Marcus Coates - Dawn Chorus (2006)


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Dawn Chorus is the latest in a series of films by British artist Marcus Coates, in which he attempts to make the human voice mimic birdsong. In this multi-screen video installation 19 singers reproduce a recording of a group of wild British birds singing at dawn.

Dawn Chorus is an ambitious exhibition comprising films of 17 singers that uncannily recreate birdsong in their ‘natural habitats'. The individuals sing from various situations such as an underground car-park, an osteopathic clinic and a shed. Filmed in Bristol, the project is as much a portrait of British society and idiosyncrasy as it is of our natural world.

Picture This has worked with Marcus Coates and birdsong expert and wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample over a three year period to support all aspects of the project, from scientific research and field work, to sourcing and filming singers and presenting the beautiful, natural phenomenon of the dawn chorus as a contemporary art exhibition. The project is supported by the Wellcome Trust.

During rigorous fieldwork 14 microphones were placed around woodland to record the dawn song of birds over a two week period in Northumberland. This study used a multi-microphone recording technique to capture numerous individual birds' songs simultaneously during the dawn chorus. From this multi-track recording each song was slowed down up to 16 times, then each human participant was filmed mimicking this slowed down song. Finally the resulting video footage was then speeded up, returning the bird mimicry into its ‘real' register. The speeding up of the film not only magically translates the human voice into bird song, but also emphasises unconscious gestures that appear uncannily similar to the physical behaviour of specific birds; a grandfather becomes a pheasant, teachers in a staffroom transform into chiffchaffs, robins and blue tits and an office worker metamorphoses into a wren. Together the films create an immersive soundscape for visitors to the exhibition.

'This is Yellowhammer," says Marcus Coates excitedly, pointing at a video of a man with a paunch reading a newspaper over breakfast. Suddenly, the man's eyes dash from side to side. His chest twitches up and down, and he bursts into an orgy of twittering and tweeting. "He sat there singing for an hour and 10 minutes," says Coates. "Watch: his mannerisms are so bird-like."

Yellowhammer is one of a cast of characters Coates has created for an extremely odd video installation, to be shown at Baltic in Gateshead next month. Dawn Chorus, which recreates the sound of birdsong using human voices, is an ambitious project, with scientific as well as artistic goals - medical research charity the Wellcome Trust sponsored him, and the birdsong has been archived for researchers.

Coates will go to extreme lengths to get what he wants. For Dawn Chorus, he spent a week camping with a wildlife sound recordist, Geoff Sample. The pair lived in a motorhome in Northumberland, getting up at 3am to activate a 24-track digital recorder. They collected 576 hours of birdsong in all - robins, whitethroats, wrens, blackbirds, songthrushes, yellowhammers, greenfinches. Coates says he became obsessed with Sample's ability to tell birds apart - not just by species, but individually. "He'll say, 'Oh, that's that robin doing a bit of blackcap.' He knows birds by the way they start or finish a phrase. We had two robins - I can't tell them apart, but Geoff can."

On their final morning, they placed microphones around a patch of woodland, hoping to capture the song of 14 individual birds at dawn. Then, back in his Bristol studio, Coates slowed the recordings down by up to 16 times, making the birdsong sound like a conversation between the Clangers. He recruited a choir to sing, whine and groan along to these strange sounds while being filmed at dawn in their own "natural habitat" - in the bath, in a taxi, in the kitchen. When the film is speeded up, the "birdsong" comes to life, the subjects twittering away like real birds. Blue Tit is a woman lying in bed, fluttering her eyes and whistling through a puckered mouth. Linnet is an osteopath, nodding and blinking furiously and puffing up his chest in his consulting room.

Most of the subjects are amateur singers from Bristol, hand-picked at choir rehearsals. Chaffinch is Pearl Conway, 62, a nurse at the burns unit in Bristol's Frenchay Hospital and a member of a ladies' barbershop choir, the Avon Belles; she is pictured cheeping away in a hospital waiting room. "Some of the notes were tricky," she says, "but I gave it my best shot. It did go on: it lasted about an hour."

"It was quite meditative," says Blackbird, aka Piers Partridge (yes, that's his real name), a musician from Bristol who was filmed in his garden shed. "I found myself going deeper and deeper into the quality of the sound." Partridge found that he could predict where the "Clanger" sounds were going. "The blackbird had one or two favourite riffs, so I'd think, 'OK, here he goes.' I imagined myself as a blackbird on a spring morning, very early in a high place, having that freedom not to think but just to let the sound come out. With that came some interesting movements - I was cocking my head to look around. I felt really spaced out. When it finished I was miles away."

Coates, 38, is getting something of a reputation as a one-off. His work has been described as quintessentially British, focused on the boundary between the human and the animal. For his best-known piece, Journey to the Lower World (2005), he dressed as a stag and performed a shamanic ritual for the residents of a condemned tower block in Liverpool. Next month he will dress as a badger for a similar ritual at the Hayward Gallery in London. His 40-minute film A Guide to the British Non-Passerines (2001) has him mimicking 97 bird species, and for a photographic project, Goshawk, he strapped himself 20ft up a tree in an attempt to become a rare bird of prey.

Coates' projects seem half-jokey, half-serious; he talks with intense passion about each of them, but is quick to point out their ridiculous elements. This seems to be part of the experiment: it's as much about discomfort and the surreal as about animal metamorphosis. His ideas evoke a child-like desire to "become" an animal or a bird and, strange as they are, they are oddly moving.



He trained as a painter at the Royal Academy of Art, and says he has been fascinated by British birds and wildlife since childhood. "I grew up in Harpenden, in suburbia, so wildlife was always this exotic thing because it was so limited. There was a tiny wood next to our house and my brother and I would see these birds and go home and draw them. We'd always think we'd seen a honey buzzard and it would turn out to be a crow. I thought for a long time being an artist was about making art, but in fact it's about representing what you are passionate about."

Coates' installation should sound like the original dawn chorus: the screens playing the music will be placed in exactly the same positions as the microphones in the wood where the birdsong was recorded. Coates says he hopes to apply the method again: he recently went to Japan to experiment with Japanese birds and singers. But the Baltic exhibition, he feels, is quintessentially British, because of our attachment to wildlife. "It's outside the human lifestyle because we get up too late," he says. "I wanted to create something you could experience again and again."

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