Saturday, July 2, 2011

Monk Refrains

Throaty heron caws, bluejay songs, monk parrot squawks. Heron fledglings fall through the fig trees into the yard. Six pack rings drop from the pecan where junkitect bluejays build a nest with plastics and frayed rope scraps. They call out beautiful two note whistles and mad barks at the cats. Monks vibrate the sky with their racous chatter, calling it down to your sensorium. Look up and see them in the busy blue nonhuman city among red cardinals, starlings, little migratory birds, vultures, butterflies, dragonflies, airplanes, longings, nothingness. The monks' calls are only one aspect of a multisensory art project that crosses the sky over Ephemerata Gardens.

Monk parakeets are native to extreme climates of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, where their communal nests can weigh up to a ton. They prey on human crops, colonizing tall, non-native Eucalyptus trees cultivated on plantation borders as windbreaks – perfect aeries from which to launch pirate raids on grids of crops below! In the 1970s, Argentina launched an eradication program against the pests. Although a government bounty “resulted in a return of over 400,000 pairs of monk feet in two years” and 64,000 birds were exiled to the US as pets, native monks are still at large in Argentina.1 Ornithologists consider them an invasive species to North America (where European settlers made the continent's only indigenous parrot, the Carolina Parakeet, extinct by the 1920s). Naturalized colonies of escaped and released monks have popped up in California, Florida, Texas, Washington, Connicticut, New York, and other states. One ornithologist who visited Ephemerata Gardens said monks might be like pigeons in a hundred years, flourishing in every city. Todd S. Campbell with the Institute for Biological Invasions remarks, “monk parakeets are probably not beyond control from a biological or logistical standpoint, but they are likely beyond control from a public sentiment standpoint” thanks to human guardians who mobilize against their eradication.1 Urban monks construct communal nests on cell phone towers and electricity junction boxes. In winter 2005 public protests broke out when Connecticut’s United Illuminating (UI) dismantled monk nests on electricity poles. In addition to rallying at nest removal sites and launching a press campaign against UI, people from neighborhoods where nests were being removed built fake nests installed in their backyards. Not many monks moved in.

Monk nests remind me of yardist David Lee Pratt’s description of his interlaced arcs of mangled rebar and other scrap metal at Further Farms: architectural forms that use no nails, no concrete, just intuitive balance to puzzle together a structure that gravity keeps from falling apart. Monks sharpen one end of a stick with their beaks, then jimmy it into the other sticks. Each mated pair builds four or so rooms. They defecate inside, then use their waste as stucco so the house interior becomes sealed against wind and rain. The nests are constructed using the improvisational principles behind the Cathedral of Junk and the open-air rooms at Biosquat. They are composed by weaving things together; they are never finished being woven; they are all built of trash (especially Monk nests, given trash’s etymology of “fallen leaves and twigs”); they are all "beyond control." Like Austin junkitects, monk parrots build something out of nothing, and in the process, pull together communities through their semi-public homes.

As immigrant settlers or refugees from South America, the monks haul tropical sounding atmospheres north in advance of global warming. Like the sonic envelopes of TVs, sirens, and traffic, birds give atmospheres trembling contours, making them moodily alive through repetitions of sounds and colors. Monk parrots alter what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call refrains, “an act of rhythm that has become expressive, ... become qualitative... Not the constituted mark of a subject, but the constituting mark of a domain, an abode, ... the chancy formation of a domain” through synaesthetic labor” (315-16).2 Monk refrains crystallize as chatter, green flashes, and patterns of sticks. The concept of refrains does not approach aesthetics as symbolic arts limited to people, but rather, as embodied expression or distributed somatic intelligence that communicates directly through the senses, literally making sense, sustaining life. Refrains double as a vocabulary for describing patchy landscapes, but also as a compositional methodology. We cannot talk about refrains without making and sensing them. This non-representational approach to built environments recognizes the aesthetic agency of plants, animals, microbes, and machines in composing sensations of unison.

Deleuze and Guattari elaborated the concept of aesthetic-ecological refrains by mining natural history and behavioral ecology to illustrate how nonhuman artists throw out “planes of composition,” design territories that improvise homes out of chaos. They love “the magic bird,” the bowerbird (331), that flies into their writing to perform refrains.3 These natives of Australia and Papua New Guinea create elaborate nests to dance around inside, their patterns of color and gesture resounding with songs, including those of other birds. Bowerbird refrains are made of synaesthetic “sounds-colors-gestures” that shuttle between bird and forest (333). In this way, “landscapes are peopled by characters and the characters belong to landscapes” (320). Refrains fly away, a nonorganic life of sounds coexisting in the forest with bowerbirds that is open to becoming something independent of them.4 Refrains are the becoming-forest of the bowerbird, the becoming-sky of the monks.

Music, melodies, and refrains breath life into regions, landscapes, houses, and other atmospheres. They are alternative energy forms that power the City of Living Garbage under the banner "The Survival Circus Marching Band!" Try it: whistling and humming when hungry or tired can recharge you. The affects of sound are strong sensory forces that jump between and vibrate sentient beings as their medium. Katherine Hayles notes, “researchers in virtual reality have found that sound is much more effective than sight in imparting emotional tonalities to their simulated worlds” (219).5 Lawrence Grossberg explores music's “unique and striking relationship to the human body, surrounding, enfolding, and even invading it within its own rhythms and textures” that open up feelings of possibility, freedom, and belonging with such force that it can hold together social movements (152).6 Refrains are collective  improvisations that express Ornette Coleman's harmolodic musical theory. “Harmolodics is the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group” (43).7 Coleman grasps sounds as belonging to landscapes (e.g., in regional musical styles), but also as expressions of individual intelligence released into refrains that recompose minds and moods. The collective song is its own form of life or "unison" that endlessly doubles back into and out of the musicians that colaboratively release its expression. This form of life needs musicians and instruments to shape its refrain, but the harmolodic refrain becomes the aural house where musicians live and that gave them life and instruments in the first place.

So the monk parrots' chatter and green feathers expressed tropical Southerness even as they refrained a tentative inhabitation: is this the South? Can we live here? Can we enter the fossil record and become native to this new place? 


1 Campbell, Todd S. “The Monk Parakeet.” The Institute for Biological Invasions, posted December 2000, (no longer accessible).
2 Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Vol. 2. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
3 They also fly into Jill Noke’s description of the Cathedral of Junk’s domes as bowerbird nests (Yard Art and Handbuilt Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home. Austin: UT Press, 2007, p.99).
4 While researching Kaluli ornithology in Papua New Guinea, Stephen Feld asked his informant Jubi to match up bird sounds with species until Jubi clarified things for him. “Listen – to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest” (Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. 2d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pensylvania Press, 1990, p.45). Jubi’s remark helped Feld to understand why the birds and their sounds require separate taxonomies among Kaluli ornithologists: they are distinct beings. The bird artists of Papua New Guinea sing and dance refrains, the sounds of which become nonorganic life forms captured by Kaluli songs and dances. The birds’ sounds and colorful feathers enter into a becoming-human through Kaluli ritual practices of “becoming a bird” or “man in the form of a bird” (236).
5 Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
6 Grossberg, Lawrence. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
7 Quoted in Gioia, Ted. The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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