A murmuration describes a flock of starlings and the intricate patterns that a large group of starlings create in flight. A murmuration is also the spreading of rumor(s).1 In 2007, I began a series of works about invasive species. Of the prevailing “offenders” I explored, the sturnidae, commonly known as the European starling, predominantly piqued my curiosity. Starlings are stout, medium sized black songbirds. They have a rainbow sheen that gleams purples and greens. Their wings are triangular, and their plumage is spotted. Their yellow bill ends at a sharp point.2 Starlings are considered invasive in the United States as they are thought to displace native birds from their nests and damage agriculture. Like many millennials, I began my starling explorations on the internet. Website after website told one variation or another of how European starlings made their way to North America. Universally, their introduction is accredited to the American Acclimatization Society. To acclimatize is to get used to a new place, situation, or climate.
The American Acclimatization Society is infamous in its endeavors to import every animal mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. It is generally understood that their main objective was to seek comfort through familiar creatures in their new locals. “Western European settlers introduced many species throughout the world because they wanted birds from their homelands in their new environs.”3 According to an article from the NY Times from November 15th, 1877, The Acclimatization Society reported “the efforts made in this country to introduce foreign birds” and that they “freed in the park some starlings” in July of 1876.4 Furthermore, Eugene Schieffelin is repeatedly blamed for his obsession with Shakespeare and his role in releasing said starlings.
It wasn’t until I prepared to begin my Fellowship with the Folger Shakespeare Library that I became aware that the narrative regarding the starling’s introduction to the US is most likely fiction. In Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness, Lauren Fugate and John MacNeill Miller wrote “Yet the real moral is more complicated because the Schieffelin story is more fiction than fact. Only a few elements of the narrative are verifiable. It is true that a man named Eugene Schieffelin helped introduce foreign birds to North America. The evidence suggests, however, that his role in the starling’s success has been overstated and his obsession with Shakespeare is entirely fabricated. The ravages of the starling have been inflated in a similar fashion. So far, empirical studies of the bird’s impact indicate starlings are at worst a negligible nuisance to traditional agriculture and native birds; for farmers, they may even be beneficial.”5
While it is true that starlings were released by The American Acclimatization Society in Central Park, the release dates from one historical document to another do not synch up and therefore are not definitive. It is not clear that the releases were performed exclusively by Eugene Schieffelin, and furthermore, there is no evidence that Schieffelin or the Society were motivated by the works of Shakespeare. The word confabulation explains a medical phenomenon, a memory disorder that is akin to amnesia, in which a person generates a fabricated account of events to compensate for memory loss.6 This is typically not done with conscious intent, but rather an automatic way that the brain fills in gaps in memory. The word lends itself well to the topic at hand, where one author generated a narrative to explain the history of the starlings’ introduction, and through time their story has gone from a confabulation to a murmuration, and yet it is considered the version of history that prevails. I’m fascinated by how this story has been repeated through time to become an accepted fact. That two separate meanings of a word has come to describe the physical and the cultural historical aspects of starlings. They are a murmuration in physical formation, as much as they are a proliferation of rumors.
As an interdisciplinary visual artist, my work explores relation-making between people and their environments through large scale installation. Environments might range from immediate urban landscapes, municipal land, to wilderness. My practice is rooted in the observation and examination of natural forms (both alive and inanimate) and their processes as a means of understanding, drawing similarities and speculating possibilities for the future. I use instruments and programs ranging from optical lenses to digital and moving images to compare and blur the natural and fantastical through sculpture, installation, performance, video, animation, collaboration, and viewer engagement.
In 2020, I began The Department of Planetary Futures (DPF) as a framework to structure a variety of interactive art and performance endeavors. DPF is a fictional entity through which multispecies collaborative experiments are employed to investigate the interrelationships humans have with other life forms and each other. At the heart of these endeavors is a desire to connect to the surrounding world and its organisms with care and humility; to learn from, engage with and speculate possible livable futures. The Department gave me a way to work that is not about me as an individual, and more about a conceptual undertaking that supports and uplifts variety of voices through collaboration and social engagement.
To acclimate is to adapt to a new temperature, altitude, climate, environment, or situation.7 As climate change progresses, all humans are continually in the process of acclimatizing and adapting to the realities becoming more prevalent. My Folger proposal was to extend DPF with a new section, inspired by the American Acclimatization Society, named the Division of Acclimatization. The main goal was to dive deeply into the way Americans define the environment as they know it based on the works of Shakespeare which have become so engrained in western cultural identity. That so many people have looked to his works to find comfort in their locations and build the environment and community they want to exist in, says a great deal about this lasting impact.
I planned to engage in a creative projection: a speculative approach to recontextualizing these archival materials to influence approaches toward a sustainable future. The aim of the Division is to re-contextualize the way Western culture views these works and finds parallels rooted in historic and modern examples that can be used in shaping an alternative future. The parallel I found was not what I anticipated.
I began in search of images displaying the American Acclimatization Society (where did they meet?) and its members (what did they look like?). I hoped to learn more about their “obsession” with Shakespeare. I did not find any of that. This, of course, is not the fault of the Folger. Although a frustrating start, I began to see this gap of information as an interesting parallel to what I was finding – which was also an ambiguous filling in of gaps.
Simultaneous to this research, there was an upsurge in the use of Artificial Intelligence with programs like Stable Diffusion and Dall•E to create images by way of text-based prompts. Stable Diffusion is a diffusion generative model trained with a fixed procedure on swaths of images. Text prompts are source language, or word vectors that act as sequence dimensions which patch vectors to create new images.8 A more technical description can be found at https://lilianweng.github.io/posts/2021-07-11-diffusion-models/. In basic terms, there are a variety of applications that employ Stable Diffusion in which a user inputs a text prompt to generate a series of images.
Two camps seemed to have developed: Artists who feel threatened by having their work stolen and appropriated by these programs and those who see this development in technology as an exciting new tool for image creation. Many artists are already undervalued in society and underpaid for their work, so I see how this development in imaging seems threatening. Artists have a right to protect their work. Computer learning and artificial intelligence are not new. My experience with these approaches has shown that while interesting images are possible, they don’t materialize entirely on their own. It takes human intelligence to feed the program a prompt, to edit the prompt until the right string of words produces an interesting set of images, and then to sift through the images to choose one that suitably meets their needs. Cutting edge technology can be scary, but I do not feel threatened by AI, at least not in the context of artistic creation.
This updated form of murmuration, or the perpetuation of a story told repeatedly with shallow roots to reality presented by AI image creation, is an exciting editing tool that I find ripe with opportunity for new forms of imaginative world building and speculation.
Within Shakespeare’s literary history, starlings have but a brief mention in Henry IV Part I. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion”.9 Hotspur aims to annoy his king by having the name Mortimer, his enemy, on loop, in murmuration. Here I call forth a third meaning to the word murmuration: the act of an indistinct murmuring, or the expression of discontent. One of the many traits starlings’ possess is their intelligence; they are renown songbirds and exceptional mimics. The training of a starling to do a specific task in repetition directly analogizes the machine learning done by artificial intelligence to generate new images from text prompts. Similarly, the underlying fear of AI seems an apt analogy to the displaced hatred of starlings.
Here a parallel arises: The demonization of Eugene Schieffelin and Shakespeare for their unconfirmed roles in the presence of starlings in the United States, and further, the mythologization of the extent of starlings’ invasiveness spread ad infinitum across literature and the internet by environmentalists and the public alike are both a misplaced and unfortunate judgements; a misunderstanding, a murmuration, a cunning filling in of gaps for the sake of building a compelling narrative. I see AI Image generation, the use of existing images confabulated together to create alternate versions of reality, as a way to reclaim, refabulate, and build an alternate past. These pictorials offer potential for endless possibilities as portals to imagine the future.
My project is currently taking form as an experimental animated film and has evolved to incorporate and compare images from the Folger collection with those produced by Stable Diffusion to fill in these gaps and otherwise produce the images that I was unable to find. AI is employed to expand on the story of starlings and their tenuous connection to Shakespeare by stitching together narrative elements that open new paths of investigation. Below are some short clips to help illustrate the trajectory of this work. These clips are created using a series of still images made with Stable Diffusion. The background is noise that is animated with data generation to resemble film grain in TouchDesigner, a node-based visual development software.
Figure 3. The American Acclimatization Society Building. Made with Stable Diffusion using the prompt “building, NYC, 19th century, black and white, old photograph, with sign “American Acclimatization Society”
Figure 4. The American Acclimatization Society, Members. Made with Stable Diffusion using the prompt “ building, NYC, 19th century, black and white, old photograph, with the sign “American Acclimatization Society” and a group of members”
Through this work, with the tentative title of Murmuration, I ask how myth perpetuation can be enacted to think forward. This project is ongoing. While the current form is experimental animation, eventually, the DPF Division of Acclimatization will manifest in physical space as a socially engaged installation and performance. The imagery of the animated film will explore ideas of acclimation and adaptation as well as change-creation and activation through sets of prompts. Some of the most exciting images that I have generated with AI text prompts depict Shakespeare becoming a starling and flying away. Below are a couple of side-by-side comparisons.
Figure 10. Murmurations, a sketch, Created with Adobe AfterEffects, Premiere, Photoshop and EbSynth. Credits: @Rainbowkittenism on YouTube “Catching a Wild European Starling in My Martin House”
The next steps to this work are to continue explorations in AI, including Chat GPT and other AI Poem generators to explore how texts can be formed through prompts.
I will continue to create animations, collaborate with AI to hammer out the script, as well as experiment with AI voice generators. I am curious to see what happens when a starling relentlessly repeats a word. Who will they speak to? And what will they say?
Figure 11. Animation of Shakespeare nodding using Image Title William Sartain. Portrait of Shakespeare. Oil on canvas, 1907. Source Call Number FPs27.
- “murmuration, n.,” OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed: Apr. 06, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/123936
- “European Starling,” BirdWeb. http://birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/european_starling (accessed Apr. 06, 2023).
- J. Marzluff et al., Urban Ecology: An International Perspective on the Interaction Between Humans and Nature. Springer Science & Business Media, 2008.
- “American Acclimatization Society,” NY Times, Nov. 15, 1877.
- L. Fugate and J. M. Miller, “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness,” Environ. Humanit., vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 301–322, Nov. 2021, doi: 10.1215/22011919-9320167.
- “confabulation,” Oxford Reference. https:// (accessed Apr. 10, 2023).
- “Definition of ACCLIMATE.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/acclimate (accessed Jan. 16, 2022).
- L. Weng, “What are Diffusion Models?,” Jul. 11, 2021. https://lilianweng.github.io/posts/2021-07-11-diffusion-models/ (accessed Apr. 13, 2023)
- “Henry IV, Part 1 | Folger Shakespeare Library,” Nov. 26, 2021. https://www.folger.edu/explore/shakespeares-works/henry-iv-part-1/ (accessed Apr. 06, 2023).
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