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Marcus Coates: Video Conference for the Birds

22 November 2023

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) and the Digital World


Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was a campaigner, natural history author, wood engraver, teacher and illustrator. His exquisite engravings are still as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century.  If he was alive today, he would have been at the forefront of campaigning for the natural world, using engraving as a tool to disseminate his love for the Northumbrian landscape and to alert the public about declining species and habitats. 

Marcus Coates is an artist and amateur naturalist. His works, including performances, sculptures, photography and video installations, attempt to create new perspectives for viewing ourselves as a species in relation to others. 

In 2019, Coates responded to Bewick’s Northumbrian birthplace Cherryburn, which is managed by the National Trust. He created Conference for the Birds, installing seven large papier maché bird’s heads in the Bewick print style in Cherryburn’s intimate domestic room. Visitors were invited to sit under the heads and listen to a group of birds discussing their life, their habitats, and their concerns for the future.

Now, for his new digital work, Coates has gathered the birds together once again to conduct their discussion in a video conferenceVideo Conference for the Birds is one of four commissions generated as part of the  Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project On-Site/Off-Site which is led by Newcastle University in partnership with the Bewick Society, National Trust and Arts&Heritage. 

Marcus said: “Thomas Bewick used wood engraving because the medium suited his extraordinary drawing skills, 'I know no drawing so subtle as Bewick's since the fifteenth century except Holbein's and Turner's.' John Ruskin 1819-1900. But, importantly it also enabled printing costs to be lower than more modern techniques, meaning his books were affordable to more of the population and therefore knowledge of the natural world was able to become more widely known for the first time.

“This desire to bring the natural world to a wider audience resonates with me, this is part of the motivation for re-presenting this work in a digital form. Also Bewick was a keen observer of mankind as well as the natural world, he celebrated the 'life of his age', offering depictions of human traits and traditions in his 'tail' pieces, bringing these worlds together in his books. Video Conference for the Birds, 2023 attempts to do this also, to give insight into both the perspectives of the human and the bird world.”

On-Site/Off-Site explores the potential of digital technologies to support contemporary art commissioning for heritage sites. Each of the works produced will respond to the work of Thomas Bewick who himself embraced the technologies available in the eighteenth century to manifest his love of the countryside and nature through exquisitely detailed prints, drawings, and engravings to reach wide audiences.


Art and natural history


Project lead Professor Vee Pollock, Dean of Culture and Creative Arts at Newcastle University, said: “We are delighted to be working with Marcus Coates again as part of our On-Site/Off-Site project. It has been really interesting to see how Marcus has brought his imagination, thoughtfulness and skill to the challenge of revisiting Conference for the Birds to create a new piece of work for the digital realm, and I'm sure audiences will be equally intrigued. This is the first of four works we'll be launching over the next few months  and look forward to hearing audience responses." 

Cherryburn’s visitor operations and experience manager Kay Owen said: “We’re really excited to be part of the On-Site/Off-Site project and to see Marcus Coates reimagining of the work he produced at Cherryburn. Marcus has commemorated Bewick’s contribution to art and natural history by turning his engravings into life-size sculptures. Video Conference for the Birds is a celebration of Thomas Bewick’s work that is still very much relevant today.”

Video Conference for the Birds can be viewed by visiting the On-Site/Off-Site website from October 26.

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences