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How Artists Got a Flock of Extinct Birds to Invade a Museum

"Eclipse," now showing at MASS MoCA, commemorates the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

Sayler/Morris and Elizabeth Kolbert, Eclipse (2014). Video Projection, 7:03. Courtesy the artists and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

At one time, there were more passenger pigeons than people. A lot more. And they hung out together. In fact, it’s been said that there was a flock of passenger pigeons in Ontario in 1866 that may have boasted 3.5 billion birds—nearly thrice the world population at the time. The birds would turn the sky into an organic mass of transitory nocturne. Soon though, they were gone, killed off by habitat destruction and hunting (the birds were given to slaves for food) by mechanized bird-plucker. A single feathered friend by the name of Martha—the last passenger pigeon—expired 100 years ago come September.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for The New Yorker and author of several environmental books, is intimately knowledgeable on the disappearance of the passenger pigeon, having recently written The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She had an inkling that she wanted to explore the topic further, so she approached her longtime friends, the husband-wife artist duo Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris. Sayler/Morris—who also started an artist collective called The Canary Project, “an organization that produces art and media that seek to deepen public understanding of the Anthropocene”—have made a career out of weaving the environment into art projects, like their photographic series of places that are currently undergoing climate change (“A History of the Future,” 2005-ongoing) and a documentation of the natural world juxtaposed with how the Dutch have adapted to the climatic and geologic challenges of their country, most of which lies beneath sea level (“Their World Is Not Our World,” 2012-ongoing).

Sayler/Morris and Elizabeth Kolbert, Eclipse (2014). Video Projection, 7:03. Courtesy the artists and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

“[Kolbert] had mentioned to us that the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon was coming up on September 1, and asked us if we wanted to do something with her to commemorate that event, because it’s so rare that you know the exact date of a species going extinct,” says Morris on a Skype call from France.

What they came up with together, named "Eclipse" for the way the birds used to blot out the sky, is currently being shown at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA)—though it officially kicks off on the date of Martha’s passing. Though there’s no known photographs of the flocks—photographic technology could ironically only photograph individual birds at the time—Sayler/Morris have created an animated video of 250,000 birds nesting in a tree which later take flight across the ceiling of MASS MoCA’s four-story atrium. The simulated flock mimics the terrifying prospect of the flying hordes, something viewers will never actually be able to experience.

Flock of passenger pigeons. Excerpted from Sayler/Morris and Elizabeth Kolbert, Eclipse (2014) pamphlet.

“We wanted to show a massing of the species, so you can experience their numbers and then show a diminishing of it, so you can feel its loss,” says Morris. “They are roosting on a tree, which is to get at this ‘violence’ of the group. We knew that because the space is a raw space, we figured it would add a bit more drama to make a reverse negative silhouette.”

Because of the reverse silhouette, the room becomes brightest when the number of birds is at its peak. This effect is punctuated by an ambient and atmospheric sound design, what Morris describes as “droney tones with lots of spatializations.”

Sayler describes the sound of the piece as being inspired by, but not mimicking, the sounds of the actual pigeons, which were never actually recorded. “One of the really interesting aspects to me when we were doing research was how divergent the descriptions of the sound from the flock were,” says Sayler. “Some people would describe it like sleigh bells, and there were a lot of people that talked about approaching thunder. It started feeling like the people checking out these flocks were high.”

Plumage of a passenger pigeon. Excerpted from Sayler/Morris and Elizabeth Kolbert, Eclipse (2014) pamphlet.

The piece will be accompanied by a tabloid-sized newsprint pamphlet with an introduction by Kolbert and the excerpted account of Junius Brutus Booth, an actor and early animal rights activist, who attempted to eulogize the corpses of several birds prior to their extinction.

Julius Brutus Booth. Excerpted from Sayler/Morris and Elizabeth Kolbert, Eclipse (2014) pamphlet.

“They liked to be close and dense,” says Sayler of the extinct pigeons. “That was part of the reason why they were so easy to kill. It was the first time that people understood that we could cause extinction. No one thought it could really happen. Even Audubon saw the numbers were going down and they were worried, but no one thought that it was possible that humans could actually kill off every single one.”

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