The Williams Center Gallery exhibition Requiem: Ectopistes Migratorius by the visual artist and musician Michael Pestel marks the centennial of the extinction of North America’s Ectopistes migratorius, the passenger pigeon.
A species that—perhaps as late as the mid 19th century—numbered three to five billion birds, the passenger pigeon officially became extinct on September 1, 1914, when the last known pigeon, named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Requiem metaphorically places Martha at the center of the installation in the form of a human-scale birdcage.
The visually stunning exhibition includes site specific sculptures, videos, meditative performance works, and sound installations that address passenger pigeon extinction. Requiem is also framed in the larger context of Michael Pestel’s Catalog of Extinct Birds. The Catalog is an algorithmically generated musical composition accompanied by special instruments the artist has designed for performance. It is based on the current list of globally extinct birds–nearly two hundred avian species eradicated in the six hundred years since the Age of Exploration. In this century, the number of extinctions among birds—as well as other families of life—is expected to increase dramatically. Therefore, the Catalog of Extinct Birds, will continue to unfold as a perpetual work-in-progress . . . so long as human musicians themselves remain extant.
Thus the exhibition presents opportunities to contemplate a wide range of topics from extinction—of the passenger pigeon, of other species, and author Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, the book selected for incoming first-year students’ summer reading—and de-extinction; the history of the environmental movement, the endangered species act, climate change, technology’s role in species extinction, habitat destruction, art-making, and performance, among others.
Visitors are encouraged to become participants through hands-on experiences in the exhibition’s interactive works. Some of the interactions will be incorporated in a performance of Stray Birds, an improvisatory performance by Michael Pestel and Japanese butoh performer Taketeru Kudo, on November 19.
The exhibition is one of many programs, lectures, events participating in Project Passenger Pigeon’s international conversation to promote the conservation of species and habitat, strengthen the relationship between people and nature, and foster the sustainable use of natural resources.
Pestel’s semester-long residency is funded by an arts infusion grant funded by an award to the college from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.