I began Wild Animals vs. Manmade Materials five years ago in 2012, making it quite ancient in Are.na years. It started with a fascination towards a single piece of media. At the time, I was returning to YouTube day after day to watch this mesmerizing video of leopards examining their reflections through mirrors installed in a jungle. “Leopards VS mirror,” the original subtitle of the video, made me curious: Were the leopards “against” the mirror? Were the leopards preparing to fight the mirror as they circled around it, hopped on top of it, and eventually made eye contact with the creatures inside of it? But the video is long, and the mirror doesn’t fight back. The leopards seem more curious than opinionated, oscillating between mirror as prey, enemy, friend, inanimate object, or possibly even self.
“The first subject matter for painting was animal. Probably the first paint was animal blood,” writes John Berger in Why Look at Animals? (1980). Indeed, humans have admired and interacted with wild animals for a long time, using them also for food, clothing, transportation, and companionship. Many have used animals as messengers and signals.
Some species in particular are more susceptible or have greater exposure to a particular threat than humans in the same environment. Humans have called these “sentinel species,” for by observing them, humans can “keep watch” on their own fate. The canary in the coal mine is a well-known example: coal miners took the bright yellow birds down into the mine, and if they tweeted it was an early warning sign of poisonous but odorless carbon monoxide.
In a speech given to physics teachers and later reprinted in The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (1969), author Kurt Vonnegut used “the canary in the coal mine” as a metaphor to describe the “use” of the arts. Artists are useful to society, he writes, because they are so sensitive, “keeling over like canaries long before more robust types realize there is any change whatsoever.” Artists are sentinel animals, and can be thought of as alarm systems to social, cultural, and political shifts of the world, should one choose to instrumentalize them.
In an interview, writer Margaret Atwood said, “An involvement with birds is a reliable hook into the state of the planet.”