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For the past few weeks tens of thousands of people have been watching a live stream of birds visiting a coffee bar I built for them near Oslo. It’s like a reality show for birds.
It came about after my friend, the photographer Magne Klann, and I had an idea for a children’s book about two blue tits we called Paul and Celia meeting, falling in love and raising a family. It’s just a traditional love story really, but we wanted to give the birds human characteristics. Then we had the idea of them meeting in a coffee bar.
I’m an illustrator and I like to work in 3D, so I made models of all the different scenes in the book. The counter is 50cm by 40cm and took me about three weeks to make – I based it on a typical 1950s Scandinavian coffee bench, and built it out of matchstick-type bits of wood that I glued together.
The stools are carved teak, held together by wire. The lights are made out of plastic straws, attached to metal thimbles. I soldered wires inside them and added LED lights. The background, with the coffee machines and bags of coffee beans, is a photograph from Java, my favourite coffee bar in Oslo.
We played around with the scale to give the illusion of the bar being life-size, and in the end we were so pleased with it that we had the idea of leaving it in a garden somewhere, to see if birds would interact with it in real life.
We approached NRK [the Norwegian equivalent of the BBC], and they loved the notion of a reality show with wild birds visiting a coffee bar. It’s now in a garden about an hour south of Oslo, and suspended a metre off the ground to stop rats or foxes destroying it.
We’ve called the installation “Piip Show” because birds make a “pip” sound and because it’s a play on “peep show”, as there is of course a voyeuristic element to the project. About 30,000 people are watching every day – and when you consider that Norway has a population of only five million, that’s pretty good going.
I think people find it relaxing. It’s completely different from all the hectic noise of channels such as MTV; there’s something odd and unexpected about it that viewers seem to like. I also think people just get a kick out of seeing birds sitting on bar stools.
Behind the counter is a box of nuts and seeds angled so there’s always food available – a little trick we use to keep the place busy. But the other day a squirrel went bananas. He was taking away all the nuts and seeds and he chewed off some of the counter. So we drilled holes in lots of nuts and threaded string through them so that animals can’t just raid the shop, they have to eat in.
The bar has become a meeting place for lots of different personalities. We’ve had a bad-tempered nuthatch, a forgetful blue tit, a happy-go-lucky great tit and a depressed bullfinch. We’ve also got an aggressive robin who has a thing against one of the blue tits.
The most exciting thing about “Piip Show” is that life is imitating art. Two blue tits who visit the bar seem to have fallen in love. They often sit very close together and talk to each other. We’ve added two nesting boxes – in Scandinavia’s trademark functionalist style, naturally – where we hope they will continue their relationship.
The coffee bar as the setting for a love story has particular resonance for me: when I met my wife Tone 12 years ago our visits to coffee bars were very much part of our courtship. We got to know each other over those long afternoons chatting and drinking coffee together.
It’s my hope for the programme that the real life Paul and Celia will fall in love and have children just like we did. Birds meet each other and talk and fall in love just as we do. I really like to believe that.
nrk.no/piipshow runs until mid-June
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