A/D/O by MINI | Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg's Machine Auguries



Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg's Machine Auguries

An AI-generated dawn chorus draws attention to the impact of urban activity on bird populations, in this sound installation commissioned by A/D/O at London’s Somerset House.

Waking up to the sound of the dawn chorus, as hundreds and thousands of birds sing together at sunrise, is to experience one of nature’s most impactful performances. Those living in rural regions are treated to this morning concert every day. But noise from cities and built-up areas drowns out the chorus, which is essential for birds’ communication and mating practices, and is therefore threatening many avian species.

Artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg draws attention to this issue in her Machine Auguries installation, commissioned by A/D/O and curated by Anne-Laure Pingreoun, for the 24/7 exhibition at London’s Somerset House. The show features over 50 projects that examine the changes in humans’ natural rhythms and sleep patterns in today’s “always on” society. But Ginsberg decided to investigate how our contemporary lifestyles are affecting other species.

“When I started researching for this project, I had no idea of the impact of noise and light pollution on birds and their ability to sing together,” Ginsberg told A/D/O. “We need to remember that we need birds in our environment, they're a crucial part of our ecosystem. So the absence of the dawn chorus is a disaster.”

She chose to focus on birds after moving back to the countryside from the city, and realizing that she had been missing the daily choir. This sparked an investigation into the impact of urban life on avifauna.

Machine Auguries combines sound and lighting elements to imitate the dawn chorus.

Machine Auguries is housed within a small room with benches for visitors to sit and pause. Above their heads, a series of dangling speakers begin playing a looped audio that features over 10 minutes of birdsong – mimicking the dawn chorus – and coordinated with lighting that changes from cool to warm tones.

Whether visitors realize or not, some of the sounds they are listening to were not made by real birds, but were artificially generated by a computer. Hearing birdsong out of context is also intended to spark a reaction from those experiencing the installation. “If you sit down and listen to roomful of birds, divorced from the outside world, what kinds of emotional response comes over?” Ginsberg asked.

Invoking emotional responses in the audience is key to the project’s aim in highlighting the environmental impact that our growing urban centers and increasingly round-the-clock activities are having on bird populations. Their inability to effectively perform the dawn chorus, which they use for defending territories and finding mates, is already causing numbers to plummet dramatically.

“What we're seeing, for example, in the US is a loss of 30% of the bird population since the 1970s,” said Ginsberg. “But they are essential to ecosystems, they're eating insects, spreading seeds.”

Birds are pivotal to the way our environment works. So without them, we're in trouble.

To create the artificial dawn chorus, the team collected thousands of recordings of birdsong from across the UK, then worked with experts to teach machines how to recreate the sounds. The audio is fed into a generative adversarial network, which learns by comparing multiple variations of a specific input – in this case, the birdsong – and uses the knowledge to create new artificial versions.

“We've used the technology that is known for creating deepfakes,” said Ginsberg, referring to the technique used to create false audio or video from real voice or image samples through AI. This technology has already been used to fabricate everything from political speeches to pornography, and has serious implications for the future of media. “Is this a good use of technology to create an artwork that brings attention to the loss of birds but at the same time, features a potentially troublesome technology?” Ginsberg asked.

The artist, who has a PhD from London’s Royal College of Art, has gained esteem for her work in the emerging field of synthetic biology.  Her previous projects have included envisioning new organisms that could help support our endangered ecosystems; designing genetically engineering bacteria to help identify diseases; and imagining the flora that colonize Mars without us.

“I spent about 10 years working with synthetic biologists,” Ginsberg said. “Engineers who are designing living things, going to the absolute limits of what is natural. In the last couple of years I have taken a turn back to look at ecology and nature, and our relationship with it, but often through the lens of technology.”

Following Machine Auguries, Ginsberg plans to continue her investigations into natural phenomena, creating narratives that highlight some of the critical issues facing wildlife and ecosystems. “I think it seems a really urgent time to be making work about our natural environment and telling stories about why we need to look after it, and why we need to change the way we are behaving and think about what we value as humans,” said the artist. “We can't live without the natural world because we're part of it. So for me, in my practice, I can tell stories about that. That's one way I can help and hopefully it reconnects us to what we care about.”

Machine Auguries is on show as part of the 24/7 exhibition at Somerset House until February 23, 2020.

Text by Dan Howarth. Photography by Luke Andrew Walker.

Production credits:

Machine learning: Dr Przemek Witaszczyk (Faculty).

Sound design: Chris Timpson (Aurelia Soundworks).

Research and design: Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Johanna Just, Ness Lafoy, Ana Maria Nicolaescu.

Birdsong consultant: Chris Watson.

Birdsong recordings: Chris Watson, Geoff Sample, The British Library, Sara Keen, Xeno-canto.

With thanks: Professor Ben Sheldon, Maria Diaz and Dr John Mansir of Faculty.

Production: Angharad Cooper, Karishma Rafferty.

Lighting: Lucy Carter, Sean Gleason.


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