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An Essay on the Listen Bird: My Contribution to Cutbanks Magazine

Posted on 9 March 2010

Today, the final physical copy of Cutbanks magazine hits newsstands, coffee shops, and bookstores throughout Prince George. This was a valiant one-man project taken on by my former co-volunteer-worker Tyler Clarke, when we were both editors at the UNBC newspaper Over the Edge. He was tireless then, and he became even more tireless as he took on the ambitious project of writing, producing, and distributing a monthly magazine devoted to the arts and culture scene in Prince George. Unfortunately, the costs and the time have proven to be not worth it, and he is retiring the physical version, with the online version continuing for as long as he still has the time. I feel bad I didn’t contribute more; it’s a great idea and it’s unfair that the burden has been entirely on him, especially when there is so much interest in it. I did, however, contribute one thing to it: some photos and this essay on my favourite piece of grafitti: the Listen Bird. Here it is, along with some photos and links.

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The Listen Bird lives in my neighbourhood. At least that’s where I first encountered him, sitting on a garbage can at the entrance to the local park. I was amused by the simplicity of the design and the curious message, just a few circles and lines attached to a speech bubble intoning the viewer to do just one thing: “Listen.” I snapped a picture with my cellphone camera, made it my default background, and moved on.

Over the next few years, I started to encounter him everywhere I went. At first I thought he was limited to my immediate neighbourhood, the Heritage region near 1st and Foothills. Then I saw him cropping up downtown and thought he was a civic thing, but by the time I caught a glimpse of him on my commute through downtown Victoria, I realized that this was part of a much larger phenomena. When I started getting serious about photography (and by serious I mean actually owning and using a camera more than twice a year), collecting instances of the Listen Bird seemed like an obvious subject. And indeed it was, as someone had already started a Flickr pool (basically, a shared online photo album) devoted to sightings of the Listen Bird worldwide. Here, you can view pictures of the bird from coast to coast, be it the stylized versions found in Montreal alleys, the oversize blocks taking roost on top of the Edmonton skyline, or a bilingual pair recently spotted at a downhill ski resort.

According to discussion on the Flickr group, no one really knows who’s responsible for the first Listen Bird. It’s quite possible it originated as an armadillo in the mid-1980s, and was the work of a “bizarre songwriter and musician named Robin, last name unknown.” The geography, at least, seems credible, as an inordinate number of the birds posted to the group come from the Albertan capital. I’ve always thought of Edmonton as what Prince George would look like if it were to suddenly have a population boom and failed to do any urban planning, so perhaps there’s something innate to northern, semi-industrial cities that give the bird’s message poignance. While Vancouver and Montreal wear their culture on their sleeves, the charms of Prince George and Edmonton are apparent only to those who take the time to search for them, letting them soak in over the course of a number of years. Look at this magazine. It’s devoted to uncovering the hidden culture of Prince George, every issue flying in the face of the chorus of voices singing “There’s nothing to do here!” Against that backdrop, the Listen Bird’s message takes on an almost political tone.

One of my greatest fears is that one day an overzealous downtown beautifiation project will eradicate the Listen Bird’s presence. Yes, he’ll survive in the bathrooms of Books and Company, but what of the ones hidden away in bowling alley doorways, back alley bus stops, or the downtown post offices? The Listen Bird is public art in its purest form, given without compensation or credit, its message as open to interpretation as any other, its presence cropping up in unexpected places, giving the urban elements of Prince George a cohesive vibe while linking it to similar projects across the country. I don’t know if it’s one or two or more artists spreading the bird around the city, if there’s some underground movement in tagging culture that I’m not a part of, or if it’s just something that spreads virally, the way things used to before the days of YouTube and email forwards. And I don’t want to know. The anonymity of it gives the message a life of its own, untethered to a singular persona or public figure. Mao Tse Tung famously began his political journey with a 4000 character screed scrawled on the bathroom walls of his college, or so the story goes. Factual or not, it is true that many a political movement has galvanized public support by posting their message in public places where all can see, regardless of race or class or religious screed. And while the anonymous nature of the painter ensures they will never reach political notoriety, it also gives their message a time-and-placelessness that no personal manifesto can ever achieve.

 

As someone with no easily definable skills (communications professional with a political science degree?), I’ve had to spend a fair amount of time self-promoting. I’m not alone in this, as the internet age has rendered Google the new resume and Twitter the new handshake circuit. The Listen Bird is an antidote to all that. Whether he’s at the edge of the forest or the back of a bus stop, he serves as a reminder that there’s always a story left untold. The people and the things you can find in this city are as interesting and enlightening as anywhere else in the world. We have languages, bordering on extinction, that are absolutely unique to this geography and the culture that came out of it. Our history, written or oral, is as fascinating and as complicated as any metropolitan centre or rural outpost. The elements at play as we seek to define ourselves in the face of the 21st century can and does fuel debate as heightened as anything going on in the power corridors of Vancouver, Victoria, Ottawa. And the arts and music being created here may sometimes be messy and terrible, but they can also reach moments of unqualified greatness that I rank as among the best I’ve ever experienced. This is open to everyone. We can all find it. All we have to do is listen.

Filed under: Best Of, cities, ideas, Prince George

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