Brighton Festival 2017

For The Birds

J. Easterby, M. Anderson, K. Hynde, U. Pedersen, P. Taylor

Genre: Outdoor and Promenade

Venue: Secret woodland location


Low Down

An impressive nocturnal avian experience.


This night-time promenade through a series of installations provides a enchanted sense of discovery, while subconsciously educating about our feathered friends. Yet this semi-controversial (more on that later) evening ramble is very hard to write about without revealing too much, and it really has to be experienced rather than read about!

Driven out by bus to a secret location the event had the sense of a magical mystery tour as it wound its circuitous way to the venue – some woodland outside of Brighton.

Initially walking into the thickets, it’s easy to get caught in the hubbub and general talking, but timed right the crowds soon dissipate, and the event is best experienced alone or in very small groups. The audience is led by the thin comfort of LED lights connecting us to humanity – without which we would be alone in a cold, dark wood – we were always just one step away from the pagan elements.

The 26 expertly arranged installations (focusing on different birds ringing from nightingales and nightjars to cockatoos and lapwings) cover a wide area. The piece’s strength lies in its diversity, from vignettes and tableaux to films, sculptures and light shows. The walkabout nature puts audience in control, can thus can choose where and how long they want to linger, much like an open air crepuscular gallery. This means that it takes at least half an hour longer than the time suggested to do the experience justice. Each, very different, set piece gently guides the audience through a myriad of ever-changing moods, from wonderment, amusement and melancholy, to spooky, sinister and back to whimsical again.

From bizarre Heath Robinson-esque contraptions cuckooing in the dark, to spectacular vibrating feathers there’s a sense of the surreal as you wander through this visual and aural artwork. The effect is something between a cross of stumbling across fairie folk in reveries and being an extra on the set of Doctor Who.

At one point bird like machines whooshed above our heads, hooting, and glimpsed through the distance as red lights – like UFO’s – The owls are not what they seem. But for all these mythical and magical mechanical playthings there is very little in the way of human interactivity, apart from a video and a cellist, so the show remains ever so slightly cold and emotionally distanced.

Unfortunately, all this is off-set by the pervading sense of unease as it being Spring there is the concern about the real nesting birds and mammals trying to rear young in woods. All through the experience the sound of bird calls becomes slightly disorientating as the audience starts to wonder whether they are real birds or mechanical? Sadly it’s more likely the latter, as there are occasionally very loud noises and bright lights that have probably driven most of the woodland creatures away or left them cowering in fear. This piece was originally conceived alongside the RSPB in Wales, but was set in the Autumn/Winter. The timing of Spring for this show took the edge off what was conceived as an environmental piece. The irony of the beautiful and magical setting, artificially created in a natural woodland only highlighted what an intrusive and destructive species we are, particularly with one of the latter pieces about birds slamming into windows, augmented by the lamenting poem, Ymadawiad Arthur by T. Gwynn Jones, broadcast in Welsh.

But having said all that, it is undeniably wonderful and magical experience that opens both hearts and minds to nature and mankind’s impact on it.