Every fall, starlings invade Rome. At dusk, hundreds of thousands of them—ornithological tornados—put on the most brilliant shows of morphing shapes overhead. Tourists marvel as though the sky were another art museum.
Thing is, there's no artist. However decorative these forms or suggestive their patterns, we cannot drive them back to a biography, a set of intentions, or even a single intelligence. The habit of clumping is thought to protect the birds from predators, but the patterning itself is a mystery, even for the birds: Like marchers in a parade, they never see the results of their ecstatic choreography. The artists Alex Schweder, Richard Barnes, and Charles Mason became fixated on the phenomenon, watching it in the EUR neighborhood—the location of Mussolini's unfinished fascist architectural district—during their tenure as Rome Prize winners this year. Their three-part installation response was first shown in Rome, and now is at Howard House.
So much senseless, pleasurable visual information is the perfect opening for an artist. Through Schweder's stationary zoom lens, segments of the flocks filmed in motion resemble phalanxes of warplanes, or the rapid-fire hail of enemy elements in an early video game, or bacteria swarming in a viscous concoction about to be ingested by some poor sucker.
Photographed by Barnes from afar and printed on absorbent watercolor paper, the birds are specks in a larger plot. They appear in dense, unrecognizable bunches, smothering the sky and creating scenes that may as well be charcoal drawings of a patch of velvety carpeting. When they hover over the fascistic architectural elements of the city, they become symbols of pure cinematic horror, Hitchcock's dreaded hordes. When they form black-smoke cartoons against a white or clouded sky (look for Captain Hook's appendage), there are always stragglers that provide a study in group dynamics as they test the prospect of their own destinies.
Alabama-based composer Charles Mason got closest to these variously symbolic birds—he reached in and took their voices. He recorded short bits of a single starling's song and the group voice of a flock, then layered, filtered, transposed, expanded, and collaged the sound into two compositions. One plays in the front room of the gallery, its subtly higher-pitched timbre corresponding to the lightness of the space where Barnes's photographs are on display. The other piece plays in counterpoint to Schweder's video installation in the darkened back room.
The interpolated birdsong is almost visual, pulsing with action against silence, its truncated, slightly alien sounds hovering, stalking, throbbing, and falling, driven by winged velocity.
Each artist treated bird behavior as a medium as well as an associative message. Schweder, a Seattle-based artist and architect, collapsed the boundless sky into gothic wallpaper merely by training his camera upward. A thick layer of birds, or a blank expanse of sky, fails to register as foreground and background, and instead, everything melts into a fluid, destabilizing middle realm. Schweder performed origami on his footage, folding the frame in half and then splitting it again to create four quadrants. Those quadrants are projected onto four walls suspended from the ceiling starting at about chest height so viewers can stand inside.
Schweder is known for reversing the relationship between architecture and bodies, for making architecture so physically affecting that it moves inside the body instead of the other way around. This installation is no exception. The birds stop being animals and become dizzying, uncontrollable swarms that pass between screens, the suspense of their random and frantic movements building the longer you stand in the box. Outside the box are the four robotic eyes of the silver projectors glinting in each corner. The whole room swirls and gleams, mesmerizes and repulses.
Barnes's treatment of the birds could not differ more. His dusty-surfaced photographs are silent as snow and warm as aged prints. I hate them being framed (only a few are), that layer of slick glass trapping their breathing; the rest hang from clips like the delicate, textured fabrics they are, knitting together specks from the printing process and speck-sized birds. Best known for his affectless, sociopathically banal photographs of the Unabomber's shed in FBI custody (seen at Western Bridge last year), here Barnes tames ominous winged masses (with their hint of fascism) so they become quiet drawings and soft textiles.
If there's anything these installations don't do with starlings, I can't think of it. Mason's sculpted sonatas are the equivalent of expressionist paintings, and they interact with the photography, video, and the air and walls of the gallery in infinite variations. That's what's so satisfying about Murmurs: it invents intentions and meanings that float off as soon as they're introduced, like starlings flying away, solid and black at first, then vanished into a depthless distance, over and over.