THE Unseeables, a tale of extinction in three birds by filmmaker Feral Practice, is the latest digital commission in lockdown by Scarborough Museums Trust.
The 11-minute film, looking at the “the strange and polarised relationships humans have with other species”, can be seen on the trust’s YouTube channel (bit.ly/TheUnseeablesNDC) from Tuesday, June 16.
Feral Practice, the alias of artist and researcher Fiona MacDonald, explores loss, reparation, extinction and conservation, via the interwoven stories of three birds “lost” to Scarborough, now surviving only as specimens in the Scarborough Collections.
The first is the sad and harrowing story of the Great Auk. The SMT collections house a single egg of a great auk, a large flightless bird that became globally extinct in 1844.
The auk’s demise was brutal, cruel, and driven by profit; most were killed for their down. As they approached extinction, every specimen was coveted by museums, ultimately putting the prestige of an auk exhibit above the survival of a species.
In the Scarborough Collections too are taxidermy examples of the great bustard and the corncrake.
The great bustard became extinct in the UK in the early 1800s, but diminishing populations still exist in Central and Southern Europe and Asia, where the huge, “showy” males perform glorious ruffle dances for their female harems.
In Britain, the bird has been the subject of a reintroduction project that has succeeded in establishing a breeding population on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
The distinctive voice of the shy Corncrake was once integral to the British rural soundscape. Corncrakes started declining, however, as agriculture became mechanised, and by the late 1930s they were absent from much of England, not least Yorkshire, despite once having been widespread across the North of England.
Now, they are confined largely to the islands off the west of Scotland and the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland. To save the bird, British conservationists seek to educate and persuade landowners.
The film narrates the birds’ stories alongside imagery that weaves together close-up footage of the Scarborough Collections exhibits with found footage and sculptural responses by Feral Practice, in an “impossible attempt to conjure the lost birds in their studio”.
Feral Practice says: “As we comprehend (or re-learn) the complex warp and weft of ecological thinking, and understand landscapes as self-creating masterpieces of which humans can never be masters, can we step back from our urge to manipulate, exploit and control? Will we allow other species the space they need to flourish alongside us on their own terms?”
Scarborough Museums Trust wants The Unseeables to be accessible to everyone, so the film is captioned and a parallel audio experience is available for those who might find this helpful.
Defining Feral Practice’s artistic practice, Fiona says: “We work with human and non-human beings to create art projects and interdisciplinary events that develop ethical and imaginative connection across species boundaries.
“Our research draws on artistic, scientific and subjective knowledge practices to explore diverse aesthetics and create suggestive spaces of not knowing nature.”
Feral Practice is the artist-in-residence for 2020-2021 at Dunham Massey, a National Trust Georgian house, garden and deer park in Cheshire.
The Unseeablesis one of a series of new digital commissions in lockdown from Scarborough Museums Trust in response to the Corona crisis. The trust has asked artists Feral Practice, Kirsty Harris, Jane Poulton, Wanja Kimani, Jade Montserrat, Lucy Carruthers and Estabrak to create digital artworks for released online across assorted social-media platforms.