves this piece with more questions than can be answered, more impressions than conclusive observations, and a reinvigorated curiosity in the ecology of sound.

Boursier-Mougenot’s installation at the Barbican Curve will be open until the 23rd May 2010, from 11am to 8pm seven days a week. Admission is free, and there is a late night opening every Thursday until 10pm.

Boursier-Mougenot’s YouTube video clip of the installation (below) has been hugely popular and has been watched over 800,000 times!

Article written by Fiacha O’Dubhda.