CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS is a conceptual and actual journey of thirty birds in search of the mythological Phoenix, the enlightened human being. Inspired by the medieval Sufi allegory Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr (نطق الطیر‎), and the methods, practices, and ambitions of Islamic mysticism and American experimental art movements, this project foregrounds work that is both individually created and collaboratively tethered to other projects involved in a novel ecosystem of creative practice. Conference of the Birds reinvents the multi-layered medieval Sufi poetics of the original by creating a living, breathing version with similarly complex allegories and interconnections between projects and performers. Across poetry, film, music, visual art, installation, socially engaged practice, and new genres, this body of work was created online by the international experimental art and research collective Vision Lab over the course of this past year to address global pandemic, racial injustice, ecological crisis, and political malfeasance. Conference of the Birds engages a variety of techniques to enact human transformation and to invent new human futures and methods of regenerative possibility. Comprised of a core group of artists, poets, spiritual teachers, musicians, carpenters, filmmakers, scholars, activists, tech creatives, healers, yogis, futurists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and students, we range in age from nineteen to eighty, with members in diverse genres of creation, geographical location, ethnicity, gender, ability, and socio-economic situation. Our “identity” is continuous transformation.

The original medieval text, entitled منطق الطیر‎, Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr, is a mystical poem by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, commonly known as Attar of Nishapur. The title is taken directly from the Qur’an, 27:16, where Sulayman (Solomon) and Dāwūd (David) are said to have been taught the language, or speech, of the birds (manṭiq al-ṭayr). The story: As their forest is destroyed by fire, all the birds of the world gather in a clearing to decide what to do. The Hoopoe, a bird mentioned in the Qur’an as King Solomon’s wise Messenger, suggests they journey to find the enlightened Simurgh, a mysterious bird who dwells on Mount Qaf, a mythical mountain that wraps around the world. At the start, each bird presents an elaborate excuse for avoiding the journey, but the Hoopoe addresses each of their many hesitations, complaints, fears, vanities, and questions. She then outlines the perils of the journey, describing the seven Valleys they must cross in order to reach the abode of the Simurgh.

When the birds hear the description of these Valleys, they bow their heads in distress; some even die of fright right then and there. But despite their trepidations, they begin the great journey. On the way, many perish of thirst, heat, or illness, while others fall prey to wild beasts, panic, and violence. Finally, only thirty birds make it to the abode of the Simurgh. In the end, the birds learn that they themselves are the mysterious Simurgh, who offers its own shadow to manifest their lives with its every breath. The name “Simurgh,” in Persian, also means thirty [si] birds [morgh], which is not so much the name of the Phoenix-like divinity, but the reflection of whoever comes before it. The birds eventually come to understand that the Phoenix is like the sun that can be seen reflected in a mirror, beyond anything that can be seen directly. Yet, whoever looks into that mirror will behold who they truly are.

[adapted from the beautiful translation of the Persian by Sholeh Wolpé]


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