Digital mimesis: revisiting the reimagined cry of the Huia
by Jen Valender
- View Jen Valender's Biography
Jen Valender is a Naarm/Melbourne based cross-disciplinary visual artist and researcher working with moving image, performance and sculpture.
Digital mimesis: revisiting the reimagined cry of the Huia
What better way to antagonise a moving image artwork than through the lens of a further moving image artwork? For this issue of Unlikely, I present just that — a short silent film, Silenced Strings, that uses subtitles to explore the extinction and ultimate silencing of a revered wattlebird species in Aotearoa, New Zealand. This video is closely followed by another: a lecture-performance, titled Digital poiesis: mimicking bird as lecture, during which I reflect on the research that informed the making of the initial film, surveying the history and violence of the lost song of the Huia while negotiating the use of culturally significant archival material. The lecture-performance incorporates museum and sound archive content, which require delicate navigation of copyright law and its boundaries. I employ displacement techniques to complicate the representation of information, not only through sound, but also visual interruptions to "censor" content — blurring images or introducing poor-quality copies — in my interpretation of an avian-themed historical essay.
As the huia is considered to be a tapu (sacred) species in Aotearoa, negotiating fair use and access to a copy of the bird's cry involved long email exchanges between myself in Melbourne and staff at Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision Archive in Wellington. Many questions were passed back and forth:
How will the copy be used? What portion of the copy? And the audience are? Do you expect to profit from the copy? Will there be access to the copy online? You wish to make a copy of the copy? The answer? No, you may not make a copy of the copy.
Eventually, I obtained permission for the use of a six-second portion of the Ngā Taonga sound bite for use at the Birds and Language Conference, University of Sydney (2021). Fittingly, the file itself is a copy of a recording of a bushman mimicking the huia's call — the last remaining evidence of the cry on record as the species became extinct prior to any recording of the "real" huia song. As a mimicry, the recording is a personal interpretation, a copy of an impression. Use of the copied copy sits comfortably in the critique of digital archives, as German moving image artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl argues in her 2009 essay In Defense of the Poor Image, stating: "It [the poor image] is passed on as a lure, decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self. It mocks the promises of digital technology" (32). I apply Steyerl's logic when mimicking the mimicry in Silenced Strings, creating my own version of the huia cry, pushing up against copyright boundaries, while never crossing them. In doing so I arrive at a mimesis poiesis: a poetic transaction of translations between bird cry to human mimicry, to digital ghost, before being passed on to my own rendition. For the Unlikely iteration of Digital poiesis: mimicking bird as lecture, I take the mimicry one step further and replace the Ngā Taonga sound bite with an additional impression to arrive at a mimic of a mimic, of a mimic. An audible facsimile and porous translation, becoming anew with each duplication, drifting further away from the bushman's original memory of the huia cry.
Caption: Silenced Strings, Birds and Language Conference, University of Sydney, 20 August 2021.
The progression of the following lecture-performance was inevitably entangled with the archive and the conditions surrounding permissions of use. Playing with the techniques and tools of the institution — both educational and archival — as materials and creative constraints pushed and pulled the development of the lecture along, while copyright-as-collaborator made censoring and authorising the performance an artwork in and of itself.
Caption: Digital poiesis: mimicking bird as lecture, 2021.
Source: Recording made by Henare Hāmana who mimics the different calls of the extinct huia bird. Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, 03:59, 1949, MP3 - website.
Source: Recording made by David Hindley, The Huia call recreated electronically. Based on the 1949 recording of Hēnare Hamana's imitation huia call. Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, 03:59, 1992, MP3 - website.
Freestone Quarry B M (Bacchus Marsh), [ca.1895-ca. 1900], digitised sepia photograph, no data, State Library Victoria, Fair Dealing: Public Domain.
Hāmana, Henare and Robert Anthony Batley. Re-creation of Huia Calls. A recording made by Henare Hāmana who mimics the different calls of the extinct huia bird. Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, 03:59, 1949, MP3.
Hammond, Bill. Watching for Buller. 2, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 999x1199mm on loan to the Churistchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Fair Dealing: Educational/ Insubstantial portion.
Hammond, W. D. Buller's Table Cloth, 1994, acrylic on canvas, 1682x1675mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Fair Dealing: Educational grounds permission for conference use only.
Heteralocha acutirostris, colour digital photograph of huia study-skin, LB8537, collection period pre-1907, record created 2002, Auckland War Memorial Museum, Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand Licence. Auckland Museum CC BY. Fair Dealing: Educational grounds.
Hindley, David. The Huia call recreated electronically. Based on the 1949 recording of Hēnare Hamana's imitation huia call. Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, 03:59, 1992, MP3.
Huia beak brooch, colour digital photograph, brooch circa 1900, New Zealand, maker unknown. Purchased 1996 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH005020).
Huia beak brooch, colour digital photograph, brooch circa 1900, New Zealand, by Samuel Henry Drew. Gift of Mrs I. Ashby, 1983. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH003375).
Huia Heteralocha acutirostris, colour digital photograph of study-skins. Study-skins are an important resource for research and identification. No date. Auckland War Memorial Museum, Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand Licence. Auckland Museum CC BY.
Huia, Heteralocha acutirostris, colour digital photograph of study-skins, no data collected, New Zealand. 290mm x 390 x 500mm. Gift of the Napier Museum, 1949. CC BY 4.0. Te Papa (OR.005533).
Sir Buller, Walter Lawry. Illustration of two huia from A History of the Birds of New Zealand, published 1888. Part of the New Zealand Texts Collection, Auckland War Memorial Museum, Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand Licence. Auckland Museum CC BY.
Steyerl, Hito. "In Defense of the Poor Image." In The Wretched of the Screen, 31-45. Berlin: e-flux, Inc., Sternberg Press, 2012.