The Barbican's Curve space is currently home to a number of zebra finches and some electric guitars. The instruments, horizontally mounted at the bulbous end of the room, are live and, depending on the movement of the feathered composers present, emit sound that is briefly looped through a delay effects pedal positioned out of sight. Depending on the time you enter the show, you may encounter a sparse, Pink Floyd-esque soundscape, or something more akin to Led Zeppelin, should a bird come over all Jimmy Page.
Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, the musician come artist behind this project, has produced a space that is intended to 'Draw on the rhythms of everyday life to produce sound in unexpected ways'. And it is unexpected. Passing through the first half of the gallery, deep in shadow and awash with the projected images of a musician picking at the strings of a Les Paul, it comes as a surprise when the space opens out into what appears to be a seaside setting. There is sand and decking and the light is flat. Presumably, this is intended to imply the 'everyday' quality of Mougenot's work, although it isn't entirely convincing. Yes, the combination of objects, lighting, animals, people and sound is unusual and an interesting malaise, but it feels somehow conceptually incomplete, or at least lacking in something deeper beyond an excellent premise.
What is worth pondering here is to what degree this work is simply an installation. To me, the performative qualities at work, coupled with the befitting but not entirely necessary presence of an audience, indicated a move from what Allan Kaprow would have called an 'environment' to a 'happening'. According to Kaprow, one of the sufficient conditions of a happening is that 'The line between art and life should be kept as fluid as possible'. Well, curiously, the involvement of a component in Mougenot's work that is neither human nor machine- as in his 2006 work Harmonichaos with its talking vacuum cleaners- we have a rather literal take on that modernist observation. It won't take you long to notice that the finches are going about their business in a normal fashion; bathing, eating, chirping, shitting and, perhaps most poignantly, constructing nests left right and centre. Madly continuing their biological programming behind fire extinguishers and light fittings, the finches themselves succeed in breaking the fragile suspension of disbelief that hangs over this installation. In doing so, they highlight the artist's rejuvenation of the 'canned chance' principle devised by Duchamp nearly a century ago. This sense of an alternative kind of scientific experiment brings a new dimension to the work, providing the audience with an experience that highlights both the possibilities of the inner life of the gallery and the external world it nestles within.