Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown between November and December 2020, I began observing the murmuration that takes place at Albert Bridge, Belfast. This culminated in filming the starlings on 16 mm photochemical film on the evening of the 31 December, the final date of UK’s 11-month Brexit transition period, and its cessation from the European Union.
"Species of all kinds, living and not, are consequent on a subject- and object-shaping dance of encounters." Donna Haraway
Situated just to the East of Belfast’s city centre, Albert Bridge is one of the oldest structures to span the Lagan River, and today, one of eight bridges in the city. Its current cast iron form dates back to 1890, after two arches of the original five span masonry bridge collapsed in 1886. A distinctly unique trope of Albert Bridge is that its girders are home to thousands of starlings that during the winter months congregate above every evening to murmur.
The term ‘murmuration’, finds its origins in the Latin murmurare, meaning ‘hum, muttering rushing’, and entered English via Old French, where it signified, ‘sound of human voices, trouble or argument’. While murmurations have long been a subject of interest, there remains little understanding of how they function, and ultimately how they collectively coordinate and position themselves in relation to one another. The birds that migrate to Northern Ireland each winter descend from Northern Europe, escaping the cooler weather in favour of milder temperatures and easier access to food. Their migratory pattern reveals mainland Europe’s close presence to Northern Ireland, and a continual flux of lifeforms between these two spaces, despite the political severing.
"I had this strange and extremely intense feeling, a conviction that the whole world, or maybe the whole beauty of existence had been placed on the back of this blackbird." Vinciane Despret
In conversing about her experiences of the Covid-19 lockdown, the Belgium philosopher Vinciane Despret discusses a recurring engagement with a blackbird nesting in her backyard. She refers to a feeling of being ’summoned’ by the bird’s song each morning, and a sense that what it was conveying was of importance.
Having written extensively on interspecies relationships, the author has coined the term ‘Anthopocacophony’, to describe the manner that the pervasiveness of human sound has drowned out animal life; an increasingly disruptive factor in many migratory patterns of birds and sea life. Despret suggests that the increased silence ensuing from the lockdowns offered a rebalance of such people, animals and places, and in turn, offered a rediscovery of something that we had forgotten; that we are not alone in this world. As if through the monumental disruption of the humdrum of everyday life, we have become more aware of the other.
The first time I encountered the murmuration at Albert Bridge was shortly after I moved to Belfast in 2018. At the time, I also met a middle-aged man who told me that he used to come to the bridge as a child with his father to watch the birds. He informed me, that on occasion he would document the starlings to later show to his elderly father, who was now mobility-impaired and largely confined to his house. This sustained, inter-generational bond, binded by the murmurs of starlings, was something of anomaly to the daily coming and going of people crossing the Lagan River.
If the disruption to human life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has engendered a space to reappraise human and non-human interspecies relationships, it has equally given voice to the myriad of ways that we affect one another’s existence. Despite a being overlooked, I wish to suggest that the starlings at Albert Bridge play an active role [tangibly and intangibly] in the construction of a place of movement and communication between human and non-human animalia. Equally, at a time of rupture of Europe as a collective border, their murmurs continue to bridge two geographical positions that are politically being drawn apart; manifesting both as a visual act of ‘trouble or argument’ above, and a form of resistance to increasingly dormant states of being.
The immobilisation of human life, resulting from contemporary geopolitical conditions and the Covid-19 pandemic, have enabled greater possibilities for animal life to broaden migratory behaviours. Despite this however, the murmuration that took place at Albert Bridge throughout the winter of 2020 and 2021 was significantly fewer than the tens of thousands of starlings that typically descend on the site, as were the case in previous years.
This discrepancy in number is believed to be the result of changing environmental conditions; that have lead to starlings increasingly looking to rural areas to murmur; an 80% reduction in numbers; and potentially less migratory behaviour due to a warmer than usual winter in Europe. Nonetheless, taking place at a time of political cessation and health emergency, it contradictorily evokes parallels to the manner that societies have become increasingly localised and immobilised.
The filming of the murmuration that takes places on December 31, engages a unique process of documentation. Employing a hand-wound Bolex camera, the ensuing images embed the limits of this mode of filming within the work. The length of each shot is determined by the analogue mechanism and its capacity to only film for approximately 30 seconds at a time, before needing to be re-wound.
The documentation of the murmuration follows a progression, from one side of the bridge to the other, interspersed twice by re-loading the Bolex camera. Shot across three rolls of film, the final roll of film was damaged in development, rendering the final murmurs of Belfast rooted in the European Union unseen.
[I] Collapse of Central Arches, Albert Bridge, Belfast, 1886.
[II] Construction of Albert Bridge, Belfast, 1890.
[III] Vinciane Despret, ‘What would animals say if we asked the right questions?’, 2016.
[IV] Vinciane Despret "Phonocene’: Bird-singing in a multispecies world", 2020.
[V] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008.
murmurs is project devised by Alasdair Asmussen Doyle as part of the Flax Arts online commission and made possible through the support of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Alasdair Asmussen Doyle is an artist and researcher currently based in Belfast, where he is undertaking a PhD at the Belfast School of Art, in partnership with aemi [Dublin]. Alasdair's practice employs moving-image and filmic heritage to navigate multiple relations of physical places and films.
This webpage is accessible only on desktop or tablet.