A multimedia experiment, thinking through ways of translating starlings using typography, text, digital media and music.
Culturally we are ambivalent in our opinions on the starling. It is a glutton, it is noisy, it is smelly. We call them shitlegs. We call them stinker.
In the United States they are more ubiquitously reviled than here. They are a pest who ‘consume livestock feed and contaminate it with their droppings.’ They ‘pose threats to safe aircraft operations, and may cause property damage due to accumulations of feces and other activities.’ ‘Typical methods for controlling starling damage include a combination of harassment, exclusion, pyrotechnics, shooting, and trapping. … Nightly harassment at roost sites utilizing lasers, or in some cases habitat modification to remove roost trees and structures, may be needed to deter starlings from using an area.’ ( and ask.usda.gov)
When you look for research articles on Starlings they are overwhelmingly exploring ways of getting rid of them.
When the birds gather to roost in Winter a change comes over us. We film them. We follow them. We call them murmuration.
I visit a spot on Bodmin Moor where they gather in great clouds, circling and turning about a plantation patrolled by buzzards. The starlings pause in the field, rise and join, splinter, amalgamate, twist, bunch, rarefy. We call them mesmerising. We call them incredible. We call them something special. (#murmuration)
It is easy to focus on the murmuration as an entity, a fluid shape, those twists and whirls. This one looks like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, that one is the shape of a giant bird. A mushroom. A humpbacked whale. Abraham Lincoln. A Yorkshire pudding. An eel.
Even the starling’s voice is most often noted only for its likenesses - its mimicry – its ‘borrowed repertoire’, to quote the poet David Hartnett.
Mozart bought a starling in Vienna when he heard it whistling one of his own compositions – a composition that hadn’t even been made public yet. But the starling had made an alteration, which Mozart noted in his journal. It had introduced a horrible note – a note so dark and jarring and un-Mozart-like it was as though the bird was trolling him.
A horrible note perhaps, but an innovation. It went like this:
What does the starling sing when he mimics? He sings the telephone. He sings the cricket club’s burglar alarm. He sings the curlew. He sings the plover.
The starling sings a place – the world around him – and he adds to it. The starling is a storyteller. A collection of starling songs could create an aural patchwork map of the world.
Sometimes we forget the individual. Each its own articulation, its own story. Not just a letter, not just a phrase.
In this project I wanted to place importance on the individual possibilities of each bird – each letter or gesture at once its own thing and a component – an individual and a part of something else. How to allow both?
Process seemed the way, allowing the letters and parts to have an ongoing interaction, ever changing, with infinite possibilities, highlighting both the individuals and creating patterns. To begin with I imagined the birds as marks – pencil marks, then type marks – on the page. A constraint for the original work was that it would be printed. Within this constraint there are possibilities. Starlings make lovely single marks as individuals but also shapes and absences the typesetter might recognise as rivers and rags within the murmuration.
Drawing attention to the single letter within typography, as well as the way in which each letter contributes to the whole page, was a concrete and conceptual parallel to the starling as individual and the starlings as murmuration, if not quite giving a sense of the individual’s story. To develop the individual stories of the birds I would need to layer the story of the letters and the type.
As I was playing with the translations I found an alternative. I pressed the wrong button on an image document and it turned on character recognition. Peculiarly, many of the starlings could be translated into a range of glyphs and characters in the programme’s repertoire. Gradually I copied and pasted these into a text document. These marks would come to make up the big swirly three-quarter circle at the top of this page.
I played with kaleidoscopes using toilet roll and tin foil. I printed single letters with different inks using a little Adana letterpress – a process that informed the quoin poem. I played with annotation and music boxes, translating the static murmuration of some of the photos into punch-cut marks that can then be played through a 30-note music box I built. The performance of some of these can be seen in the gallery and videos below. (Addendum: As I was sharing images on Instagram a poet friend showed me the work of the artist Kathy Hindes, who has done lots of work with image translation and music boxes, including work on the migrations of birds! This work can be found on Kathy's website here.)
Translating the marks can serve all sorts of purposes. It is exploratory. It can create dissonance and it can create harmony. In all events it is removing an important context from the originally observed phenomenon. The process highlights the original context and disrupts it. Ultimately, the text accompanying these photographs explores the relationship between the observing human and the observed animal – acknowledging the observation, the pattern-making and seeking, the spectacle, the translation into the human experience, while at the same time resisting these. I want to suggest there is more to the starling than this beautiful spectacle without detracting from the spectacle itself. I suspect this was an internecine endeavour in some respects but at the very least I hope the results might be considered surprising, provocative or interesting.