Bird watching

Arianna Mercado

I.

When I was younger, I remember asking my dad to look for an alarm clock that could crow like a rooster. We were just about to move houses, and the previous apartment we lived in felt like it was surrounded by chickens.

Shireen Seno, A Child Dies, a Child Plays, a Woman is Born, a Woman Dies, a Bird Arrives, a Bird Flies Off (CCTV Edition, installation view), 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.

II.

Shireen Seno’s A Child Dies, a Child Plays, a Woman is Born, a Woman Dies, a Bird Arrives, a Bird Flies Off (CCTV Edition, 2019) could be spun many ways. In her 14-channel video installation, Seno uses various kinds of monitors and arranges them as if the viewer were entering a control room to watch security footage. The clips reveal voyeuristic shots taken of various birds, both endemic and migratory, found in Philippine marshlands.

The CCTV Edition of Seno’s work is its third rehearsal in her ongoing exploration of migratory birds. Seno envisions birds as role models for humans, as many species are able to adapt to different terrain. The past iterations have travelled between Manila and Udon Thani and with each exhibition is a change of display, material, and arrangement. From its first exhibition in the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the form of Seno’s video work itself has migrated between various kinds and generations of media: from the use of digital and 16mm, to CRT monitors and flat screens.

Seno plays with ambiguity in her work, referencing her own childhood memories, while zooming in on birds as candid subjects whose seasonal disappearance is often left unnoticed. A Child Dies, a Child Plays, a Woman is Born, a Woman Dies, a Bird Arrives, a Bird Flies Off takes inspiration from Seno’s father’s migration to the United States in the early 2000s, though she herself has lived between Japan, Canada, and the Philippines.

III.

During my first winter, it was so quiet where I lived that I kept wondering when the birds would return. Now that winter has passed, I am thankful to be able to sit in our dorm courtyard for some sunlight and to listen to several sounds of chirping in the middle of the day.

I still find it strange to see different kinds of birds from my window. Every time a new bird appears, I try to take a photo of it. I used to see a lot of pigeons when the weather was gloomier and since the tree bloomed, I now see a lot of robins and blackbirds. On a walk through the park, I once saw green parrots perched on a tree. In my time here, I have maybe encountered a maya in the city once or twice, though even then it did not look quite the same as I was expecting.

Shireen Seno, A Child Dies, a Child Plays, a Woman is Born, a Woman Dies, a Bird Arrives, a Bird Flies Off (CCTV Edition, still), 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.

IV.

Birds flock to the Philippine marshlands beginning mid-September. Several species of migratory birds, including egrets and sandpipers, enter the Philippines through the East Asian-Australian Flyway.* Out of the 600 known bird species in the Philippines, around 200 of them are endemic, while 150 of them are migratory.** The birds that arrive usually hail from China and Japan, though some may come from as far away as Siberia in search of food and warmer weather.***

An airport project in Bulacan is set to reclaim nearly 74,000 acres of wetland from Manila Bay. It is reported that at least 12 species of threatened and near-threatened migratory birds will be affected by this construction. Earlier this year, the annual Asian Waterbird Census observed 24 black-faced spoonbills in the airport construction area. This record-breaking statistic is both an account of the largest flock that has migrated to the Philippines and the highest number Manila Bay has seen of this particular species in a century.****

* Olango Birds & Seascape Tours. (n.d.). Migratory birds: In search of a safe refuge. Retrieved from http://www.oneocean.org/ambassadors/migratory_birds/obst/migratory_birds_in_search_of_a_refuge.html

** Francisco, M.A. (2018). World migratory bird day: 5 key facts about Philippine migratory birds. Retrieved from https://www.flipscience.ph/plants-and-animals/5-facts-migratory-birds-philippines/

*** Mayuga, J.L. (2015). Philippines, haven for migratory birds. Retrieved from https://businessmirror.com.ph/2015/12/27/philippines-haven-for-migratory-birds/

**** Mongabay.org (2020). Endangered migratory birds on collision course with Philippine airport project. Retrieved from https://news.mongabay.com/2020/02/endangered-migratory-birds-on-collision-course-with-philippine-airport-project/

Arianna Mercado is a curator and writer based between London and Manila. She is the co-founder of Kiat Kiat Projects, a nomadic curatorial initiative with a focus on alternative exhibition formats. Mercado is the recipient of the 2017 Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism and has worked on projects with Calle Wright, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design Manila, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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