The Art Installation That Changed My Perception of Animals Forever

I went vegan after watching people turn into birds in Marcus Coates’ “Dawn Chorus”

Sam Corbin
Oct 29 · 5 min read
The 2015 installation of “Dawn Chorus.” Photo: Fabrica Gallery / Youtube

A popular meme on TikTok begins with the opening line from Pixar’s Inside Out: “Do you ever look at someone and wonder, what is going on inside their head?” The line is usually heard over a video of a dog or cat, slow-zooming into its eyes as it sits innocently on a bed or rug. The audio then cuts to the bass-heavy beat from “Sweet Dreams are Made of These” over a montage of the pet doing things like jumping at its own reflection, chasing its tail, forcing its head into a tennis ball tube.

It’s very funny. And the message beneath the meme is clear: animals — they’re not like us!

But if we did act like them? If we genuinely tried to approach another species’ experience instead of measuring it solely against our own… would we feel the same way? It was this question, staged as a shamanic art installation I witnessed in 2012, that led me to stop eating animals for good.

Marcus Coates. Photo: British Council for the Arts, Youtube

I first experienced Marcus Coates’ “Dawn Chorus” as part of a Theater of Species honors seminar at NYU. The syllabus of the class offered a kind of reconstructionist theory of both humans and animals, via eco-philosophers like Deleuze & Guattari, Cisneros, and Derrida. (Look, you try describing a college seminar without sounding pretentious.)

Coates is more of a performance artist than a philosopher, often actively trying to “become” the animals through very involved shamanistic performances, such as wearing their hides, or dwelling in their environs. Turning people into birds, however, had been a happy accident. Coates was playing with slowing down a blackbird’s melody using film editing software when it occurred to him that the resulting drone of low, guttural oohs and whoops sounded almost… human. Curiosity piqued, Coates sang along with the decelerated tune exactly as he heard it, and then sped up his own voice by the same rate. The result?

He sounded exactly like the blackbird.

For the full project I saw, Coates replicated his eureka moment on a grand scale. He went out to birding sites to record 576 hours of the dawn chorus (a moniker for the cacophonous and often competitive chortling of different bird species before sunrise each day), then sought out professional choir singers and staged them in casual scenes to record them mimicking the slowed-down birdsong he would later speed up. Here is a singer hunched over his steering wheel in a parking lot; here is one laying almost fully submerged in her bathtub; here is one sitting half-clothed on a hotel bed. And by turns (terns?), they all begin to sing.

The resulting videos are uncanny. The singers’ eyes flutter; their chests rise and fall at a speed that suggests the frenetic beating of a much smaller heart; their heads and limbs tic nervously like those of an animal liable to fly off at any moment. The effect is more than approximation: it is singularity.

Coates deduced, from the success of this experiment, that birds simply exist at about 16 times the rate humans do. And I deduced, from watching it, that I couldn’t possibly keep eating creatures whose existence was so much like my own but on a different frequency. It was like discovering the existence of alien life on a passing radio wave — something that finally breaks through the static just when you’re listening for it.

I feel I should pause here to let you know that my major at NYU was experimental theater, so I am perhaps one of the likeliest audiences to go vegan because of shamanistic performance art. My brand is strong. But I digress.

The videos in “Dawn Chorus” were staged to match the locations of individual birdsong captured in Coates’ original recordings. Photo: Fabrica Gallery, Youtube

Witnessing “Dawn Chorus” has much the same effect as a good pun — a play on birds, if you will. In the same way that puns split time by forcing you to contend with two coexisting truths at once, watching people turn into birds forced me to contend, rather viscerally, with the idea that humans and animals could be quite the same. Two visitors merely lost in the funhouse, seeing each other distorted across a hundred mirrors and unable to tell which one is the mimic, and which one the original.

I’m well aware that performance art is not a science, and I don’t take the meaning of “Dawn Chorus” literally. When I look into a bird’s beady little eyes today, I do not perceive that it is thinking 16 times faster than I am about being alive, or about the season 2 finale of Succession (very good).

But I know that it is existing brilliantly on some other frequency. And I’d offer that wondering what is going on inside other animals’ heads (also, making funny videos about it) is a far better use of your time on this planet than wondering how you should cook them.

The next time you hear a bird singing, perhaps you could allow yourself to understand it. No need to deduce its exact meaning; just let it dawn on you.

Tenderly

A friendly + radical vegan magazine dedicated to living well with kindness towards animals, care for the planet, and justice for all.

Sam Corbin

Written by

Wordsmith and essayist! Everyone’s a comedian. Canada-born, New York-based.

Tenderly

Tenderly

A friendly + radical vegan magazine dedicated to living well with kindness towards animals, care for the planet, and justice for all.

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