Category Archives: CommLab

Watching Birds

Watching Birds from Nick Hubbard on Vimeo.

During the Fall Semester 2014, David Gochfeld, Jonathan Han (no longer at ITP), and I spent several hours at Prospect Park in Brooklyn filming tours and interviews with members of the Brooklyn Bird Club.  Our goal was to document the intersection of human and avian activity within the park, which is “Migrant Trap” along the Atlantic Flyway.   Because greenspaces are limited within the urban, developed landscape of the New York metro area, migratory species collect at such traps and they become vital ecological resources.  We wanted to highlight this characteristic of Prospect Park, but through the lens of the intimate, personal connection local birders have to it.

In total we shot several hours of footage on Canon EOS 5D Mark iii cameras, using Zoom H4n recorders equipped with Audio Technica shotgun mics as well as lavalier mics on the tour guides.  We followed along on two bird-watching tours (one for beginners and one for regulars).   The tours provided most of our b-roll, while our audio was in large part supplied by individual interviews.  We had 2 additional interviews that were not included in the film but I hope to post at a later date (once we are able to edit them down).  The interviews were conducted with administrators and Tour Guides within the Brooklyn Bird Club, as well as individual members.  Here is a rough draft of the interview questions we used:

General Questions:

  • Can you make any bird calls? or What is your favorite bird call?
  • Can you describe what happens within the birdwatching community when there is a sighting of a rare bird?
  • How did you begin your journey into bird watching?
  • Is there a personal habit or routine by which you go about bird watching?
  • What are some of your memorable bird watching moments?
  • What do the non-birdwatchers in your life think about your interest in birds?
  • What does bird watching mean to you personally and to those around you, ie: family and friends?
  • What are some birds that you’ve been wanting to see in the city, but haven’t?
  • Where are your favorite spots within Prospect Park to watch birds?
  • Which aspects of bird watching do you personally enjoy the most?

Individual Questions:

Heidi Cleven –– Member of the Brooklyn Birding Club

  • How do you share birdwatching with your children?
  • How often would you say you go out birdwatching in a month?
  • What is meaningful for you about logging the bird species that you see?
  • You mentioned that you don’t necessarily see birdwatchers in a social setting outside the context of Prospect Park.  Can you speak about about the way birdwatching has connected you to other New Yorkers/Brooklynites, those you might not otherwise know?

Michelle Dreger –– Tour Leader of the Introduction to Bird Watching Walk at Prospect Park

  • Could you tell us about a particularly memorable question or reaction from someone on one of your tours?
  • Have you and other tour leaders considered imparting your wealth of knowledge to ‘train’ new tour leaders for future generation bird watchers living in the neighborhood? If so, could you talk at length about what might have been undertaken to get that initiative underway?
  • What is the Atlantic Flyway and how is it connected to Prospect Park?
  • What is the importance of Prospect Park for bird species?
  • Why are people drawn to bird watching, in your opinion?
  • Can you describe what happens within the birdwatching community when there is a sighting of a rare bird?

Rob Bates –– President of the Brooklyn Bird Club

  • Could you elaborate on the importance and relationship of the BBC to Prospect Park?
  • Could you elaborate on relationships that are forged as a result of the Community here at the BBC?
  • Heidi Cleven mentioned that often BBC members don’t know/see each other outside of the context of birdwatching at Prospect Park. Can you speak about the way birdwatching brings people together who might not otherwise connect?
  • How did the Brooklyn Birding Club come about?
  • How long have you been President of the Brooklyn Birding Club?
  • How many members are the Brooklyn Birding Club?
  • Please describe some of the weekly activities that the Brooklyn Birding Club organizes?
  • What are some of the current milestones of the Brooklyn Birding Club?
  • What are some of the goals and future plans for the Brooklyn Birding Club?
  • What is the history of bird watching at Prospect Park?
  • What is the Atlantic Flyway and how is it connected to Prospect Park?
  • What is the importance of Prospect Park for bird species?

Tom Stephenson –– Author of The Warbler Guide, Princeton University Press

  • Could you talk about your role within the Brooklyn Birding Club?
  • Could you describe your relationship with the Brooklyn Birding Club and as a result, Prospect Park?
  • Could you talk about how urbanization in New York might affect the nature of migration in Prospect Park?
  • Could you talk about the need for a space like Prospect Park for bird species — the way the Park is relevant to conservation?
  • If you could, describe in detail, the experience of birdwatching for a seasoned birdwatcher in Prospect Park?
  • What are some species of birds that have made Prospect Park their migratory stopover?
  • Tell us about the relationships between your passions of birdwatching, sound engineering and photography?
  • What is the Atlantic Flyway and how is it connected to Prospect Park?
  • What is the importance of Prospect Park for bird species?
  • Can you describe what happens within the birdwatching community when there is a sighting of a rare bird?

Soundcode: Metaphors

When Magdalena, Gabriel, and I sat down to exchange ideas it was clear structure was trumping concept.  We were trying to find a starting point for an interactive sound piece that we were tasked to create together.  We kept circling around possible forms for the piece, no matter how hard we tried to find a way towards an underlying theme.  Eventually, we decided to each collect sounds that spoke to us and hoped to discover what unified them.

I checked out a Zoom H4n Recorder and an Audio Technica AT8035  shotgun mic from the Equipment Room at ITP, and found myself in Greenpoint after dark, waiting for inspiration.

Zoom h4n audio recorder


I found some easily enough:

  • 6am church bells at Saint Stanislaus Kostka.
  • My Keurig coffee machine.
  • A washer and dryer at Susan Laundromat.



When our group came back together, we had an excellent menagerie of sounds. A menagerie that was diverse and unrelated: the basis for a collage. We began arranging, rearranging. In the end, we arrived at this:

This collage will be the center of an interactive installation, Soundcode.  

After Her Long Black Hair

In 2005 Janet Cardiff composed Her Long Black Hair, an audio tour for one through Central Park in New York City. About a year ago my friend Janice referred to the piece in conversation one evening in Seattle, speaking with the reverence one holds for experiences that’ve carved themselves into memory, like initials on trees. She had taken the tour while it was installed in the park. Not long after Janice mentioned it, I heard Cardiff interviewed on To the Best of our Knowledge, in an episode called “More Wonder”. Wonder being central in my conceptual landscape, and Janice’s reverence still fresh, I became a devotee of her work, but held no hopes of my own encounter with HLBH.

Advance to the present, I’ve moved to NYC to attend the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University and had the pleasure of learning that one of my first assignments is to take an audio tour in the city, and one of the offerings is, of course, HLBH. My wife and I grabbed a train uptown this afternoon with mp3s of Cardiff’s tracks, jpegs of the original photos, and a headphone splitter.

We felt like wrongdoers sitting on the bench where Cardiff asks you to begin the journey. Wrongdoers or drug-users, strangely set apart by something only you’re privy to. Something you’re anxious you may get caught doing. The startle of the sound design, the way it makes use of stereo to immediately surround you, effaced all awareness of our equipment, our posture, our expressions. There it was, that wonder. We were kept at a distance from self-consciousness the whole walk. That removal, which transferred our focus both into the present of the recording and the present of the park around us, away from ourselves, was extraordinary.

The coincidences were extraordinary. Yes, Cardiff timed out the entire path of the tour so that she knew where you’d be at each moment and could refer to landmarks in a satisfying, threads-all-lining-up sort of way, but then there were the coincidences. She’d mention a man with a t-shirt directly ahead, and there’d be a man with a t-shirt, and add to that he was facing away so we could imagine that the slogan Cardiff quoted was actually on his front, if only he’d turn. She wished for us egrets, and there in the water, an egret, regal.

The lingering gift of Her Long Black Hair is hypersensitivity to sound. As we walked from the edge of the park to the subway, we could pick out distinct birdsongs, a woman opening her door, a conversation across the street, the echo of an engine around the corner. We could pick them out, hear them clearly, and place them in front or behind us, in that stereophonic way our ears evolved to hear but our brains learn to flatten. By trusting Cardiff, even when she told us to walk backwards in the middle of Central Park or to walk forwards with our eyes closed, we allowed her to give us back the city in stereo.

A digital archive of Her Long Black Hair provided by Public Art Fund can be found here. It includes all of the audio as well as the photographs originally provided with the tour and a map showing the route.

On Originality

Jonathan Lethem, in a 2007 piece for Harper’s, endeavored to make an apology for plagiarism under the title “The Ecstasy of Influence”. In fact he sub-titled his essay “a plagiarism”. And his point in doing so is to be 100% explicit that the best work we can do as artists, whether literary or otherwise, is achieved through direct appropriation from the efforts and output of those who’ve come before us (or for that matter those working alongside us). He’s making this explicit by calling his own labor what it is, and he proves this at the terminus with an exhaustive reference guide that shows exactly where he pulled particular ideas, phrases, or even whole paragraphs. He is ultimately trying to redeem what he asserts is an essential method–really the essential method–by which our culture advances.

Kirby Ferguson, in his celebrated 2012 TED Talk, articulates a similar plea (and I’m paraphrasing), a plea for us to examine what we value in our cultural material and why we have enshrined the particular notions of originality that dominate popular opinion (namely that “original” works arise from some pristine well within us, suffer no influence, and deserve to be protected for the sole benefit of the “originator”).

I’m mentioning these defenses of influence because they were assigned to us for our Comm Lab: Video & Sound course in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, where, as you may know from the title of this blog or from my previous posts, I am a graduate student. Why were we asked to review these two texts that make this case for collage, remixing, and repurposing work that is often forcefully defined as the intellectual property of another artist or creator? While I can’t claim ownership of the exact intent, I have some speculations.

Creating work at the frontier of what’s been done before brings a host of complications. One is how to navigate the waters between what you think you are innovating or originating, and all of the inventions and insights that others have made that have facilitated your journey — arriving where you are and hopefully going further. Another complication is the seduction to protect. When territory is achieved on the forefront, there’s an impulse to claim it and wall it off, not realizing the damage we might do or the lack or true justification for our protectiveness. So engaging with these texts is a tool to face thoughtfully and with humility those complications that will inevitably arise while we’re within ITP and once we move beyond it.

I believe in the primacy of meaning. I think art and creative work is stripped of its usefulness in society, of its exquisite power, if it does not mean anything. And when we directly copy something that was considered a work of art or culture, without effort or intent other than glory or gain, we seem to strip away that prior essence, because no meaning remains. But originality isn’t necessary for meaning. In fact, it may be that meaningful creations draw their meat from the parts of themselves stolen from others. Those parts may be what makes them mean, since they allow for reference, context, simile, that spark of “oh I know this, I’ve seen this somewhere else” that can make the otherwise foreign familiar. Again I’m speculating here, but perhaps another function of these texts for us at ITP is to disillusion us of any sense we have that the meaning or import of what we do will be compromised if we have relied on others, been influenced by the discoveries of our classmates, or looked to resources outside ourselves to meet the ends we are striving for.

In “On the Rights of Molotov Man”, which is a pair of essays by Joy Garnett and Susan Meiselas again from Harper’s, I think there is an additional warning: when we enter the realm of the remix, where we fully embrace our reliance on (what some may call) plagiarism and we endeavor to make our plagiaristic movements within a creative act visible, even amplified, we must be excessively vigilant about meaning. Meiselas is worried that the paintings of Garnett have stripped a photograph she took of its context — which I think she is conflating with meaning. I would argue that Garnett’s work has stripped the context, or rather altered it, but has not removed or eschewed meaning. If the meaning has shifted, it is not necessarily less potent, and I believe Garnett was attempting to create paintings that carry as much weight as the photograph from which they were sourced. I agree with Meiselas that context is a value to be protected, that context is a requirement for meaning; what I take away then is that by making sure we know our context, and preserve the integrity of that context (even if it is not the same as that of source material we may be drawing on), we preserve the potential for our work to be meaningful.