Interspecies communication is the interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information through certain modes of communication from members of one species to members of another species. Artworks that focus on inter-species communication receive both negative and positive remarks. Opponents of this form of art argue that it has the tendency to anthropomorphize animal subjects. They also criticize that these experiments are characterized by problems of ethnocentrism and cultural bias. In the essay “Materialism and Reductionism in the Study of Animal Consciousness”, author Garland E. Allen describes how scientists have a habit of using human behavior to describe and form theories of animal behavior. Allen reasons that in order to gather meaningful data from animal consciousness, researchers must refrain from making assumptions influenced by our own human processes and remain “conscious of where the fruitful directions for investigation [actually] lie” (138). In addition to this advice, Allen also considers the following:
How do we determine what an animal really thinks or its “intent”? Is there a way to really understand that? How do we communicate with animals at all? Or, how do we communicate with animals without falling into what is called the “Clever Hans” trap—a real experimental artifact, but one that is often difficult for us to either recognize or control?
Keeping these questions in mind, an art experiment titled OOZ, Inc. […for the birds] comes to mind. Pioneered by artists/engineers Natalie Jeremijenko and Phil Taylor, this project demonstrates how inter-species communication, despite the antagonism, can provide important information about the natural structures and events that take place among the animal kingdom. The setup involves a complex 1,000 square-foot rooftop garden equipped with sensors that interacts with New York City’s bird population. Within the garden there are several public amenities for birds that include water and bathing facilities, food supplies, waste recycling systems, and several architecturally designed birdhouses that can hold multiple bird families. Events on the roof are captured and transmitted to the gallery space below through live video feed.
This installation not only improves the quality of life for urban birds, but also allows the artists to observe the birds’ adaptation to human-engineered technologies. Additionally, it sustains diversity and improves air traffic and quality. By creating an urban system that accommodates birds, Jeremijenko and Taylor produce new interactions between animals and humans. These mutually beneficial interactions make apparent to the viewers the valuable services that these animals provide for the Manhattan ecosystem. OOZ, or zoo spelled backwards, prompts viewers to compare the human-to-animal interaction that takes place in a normal zoo to the un-caged interaction that exists in this installation’s habitat. In Jeremijenko and Taylor’s rooftop haven, animals interact with humans by choice rather than force. By landing on certain perches, the visiting birds trigger lights, audio, and other actions that spectators can behave accordingly to. Both artists believe that after repeating this process the birds will learn to use the perches as communication devices.
After analyzing this project, I began to question whether or not animals have their own concept of art. If not, does this make the project unsuccessful? From a personal opinion, I do not think it matters if the non-human species involved has no concept of what humans call art. The interaction still retains value as long as the animal species can experience artistic pleasure and beauty similar to that experienced by humans.