Exhibition Project
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human
Animal Perspectives
Marcus Coates

The title of Marcus Coates’ 2001 video installation, “A Guide To The British Non Passerines,” plays on the long and venerable tradition of ornithological handbooks – a similarly-titled book would offer a catalogue-like overview of all bird species native to Great Britain not classified as “songbirds.” Following its transformation, by Coates, into an audio-visual medium this title, which at first seems quite obvious, gains additional levels of meaning. In the 41 minute video, the artist can be seen in a typical TV head-and-shoulder shot wearing a white shirt against a black background and heard imitating the calls of 86 different bird species. As each bird is imitated, its scientific name is faded in.

The method Coates employed in producing the film – at first slowing down the bird calls (sometimes as much as a sixteen times) by technical means, singing in unison with this slowed-down recording, and then accelerating the result back to its “original” tempo – produces a stunning alteration in bird behavior, audibly as well as visually. Deuleuze and Guattari’s idea about becoming animal becomes startlingly concrete here.

However, the resulting film document is not only a “guide” (or a wink at such guides) in the sense of a multi-media translation of the classic field handbook, the artist himself also assumes the role of guide leading recipients beyond the borders between species (an ambivalently ridiculing and simultaneously transcending role Coates also assumes in other works, for example as a shaman, a stag or a bird of prey). In the end, however, the work also proves to be a lovingly exaggerated guide to the specifically human – and here also largely British – world of ornithology and bird watching.

Martin Ullrich

A Guide To The British Non Passerines, 2001, Video Installation, Courtesy of the Artist, Kate MacGarry and Workplace Gallery, UK
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

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