Animal imagery is everywhere, from exhibits in natural history museums to telecommunications commercials on TV. Many humans have a penchant for looking at animals and a fascination with their images, and this served as the theme for a recent symposium at York University in Toronto, Canada. On February 1 and 2, 2007, 'Envisioning Animals: Animals in Visual Culture and Contemporary Human-Animal Relations' brought together scholars and artists from around the world to discuss the myriad implications of animals in visual culture, particularly in the West, and to address fundamental questions, such as 'How does animal imagery affect the way humans relate to animals in our society?' And, 'What does this suggest about human interpretations of wildlife, wilderness and urban animals?' During the symposium, conversations centered upon questions of truth and authenticity in relation to animal imagery; the importance of critical histories for contemporary interpretations of animal-human relations; and within representation, the ways in which real animals are typically collapsed into species being rather than encountered as individuals. Presentations concentrated on specific cultural contexts, illuminating that there are important insights to be drawn from such a detailed, focused scholarship. Sites of investigation included natural history museums, 19th century hunting expeditions, suburban landscapes and zoos.
The interdisciplinary gathering was organized by York Professors Leessa Fawcett of the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) and Matthew Brower of the Faculty of Fine Arts, who both sought to deepen understandings of the significance of imagery in human-animal relations. "We were inspired by the rich interdisciplinary confluence of ideas between Matt's work in visual culture and mine in human-animal relations," Fawcett said. "Through this symposium, we hope that new knowledge will be created and new partnerships and friendships will be developed in this area of animal studies." Indeed, both days of sessions fostered interdisciplinary discussions as a key methodological practice of animal studies. We believe that the fluctuating (and porous) boundaries of animal studies speak positively to the diverse collection of scholars currently engaged in this area.
The symposium was made possible through the generous support of the Social Science & Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Humane Society of the United States Animals & Society Course Awards, the Canada Council for the Arts, York's Office of the Vice-President Academic and the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation.
Presenters and Papers
The symposium showcased five scholars and artists who presented on a variety of topics dealing with the display of animals and their images. Local Toronto artist and researcher Vid Ingelevics provided a history of natural history museums, proposing that the addition of an exhibit of "The Museum of the Hunter/Gatherer" could provide a creative space for critical dialogue within such institutions. During his presentation, for example, Ingelevics emphasized how 'specimens' were obtained for museum collections, and how the language used to document the process, such as 'procurement,' lacked references to actual hunting expeditions, which were necessary for the production of such exhibits. Further, Ingelevics' scholarship considered the museum as a cultural site itself, suggesting that the process of history-making inherent within museum collections be reflected in those institutions. Ingelevics displayed many provocative images, including early photographs of museum rooms packed full of animal bodies. We were struck by the apparent excess, lack of organization and imperial gluttony visible in these images, in contrast the current supposed noble goals of natural history dioramas.
Diane Fox, whose scholarship and artistic practice involves photography, focused on the display of dead animals in "Constructed Realities: the Diorama as Art." At times, her photography presents images of taxidermy animals who appear startlingly aware and animated. In particular, Fox notes that those animals who meet the gaze of the human observer seem the most alive. Her photographs that capture the outside reflections on the animal display case glass seem to bring humans back into the scene. We wonder if perhaps such photographic rendering helps to hold us accountable for our active construction of animals, thus interrupting the myth of the omniscient, objective gaze? From our perspective, these haunting images help inspire an awareness of how humans reflect ourselves not only onto the material (glass), but also onto the symbolic boundary that separates us from non-human Others.
Lisa Uddin critically examined another mode of 'naturalized' animal display, concentrating on the issue of "Endangered Civility: Animal Display in the New American Zoo." Addressing the apparent inter-constitution of zoos and society, Uddin described a transformation in the "Californian" identity reflected in the creation of a new San Diego wildlife park during the 1970s, which likely emerged from perceived threats of a changing regional demographic, due in part to immigration and processes of urbanization. Through an analysis of California real estate advertisements, juxtaposed against a magazine article promoting the creation of the San Diego wildlife park, Uddin demonstrated how the re-figured frontier landscape was used to inscribe and enforce a normative suburban subject, thus soothing anxieties about a perceived encroachment by a series of Others. Weaving together themes such as masculinity and colonialism, Uddin offered an astute critical perspective on the relationship between idenitity and landscape.
Examining select images and their corresponding narratives, Nigel Rothfels presentation, "Looking at Elephants," focused on historical and contemporary human-elephant relations. For example, Rothfels describes his current research on human-elephant interactions as guided by the fundamental question: " how we are supposed to think of and write history with animals?" Thus, Rothfels stresses the importance of writing histories of human-animal relations which take the animals themselves into serious consideration. The relevance and urgency of such a task becomes very clear when Rothfels analyses the recent article by Charles Siebert in the New York Times. Siebert's feature article emphasized that elephants, globally, are currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and that this accounts for the recent rash of violent and seemingly deviant elephant behaviour. While sympathetic to the argument and to the plight of elephants, Rothfels asks how anyone actually knows what "normal" behaviour is for individual elephants, across a diverse range of contexts. As a potential corrective for contemporary interpretations of elephant behaviour, such as presented by Siebert, he looks to the available historical records, which challenge the belief that human-elephant interactions have been primarily benign.
After a relatively sustained spotlight on death, Jonathan Burt turned the audience's attention to "The Aesthetics of Livingness." Drawing upon complicated relationships between animals and film, Burt explored notions of "living artwork" and the constructions of animal in/of/as art. Emphasising the importance of examining relationships between image-making and inter-species communication, Burt focuses on the cinema and considerations of the physical postures of looking and the "gap," or "tangible thickness," between two beings pondering each other. Throughout his presentation, Burt illustrates the fundamental role of aesthetics in shaping many human-animal relationships. Elements of temporality, such as duration and becoming, are also identified as key to understanding the active co-constitution of lives, of relations of coexistence. Such a definition of livingness inspires Burt to pose the provocative question: "How might we visualize a world shared?"
Discussion & Future Directions
Audience participants included scholars and artists at York University, within Fine Arts, Environmental Studies, Anthropology, and Cultural Studies, as well as from the Ontario College of Arts and Design, McMaster University, and Brock University. Lively discussion followed both sets of presentations, allowing for a truly generative interdisciplinary exchange of ideas. A number of potent questions were raised and collectively discussed throughout the symposium. These rich conversations spurred further questions about the relevance of certain scholars to animal studies and the direction of the disparate field. For example, although critiqued from a variety of perspectives by conference participants, those in attendance seemed to agree that Berger's essay "Why look at animals?" remains a central text within the emergent field of animal studies. Indeed, in the absence of any formal canon, Berger's scholarship perhaps partially constitutes a ground upon which many contemporaries continue to tentatively stand, and begin from. Despite concerns raised over the historical inaccuracies and generalizations within the work, scholars such as Burt and others find themselves gravitating back to the text. Why does Berger continue to be so compelling? How might his writing serve those who are interested in taking animals seriously? Concurrently, and igniting some of the most heated discussion, conference participants and presenters grappled with Deleuze and Guattari's scholarship. For instance, a question posed to Jonathan Burt regarding his complementary use of theorists Guattari and Bergson inspired a rousing discussion of "becoming animal," which serves as a basis for one participant's work and yet was pointedly critiqued from a feminist standpoint by another.
Additionally, broader questions were posed about the relationship between advocacy and animal studies scholarship. Should animal studies be involved in animal advocacy? While some felt that ethics were necessarily implied through their animal studies work, it was unclear to what degree people felt bridges should be built between the animal movements and academic study. A lingering question remained: How might richer communication be fostered between these two overlapping streams?
Questions of animal agency and subjectivity were also implied throughout the symposium, creating openings for further discussion. We were left wondering what the possibilities are for considering animals' perspectives within the midst of debates about their representation. Do animals have any agency within animal imagery? Should academics be responsible for considering individual animals' experiences? How do animals envision their worlds, and how might this be taken into account our representations of them? How can the visual bias of our own culture be interrogated in light of the multisensory experiences of animals, including ourselves?
Overall, the Envisioning Animals Symposium was very successful in meeting its goals of fostering new friendships and interdisciplinary partnerships. A welcoming and collegial atmosphere pervaded the events, providing a collaborative space for candid discussion and opening up many generative avenues for further debate and inquiry.
Review of "Envisioning Animals Symposium"
Traci Warkentin, Lauren Corman and Gavan Watson
Date Published: March 19, 2007