a-n Magazine got in touch to ask about #dawnchorus365 for an article about International Dawn Chorus Day, which takes place on Sunday 4 May 2013. The article is on a-n here; opposite are my full responses to questions from a-n’s Michaela Nettell.
Photo: Claire Reddleman
#dawnchorus365 is one iteration of a developing series of #dawnchorus works created by Seven Art Writers. The Seven Art Writers collective are Natasha Vicars, Mary Paterson, Tamarin Norwood, Sally Labern, Eddy Dreadnought, Tiffany Charrington and Joanna Brown; all practitioners working with the disciplines of art writing and live art. #dawnchorus was devised by Natasha Vicars and first developed by SAW in 2011 with support from the Live Art Development Agency and Text Festival, Bury. Performances have since been commissioned by Vox Populi in Philadelphia (2012), by the National Trust’s London Project, by Fermynwoods Contemporary Art and by Art:Language:Location (all 2013). Extracts from performance transcripts have been published in The Live Art Almanac Volume 3 and Performance Research Journal Vol. 18 No. 5 (both 2013).
MN: Have you been pleased with / surprised by people’s contributions and the work’s evolving form? How do transcripts of past performances relate or compare to the real-time poetry feeds? Have you developed a new or different form of writing peculiar to the project?
TN: As a group, we have developed quite a unique way of writing together, devised with the support of the Live Art Development DIY initiative. In 2011 we spent a weekend together researching how and why birds behave as they do in groups, flocking and singing en masse at dawn. Much thought about how these behaviours might translate into collaborative writing methods lead us to develop a prototype ‘score’ — a set of instructions we could follow through dawn to lend our writing some of the characteristics of avian behaviour. We now work from variations of this score every time we undertake a dawn performance. Each score includes instructions such as to ‘flock’ (to be alike in some way, perhaps by borrowing words or images one another’s tweets and incorporating them into our own); to ‘call and respond’ by asking and replying to questions about our individual locations; and to steadily increase or reduce the number of characters in each tweet over the course of a given period. The scores also include a handful of signpost tweets throughout dawn, which we all post at certain pre-arranged moments to structure the writing and mark out where we are in time: on May 4th we’ll all be tweeting ‘This is Civil Twilight’ at 4:47am, for instance.
When members of the public contribute they typically don’t have access to the score, so their contributions might be more spontaneous or freer in form. If a group like a poetry club or a school joins us to tweet the dawn, they might be working from their own score or with their own plans in mind, and it can create a very exciting layering of separate but related conversations. Just as often, the conversations aren’t separate at all, but become quite seamlessly interwoven. It can happen that even without the score, members of the public match their tweets quite closely to ours by picking up on what we’re doing at any given time, particularly during the ‘call and response’ part of the performance. So the score is a tool SAW uses to structure our own writing, but for members of the public I think it serves to offer a light framework into which any writing at all can be incorporated.
What I find genuinely moving about reading people’s contributions in real-time is the feeling of their company at this very early, shivery hour of the day: that other people have got out of bed too and are up stalking around in the near-darkness incorporating their local experiences into a shared observation of dawn. I remember being completely on my own wandering through Osterley Park in the very first light when we were tweeting the dawn with the National Trust, with only bats for company and unknown animal shapes moving on the fringes of my vision — I think some of our tweets were intentionally sounding a bit scary or spooked — and the sudden rush of company from unfamiliar voices and new perspectives felt quite elating.
MN: How do the Twitter interface and character limit etc offer interesting parameters for your writing? How important is the ‘liveness’ of the service, and that tweets are sent and read at dawn/dusk? Is it important / interesting to you that tweets are typically unsounded (read internally from a screen or tablet)?
TN: The design and layout of the native twitter interface is not in itself greatly important. Where transcripts have been published, we made certain simplifications to the tweet format (removing the #dawnchorus hashtag, for instance), and we didn’t attempt to replicate on paper how the tweets appear on the Twitter website. For the Open Online Four commission for Fermynwoods Contemporary Art (#dawnchorus365) we worked with web designers to create a completely new interface in which tweets are colour-coded by author and slowly glide from the foot of the screen to the top, while the screen gradually lightens as the sun rises. We felt this new interface positively added something to the composition of the work as a whole, while the generic Twitter interface is more incidental to the work.
All this said, the Twitter platform is integral to the writing and to the project as a whole. The liveness is very important to us while we’re writing, as we are continually working in response to one another’s tweets. We write with an awareness of the content of each tweet but also of their timing alongside other tweets — sometimes the score invites us to slow down and write infrequently; sometimes it invites us to send out several brief tweets over a short space of time. Sometimes a quick-fire reply is appropriate; sometimes a slower gestation suits the tone of the writing. All this said, in practice there are frequently delays somewhere along the line. We often tweet from remote locations and mobile reception can be a problem. It has happened that one of us has been silent for much of the performance because they couldn’t get signal. Likewise there are times when everyone seems to go silent for a few minutes, but then a backlog of their tweets appears at once. It can be frustrating, but this noise in the system is inherent in the medium, and it adds to to the unpredictability already present in the project because of its collaborative nature.
We tend to write on our own, which makes the situation of writing quite silent as we listen out for the first bird calls and signs of life of the new dawn. That the tweets are unsounded at the point of their production and their initial reception is inevitable given the medium and the context. This said, the tweets aren’t generally written ‘for the page,’ in the way that printed poetry might be attentive to the line break, the black of the text, the white space of the page and so on. Moreover there are repetitions of rhythms, words and sounds across tweets that lend themselves to voiced reading. So the performance certainly text exists in one way during the performance and in another way once the performance is complete and the transcript becomes self-sufficient.
MN: I also noticed that you are part of the Wellcome Collection’s inaugural Hub residency (many congratulations!) and wondered whether the themes of rest and busyness, city noise etc are relevant to this project as well, in that the pace of Twitter’s real-time stream can be quite frenetic, it’s all about the instant, and tweets very quickly get lost in the ‘noise’? But I imagine Twitter at dawn to be quite a different experience, much slower, quieter. Does your performance invite people to slow down and ‘listen’ in a different way?
TN: Writing with twitter at dawn has a curious effect upon the ambient environment. It’s very dark when we begin to write, and light dawns very gradually over the hours of the performance. Meanwhile the bright screen of my phone introduces a steady hum or chatter of technology and company and safety which is fast-paced and feels very urban, however rural my environment as I write. There’s a tension between the delight of reading and writing and the delight of being alone at dawn. So I find myself looking at the screen in gasps, like going up for air, then switching it off again to be back in the dark. I also tend to compose tweets in my head rather than on the screen, again to limit the time I spend with eyes accustomed to the brightness.
Reading over the transcript afterwards, I find this sense of stillness and solitariness very evident in the writing. The transcript certainly invites a slow reading.
As for the performance itself, I think the experience of watching dawn is in itself sufficient to invite people to observe their surroundings in a slow and unfamiliar way. Dawn happens slowly. If you decide to get up early to experience the slowness of dawn because you’ve heard about our performance, that’s a great thing in itself. I think listening to or contributing to the performance during this time conflates that immediate experience with another experience altogether: a social, textual, poetic layer of discourse laid lightly across what we see and feel. But however distinct these experiences might be, there remains a possibility that our communal chatter of tweeting might resemble or rhyme with the behaviour of the birdsong we observe. I wonder if this resemblance draws the two experiences together, and perhaps suggests a continuity between the real-time stream of contemporary urban life and the rhythm and slowness of natural life that threads through it all the time, albeit often overlooked.