Conference of the Birds


First Show: 2 june 2018:
Location: Whitstable Biennale

Duration: 75mins-Variable  |  Caroline Bergvall: Lead artist, host |

Dan Scott: recordings, ambisonic set-up  | Speakers |

Forthcoming gigs: Tate Modern w/ Counterpoints Arts & EAS, London, UK, Spring 2020 | Galway 2020, Ireland September 2020


Conversation-performance for 1 host, 6 speakers, migratory birds and treated songline.

A cross-disciplinary performative discussion using Attar’s poem as a starting point for discussion and sonic perceptual transformation. Each speaker is invited to discuss and share various experiences and dimensions of exile, migration as it manifest in their perosnal experience and in applied in their work in the field. The form of the quest poem of the 30 reluctant travelling birds is at the root of the exchange. Commissioned by and premiered at the Whitstable Biennale 2018.

The speakers included:

Shadi Angelina Bazeghi (Iranian-Danish poet and translator), David Wallace (medievalist), Geoff Sample (ornithologist and environmental sound artist), Clyde Ancarno (sociolinguist, interspecies research), Cherry Smyth (poet, art writer and curator) and Adam Chodzko (visual artist) as well as a recorded dawn chorus of birds and notably a Nightingale settled for the season at Stodmarsh.

Set up ambisonically with sound artist Dan Scott, Conference (after Attar) develops into a cycle of sounds and vocal frequencies, including migratory songbirds of which a nightingale captured on their return to Kent this spring. A bassline runs through the space, a heavily down-pitched vocal songline based on medieval tonalities initially composed for Ragadawn by British composer Gavin Bryars.

Part 2

Conversation-performance for 1 host, 6 speakers, migratory birds and treated songline.

The 2019 commission by Dublin International Literature festivals rethinks this cross-disciplinary performative discussion, this time using the mad bird King Sweeney legend as a starting point for discussion and spacious sonic transformation.

Taking its starting-point in the old Irish tale of mad King Sweeney’s transformation into a bird and condemned to roam over Ireland in perpetual exile, the artist has invited six speakers from different disciplines to discuss its contemporary resonance. The conversation will explore ideas of journeying, ask how languages migrate and settle, how love poetry crosses histories, how traces create places, and will address urgent questions around resettlement, translation, elemental languages and endangered species.

The speakers are: Ceara Conway (Irish singer and visual artist) Vahni Capildeo, (Trinidadian Scottish poet),  Prof. Vera Regan, (Sociolinguist, Tracker of Bilingual Dublin communities), Geoff Sample (Bird recordist and sound artist), David Wallace (Medievalist Scholar and Cruise guide), James L. Smith, (Geographer of the Sea, Trinity Dublin). Programmed by Rob Blazey for live processing, Conference (after Sweeney) develops into a cycle of sounds and vocal frequencies. It also includes migratory songbirds recorded on their way out from Ballyhoorisky and Claddaghduff early September 2018 and a vocal bassline based on an old Irish melody.

As speech changes into waves and sound particulates, the discussion unearths shadows of song and infuses the voices with other memory.

Commissioned by International Literature festival Dublin (ILFD).


Photo credit: Thierry Bal

“From compere to shaman!”

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

The Conference of the Birds is a medieval mystical work by Persian poet Attar, composed of poetic sections, dialogues, conversations and parables in which allegorical birds are encouraged to set out on a spiritual quest. In keeping with this motif, our conversation explored ideas of journeying and asked how languages migrate and settle, how love poetry crosses histories, how traces create places, and the vast question of migratory and endangered species. Each speaker was asked to reflect on their own trajectory and how their practice and concerns might respond to the mystical initiatory journey set up by Attar.

Part 2 background

First developed as a commission for the Whitstable Biennale 2018, this exploratory discussion format aims to shift and enhance our attention between speech-led discussion and a more holistic and perceptual listening process.

Each Conference is recreated and redeveloped according to its hosting context, yet it always takes as its starting point a transformational narrative using birds as its leading metamorphic figure. Each invited speaker is asked to reflect on their own trajectory and how their specialist field/practice and concerns  respond to this transformational motif.

The subtitle to the Dublin commission points to one of the more famous imaginary birds of Ireland and comes from a beautiful and harsh medieval poem: the legend of Buile Shuibhne, Mad King Sweeney, cursed during battle and condemned to fly over many of Ireland’s geographies as a metamorphic and unresting talking/singing bird-shape. It has been the subject of many poetic (and now TV manifestation) and was translated as Sweeney Astray by Seamus Heaney (1983). A  tormented yet also intensely rich figure and poem.


Greetings! To each of you,
and of each of you more than you know,
and more of you than I know,
some of you in listening seats
some of you I rely on to speak,
and I will be your host.”

Jonathan Jones: The Guardian

4 June 2018

At first it seems Bergvall is not so much a performance artist as an academic who has brought together a panel of experts to discuss the medieval Persian poem The Conference of the Birds, composed by Attar of Nishapur in the 12th century. It turns out that poems, like birds, move freely around our planet.