Birds of a feather

Simulated bird calls overlap with the real thing in Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s latest installation.

The largest indoor installation to date of artist and Design Indaba alum Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Machine Auguries: Toledo, is an immersive presentation that prompts questions about the implications of growing urbanism on bird populations.

The site-specific installation, in Toledo, Ohio, USA, replicates the captivating phenomenon of the ‘dawn chorus’, showcasing the daily ritual of birds during the vibrant spring and summer seasons as they engage in territorial defence and seek companionship. However, in Ginsberg's installation, the authentic sounds of this dawn chorus gradually yield to the presence of artificial birds, their melodies intricately crafted through the power of machine learning. 

‘Light and sound pollution from our 24-hour urban lifestyle affect birds, who are singing earlier, louder, for longer or at a higher pitch to communicate. But only those species that adapt survive,’ says Ginsberg. ‘Machine Auguries questions how the city might sound with changing, homogenising or diminishing bird populations.’

To generate the artificial intelligence (AI) recordings, tens of thousands of field recordings of bird species native to the Toledo region were used to train two neural networks, pitted against each other to sing in what is termed a generative adversarial network. During the days of the machine-learning process, the artificial birds became increasingly lifelike. They incrementally improved as their calls grew in fidelity, mimicking how many bird species develop their songs by learning from each other in the wild.

The installation includes an array of lighting that transports viewers from the deep blue hues of predawn to the pink and gold shades of sunrise. Visitors sit together in a clearing under the artificial sky and listen to the call and response between real and AI birds.

The first iteration of Machine Auguries was unveiled at Somerset House in London in 2019. This latest offering, which Ginsberg considers a ‘fuller realisation of the work’, will run until 26 November 2023 at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.


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Photographs: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Madhouse.