In Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, there is a scene where a character called Melanie notices, on the metal bars of the school playground, just one or two crows, then a few more, then a few more.
The children are about to be let out, into a ‘recess’ that will prove catastrophic. They are singing ‘Risseldy Rosseldy’, an old folk song about domestic duties that carries an undertone of violence (in the original version, the wife is beaten for failing to keep house well enough). Overall, the film is very much concerned with domesticity: being confined to (or even boarded up within) the home; protecting the home against invasion; the structure of the family being challenged by its contact with what comes from outside (Melanie, the seductress, is literally the ‘carrier’ of birds from the metropolis to the small town, as she transports the film’s first ones to Mitch in her luxury car).
How to think about the current situation through the frame of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’? In that film, a malevolent, migratory, air-borne force presents a lethal threat to human society. This threat is hard to understand, constantly mutating and spreading, coming on in waves, subject to speculation and (often paranoid and xenophobic) conjecture. Critics have argued constantly about what the birds actually represent or stand for (nature? fascism? hysteria? or perhaps technology?).
If you look up you will notice artificial crows on a balcony, which serve a similar role to antibodies: in simulating the form of a bird, they keep real birds at bay. They also demarcate a boundary between inside and outside, nature and culture. They’re cheap,tacky and plastic, and there’s little evidence that they actually work. As such, they could be seen less as a pragmatic device than as the expression of a set of fears and aspirations.
Just as in the opening seconds of the playground scene, the artists have only placed four or five crows on their balcony — but if one looks around the street’s — and city’s — other balconies, one will start to notice many, many more, silently massing. Despite the air of menace both in the birds and the song’s content, the fact of children’s voices singing could be seen as carrying a note of hope, or even joy.
Corvus was a collaboration between Eva Stenram and Tom McCarthy and was a part of the exhibition Die Bakone in April 2020, during the first wave of Covid-19.