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Visual Arts

The secrets of birdsong

Home is where the birds are, says Clara Chow

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Published: 11 Mar 2020


Time taken : >15mins

i. Overture

I stumble upon it, flitting with kids in tow into the Jendela visual arts space to see what is on display.

At first glance, Railtrack Songmaps Roosting Post 2 doesn’t seem like much: modest collage-mobile assemblages spinning gently under the warm glow of spotlights, a few seats on which to perch; and a box of hanging file folders, labelled with the names of different bird species, to paw through – a pair of conservator’s white gloves resting with gentle meaning next to it.

But something draws me in. Perhaps, it is the title’s promise of migratory birdsong, or the subdued cocooning light. In any case, I am soon gloved and absorbed in examining the files.

Each opens up to reveal more compartments: little folders with complicated origami closures contain altered photographs of birds – the bird in question either missing, artistically/surgically removed from its natural habitat, or superimposed/resurrected elsewhere. Pockets hold small booklets – hand-stitched with dangling thread – which contain interviews with bird watchers and avian experts.

Each interview is a little bite-sized story. A father drives his teenaged daughter around to identify birds for a school project, and ends up hooked on bird-watching. A wildlife specialist surveys birds that might collide with planes at Changi Airport - white-bellied sea eagles and the like - looking for alternatives to shooting them. A woman decides to name her firstborn son after a finch.

I could stand there all day, just reading these files; these stories. There is something intriguing and fantastic about the deliberately fractured stories, their oft-lack of extraneous context. Sort of like bird-watching as an activity: you never know what you’re going to see, and it’s gone before you know it. I feel dutiful and virtuous in the white gloves, leafing through the materials. It is like handling the fragile skeletons of tiny songbirds. Carefully cupping it in your hands or piecing it back together. Bones of words, poetry and memory: humerus, radius, ulna, metacarpus, phalanges.


ii. First Movement: Tanglin Halt

Railtrack Songmaps defines itself as “an interactive media, sound and visual experience” exploring relations between people and birds, nature and culture in Singapore – specifically in Tanglin Halt, one of the country’s first public housing estates, completed in the 1960s.

The estate is located next to railway tracks which dated from the British colonial period and linked Singapore to Malaysia. Until 2011, a roughly 5-metre strip of land on either side of the tracks belonged to the Malaysian state, even though it ran through the heart of Singapore. By the second half of 2020, residents would have vacated for new homes, in line with a Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) plan announced in 2014, and the area redeveloped.

Artist and writer Lucy Davis, who used to live near and teach in Tanglin Halt, recalls her encounters with humans and non-humans there: “Migrant worker foragers, Datuk Kong tree shrine worshippers, informal Hindu shrine gatherings, guerrilla kampung gardeners, opera singers, people trapping spiders and grasshoppers.” She would also find rare, surprising avian visitors outside her window in Wilton Close, off Portsdown Road, such as a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo – critically endangered in its native Sulawesi.

“All of these drew me into this tangled and contested zone along the tracks,” says Davis. She founded the Migrant Ecologies Project in 2009, a collaborative multi-disciplinary inquiry into art, ecology, culture and migration in Southeast Asia. Railtrack Songmaps and its various iterations come under the Project’s umbrella.

“I realised how important these place-making energies were—particularly amongst the elderly residents at Tanglin Halt,” adds Davis. “These intangible cultural ecological practices, this fierce sense of ownership, can only come about when a community have lived over 50 years in the same place.”

However, as many of the elderly residents and Thai or Filipino migrant worker foragers did not speak English, “we weren’t hearing about any of these energies in the then-proposals and feedback sessions for the rail corridor,” she says, referring to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s efforts to engage the public in dialogue before deciding what to do with 24km of wild landscape and informal open space left after the removal of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) Railway tracks.

“Across the world, there are examples of ‘ecological’ projects which look great on paper, may be great for tourists or middle-class day trippers but where existing stakeholders are ignored or eventually have to move,” says Davis. “I feared that with the Tanglin Halt HDB’s coming down and residents being relocated elsewhere and the rail tracks (according to the plan) looking more like another manicured garden that much of these rich everyday relationships between nature and culture would disappear.”

With a team of researchers, she began collecting stories and observations about relations between humans and birds along the tracks. Interviewees included bird poachers, songbird rearers, biologists, nature activists and rail-corridor walkers. During drama and sound workshops, students participated in exercises that resulted in stories being created collectively. Voices of residents and nature lovers were juxtaposed, sometimes contradicting each other, but included without judgement.

Together with the Nature Society of Singapore, the project also recorded the calls and songs of more than 100 bird species along the railway tracks over three years.

In 2016, an exhibition was mounted at Gillman Barracks featuring the first works from the project. They included short films, photographs and sculptural works, by contributors such as composer-field recordist Zai Tang, photographer-videographer Kee Ya Ting and biologist David Tan.

A second iteration of the project, titled Railtrack Songmaps: Roosting Post 1, took place for a month, in April 2018, at a community centre space in Tanglin Halt itself. Curious residents popped in while the artists were setting up to ask what they were doing, or to offer their opinions. When the show opened, some visitors brought their pet birds along to see it.


iii. Interlude

It is not hard to see why an exhibition like this holds appeal for the layman who wanders in. You could rely on me to describe it, but that’s a pale translation if you don’t experience it. Birdsong, after all, connects with us at a physical and emotional level. Male birds’ mating songs have been shown to increase dopamine levels, associated with pleasure, in female birds’ bodies. Accepted wisdom says that people relax when birds sing, because it is a sign that there are no predators around.

“Something may be hardwired in us to hear and be deeply moved at fundamental levels by the ubiquitous music of birds,” writes Jim Robbins in The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us about Ourselves, The World, and a Better Future. “In birdsong, as in bird’s flight, I experience some of the lightness of being we so crave.”

The Migrant Ecologies Project professes to explore inter-species communication. This is not far-fetched at all: Scientists are just beginning to understand the stories stuffed into birdsong about its singer and its relationship to others and its home; but the ancients have always believed that there is a universal language understood by humans and birds alike.

Listening to birdsong, one can sometimes sense meaning and evolutionary continuity. When a chickadee sounds an alarm about a predator threat, birds are not the only ones that panic and react – squirrels and chipmunks cower and hide as well.

Its meaning survives transposition and adaptation, too: listening to one of Olivier Messiaen’s preludes, which the ornithologist-modernist composer wrote by replicating note-for-note the songs of exotic birds, I feel something inside my head, a tensed muscle or part of my mind, loosen and release – then a new feeling, a sort of buzzing, as I imagine new lines carved into my brain according to aural instructions I don’t understand.


iv. Second Movement: Esplanade

“Moving to Esplanade, the challenge was to keep some of the magic of the Tanglin Halt iteration,” says Davis. “Esplanade has allowed us to open up the work considerably, with much more space and unbelievably generous technical assistance.”

My children are restless after half an hour, and I am about to tear myself away from the files and drawers in Roosting Post 2, its mesmerising twirling birds in the paper assemblages, to leave, when the gallery sitter reminds me not to miss the rest of the exhibition.

“There’s more?” I blink in confusion. “Where?”

She leads me down the curved gallery space and twitches aside a black velvet curtain. Behind it: miniature HDB blocks are suspended from the ceiling, as what look like birds’ nests – porous balls and tendrils reminiscent of banyan roots – sprout from their corridors; inexplicably from their windows; draped over their facades. They are mini wooden versions of the iconic 10-storey blocks of Tanglin Halt, which once graced the discontinued one-dollar notes. The real ones have already been demolished.

It’s peaceful, and just a little eerie – this uninhabited urban-scape in the sky. Headphones are tethered to the suspended architecture. We put them on and listen to a soundtrack of snatches of bird song, interviewees’ voices and the reciting of Malay pantun (four-line oral-tradition poems) about birds collated by Alfian Sa’at. Moving lights, shifting shadows. The birds are heard but never exactly seen, even in the video projections playing on the walls.

Part-sanctuary, part-elegy to the rapidly disappearing winged wildlife in this urban patch, the installation inverts what we are used to: Large things are small; up is down; inside is outside; sounds that are routinely ignored, calls drowned out by traffic noise or leaf-blower machines, suddenly appear in the foreground. Your ears breathe.


v. Interlude/Resonance

In The Bells of Old Tokyo, Anna Sherman journeys through the Japanese capital, in search of the bells which kept time for Edo’s inhabitants.

“The bells tolled the hours, so the shogun’s city would know when to wake, when to sleep, when to work, when to eat,” she wrote. “…I would not take the elevated expressway routes, or the Yamanote Line railway that rings the heart of Tokyo, but trace areas in which the bells could be heard, the pattern that on a map looked like raindrops striking water.”

One evening, listening to the determined mynahs chittering their song, as the joyful shouts of my son and his friends playing football in the void deck downstairs float up, I think about Sherman charting time and place with sound. We all do it, so instinctually that we hardly notice it. In lieu of bells, Singapore has the koel – public enemy of sleep-deprived citizens – which begins its loud Koo-el! Koo-el! call to signal 5am is afoot; cawing crows circling crowded coffeeshops at noon; cooing pigeons to usher in the golden late-afternoon light; and chattering sparrows perched in roadside trees to accompany your rush-hour drive home.

More than you think, birdsong forms part of your ability to locate yourself and home – which accounts for the rising popularity of urban birding worldwide; bird-watching solely in the city, each unexpected sighting a surreal triumph. When a tree was cut down outside my study window, and an oriole which habitually sang in it stopped visiting, I found it impossible to sit down at my desk and write for a very long time. I suspect I got lost.


Lucy Davis, founder of The Migrant Ecologies Project
(from left to right) Zachary Chan, Kee Ya Ting, Lucy Davis and Zai Tang

The team behind <i>Railtrack Songmaps Roosting Post 2</i>, Lucy Davis, Zachary Chan, Kee Ya Ting and Zai Tang

vi. Coda

“I’m quite proud to say that Migrant Ecologies’ work is slow release,” says Davis. “We take time, we do a lot of research with different collaborators contributing different dimensions.”

“There is also much more to tell,” she adds. Already, using story-telling and visual techniques, the project has teased out strands of social phenomenon and geography pertaining to the practice and aesthetic of salvaging materials (particularly in the bird boxes made from wood salvaged from felled trees by homegrown woodworking family business, Roger and Sons); gentrification and urban memory.

The project’s interest in movement and migration is echoed in its initiator’s own peripatetic experience. After 30 years in Singapore, UK-born Davis left in 2016. Now based in Helsinki, she is Professor of Artistic Practices at Finland’s Aalto University.

“It’s not easy working on the other side of the world and in different time zones on a project like this that is so very situated,” she says. “Zach, Ya Ting and Zai, the core team, have been very patient with me. So have my colleagues in Helsinki as the somewhat unending nature of my Singapore-based projects, and my inability to let go, mean that my energies are necessarily also pulled away from the place that I currently live and work.”

Perhaps, one day, scientists would finally succeed in unpacking the secrets of birdsong. Perhaps Google’s AI translators end up cracking the avian linguistic code.

I imagine going back to The Migrant Ecologies Project’s archives, and finally working out what the birds are saying. Perhaps they are saying very pragmatic things, juxtaposed with the elegance of the sound design and lyricism of the pantuns. Things like: “Hey! I’ve found a good car to poop on, come quick!” or “Botak dude leaving his chicken rice half-eaten – at my 3 o’clock!” That would be funny. And comforting in a fast-unrecognisable world.


Contributed by:

Clara Chow

Clara Chow is a Singaporean author. Her short story, The Mall, published in Dream Storeys, is set in a fictional version of Tanglin Halt. Her latest book is Modern Myths


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