Whistlers (October 2019)

Red Herring

Photo: Inside Out Dorset Festival

Red Herring undertook a residency in Dorset, UK as part of their development of Whistlers – a site responsive project that brings together ideas around confluence of bird song, language and listening.

Humans are hard-wired to relax when they hear birdsong – the song indicates there are no predators. It’s safe. It’s when the birds stop singing that we need to worry. Recent research demonstrates that 1 in 8 bird species are threatened with global extinction. The diversity of human languages is also decreasing, with 40% of the world’s languages at risk. There are over 50 places where locals use a whistled form of their spoken language. Once such is Kusköy, the ‘Village of the birds’ where rapid change means that children are no longer whistling.

The Project:

The Whistlers are an ancient culture of people who communicate by whistling. Traditionally they live in small communities in dense woodland in remote, often mountainous areas. They live in close, symbiotic relationship with songbirds. The birds provide warning of any encroaching danger and indicate where berries and insects, on which Whistlers live, are in good supply. In return, Whistlers protect eggs and hatchlings from predators. As these remote landscapes have become increasingly threatened by farming and industry, Whistlers have had to move from their dense woodland homes. Numbers are at critical levels but some communities have managed to find sanctuary. We have identified four small Whistler groups spread across Western Europe, who live side by side with conservation organisations, with friendly local farmers who are keen to support this unusual and endangered culture.   Audiences enter a bird hide to immerse themselves in the world of Whistlers, guided by an anthropologist who is studying the last known outposts of these ancient peoples. If you are lucky, you can see one or two Whistlers in their natural habitat and spend some time with them, learning about their cultural traditions. There will be opportunities to adopt a Whistler, but please do not feed them.

Red Herring were hosted on a residency in October 2019 by Inside Out Dorset / Activate Performing Arts to develop this project.  The artists worked collaboratively with the arts producers and local land stewards / organisations, including Dorset AONB, Dorset Wildlife Trust and the Symondsbury Estate Woodland team.  The residency included site visits, meetings and discussion with local wildlife experts to learn more about the pressures on local bird populations.  In addition, the artists investigated the collection of audio include both local bird song and the sonic inflections of local dialects. 

‘we are beginning to develop our ideas, spending time with experts on site and having subsequent time to reflecting on the atmosphere of the place has helped our project to be site responsive and hopefully more nuanced as a result.’ Red Herring

The development of this project will be realised as a presentation in the upcoming Inside Out Dorset festival in 2020.  The residency is also part of the collaboration with Green Carpet, a network initiated with European partners, Activate (UK), Le Citron Jaune (FR), Cirque Jules Verne in Amiens (FR) and Chassepierre Festival (BE). Complimenting the LAND project, this network aims to support multidisciplinary artistic projects in relation to the place and their inhabitants, promoting new creations designed for natural or rural areas.

Work title: Whistlers

Artist: Red Herring

Year: October 2019

Festival: Inside Out Dorset

Country: UK

Type: Residency