Tuesday, April 6, 2010

‘Listen Bird’: Iconic Signifiers and Meaning

"On my walk home one day, I happened across three life-size "listen birds" locked up
against a shed in the back-lot of the Freemason's building on 103 St. & 100 Ave. They
were constructed out of sheets of plywood and spray painted with the colours black,
white, and orange. They obviously were no small task to produce, seeing as how they're
shear size was larger than the average human. Although the word "listen" itself was
nowhere to be found, my past knowledge of this iconography filled in the gaps.
Regardless of their location/producer/meaning, it did not seem befitting for them to
spend their days behind a garden shed in a locked yard. This is when I came to the
realization they needed to be rescued and shown to the world. This was my justification
in hopping the fence, walking them out one by one, and propping them up against nearby
buildings. I was able to take some great shots that played on the contrast of colours
and perspective. Seeing them in their natural element, the streets, was reason enough to
leave these "listen birds" out and open for new viewership, interpretation, and a fair
chance at survival."


The socio-political dynamics of the ‘Listen Bird’ iconography is an interesting subject for both academics analyzing visual culture in Canada, and for the curious local viewer. The ‘Listen Bird’ symbol is graffiti in and around Edmonton featuring variations of a bird with the word “listen." Because the graffiti is anonymous, authorship and meaning is abound with controversy.
In an attempt to analyze the semiotics and contextual meanings of the ‘Listen Bird’ in public spaces within Old Strathcona and Downtown Edmonton, we employed a variety of media formats ranging from video interviews to primary source photography.

The ‘Listen Bird’ interpellates the viewer to create meaning. One could interpret this graffiti as having a singular meaning predetermined by the author. Because the image has been constantly reproduced without indication of authorship, the producer is insignificant and the viewer’s inference is influenced by several factors. Every individual has a unique perspective and varied experiences that influence their interpretations. Moreover, the context and location of the graffiti exerts power over the individuals’ understanding. As a result, it is clear that the 'Listen Bird' has infinite meanings.

Perspective Influences Meaning

This photo was taken near the train tracks crossing 100 ave near 109 st. The local Edmonton iconography know as the 'Listen Bird' comes in many styles and mediums. The styles however, are too disparate, thus it is highly probable that there are multiple artists replicating this same image, or some variation of it, within the city of Edmonton and beyond. It is commonly believed that the original graffiti was done with stencils. Regardless of its original approach, the 'Listen Bird' has now evolved to include markers, paste-ups, free-hand spray painting, and even stickers in this case. Its contextual meaning is a hard one to grasp. One thing for certain is that there is a message being relayed to the viewer, albeit a rather ambiguous one. Perhaps it is a condemnation of our busy urban lifestyles, our disregard for nature, or an awakening of the senses to just stop - and listen. Maybe it is asking us to listen to each other. Then again, maybe it is all just hearsay.

This photo struck me as odd because unlike other "listen birds" this one was painted onto a sticker. Usually the bird is painted directly on the object itself lending a feeling of permanence. The temporary aspect of the listen bird in this case reminds me of the David Hockney photo collage, Pearblossom Highway, discussed in class where many shots from different viewpoints of a desert intersection are used to make one image. Hockney’s collage shows that an image is viewed from different perspectives and fleetingly. Because this photo was taken near a train station, I imagine the listen bird as being interpreted in much the same way with people catching a glimpse as the train drives by. Graeme examined the image by exploring potential meanings all of which could be true for individual people. I took a different approach where the importance of this photo lies not in the meaning itself but the fact that everyone who views the image will see it from a different perspective and this in itself will determine the meaning for the individual.


The ‘Listen Bird’ iconography in this photo is extremely interesting and raises questions about meaning and authorship. The inconspicuous location of this particular ‘Listen Bird’ is similar to a variety of other instances noted in the photo collage. The seemingly arbitrary placement of this image in a place where an unknowing viewer would not notice it raises many questions about the representative meaning of the icon and the intended audience. Perhaps the icon is intended to have an esoteric meaning for those individuals who are actively looking for the symbol? Or perhaps, the unassuming location of many of the ‘Listen Birds’ is a method employed by the author with the intention to surprise the viewer - urging them to be more aware of their community and surroundings.


Context and Location Influence Meaning

This photo was taken on the University Campus. The "Listen Bird" interpellates the viewer. The word 'listen' “brings out in viewers an experience of being 'hailed'”(Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p.51). Because the word “listen” tells the viewer what to do, the individual cannot help but look at the image and interpret it as meant for him or her self. In this image of the Listen Bird, the 'listen' text unintentionally encourages the viewer to look at the poster. Therefore, the context cannot be fully controlled by the producer.


The relationship between the word and the bird in this photo is interesting. Although the bird is very large, in contrast to the word "listen", the word is situated directly above the bird, almost as a title for the piece as a whole. The word "listen" conveys a direct implication for attention. The viewer's attention and engagement with the image's message may be the goal of the producer, but that only leads to another question... who produced the image?

The producer noted for generating these 'listen birds' could be the collective of artists who partake, rather than the individual who first realized the concept. This anonymity gives the message a life of its own, detached from the constraints of individuality. It is irrelevant who authorship belongs to in this case. The designation of getting people to think about the 'listen bird's intended message is much more substantive. Yet the meaning is rather unclear. The easy reproducibility of this unique work may be contributory to why there have been so many replications. The capability of these reproduced birds, combined with their text, to circulate in many places simultaneously, has increased the ability of the 'listen bird' to captivate and persuade.


The relationship between the two subjects in this photograph is particularly interesting in a discussion of the semiotics of the Listen Bird iconography in Edmonton. While the poster questions the institutional structures and dynamics of the University of Alberta, the Listen Bird symbol, seems to further reinforce notions of protest and awareness.

The author of the ‘Listen Bird’ in this photograph is attempting to draw parallels of meaning between the protest poster and the Bird iconography. Thus, in this particular instance, the Listen Bird seems to be acting as a correlational symbol that further reinforces the message of protest offered in the poster. The two images, work in conjunction with each other to produce a meaning different than the original intended meaning of each in isolation of each other.


The Viewer Creates Meaning
(Link: listenbird2.blogspot.com-from an anonymous blogger)

Listen Bird Interview One:

This interview highlighted some interesting dynamics of the ‘Listen Bird’ iconography as it relates to viewer experience and representational understanding. In this instance the viewer is making a new and seemingly unique understanding of the image. The viewer is interpellated because he/she understands that the image should offer the viewer agency to create meaning. As Sturken and Cartwright assert, agency should be given to the individual and it is important to “[emphasize] the practices though which images and media texts reach out and touch audience members in ways that engender experiences of individual agency and interpretative autonomy” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p.51). Thus, this interview provides evidence to the processes by which viewers establish agency over an image by creating a personal understanding of the ‘Listen Bird.’

Listen Bird Interview Two:

In this video, the interviewee explains that the listen bird has “no fixed meaning” and is open to interpretation. In his opinion, the word “listen” refers to consciousness and implies universality. Although “listen” suggests awareness, the graffiti does not tell the viewer what requires consciousness and thus the meaning is left open to interpretation. Also, he speculates that it was started by one person and is now being copied. Although the location of the ‘Listen Bird’ is described as “random”, there is a suggestion that tagging is involved. For example, in the photos below, the same person has signed the image. This tagging is territorial in nature and explains why the listen bird is highly concentrated in specific areas. However, for the viewer, the author is not important, because the viewer is left to interpret the work in absence of the artist.


The preceding has presented and analyzed iconographic symbol of the ‘Listen Bird’ in Edmonton, Canada. Through a sociological analysis of the ‘Listen Bird’ it is evident that the original authorship and intended meaning has been shifted and appropriated by the viewer across time and space. Despite the loss of original meaning however, the iconography continues to resonate with the viewer in uniquely individualized ways.

Works Cited

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of looking: An introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Anonymous. (2010, April 7). The Listen Bird. Message posted to http://listenbird2.blogspot.com/2010_04_01_archive.html

1 comment:

  1. Actually, I commissioned the plywood birds for an event I hosted at Freemasons as part of the Exposure Festival. The management was gracious enough to let us store them there. Even though the bird belongs to nobody according to your post here, those birds actually did belong to me and the artist.



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