Art: Do Birds Even Have Ears?

An art performance involving live animals leaves Jon Aitken with mixed feelings.

Annika Kahrs’ ‘Concert for the Birds’ took place in The Lord Mayor’s Chapel on Park Street, which, by the time, I had arrived was already packed. There were still several minutes before the pianists were due to start playing, and I took that time – like numerous other people – to wander down the central aisle examining the various caged birds, each positioned within the church pews amongst the people sitting there. If you’d actually managed to find a seat within the benches then the cages would have been at head height. I eventually found a space at the back of the church and sat on the stone steps overlooking the entire room. A pianist appeared and started playing Franz Listz‘s ‘Preaching to the Birds‘, which lasted perhaps 10 minutes, during which the birds continued tweeting (actual tweeting, I hasten to add). The pianist then finished, and we walked out.

Inside the Church

Inside the Church

There: a neutral description. I deliberately wanted to start this way because – as you will realise, should you continue to read – I’m writing this 24 hours later and I still haven’t made my mind up about this art show; I didn’t want to start this article by clouding your judgment. Now I can be completely honest.

Annika Kahrs’ ‘Concert for the Birds’ made me uncomfortable. The chapel was a fantastic choice for the piano recital – the acoustics of the building meant the whole thing was really, really loud. This, I thought, was great for most of the audience – you know, the ones that had actually chosen to be there. For the birds, however, I couldn’t help but feel sorry; with nowhere to go, they were being forced to listen to what must have been a pretty deafening period of noise on the hour every hour. But then I’m no bird expert; perhaps our feathered friends enjoy classical music at no matter what decibel.

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The birds themselves ranged from tiny sparrow-sized creatures to parrots and doves, the latter of which I was pretty convinced wouldn’t have been able to extend its wings fully inside the cage, but seemed perfectly content to sit motionless throughout the event.

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Following the performance I left the church and spoke briefly with the lone protester standing outside, placard in hand. Though appearing by herself, she mentioned being a representative of Bristol Animal Rights Collective and we talked about the use of live animals in contemporary art. Other people leaving the chapel noted her sign – emblazoned with words like ‘TORTURE’ and accompanied by a picture of birds being freed from a cage – and some even took photos. No-one else really seemed bothered though.

I later spoke to a representative of the ‘Concert For The Birds’ who told me that some of the birds involved had been rescued, and described the diabolical conditions they were originally found in. A redeeming factor? I still can’t decide.

Having spent three years studying Fine Art, I should have lapped up everything this show gave me, and yet I have chosen to spend this entire article talking about some birds. Rather than the beauty of marrying music, birdsong and a live audience the show has instead raised issues of animal welfare and general human treatment of our none-human counterparts to the point where it overshadowed the actual art of the performance.

Cruel or am I making a fuss over nothing? Talk to me at @RifeMag