New public art installation is ‘Pleased to meet’cha’

Nina Katchadourian’s playful piece activates a quiet grove with human-voiced bird calls

The chattering noises coming from the oak trees outside Brochstein Pavilion sound like unfamiliar birds.

"Please, Please, Pleased to Meet'cha" will run through September 30. (Photo by Nash Baker)

“Please, Please, Pleased to Meet’cha” will run through September 30. (Photo by Nash Baker)

Some croak like big-bellied frogs. One meows distinctly like a cat. And then, if you listen even more closely, there’s a clearly enunciated sound that’s definitely not coming from a wild animal: “Please. Please. Pleased to meet’cha.”

These are human voices, echoing out of speakers mounted in the trees. They ring out between the Humanities building and Herring Hall from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day as part of a new Rice Public Art installation by interdisciplinary artist Nina Katchadourian.

The piece, “Please, Please, Pleased to Meet’cha,” was first commissioned in 2006 by Wave Hill, a 28-acre park in the Bronx, and it’s now running at Rice through September 30. Katchadourian, whose work often considers the human relationship to the natural world, employed a dozen United Nations translators and asked them to interpret something far outside their typical tasks: bird calls.

None of the U.N. translators had ever before heard the birds they were supposed to mimic. None of them were even familiar with the birds Katchadourian chose for the piece, which include grackles and catbirds. They were simply given phonetic and visual interpretations of each bird’s song — the chestnut-sided warblers’s distinctive chirps that can sound a bit like someone saying “please, please, pleased to meet’cha,” or the chickadee’s perky “fee-bee, fee-bee.”

Passersby hearing the faux bird calls do double-takes, occasionally jumping off the gravel sidewalks and craning their necks to figure out where the noises are coming from. This, said Katchadourian, was her intention.

“I want people to be a little puzzled about what they’re hearing,” said Katchadourian, who describes that first moment when someone notices the sounds as “productive confusion.”

“A lot of things become possible in that moment,” she said. “You can explain that sound to yourself in all kinds of crazy ways, and there’s a lot of freedom — mentally and conceptually — in the thinking that we do in those moments when we aren’t quite sure what’s going on.”

“I want people to be a little puzzled about what they’re hearing,” said Nina Katchadourian, pictured here at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. (© 2014 MMA, photographed by Jackie Neale)

“I want people to be a little puzzled about what they’re hearing,” said Nina Katchadourian, pictured here at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (© 2014 MMA, photographed by Jackie Neale)

Maybe that moment activates a place that you haven’t paid attention to before, a place you’ve walked past a thousand times. Or maybe it engages something in your soundscape that you haven’t been listening to before. Regardless, Katchadourian hopes you’ll walk away with your ears attuned to the world a little differently.

“Maybe you walk away and hear the birds in a way that you haven’t or conversations between people in a way that you haven’t,” she said.

“In tandem with the Moody’s spring focus on ecology and the environment, we are delighted to present ‘Please, Please, Pleased to Meet’cha’ as a temporary public art installation,” said Alison Weaver, executive director of the Moody Center for the Arts, who oversees Rice’s public art program and noted the site of the installation was as intentional as its playful tone.

“Through whimsy and humor, Nina’s work brings attention to the trees on campus and the ways we interact with the natural world,” Weaver said. “The sound work activates an often overlooked grove and creates an unexpected encounter as students and visitors walk across campus.”

The installation’s cheekiness encourages people to chuckle at the “meows” squeaking out unexpectedly from the trees. It’s the same mischievous impulse that once famously inspired Katchadourian to, for instance, create an audio tour offering visitors an unexpected perspective on New York’s Museum of Modern Art by examining its dust.

“I often like to work with humor because I think it’s a very good way in for people,” Katchadourian said. “It welcomes a person in and makes them curious, and I think that it brings a kind of unexpected joy to everyday mundane life to encounter something like this.”

And once people are drawn into artwork this way, she said, they can be inspired to think outside their own boxes and their own day-to-day experiences.

“Humor is very useful because you can draw someone very close with it and make them think about something unexpected, then perhaps change the topic a little bit and make them think about something else,” Katchadourian said. For example, how do we react to a male versus female voice? Or how do we react to a voice we don’t know when we hear it in a public space? Those aren’t always comfortable experiences.”

Students walk past the grove of live oaks outside Brochstein Pavilion. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Students walk past the grove of live oaks outside Brochstein Pavilion. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

In the 13 years since it was first commissioned and installed in Wave Hill, “Please, Please, Pleased to Meet’cha” has been set up in an assortment of outdoor spaces, from lush parkland to busy city streets. Witnessing the variety of responses in the varied settings has been one of the most interesting aspects of the piece for the artist.

“I’ve learned something about the difference between hearing it in a garden versus a very urban setting, where the presence of a human voice has a very different context,” said Katchadourian, who noted that in spaces like a park, the tendency of passerby was to look for the birdsongs coming from animals themselves. “In downtown Brooklyn, where there is a high density of people, it made you ask yourself, ‘Where is the crazy person hiding in the bushes?’”

At Rice, where parkland and people intermingle, the response could go either way.

“I’m excited about the Rice campus because it’s a little bit in between,” Katchadourian said. “It’s so full of trees and it’s such a beautiful, big, green space, but also there’s a lot of human life there. Will it skew toward nature? Will it skew toward the social life of humans?”

One response she hasn’t noticed in all these years, however, is any birds mimicking the “bird calls” coming from the installation.

“It would be amazing if that started to happen, like a weird feedback loop,” she said. “It’s perfectly feasible to me that they might become responsive to something that’s in their environment for six months.”

“Maybe without realizing it, I’m affecting the trajectory of bird sounds on the Rice campus,” she said.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.