Zoopolis
2010
Photocollages
Collaborators: Una Chaudhuri, Marina Zurkow
Supported by an NYU Visual Arts Initiative Award
 
Zoöpolis is located at the intersections of urban theory, site-specific eco-art, and the emerging inter-disciplinary academic field of animal studies. Our point of departure is the recognition that, while the modern city is an animal habitat as much as a human one, urban animality is both physically and conceptually constricted: each category of animals is confined within an identity which is also a location: pets in the home, meat in the freezer, pests out of sight. Refusing this restrictive spatialization of species, Zoöpolis seeks to imagine the city as a space of shared animality, an eco-system capable of supporting the lives, pleasures, and freedoms not only of its human citizens but also of an expanded population of members of other species. The project draws its inspiration—and its title—from urban theorist Jennifer Wolch’s similarly-titled article (1), which envisions a new “ethic, practice, and politics of caring for animals and nature” in the postmodern city. 
 
 


We imagine these as billboards advertising an interspecies reality. The images—collages built on top of Google Street View shots of New York City—play with the aura of authority and veracity that now attaches to Google’s mapping “services,” and with the fact that Google Street View acts as an immersive digital double of the cities it represents. As such, it is a form of public space that has elicited a range of activities and responses, from accusations of privacy violation, to staged parades and absurd performances directed at Google’s camera rig. Zoöpolis treats the panoramic images offered by Street View as sites of artistic and ideological intervention, using these surfaces to imagine new conjunctions between the lives dictated by urban spaces of many kinds—encompassing various social classes, activities, and histories—and the natural behaviors of the other animals.



“I have a dream . . .”


The hopeful, idealistic, ameliorative phase of the environmental movement is decidedly a thing of the past. That was the phase shaped by the sixties counter-culture, Deep Ecology, ecofeminism, the Gaia hypothesis. Its central image was the “blue planet” photograph of earth from space, and its central trope was Back to the Garden. In those early stages, going “back to nature” usually meant getting as far away as possible from the city, preferably with drumming added. In time, that impulse found a home in the city, in the Green Spaces Movement: vertical gardens, rooftop farms, planted street medians, more city parks. 
 
 


Zoöpolis wants to take this impulse one step further, and open ourselves up to the potent doses of irony and danger that lie beneath another, closely related dream, that of the Peaceable Kingdom, where the lions shall lie down with the lambs. The irony of this fantasy is packed into its oxymoronic title, which covers over the sovereign power principle with a promise of unexplained harmony. The danger behind it brings us face to face with species difference, with the laws of predation and self-preservation, and with the violence and competition they entail. In Zoöpolis, then, the dream of the garden accommodates a measure of risk and uncertainty, the awareness of a few snakes in the grass.

No lions or lambs presented themselves right away, so Zoöpolians must lie down with coyotes and deer instead. Also, they can run with the wolves and swim with the trout (no dolphins around either). And what better place to stage this revised spectacle of interspecies harmony than Times Square, home of both spectacular theatre and sober factuality: all that jazz, and all the news that’s fit to print. The dream of Zoöpolis grows out of—and into—the most cherished institutions of the metropolis. It takes root in the arts, in leisure, in the media; it branches into work rules, lunch hours, office attire. The frenetic electronic billboards are turned off. The gigantic paper ones begin to fray and mold. Zoöpolians cultivate an “alternative hedonism.” (2)

 

 
“I have a nightmare . . .”

Today’s ecological imagination is dominated by apocalyptic thought and imagery, accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt, and despair. These strip-mined hills, deforested mountains, chemically contaminated lands, oil soaked wetlands, melting glaciers, broken ice shelves, bleached coral reefs, and—above all—these thousands of extinction-threatened species—might not they be better off without humans? A seductive new trope emerges: “Earth Without Us.” The Church of Euthanasia’s slogan instructs: “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself.” As BP digs “relief wells,” many sense there will be no relief from the speeded-up “natural disasters” and failed climate summits. Zoöpolis is in search of affective and political responses to ecological devastation that can help to lift the ecocidal malaise that is descending on us like some final stifling smog. 
 
 


One impulse: learn to play in the world we have made. The transformed landscape prompts the invention of new games, the changing of old rules. So, in the new obstacle race, you have to go backwards, edging carefully down stairs you can’t see, down piles of debris that shifts as you put one foot behind another. The idea came from the animals, who adopted the technique so as to conserve energy (it’s much slower going and uses fewer calories). Thoroughbreds and circus horses, cantering backwards, teach the new ways. The ruined monumental sites of obsolete practices (like mail) make excellent racetracks and obstacle courses.

This new rule also favors the new slowed-down tempo of Zoöpolis, a leisurely pace that befits a city with blocked streets and buried cars. (Google’s naturalizing of an automotive world—a world seen exclusively from drivable surfaces—is often undone in Zoöpolis). Walking backwards, negotiating a shifting topography, going slow: from these imperatives a new cityscape emerges. One looks more closely, notices many more details, cherishes old things anew. The animals of Zoöpolis—both the human and non-human ones—dig beneath the broken asphalt surface and paddle in the muddy ponds for food and fun.

 

 
“The Shock is Metaphysical.”

In a New York Times opinion piece entitled “Wildlife,” Brent Staples writes about the increasing numbers of wild animals—especially raccoons—that have been invading Brooklyn backyards lately. After describing a recent close encounter of his own, one that was harrowing enough for him to call 911, he protests: “Suburbanites and rural folks are no doubt laughing at us. But city slickers are entitled to be unnerved. Meeting 20 pounds of fangs and claws in a fenced-in urban yard and glimpsing the masked animal in a grassy country meadow make for two very different experiences.The shock is metaphysical.” (3) 
 
 


Zoöpolis amplifies the shock that Staples calls “metaphysical” but that is perhaps more ontological, and certainly ideological. The presence of any animals, not just wild ones, in the city is governed by—and responded to in terms of—assumptions and norms developed over centuries of concerted territorialization, a long history of literally mapping human dominion onto multi-species landscapes. The question of who belongs where has always been both sentimental and brutal—sometimes aglow with the welcoming hearth but just as often coldly shutting out the unwanted outsider. For animals, both those affective poles of the concept of belonging are vastly magnified. Animals judged to belong with humans are invited into the most intimate of places, given catchy names and special diets, their presence normalized within civic and domestic space: these are our beloved pets, coddled and pampered at home, shown off and admired in the street. By contrast, those animals who are judged not to belong with humans are made to disappear: exterminated, eradicated, excluded, forgotten.

The prevailing “pet or pest” binary organizes the vast multiplicity of animal species from the perspective of human convenience, ignoring all other kinds of needs—on the part of both humans and non-humans—for more varied and complex interactions among species. Zoöpolis wants to remember and imagine those other kinds of needs. Zoöpolis want to speak back to what Robert Michael Pyle has called the “extinction of experience (4)” in modern life, the sad diminishing of opportunities to be in the presence of, to feel, touch, observe, smell and think about forms of life that lie beyond the compass of human utility and instrumentalization. This thinning of experience is dangerous not only to the diversity-reliant environment, but also to humanity, feeding a deadly cycle of increasing homogeneity and anthropocentric cocooning.

Invited back in, the animals alter the metaphysic. Already, the raccoons are changing the rules. The laws of mega-buck advertising make one gigantic billboard enough for any single product, company, or service. But the raccoons ignore economics and are swarming onto adjacent boards. The fundamental Deleuzian law of animality—the law of the pack, the herd, the flock: the law of collective identity—is tearing the medium and the message away from its investments in Singularity. Henceforth anything that multiplies will be called a raccoon. Proliferation will be called raccoonation. Later, all those who believe in concerted collective action will be called the Raccoon Nation.

The raccoons are also revealing the rules. They show that business and pleasure, work and play, selling and sliding are not the separate worlds they are purported to be. They are two sides of the same coin, two slips down the same slide. Another fundamental law of Deleuzian animality—freedom from faciality—is boldly and brazenly proclaimed from the very citadel of Individualism: the celebrity face, the monumental portrait. The secret is out: the clamorous claims to uniqueness and originality are tedious and outworn. Sliding between identities might be lots more fun. In Zoöpolis, there are slides at many intersections, and free raccoon masks.

 
(1) “To allow for the emergence of an ethic, practice, and politics of caring for animals and nature, we   need to renaturalize cities and invite the animals back in, and in the process re-enchant the city.  I call this renaturalized, re-enchanted city Zoöpolis. The reintegration of people with animals and nature in zoöpolis can provide urban dwellers with the local, situated, everyday knowledge of animal life require to grasp animal standpoints or ways of being in the world, to interact with them accordingly in particular contexts, and to motivate political action necessary to protect their autonomy as subjects and their life spaces. Such knowledge would stimulate a thorough rethinking of a wide range of urban daily life practices. “ Jennifer Wolch, “Zoopolis,” in Jennifer Wolch and Jody Emel, eds., Animal Geographies: Place, Politics and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands. London: Verso1998.

(2) “I have been urging the potential significance of what I have termed an ‘alternative hedonist’ disenchantment with consumerism. This rests on two main claims. The first is that the affluent, ‘consumerist’, Euro-American mode of consumption that has become the model of the ‘good life’ for so many other societies today, is unlikely to be checked in the absence of a seductive alternative an altered conception of what it is to flourish and to enjoy a ‘high’ standard of living. In this sense, the chances of developing or reverting to a more ecologically sustainable use of resources, and hence of removing some of the key sources of social and environmental exploitation, are dependent on the emergence and embrace of new modes of thinking about human pleasure and self-realization, especially, in the first instance, on the part of the affluent global elites. An anti-consumerist ethic and politics should therefore appeal not only to altruistic compassion and environmental concern but also to the more self-regarding gratifications of consuming differently: to a new erotics of consumption or hedonist ‘imaginary’.” Kate Soper, “Alternative Hedonism: Cultural Theory and the Role of Aesthetic Revisioning,” Cultural Studies, 22:5, 567 — 587

(3) Brent Staples. “The City Life:  Wildlife ,” July 14, 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/14/opinion/14tue4.html.> Accessed July 14, 2009.

(4) Robert Michael Pyle, The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland . Lyons Press, 1998.