Author: Lucy Stevens

Balfron Tower residency to capture sounds of the skies

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Balfron towerI love birds and my friend Esther loves planes, we both record sound and create soundscapes- but in very different ways. We first met in 2011 on an artist residency at CAMAC: Centre for Arts and Technology in France.

After years of talking about working together, tonnes of email exchange, several visits and even a secret Facebook group, we finally got the chance to work together, for a week-long residency at Balfron Tower. During our time together we captured the sounds of the skies, including the roof of the tower (25th floor!), The East India Dock Basin, Bow Creek Ecology Park, London City Airport, the nearby bridge and more… thanks to Esther’s extensive knowledge of some great places to record sound.

Our plan was to focus on hotspots where the sounds of birds and planes crossed over in and around Balfron Tower to create a series of soundscapes to be played in a ‘listening lounge’, as part of the ‘Balfron Season’ open studios in the tower, during September.

The collaboration will continue (online) throughout July and August (whilst we exchange ideas, mark hotspots locations on maps and edit sound recordings together), for the production of a series of soundtracks. More information about the final installation coming soon… watch this space.

Here’s our proposal:

LS and EA close up on roofLucy and Esther formed their partnership at Camac Centre for Arts and Technology, France in 2011, creating a sound performance, titled Radio-Active, which explored the fusion and live mixing of sound worlds created by both artists throughout their residency.

For their current collaboration, Lucy has taken up a micro-residency with Esther at the top of Balfron Tower in her live/work space. Working side by side, the duo are exploring and developing a new piece of work responding to the environment of Balfron Tower the Iconic tower block in East London, designed by Erno Goldfinger.

With a birds eye view of the city, both artists will use the tower as a starting point and development space for the work, Esther, considering re-imaging the rhythms of the movement of the city through sound and Lucy identifying urban birds in flight and their behaviour within the city.

These explorations will lead to the identification of a series of open spaces, or ‘hotspots’ around Balfron Tower where the duo have captured field recordings tracking the activity that occurs above the city, including plane flight and bird flight. The analysis of this information will culminate in a series of points where flight paths of man and nature overlap, including a selection of recordings focusing on what is heard from the tower itself from above the ground.

The documentation of this work will lead to the composition of a soundscape, as well as a series of printed maps on which visitors can trace and listen to soundscapes that reflect different hotspots and recordings. This work will be on show during ‘Balfron Season’ Open Studios.

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

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Great tit and wren_edited-1I’ve just returned from ‘The Beauty of Birds’ course at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, a charity that works to save threatened species across the world from extinction.

As part of the course I’ve been bird watching/listening, taken on guided tours of the zoo and bird hides in the surrounding areas of Jersey, saw a bird ringing demonstration and learnt practical field skills in studying and monitoring birds. The staff at Durrell also kindly agreed to let me record the sound of the birds in the zoo before it opened and closed to the public. After getting up at 5.30am each day I’m tired, a little sunburnt and still counting Blackbirds…

I stayed at Durrell hostel, so I was based within the grounds where birds (and Lemurs) would wake me in the morning- that’s a dawn chorus with a difference! As part of Durrell’s training academy, I met some great people from all over the world, who had come to learn more about conservation, to apply techniques when they go back home in order to help threatened species.

Listen to ‘Dawn chorus at Durrell, 2014′ via headphones

The bird ringing demonstration showed the group how mist nets were used to capture birds, (the nets are hung like hammocks in layers, which mean the birds fall into the nets rather than get tangled in them). The trainer was able to handle birds with ease (even when using both hands to look at a Marsh Harrier through binoculars!) He showed us how to hold the birds and the process of ringing, including measuring the wing, weighing the bird and ringing the leg. If the leg already had a ring then the identification number was noted. Bird ringing takes years to perfect and this trainer had it down to a fine art, which meant he could lay a Great Tit on its back (in his hand) and get it to stay still- amazing!

As part of this course I wanted to capture sound recordings of birds, in order to visualise their song using printmaking techniques for an art exhibition. With a lot of sound recording you cannot predict what will happen, you just have to be patient and still… even if you spot a red squirrel nearby.

I went to record the Chilean Flamingos10153705_10152406787807402_9053673777237607392_n as they were making a racket. It took a while to set up my Rycote windshield with DPA 4060 microphones placed inside BUBBLEBEE windbubbles. I sat for half an hour but the Flamingos decided that they would rather put their heads under their wings. What I ended up recording was visitors discussing the Flamingos pink knees- which is a common misconception- as the ‘knees’ are actually the birds ankles!

Next I head for the caged birds and meet Homer the Wrinkled Hornbill (originally from the forests of South East Asia), who seems to enjoy the attention- but only when I’m standing, when I sit to watch him he goes quiet. He was honking and jumping across his tree branch with a pair of Barli Starlings joining in with their own song.

Listen to ‘Homer the Wrinkled Hornbill, 2014′ via headphones

10330278_10152406773492402_2773880007552144861_nThe 5.30am starts were to record sound in the hostel’s garden to capture the dawn chorus. This recording is special because it features a variety of garden birds as well as Lemurs arguing throughout. This was recorded on Sunday 4 May, which was also International Dawn Chorus day. For those interested in the technical set up (as well as the Rycote windshield), I used a stereo bar with a pair of DPA 4060 microphones which were attached to each end of the bar using the DPA 4060 rubber grips (that come with the set), super glued to a pair of bull dog clips- a genius idea from this blog.

The White-faced Whistling Duck does exactly what its name suggests. I sat in the bird hide to record the ducks and heard a flurry of excitement as the keeper came around to feed them. As part of this recording you can also hear a pair of White-naped Crane AKA Mr and Mrs Chester, who were calling in unison to fend off intruders.

The Northern Bald Ibis are great birds that might get overlooked as they aren’t typically as ‘pretty’ as other birds (they look like big carrion crows with bald heads and long curved beaks). The Ibis shared a cage with a group of Ferruginous ducks and sounded like a coughing duck with a frequent yapping call.

Listen to ‘Northern Bald Ibis, 2014′ via headphones

10296908_10152406784657402_5351932207009988691_nThe sound recordings from the Jewel of the forest and Kirindy forest aviaries at Durrell feature many different threatened species. With a whole range of birds to see and hear, I captured a variety of songs, calls, chirps, coos and even rattles, but one bird in particular wasn’t shy about defending their territory and demonstrating his vocal skills (even though it was 5pm). The Asian Fairy-bluebird (sounds pretty and delicate), nearly burst my ear drums! I had to remove my headphones as he decided to perch right in front of me with his call increasing in pitch and reaching deafening levels! Listen with caution folks!

Listen to ‘Jewel of the forest bird aviary, 2014′ via headphones (Please note this gets louder after approx 1.30 mins and might hurt your ears!)

Listen (with headphones) to all the soundtracks from my trip to Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust as part of the Beauty of Birds course in Jersey on Sound Cloud.

Birds’ nests in unusual places

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20 March 2014

A family of Mistle Thrush in a traffic light in Leicester
A family of Mistle Thrush in a traffic light in Leicester

Last November I noticed an empty nest balanced inside a traffic light in Leicester, and then another appeared on the other side of the road… then 2 weeks ago a new nest appeared on the same roundabout (in another set of traffic lights), but this time it contained Mistle Thrush chicks.

The RSPB have reported that birds often nest in garden ornaments, buckets, hanging baskets and, if you leave your washing out for long enough, in drying clothes! Blackbirds have also be found nesting on car wheels and blue tits have constructed nests in communal ashtrays.

I spoke to Adrain Lane, Senior Riverside Ranger for Leicester City Council about the unusual nesting site, and asked why this nesting pattern within traffic lights was being repeated around the same roundabout. He told me that ‘The Thrushes have been targeting these lights for a few years now. It appears to have become inbred instinct and they are also nesting earlier, probably due to the slight increase in warmth (from the light) and sheltered nature of the site.’

When asking about the possibility of the nest being disturbed or in danger from traffic, Adrain told me ‘Maintenance of the lights is on a contract and basically if work is done before the nest are established then thats fine, once established they are left in place unless there is a significant safety issue.’

Ive also found out via New Scientist, that birds living in urban environments also use cigarette butts to line their nests to reduce the number of parasites.

Wild birds have long protected their nests from mite invasion by importing chemical-emitting plants. Birds living in cities seem to have adapted similar behaviour, filling their nests with up to 48 cigarette butts to make use of the repellent properties of tobacco. The nicotine and other chemicals in discarded filters act as a natural pesticide that repels parasitic mites. At the same time, the cellulose butts provide useful nest insulation. Scientists in Mexico City studied nests of house sparrows and house finches that each contained, on average, about 10 used cigarette butts. Birds who stored larger numbers of butts saw their nests significantly less infested by mites.

The Web of Water

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The Web Of Water is an international art project presenting different attitudes and takes on water; its use and misuse; and critical importance on Earth. The project aims to create awareness of the importance of water by exploring the myriad aspects of our life that water touches. Professional artists (English and Indian) offer their perspectives on Water and create artworks in a contemporary and narrative artform. The work is on display at the Atrium Gallery at the ICCA, Nottingham until Friday 28 March and will tour to various other venues across the midlands including Deda in Derby and MS University in Baroda India.

Oil Spill was created with a particular focus on the misuse of water, and the effects of oil spills on wildlife.

The composition explores the explosion caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which spilt 210 million gallons of oil during prime mating and nesting season for bird and marine species. The oil coated birds feathers, making it impossible to fly, destroying their natural waterproofing and insulation, leaving them vulnerable to hypothermia or overheating and less buoyant in water. As the birds frantically preen their feathers to restore their natural protections they often swallow some of the oil, which can severely damage their internal organs and lead to death.

'Oil Spill' on display at the Atrium Gallery at the ICCA, Nottingham
‘Oil Spill’ on display at the Atrium Gallery at the ICCA, Nottingham

The effect of an oil spill can have long-term effects on entire species, polluting the air, water and altering ecosystems. Oil, pesticides and heavy metals can enter the food chain and finally transfer to creatures used as food by humans, remaining in the food chain for generations.

One year after the spill scientists have found that migrating birds are still carrying chemicals from the spill, Pelican eggs are contaminated, Coral has died, dead baby dolphins are being washed up on shorelines, still covered in oil. Shrimp and crabs are being born without eyes and fish with oozing sores effected by the oil and dispersants and chemicals used in its clean up.

BP are liable for the spill, having paid out more than $26 billion for cleanup and various damage claims, and it still faces potentially massive liability under federal environmental law. One of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Jim Roy, said BP had put “production over protection, profits over safety”. Mr Roy also attacked the rig’s operator, Transocean, saying the company’s safety official on the rig had received little training: “His training consisted of a three-day course. Amazingly, he had never been aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

Since 1843: In the Making exhibition

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2Following on from an artist residency at Ricklundgården in Northern Sweden to capture the sounds of migrating birds and to draw their song, I have created two monoprints at the Leicester Print Workshop, to be exhibited as part of
Since 1843: In the Making at the Bonington Gallery at Nottingham Trent University. The exhibition continues until 7 February 2014.

Olga Karlíková’s series ‘Audible landscapes’, inspired the idea of drawing birdsong, where she would sit from dawn to dusk in her garden listening and drawing.

Curlew, Redshank and Brambling song prints together_edited-1The monoprints show the sound of the songs and calls from the Brambling and Redshank and the Curlew, which were recorded in Sweden. The Brambling’s song has been turned into a symbol which represents it’s low pitch, buzzy and repetitive notes. The Redshank call on this print (along with the brambling song) features in a red/orange background, like a distant alarm; a call used in flight when the bird has been startled or panicked by its prey. The Curlew song has an evocative call and is represented using white spirit on oil based ink.

Both monoprints have been structured using the sound recordings (taken in Sweden) and colour palettes taken from the colour of the bird (for example the Redshank’s bright red/orange legs) and its environment to create a fluid and expressive representation of bird vocalisation, including its tone, pitch, speed and pattern.

Talks about nature and art residencies

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In Residence- Lucy talking_edited-1New networks for nature is a broad alliance of creators (including poets, authors, scientists, film makers, visual artists, environmentalists, musicians and composers) whose work draws strongly on the natural environment. It’s a voluntary run organisation that runs an annual series of discussions for like minded people to meet and learn about the latest news and discoveries from academics and artists- this time I went to a talk about alien plant and animal species and our changing attitudes towards non-native species and another about how modern technology can be used to connect people with nature, instead of distancing them from it. Look out for there next meeting at Stamford Arts centre in November 2014.

On Saturday 23 November I gave a talk about my most recent artist residency at ‘In residence’ at Embrace Arts, organised by Synapse Arts. I spoke about Ricklundgarden in Northern Sweden and the beautiful landscape, the remoteness, the outdoor adventures, gathering sound recordings of the environment and drawing in response to birdsong.

The day was a mix of artists talking about their experiences of artist residencies and portfolio sessions for artists with curators and professionals. I met some lovely artists and it was great to talk about our experiences of residencies, commissions and plans for the future.

Birdsong monoprints

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Curlew monopringt with white spirit exp 2 for blogIve been invited to exhibit as part of the Alumni exhibition, celebrating 170 years of art and design at Nottingham Trent University. The exhibition takes place between Thursday 9 January – Sunday 16 February 2014, with a preview party on Wednesday 8 January at Bonington Gallery.

For this exhibition I will develop a selection of work created in May 2013, as part of an artist residency at Ricklundgården in Northern Sweden. Im particularly interested in taking a new approach to the drawings created in response to birdsong, in particular the CurlewBrambling and Redshank

In the last week Ive joined the Leicester Print Workshop and have created a series of monoprints; experimenting with layers of colour, drawing into ink and painting onto ink using white spirit. I will continue these experiments using sound recordings (taken from Sweden) of birdsong, to structure the composition and a series of colour palettes that Ive created on that I feel best represent the bird and its environment. Using print making techniques I hope to create a fluid and expressive representation of birdsong heard in Sweden.

IMG_0671Best listened to through stereo headphones

Listen to: Curlew Song, 1.22 mins 

Listen to: Bramblings and Redshank, 1.33 mins