enter change Performance and Nature connect unsettle bridge
Bird Brain Critical Art Ensemble Welfare State International
Simon Whitehead
Shelley Sacks
green museum.org Fern Shaffer and Othello Anderson
David Haley
John Lyall
Ballet Atlantique-Regine Chopinot
Opening Essay Introducing the Artists Links and Readings
Hester Reeve Basia Irland


'Requiem for Electronic Moa', directed by John Lyall,
SOUNDCULTURE aotearoa / New Zealand, at Hopetoun
Alpha (1999)


'Requiem for Electronic Moa', directed by John Lyall,
SOUNDCULTURE aotearoa / New Zealand, at Hopetoun
Alpha (1999)


The naming of parts: Moa reflecting. John Lyall (1998)


Blue Tent, from 'Towards an Inverted Electric Ecology',
directed by John Lyall, at artspace, Auckland,
Soundwatch Festival (1992)


Camping Electric, from 'Towards an Inverted Electric
Ecology', directed by John Lyall, at artspace, Auckland,
Soundwatch Festival (1992)


'Towards An Hyperferal Art, Aotearoa: A Lammarkian
Stoppage; Given Both Zero Impact and a Vacant Niche',
John Lyall, Goat Island Marine Reserve (1992)

The Hyper-feral

My work has nearly always been about 'nature', and often actually installed in the bio-physical reality: at Kare Kare on the west coast of Auckland, underwater at the Goat Island Marine reserve, in the Australian bush, and in Cambridgeshire in the UK.

The opera, Requiem for Electronic Moa, sits firmly in those works done under the ruling meta-title ‘Towards a Feral Art’ and later, ‘Towards a Hyper-Feral Art’. If you run wild and adapt in Hyper Nature then you must by definition be Hyper-Feral.

This whole body of work/thinking has been evolving since 1970's but the first works to 'nail down' the position were done in the 1980’s. 

Requiem for Electronic Moa   1999 and 2000

A performance piece in six bits

When I arrived to live in New Zealand an item on the news intrigued me. I heard that a Japanese PhD student had worked out what sort of sound a moa must have made – and had used a computer to generate a probable moa voice. He then built an electronic device that made what he thought must be the right sound.

He came to New Zealand with a documentary film crew to test this device. They set off for deepest Fiordland, convinced that if only it heard this special sounding device, the last remaining moa would respond, and they would prove that the bird was not extinct after all.

This performance piece deals with a familiar theme in opera tradition: unrequited love (in this work, of the electronic sound machine which hears no response).

The opera is typical of a body of performance/sound work where the event, or performance is installed in a constructed nature [hyper/nature] which itself is installed in the venue/gallery. It is an extended percussive solo by each performer – for example: two men, one operating the digital technologies, the other constructing ‘nature’[a waterfall]; and a woman improvising movement and moving technological objects around.

The Opera starts set in a real or bio-physical reality, i.e. moas exist here.
There is a short sound work – a computer voice ‘reading’ a poem: ‘Gondwana Two step, in a Ratite Mode’ 
A solo dancer does a ghost duet with Swan Lake on a large screen TV, she gives up, and improvises to NZ birdsong. She is in a black tutu and red tights: the computer voice intones in text-to-voice ‘The Swans are Black here’.  

Red Black,
Laconic pirouette,
Swan Lake inverted………….

The work moves to an age of automata, [Vaucansons Duck]... metronomic and clockwork sounds begin to dominate.

In an age of mechanical representation slides of birds as depicted in books are ‘flown’ around the room [by slide projector] as a duet for dancer and projector operator.

The dancer defends herself from the images with a portable projection screen but the relentless images of moa skeletons drive her from the space.

Through all this the computer divas continue to recite, in both text-to-voice and pitched phonemes, a list of all NZ birds [an apochryphal field guide to moas], and the rendering of bird calls into English, again in pitched phonemes [each phoneme specified by pitch/hertz, and timed at 1/100ths of a second.]

They sing on relentlessly, ‘Kakapo, Kea, Kaka……[parrots]
And Kiwi, …. Kiwi, ….kiwi kiwi kiwi; [Pitched phonemes]

At last we are in the present with shriekingly insistent digital moas, and about 100 tracks of live and pre-recorded sound all building to a chaotic digital nature which is both self-sustaining and alien.

John Lyall on Requiem, from an interview by Nigel Clark:

Chaos is the natural ground state for any work for me.  You drag form and content out of that chaos, and often then return it to chaos, disassembling it in some other order. But for the time that the work is in existence you get three states: the assembly state of some growing order; the organised state of the piece of work; and then you get the disorganisation or dispersal.

We are aware through the media of concerns at the extinction of more and more species, the destruction of habitats, the loss of global biosphere quality, and so on.  At the same time as this surge towards extinction we have a massive growth in the invention of new classes of constructed ‘animals’, and new culturally constructed habitats: a whole plethora of digital creatures activating their simulated worlds.

Against this there is a quieter extinction: the demolition of the twentieth century (and earlier) modes of representing nature, those less Te Papa-ised dioramic views of nature, and those wonderfully erudite and pedantic vast glass cases in which every known species was painstakingly annotated and impaled on pins or fixed to twigs in some expectation that the naming of the parts would explain the whole.

From the essay ‘Chaos/Rhythm/Refrain: Toward an Ecology of the Electronic Moa’ by Nigel Clark:

The unanswered mating call of an electronic machine. The idea seems farcical, as human artefacts are obviously not the same as living organisms: they don’t reproduce themselves or self-disperse, they don’t die and neither do they evolve. Or do they? There are at least a few good reasons to be wary of a hard and fast line between the born and the manufactured, the organism and the artefact….

Metamorphozing over some fifteen years, Requiem for an Electronic Moa is an engagement with the impact of digital technologies on Aotearoa/New Zealand….How does a being – an entity – explore the space of its possible futures? Where there is reproduction, wherever messages of any sort are passed from one site to another there is a chance of slippage or mistranslation. And where the resulting differences encounter a mechanism for selection, ‘evolution’ will take place.

In culture and in nature, in linguistic groups and in genetic pools, in music and in birdsong, repetition with difference provides the resources for prospecting in fields of potentiality.  Environments select and selections resound by transforming environments. Some lines die out, because their milieux have been transformed too rapidly for novelty-generating mechanisms to respond. Still others succumb to the very mechanics of chance, as genetic drift or the ongoing attrition of random exchanges drives diversity down beyond the limits of self-sustainability.

But out of the same chaotic milieux emerge new forms and structures, probing the future in ways that seem both too innovative to be ‘blind’ and too complex to be safely subjected to design.  Who knows what enchantments and what catastrophes are still to spring from the feral ecologies of these far-from-isolated islands? And who can tell what chorus might respond to future calls of an electronic moa?

Nigel Clark

The two texts above are from the book by Claudia Bell, Nigel Clark and John Lyall which accompanied Requiem for Electronic Moa, the SOUNDCULTURE aotearoa/ New Zealand performance, 1999.

Upcoming work

My next big sound work is for early 2006, which will be a motet for massed computer voices delivering pitched phonemes in real time. The libretto is the list of Aotearoan / New Zealand birds.

The four or five parts of the ‘choir’ will deliver computer pitched phonemes in various strands of the libretto which will unpick all possible lists from the definitive bird lists.
Scientific Names
Common names
Maori names
Voices…[a choking bark…..]
And so on…..

Essays on Lyall’s work

in Derrida, Jacques (2001) Derrida Downunder. Dunmore Press.

Clark, Nigel (2003). ‘Feral Ecologies: performing life on the colonial periphery’ in Nature Performed. Environment, Culture and Performance, eds. B. Szerszynski, W. Heim and C. Waterton. Blackwell/Sociological Review Monograph: Oxford.


e: jlyall at unitec.ac.nz

Recent exhibitions and performance work

Requiem for Electronic Moa

2000, Between Nature: Explorations in ecology and performance conference/event, Lancaster University, UK
1999, SOUNDCULTURE aotearoa / new zealand

Towards an Hyper-Feral Art, Aotearoa: Picketing the Sublime; Given Both a Blue Displacement and an Illuminating Vessel

1997, ART NOW, Auckland Art Gallery

Towards an Hyper-Feral Art, Aotearoa: Pumping up the Sublime Given both a Waterfall and a Designated Seat

1994  Fisher Gallery, Auckland

The Waterfall, Kant’s Train Set and a Tent

The Drawings Gallery, Auckland

Text and Photo Credits

Photographs provided by and copyright of John Lyall

The two texts above are from the book by Claudia Bell, Nigel Clark and John Lyall which accompanied Requiem for Electronic Moa, the SOUNDCULTURE aotearoa/ New Zealand performance, 1999. It is copyright Bell, Clark and Lyall, and published by enzyme, Auckland, NZ, edited with permission by Wallace Heim.
Claudia Bell lectures in Sociology at the University of Auckland, NZ.
Nigel Clark lectures in Geography at the Open University, UK.

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