Being Outside

The Negative, London

Being Outside consists of two posters. The first contains a photograph which includes a third poster. The photograph shows this third poster stuck to a brick wall. The poster within a poster has five numbered paragraphs about art and being outside. This pristine poster nailed to a quotidian garden wall is at once out of place and an acknowledgement that it is out of place. 

In the photograph it is partially obscured by plants and a model of a bird. The bird is a Lanai Hookbill, known from a single specimen, whose status is in doubt. Within ornothology, there are a whole array of problem cases, where the status of a bird is not known for certain: was a recorded case a freak mutation; an unknown species; a sub-species; the fantasy of the observer; a known species misobserved; and so on. Depicting such birds presents a particular difficulty: making a representation without access to the living thing itself. Instead it is to work from secondary, mediated sources. Here, there is no way of knowing what is unreliable. Moreover, however, there is no way of knowing what is representative of a species. For example, think of the impossibility of constructing the range and diversity of all humans from one, random, person. Anyone attempting such a depiciton is forced to make choices where there are no criteria for choosing.

The second poster is a ‘straight’ text about the Lanai Hookbill: its history and the difficulties attached to it. However, since it is presented in conjunction with the other poster and presented in an art gallery, it is hard not to read this text as alagorical in some way. Or, to put it another way, this text is itself out of place. It is hard to get the visitor to a gallery to read in an open and engaged way: to overcome routine habits of reading in a galleryt and expectations of what text in a gallery is going to be.


Text of first poster

Being Outside

What is it doing here? Any particular piece of ‘the outside’, in which it happens to find itself, will always already be a place in which many things have happened and continue to happen. Not only is every place a place of multiple interests and uses; every place is a place of conflict. And everywhere things are unfolding that have no care for art.

There is something desperate about putting art outside: as though there was something missing; something that might be found. The desperate are always in search of something, on the look out for more meaning: interpreting signs; finding allegories; analysing the overlooked.

There are good, as well as bad, reasons for being desperate. 

There are times when it does not seem possible to say what one wants to say: when the place of an utterance renders what is said inconsequential. Allegory can be making the most out of being in the wrong place.

If art is out of place outside, then this displacement should be a cause of some discomfort. However, this discomfort can be a resource against complacency. Being out of place can be a way to keep faith with the possibility of new possibilities.


Text of second poster

The Lanai Hookbill
(Dysmorodrpanis Munroi)

The Lanai Hookbill is known from a single specimen, shot by the naturalist George C. Munro. It is named after the Hawaiian island of Lanai, where it was shot. It is one of a great many Hawaiian Honeycreepers, each of which inhabits a different niche habitat amongst the islands. These Honeycreepers are a typical example of divergence through natural selection. All the species are closely related but differ greatly in appearance, each showing adaptations to its particular environment.

The most noteworthy feature of the Lanai Hookbill is its ‘crossed’ bill. Although the shape and size of the bill in other Honeycreepers varies greatly, none has a crossed bill. It has been suggested that this bill could be an adaptation for removing indigenous snails from their shells, although the single specimen shot by Munro had fruit and berries in its stomach.

Although Munro claimed to have seen another example of this species on a subsequent visit to the area, no other accounts of this bird exist. Munro is generally considered to give trustworthy accounts of his sightings but this does not preclude the possibility of his making an error, whether clouded by the desire to claim a new species, or not. It is, therefore, impossible to know what we are looking at, when we look at the Lanai Hookbill: it could be a distinct species; a sub-species of another Hawaiian Honeycreeper species; a hybrid of two other Honeycreeper species; or simply a single mutant or freak. If it was a distinct species or sub-species, it is now, undoubtedly, extinct.

All representations of this bird derive from a single individual, whether copied directly from it or from other illustrations. We cannot know how typical this individual was, if it was, in fact, representative of a distinct species. If it was a mutant, or a hybrid, then there is nothing of which it could be representative. It should also be noted that this single specimen is compromised both by the damage inflicted by having been shot and by the gradual decay over time of the stuffed specimen.