‘No matter how you see nature now, you’ll never see it the same way again’,
On 1st December the Wellcome Collection opened the doors to their most recent exhibition, ‘Making Nature: how we see animals’, kicking off a yearlong programme that delves into our relationship with the natural world. With less than reassuring political commitments to the global environmental trajectory mapped out at the start of 2017, its revolutionary pitch sounds about right. Indeed encouraging in itself, the zany display joins a wider positive trend within art, science and technology that lends me optimism to trust in its confidence.
The meaning of the German word ‘Umwelt’ recently fell into my lap with coincidental and fortuitous timing. Literally translated as ‘environment’ or ‘surroundings’, the concept was developed in 1909 by Jakob von Uexküll, Baltic Biologist and “father of ethology” (the science of animal behaviour). Put simply, it’s the study of how living organisms experience and interpret shared environments subjectively, acknowledging variations in perception, communication and signification. This pursuit and appreciation of life through the eyes of other beings surfaces in an intriguing and important way in Making Nature, and is doing so far beyond.
“Goodbye, I love you.”
Allora and Calzadilla, The Great Silence, 2014
At the entrance to the exhibition, The Great Silence is a dual video installation by contemporary artists Allora and Calzadilla, audibly and textually narrated by Alex - a parrot. The footage parallels a Puerto Rican sanctuary for endangered parrots, with the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest single-dish telescope, used to monitor communications with extra-terrestrial life. Alex’s empathic voice draws from Irene Pepperberg’s scientific research into the sophisticated communication and emotional complexity of Parrots. His sign off – a real excerpt – is a tribute to her incredible findings, and a wake up call to us viewers. We search endlessly for alien life whilst those closest to us gradually disappear.
Our attempt to inhabit Alex’s non-human perspective is made more striking by what follows. The four themes of the exhibition - ‘Ordering’, ‘Displaying’, ‘Observing’ and ‘Making’ - trail the shifting religious, social and cultural history of human interactions with, and public perceptions of nature. It winds through eclectic art and artefacts, alongside institutional constructions of nature in museums, galleries and zoos. What emerges, particularly since the nineteenth century, is the increasing tension between the assertion of an anthropocentric hierarchy, and the preservation of ‘wildness’.
Anthropomorphised taxidermy dioramas, commercialised zoo mascots, and tigers kept as pets. The final room sees the logical conclusion of this course today. A display co-curated by the Center for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh, USA, exclusively shows examples of human interference with the reproduction, habitats and DNA of various organisms, and their place in human culture. Domesticated pigeons to alcoholic lab rats. Through many different forms and for a host of reasons, our denial and invasion of the subjectivity and agency of other creatures knows no bounds.
‘As with the visually seductive natural history documentaries on our televisions, the danger is of looking at animals but not seeing them.’ Exhibition information guide
The late and brilliant John Berger approached these issues of representation and repression of animals in About Looking, 1980. Along with the physical, he discusses the process of ‘cultural marginalisation’, and the emergence of the ‘so-called silent majority’. From Disney’s Donald Duck to the explosion of animal picture books, our ideology over the past two centuries has positioned animals always as ‘the observed’; vehicles for our expanding knowledge and power, but increasingly distant from us in reality.
These ideas are explored particularly in the ‘Observing’ section of Making Nature, and interestingly with specific reference to natural history documentaries, around which similar debates have recently cropped up. Planet Earth II - Attenborough’s latest masterpiece - whilst attaining the highest performing title of 2016 across all television, did not go undisputed. Fellow BBC presenter of Springwatch, Martin Hughes-Games, warned against its mode of ‘escapist wildlife fantasy’, and its disregard of the ‘worldwide mass extinction’ currently underway.
Amongst the series’ suite of state of the art filmic devices that Hughes-Games likely had in mind was the sensational and breath-taking imagery from an eagle’s eye view, 5,000m above the Alps. The shots, accomplished through a miniature 4k 'lipstick' camera strapped to the eagle’s neck, achieved “unparalleled” results, Attenborough himself admitted. They might indeed be the most fantastic yet, but is this necessarily irresponsible in terms of how we view nature?
The process of filming this sequence was posted on the BBC website, where it stressed that in combination with footage of wild birds, the point-of-view camera allowed for the ‘true sensation’ of the eagle’s flight. Despite controversy over the use of a trained bird (by a conservationist whose intention it is to return them to the wild, it should be noted) the results wielded a worldwide surge of astonished and amazed responses on Twitter, and contributed in part to the unprecedented impact of the series worldwide.
‘Above all, through designing-with other species, ACI could help us reassess what sustainability is about and reconsider our place within a shared, fragile ecosystem’, Clara Mancini, ‘Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): changing perspective on HCI, participation and sustainability’, 2013
Like with Alex the parrot, we no longer simply observe the eagle, but are invited to inhabit its perspective. Rather than moving further away, we come closer to our fellow animals, and an appreciation of their experience of living in the world we share. Whilst vital that this is joined by exposure to the realities of accelerating climate change and species extinction – of which Planet Earth II might admittedly have more thoroughly addressed – the impact of an experiential shift from our own outlook seems useful, and the overwhelmingly positive and widespread response is encouraging.
POV cameras are not new to scientific and conservationist communities – NatGeo has been working with Crittercam, for example, since 1987. But it’s more recent that they are moving into the public realm, helping to change our perceptions of nature and bring attention to critical environmental issues. Earlier in January, POV footage of Polar Bears in the Arctic was released by the USGS on Facebook and quickly spread, allowing our immersion into the effects of thawing sea ice on the endangered bears. Young Brighton-based Artist Felix Prater recently took a similar approach recently; recording life in Brighton as an urban fox. Similarly, in the world of Animal-Computer Interaction, “pawticipatory” design processes are increasingly developing technology, programmes, and games that cater to a multi-species community.
"We know human activity is having a negative impact on the planet, we know that a lot of the problems to do with biological diversity are as a result of the ways we've thought about nature,” Honor Beddard, exhibition curator
In 2011, Neuroscientist David M. Eagleman expressed his hope for the concept of the ‘Umwelt’ to become ‘embedded in the public lexicon’, for its capacity to capture ‘the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities’. The current trend of re-orientating our gaze to a non-human perspective, in Making Nature and beyond, approaches an answer to his call. It is a powerful tool to broaden our concept of reality, and challenge our hierarchical relationship with an increasingly fragile environment. In turn, this will hopefully aid a necessary shift in the way we treat the world around us.
Making Nature: how we see animals has free entry, and will run until 21 May 2017.
For more information, see: https://wellcomecollection.org/MakingNature