Sonntag, 14. Jänner 2024, 22:05 - 23:00, Ö1



Sterbende Welt redux:

  • field notebook for a failed nature documentary (for Andreas Reischek)

  • Duration: 50:00
  • by Sally Ann McIntyre

    In Vienna I look at a being that can no longer look back. In the bird’s eye, plucked out and long discarded, is the past I cannot access. There is a world there, a way of sensing and moving in the dense green thickets of canopy of the 1880s, which are not a landscape, that do not conform to that Eurocentric convention of contemplative distance. There, the food trees the bird knew as landmarks, the ones it regularly visited within the small, constrained territories, walking through the forest in lines of kin, clambering through the thickly matted density of treetops, branch to seamless branch to branch, without any need for flight, without ever touching the ground. Those long-felled trees appear still, a series of bright points, a constellation sinking down in the memory of nothing now living. This too was song: a sonic tree-map of low muttered closeness, and all air, all earth, all distance subsumed in this closeness, the green density of the whispering canopy.

    The agency of seeing has been removed. In the public-facing specimens the glass eye, inserted in its place, seeing becomes depthless; a decorative wall, a placard. In this bird, rewritten as a study skin, no replacement eye has been offered, and the sockets are open to the tufted fronds of arsenic-infused cotton, above a beak tied with a small loop of hemp string. These substances are also infused with colonial histories, cotton and flax. They fill the body rendered placeless, without agency, present as a blind and glassy field, a placeholder for the farms that have replaced the forests with a blind and husklike dryness where the tall grasses wave in ripples and folds, grazed by the molars of sheep in quiet wind. The memory of forests is buried here, erased beneath the quiet amnesia of this useful landscape. The forests burned, to make way for pasture, are a layer of charcoal. An unspoken and illegible violence written as layer of ash in that geological strata is also present here, in the quiet body, the arsenical-soap stilled study skin, which is also a recording. It holds these sounds to itself as a witnessing, an archival sound-object, a phonography without playback.

    Sterbende Welt redux: field notebook for a failed nature documentary (for Andreas Reischek) is a feature-length experimental radio documentary that engages conceptually and critically with the ornithological collections of Austrian taxidermist and self-taught naturalist Andreas Reischek (1845 –1902), housed in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Reischek spent twelve years in Aotearoa New Zealand in the late nineteenth century, initially working for Julius von Haast at Canterbury Museum and then travelling the two main, and several offshore, islands to appropriate an immense collection of ethnographic and natural history artefacts, including a near-complete collection of New Zealand birds, the largest of its kind to ever travel to Europe. Many of the bird species Reischek collected, in sometimes vast numbers, went extinct during the same period. Confronting these aspects of Reischek’s collection, as a New Zealand sound artist and researcher, is also an engagment with the entwined histories of colonialism and ornithology, and a recognition of their inseperability. In this piece, the Natural History museum is approached as a space where the material remnants of extinction can be encountered, and the languages of colonial science can be listened to, in their inability to transmit knowledge of the relational ‘natural’ worlds of now-extinct creatures of which little behavioural information was recorded, apart from the violence of their deaths – this event itself then smoothed over in the birds’ re-writing as representative types within a taxonomic catalogue. Despite this, within the process enacted when making this work, the specimens are also approached as former members of complex multi-species ecosystems, even if this status is minimised by their current positioning as individualised specimens, potential portals to environments that Reischek himself encountered and recorded in his travelogues, and are now lost to time and history, erased by colonial-era land transformation from forest to farmland. The piece utilises sound and transmission methods to listen again to these inaudible histories and their many ecocides, ostensibly as forms of silenced and inaccessible knowledge, which are presented to the listener as acoustic silence through the media of field recording and transmission art. As such, they use sound recording and radio in a highly material, non-representational way.

    The work is composed in two sections, or movements. In the first section, we are located in the field in Aotearoa New Zealand. Two recordings of specimens of the extinct owl Sceloglaux albifacies (now re-classified as Ninox albifacies), the Whekau or Laughing Owl, are taken in Vienna in October 2016 on standard industry field recording equipment and then physically transported back to the place in Aotearoa New Zealand, as written on their labels, where they were killed and collected by Reischek in 1884. A mini-FM transmission is then conducted at Silver Stream, in the Otago landscape, beside the banks of the river, re-releasing the owls’ silences, in a durational performance without human listeners. This radio memorial is itself re-recorded; it is then supplemented with a reading of two passage of Reischek’s text Sterbende Welt (1924), translated into English as Yesterdays in Maoriland (1930), at the same site. This performance speculates that perhaps even the smallest ecocides leave forms of violence as traces still present, if invisibly and inaudibly, in environments. For Judith Butler, at the scene of loss “it is myself that I find there at the site of the object, my absence.” This transmission work is posited as not merely an archival memento mori, but also a speculative commemoration which is an undoing or reversal, through the minor politics of micro-radio, where the listener follows the artist in not mirroring but reversing Reischek’s journey from Australasia to Europe, as well as the associated one-way geographic flow of colonial extractive economics. Here, potentially, nonhuman lives wiped out by such processes can become subject to experimental forms of memorialisation and sonic repatriation, and the dead silence of the static archive, in which nature is understood as a series of objects to be deciphered and catalogued, can be re-cast as a listening, in which we acknowledge the silence at the site of our own observation. (This performance has been previously exhibited elsewhere, in a different form, as Twin signals at Silver Stream (fragments of a landscape for specimens #50.766 and #50.767) (2016–18))

    In the second movement, we are located in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Specimens of three species of extinct New Zealand birds that Reischek collected in the late 19th century are heard as they are recorded in-situ in the museum. These are the huia (three female specimens: Reischek’s total collection of huia at the museum is four hundred and twenty four birds), the South-island kokako (five birds, including two pairs and a single male), and the South-island piopio (eight birds). The fourth recording, of twenty adult and juvenile individuals of the hihi or stitchbird, is the coda. The hihi went extinct on the mainland of Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1880s, with one remnant population surviving on Little Barrier Island, where Reischek took these specimens; at least 78 and up to 130 of the 181 extant 19th-century hihi specimens are Reischek’s. Taken together, these stark one-take recordings are akin to a field log, and replicate the bare accounts within Reischek’s own notebooks, which catalogue the names of species he collected in austere, crossed-out lists. In terms of field recording practice, this project was procedural in a simple way. I treated it as one would a set of nature recordings, as part of a field research exercise, introducing the species and recording a durational “excerpt.” I also think of these recordings as re-collections, in both senses, their accumulation a kind of counter-archival practice. Ostensibly recordings of nothing (dead birds can’t make a sound), they also document what is audible in the Viennese site in 2016: firstly, they become a documentation of the sounds of the everyday life of the museum, where these birds are still housed in frozen animation as study skins over a century after their deaths. The absence of sound of a living bird becomes the presence of the sounds of museum staff chatting, the office photocopier, chairs scraping, myself talking and rustling around in boxes as I pick up the birds and try to decipher the copperplate script on century-old labels, overwhelmed by the experience and sometimes getting the details wrong, the sound of my museum-issue pencil scribbling notes. Secondly, the recordings are documentary evidence of the investigative forensics of discovering these birds in the present era, ostensibly solely through the inscrutable classificatory information on their labels, but also with vivid and overwhelming awareness of their presence, not as taxonomical representatives of their species safely housed behind glass, but as once-living beings that are also cultural taonga to Aotearoa (indeed, many taonga within Reischek’s collection of stolen ethnographic artefacts have recently been repatriated, after almost a century of negotiations, by Maori communities). Dugal McKinnon wrote about this friction between the silence of extinction and the presence of the everyday in my work as dead silence, when Cageian silence assumes an ecological, ethical dimension.

    There is an added material-conceptual dimension to Sterbende Welt redux: field notebook for a failed nature documentary (for Andreas Reischek) in terms of its positioning the site-specificity of radio art. In the first movement, the two owl silences are transmitted on small-radius Mini-FM back to the site of their collection on two frequencies corresponding to those of the National radio stations of Austria and New Zealand, layering the museum recordings with the sounds of the river, which is then itself recorded; this work also engages further with the site-specificity of the airwaves in its broadcast on Kunstradio over the Austrian public broadcaster Österreichischer Rundfunk, setting the presences of five New Zealand birds into flight through the medium of transmission to engage in a ghostly manner with Andreas Reischek’s legacy – including his son’s (1892-1965) important role in the early years of Australian radio, beginning in 1924, which coincided with his editing and publishing (and substantial embellishing or re-writing in the Adventure-story genre) of his father’s journals, first as Sterbende Welt (1924) and in English translation as Yesterdays in Maoriland (1930). It is from the latter that the text read out in the first section is exerpted.

    Through Sterbende Welt redux, and other projects since 2010 that have combined research into the museum and the field, I have come to understand the museum itself as a giant recording device - within it living things formerly functioning as nodes in giant interconnected webs of community and communication, including forms of sonic signalling from which humans might have initially learned their own capacity for communicative language, become reified with the taxonomical classification given them, so imprinted with recordings of imperial arrogance that they can no longer be said to retain their original function. They become specimens and enter into another ontological order of objects – through the transformations of such reification they become partly their own memorials and partly a zombified material strata, a form of noise or silence. Unlike the interpretive exhibits in Aotearoa that have tried to re-create the sounds of these extinct birds, I appreciate the fact that the public galleries at NHM Vienna have no sound at all, not one interactive exhibit; instead the retaining of a complete time capsule of Victorian scientific process means it is a site to research such histories of without the added layer of contemporary filters of interpretation. Out the back, in the study skin cabinets, it’s both a wonder of scientific classification, and a horrific mausoleum, and completely unapologetic about that. It's interesting to imagine what the historic "New Zealand nature" that Reischek heard can "sound like" here. I invite the listeners of this documentary to fail with me in doing so.

    Sally Ann McIntyre, Hobart, Tasmania, January 2024.

  • Links:
  • Twin Signals at Silver Stream: