Light / Dark mode

Ben Valentine and Lee Weng Choy try to imagine an artworld after the pandemic.

It happened many years ago, when I used to live in Singapore. I was taking an afternoon nap in my apartment and the sounds of a heavy rain woke me. I got up and went to the living room, to close the sliding doors of the balcony to prevent water from coming in, as I usually would do. There, perched on the railing, a great bird greeted me. It was taking shelter from the storm. We spent some time looking at each other. The bird seemed curious. Maybe it’s too much to say that it was friendly. What happened next, I no longer remember. I don’t recall what caused the bird to fly off, nor what I did afterwards. But I do know that I felt a great excitement that a hornbill (Buceros bicornis) had just visited, and we shared a moment together. [LWC]

It was just yesterday. I was in my mom’s home office, where I’ve been working for over a month since COVID-19 upended everything, when I noticed a bird making its way up a tree just out the window. I nearly dismissed it as a downy woodpecker—very common here year around—and nearly went back to work, but changed my mind to take a look through my binoculars, now never far. I’m happy that I did. It turned out to be the first yellow-bellied sapsucker I had ever seen. [BV]

Laura Bradley writes about how her Facebook feed has become filled with pictures of birds, birds that her friends have been watching during the lock-down in the US. I find comfort imagining humans and birds looking at each other. That’s the beauty of windows, they can go both ways. [LWC]

The sapsucker was a female. But that wasn’t why I was so excited. As a migratory woodpecker, the bird was only passing through on its way back north to breed. This bird could have flown from as far south as Panama, following a compass and clock nobody completely understands. Females often migrate much farther. This creature was a subtle sign that spring was here in Indiana. Likely heading to Canada, she left as quickly as she came. I’m sure I left no mark on her journey, but she’d left a large impression on mine. I looked around blinking, suddenly full of gratitude; it was a beautiful day, and seeing her was such a gift – if a gift can be given without intention. [BV]

Because of the pandemic, the art world has been looking a lot at screens, and also talking a lot about looking at art on screens. Since the advent of film theory, it’s been argued that it’s not just the spectator, sitting in the dark at the cinema, who looks up at the screen; the screen looks back at us too, in a way. Though it does not return, so much as constructs our gaze, partially shaping the very conditions of seeing. [LWC]

So here we are, Ben and Weng, trying to avoid talking about screens, but instead talking about birds and windows. And about birds looking at us. [BV & LWC]

When I lived in Cambodia, I struggled to wrap my head around so much art that was created first and foremost for the consumption of spirits and deities. Such work upended my years of writing as a critic with an assumed human reader. Writer, curator, and teacher May Adadol Ingawanij has researched this question with regards to Southeast Asian cinema. [BV]

I have been very slowly working on a collection of essays, which has, as part of its title, “The Address of Art”— “address” both in the sense of location and place, but also in how one addresses or speaks to an issue, thing, person or audience. How does art locate and address us? But what happens when art addresses another world, the natural world, instead of us, as its primary audience? [LWC]

I tweeted the other day that COVID-19 should mark the end of the idea of the Anthropocene, or age of man. Inspired by visionaries like Donna Harraway, and her notion of the Chthulucene, I proposed that we’ve entered instead the “Vespertiliocene” or age of the bat. This era would be a brief transitionary time, wherein (I hope) we put to rest the idea of our own species’ complete planetary control, and begin to truly contend with the agencies of all of our fellow inhabitants, the co-authors and collaborators that we’ve ignored for so long. For, if a sick bat can lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of humans and cripple our precious global economy, our stake for total world domination feels pretty flimsy. Sure, nature live-streams are popular these days on Facebook and elsewhere, but those plants and animals are reaching back and demanding that we listen too. [BV]

There are two kinds of writers in the world, those who like to say things like “there are two kinds …”, and those who don’t. If this were true, then perhaps, among the first category, you’d find claims like: there are two kinds of artists in the world: those who are motivated to make in order to show, and those whose sense of purpose is to listen. [LWC]

I think there are two kinds of people right now in the US: people who think the world will go back to the way it was, and those who are preparing and learning to act in the world that is now here to stay. [BV]

I was trying to be ironic. I don’t think there are ever just two kinds of anything; there is usually, not just a spectrum, but a complex field, and what we think of as a defining characteristic may often prove to be not so particular to any one category of things. For instance, Aristotle argued that what distinguished us humans from other living creatures was not our intelligence or morality, but our laughter — he claimed no other animal laughed or appreciated humour. Scientists have since discovered that lab rats giggle when being tickled. And corvids, that is, ravens and crows, aren’t just smart, they’re also jokers. [LWC]

In an interview, novelist Richard Powers said: “The idea that we are exceptional and independent and autonomous has created a culture in which these great, teeming, reciprocal communities of living things became nothing but commodities which we could use with impunity, as if somehow the very cycles of interdependence were no longer something that we had to answer to.” [BV]

When I think of artists who have listened to birds, two immediately come to mind. Simryn Gill has written a lovely essay about a print she made of a bird. And Lucy Davis has an elaborate project, set in a corner of Singapore that has undergone dramatic social and environmental change, which explores the relations between people and birds, nature and culture. (Also, check out the Filipa Ramos-edited book, Animals.) [LWC]

Lucy Davis/Migrant Ecologies Project’s Roosting Post 2 at the Jendela Gallery, Esplanade, Singapore. The work explores the changing relations between people and birds, nature and culture. Read our coverage of it here.

Random fact: I first met both Weng and May through a programme that I helped organise with May and curator Erin Gleeson while working at the latter’s art space, SA SA BASSAC, in Phnom Penh. Weng and I became friends before ever meeting in person; ours was a friendship created on-screen, through video calls. I think it was his regular use of animal metaphors in his art criticism that most caught my attention. [BV]

Fun fact: besides pterosaurs and insects, there are two other taxonomic groups of creatures that have evolved to fly on their own accord—birds and bats. [LWC]

Author David G. Haskell beautifully describes the need to commune with birds, but also the challenges: “For at least 300 million years, mammals and birds have been on separate evolutionary paths. Our common ancestors, amphibian-like creatures of swampy Paleozoic forests, had ears adapted to water. Their descendants, birds and mammals, each independently evolved ears adapted to air. Bird and mammal hearing, then, is grounded in two different architectures, more linear and direct in birds, segmented and coiled in mammals.” [BV]

In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein talks about a drawing of a rabbit-duck. Seen one way, the picture looks like the mammal; seen the other way, the ears turn into the beak of a bird. You cannot see the image as both rabbit and duck simultaneously, but you also cannot unsee the rabbit or the duck once you’ve seen either. [LWC]

We are at the bird’s window. It could be telling a joke or it could be the proverbial canary in a coal mine, or maybe both—if only we’d learn to listen. There is no performative “fourth wall” to break here. [BV]

Rewild the planet. Look at screens less. And try and learn to talk with birds. [BV & LWC]

The view from Ben Valentine’s window.
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