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Calls from Blethenal Green (2013)  

St John's Church Bethnal Green London UK May, June, July 2013
Collaborative residency and installation with Johanna Hällsten


Calls from Blethenal Green is collaboration between artists Catherine Clover & Johanna Hällsten. It explores the interactions between the different human and animal communities present in the area. Clover & Hällsten are interested in migration, cultural difference, and social engagement of both animals (specifically wild urban birds) and humans. Location is pivotal in the understanding of human and animal behavior; the identification of place and home are key elements in this process, so the project responds site specifically to the church building and interacts directly with the church and wider Bethnal Green community. The artists will investigate these relations through voice, language and song, translation and dialogue. With communication at the centre of the project, the artists are developing a theme of call and response through a local choir, local birdsong and the manual ringing of the newly renovated bells in the church belfry. The project will include live performance, moving image projections and recorded sound.

The Bethnal Green area is historically and culturally significant. The church, a Grade 1 listed building, was built by distinguished British architect Sir John Soane between 1826-8, and has a rich demographic mix. The buying and selling of birds, legal and illegal, has a long history in the area. On Sundays in the late 1880s Sclater Street was full of bird trade – birdcages, bird fanciers, trappers and poachers. Birdcalls and bird patter (voices of dealers) filled the air. Calls from Blethenal Green uses the original name for Bethnal Green, associated with the word blether – to continuously chatter/speak.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication with commissioned essays by Amy Sherlock and Shauna Laurel Jones.

    Audio Excerpt 5' 20"  
    Hear Us by Amy Sherlock, catalogue essay for Calls from Blethenal Green UK  
    Worth more than Words by Shauna Laurel Jones, catalogue essay for Calls from Blethenal Green UK  

Our research into the birds took us along fascinating pathways to meet some very interesting people.

The Congregation of St John's
We met the congregation of the church early on in our residency, thanks to the support of Rev Alan Green and in particular Sabine Butzlaff and Jim McKee. We recorded the voices of Sabine, Pearl Charles and Debbie Charles. We also made some incidental recordings of Pearl and Debbie rehearsing in the church with their beautiful singing voices. We captured short snatches of Mercy singing as she swept the church.
Sincere thanks also to Donna McDonald, fundraiser extraordinaire, not a member of the congregation but our key contact for the residency.

The History of Bird Trade in the Bethnal Green area
The local area of Bethnal Green was known for its bird trade in the past. We walked the local streets searching for any remaining evidence of this but the Birdcage pub seemed to be the only visible link.
*‘In Bethnal Green’ Chapter VIII of "Off the track in London" by George R. Sims, published by Jarrold & Sons, 1911
*Also A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11: Stepney, Bethnal Green
*Also this fascinating excerpt from the New York Times in 1890

The Soane Museum
As the church was designed by Sir John Soane (1826) we approached the Soane Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. We recorded the voices of Stephanie Coane, Graeme Webb and Jeff Banwell discussing the birds local to the museum. With Stephanie's help as the research librarian we accessed some of Soane's collection of books on natural history and in particular birds. Specifically Richard Brookes’ Natural History of Birds 1763 and A New System of the Natural History of Quadrupeds, birds, fishes and insects 1791 Anonymous, based on Natural History, general and particular, by the Count de Buffon 1785.
We knew that the Linnaeun system of classification (1735) was a relatively recent phenomenon during Soane’s lifetime (1753-1837) and we were hoping to find works that referenced more speculative and imaginative approaches to the classification of the natural world, and wild birds in particular.

Nick Sydney's English Language class at Learning Works
Nick teaches English in the community classrooms in the crypt of the church. We are grateful to him and the class for allowing us to record their voices reading out a list of the local birds.

The Bells of St John's
We were lucky enough to have Stephen G Jakeman of the London Diocesan Guild of Bell Ringers get involved and ring the newly renovated bells at the opening of the exhibition. Steve had overseen the renovation at St John's. We had a couple of bell ringing lessons from him, and Johanna took to it like a fish to water.

    Dates, Opening Hours and Performances
5th – 28th July 2013 at St John’s on Bethnal Green, Bethnal Green, London E2
Exhibition opening times Fridays 2-6pm, Saturday & Sundays 12-6pm
Opening Event
Thursday 4th July 6-9pm
Performance Times
Thursday 4th July
7.20pm Stephen G Jakeman & the St John’s at Hackney bell ringers
8pm Secular Singers perform a Bethnal Green soundscape
Saturday 6th July
4pm Stephen G Jakeman & the St John’s at Hackney bell ringers
Saturday 13th July
4pm Stephen G Jakeman & the St John’s at Hackney bell ringers
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Corvus corvix, Corvus corvix, Corvus corvix, Corvus albicollis,