For the Birds

Secret woodland location, Saturday, May 6 to Sunday, May 28, All days except Monday and Tuesdays, time slots from 8pm – 11.40pm, shuttle bus from Asda Hollingbury

ASK anybody what they’re looking forward to in the Brighton Festival programme and the chances are this “immersive journey” will feature in the top three.

It’s understandable that festivalgoers are excited about Jony Easterby’s project. As the artist points out, Sussex residents “have a good level of engagement with the South Downs” as it is, but For the Birds offers a whole new spin on the country hike. “There’s something novel about lots of people walking around in the dark – I’m not sure how many people would think to go and wander around a wild woodland at 10pm.”

In specific terms, For the Birds is a guided woodland trail featuring numerous light and sound installations along the way, based around “our observations and love for birds and all things avian”, as Easterby puts it. “Flight, birdsong, movement and other narratives based around extinction and migrations, but also a celebration of their life and beauty.” The idea stretches back 20 years to when Easterby was working in clubs – a time when ambient music was particularly popular.

“I enjoyed doing that kind of work but I didn’t enjoy being indoors,” he says. While it might now seem a simple solution to translate his ideas to a rural environment, Easterby had a few issues with outdoor public art. “The kind of work I was trying to create didn’t necessarily fit well with large audiences. With a lot of public art you have to create everything on a large site with scaffolding.

“Watching some spectacles like that, I’d find myself a little bit disconnected from the actual work. You’d just see it happening 200 metres away.” Easterby wants the overall feeling of For the Birds to be “one of playfulness and celebration” but there is a poignant and slightly disturbing aspect to the work.

In an interview for Brighton Festival’s website, Easterby said that For the Birds “came from quite a dark place”. The artist spent time working on a research project at the Centre for Alternative Technology, thinking about climate change, the degradation of landscapes and animal extinction stories. “I realised that if I concentrated too much on the negative aspects of things then I was startling myself into non-activity,” he said. The alternative was to embrace birds – the “literal canary in the coalmine”.

Yet all is not as it seems in For the Birds – there is a social critique embedded within the piece. “When you hear all the bird songs cut up and put into little speakers and rearranged, it’s playful but also says a lot about our disconnection with nature,” says Easterby.

“We’re hiding behind electronic and social media – obviously Twitter adds another layer of meaning to this project.” The actual process of creating For the Birds raised ethical questions in itself. “I had to consider the problems I had with myself as a consumer,” says Easterby. “For this project we had to buy lights and cables - even while we were trying to make ecological art.”

As a young boy growing up in inner city Birmingham, the artist was constantly in search of “extra-urban areas like bogs, parks or woodlands. When I got older I could cycle out a little further past the city. It’s the same now. Whenever I go to London I immediately look for a green space”. The very first piece of theatre Easterby created, in 1987 (after the great storm), was with Brighton company Red Earth, so he considers For the Birds something of a “creative homecoming”.

He is excited about the prospect of hosting a communal rural experience. The audience istransported to the secret location from a bus stop at Asda Hollingbury or central Brighton. “They are all together and they have a sense of community,” he says. “They all experienced the same thing.” Festivalgoers will experience light and dark in For the Birds as the natural wilderness provides a platform for environmental enlightenment.

“You’re able to be immersed in as deep a darkness as you can get on the outskirts of Brighton,” says Easterby. “But at the same time I want to reiterate that the beauty we have around us is worth saving.” While 20 years might seem like a long time for an idea to come to fruition, the realisation of an artist’s dream is never going to be a short process.

Now Easterby can relax and enjoy his creation. As he says: “I have always loved the idea of a magical mystery tour.”