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A Creative Turn Toward Species at Risk

Hirondelusia is a barn swallow habitat modified from designs approved by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to mitigate habitat loss. Using a critical design approach, it explores what happens when humans and non-humans encounter structures approved for species at risk.

Through a ​collaborative, combined academic and creative approach, Hirondelusia seeks HOW and WHY specific species at risk recovery strategies are designed and built, and WHAT seeing structures like this tell humans about threatened species like the barn swallow​ (Hirundo rustica).

Hirondelusia is part of CAFKA 2021

We encourage you to visit and experience it at the south-east corner of Belmont and Glasgow in Kitchener, just off the Iron Horse Trail near the Catalyst building.

Building Hirondelusia

Barn swallows are a parallel species to humans—they often increase in numbers as people do. Yet in the last 40 years the species has seen a 76% decline in Canada. Blue-bodied, red-throated, white-bellied, and easily cupped in the palm of a hand, barn swallows have been associated in myth and superstition with luck, protection, and healing, and have been said to carry magical stones of red and black in their bodies that, when placed under the tongue, are “able to sway people with eloquence”. From the Bible to Pliny to Shakespeare, swallows have been associated with the oncoming of spring, freedom, and the love of and fidelity to home. Folklore had it that to destroy a swallow’s nest on a farm would mean a decline in yield. Because of their longstanding mythological status as a magical bird, barn swallows have often been treated with caution or otherwise protected by humans.

Given the barn swallow’s rapid decline, as one attempt at protecting the species, the government mandates the building of nesting structures any time an old barn or bridge is torn down. However, as a general rule the swallows don’t nest in these structures or use the artificial nesting cups placed within them—somehow they know what we do not, that an artificial structure is no substitute for a real home.

We built Hirondelusia as a way for humans to get closer to swallows–and to their absence. Given that most of these structures are failures for birds, we envisioned this structure as a human object to think with. Using collaborative critical design methods that have involved community and conservation stakeholders, Hirondelusia is an attempt to call humans into relation with swallows by drawing on aesthetic and corporeal appeal.

The installation features an interactive sound component that lures visitors with piano music then shifts to the sounds of swallows when they enter the structure. The piano piece is “L’Hirondelle,” provided by Dutch composer Jef Martens. The swallow sounds were recorded during the artists’ fieldwork.

Barn Swallows in Popular Culture

Building their mud nests in human-made structures like sheds, barns, boathouses, and under bridges, Hirundo rustica is a species that has typically grown in population as human development has increased. As such, barn swallow imagery in popular culture has a deep history that demonstrates its entanglement with humans.

Visitors walking underneath Hirondelusia‘s structure can look up, where barn swallows would normally nest, and see a collage of imagery, objects, and illustrations. What might these images tell us about our relationship and our responsibility to the barn swallow?

For a full list of Hirondelusia images, click here)

Jennifer Clary-Lemon

I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. I’m interested in and publish in the areas of material rhetorics, environmental rhetorics, writing theory and pedagogy, methods and methodology, and rhetorics of location and place.

I completed my BA in Political Science at the University of Arizona, my MA in English (Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse) at DePaul University, and my PhD in English (Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics) at Arizona State University. From 2006 to 2018, I taught at the University of Winnipeg, where I also directed the writing centre. I joined the University of Waterloo in August 2018. My most recent book project, Planting the Anthropocene, is a rhetorical look into the world of industrial tree planting, engaging themes of nature, culture, and environmental change. My current research examines infrastructural entanglements of humans and nonhumans as material rhetorical arguments, focusing on the Species at Risk Act and mandated recovery strategies for listed species. The Critical Media Lab hosts my current research project, Hirondelusia: A Creative Turn toward Species at Risk, an arts-based research creation project that promotes reflection on species at risk and human entanglement with nonhuman creatures.

Marcel O’Gorman

Dr. Marcel O’Gorman is a University Research Chair, Professor of English, and Founding Director of the Critical Media Lab (CML), where he teaches courses, leads collaborative projects, and directs workshops in digital design and the philosophy of technology. The CML is located inside the Communitech Hub in Kitchener, where its role is to disseminate a philosophy of “tech for good.”

O’Gorman has published widely about the impacts of technology on society, including articles in SlateThe Atlantic, and The Globe and MailHe is also a digital artist with an international portfolio of exhibitions and performances. This experience guides the creative hands-on methods espoused by the Critical Media Lab and outlined in detail in his most recent book Making Media Theory (Bloomsbury, 2020). O’Gorman’s work brings together researchers, designers, and tech companies, with the hope of tackling some of the moral and ethical issues faced by contemporary technoculture. 

Thank You

Hirondelusia is grateful for the help, support, and expertise of the following folks:

Paul Arsenault

Matt Borland

Jay Dolmage

David Gascoigne

Sandy and Jamie Hill

Diane Hood and Bill Ferguson

Alanah Jewell

Ray Lammens

Rex and Wendy Lingwood

Heather Love

Jef Martens

Ramona Mattix

Carter Neal

Terry Pender

Jenna Quinn

Christopher Rogers

Dave Westfall

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Web design by Chris Rogers, 2021