In 1884, midway through his extensive, decade-long travels around Aotearoa New Zealand, Austrian-born taxidermist, collector and bio-prospector Andreas Reischek reached Silver Stream, a river 20 kilometres from the current boundary of the city of Otepoti/Dunedin, in Te Wai Pounamu, Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island. While there, he killed and collected the bodies of two owls of the species Sceloglaux albifaces, a bird known to Māori by many names including whēkau, ruru whenua and hakoke, and which the settler-colonials, who knew it for a far shorter time, called the laughing owl, white faced owl, or laughing jackass. Only thirty years later, this ancient owl was extinct.
None of the literature relating to Reischek, either the collector’s own field notebooks and diaries in archives, or the published works of his travels - books of frontier genre adventure-story literature written by his son, an important figure in Austrian radio - specifically mention this river, or the two owls. Nor did Reischek write about hearing the owls’ eerily haunting and desolate nocturnal cry, (described evocatively, if inexactly, by writers elsewhere, but never recorded) while he camped among the rocks at Silver Stream. And yet, despite these elisions, the location remains on the two labels, scripted in Reischek’s neat handwriting, that have accompanied the two extinct owls in their suspended animation in a European museum, for 138 years. These labels are also field notebooks, containing a paper trail that leads back to the site of the river where this small, forgotten act of ecocide and colonial bio-plunder occurred.
Twin signals at Silver Stream (fragments of a landscape for specimens #50766 & #50767) is a radiophonic artwork that addresses Reischek’s activities at this site, through staging a memorial transmission for the two owls. The work travels to Austria and the collections of Reischek held in the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien (Natural History Museum, Vienna) - a “near complete” collection of New Zealand bird specimens, and the most extensive to ever travel to Europe - where the two specimens of S. albifacies, a male and female pair now catalogued as #50766 & #50767, are encountered as study skins in the museum’s Ornithological collections (Die Vogelsammlung). In the back rooms of the museum, the extinct owls are approached as historical “recordings,” and their silences are re-collected on industry standard audio field recording equipment.
These recorded silences are then returned to the landscape at Silver Stream as radio signals, in a performance without a human audience. On site, the two radio signals infiltrate a clearing near the river, cast out into the aether by small-radius radio transmitters with limited reach. The signals are locally tuned to frequencies that normally correspond to those of the National radio stations of New Zealand and Austria, and, in the micro-culture of the clearing, they act as jammers to these official channels. In 1914, the year the owl went extinct, the era of amateur radio in Aotearoa was at its peak. Before the establishment of official and commercial channels, signals were still whispers passed through the rudimentary technology of crystal sets. Older again perhaps, is the Māori concept of irirangi, or spirit voice, described as an eerie, high pitched off key note or harmonic sometimes regarded as a portent of death, which also became the Te Reo word for a radio wave.
The transmitters’ rudimentary construction of hand-built circuits on copper boards rests directly on the ground. Among the same rocky terrain, a set of small radio receivers, in clusters, pick up the signals and render them audible. The transmitters are weak and fail to hold their fleeting space in the airwaves, occasionally peaking as excess and noise, or wandering off-frequency and dropping out to absence and static, a sound that echoes the white noise of the river. The site is also listening back to all of this, through nonhuman ears: mimic birds such as tui and korimako and other endemic and introduced birds are present in the clearing, where they sound territorial calls, in local dialects. Their long memories of sounding this place might hold some knowledge of the owl’s lost voice, memories that also become an inaudible part of these radio ecologies.
Scant behavioural information pertaining to S. albifacies was documented by Western science before the owls were wiped out, but the extant documentation of whēkau vocalisations and calls, somewhat remarkably, includes a single record of an owl listening, within a multispecies world that included humans and their music. Reischek’s contemporary, the New Zealand-born ornithologist Walter Lowry Buller, writes of it in 1905: “a settler in the back country, whose house one of these birds frequented, declared to me that it could always be brought from its lurking place in the rocks, after dusk, by the strains of an accordion. Soon after the music had commenced the bird would silently flit over and face the performer, and finally take up its station in the vicinity, and remain within easy hearing till it had ceased.”
Accompanying the two owl-frequency transmissions on-site at Silver Stream for Twin signals at Silver Stream (fragments of a landscape for specimens #50766 & #50767), two accordions are heard. A mourning song for the whekau, played by sound artist Edie Stevens, shimmers in the distance, also narrowcast through radios on-site. This is joined by live instrumentaton on an old colonial squeezebox. Obviously but notably, in 2018, no owls could be lured out from hiding.
This temporally linear radio piece, mixed from live on-site multi-receiver transmission recordings, has been newly produced for The Pyramid Club in 2022. It draws on and extends a previous version of the workexhibited as part of the exhibition mf/mp: trace music, at the Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin, 3-24 November 2018.
Sally Ann Mcintyre (1974, NZ/AU) is a Melbourne/Naarm based radio and sound artist, researcher and writer, who has been working artistically with small-scale radio transmission since 2006. Twin signals at Silver Stream (fragments of a landscape for specimens #50766 & #50767) extends a series of sound and radio art works she has been performing and exhibiting since 2012, which strategically utilise early recording and transmitting media such as wax cylinders, music boxes, and small-radius radio, to reveal the relationship of historical sound archives to cultural extinction narratives, and to consider extinction as a form of non-representational trauma, erasure, silence and silencing within the settler-colonial landscape. This suite of works draws variously on research and investigations into the sound and silence of birds in historic accounts of species extinction and moves between the museum collection and the field, connecting threads within the economic, social and cultural relations of colonial Aotearoa/New Zealand, and constructing a poetic economy of loss from fragments and inexactitudes. Investigations are conducted on the border between empirical fieldwork and performative site-specific art practice, in which small-radius radio transmission and sound recording function as a set of tools through which to enact forms of witnessing and/or sonic repatriation. Within these investigations, the archival materiality of modernist sound and transmission technologies is also approached as a haunted landscape, one whose afterlives can function critically to overlay the visible, in order to elucidate the aesthetics and politics of memory, revealing absent presences otherwise empirically intangible within sites.