I find I increasingly work in a space which deliberately allows things to get out of hand. It is a space of my own making: the space for variation within carefully constructed rules. It’s like that science exercise you may have done at school where you throw a metre square onto the grass and then write down all the plants you can see: a simple instruction, but with the inherent possibility that you might land it over a section with only one plant.
One Minute Birdwatching is a piece I have presented many times since its premiere at PULSE, Ipswich, in 2010. The work revolves around a central premise: a group of strangers gather together for one minute to name out loud all the birds they can see in that location. It acts as a survey, but also as a vocal score, and an audio recording is made each time to collate the results.
It usually takes place outdoors, but not always: I once tried it from inside a gallery looking out through the windows, and not a single bird passed in those 60 seconds.
It is performed by a group, but not always: I once tried one at 7.30am, where it was inevitably just me that turned up.
It is noisy and energetic, but not always: when there are lots of participants and lots of birds it can be frantic, but there’s always the chance there will be no birds and only a handful of participants.
I have devised the piece so that it exists as a set of instructions: parameters within which to organise random events. The rules are:
1. Start when instructed.
2. Whenever you see a bird, say either its name (if you know it) or ‘bird’ if you don’t.
3. Name every bird you see.
4. Stop when instructed.
The variables are: number of participants, bird knowledge, languages spoken, observation skills, and number of birds. Also, weather and time of day impact on both participant and bird numbers.
The parameters allow endless variation in the work by accommodating, and even relying on chance. The work is then different every time, making it interesting and worthwhile for me to repeat: I will always be striving towards an ideal combination of chance events. In my practice it is rare for me to repeat the same work a number of times, as I work site-specifically, but because the piece is a survey I find it always becomes relevant to each new place. As I write I am preparing for a day of performance in Ely in East Anglia, where the site will be on the duck-populated riverside. These are not fleeting glimpses as birds wheel overhead: these are tame, tourist-mobbing residents, and as such are pretty much guaranteed to be there on demand. I have introduced a little variation in this version by providing a banner, like an RSPB handbook, which illustrates the common birds found in that location. I may end up with a very knowledgeable recording, or it may still be ‘bird, bird, bird’. It all depends on how the participants want to play the game.
Two very surreal things happened to me when I was performing the piece in Edinburgh. The first occurred one morning, 57 seconds into the recording, when a group of about 20 people dressed as blackbirds came running into the gardens squawking and flapping their wings, ran around the fountain and then out again. And I mean PROPERLY dressed as blackbirds: head-to-toe black costumes, with bright yellow beaks. There are two possibilities: one, they knew about my piece, in which case they went to a huge amount of effort to intervene, or two, they were part of another show and just happened to time their performance in the same 60 seconds as mine. If the latter, that was an amazing coincidence and just demonstrates why incorporating randomness into a work can be so much fun.
The second odd thing that happened was the next morning, when I arrived 20 minutes early to set up and found a group of about 15 American visitors actually doing the piece without me. A woman was leading it, and at that time of day I was feeling a little paranoid and wondered whether she had pretended to be me. It was unfounded paranoia, of course, because it turned out they’d got the time wrong, had to be somewhere else at 9.30am, and had therefore decided to follow the instructions printed in the Fringe guide. Also a slightly contradictory reaction on my part, because what I like about instruction pieces is the passing on of authorship: you can take part in One Minute Birdwatching anywhere you like, and I often get people saying that they were doing it for the rest of the day after attending one of my sessions.
I sometimes wonder if the process of setting up these scenarios is a subconscious effort to avoid taking responsibility for my work; the notion that if it goes ‘wrong’ then it isn’t entirely my fault. On the other hand, the process is closely tied to school science experiment techniques: devise your own rules, note what happens, determine whether or not your experiment is a fair test. It’s less important that there is a successful outcome than that the process was adhered to throughout. I think the key thing about the work is offering a structured space for experimentation to the participants.
For details of the next One Minute Birdwatching participatory event, please visit the project website.