1                   Introduction

1.1         Context

A growing awareness of living on an ecologically fragile planet is prompting a reconsideration of the role of art in responding to what is happening to the world (BALTIC 2019). Turpin and Davis (2015) propose that in order to respond to our environment’s ‘state of emergency’, we need new ways of thinking that allow for more open and curious relationships to other beings with whom we co-compose the biosphere:

If we are to learn to adapt in this world, we will need to do so with all the other creatures: seeing from their perspective is central to re-organizing our knowledge and perceptions.

How can we approach this? Using the bat as an example, Thomas Nagel (1974) considers the problem of understanding the consciousness of another being. He contends that even if we could learn to be bat-like by echolocating and hanging upside-down, we would never know what it was like for a bat to be a bat, i.e., from ‘inside the fur’ (Broglio 2011). We still have the fundamental problem of understanding the meaning of this perception for the animal as part of their embodied narrative, no matter how advanced our scientific understanding of an animal’s neurophysiology of perception.

According to Broglio (2011), the unknowability of the phenomenology of others and the absurdity of questions like ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ can act as a ‘lure’ for artists. The limit of knowing can become a productive site of enquiry where artists can find inspiring and transformative material for their work. Haraway (2016) emphasises the importance of playing with string figures and speculative fabulations. That is, telling stories that help us to see our multi-species relationships in new light. She argues that we should ‘stay with the trouble’ as ‘mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings. Recognizing that all humans and non-humans are inextricably linked in a meshwork of continual becomings (Ingold 2011, 2015).

To give one concrete example of such speculative fabulation, in Tales of a Sea Cow, Etienne de France (2012) weaves together many intertwining threads from the histories and environments of human and non-human animals. The artist created a ‘narration between reality and fiction’ describing the imaginary rediscovery of an extinct marine mammal (the Steller Sea Cow). The Sea Cows’ songs were analysed using fantastically constructed sound recordings to reveal hidden messages directed at humans. The work was shown in a variety of formats, using video and sound installations. The work tapped into two human desires: the desire to recreate extinct species and the desire to communicate with non-human animals. As a result, it reflects our desires and encourages viewers to reconsider our relationship with nature (Bureaud 2012).

Similarly, our overarching matter of concern (Latour 2004) is species extinction, and we, like De France and other artists, take the approach of creating a fabulation based on dreams of inter-species communication. We focus on birds in this project because they are a class of non-human animals that serve as a barometer for the overall state of the environment and have always held great cultural significance (DEFRA 2020). Over a quarter of all regularly occurring birds in the UK are now on the ‘red list’ of conservation concern (Eaton et al. 2015), and most species’ populations are declining, in some cases dramatically; for example, tree sparrow numbers have decreased by more than 90% in the last 25 years (DEFRA 2020, Eaton et al. 2015).   

We also employ the artistic strategy of re-purposing, in which we revitalise an arcane musical language in the context of contemporary issues. We created a device to translate birdsong into human language based on this principle.

We gather and entangle various threads in this device, including birds, their songs, and human engagement, knowledge mediation by computers and recording technology, dreams of a universal human language, dreams of inter-species communication, and care for the environment and its inhabitants. We propose that the work’s quality lies not so much in what it means as in what it does (Grosz 2011), drawing the viewer in and inviting them to make connections between these intertwining threads.

1.2         Solresol

Umberto Eco (1995) traces the history of the dream of a universal language in The Search for the Perfect Language. This is a dream that exists in many different cultures, and it often includes a desire to re-discover an Edenic past in which a common language was also shared with non-human animals. According to Abram (1996: 138), the transition from an oral to a written human language contributed to the Western civilisation’s progressive estrangement from non-human nature. As a result, we hypothesised that a musical language could be a useful tool in achieving our goal of creating an artwork about re-connecting with non-human animals.

François Sudre published the Langue Musicale Universelle (Sudre 1866) with the goal of creating a language for all people of the world. He was influenced by many predecessors who believed that a common language would unite peoples, returning to a time before the fall of the Tower of Babel when ‘the whole earth was of one speech’ (Genesis 11:1). Inspired by Rousseau’s assertion that ‘the first languages were singing’ (Wokler 2001: 38), he determined that music would be the key to his quest, stating that ‘Nature accords all men an intelligence sufficient in all circumstances to comprehend similar sounds’ (Whitwell 2012: 37). His system, known as Solresol, represents words by using the seven notes of the C major scale – do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti - in four-note groups. The system also includes the use of colours or symbols as an alternative to musical notes, as he was motivated by a desire for universal communication that would include deaf people. Despite the fact that he worked on the project for decades and spent much of his own money, it faded into obscurity after his death (Collins 2002). However, there has been a resurgence of interest in this language in recent years, as evidenced by the appearance of online resources such as dictionaries, translators, user groups, and websites.

1.3         Aims

The work described here was created as part of a practice-based PhD programme that asked broad questions such as, ‘how might multi-media arts practices be developed to represent avian perception, expand human environmental consciousness, and critique anthropocentric narratives in ecology?’. The current work investigates an artistic strategy that draws on a variety of registers, including science, science fiction, poetry, semiotics, music, and data visualisation. The goal was to create a device that purports to communicate between species in order to draw people in and encourage reflection on our connections with non-human animals.

We have taken the unusual step of basing birdsong translation on the obscure Solresol language. We developed a gadget that allows birdsong to produce words, colours, and music. It is a curious mash-up - proposed as a speculative fabulation for multispecies worldings (Haraway 2016). In this first exposition, we will focus on the methodology of the device construction while also introducing a variety of possible uses and contributions to artistic strategies. The following sections provide a detailed description of the device’s technical aspects before illustrating a variety of different outputs. The work is then discussed in light of the framings that have been briefly outlined in this introduction.

The Pi version of the translator – Raspberry Pi v3B+ with 3.5 inch screen, powered by phone charger. Headphones and mic connected via a USB audio adapter (see Methods)

Music produced by the translator with Blackbird input. In this case the output produced by the virtual MIDI player imitates the sound of the Celeste musical instrument (see Methods).

The Ravens of Odin, Huginn and Muninn

Cover of the original Solresol publication (Sudre 1866)

Ojibwe shoulder pouch depicting two thunder birds in quillwork (Peabody Museum Harvard) (Image cropped from here)