Step into Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s new installation at the Toledo Museum of Art and you’ll be greeted by a chorus of bird calls: trills, chirps, and warbles, ebbing and flowing into each other. The hitch? Not every tweet is real; rather, a good portion of that birdsong is the product of artificial intelligence.
The work, titled Machine Auguries: Toledo, marks Ginsberg’s U.S. debut and represents her continued exploration into how the dawn chorus, the daily call and response performed by birds in the spring and summer, has been impacted by modern civilization.
Over decades, bird populations have greatly dwindled, not just due to habitat loss, but the effects of human-made noise and light pollution. So much so that birds have had to sing louder and at a higher pitch, if they even know when to sing.
“I wanted to consider the effects of our behaviors on other species, and as a human I can’t help but ask how their adaptation, or lack of it, then affects us,” Ginsberg told Artnet News. “What will there be without birds?”
To that end, Ginsberg gamed out an immersive sound installation wherein a natural dawn chorus gradually gives way to one filled with A.I.-generated calls, set against a backdrop of an artificial sky. The first iteration of Machine Auguries was installed at the Somerset House in London in 2019, with the latest edition, presented in partnership with Superblue, offering what Ginsberg considers a fuller realization of the work.
Where the natural chorus in the first installation was populated with British birds, the Toledo version has been aptly localized to feature 25 species, from the northern cardinal to the black-capped chickadee. These were selected by the artist with help from birding experts and locals such as the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.
“We chose the most iconic species to the local chorus—the birds that define the soundscape of the local dawn,” explained Ginsberg.
The generative adversarial network that powers the artificial chorus has also had a significant upgrade, having been built on a fresh dataset of some 100,000 field recordings from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Ginsberg recalled that the technology in 2019 could only make one-second clips; now, though, it can make complete four-second passages.
And all that in such a way that “we can no longer tell what is real or not,” according to Ginsberg, who tested out the artificial calls on the bird I.D. app, Merlin, and with local birding expert, Kenn Kaufman. The feedback from both was that the machine-generated calls were “indiscernible” from the real ones.
“That’s the highest praise imaginable for a technological project,” said Ginsberg, “but also the saddest outcome of creating an imperfect copy of an un-replicable, complex world.”
Which gets to the heart of Ginsberg’s practice, which has long probed “the conflicted relationship we have with nature and with technology, depleting one to prioritize the other.” In her pieces—such as 2018’s The Substitute, which virtualized the last male northern white rhinoceros, and Pollinator Pathmaker (2022), an algorithmic tool that explores the impact of human-designed gardens on insects—the tension between nature and technology is evident in both medium and message.
In Toledo Museum’s vast Canaday Gallery, Ginsberg has thus installed a lighting array that mimics the colors of a sunrise. As the hues shift from a grayish blue to a warm orange, an American robin sings, only to receive an A.I.-generated response. More birds join in as the day artificially dawns and the bird orchestra builds with deep machine calls emitted by 24 speakers.
In the end, under the bright light of the gallery, the viewer is left “in the absence of nature,” said Ginsberg, “taking time to listen to an unnatural reconstruction of the life outside.”
To the artist, this growing overlap between the real and unreal gets to the matter of A.I. at large. The advances in the technology, even during the six months it took to build out this project, have shifted the conversation between the first Machine Auguries and this latest iteration, surfacing, for Ginsberg, questions of authorship and what we choose to value.
But more so, it has sharpened her augury of losing the real to the unreal.
“Why are we in an A.I. arms race as we increasingly shut out the world around us that allows us to exist? The artificial robin may sound like a robin to even the keenest human—and A.I.—ears. But does it sound like a robin to a robin?” she said. “The A.I. has learned from what already exists; imagination still has a role in finding new questions.
“Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg – Machine Auguries: Toledo” is on view at the Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe Street, Toledo, Ohio, through November 26.