Seeing Spots

Seeing Spots

See project here.

Birds face various obstacles in the urban environment. Windows are considered to be one of the largest sources of direct human-caused mortality for birds in North America. Glass, wether reflective or clear, is effectively invisible to birds. Birds collide with glass because they are trying to fly into the habitats they see beyond or reflected by the glass. It is estimated that across Canada, 16-42 million birds are killed annually by collisions with buildings [1].

From experience, hitting something with your head, such as an unseen obstacle, makes you see spots. But what do these spots mean? Can they be seen as warnings? Are they hallucinations? Can they be seen as having an enjoyable aesthetic component; or do they just indicate bodily harm? In the case of the British artist Damien Hirst and in the light of negative opinion of some recent commentators, seeing spots has left this artist in the altered state of seeing dollars signs. In 2011, over 300 spot paintings existed, ranging in price from 7,000 to 25,000 euros, and have continued to increase in numbers and value since. In defence, Hirst has stressed these works aesthetic qualities stating that “to create that structure, to do those colours, and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of colour” [2].

Historically, paintings have been considered windows onto a world and the painter’s goal was to portray depth and a sense of space beyond its surface. This view of painting is parallel to how birds currently perceive unobstructed windows in an urban environment. During modernism however, painters began to deconstruct, isolate and explore the diverse functions of painting, one of which was to draw attention to its surface through colour and flatness. Hirst’s work participates in this trajectory. The Department of Bird Safety’s goal is to adapt his work to support the evolution of bird perception into the modernist paradigm of flatness and to use the window as a space for the contemplation of consciousness, both human and non-human.

In October 2014, the Department of Bird Safety was approached by the employees of the Aberthau Community Centre to help find a solution to birds hitting the centre’s windows due to their highly reflective surface. The centre’s main facade consist of four large windows located next to a children playground. The Department of Bird Safety proposes to use these windows to create an art piece that will deter birds from colliding with the building. The installation will takes visual notes from Hirst’s spot paintings and the dot pattern created by Feather Friendly, a bird collision company specializing in glass deterrents.

The installation counts a total of 3807 multicoloured vinyl sticker dots of 0.75 inches in diameters. In order to meet the Vancouver Bird Friendly Strategy and its Building Design Guidelines, each dot will is placed on in the exterior surface of the glass with a gap of 2 inches vertically and horizontally [3]. The colourful dots offers an enjoyable aesthetic component that are observable by both humans and birds. The vivid and playful spectrum of hues complements the playground and its surroundings. The wooden beams that surround each window also reinforce the idea of the frame and its surface.

Beyond indicating bodily harm, which could be a shared perception when experiencing head trauma, the dots acts as a warning to future misperceptions. Seeing spots can be interpreted as a symptom of the danger but also as the potential damage that would be done to the birds. The installation acts as a premonition and projection of potential dangers that lurk on the glass surface if a bird was to try to fly beyond it.

Like most of Hirst’s spot paintings that are executed by assistants, the Department of Bird Safety used a parallel process to construct the installation as a community art project involving volunteer participants. It is the collective’s mandate to produce socially engaged art that raises awareness about issues concerning endemic and migratory birds. The Department anticipated that through this project, citizens started taking into account nonhuman use of the urban milieu.


Feather Friendly® bird detterent applied to windows.


Spot painting by Damien Hirst.

[1] Bird Friendly Strategy, Vancouver.

[2] Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, ‘On the Way to Work’, (Faber and Faber, 2001), 119

[3] Bird Friendly Strategy, Vancouver.

Photos: Convenience Group & Hip Gallery

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