“When Worlds Collide”: an exhibition about the devastating effects of light pollution on birds held at the World Trade Center. – By Aidan Crank
From the start I was ready to be impressed, an exhibition about protecting birds, held in essentially the best bird’s eye view of Baltimore? For the unacquainted, I am of course talking about the “Top of the World” aka the 27th floor of the Baltimore Inner Harbor World Trade Center. With 360 degree views of the city it certainly does feel like a mighty nest in the sky. As I zipped up the elevator I could feel my stomach lurch and eardrums pop. As the doors open I shook off the vertigo and continued on.
If there were directional instructions for which way to walk first, I must have missed them, because I walked around quizzically looking for an exhibit and not really seeing anything other than spectacular views of downtown, Finally, I stumbled upon the end of it. The exhibit spanned a lone two inner walls of the observation deck, and was dwarfed by the menagerie of signs and placards of the “Top of the Worlds” internal exhibits. It felt more of an accessory piece rather than a real attraction.
The first pieces I saw looked like enlarged CAD drawings of chess pieces, geometric meshes of polygons in spikes and troughs. Reading the placard I saw that these were projections of birdcall soundbites, taken from the sinusoidal form of audio waves, and extended into third dimension. Visually, my mind drew a connection between this organic data and how it so closely resembles a wireframe construction of man made objects. Conceptually interesting, taking something intangible such as sound, and turning it into a physical object which can be preserved. The second thing I noticed about these drawings was that the glass covering them was so reflective they were almost mirror like. You could see the entire panoramic view in the frame, and adjust your focus by a few millimeters to see the art. While I am unaware if this was entirely purposeful, the visual overlay is so blatant that one must consider both the human and the avian world depicted, which works well for the theme of the exhibition.
Another piece was a diptych of a bird perched in a tree next to a dead one on a sidewalk, with a reflection of another bird in a tree in the window. The photos were tinted pink and once again covered with very reflective glass panes. Apparently the other theme of the exhibition was how glass structures kill birds that fly into them, and that humans need to better design and monitor lighting so that collisions could be avoided. A depressing notion, the artistic value doesn’t come across that well to me, they are rather plain and morbid. The works again were almost hard to see given the image of harbor that reflected off the glass. I am now sure that the glass coverings are indeed very purposeful, but they still annoy me.
The other wall of the exhibition contained more artistic works. Large white canvases (this time without any covering) form a triptych composed mostly of negative space. In the first one, a tiny twig wrapped in thread is positioned high in the canvas, and above it are tiny strips of paper dyed red and blue. Being a scientist by training, I immediately was reminded of litmus strips that test for pH level, that change color to red or blue depending on acidity. Perplexed, I peered at the title of the work — “In the family of things”, so I think the artist is trying to relate birds to trees to humans, and that all were the same on a molecular level, perhaps a cry for cooperation among carbon based life forms. However, this philosophical construction may be entirely wrong, as litmus tests aren’t used for genetics so don’t take my word for it.
My hypothesis however got a boost of support from the next set of works, an assemblage of square canvases that had microscopic slide backgrounds overlaid with colorful polygons. What appear to be cells and tissue slices, with colorful random paper-cut outs juxtaposed on top — I struggle to identify the images– but that may be the point, I can’t tell if they come from humans, birds, or plants.
The last few works were arguably the most interesting in my opinion, depictions of bird impacts, like the ones you see on your living room window after you hear a bang from the kitchen. Impressively realistic, I had to check the placard to see if they were real– thankfully, it was just cornstarch and water. Looking at the images is semi surreal since in the background the panoramic views are visible, adding a lifelike dimension, as if they were on the windows of the building.
I hadn’t previously been aware of how many birds are killed each year by windows; when lights are left on the glass is essentially invisible to them, leading to a startling amount of collisions. I wasn’t sure if it was ironic or not that being in a large glass covered building, the WTC probably has done its fair share of damage, especially since it stands relatively alone in the harbor. The artists’ plea that humans are devastating their populations by not considering them in construction, and that if humans don’t act soon their numbers may drop even more furiously. The exhibit could have used more metaphorical works such as the ones in the beginning, since they make people think more about what they are seeing. Part of the reason the works were semi-discursive was that they exhibit was more curated than created. The curator, Lynne Parks had gathered work from six different artists who all had distinctively different and not very meshing styles. The reflective glass didn’t quite work as well in adding visual dimensions to the works. While it was very meta, the glass was not perfect quality, and the aberrations obfuscated the reflections, becoming slightly dizzying. If you’re downtown, it may be worth the minor headache from the pressure change, but other than that, you’re not missing much.
When Worlds Collide is at the Top of the World in downtown Baltimore, on display 3/24/2016-6/12/2016.
Aidan Crank is a Baltimore based writer with interests in architecture, design, and aesthetics.