This one’s for the birds

A shipment of small, light aircraft arrived at my door yesterday in Pittsford: a dozen sheets of hand-made paper impregnated with wildflower seeds. I will fold them into airplanes and then “return them to flight” wherever I can find a place they might actually germinate. I know exactly where I’m going to set at least one of these birds free, maybe all of them—from a promontory in the Finger Lakes near Bristol—and I’m betting that nobody else is going to get the hang time I’ll get, if the wind is at my back anyway. (I’m a guy, so I think everything’s a competitive event, even if I’m totally alone . . .) But I also want to try for an urban area or two, maybe Central Park when I’m in New York in a few days, or Brooklyn.

Jennifer Wenker made the airplanes as an art project to complete her MFA at University of Cincinnati this year. She was inspired to create this campaign in response to a USDA program for poisoning “nuisance birds”:  “Bye Bye Blackbird” in which, she says, 2 billion birds were poisoned in 2009. I met her on a swing through her school with Rush Whitacre on my way to Louisville recently. So now I have a stack of wonderfully pebbly sheets of paper, some with wildly random deckle edges, and my next step is to turn them into planes.

I love this project because I love birds, and planting things, and the unassuming childlike simplicity of the whole project. The image of the airplane, the concept behind the project—it’s all tremendously simple, yet loaded with poetic resonance. As Jennifer put it: “We’ve taken over so much of the landscape, it can be hard to find a place where seeds can grow without being mowed down eventually and because of the huge uptick in the use of herbicides by farmers and families. We’re losing biodiversity and trading it for lawns and mono-crops. In the world of nature, we’re the biggest invasive species.” By implication, she wants her project to wake up the participant or viewer to the way Western culture looks at nature: as a resource to be used, manipulated, exploited, and now, through genetic engineering, ultimately shaped by science and technology and human desire.

When Wenker makes her own paper, she mixes seeds into the pulp. In previous similar projects, she used sunflower seeds, because so many birds love them, but she realized how tough it would be for sunflowers to grow in most places people would land the planes. So she has switched to wildflowers. The paper will slowly decompose, the seeds will sink into the soil and a few will sprout to produce more seeds to feed migratory or indigenous birds. All she asks is that people take a photograph of themselves launching the planes—I’m going to video it as well if I get a good wind day—and then send her the images at [email protected].

She wrote to me on Facebook today about how this project fits into her larger mission as an artist with a deep concern about agriculture, the environment and how we may be reshaping both in destructive ways:

I’ve been shooting for a documentary and I have included the beautiful struggle of a tiny seed embryo leaving it’s parent plant to break free into the unknown…tiny dandelions, tiny milkweed puffs, maple helicopters, little tadpoles in a shallow puddle fighting against certain failure to grow limbs before the puddle dries up…. It is all so delicate and fragile…and yet scrappy and beautiful and strong. I have interviewed a Vietnam veteran who was seriously affected by Agent Orange (DDT/a Monsanto product) who has been advocating and farming organically since 1989 and who still says the labs can find DDT/Round-up in his plants after all these years of chemical-free farming…due to the drift of corn pollen from GMO plants and overspray and the effect of run-off along our watersheds. The conversation about all of these issues is fascinating, many difficult gray areas…very complex but incredibly important. I’d love to see some airplanes flown in urban areas, and in “marginal areas” and gritty areas in need of beauty and for each person to talk with someone else so that the conversation keeps on going like a seed in the wind…

I’m obsessed with painting and my approach is almost anti-conceptual, but when I come across really excellent conceptual/performance art, I find myself realizing how much I’m missing. This is one of those projects—beautiful, simple, packed with meaning, but intellectually unpretentious—it’s got all the earmarks of great work. I’ll post pictures when I get a chance to do my part.


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