I’ve strolled down some moonlit boardwalks in my time, but never - at least not in my waking hours - have I found a flock of zebra finches playing electric guitar at the end of one. French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s marvellous installation in London’s Barbican Centre shows me what my promenades have been missing.
The sandy boardwalk opens up from a night-time scene to reveal a large makeshift aviary installed in the gallery. Finches perch on guitars with large cymbals, which serve as food and water dishes. Both are fitted with microphones connected to amplifiers, so each movement of a bird on an instrument is transmitted throughout the space with perfect clarity.
The experience is utterly enchanting. It is remarkable to be able to witness these birds up close, then there’s the matter of the soundscape itself, which resembles something an aspiring music producer might create after hours of tinkering with a loop machine in his bedroom. The finches chirp incessantly. Combined with the arresting, minimalist, syncopated rhythms of the guitars and basses - often scratchy, but regularly emitting sustained harmonic tones - it was difficult to believe it was only the random movement of the birds, claws scratching, beaks sharpening, take-offs and landings, producing the music.
But what can Boursier-Mougenot’s installation say about sound, about random interactions within a well-constructed environment, let alone about space and architecture? Listening to the bird music, I thought about how the installation was the sort of experience that would give Bernard Tschumi nightmares. The architect’s edict that ‘any relationship between a building and its users is one of violence’ is almost the opposite of the dialogue between space and user (even if ‘user’ here means both man and bird) in Boursier-Mougenot’s work. Strip away the artist speak and you’re left with the rather profound problem of variability, of how even the most well-structured environment can change, depending on its user.
This installation shows that this is not about the conflict between designer and user, but about theory and practice, intentionality and actuality. It’s about engagement as that intangible quality which brings a piece of work into the public consciousness, not as a practical problem to be overcome.
The essential point is that we can only control so much. You can construct an exhibition or build a building, but chance and user interaction are the metaphorical cherries on top of a fully realised project. Even outside Boursier-Mougenot’s installation, music means nothing when devoid of context - it must be listened to and responded to in order to take its place in society. In this case, though the music is created by the random engagement of zebra finches on guitar strings, it doesn’t make the strength of the concept any less important.
Architects can attempt to structure the flow of activity through a space, but cannot control the engagement of each individual with that space. Who really knows how people will interact with a building until they do. Like this installation, the built environment is a complex web of interactions between designers’ intentions and the reality of users’ actions. Without wanting to lessen the importance of these intentions, sometimes the only thing to do is stand around watching birds play guitar. But there’s beauty and inspiration to be found in doing just that.