Sound Symposium XV: Day Seven – Pigeons!

Prepare your ears! Morgan Murray will be blogging about the Sound Symposium XV for The Scope from July 2-12.

The Eastern Edge Gallery has to be one of my favourite art galleries of all time. And, full disclosure, it’s not because they host a monthly event I help to organize (Words In Edgewise, on the 14th), but because they constantly show artists whose work both makes me think and makes me smile. Which is why I like art in the first place. So when I saw that they were showing a Sound Symposium-related exhibition, and with me being The Scope’s Sound Symposium-related blogger, I hustled right down to Harbour Drive to investigate.

The Sound Symposium-related exhibit is Annie Dunning’s “Air Time.” Which, in her blurb she calls “a collaboration with pigeons.”


Who in their right mind would want to collaborate with pigeons?

What? Were all the rats too busy spreading disease that day?


Come to think about it, pigeons are way worse than rats. Rats have the decency to be disgusting in the privacy of their own little underworlds. Pigeons, on the other hand, strut and coo like their some kind of cool out in plain sight.

I’m from Alberta where there aren’t any rats (people never believe me when I tell them this, but it’s true, there is a Rat Patrol and everything) so I didn’t see my first wild rat until a few weeks ago. It scurried across the street down by the harbour while I was gawking at the big law office fire. Other than that my life has been mostly rat-free.

Pigeons, on the other hand…

There are many days that I am awakened to the sounds of pigeons humping on our window sill (they make loud, rambunctious love on our window sill, but have decided, for whatever reason, to build a nest and lay eggs on our downstairs neighbour’s window sill), and on a couple of unlucky occasions we’ve left the kitchen window open a bit too much and had to shoo one of the feathered vermin away. And that is just my personal displeasure with a few of them. In general there are flocks of them forever strutting, cooing, and pooing all over public property all over the world. It seems that their general rule of thumb (or talon) is the more ageless and wondrous the landmark, the thicker the pigeons. I hear you can’t see Venice anymore for all the pigeon poo.

Luckily Mary from the gallery was there to talk some sense into me. She reminded me that back before there was the internet, and fax machines, and cell phones with GPS and built in cameras and apps for this and that there were carrier pigeons. They even helped the good guys win The Great War by delivering messages to and from the trenches (I’m not about to go high-fiving any them quite yet, for all I know there could have been a Taube squadron flying intel for the other-side too, pigeons don’t strike me as particularly choosey about who they work for).

And now it turns out that they can make music too.

Dunning’s work features a set of handmade Chinese whistles being tied to the tail feathers of pigeons, producing a whistling sound as they fly.

I am sure there is some connection between how much sex that pigeon is having on my window sill and his joining the pigeon band. The correlation between the two has long been proven.

But I still can’t quite get my head around pigeons making music.

I wouldn’t call it great music. Dunning’s blurb, written by Sally McKay, calls it “haunting.” But that might be a bit generous to the pigeons, they are pigeons after all. However, the droning whistles aren’t entirely without their brainwormy charm. And, as Mary and the blurb explain further, apparently the pigeons don’t see having a wooden whistle tied to their behinds as punishment for their cousins and ancestors defiling sacred statues with their feces, but rather as a fun treat. “Some birds more than others are excited to make their whistles heard above the rest, and engage in dives, rolls, and mock evasive manoeuvres to make their whistles play loudly and dramatically,” says the birds’ handler Mr. Hume.

Great! Not only do these wretched creatures have a much more exciting love life than I do. They also are much more musically inclined than I am.

The absurdity of pigeons making music aside–which shouldn’t be shunted aside completely, I think that is part of the appeal of Dunning’s piece, it is the piece that makes me smile, at least after my blood stops boiling from horrible pigeon nookie sights and sounds burned into my memory–there is something thought provoking here as well. It might be the darned environmental ethics graduate course I am currently trying to get over, but Dunning’s collaboration with pigeons raises all sorts of questions about nature, wild animals, domestic animals, our relationship to them all, and their access to our arts and technology.

While bloggers with their inadequate press passes marvel at whales and campaign for whale symphonies being added to the Sound Symposium program for next time, Dunning goes one further and gives instruments to the birds and allows them to participate in the creation of art themselves (there was even one little pigeon, whose likeness is pictured above, who had a camera strapped to him to document the event with photographs, which are included in the exhibit). And perhaps in the apparent absurdity of pigeons making music with gusts of wind and whistles tied to their behinds we can see a similar absurdity in our making music with gusts of wind and knots of brass pipes attached to our mouths. And maybe when we see our own absurdity it won’t make those pigeons quite so absurd after all.

Dunning is not the only artist who has work on display at Eastern Edge. Saskatchewan artist Bruce Montcombroux has fascinating drawings and sculptures as part of his “Palaquin Park” show.

And then there is Toronto artist Jon Sasaki’s delightful “On Purpose.” Sasaki’s videos, installations, and sculptures simultaneously poke fun of the absurdity and often hopeless futility of everyday life–the bike ride that goes nowhere, the highway interchange without escape, the Y2K mascot sitting dejectedly in 2008, the unfilled dance card–and, as his bio states, “asserts a fervent, unabashed optimism lying just below” the surface–maybe the biker does go somewhere, maybe the road straightens out, maybe the world ends (?), maybe the card gets filled out.

This mixed bag of great artworks, pigeons and all, is definitely worth seeing. Check them out at Eastern Edge until August 7.

Sound Symposium XV, an international festival of new music and performing arts, continues from July 2-12 in St. John’s. You can find more information at their website.