Something Going On Above My Head is a sound installation comprising sixteen speakers which play a symphony made of the songs of two thousand birds from Africa, America, Asia and Europe. It can be displayed either within the gallery or in an outdoor location, and is accompanied by a leaflet designed by the artist and a diagram on canvas showing the layout of a symphonic orchestra in which the instruments have been replaced by the names of birds. For five years, Maciá collected birdsongs from international ornithological archives and audio libraries. After obtaining two thousand recordings of birdsongs, he divided them into four groups: five hundred from Asia, five hundred from Africa, five hundred from America, and five hundred from Europe. He then reworked all this sound material to compose a symphony scored according to the birds’ pitches, and distributed the different parts in the display space following the places allocated to different instruments in a symphonic orchestra. Tate’s copy is number two in an edition of three.
The work has been exhibited extensively, at X-Teresa, Mexico D.F. in 1999, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 2000, Event Uppsala, Sweden in 2000, the Tirana Biennale, Albania in 2001, Afroamerica, Haiti in 2002, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid in 2003, The Power Plant, Toronto in 2003, Haunch of Venison, London in 2004, at the Daros Collection, Zurich in 2005 and at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. Although the installation is reconfigured for each venue, its basic format always remains the same: a group of sixteen speakers placed either high on gallery walls or high up in the branches of trees in outdoor locations, mimicking a treetop cacophony of sound from which single birdsongs occasionally stand out. Either way, the visitor experiences a chorus above their head, much in the way that true birdsong is experienced. However this apparent truth to nature is belied by the artificiality of the symphonic arrangement. Writing about the work, critic Sally O’Reilly has said:
Analogies might be drawn with the endless variability of societies and individuals, or we can consider this piece in less anthropomorphic terms: not only we don’t understand any of these avian messages, we are unlikely to hear a vast number of them again, as Something Going on Above My Head represents an entirely imaginary ecosystem that could not occur in the wild.
(O’Reilly 2006, p.58.)
The title of this work illustrates Maciá’s interest in the different meanings that language conveys. His titles often encourage multiple interpretations, offering both a literal and a figurative approach to the work. As well as describing the actual physical nature of the work, the phrase Something Going on Above My Head also alludes to the myriad daily events that go unnoticed by the majority of the population. The work was triggered by a headline that the artist came across while reading the World News section in The Guardian newspaper. The article referred to Russian submarines dumping nuclear residues in the Baltic Sea. Maciá was alarmed that such news would only appear as a brief note that could be easily missed among all the other information in the paper. Thus the work developed as an allegory of the selective character of the information that we as citizens receive. This notion also connects with the common perception of birdsong as something aesthetically beautiful and pleasing, a view that is the result of a lack of understanding that birdsongs often express a sense of distress, a threat or a mechanism of defence. Maciá’s use of animal sounds is not simply an appropriation of natural phenomena, but a way to draw attention to the often overlooked soundscape of nature.
Colombian-born Maciá regularly works with sound to create installations which he refers to as ‘sound sculptures’. He uses sound as a means to give form to the surrounding space. He often builds sound archives, either by going to libraries around the world, or by working with communities and recording the sounds directly. He has also collaborated with practitioners from other disciplines to reflect a broader sensory and anthropological scope within his work. Much of his practice is a response to the dominance of sight over the other senses in a spectacle-driven culture. In his view, this dominance has created a deaf society, where the majority of people’s or animals’ voices are not heard.
Cantos Cuentos Colombianos, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Colombian Art, Daros Collection, Zurich 2004, pp.113–39.
Carlos Jiménez, ‘La memoria inagotable de las voces’, Art Nexus, vol.5, no.60, March–May 2006, pp.56–61.
Sally O’Reilly, ‘Oswaldo Maciá’, Modern Painters, September 2006, pp.56–8.