With her work No Birds Land, Tamsin Grainger draws attention to the fact that in the 2 minutes it takes to walk through the Trinity tunnel in Edinburgh, the location of her installation, 2 pairs of breeding birds disappear in the UK.
My installation is an interactive, linear walk, which is inaccessible by car. Walkers and cyclists can listen to a sound-poem via the QR code on the arresting ‘street signs’ attached to lamp-posts at either end of the tunnel. The accompanying text is, ‘Stop Listen to the Birds!’
A length of bunting made of found materials (oil cloth and jute garden twine) with bird illustrations, is festooned on the old iron hooks which run the length of one wall, where cables and wires used to be hung when the Edinburgh, Leith and Granton Railway was in operation between 1842 and 1986.
Lifting the pennant flaps reveals handwritten words which are commonly used to recreate a bird sound, an explicit appropriation of an other-than-human language. Seeking to repurpose the utilitarian tunnel as an alternative ‘gallery’, No Birds Land also invites participants to focus on its structure and how it responds to the elements.
Sometimes it’s only when you don’t see them that you notice they’re not there.Amanda Thompson
During my daily lockdown walks, I became acutely aware that although I basked in birdsong most of the time, I could not hear it in the Trinity Tunnel, and its absence seemed to me like a call to action. The tunnel is now part of the extensive cycle path network which is known as the green lungs of Edinburgh, and this sound-art installation recognises that no birds can land or alight there (although occasionally one flies through). It is a ‘No Man’s Land’ for them, though humans built the sandstone structure to transport goods and each other between Granton Harbour and the rest of the city.
My research into ‘No Man’s Land’ revealed that the phrase originally denoted contested territory between fiefdoms, even a place of execution. It is often remembered as a World War I area of land between two trench systems which neither side wished to cross due to fear of attack and death. Except, that is, in 1914 when it is said that British, French, and German soldiers came together to smoke a cigarette, carry out joint burial ceremonies and have a chat – somehow communicating in their different languages.
Most of us cannot understand bird sounds, much less converse with avian species, although there are notable examples of people who can (a little bit more on that here).
I lie on my back a lot listening to the birds and I try to identify which are singing, but I am very slow to learn. I make repeated recordings of them because they bring me joy, and I believe that I can now distinguish between a warning call, inter-bird communication, and a pure serenade.
Imagine if we educated ourselves about what sparrows were saying and were able to teach our children! Then we could choose to keep out of the way when they are nesting, delight in their courtship rituals, and be warned when a hawk is overhead or a fox on the prowl.
When writing the sound poem, I collaborated through time with Gertrude Stein. Her poem If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso (1912) was the score for a contemporary dance Shutters Shut by Leon and Lightfoot, which leapt into my head as I was walking through the tunnel on one of my perambulations (I was trained as a dancer and worked as the Dance Artist in Residence for Edinburgh a long time ago).
The electronic poetry library of Penn State University describes Stein’s poem: “In the powerful rhythmic construction of this portrait, the repeated questions and incomplete sentences question completion and refuse to name what history teaches.”.
My poem asks whether you can hear the birds and why, what would happen if they did land in the tunnel and why they don’t. It remembers the first lockdown when we could hear them so much better, and it states the many ways that we have brought about their disappearance rather than learning from past experience.
(The poem quotes Stein and also Gail Simmonds from The Country of Larks.)
The work is a form of activism and it starkly faces a world devoid of these feathered creatures. The tunnel is 183 of my paces long (146 yards), and at current rates, in the two minutes it takes me to walk through, two pairs of nesting birds will disappear (source).
The situation is dire. In the absence of birds, we would have no choice but to create them ourselves – our own version of them, their song, and appearance. How long would it be before we forgot what they sounded and looked like, before we had to rely on recordings and photographs, on sketchy drawings like the ones on the bunting? Would we lose the memory of what delighted us about them, would we forget our felt-sense of how they really were and how it was to exist alongside of them?
In this piece, I am not pretending to be a bird, nor to reproduce or emulate realistic bird sounds and song; I am, however, acknowledging how easily ‘we’ attempt to wield power over other species and appropriate others’ languages without their permission.
I highlight our inadequacy and sheer audacity in doing so. I am interested in our tendency to both belittle languages we cannot understand and attempt to clumsily speak them, without awareness of the subtle inflections and inherent meanings that only native ‘speakers’ know.
While I have subsequently had online exhibitions of my work Clipp’d Wings (2021) which also concerns birds and their special abilities, and was also a lockdown project (it culminated in the making of a dovecot to house feathers which, though currently static, are guarding messages about where the contributors would fly to if they had wings), No Birds Land is my first sound walk. My long-distance treks and secular pilgrimages (2016 onwards), plus my work as a Shiatsu practitioner (1989-present) which is based on Daoism, has enabled a deep love and connection with all parts of the environment (human and more-than), and this informs No Birds Land.
The tunnel was engineered by Thomas Grainger. My first name is Tamsin which derives from Thomasina, the female version of Thomas. My paternal grandfather was Thomas Grainger and he worked as a civil engineer in Trinity House in London. My aunt assures me that he was not this Thomas Grainger.
Tamsin’s article is the first in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2021 Awards talking about their work.