Performing nature unnaturally: Sampling and the performance of knowledge - one bird at a time


by Vicki Kerr and Matthew Bannister

View Vicki Kerr's Biography

Vicki Kerr is a visual artist and lecturer in the Department of Media Arts at Waikato Institute of Technology | Te Pūkenga New Zealand/Aotearoa. 

View Matthew Bannister's Biography

Matthew Bannister is a musician, composer and lecturer who works in the Department of Media Arts at Waikato Institute of Technology | Te Pūkenga New Zealand/Aotearoa. 

Performing nature unnaturally: Sampling and the performance of knowledge - one bird at a time.

Vicki Kerr and Matthew Bannister

The following commentary accompanies a multimedia artwork Performing nature unnaturally: Sampling and the performance of knowledge - one bird at a time, exploring overlaps between bird calls and human modes of communication through music and photography.

A characteristic of our current relation to birds is their growing unavailability due to the degradation of ecosystems and threats from predators. Taking our cue from birds inhabiting the coast of Aotearoa/New Zealand, musician Matthew Bannister and I ask how we might communicate and cooperate with these precious taonga. For indigenous Māori in Aotearoa, certain bird species are central to their cosmological understanding of the world, which is why we refer to birds using both Te Reo and  English - to support the cultural aspirations of Māori, and acknowledge indigenous relationships with the environment.

We sometimes think of birds as artists — not only singers, but bricoleurs, assembling elaborate, colour-coded nests, as in the case of the bowerbird. In her book Staying with the Trouble Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016) philosopher Donna Haraway asks us to consider "who we are bound up with and in what ways," arguing that we need to make new knots in those webs, new ways to be bound into relationships that matter. This is where art plays a role. It is one of the means that we have for making significant bonds between ourselves and the prospects of other critters, it is — in the forms that Haraway describes — a mode of "response-able" thinking and acting. (Haraway, 29). In this mode, art is a means to delve deeper into the specific modes of relation that science describes and studies.

In circling back to how might we imagine the relationship between humans and birds anew — beside them as kin? Haraway's notion of making kin; that is, requiring each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations comes to mind, where we become-with each other or not at all (Haraway, 4). As an artist, I believe art can play an important role in cultivating the conditions for the renewed relationships Haraway calls for.

Speculating upon avian communication and what birds can tell us, Matthew Bannister and I are currently collaborating on a multimedia artwork, exploring how sound and image — listening and viewing — attaches us to one another and to our environments, along with the ways in which these attachments are woven. Taking our cue from birds (nga taonga manu) sharing our local environment on the west coast of Aotearoa's North Island, Matthew and I have turned our attention to a range of birds - petrel( tāiko, kuaka), penguin (hoiho, pokotiwha and kororā), owl (ruru) and fantail (pīwakawaka).     

The sound component of the installation begins with the premise that bird vocalisation is a performed negotiation and defence of territory, mate attraction and contact maintenance between pairs/groups, a bird's call is a form of communication that effectively says "Come here" or "Go away", which one could also argue is true of music — it marks a social space and time, and invites others or repels them. Some hear music, some hear noise. Social theorist Jacques Attali claims that "all music, any organisation of sounds is a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, of a totality. It is what links a power centre to its subjects and thus more generally, it is an attribute of power in all its forms" (Attali, 6).

Bird calls are a tool for marking territorial boundaries, inscribed from the start within the panoply of power. Equivalent to the articulation of a space, it indicates the limits of a territory and the way to make oneself heard within it and how to survive by drawing one's sustenance from it. A key idea we have discovered using sampling, is that repetition can transform noise into music (as it can also transform language into music). In light of this, we think bird calls are best described not in terms of noise but in terms of a kind of aural communication that conflates the functions of language and music.

Sampling can be seen and heard as a tribute or acknowledgement of the source. It works both as a reference but once manipulated, as raw material for new soundscapes. Repetition tends to excite a bodily, or musical response, rather than an intellectual/linguistic one. The sound works are accepted for their sonic, acoustic properties, for their texture, grain, for all the qualities they carry in excess of, or prior to traditional musical values (Kim-Cohen, 9). The effect upon the listener is experienced as a bodily, sensual (as opposed to an emotive) event whose transmission to the listener is direct and material rather than cerebral and abstract (Hainge, 163).

Rather than limiting bird calls to functionalist categories of explanation, we use the technique of sampling, to analyse/experience the inner timbre of bird vocalisation and the rhythmic patterns of their calls. As a result sound samples are composed through the voice of the bird, becoming a human response to the 'other' in jointly formed compositions, reflecting an evolving relationship between composer and the bird.

Accompanying the sound works, is a series of photo collages presented as a stream of images referencing birds, culled from online searches, books and archives. Digitally manipulated and with no apparent logic, structure or order, these images connect with each other as intuitively situated images in new contexts to provoke new possibilities of meaning. Working together with the sound piece the photo collage becomes a complex system of associations and references linked to form and meaning which are simultaneously called forth and played out. Combining sound and image samples, the audience is forced to build paratactic meaning among fragments tethered together in an act of 'translation' from one realm to the other.

In responding to the music samples, the extraction and repurposing of images are an attempt at locating an equivalence between auditory and visual experience and to decipher the world in the shift between sound and vision. Through the mixing of synthesised 'cut and paste' sound/image sequences, composer, artist and bird become active participants in the making and remaking of a shared environment, articulating the limits of space/territory to find new ways to be heard and seen within it.

Works Cited

Attali, J. 2003. Noise The Political Economy of Music, (B. Massumi, trans.). Minneapolis, USA, University of Minnesota Press.

Hainge, G. 2013. Noise Matters. New York and London: Bloomsbury.

Haraway, D. J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Kim-Cohen, S. 2009. In the Blink of an Ear. New York and London: Bloomsbury.

Paulson, S. 2019. Making Kin: An Interview with Donna Haraway. Los Angeles Review of Books. Website.