“Counting Birds for Five Minutes,” 2019, still from video of John McCarty and LaReese Wolfenbarger, Ph.D., founders of the Laboratory of Avian Ecology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Filmed at Glacier Creek Prairie Preserve.
“Counting Birds for Five Minutes,” 2019, still from video of John McCarty and LaReesa Wolfenbarger, Ph.D., founders of the Laboratory of Avian Ecology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Filmed at Glacier Creek Prairie Preserve.

One of the most popular destinations in Omaha’s Old Market is the Old Market Passageway.  Once a simple urban alley, for several decades now it has been home to a variety of shops, restaurants and offices.

The cozy space draws many local visitors and tourists, an occasional dog and, sporadically, a misdirected bird finds sanctuary. At any time throughout the year, an adventurous nighthawk or cowbird might locate a gap in the roof. Water is divinely provided by the Erinnyes Fountain, and food is supplied by kindly staff and restaurateurs.

It is just this intriguing interspecies cohabitation that is at the center of an equally interesting exhibit currently on view at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing is the creation of Canadian artists Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens.

The illuminating, multimedia installation examines various ways in which human activity directly and indirectly affects avian ecology. The show was curated by Sylvie Fortin, curator-in-residence at the Bemis, as part of her ongoing research into habitat, cohabitation and hospitality.

Birds are found in art, folklore and myth across the globe, representing birth (stork), death (raven, crow) and rebirth (phoenix). They are often used as symbols of freedom and power. Humans have used birds as sentinels, as in the coal miner’s canary, hunters, communication tools, food and as pets. (eyesolutions.in) For millennia, interaction between humans and birds has been deep and complex.

Partial view of the exhibition “Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing”

The exhibit, which continues through Feb. 15, consists of numerous small sculptures on nine tables placed around the room, with several video screens mounted on the surrounding walls. Each table contains a grouping of quietly simple wooden-block sculptures that, on initial assessment, appear to be child’s toys, mobiles and board games.

Handwritten labels identify each sculpture and its “parts.” Primarily fashioned from wooden blocks of various uncomplicated shapes, some of the wood is painted or stained, and the pieces are arranged into individual abstract-looking sculptures, pinned and pierced with string or thin rods. The video screens appear to be running videos of humans working with birds.

It is not immediately evident as to what these abstract constructions represent. First impressions recall visions of a late-60’s middle school science fair. Actually, the sculptures are three-dimensional, graphic representations of tables, graphs and charts. The blocks, rods and string form the axes, columns, bars and charts.

The data presented in each sculpture are statistical and based on research from studies such as “Mergers and Acquisitions in Seed and Pesticide Markets (2017-2018)” or “Volume of Futures and Crop Production (Wheat, Oats, Barley, Rye).” Nightmare images of a failed Statistics 101 class aside, most of the sculptures bring the data and relative comparisons into the light. Since the artists have a reputation for collaborating with universities and scientists, we assume the data is accurate.

Partial view of the exhibition “Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing”

The scores of individual sculptures are each part of two larger groups. “Futures” examines the intersection of biological and social systems with economic and technological changes in agriculture. Identifying labels cite parameters, such as pesticide toxicity, land-use considerations, commodity prices and biofuel production.

The second group, “Survival Editions of Popular Wooden Games,” reconstructs iconic wooden games, substituting labels referencing species and natural systems’ health, survival and demise.

The geometric constructions mirror the concise graphics of well-designed and researched, two-dimensional presentations of statistical data and comparative analysis — the type we are so used to seeing in textbooks or early Power Point presentations. The unpretentious installation is accessible and enhances the substance and poignancy of the data.

The sculptures are accompanied by seven video screens placed around the room. Although it is not immediately evident as to the route one should follow, it does not seem to matter much as each video is its own entity. They are part of a larger piece called “The Violence of Care” and are between two and 20 minutes long. Each portrays some aspect of human involvement with birds.

These videos illustrate examples of ways in which humans interact with birds; more specifically, they highlight some important ways in which humans gather data and steward our avian cohabitants. For example, in “Feeding Juvenile Crows,” we are invited to eavesdrop on a meal and playtime for eight young crows, from the point of view of a stationary camera placed in their roomy, leafy enclosure.

According to accompanying printed material, each of the crows suffered trauma of some sort, such as being attacked by a cat, abandoned in the wild or subject to unethical, long-term captivity. Their convalescence appears to be successful, as they are quite animated and even playful at times.

Partial view of the exhibition “Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing”

Another of these, ”Counting Birds for Five Minutes,” shows two researchers standing in the middle of a meadow, surrounded by grasses and wildflowers. One diligently records data as the other peers through the field glasses, searching for more elusive participants for their study. The scale is such that we don’t really see the birds; but the two researchers continue, diligently sighting and recording over the six-minute video.

There is a bit of a humorous veil to the show — not mockingly, but more in response to the Sisyphean task or futile resignation about the many ways in which humans attempt to collect data and manipulate nature in order to help another species thrive.

Several of the videos in this collection are filmed locally. For example, “Counting Birds for Five Minutes,” mentioned above, was filmed at Glacier Peak Prairie Preserve in Omaha. “Cleaning the Atlantic Puffins, Tufted Puffins, and Common Murres’ Exhibit” was filmed at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.

Providing another respite from the seriousness of the message is the video running in the small room in the southwest corner of the gallery. “What Birds Talk About When They Talk” examines the calls of various birds by offering English translations of their songs and calls.

The translations are humorous, touching and poignant. This one is a bit long at 27 minutes; but if you take the time, it is engaging. So, for that matter, is the overall exhibit. Ibghy and Lemmens have collaborated on works for more than a decade and are known for their multimedia projects involving the creative synthesis of complex and abstract ideas and data.

Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing runs through Feb. 15 at the Bemis Center, 724 S 12th St. Further information can be retrieved from the artists’ website, ibghylemmens.com, or at bemiscenter.org.

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