Accompaniment for a Breeze

MIT_Bruyninckx_figure 2.1Inspired by the musical notations of birdsong that field naturalists composed at the beginning of the 20th century and featured in my dissertation, artist Oscar Santillan produced a wonderful performance in an abandonded park. Five musicians (on oboe, horn, violin, clarinet and cello), hidden in the wilderness, interpret a composition that is based on a transcription of the sounds of elusive birds that once populated the area.



story in Observant newspaper

A story about my research on the science of bird song was recently published by Maurice Timmermans on the front cover of Observant, the independent weekly of Maastricht University. You can read about it here – in Dutch.

“Beter tien vogels in de hand dan één in de lucht” 


De geschiedenis van de ornithologie van 1880 tot 1980. Niet meteen een onderwerp waarvan je verwacht dat het aan de UM bestudeerd wordt. Wel dus. Cultuurwetenschapper Joeri Bruyninckx verdiepte zich in de praktijken en de apparatuur van vogelwetenschappers. Waarom zingen vogels eigenlijk?

radio 1 interview

I recently spoke with Pieter van der Wielen on the Dutch Radio 1 popular science show Labyrint about the sounds of birds. (you can listen to the interview here – in Dutch). 

[audio ]

Vogels luisteren is niet gemakkelijk 

Vogelgeluiden registreren lijkt een eitje. Microfoon erbij en klaar. Maar zo eenvoudig is het niet. Ornithologen, oftewel vogelaars – dat zijn die mensen die je in the middle of nowhere met gigantische verrekijkers ziet staan – vliegen elkaar al eeuwen in de haren over de enige echte wetenschappelijke manier om vogelzang te registreren en te interpreteren. Joeri Bruyninckx onderzocht hoe ze hun methoden door de eeuwen heen verfijnden.

Scientific Troubadours

I  just read this wonderful article by Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis in which she provides a historical survey of songs and musical productions that were inspired by Darwin and his theory of evolution, and their role in its popularization and dispersion. Examples include this fantastic parable about an ape who falls in love with a lady and tries to disguise himself as a classy man:

He bought white ties, and he bought dress suits,
He crammed his feet into bright tight boots—
And to start in life on a brand‐new plan,
He christened himself Darwinian Man!
But it would not do,
The scheme fell through—
For the Maiden fair, whom the monkey craved,
Was a radiant Being,
With brain farseeing—
While Darwinian Man, though well‐behaved
At best is only a monkey shaved!
or this ‘Monkey to Man’ by Elvis Costello:
Every time man struggles and fails
He makes up some kind of fairytales
After all of the misery that he has caused
He denies he’s descended from the dinosaurs.
In the fashionable nightclubs and finer precincts
Man uses words to dress up his vile instincts
Ever since we said it
He went and took the credit
It’s been headed this way since the world began
When a vicious creature took the jump from Monkey to Man.

In the same vein, this Guild of Scientific Troubadours provides an admirable and most stimulating current day example. Troubadours pledge to “write, record and submit one (1) song per month, based on a story in one of a number of scientific publications” such as there are ‘Nature’, ‘Discoverer’ and ‘Science’. This is indie music that keeps you moved and informed at the same time. Consider for instance, this “The Shape of Your Words” and the accompanying ‘Kiki or bouba? In search of languages missing links’ in the New Scientist. They complement this artful craftsmanship with great examples of science art…


post-Natural History

March 2012, a wonderful new institution officially opens its doors in Pittsburgh: the Center for PostNatural History. The center is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge relating the complex interplay between culture, nature and biotechnology. The ‘postnatural’ in its title refers to living organisms that have been altered through processes such as selective breeding or genetic engineering to meet human desires, and the center collects and provides access to a series of living, preserved and documented organisms of postnatural origin.

The Sterile Male Screwworm, for instance, was released in the late 1950s to eradicate the live-flesh-eating fly populations that plagued cattle ranches in the American south. Male screwworms were industrially bred, after which they were treated radioactively to end their reproductive capacities. The mature adult flies were then released above the region, where the impotent males would be unable to impregnate the monogamous female fly. The BioSteel goat, on the other hand, had been engineered to produce spider silk in its milk for use in manufacturing bullet-proof armor and fishing line. 40 such goats were produced by the Canadian Nexia Corporation, which sold some of them to the US Defense Department, according to the CPNC currently housed in a decommissioned Air Force Base in New York.

The Belgian institute for art and contemporary design Z33 recently featured an interesting exhibition and symposium on the topic of ‘Alter(ed) Nature’, with 20 international artists on display. The exhibition focused on different ways in which people displaced, manipulated or designed nature: “from small gardens to private islands, carrots, bonsai trees to acoustic plants and orange pheasants”. Check here for the exhibition catalogue and essays.

Book review in ‘Academische Boekengids’

The Dutch Academische Boekengids (‘Academic Book Review’) published a short review by Koen Beumer and myself in its November issue on the recent ‘Bats Sing, Mice Giggle. The Surprising Science of Animals’ Lives’ by Shanor and Kanwal with the title ‘Achter het spiegelraam van de biologie’ (‘behind the reflective window of biology’). The magazine is circulated among Dutch academic staff and readers of Vrij Nederland and readers of Dutch can find it here. We used the metaphor of the reflective window to expose a paradoxical relation between animals and humans that is reflected in these authors’ discourse. Ostensibly, they stress correspondences between human and animal lives, which not only should bring them closer together but also prove useful for man’s survival in nature. Yet at the same time, the authors refrain from drawing ethical conclusions from such correspondence. Instead, animals feature very much as objects of research, surprisingly similar yet distanced by a scientific and technical gaze – in effect setting man apart from these natural origins.

Great big silences

Perennial Acoustic Laboratory

The British Film Institute Archive has recently restored a 1924 film by photographer and cinematographer Herbert Ponting, who had joined the British Terra Nova endeavour, a scientific expedition in the early 1910s to Antarctica. The expedition became infamously ill-fated, not only because the Norwegian team of Roald Amundsen beat the British team in the race to the South Pole by a mere month, but also because the expedition party died on the return journey from the pole. Ponting’s film captures their initial hopeful moments in the camp — crew members romping after the penguins — besides the challenges that life in that Great White Silence entails. Its newly composed score (by Simon Fisher Turner) does a great job in evoking the alien beauty and its massive silences – of the medium, the expansive landscape, and the fate of the explorers.

Quite a different sound of the Antarctic is produced by the Alfred-Wegener Institute for Polar and Sear Research. Their research station, the Perennial Acoustic Laboratory, has been recording the underwater soundscape around the ice shelf. The hydrophonic recordings are transmitted live via their website. They are used to study the acoustic repertoire of whales and seals “in an environment almost undisturbed by humans”. Nevertheless, it streams also many non-biological sounds, generated by movements of the ice masses and anthropogenic events like passing ships.

The sound quality, the research team acknowledges, is far from perfect, as a result of compromises between sensitivity to animal signals and not ‘overdriving the system’. In March 2006, for instance, the researchers fell off their chair when two icebergs at 20 kilometers distance from the microphone slowly collided, which resulted in a ten-minute extended exposure of well above 200dB!

As a source of scientific research, the team explains, it is not exactly “optimized for easy listening”. The live-stream presents a monotonous static, now and then interrupted by acoustic blinks and flashes, the equivalent of a tv-set antenna reception on a snowy day. (in that sense it is different from a contemporary pastime of digi-observing hatching birds). Obviously, the expert ear may hear data where the unaccustomed only picks up noise. Yet while such static may be regarded as communicative ‘noise’, it is also a real-time trace of an actually existing deeper world, a great blue, silent wasteland. Its interruptions, clicks and flashes are alive, and thereby different from the drones and hums of mechanical noise.

That does not make them more accessible to the untrained ear though, for they are traces are of a world we can’t imagine as real. As anthropologist Stefan Helmreich states in the opening sequence of his Alien Ocean, “the ocean is strange. It represents a contrast to the cultivated land and even the solid order of culture itself.” Listening to laptop-plugged-in-earphones, either to the dramatic sounds above the ice or the live-feed beneath, are both exercises in immersion in expansive silences that, despite being mediated by culture and technology, are as far from culture as can be.

Ocean Park

Diebenkorn . Ocean Horizon

Diebenkorn . Ocean Horizon

Summer is approaching! But in my case, it is not heralded by garden lunches and first chilly water dips per se. A more reliable announcement is made probably by the long pauzes I spent this week returning time and again to the painting by Richard Diebenkorn above. Perhaps it represents some abstract longing for what is soon to come: holidays. Indeed, seizing on the series’ title,Ocean Park (#79), it fills me with the sensation of distance and dullness of holidays. It is a resolutely concrete projection – too concrete perhaps – for the abstract geometric image that it is.

Or not. Because the image seems to be only a further step of abstraction removed from another painting by Diebenkorn’s hand.Ocean Horizon frames a similar view on the ocean, albeit a more figurative scene. There’s a cup of coffee, there are flowers and there are the electricity lines running towards the beach. But the sea is the same, and that is what matters. Both paintings do take an opposite vantage point: from the beach house onto the sea, and from the sea onto the sandy coast.

Diebenkorn . Ocean Park 79

Diebenkorn . Ocean Park 79

But their view on the ocean is comparable. This is not the wild, unreliable mass, a source of the sublime for so many other artists. Instead, it is flat, geometrically controlled, domesticated, yet enticing. It is the ocean as it is on a day that nothing happens, and nothing has to happen. But it is also the ocean that one sees from a distance, the moment one anticipates when reaching the peaks of the dunes, before descending onto the beach. It is a sensation one tends to forget about in the cycle of seasons, but one that has just now re-surfaced:  the anticipation of the dulness of summer, and a flat, empty sea.

The Future of Finance

In the series of ‘The Future of Finance‘, the Dutch documentary program Backlight (‘Tegenlicht’) broadcasted an illuminating episode ‘Money and Speed’, on the global financial system. The system has become increasingly dependent on mathematical models that enhance ad-hoc economic trading. But such models are variably designed and are made to learn, and thus increasingly hard for traders and analysts to understand. These black boxes shape the economy and the market as a complex machine for trading huge quantities of data and goods. The question is what unforeseen consequences this system has, in which trade takes place at the speed of light at which data moves through the fibres. I guess the fear for the unknown threats of the capitalist moloch are a well-known trope, but that does not make it less urgent and relevant. The documentary also left me with the feeling that although time and distance do hardly matter anymore in a globalized world, in the parallel universe of economic stock-exchanges they are of utmost importance: who gets what information at what point matters for the entire dynamic of the exchange, and for the wealth of half of the world. Warmly recommended material!