Reflections on Planet Earth II and development of degree show ideas

My initial proposal for the degree show was the full realisation of ‘ALERT TONES’. Materially this plan entailed creating a dark space for the audience to enter, triggering the beginning of my ‘ALERT TONES’ composition. This track has been composed using ringtones from smart phones that have been digitally manipulated to sound like the soundscape of a densely populated natural environment. At the height of tension in the composition, which builds up over 5 minutes, large floodlights would illuminate the darkness, revealing the interior of an empty greenhouse to the audience. By orchestrating this experience I aimed to reveal artificiality to the audience, using the greenhouse as a symbol of mans domesticated relationship to local ecology.

Since then, my ideas have developed. After the success of ‘ALERT TONES’ at the Barge house I feel it is important to move on from this specific work. What I learnt from ‘ALERT TONES’ was that its strengths lay in the balance between ecological and technological concerns. I feel that the downfall of previous works, in particular those shown in ‘TARMAC’ ,was that they were far too focused on my critique of digital technologies which made them contextually one-dimensional.

The symbol of the greenhouse led me to consider its connotations of the western middle-class lifestyle and its relationship to nature. I started seeing the greenhouse as a lens in which to view this demographic, as I began to think about other ways in which it interacts with nature. Mainly this is through the TV set. Through the TV middle class families are exposed to an array of nature documentaries, most popularly those broadcast by the BBC narrated by David Attenborough. Since the release of the most recent series ‘Planet Earth II’ I have increasingly found these franchised documentary programmes’ presentation of the natural world problematic.

My problem initially began with the use of music within the programme. The score implements many techniques of cinema, using a highly energetic orchestra to dramatize natural phenomena. I found that often the tempo of the score would reflect fanatical myths about the animals being depicted. For example the music accompanying the narrative of the sloth would be comical, the snake – seductive, the lion – courageous and the baby bear – cute. This use of music greatly dominates these depictions of, and therefore our relationship to, these animals. Ultimately I believe that this use of music suffocates genuine understandings of these animals, and re interprets their instinctual habits as entertainment. This particular scene from the recent series I find to be the most patronizing and undermining representation of animal life that I have seen in these programmes so far;

The second element I find problematic within this style of documentary making is their utilisation of cinematic camera techniques. With expensive, top of the range camera equipment, these programmes allow us to view animals from the perspectives of the macro lens, the wide-angle lens and the drone. Because of this, these depictions of animals come not from the perspective of the human, but from the perspective of the machine. As this is often our only exposure to the majority of these species, our perspective of these animals is therefore dominated by the limitations and exaggerations of the untrustworthy lens.

Just as in cinema these programmes have a complicated editing process. Very rarely is a sequence explaining a particular animals habitual narrative taken in one shot. Instead, it is often a succession of disparately captured shots bought together into a linear story through the trustworthy tone of David Attenborough. It is well known, and unsurprising, that these narratives are slightly falsified for the sake of fluidity, but this compromise still has a knock on effect to our perception of the lives of these animals.

Whilst forming these thoughts I came across a version of the recent planet earth series that had audio descriptions for the blind. I found these particularly interesting, as the voices used are often robotic and unemotional, even when describing such cinematic events. Also of interest was that often these scripted voices would refer to the perspective of the camera angle; “The camera pans left to reveal a monkey sitting in a tree.” Of most interest to me were the descriptions of the animals themselves. One comparing the formulations of a flock of birds to the forms found in ‘retro lava lamps’ took me by surprise, along with another that described the shape of a blue whales mouth as a ‘lopsided smile’. I feel that these bizarre comparisons sum up the subconscious perspective we have of animals as somehow less conscious than or emotional than ourselves.

Yuval Noah Harari reflects on the modern meat industry in his book ‘Sapiens’: “Around the time that Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines.” This effect of the agricultural revolution has been multiplied by the Industrial revolution and I feel that it has been multiplied yet again with the recent digital revolution.

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In order to present these ideas within the setting of the green house I have considered several different approaches. Firstly I planned to stage the greenhouse as in use, making it look as realistic as possible but with hidden speakers and screens. Within this environment I wanted to create an immersive space that worked with disparate audio-visual material taken from these nature documentaries. Using the voice-overs and snippets of the scores I wanted to create a surreal and confusing narrative. On TV screens hidden amongst the greenhouse paraphernalia I also planned to show clips that would contrast and compliment these samples of audio. Inspired by Laure Prouvost’s recent show ‘wet wet wanderer’ I wanted these electronic elements to whisper to the audience, creating a dynamic experience that they discover for themselves.

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Laure Prouvost – the wet wet wanderer

In this idea I also saw the green house as a character, in which I wanted to place objects that described the middle class man that often resided in this space. In my mind this was a dissatisfied man who had little connection left with his children, all of whom had left home, or his wife. I imagined him going to an expensive dinner with his wife in which neither of them talked to the other, but when they got home both agree ‘that was nice’. This man is retired and bored, he spent many years in a highly stressful managerial role and since suffers from high blood pressure. Many of the friends he made when working in the industry he rarely sees. He never really liked them anyway. He has no hobbies or favourite music. He will watch whatever is on TV, but has a particular obsession with watching the news. He donates to charity to feel good. In the golden hour that dapples his Surrey garden, he sits in his greenhouse and basks in his artificial accomplishments that reside there.

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Although I think it is important for me to think very specifically about the lifestyle that I am critiquing I felt that this concept was rather out of my reach and was distracting me from the real reason for this work; the modern relationship dictated by the digital, to the ecological. Therefore I started focusing on the cinematic parts of my critique, thinking about how to stage the greenhouse as a frame to show my own reinterpretation of footage from these documentaries. This has developed from removing one wall of the greenhouse to create a stage like set with seats facing toward a screen residing in there, to a screen sitting at the entrance to a greenhouse surrounded by artificial and real plants. Both of these ideas incorporate a red carpet to visualise highlight the cinematic techniques that are deployed by these programmes.

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Working with After Effects, I began experimenting with footage from Crufts, as I felt that even more so than Planet Earth, this programme reflects an absurd middle class relationship to animals. Using the green turf to my advantage I chroma keyed some of the footage to create a surreal montage of the most ridiculous pooches. I had been keen to experiment with this technique and aesthetic after seeing Borna Sammack’s video work at Sadie Coles. In this experiment I wanted to explore the domestication of dogs from wolves, using footage from crufts to highlight the ridiculous evolution that man has forced upon this species. On reflection I felt that this experiment was relatively weak, I was hoping for it to be a singular element included in the green house installation but as it stands I do not think it is strong enough. I also think it is important for me to focus on a singular programme/specific topic other wise I fear the work will be over complicated and confusing.

I then experimented with footage from David Attenborough-narrated ‘Africa’ in After Effects. I utilised tools such as the chroma key and colorama to deconstruct the imagery, transforming it into a vibrant acidic mess. Aesthetically this use of techniques is engaging and overwhelming, making it impossible for the viewer to comprehend what is going on in the imagery. I think this is effective in the way in which it subverts the commercial use of these clips, but I do not think it critiques the problematic relationship between man, screen and nature, instead it one-dimensionally decorates these clips.

Since these experiments I have been working on another approach to this piece. I decided to focus on an episode of BBC’s ‘The Hunt’ that is dedicated to the practice of conservation worldwide. When watching this for the first time I realised that the practice and concept of animal conservation is the area between man and nature that I am most interested in. This space describes the responsibility that man faces due to our historical destruction of global habitats. These programmes often create uncomfortable viewing experience, with wild animals being tranquilised and transported in cages. This viewing experience is often very confusing, at once the viewer feels appalled by the violence and comforted by the knowledge it is ‘for the good of the animals’.

Despite being emotionally distressing the musical scores that accompany these scenes translate these images into the narrative of human heroism; we are saving the animals. This is a tricky subject, and one I am not yet sure I can comfortably talk about, which is why I am so compelled to explore it within my work. It seems we must act as violently as we did to endanger these species in order to provide them with the possibility of a future. At the same time the whole ordeal feels terribly patronizing towards fellow animals, man cannot stop playing god and let nature heal itself.

One example of this depicted in ‘The Hunt’ is the current predicament facing Cheetahs in South Africa. Because so much of the landscape has been taken over by human populations, most of the wildlife is restricted to nature reserves that are bordered by fencing. Because of these geographical restrictions, some Cheetahs have had no choice but to breed within the family, as there are simply no non-relatives on their side of the fence. Park conservationists have therefore had to step into the Cheetahs mating process. In the episode they find two male Cheetahs who are being protected by their mother, they tranquilise the males and take DNA samples in order to match them with a non-family member female, they jokingly refer to this as ‘Cheetah speed dating’. They then confiscate these young Cheetahs from their mother, transporting them in cages to another nature reserve. In an interview with a park conservationist he says that 1 in 5 of the Cheetahs die during this process because of chronic stress. He also talks about how they wish this process could be done naturally, but of course, if they were to leave the Cheetahs as they are, this would have drastically negative implications for the future evolution of this species.

This is where I find this subject most interesting. It is easy to condemn these practices as cruel and patronizing, but it is evident that due to our historical negligence of other species we have significantly altered their habitats for our own gains. Therefore it is our responsibility to orchestrate such strange scenarios in order to redeem what we can of the non-human world before it is too late. It is the violence of these conservational practices that particularly intrigues me, and I found that often the aesthetic of these documentaries does not look dissimilar from imagery of poaching or hunting.

The use of chemical tranquilisers is something I have considered in great depth. Not only does the image of man shooting endangered species seem out of place within the context of a BBC documentary, but I am also concerned about the drugs used within the tranquilisers themselves. After some research I found that the most commonly used drugs to sedate large mammals have names such as Cyclohexamine, Zoletil and Tiletamine. There is something terribly uncomfortable to me about the idea of these synthetic chemical cocktails being inserted into unsuspecting animals in order to sedate them for scientific measurements. In another scene in ‘The Hunt’ a polar bear is tracked down, shot with a tranquiliser and then man handled into different positions so that scientists can take physical measurements. During this process, the unconscious bear often resembles the rug of an 18th century explorer, echoing the aforementioned aesthetic of poaching. I find this interesting because both the poacher and the scientist value the materiality of animals over emotionality. Through technology the scientists objectify the polar bear into a scientific artefact. They take swabs and measurements that transform the beyond human beast into quantifiable data. This reflects our current position to natural phenomena. If the birds are late in their migration, or the daffodils early in their bloom, we notice these things not because we are emotionally in tune with the rhythms of nature, but because science tells us that they are happening and prove it in the form of statistics. If our approach to nature is this far removed from emotional understanding, our application of this knowledge will be just as clinical.

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After measuring the bear the scientists express their concerns that this bear’s size is 10% lower than what they would expect of a polar bear of this age. They then speak about how the bears hunting season has been dramatically reduced due to the change in weather conditions in the Arctic because of global warming. Although I do not doubt that there is a correlation between these two facts and it does alarm me to really consider these implications, there is another narrative going on here that also concerns me. The scientists reveal that this is the 10th time that this particular bear has be tracked and measured for scientific data. I found this very uncomfortable information as I began to think about how this scientific research has affected this particular bears life. Annually this bear is sedated with these powerful drugs that forcefully enter his/her blood stream. Not only must this have long-term effects on the biological welfare of the bear, but these chemicals then pass through the body of the bear into the surrounding environment. Although this is a comparably small sacrifice when looking at the possible extinction of the polar bear as a species, this narrative depicts the application of biological violence that we are utilising in order to save species. For me this is a bleak and desperate approach, but I am not suggesting that there is any other way, which makes ethics of this sacrificial dynamic all the more urgent.

In Zambia the documentary focuses on a group of school children being shown around a wild life reserve. Here the music used creates an inspirational atmosphere, in which we are encouraged to place hope in the smiling faces of the next generation. Here Attenborough, above a score of light piano keys literally says: “But as always, the greatest weapon in the war against poaching, is the next generation.” Of course this is true, the better educated children in this area are, the less likely they will have to turn to poaching for income and the more exposure they have to the habits of these animals, the less likely they will be comfortable in exploiting them illegally. But I feel that in this section, the documentary not only passes on the responsibility of these specific wild dogs to one specific group of children, but it also passes on the entirety of our ecological responsibilities from the shoulders of the middle aged, middle class viewers to the next generation who are currently young, powerless and unborn. This is a dangerous conclusion on which to end the documentary. It is historical fact that we have been acting in this way for millennia, why would we assume that the upcoming generation will suddenly transform and save us?

In the last moments of the documentary the voice of one of the worlds leading environmental scientist states; “These animals belong to all of us, we must protect them into the future.” This climactic and emotional ending orchestrated by the musical score evokes a visceral experience in the viewer, where Attenborough pleads with us to consider our impact upon the environment whilst stood a top the London skyline, allowing us to reflect on the artificiality of glass and metal. This music then subsides whilst the credits role and a polite voice informs us “Next up a team are confident they can win a golden gabble, but uh, better not hold your breath. It’s Bargain Hunt.” This announcement puts a full stop to the emotional plead that happens at the very conclusion of the programme, and ironically contextualises the programme within the landscape of commercial entertainment in which it resides.

Ultimately I believe that the cinematic techniques that are employed within the programme create emotional entertainment that does not transcend beyond the momentary concern that is inflicted upon the comfortable viewer. As theorists have reflected since its proliferation in the middle of the 20th century, the cognitive effects of TV culture has changed our reception and utilisation of information. The viewer of this particular episode is demographically likely to be middle class and comfortable, like myself, and once these programmes ends our experience of comfort quickly subside our feelings of anxiety about the condition of the natural world. These franchised Attenborough documentaries are not so popular because they tech us valuable information about the current climate that we can then apply to our navigation of everyday life, but because they provide us emotional entertainment with authentic narratives. We only have the ability to care so long as the TV is turned on, and even then, the next programme will wipe away any previous anxieties whether they were formed in the real world or in the previous programme.

For my first edit I combined footage from ‘The Hunt’ in which animals had been tranquilised and were being unnaturally handled by scientists with similar footage of conservational processes found on YouTube. I then overlaid this with audio samples I had taken of the audio descriptions used in several BBC documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. I then came across a series of documentaries made and produced by Disney called ‘True-life adventures’. My work in the past has often dealt with concerns around the ethics of Disney’s prolific story telling, so I was particularly interested to see how natural narratives would be depicted by a company known and loved for its service of fanatical escapism. Unsurprisingly, I found the score used in many of these documentaries, dating back to the 60’s, to be highly cinematic and emotionally evocative. I decided to digitally manipulate samples of this score to create a divide between the audio and visual elements of this piece.

On initial reflection I am not pleased with how this work is turning out. I feel that the visual element looks just like a PETA advert pathetically pleading ‘look at what we are doing to the animals…oh noooo’. This is the exact standpoint I want to reject. The do-good attitude towards environmental conservation that ignores the other implications of this process needs to be developed and presented here. I think that the power of this imagery lies in the fact that it has been taken from an Attenborough endorsed BBC documentary about environmental conservation. But just like with the smartphone ringtones used in ‘ALERT TONES’ I am not yet sure how to make this evident. I also do not think that the balance between digital and nature that I feel is important for the success of my work is evident here. Instead of being too focused on the digital as ‘INTERNET SEARCH HISTORY’ was, this work is currently too focused on the natural.

With this reflection I am now reconsidering both the presentation and content of this work. I think that the inclusion of visual depictions of animals needs to be digitally abstracted and minimalized. I also feel there is a lot more that needs to be done with the audio. I have since recorded synthetic voices reading out Disney Introductions to their ‘True Life adventure’ programmes which state;

“This is an authentic story of nature’s secret world… of her strange and intricate designs for survival… and her many methods of perpetuating life. These intimate and unusual scenes were made possible through the development of new photographic techniques… and through the skill and patience of many scientist- photographers.”

alongside scientific descriptions of the chemical qualities that most tranquiliser darts possess.

To help me progress successfully with this work I am going to reflect in more depth on my research of several artists that deal with similar subject matters and practical techniques such as; Rachel Pimm, Rowena Harris, Joey Holder, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bruce Conner, Edward Kienholz and Alvin Lucier.

 

 

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