Reflections on the art installation “from hear to ear” at the Peabody Essex Museum

by Alyce Graham

At the end of March, I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA to visit their special exhibit from here to ear.” The exhibit ran in the Special Exhibitions Gallery from January through April.

The installation by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot involved over seventy live zebra finches flying loose around a serene space with electric guitars set up as their perches. Wherever the finches landed, they created chords reverberating in gently expressive feedback loops through the amplifiers nestled throughout the space. The music the finches created—erratic, unexpected, discordant, melodic—drew people through the exhibit space along a carefully sculpted pathway.

PEM screen shotZebra finches are the most strikingly colored and sweetly shaped little birds. It felt magical just being so close to them as they fluttered around the bundles of reed nesting baskets hanging from the ceiling or rustled around the sandy nests they built behind the amplifiers. And, just as promised, the birds landed on the guitar perches and made music. But they did not simply land on the guitars and stand there. Instead, they hopped up and down the fingerboards, popping out bright chords along the way. They cleaned their beaks, a glissando back and forth across the strings. They squabbled with one another over the frets. One fat little bird even fell asleep on the warm place on the guitar body where the electric hook-ups connected, his feathers creating waves of sound by brushing up against the strings as he snored. The unexpected difference between reading about the exhibit and attending the exhibit was the dimensionality of it. When a new chord thrummed through the room, everyone looked to see where it came from, what cluster of birds was creating it, and what they were doing. Sound suggested motion and activity, not alarm but curiosity.

The exhibit encouraged visitation to another gallery with an exhibit on animal “collaboration” in art, which included videos, paintings, sculpture, and photography that used animals in their statements. (Sadly, all the ants in the artistic ant farm had died after crawling into what looked like a custom-built ant panic room, but the crickets in the tiny replica of a mid-century modern home were doing well.) In this way, the museum extended their visitors’ allotted twenty minutes of “from here to ear” and presented them with a host of interconnected ideas about how to think of the art they had just experienced.

The Peabody Essex took a risk putting on an exhibit where guests interacted with live animals. Most museums loathe unpredictability. They took appropriate measures to protect both the birds and their permanent collections. The small number of visitors and timed tickets contained people’s interactions with the finches. Entrance to the exhibit was through several doors, minimizing the chance of loose birds. Large signs warned people with allergies to feathers and birdseed that the exhibit was not a purified space. A gallery interpreter was present at all times—an enviable job, playing with the finches all day. (Read more about them on the museum blog.) And a veterinarian was on staff, too, watching for injury or signs of stress. So risks to the collection were recognized and mitigated, and the museum drew throngs of visitors from the contemporary art scene, the Audubon crowd, and the local community.

A short video of the installation can be seen here.

About the author: Alyce Graham is a fourth-year American Civilization PhD candidate writing her dissertation about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.