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For The Birds
Emily Gertz, 11 Sep 06

birds_communication_comp_2b.jpgWild birds endure in the spaces humans covet and convert for ourselves. Many bird species have hung on like few other vertebrates even the most overbuilt cities: from pigeons on building ledges to sparrows finding habitat in postage-stamp sized park spaces, from redtail hawks raising chicks on the overhangs of prime urban real estate to migratory geese taking a rest (or even resting for the entire winter) on artificial lakes in engineered and gardened simulations of wildlands.

Wild birds also make life a little better for humans by providing "natural services" -- eating insects and pests, scattering seeds for plants, adding lovely songs and sounds to the aural environment, and more -- even if humans don't always return the favor.

Artist-engineer Natalie Jeremijenko has a special interest in animals that coexist with humans in the built environment. As part of the ongoing set of projects she is undertaking under the rubric of OOZ -- as in 'zoo' spelled backwards -- she examines the narrow spaces where humans and animals species directly intersect, interact, and possibly find ways to communicate.

On Saturday evening OOZ, Inc. [...for the birds] opened at Postmasters Gallery in Manhattan. [OOZ was not yet listed on the web site as of this evening.] Most of the space inside the gallery is devoted to displays of bird housing and perches designed by cutting edge architecture firms, based on Jeremijenko's concepts of creating urban systems that can accomodate species besides humans -- "bird-scaled speculative and sustainable architecture" that "welcomes them and invites them to urbanize." One of my favorites was the most simply done: one and two litre soda bottles cut lengthwise in to curvy-sided ledges and affixed firmly, and fairly densely, to a section chain-link fence. I can imagine the cozily concave platforms accomodating nests of small species, like wrens and chikadees, into a pueblo-like multitiered community. But will birds actually take to this and the other designs?

The answer may be up on the roof, which has been converted into a 1,000 square foot garden site -- an urban development for high density avian living that includes the architected bird housing, water systems, regular deliveries of healthy food, and other urban amenities scaled down to small bird size. Jeremijenko's plan is to observe the comings and goings of birds, noting how they use the space, as well as how the structures and perches affect their behavior and perceptions in turn. And while she mentioned that a special bird-human dinner party might be in the works, people are otherwise excluded from on-site visits. Instead, gallery goers can observe the doings on the roof via transmissions sent to small screens and a large projection inside the gallery.

The screens turn the visitor into a technologically-aided voyeur on the lives of the birds, underlining how zoos can turn animals into objects even as they protect and conserve them. And they emphasize our remove from the un-built environment and how unusual it is to deny ourselves...well, just about anything, and allocate it instead to accomodating the other creatures on this planet.

How might we make more space for other creatures in the city and enhance the health of the urban environment for us and them?

Perhaps by willingly excluding ourselves from some places, and leaving them for the birds.

Image: Installation image of an interactive perch from Jeremijenko's contribution to the 2006 Whitney Biennial. "Bird Perches are designed to facilitate human bird communication, translating into human dialect some of the birds concerns and arguments. From the birds point of view they provide an experimental platform to observe which perch/noise/arguments are effective in convincing people to share resources."

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