Artist Bill Burns is fascinated with birds.
His curiosity and interest has led to the creation of his work Bird Radio, currently exhibited in the Doris McCarthy Gallery at the University of Toronto Scarborough, an exhibit that combines science and art that investigates the sounds of the avian world.
“I think one of the great tragedies of species lost and environmental degradation is that when we lose animals in the world, it’s not just a biological and ecological problem, it’s a cultural and intellectual problem,” he says.
Most of Burns’ work is focused on animals, plants and safety. He says Bird Radio is his way of talking about the possibility that in the future these simulations of bird sounds might be the only things we have left of birds.
Bird Radio consists of several parts.
In one part of the gallery, there are jerry-rigged birdcalls, which are instruments simulating the sound of birds hanging from the ceiling. With a radio transmitter next to it, the sound is transmitted throughout the gallery space.
There is also a video shown where children are taped with their own birdcall and they describe a particular bird and show how the birdcalls are used.
Ann MacDonald, curator of the McCarthy gallery, says Bird Radio is art people with no background in Burns’ work will not immediately understand.
“It’s a show you need to spend time with,” she says. “I really like showing work that causes people to slow down and consider things, I think this show does that.”
MacDonald says Burns uses diverse multimedia to interact with his audience.
“I like how thorough Bill is in his investigations of science and art and the human condition and that he just can find a multitude of media and ways of expressing his particular interest,” she says.
“It’s also nice to be able to offer interactive exhibits where people can touch the art.”
According to MacDonald, Bird Radio is a mix of science and art. She says his work peaks people’s curiosity and sensitizes them to the environment they’re living in.
“It’s kind of a reversal where he’s brought technology to something that we would normally experience in nature,” MacDonald says. “It’s kind of a lure.
“I know for myself when I go outside, I now hear birds differently and feel more sensitized to my experience in urban nature.”
The one aspect MacDonald says fascinates most people is the video shown of the children. She says usually in a gallery, people will watch a video for a few seconds and move on, but that is not the case here.
“I think it’s the strength of character of the children, they’re really interesting little creatures,” she says. “People walk out and they have one child that stands out for them and they’re enthusiastic and they want to talk about it.”
Burns began collecting birdcalls about 10 years ago. He says he was curious about why people are interested in some types of animals in particular.
“I find birds quite fascinating and I find certain animals with the way we work in our culture are more apt to be kind of double agents, both wild and tame in some way,” he says. “They’re our connection to wild animals and so that’s why I think I’m interested in them.
“They connect us to nature in some way.”