Tell it to the Birds: Confession and the Nature of Change

Last night I had the opportunity to experience a new installation by NRDC artist-in-residence, Jenny Kendler, at the opening of EXPO Chicago. The piece, “Tell it to the Birds,” asks participants to enter a beautiful small dome, where they sit on a stool and speak into a lichen-trimmed microphone. A computer program takes their words and “translates” them into birdsong, which are broadcast out of the dome and into the gallery.  No one but the speaker -- and the birds -- will ever know what was said. The birds are all endangered: threatened by climate change, habit destruction, livestock grazing, and oil and gas extraction. Perched on the walls surrounding the dome are delicate bird figurines, “camouflaged” by Kendler using strange glittering scImage removed.

i-fi shapes. Are they trying to hide from us?  Or are they ashamed?

As it turns out, we all have a lot to confess to the natural world. We now live in the anthropocene, the geologic epoch of man. A recent study predicted that climate change will deprive nearly half of North American birds of most of the area they currently occupy by the end of the century. Hundreds of species may be driven to extinction. Watching the crowds filter in and out of the NRDC exhibit, and seeing the real delight that people had in entering  Kendler’s quiet dome to talk to the birds, made me think about the nature of confession, forgiveness, and change. NRDC is an advocacy group -- our battles are often fought in the courthouse, the halls of Congress, or in the back-and-forth of the scientific process -- but true social change is always cultural. Politics and laws are, at the end of the day, an expression of cultural mores and sensitivities. Without winning the cultural conversation, we can never win the war for our planet’s future.

Next week, just as world leaders arrive for the UN Climate Summit, hundreds of thousands of people will converge in New York City for a march to the United Nations to demand global action on climate change. The night before the march, the United Nations will be illuminated by the image of endangered plants and animals, projected on its walls.

Artists ask us to enter into the world in a new way; to take our ordinary perspectives and set them down for a short while. That practice is part of the beginning of cultural and, I hope, political change. In less than a week, the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah will begin. It is a holiday in which people are supposed to ask each other to forgive them for the wrongs, intentional and unintentional, that they committed the previous year. Gazing and Kendler’s half-hidden birds and hearing their songs, many of which could soon disappear from the earth and which themselves masked the human words being spoken in secret, I thought about how we needed forgiveness for the natural world and felt more determined than ever to fight for it.