UCLA’s Art|Sci Center teaches the language of birds at Del Rey Lagoon

By Christina Campodonico

A crowd gathered last week to test their bird call abilities at Del Rey Lagoon

A crowd gathered last week to test their bird call abilities at Del Rey Lagoon Photo by Dawn Faelnar / UCLA Art|Sci Center

A group of us are sitting quietly in Del Rey Lagoon with our eyes closed, listening for the sounds of local birds. It’s hard to hear any against the roar of jet planes, the whoosh of an ocean breeze and the sound of children playing on the swings nearby. But then a crow’s caw breaks through the ambient noise —we’ve finally got wind of something.

This listening exercise readies our ears to try to imitate bird calls through a “birdsong mimic” device developed by researchers at UCLA’s Art|Sci Center.

The spherical contraption is hooked up to a microphone, headphones and a computer that’s transmitting a live feed to New York. It measures how accurately you can imitate a particular bird call.

I step up, stick my head into the sphere, put on the headphones, listen to a clip of high-pitched bird chirp-ery and attempt to repeat the shrill warbling. My accuracy is about 10%, the computer’s cool womanly voice tells me.

“Instead of the birds learning English, we’re learning the language of the birds,” says Art|Sci Center Exhibitions Program Coordinator Mick Lorusso.

Learning “bird” is a lot harder than it sounds, and the novelty of trying it in public is fun.

The “Birdsong Diamond Wetland” installation is part of this summer’s citywide public art biennial “Current: LA Water,” a program of events and temporary art exhibits that are putting the city’s relationship with water into focus.

On Saturday, members from UCLA’s Art|Sci Collective return to Del Rey Lagoon with their birdsong mimic device.

A signage installation by artist Gala Porras-Kim is also on view at the park throughout the run of “Current: LA Water,” which extends through Aug. 15. A response to the 2004 discovery of more than 400 Tongva Indian remains in Playa Vista during the development’s construction, the work looks like ordinary signage you might encounter in a museum or at nearby Discovery Park, but reexamines the history of the Ballona Wetlands and the controversial handling of these ancient Tongva grounds in modern times.

“For me, my work is all about history and the representation of it,” says Porras-Kim, who based her piece on legal documents, online research and newspaper articles (including some from The Argonaut) related to the often overlooked history of the Tongva people in the area.

“I think Gala’s sculpture at Del Rey Lagoon is in-keeping with her studio practice,” says Felicia Filer, the director of public art for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, a sponsor of the biennial.

“Ultimately, Gala is interested in how knowledge is acquired and how people access information about an unfamiliar culture. As a creative response to Discovery Park and the Tongva people, her sculpture is investigating these two ideas,” Filer says.

Between hidden histories and cryptic bird calls, a visit to Del Rey Lagoon this weekend offers more than just a walk in the park.

“Birdsong Diamond Wetlands” happens again at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 30, at Del Rey Lagoon, 6840 Esplanade St., Playa del Rey. Free. Visit currentla.org for more info.