Borbala Soós: Interspecies Relations – How to Talk with Birds?

About Plant Intelligence and Interspecies Communication…

27.12.2019 09:00
Forest and meadow land between the villages of Hnátnice and Písečná Orlické mountains

Performance lecture by Borbála Soós
@ WOODS. Community for Cultivation, Theory and Art

Within symposium WE ARE WOODS: About Plant Intelligence and Interspecies Communication.

This way this way, let’s enjoy a sunny day, this way….

1) open field

By looking at ourselves through the eyes of other living creatures with whom we share the world, we understand how our fate is bound to them, both as social beings and as economic and ecological factors. Humans have a long history of entanglement wit birds specifically, our vocabulary and methods for communication are a proof of it. They have been in the focus of our individual and collective hopes, anxieties, and interests. The relationship spans that of endearing pet-friend and ignored pest; lab subject and co-worker; they symbolize spiritual freedom and growth hence are subjects and attendants of ceremonies (think Saint Francis of Assisi). The relationship equally includes the control of bodies through hobby of breeding, and of course, most dominantly, that of hunter and pray (this goes both way). Animals are powerful figures, in terms of biopolitics their perception have played an instrumental role in the control of human populations, and in our understanding of the relationship between nature and culture.

I will recount stories of various origins, I collected them from around the world and from friends, artists, curators, philosophers, pets, dinner guests, ornithologists, adventure books and horror movies… If you have more to add, I would love to hear them…
Let’s walk

To be honest, I often used to think that walking in a forest is the most boring activity. Sometimes monocultural forests can resemble deserts even, in much need of rewilding. That is until I had a reason to look for something specific, in between the cracks of control. I learned to slow down and change the shape of my body into unexpected positions on the hunt for mushrooms. I crawled on the dark damp side of sweet-smelling rotting logs to find the elusive slime mould. I developed a strategy for getting lost… This offered me, dare I say, a way of seeing.

Throughout this walk on the Eagle Mountain, I propose a way of listening for. A modality that allows us to look up and look down in search of, hear far, or get lost in the echo. To wonder a bit. Ponder some memories and other realities, loosely connected, and imagine parallel lives – beaked and plumed perspectives… My best hope today is that your mind will wonder. Walking through the forest will happen through stages, we will gradually get further and further away from society as we unfold stories with various wing spans.

This way, this way, this way, stay away from the bird of prey…

2) the meadow

Have you heard about Alex?

This is a story I heard from my friend Sabel Gavaldon, and then again in more detail in the video piece The Great Silence (2016), by Allora & Calzadilla in collaboration with Ted Chiang. Alex was a grey parrot, the subject of a thirty-year experiment from 1977 to 2007 by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, initially at the University of Arizona and later at Harvard. When Alex was about one year old, Irene bought him at a random pet shop. This is important, to prove that the bird was randomly selected. Becoming her coworker at the lab, Alex learned to say words, recognize colours and shapes, count, and solve quite complex exercises related to them. Towards the end of his life, he even learned to trick his trainer, when he got tired he would start giving incorrect answers, like a child. Eventually, after learning all these colours of things: he asked a question, and nonetheless an existential one: he asked “What colour is Alex?”. It is the first time recorded that another then human living have asked an existential question. (In fact any questions. Even apes who have been trained to use sign-language have so far failed to ever ask a single question). Unfortunately, Alex died shortly afterwards unexpectedly, at age 30. The life span of grey parrots in the wild is up to 80 years; one specimen is known to have lived to 90 years, and captive-bred African grey parrots also average 50 years. Since than Irene bought a new parrot and is continuing her experiments.

This way, this way, this way, let’s see if we find a blue jay, this way…

3) on the hilltop

Snowball, (hatched c. 1996) is a male Eleonora cockatoo, noted as being the first non-human animal conclusively demonstrated to be capable of beat induction— perceiving music and synchronizing his body movements to the beat (id est dancing).
Beat induction in the biomusicological sense refers to the synchronization of an organisms to an external perceived rhythm, such as human music and dance or foot tapping.
This also proves that this bird has a sense of the future. To be able to dance means to be able to predict what is coming. If the bird would just react to the music it would be constantly behind the beat, like children are when playing the conductor, until they learn to predict the music.
This way, this way, why do you believe everything I say, this way…

4) the forest

Transformations 1

Being able to prove that at least a few non-human beings are able to think and communicate within the same framework as humans, and hence become bit more like us, is not quite interspecies communication. Indeed, being entertained by other-than human beings with human characteristics, is a very human sentiment. It proves a point and a problem that is hard to overcome: anthropomorphizing other species. It is difficult, if not impossible to think of other frameworks than ourselves.

> Various loud whistling and chattering calls.
> A yelping, piping note, “ke, ke, ke, ke, ke, ke”, repeated over and over again.
> Generally silent, but in breeding season produces remarkable croaks and even a lion-like
cough at nest, often at night.
> Less vocal than many others bustards, but at times gives a loud, far carrying “kah, kah, kah”.
> Sometimes, in flocks, utters a weak peeping call, but generally a silent bird.
> A raucous yelping cry.
> A loud honking call “ah, aahow, ah, aahow”, which has been likened to the honking of geese.
>A series of loud, shrill cackles and a loud “kak, kak, kak, kak”.
> A great variety of harsh, metallic call-notes and clear whistles.
> A noisy, scolding whistle, frequently repeated.
> Harsh, croaking squarks at carrion.
> It is a wild, almost gull-like cry.
> Generally silent, but sometimes utters a harsh croak.
> A soft, twittering whistle of three or four notes.
> A variety of deep, musical whistles and high pitched chattering notes.
> A loud, deep “arrk“, usually uttered when flushed.
> Usually completely silent, but sometimes utters a short whistle, – reputed to quack.
> A series of shrill, piping whistles: at times when several birds are present the noise is considerable.
> A wave of grunting and murmurations, with an occasional goose-like honk.
> Usually silent: at nest sometimes utters low croaking grunts.
> Generally silent, except for bill rattling, but utters a variety of croaks and grunts at breeding colony.
> The same general murmurations as the Greater Flaming.
> Silent.
> A harsh, loud “raark” when flushed,- utters various croaking calls at nest.
> Generally silent, but utters various harsh guttural calls at nesting colony.
> Generally silent, but sometimes noisy at nesting colonies, uttering series of guttural croaks.
> A double “aark-ark”, but usually silent.
> A harsh, parrot-like call and a series of chattering notes.
> Usually silent – in breeding season male has deep booming call which has been likened to
a lion ́s roar.
How to better approach interspecies communication? The example here is kind of a poem by Petra Feriancová, a collection she made of her ornithologist aunt Zora Feriancová’s notes. The collection of her notes is an example of a language developed over time to describe what she heard, writing in their language, adopting, at least partially, their terms. Zora had a curious life. Sitting in hides mostly in South Africa, waiting in silence with great focus and attention, being patient to allow animals to come to her, noting down her observations… If she would have moved, or made too much noise, the subjects scatter.

This way this way, there is always a way…

5) deeper into the forest

Transformations 2

On the other hand of transformations, looking at ourselves through the metaphors of other living creatures also has a long history. Animals are powerful figures, in terms of biopolitics their perception have played an instrumental role in the control of human populations, and in our understanding of the relationship between nature and culture. Speakers of English, Spanish, French, Italian, Hungarian and Russian and more often understand gender differences in terms of animal imagery. It is quite common in each of these languages to present women in the guise of geese (Hungarian) chicks (English) but not chickens (brave in English), mother hens (Hungarian and French), doves (French), ugly ducklings, little sparrows (Italian), grey sparrows (szurke veréb, Hungarian), pigeons (prostitutes in Spanish slang), ostriches, canaries (English), parakeets (Spanish) and a multitude of other pets, farm animals and vermins. Accordingly, women are often and sometimes simultaneously dogs (ugly female or prostitute), bitches (or SUKAs in Russian), kittens (both Spanish and Hungarian), mother lionesses (Hungarian), dragons (authoritarian) and BESTIAs (dangerous beasts in Hungarian) etc… While gay man are known to be referred to as birds, pussycats and butterflies in Spanish, and French lesbians are equated with bulldogs in the 19th century Paris.

Metaphors help reassure a construction of social identities – in our understanding of the world and of ourselves, such animal images offer a bias to a given role. There seems to be big difference in meaning whether the animal in question is a pet, a farm animal or a wild one. The metaphors are part of a power structure (or struggle), part of the way groups of various sorts delineate their discursive boundaries, name and expel the Other. For better or worse, we are transformed into these animals as we are defined in human society.
Human behaviour is also frequently understood in terms of animal behaviour. Night owls, proud peacocks, dead dodos, busy bees, fireflies, boiling frogs, raging bulls, easy tigers, dirty pigs, cheeky monkeys, and even the whole zoo feature here.

Animals are powerful attractors that collect the hopes, anxieties, and interests of collectives. They are our biocultural companions, as well as powerful biopolitical figures, that play an instrumental role in the control of human populations.

The histories of many species living among us are tied to the transformations brought on by the industrial revolution and the emergence of new minorities invented in the 19th century. To quote my friend Sable Gavaldon and his bestiary, this gives but a glimpse into how both farming and urban life is entangled with the biopolitical histories of animals. Opportunistic species including rats, pigeons, flies, bedbugs, and cockroaches thrive in the city, despite being universally extermineted by humans — a testament to irrepressible life, re-appropriating hostile terrain. From then on, urban wildlife and pest control are involved in an intimate relationship with urban planning and the administration of prostitution, pathology, and political agitation. Still in the 21st century, for example members of the Occupy movement were often described as pests.
This way this way, let’s open here a passageway, this way

6) Lost in the forest

The oldest human language we know have survived in Kerala in India, passed on only as an oral tradition in the form of mantras among brahmins. We do not understand its meaning, only it’s sound survives and although it follows patterns and rules, the closest analogue is not any other language or music, but in fact something from the animal kingdom: birds songs.

Semiosis (the creation and interpretation of signs) permeates and constitutes the living world, and it is through our partially shared semiotic propensities that multi- species relations are possible, and also analytically comprehensive. In his writings on How Forests Think, Towards an Anthology beyond the Human (2013) Eduardo Kohn describes a complex theory and explanation about what he means by representation. What we share with birds and other living things – whether bacterial, floral, fungal or animal – is that how we represent the world around us, is in some way or another constitutive of our beings. We are inseparable from our companion species, and dependent on them for our understanding of the world as well as for our survival.

About semiotics: to stay with birds, but widen our considerations beyond sound. We can consider that even birds nests have their own semiotics, structures, rhythms and communication. But for now we should pay attention to the body… For instance the brown pelicans of California have no sound, but they communicate with their bodies, by changing their colours – their eyes turn from brown to bright blue, and the skin on their throat pouch from pale-pink to bright-red, when approaching breading time. They are hot blooded creatures and their normal body temperature is in between 41 to 43 °C. This is an expression of their high metabolic rate, which is also reflected in their rapid movements and fast reactions. Similarly, the perception of time for birds must be very different, if we look at their movements or listen to their chirping and singing slowed down 5 or 10 fold we can start to pick up differentiations, notes and arias which we cannot process in real time. Again, all of this just proves our inadequacies of understanding the language of these other species.

This way, this way, which path should I take?

7) Following a nearly invisible path in the forest, on the way to the lake
stopping at a small clearing to spot a bird in the sky…

Transformation 3

I find it most captivating though that the mystery of migration provided an amazing scope for possible scenarios. Aristotle in his epic Historia Animalium declared that least some species of birds transformed into other animals from one season to another. Some birds clearly migrated to Africa, but specific species disappeared just when other superficially similar ones arrived to Greece from the north for a milder winter. The idea of transmutation was one of the names commonly used for evolutionary ideas in the 19th century before Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species (1859). Transmutation had previously been used as a term in alchemy to describe the transformation of base metals into gold. The idea of transmutations by Alexander of Myndus who wrote about zoology and divination, some 400 years after Aristotle, asserted that elderly storks in fact transform into humans.

According to Lucy Cooke, the mystery of where birds disappeared in the winter were solved in Germany by Count Christian Ludwig von Bothmer in May 1822. He shot an unusual white stork, that already had a large, almost one meter long African weapon embedded in its neck. A bird that made the thousands of kilometres long journey to the North, only to be shot again by the count. This find in fact it just reaffirmed a suspicion that other, at least 25 similar finds already laid out in the 19th century. This incident started the idea of tagging the birds that keeps providing evidence of the journey… We also know through GPS tagging that the habit may have shifted. The few storks that remain and also other many birds are noted to have stopped migrating as the winters are milder, and they find enough food in urban areas and landfills. A systemic issue that our changes of habit are inevitably changing their habits; hunting, intolerance and habitat loss causes major species loss.
This way, this way, why do you believe in everything I say, this way?

8) Arriving to the lake

Bird connect us to other places and realities as they are part of a global circulation through air. They cross countries and continents, time zones and heights as they look for favourable airways above the clouds. They capture our imagination with their mysterious disappearance over winter. No wonder that for centuries they were believed to fly to the Moon in the winter.

Geese draw the cart of Apollo in the sky. Maybe this is why old men in Malta have the tradition of keeping little colourful canaries as pets, waiting for them to turn into magical geese, and choose their owner as the next demi-god to serve. The birds are hung up in elaborate cages on a nail outside the house, and in the evening they are often taken for a walk to the main square, where benches and hooks on the wall provide space for the whole community. The ancient cart ruts carved in the limestone of Malta prove that geese used to draw the carts off the cliffs at the edge of the islands… The barnacle geese would also be able to dive under water and complete their life cycle to become once again gooseneck barnacles attached to the wood of disintegrating ship wrecks at the bottom of the sea… Medieval clergymen were especially keen to spread the word that barnacle geese grew out of trees and rotting timber, hence often featured in plant books. The esteemed 16th century botanist John Gerald claimed to have cut specimens open to find inside ‘living things that were naked, in shape like a bird’. Most importantly though, this meant that they were not born of flesh, and hence qualified for consumption on the many meat-free fast days of the medieval Christian calendar. Geese were not the only ones that supposedly spent part of their lives under water, according to an incredible story mostly spread by a Swedish bishop, it was common belief for centuries that swallows supposed to hibernate over winter at the bottom of riverbeds, and perhaps lakes, just like this one…
Borbála Soós (born 1984, Budapest, HU) is a London-based curator. In 2012 she obtained an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London, and in 2009 an MA in Film Studies and an MA in Art History at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. Between 2012 and 2019 she was director and curator of Tenderpixel, a contemporary art gallery in Central London. She is regularly invited to give lectures, run workshops and teach by universities such as Goldsmiths College, the Royal College of Art, and Central Saint Martins. Her recent research focuses on the development of structures found in nature, and explores these as metaphors for social organization. She regularly curates projects related to animal and plant studies, biopolitics, the commons, as well as system dynamics.

The project is realized with the support of the City of Prague, Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic and the Municipality of Prague 7 and the State Fund for Culture.