Garrett Phelan has seen some remarkable things

Garrett Phelan has seen some remarkable things

What is it like to experience self-awareness in the configurations of hands and the movement of fingers?

It is inconceivable that someone with hearing could imagine what it is to exist intellectually, abstractly, in sign language, and likewise impossible to understand how it might be to think in utter silence. We think of creatures without the same auditory apparatus as ours - insects, snakes or fish for instance, as deaf: animals with limited vision - moles and bats, we characterize as blind. And we are fascinated by the ways they have evolved to negotiate the world.

The strangeness of animals is something that collectively we marvel at, appreciate and also disregard – and at the heart of our ability to both take astonishing variety for granted and to wonder at it, is the powerful, intuitive sense of our normality. We may intellectually acknowledge that we are generally bi-pedal, binocular, four-limbed, upright animals, with a limited sense of smell and opposable thumbs, etcetera, but we move through the world, through the universe, mostly taking our specific configuration of sense and physical abilities as a given.

It seems peculiar to refer to a creature that is without one or another functioning sense organs as lacking in that sense. If we describe the unimaginatively named blind mole rats as blind we do so, of course, to distinguish them, not just from other mole rats, naked or furred, but also from ourselves. Humans, considered from the perspective of other animals are terribly deficient - amongst other things we are tailless, flightless, dry-nosed, featherless; we lack pedipalps, dewlaps and cannot lay eggs or jump very high. I was on a large plane, travelling from North America to Ireland listening to the sound works of artist Garrett Phelan, the accounts of his various extraordinary encounters with birds, when the gravity and the extent of our multiple handicaps dawned on me. At least we have mastered the art of flying. That is something.

In spite of its relative safety as a mode of transport – there are some who fear to fly, who cannot accept that the physics works, and even in spite of the statistics there are many more of us who feel the knots of our stomach draw tight during take off, turbulence and landing. There are many such unremarkable fears that plague us, some are reasonable things to dread, even if they are unlikely to occur in the near future: fears of debilitating accident, of fatal illness, loss or unsought change. Thinking of fear in relation to our senses and our physical nature, brings to mind the somewhat dismaying talking point that many of us have considered at some time or another - if you were without sight or hearing, which to sacrifice? It is a question that spins around the sense we have of ourselves, our resilience, our capacity to cope, to relate to and endure a newly strange world. A world in which you may still think in colour and light but will not see it – in which you might know your loved ones voices but never again hear them.

I already lack one sense that is commonly found in many animals, Homo sapiens included, and that is a sense of direction. I am not comparing this to the aforementioned blindness or deafness, but having no ability to intuitively locate oneself in even a familiar environment affects the way you can engage with the world. An unexpected deviation from a route carefully learned can be to me, and those similarly un-orientated, bizarrely stressful. My fear of getting lost is not reasonable – given that I do not climb mountains or visit war-zones what terrible consequences beyond inconvenience or delay might befall someone who is somewhat lost? But my gut and my brain conspire to whip up a frenzy of suburban anxiety wherein for the want of a nail a kingdom is lost. And so in the midst of being lost, I sometimes try to console and calm myself with the tantalizing possibility that I might see or hear something new or unexpected – perhaps, I think - there might be a story in this.

If I was to describe myself to a bird I would be chiefly conscious of my regrettable tailless-ness, (putting aside the likelihood that birds do not class themselves as birds, there are a lot more birds that are flightless than without a tail), and I would of course have to declare, to the imaginary bird auditor, my profound inability to find my way. Scientists have studied the small, reptilian brains of birds’ attempting to uncover what enables them to navigate vast distances, and/or to return to the same small place with unerring precision year in and out. Casting a quick, ignorant eye at accounts of such research I see that certain key words recur - the Earth’s magnetic field and the positing of birds’ beaks, eyes, the inner ear, etcetera, as the seat of their mysterious power. There is as yet, however, no consensus on how birds find their way.

Flight is arguably the skill that has most taxed and stimulated humans to overcome their physical delimitations. We can climb, swim, travel quickly, build and dig. But only very recently, thanks in part to the close study of the class Aves, with extraordinary mechanical ingenuity have we learnt to fly.

“Other pioneers of flight were focused on the question of power. The Wrights were fascinated by birds, and learned a lot from their study of them. One of Wilbur’s crucial insights was that flying, like cycling, was a question of balance. He saw that bird flight was all about equilibrium: about the bird’s keeping itself in the air with the maximum efficiency and minimum effort.” John Lanchester, London Review of Books, Vol. 13. Issue 17: 2015.

The invention of plane travel evidences the attainment of a capacity that for eons seemed impossible. Reviewing in the L.R.B, a biography of the Wright Brothers by David McCullough, John Lanchester noted a peculiar anecdote pertaining to their early career: not one reporter showed up to cover the first publicly staged and afore-advertised demonstration of human flight in a field in Dayton, Ohio. A bee expert witnessed the event and wrote a short piece in his own journal ‘Gleaning Bee Culture’. He forwarded the article to Scientific American, who responded a year later with the remarkable assertion that the flights could not have happened because if such an extraordinary event were to take place a reporter would have been there to bear witness. No intrepid journalist, no event.

According to his reports titled ‘Woodcock Glowing’ and ‘Electromagnetic Skylarks’ artist Garrett Phelan has seen some remarkable things: woodcocks glowing at dusk with a phosphorescent pale blue light, and in another instance first a lone and then an entire exultation of skylarks, flying in an unusual pattern, gathering and collectively generating remarkable electrical effects off the Shelly Banks of Dublin’s Irishtown Nature Reserve. There are those who would discredit his observations because he is not an ornithologist, nor a reporter but an artist. But as recounted in his narrated records of the events he is usually not alone; at times he addresses a silent companion, at others he has serendipitously encountered passers-by who have also observed these otherwise undocumented phenomenon. At least one witness responded negatively to the strange sight – taking off on a bicycle. Disbelief is often easier to compass mentally than accepting that the familiar world can become in an instant utterly bewildering, fearfully new.

In the Tom Stoppard play ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ one of the eponymous heroes observes:

“A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until--"My God," says a second man, "I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn." At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience....”

The reality Garrett Phelan presents us with is anything but thin; his ornithological works may be so pioneering that few would give credence to his tales but something as minor as the absence of journalists does not mean we should doubt the acuity of his senses. The truths that he documents in his works are rich, they are full and feel prescient. When it comes to descriptions of the world too close a correspondence with reality can be profoundly unrevealing. It can be unrewarding to attend to a report reiterating precisely what we already know. Phelan’s works have a magnitude and scope that is hard to describe. Even when his efforts or investigations peter out or fail to arrive at the anticipated conclusions, such as the events recounted in ‘Hide’ and ‘A VOODOO FREE PHENOMENON - Film’ we see an investigatory prowess at work that reveals the sorts of truths that feel real. Love can heal. And forces, physical, sonic, optical, mental and sensual can resonate through space and through time and affect and connect us all.

Phelan might see things you would not believe, but maybe time will reveal him to be something of a seer. It isn’t quite second sight that I see at work but a powerful, synthesizing intelligence that perceives the fundamental forces of the universe as a stage, an infinitely large stage, where love, instinct, reason and the desire to make sense of it all, coalesce to produce our lived experience. A reality wherein we understand that our knowledge of animals, of birds, of historical powers, of electromagnetism, electric effects, radio waves and the power of the human mind to observe, sense and collate is both tremendous and circumscribed. Most crucially of all our understanding has been subjected to and continues to undergo momentous change. Everything is evolving.

We humans have leant to fly. We already know that birds can use tools; some can distinguish humans who are a threat and those who are friendly. The notion that birds are able to or perhaps will be employed to (involuntarily or otherwise) harness their relationship with the magnetic fields of the planet by augmenting their physical selves with batteries seems, all things considered, somehow reasonable. If like us a bird could want what they do not have the capacity to achieve – what might they wish for? Which of their senses might they aspire to improve? What deficiencies might they perceive in themselves? That is part of the mystery at the heart of Phelan’s recent drawings.

We do not know what, or how, the birds, as a class or as families or as individuals might think. But to speculate from the point of view of the bird – we as a species are map-less, beak and bill-less, featherless, flightless, tail-less and utterly incapable of sensing the earth’s magnetic field. But latterly, thanks to my daily self-augmentation with a mobile phone I have a GPS safety net into which I repeatedly cast myself. “Am I almost there?” What GPS saves me from is not simply getting lost, but the torturous uncertainty of not knowing whether or not I am indeed travelling in the right direction.

I wish we could know if birds can feel unsure. (I suspect, with my human shaped mind, that uncertainty of some kind or another is the condition of being animal.) Part of our human lack of surety primes us to fear other animals. It is not uncommon to find people who have a phobia of birds. To me birds, like spiders, sea cucumbers, or hate-filled Christians, are weird, not necessarily frightening, but truly other. They belong to that category of creature so utterly different as to be un-relatable. The strangeness of birds is too broad to fathom or describe. Even when domesticated they seem wild. Fierce or placid they have an appearance of purpose that can be unnerving. Their beaks are the shivs, spoons, pliers, hammers, spears and stilettos of the animal kingdom. As Daphne Du Maurier quite rightly registered in her short story ‘The Birds’, if they ever turn on us we do not stand a chance.

In the meantime perhaps the best we can do is to love that imagined oddness, observe them, help them thrive, enrich their habitats and encourage them to develop technologies that may see them flourish. Maybe someday we will learn from birds that the world is experienced on sensory levels as yet profoundly unfathomable to us. Perhaps, though we could never experience it, we may discover that it is possible to always know that you are not lost, to think in air-currents and to have an electro-magnetic intellect tuned to the turning of the world.

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