Friday, June 22, 2012

Artwatching vs. Birdwatching: A Highly Nonscientific Comparison

Over the past couple of months, I have been getting a teeny tiny little bit into birdwatching.

By this I mean that I have enjoyed biking to the Leslie Street Spit here in Toronto and keeping an eye out for different species. I also have purchased a laminated Ontario bird guide. And I enjoy excitedly telling friends and co-workers when I have spotted and identified a species that is new to me.

Now, from what I see out on the Spit, I understand I could be standing on the precipice of (or already beginning to slide down) a very slippery hobby slope. By the end of the summer I could just be the owner of a three-foot-long zoom lens, floppy Tilley hat and pricey binocs.

Which—you know what?—would actually be plenty fine because I really enjoy spending time in this slightly postapocalyptic pocket of nature taking back some of the wastes of humankind. (NB for the non-Torontonians: the Spit was originally built as a breakwater using landfill excavated from Toronto construction sites.)

Spending a little time on the Spit has also prompted me to think about the similarities and differences between Artwatching and Birdwatching. Here are some of my highly nonscientific observations:

1. Both Artwatching and Birdwatching are highly visual activities which one could argue engage an appetite for the spectacular.

2. Both Artwatching and Birdwatching can engage a visual analytics of identification. How many times have a stood in a gallery or stared at a page trying to identify an artwork without looking at the caption or wall label? That is, trying to identify a "species" of work purely through visual means? Or learning to do the same? Well, the same or similar skills are used in Birdwatching--just like a certain palette or texture identifies a certain painter, certain patternings or colours identify a bird.

3. However, Birdwatching can also regularly engage an aural component. Though I am not skilled (yet!) at identifying bird calls, I know there are guidebooks out there to this effect. Though there is such a thing as sound art, it is not usually necessary to tune in to an artwork's aural component in order to experience it or identify it. Canvas is pretty damn silent, ya'll!

4. Artwatchers have an advantage in that the objects of their focus typically do not move, or do not move with any great degree of speed or agility. This is quite different from the conditions that Birdwatchers encounter, where one might have only a few seconds to get a good look at the object of one's focus, or even less. This lends a kind of urgency to the birdwatching experience; artwatching allows for more lassitude, in a sense.

5. Both artwatching and birdwatching can be enjoyed as singular experiences and competitive/accumulative contests alike. In my experience, I have enjoyed looking at both objects of art and at birds as kinds of opportunities for transcendence—a way to move beyond the everyday. Yet I have also had experiences (often at the same time) where the looking can take on a competitive or accumulative quality. "Okay, I've seen a Killdeer/Olafur Eliasson work. While thrilled at first, I now find it familiar and kind of boring. I want to see something else next." There can be a kind of "onwards and upwards" or "I haven't seen that yet and I should" tendency. (I know both these qualities of looking have more to do with me than with art in general, but I thought it was worth noting.)

6. Both artwatching and birdwatching subcultures have their own distinctive customs and styles of dress. I am not indoctrinated fully into either subculture, I think, but I can say you don't see a whole lot of all-black outfits out on the Spit. A lot more earth tones and quick dry materials.

7. The cameras are a lot bigger in the birdwatching community. An iPhone just ain't gonna cut it!

If you want to find out more about bird species at the Spit, check out the Tommy Thompson Park website.

(Chickadee-riffic image via I would basically freak out, in a good way, I think, if I was the person in this picture.)

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