Seeing Sight Unseen

2,071 total words    

8 minutes of reading

A review of Colleen Plumb, Thirty Times A Minute. Photography by Colleen Plumb with texts by Marc Bekoff, Julia Cooke, Catherine Doyle, Hope Ferdowsian, MD, Linda Hogan, Les O’Brien, Joyce Poole and Petter Granli, Steven M. Wise and Mandy-Suzanne Wong. (Santa Fe, NM: Radius Books, 2020).

Which of us hasn’t received a link to an animal video and at least once succumbed to the temptation of clicking through to watch it? The channels of our smart technologies flood us with animal imagery: opinionated cockatoos, orphaned vervet monkeys, otters bobbing in the water with their arms linked together, a rat lugging a slice of pizza down subway steps, and household animals from around the world in every variety of play, sleep, and exploration, so much so that compilations of cat and dog activity are available under categories like funniest, cutest, awesome, and scary.

This peculiar obsession of our electronic age wasn’t what John Berger had in mind in his classic 1977 essay Why Look At Animals when he diagnosed the impossibility of seeing animals that are perpetually on view.[1] Against an accumulating urban backdrop of stuffed toys, animal cartoons, and other surrogates, he argued, animals that are corralled in zoos are themselves only monuments to their own disappearance. Today, too, many animals that emerge through the bright pixels of our mobile screens lead us on safaris into disappearing worlds. Even as we are in a glut of visual consumption, species are going extinct due to environmental degradation, habitat loss, and human encroachment.

The spectacularization inherent in zoos and circuses has expanded to large-scale surveillance of animals in general for research and conservation purposes. Radio telemetric tracking devices and camera traps track animals, ostensibly to learn more about their habits and range in order to protect them. Zoos have re-cast themselves as centers of conservation that are responsible for ex situ approaches like captive breeding programs as well as educating the public and conducting research, in addition to the care of animals within their walls who still remain on display. Animals are apparently being looked at for their own good or the long-term good of their species—being looked at is given as a sign of being looked after. Being outside the field of vision has become increasingly impossible for anyone, human or animal.

Enter Colleen Plumb’s public art video project which asks us to look anew at captive elephants. An artist who works primarily with lens-based media, Plumb travelled to over eighty zoos in the United States and Europe between 2009 and 2017 where she filmed their elephant exhibits. Her camera captures the elephants displaying stereotypic movements induced by the conditions of their captivity. Scientists recognize that these persistent, repetitive movements of swaying, rocking, shifting the feet, and head-bobbing are the result of being confined in an abnormal environment. Many captive species display stereotypies in the form of such repetitive and compulsive behavior; in humans, various neurological, psychiatric, and substance abuse issues can underlie such movements. Plumb edited her footage into a short video of about ten minutes that shows elephant after elephant shifting and swaying in their different enclosures. Between 2014 and 2019, she projected this video onto a variety of largely urban or peri-urban surfaces—walls, building facades, roofs, storefronts, even vegetation—in many parts of the United States and Europe. Plumb claims that some elephant handlers tell spectators that elephants must sway because they doze while standing and that the rhythm is calibrated to their heartbeat of thirty times a minute—hence the title of the video as well as the publication that is a record of this peripatetic art project.

The handsome book is published by Radius, a Santa Fe-based publisher with an admirable commitment to art books. It is large in format (9.25” x 13.5”), wire bound, with a coated plastic dust jacket giving it the impression of a binder or a report—unconventional for an artist book but in keeping with the activist spirit of the project. This is indeed a report—a prison psychiatric photographer’s report for sixty-five Asian and African elephants that includes a terse biographical record covering birth, death, capture, and transfers and is supported by expert testimony. The fifty-eight substantial photographs in the book document the spectral appearance of the elephants in different locations, each one flickering into view in the dark night.

In these images, we meet the pixelated ghosts of Alice, Billy, Bamboo, Hanako, Happy, Lily, Mikki, Maggie, Patience, Raja, Rene (M’Bili), Sneezy, Suki, Surapa, Tembo, Viola, and many others, each with their own story—most “wild-caught,” the occasional “captive-born,” but each with a record of sentences in different zoos, including at times in solitary confinement, denied the companionship of a fellow elephant. Jenny towers above the yellow signage of a Brooklyn bodega with an energetic mural on its walls. She died in 2017 and was filmed giving rides to children in Indiana. Doc, who has never known a life outside circuses and zoos, lights up the side of a small building in Iceland. The metal bars and sandy earth of his enclosure glow like a hearth in the bleak wintry landscape. Rex’s long trunk and legs are topped by the just discernible peaks of the Grand Tetons. Tembo, from Dresden Zoo, fills the ornate tiled arches of Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace. Each incongruous juxtaposition tries to resist an attempt to make meaning—no elephant is being returned to an imagined natural location, nor can the viewer fully indulge in high-resolution voyeurism.

“Making visible the invisible” has become axiomatic of analyses of power intended to provoke action. Bringing to light an issue, a set of circumstances, buried cultural memories, or forgotten stories is presumed to change minds and activate people. But visuality and politics do not always map easily onto each other. The barrage of images to which we are subjected in our time—on every screen and surface, from the large and distanced (billboards, computer, and television) to the intimate and handheld (tablet and mobile)—only demonstrates that our capacity for looking is insatiable. On the one hand, advertisements and social media posts by influencers are a part of marketing strategies to prompt purchase; on the other hand, horrific news about devastation elsewhere doesn’t always devastate the viewer.

In her essay Looking at War, Susan Sontag suggested that photographs alone do not engender commitment or sympathy; even when they shock us, they do not necessarily help us understand the context enough to act.[2] While Sontag was primarily concerned with images of war and suffering, photographers have also wielded their cameras on behalf of animals to conduct exposés of factory farms or experimental labs. Images are potent, but they also circulate rapidly, without mooring, and do not always invite a stable reading. Easily available on the web is Electrocuting the Elephant, a documentary video produced by the Edison Studios of the killing of Topsy the elephant at Luna Park, Coney Island, in 1903. More recently, YouTube has placed some age restrictions on viewing.

Plumb seems to embrace a contextual approach in the book, inviting other voices into her project to expand the frame beyond her photographs. Some accompanying essays are written for the book: Les O’Brien, a zookeeper who has since repudiated that role, describes the deceptive rhetoric and practices of captive elephant management through his own journey of realization. Steven M. Wise, who runs the Nonhuman Rights Project that advocates legal personhood for apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales, describes the case of his client Happy, who has been captive in the Bronx Zoo for over forty years. For more than a decade after her elephant companions died, Happy has lived entirely alone in a one-acre enclosure apart from the zoo’s other elephants. Other essays in the book are reprints: Biologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Jessica Pierce discuss the misapplication of the animal welfare paradigm from farms to zoos and its profound implications on the conditions of captivity for thousands of different species. Joyce Poole, renowned elephant researcher, and Petter Granli, who run the non-profit research, dissemination, and advocacy organization, Elephant Voices, draw upon years of experience with elephants in Kenya, particularly at Amboseli National Park, to give a comprehensive overview of the physiology, mobility, and culture of elephants in their own habitat. They make a vigorous case for why no circus or zoo, no matter how much it might expand its exhibit design, can fulfill conditions for the well-being of elephants. Together with the other essays in the book, Poole and Granli’s reflections serve to bolster the argument against the captivity of elephants.

However, it is the opening essay by Julia Cooke that gives us a glimpse into what the experience of Plumb’s public projections might have been. A cold night in Bushwick, the elephant looming on the wall, a couple of people walking, and Colleen Plumb, blowing on her hands, ready to answer questions from the passers-by or shouted down from the windows by kids. A typical question is not about the elephant nor about captivity, but about whether she has permission to project on the wall. (She does not.) But others do want to know what they’re looking at, what the rocking movements of these large creatures mean. Still others probably walk by without looking up, without asking anything. This is the flexible, open-ended, variable environment of a public art project, one that competes with the distractions and nonchalance of city life. Here the elephants haunt urban spaces—sometimes seen, sometimes unobserved. Their repetitive stepping and bobbing and the flickering projection of the video continually bring them in and out of our world. When these same elephants step onto the page of the book, this ambiguity halts.

The core tension in any live art project is how documentation effectively conveys the interactive experience of the events and encounters themselves. For many public art and socially engaged art projects, documentation is the exhibitable afterlife. Colleen Plumb is an image maker as much as a public artist, and it’s evident that she has given considerable thought to the material production of images in the book. Many of these are transparencies that cast their own bluish nighttime glow, as the video once might have, when the page is turned. Yet the images are less uncanny than they likely were on the street. Each photograph stills the elephant even as it offers us the specificity of individual lives and locations. There are few people in the images. With its movement quelled, each elephant appears more sculptural and symbolic. As the captions and essays direct our eyes and attention, the book acquires a slight didacticism—one that is not altogether misplaced although it seems to be relinquishing trust in the work that art left to its own devices can do.

I had made my way through much of the book before I actually watched the video Thirty Times a Minute. In the opening pages of the book, a sleeve with a pull-out insert unfolds to show a series of frames from the video. A URL directs you to Plumb’s website where it is on view. The ten-minute, fourteen-second video, with a sound score but no commentary, is powerful. As if counting the beat of a score that will never end, elephants one after another rock back and forth, each interned in an enclosure and then further confined in the video frame. It is impossible to watch the elephants shift their feet, sway, shift, weave back and forth in front of bars and barriers, sway, and shift again without experiencing a visceral sensation of claustrophobia and containment.

It might be a small quibble, but I question the decision to insert into this sequence images of human hands on elephant skin. To my mind, it is a weak effort at establishing contact with the animal that is unnecessary, even inappropriate, in the face of such profound interior distress.

While the book is laid out to allow for easy rotation, the demand it places on the viewer is a trifle irksome. A horizontal two-page spread is followed by a recto landscape rotated ninety degrees, then a return to the horizontal, back to a rotated image, and so on. Either you wheel the book from side to side—which, unless you are seated at a table, is not always convenient given its size—or you start shaking your head back and forth with the changing orientation. And if you opt, as I did, for the latter, you might find in this odd embodiment that mirrors the rocking heads of the captive elephants what I did—a palpable and strange disquietude of recognition.

[1] J. Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” in Great Ideas: Why Look At Animals? (London: Penguin Books Great Ideas, 2009), 12-37.

[2] S. Sontag, “Looking at War,” New Yorker, December 2, 2002.

  • Radhika Subramaniam

    Radhika Subramaniam is Associate Professor of Visual Culture at Parsons School of Design/The New School where she was also the first Director/Chief Curator of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center from 2009-2017. She is presently completing a book about a medieval elephant named Abu’l Abbas.

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