From ABOUT to WITH, becoming collective
“We think it is time to focus on animal agency” McFarland/Hedinger
In her essay “Zwischen Wirkungsmacht und Handlungsmacht” (Between the power to influence and the power to act) in “Das Handeln der Tiere” (The Agency of Animals) the historian Mieke Roscher asks what is actually behind the term agency and what consequences its different interpretations have on the perception of animals as subjects. Subsequently, Roscher pleads for a clear differentiation between the power to influence and the power to act – the capacity of non-human animals to influence our history and the possibilities they have to take action.
In terms of new media one could speak of whether a protagonist is in the position to influence a system – to affect it – or whether he/she is able to act independently within it, or even develop systems on his/her own. In both discourses – human-animal studies and media art – one can refer to greater or lesser agency.
In the 90s our artistic focus was on interactive narrative. The systems that we developed were “self- running systems” in which the viewer could influence a course of actions that we had constructed.
In “InfiniteLand, Hugin and Munin under the command of reason” the viewers can manipulate the flight of two ravens. Sitting or lying on a large cushion, they navigate from the slipstream of the two birds and see what they see. The ravens’ world is a virtual 3D realm generated in real time on a computer. The landscapes only come into being in the course of the birds’ aerial progress. At the end of each “world” the next is already becoming visible. The terrain they are investigating is infinite, so to speak.1
It was the extensive work with the computer and the engagement in questions of artificial intelligence in that period that aroused our desire to involve living protagonists. Since then, many of our works have dealt with face-to-face interaction between ourselves and the two grey parrots that we have lived with for 16 years and collaborated with since 2014. The question of how to create the conditions for the most equitable coexistence possible was the starting point for this collaboration.
In the following, we will examine the question of how our network of human and non-human protagonists has developed and to what forms of agency it is or could be capable of. We will introduce a series of artistic projects in which both animals and apparatus play a role.
L’après-midi d’un avatar (2001), a real-time computer animation from 2001 deals with our first
encounter with the parrots. A night-time landscape. Two human avatars are strolling down a road. They talk about various communities, especially ones with non-human intelligence. They talk about their love for parrots and computers, about an Indian yogi and his field research, the social skills of the Borg Collective, and the superior logic of the Vulcans. The conversation ends where it begins.
The avatars that stroll through this lonely landscape absorbed in their conversation were migrated from “Cyberworld” – one of the first 3D online communities (even before Second Life), the creators of which set themselves the goal of creating a collective parallel world, a “metaverse” as described by Neil Stephenson in his science fiction novel “Snow Crash” (1992).2
The title (Afternoon of an Avatar) was inspired by Mallarmé’s poem “L’Après-midi d’un faune” and Debussy’s “Prélude á l’après-midi d’un faune”. But the image of the “wild” faun driven by erotic desire is non-existent in this barren minimalistic landscape, which is more reminiscent of the Romantic painting “Man and Woman contemplating the Moon” by Caspar David Friedrich or of a bleak science fiction scenario such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”. The Romantic landscape as a mirror of human emotions is superimposed by imaginings of feelings and ideals of non-human (animal or synthetic) protagonists.
Contact Call (2006) was the first work in which the parrots themselves “had their say”. The work examines their method of communicating with us, which was quite different to how we had imagined it would be. Although they use human vocalisation such as “hello” or “come here” they clearly prefer the utterances of non-human protagonists, electronic devices such as the telephone, fax and desktop sounds, the voices of their rivals with which they compete for our attention.3
We used this behaviour for an interactive installation in which the viewer, attracted by these sounds, approached two white boxes with proximity sensors and peepholes that were installed above head-height on the wall. To see through the peepholes the viewer had to step up onto two small pedestals similar to those used for circus tricks with non-human animals. Through the peepholes they could see recordings of two contented parrots that remained quiet as long as they were being watched. The recordings seem strangely real: we used a peppers ghost effect giving the animals the appearance of floating in space, like a hologram.
As soon as the visitor stopped looking or, more precisely, moved away from the sensors the ring tone calls would resume. Those viewers who observed the birds for a long time were rewarded with small surprises.
In the “making of” video of the installation KRAMFORS both parrots appear in the images like the patrons of medieval buildings or paintings. And in fact it was the two parrots that were catalyst for this installation in which we explore our paradox relationship with non-human animals (with animals we love and animals we eat).
KRAMFORS is based on the deconstruction of the eponymous leather sofa from a Swedish furniture chain. In the sculptural process, an individual creature re-emerges from the anonymous skin of a mass-produced product: a handmade calf, resting on the now-naked sofa as if on a pedestal and presented to the viewer at eye level.
The systematic approach to its creation, the skinning and cutting-up of the piece of furniture, is – not coincidentally – reminiscent of the slaughter procedures that already inspired Henry Ford in developing the assembly line. Accompanied by the parrots Clara and Karl, who observe the whole process in the studio, the viewers are invited to follow-up – “to move from the abstraction of social compacts towards the concrete, in order to grasp the real significance of such compacts.” (Barbara Engelbach)
“One of the most fruitful lines of inquiry might be to explore how humans have conceptualized
and sought to harness non-human agency, and the consequences of this
for humans and non-humans.” (C. Pearson)
The video installation Tales of a Parrot, Rereading the Tooti Nameh deals with the historicity of the agency term – that which we deem appropriate or possible depends on the contemporary cultural assumptions of the time.
The “Tooti Nameh” or “Tales of a Parrot” is a collection of stories of Indian origin written down in Persia in the 14th century. In the late 16th century, the Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned an illustrated version of the work with 250 miniature illustrations. The moral of the stories, primarily aimed at controlling women, were of great interest to him as the owner of a large harem. The main narrator is a parrot that has been given the task of looking after the wife of his owner, a travelling salesman. His skill and cunning – telling her compelling stories evening after evening – prevents her from visiting a lover and saves his life.
The video in the installation shows a modern parrot sitting in a speaker’s booth. Being a grey parrot, the bird belongs to a species that due to its intelligence and particular faculty of speech has been kept in the human environment since the early Middle Ages. They were regarded as mystical, prestigious and, not least of all, entertaining animals. In contrast to current research that – despite all success – consistently claims the inferiority of animals to humans4.
Karl was presumably born in the late 1960s or early 1970s in the Congo, caught as a young bird and sold in Europe where he lived with one or more owners. Finally, at the age of about 50, he was given to an animal shelter and it was from there that he came to us. On a summer afternoon we read to him from the “Tooti Nameh”, curious about how he would react to the tales of a fellow parrot from the 14th century.
In the video, after several minutes of listening attentively, he falls asleep. Occasionally he opens one eye as if something in the story has aroused his interest.
“There is no agency, that is not interagency” Vinciane Despret (2013)
In the same summer that we recorded that video, we began to focus on the parrots’ own creativity, their agency in terms of directing their power to act. This became apparent, above all, in the destruction of objects in our communal environment.
This destruction quite obviously had an aesthetic quality and we began to capture it photographically. In this way, among others, the series weekly, based on reworked magazines of the German weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”, came into being. While we read the black and white part of the newspaper, Clara and Karl reworked the colour magazine by climbing between the pages, biting them with their beaks and scratching with their claws.
This work was carried out with great passion. Occasionally they took a step back to have a drink or something to eat before getting back to work – just like we do in our studio. This was by no means automatic behaviour, before they started working they needed a certain context or atmosphere to be initiated e.g. by a long breakfast, time and leisure that we participated in.
weekly has developed into an ongoing series, for the continuation of which we have to provide the appropriate conditions. “Whether the parrots [Clara and Karl] are interested in the sensory qualities of the completed paper reliefs, whether of visual, haptic or olfactory nature, remains unclear” (Jessica Ullrich). One thing that can we can be sure of is that we “don’t simply [lead] parallel lives but lives that are interwoven” (ibidem) and that the works that come out of this are the result of our collaboration.
“By imagining and conceptualizing collaborations with other species,
humans will be forced to question our selfproclaimed center position in the world, a position
that has lead to immense destruction of the planet, as manifested by pollution,
climate change and mass extinction of species.” (Lisa Jevbratt)
Using examples from our artistic practice, we have attempted to map the path from agency as the capacity to influence, which directs the gaze towards the recipients, to an understanding of agency as the power to act, in which non-human animals are taken seriously in their role of sender.
We think it is time to stop regarding non-human animals as an object of projection or source of inspiration for human action but rather to conceive of them as active protagonists in artistic processes. Exactly how this is possible with new media, with technology and apparatus, in the face of which we as subjects have to repeatedly reassert ourselves, is something that we want to further explore in the future.
The simplicity and directness of the actions with which Clara and Karl appropriated an old medium such as a newspaper in “weekly”, raises the question of how new media (e.g. the computer as medium) could be used by parrots without them becoming controlled or disciplined in this interaction?
If we want to use new media in a way that reflects the agency of non-human animals as a power to act, then processes of deconstruction, destruction and appropriation will probably be involved as well, particularly if these electronic actors are perceived as rivals.
But perhaps it is also possible to enter a new realm of experience together as “animal ludens”. Parrots play and have always played, just like us – and computers could become interesting partners in this constellation. Perhaps experimental systems in which non-human animals, humans and hybrid forms such as AIs (the nature of which is determined for the time being by human influence) play or operate together, can develop a completely new kind of collective agency – and this is where we come full circle to our earlier works.
(This essay was first published in Ctrl-Z, new media philosophy, ISSUE#6 New Media Animals, conceived and curated by Guest Editors Jane Mummery and Debbie Rodan, http://www.ctrl-z.net.au ISSN 2200-8616 )
1 Hugin (“Thought”) and Munin (“Recollection”), were two ravens that served as the extensions of Odin, the one-eyed God of the Germans. They were sent out at the crack of dawn to fly over the entire world. They would return by breakfast-time and report on what they had seen.
“O’er Mithgarth Hugin | and Munin both
Each day set forth to fly;
For Hugin I fear | lest he come not home,
But for Munin my care is more.”
(Grímnismál – The Ballad of Grimnir)
2 From one of the senior programmers at “Cyberworld” we heard a story that apparently occurred on the developers’ floor of the SGI (Silicon Graphic International) building and became part of the avatars’ dialogue. The top programmers and engineers at SGI were used to bringing their pets to work and when a new management threatened to put a stop to this practice they quit their jobs.
3 For some time now, this affinity to electronic sounds has not only been observed in linguistically gifted parrots and ravens, but also song birds living in the wild that adapt short melodies of mobile phones and include them in their repertoire.
4 For example, in Irene Pepperberg’s study, regarded as groundbreaking in the field of linguistics, she speaks of how the grey parrot Alex has the intelligence of a five-year-old child but that his emotional behaviour is closer to that of a two-year-old (see Chandler).The comparison of animals and children is used repeatedly to cement the inferiority of animals, by treating their capabilities as a kind of precursor to adult humans. But not all non-human animals are children, and they too reach adulthood.
Despret, Vinciane (2013): “From Secret Agents to Interagency“, in History and Theory, 52 (4), S.29-44
Chandler, David (2007), Farewell to a famous parrot, Nature, international weekly journal of science, http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070910/full/news070910-4.html
Engelbach, Barbara (2012): “Of Images and Thoughts“, in Discrete Farms, Edith-Russ Site for Media Art, Berlin: Revolver
Jevbratt, Lisa (2009): Interspecies Collaboration – Making Art Together with Nonhuman Animals, Presented at The Minding Animals Conference, Newcastle, Australia, 2009. http://jevbratt.com/writing/jevbratt_interspecies_collaboration.pdf
McFarland, Sarah/ Hedinger, Ryan (2009): Animals and Agency. An Interdisciplinary Exploration, Leiden: Brill
Pearson, Chris (2013):“Dog, History and Agency“, in History and Theory, 52, S.128-145
Roscher, Mieke (2015): Das Handeln der Tiere, Tierliche Agency im Focus der Human-Animal-Studies, Bielefeld: transcript
The Tooti Nameh or Tales of a Parrot: in Persian language, with an English translation, Published 1801 by J. Debrett in Calcutta and London, Internet Archive:https://archive.org/details/tutinamahtootina00lond
Ullrich, Jessica (2015): Das Handeln der Tiere, Tierliche Agency im Focus der Human-Animal-Studies, Bielefeld:transcript