Last week I went to see some things at the Brighton festival.
The first was Dawn Chorus, a video installation. Marcus Coates, the artist, recorded birdsong and slowed it down to 1/20th of the speed. At that speed, actors can mimic the sounds accurately. He recruited actors and set them up in their ‘natural habitats’ – sitting by the fire, in bed, at a desk, etc. Then he recorded them periodically imitating the slowed down bird song. The final videos show the footage sped up 20 times. The effect is extraordinary. Not only do the artists sound like birds, they look like them too. Chests move in and out at a flutter. Eyes dart around the rooms. Have a look at this short film about it.
The next thing I saw was a talk by Hans Ulrich Obrist about his new version of Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’, based on more than 2,000 hours of conversations with painters, architects, sculptors and photographers. At one point he told the story of an artist who had traveled to Buenos Airies from the Netherlands to meet another painter whose work he had admired for years. When he arrived he met the man in a park.
It was only at this point (their arrangements having been made by their assistants) that both men realised that they could not speak each other’s languages, so they seemingly had no way to communicate. Both were bitterly disappointed but swallowed this and began to walk around the park together. Then the visiting artist suddenly shouted ‘Dostoevsky!’ There was a pause and then the other shouted ‘Nabokov!’ The first replied ‘Goethe!’ And so it continued, a conversation built with a language that they invented with verbs carved from their shared cultural experiences.
The next talk that I saw was called The Measure of All Things, a ‘live documentary’ by Sam Green. It was all about his love of world records and record-breakers. He talked about China’s tallest man who came out of retirement to use his long arm to remove a life-threatening piece of plastic from a dolphin’s stomach; the woman with the longest name in the world; the man struck the most times by separate bolts of lightning (seven), who later died at his own hand of grief because he was ‘unlucky in love’; the man who knew Pi to tens of thousands of decimal places. It was lovely. His endpiece, consistent with the theme of measurement, was the story of Voyager 1, the human creation that is the furthest from Earth. Voyager carried a gold LP record and instructions for finding us. In April 1990, as Voyager was about to leave the solar system, the astronomer, Carl Sagan, contacted NASA and asked them to instruct Voyager to turn its cameras towards Earth and take one last picture. The image is called Pale Blue Dot.
Sagan gave his own talk, in which he describes Earth as ‘a mote of dust in a sunbeam’. It is well worth a listen.
I suppose the week found its theme for me in the ideas of time and transience. The people playing birds, with their chests fluttering at twenty times normal speed, made me think about birds and their sense of time – and that perhaps it’s our sense of time that matters more than the measurement of time itself. I was reassured for birds at this initial thought – and then reassured for us when I heard Sagan’s description of the Earth as a mote of dust in a sunbeam. I’m 52 today. There are 52 weeks in the year. So the weeks have become years. In one sense that’s scary and in another it’s reassuring. It’s our sense of time that matters, not time itself. Seize the day.