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More than human smalltalk, monkfish and message boards...
a short defence of anthropromorphising and other summer activities
During the first 2 weekends in June you might of seen a strange sight in Finsbury park in North London, (in addition to the brit pop band Blur or Wireless festival) there was also a group of adults and children running around, singing, dancing and marching dressed up as various creatures. Bees, Squirrels, Dogs, Geese, Trees, Grass and stag beetles gathered to share their views of life in the park, its various habitats and ecologies and celebrate the biodiverse culture of the park.
This was the Interspecies Festival of Finsbury Park, a live action role-play co-created by Furtherfield, myself, other artists and different park communities. Together we created a fictional world where each participant temporarily attempts to become one of these 7 life forms that inhabit the park. With a mask, some costumes and a little bit of coaching you enter into a parallel animal multi-verse, seeing and experiencing the world from your new adapted life form. How does it feel? As a human it feels very awkward as you begin to get into character through short bursts of improvised ‘more than human’ small talk (e.g. ‘how did you get here today’? The goose asks the tree, the tree replies 'i've been here for over 170 years’). As the game advances you take part in lots of collective activities, singing, guided meditation and other body work that start to shake off that human-ness residue and before you know it your tasting excreted vegetable matter as part of a festival of poop and marching round the park protesting for increased awareness for more than human life.
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Does it work?
Does the game help develop an increased sense of awareness for other creatures, their needs and desires? Yes, since my involvement last year its fair to say I have a more nuanced human relation towards squirrels 🐿️ . I've observed them more closely and increased my understanding of them through attempting to emotionally map my/their needs into a fictional character that has friends, family and a life that I bring to the gameplay. So there is this dimension of relational heightened awareness of a different species ( in this instance, human and Squirrel) and when the game gets going your suddenly making all these other relational perspectives between your species and others (for example, I despised dogs for they are always chasing me but I loved the trees as they are always there to save me!).
Lots of really fascinating relations are configured through the game as people temporarily step out of human perspective and take on a more than human perspective and form interspecies relations. The enjoyment i think can vary on how much you enjoy improvisational dialogue, many players found scenes without language more fulfilling and I found leaning into emotion to ground scenes was alot more constructive than reciting rehearsed facts about your chosen creature (you can read more about other players experiences in this brilliantly titled review of the interspecies festival from the Islington Tribune ‘Now we know how trees in the park feel’ ).
Ive been thinking about this whole experience in relation to anthropomorphising (Derived from the Greek anthropos (“human”) and morphe (“form”), Anthropromorphising is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. Scientists and biologists have repeatedly tried to detach themselves from anthro-morphic tendencies, raising concerns that arise from projecting human centric characteristics onto wild and non-human species is more harmful than productive. So while dressing up wild animals in human clothing is amusing and filming it might go viral it, it is this cultural application of anthropomorphising that scientists want to get away from to produce less human centric interpretations of animals.
During the Interspecies Festival, we used role play to critique humans anthropocentrism. The limits of our own human centered perspective repeatedly interrupted the fiction during the interspecies festival, while some players found it awkward and clumsy to try and dance like a tree or communicate as a bee, for me it emphasised the astounding difference in perception and demonstrated the gaps in our knowledge set for finding ways of knowing the world from a non human centric perspective.As James Bridle notes in Ways of Being, we are anthropos and we are only ever going to be able to perceive this anthropic point of view and ‘if we can recognise our own limited perspective while not enforcing it upon others, these things need not be a barrier to accessing and acting on the basis of shared interest and intentions’. (pg 70, 2022)
While on the topic of anthropomorphising I visited Animals: Art, Science & Sound at the British Library the other week with a selection of artefacts that depict humans' first recorded encounter with a number of species. Like this image above - a fantastical interpretation of a bald headed ‘monk fish’ sea monster, that was rumoured to possess supernatural powers and anyone that encountered it would not live longer than 3 days. Conveniently, this was probably just long enough prevent any more accurate depictions of a monk fish being widely circulated in 1545 as different scholars made competed claims of what a sea monk actually look liked (link).
I wonder if the anthropomorhising of this fish its accopanying myth gave this species some protection from being caught and eaten by humans? (another slightly less mystical rumour is that monk fish got its name because everyone thought it tasted horrible and therefore gave the fish for free to the monks 😐) It’s commonly regarded that when humans anthropromorphise other animals we tend to treat them a little better (e.g. not hunt and eat them) so is can we use it as a device to produce more equitable relations between ourselves and different species?
Many myths featuring anthropomorphised hybrid characters seem fantastical now but in reflection these narratives were arguably had an environmental purpose to ensure a more harmonious ecological balance between humans and other species. The author,artist and podcast cultural theorist Blindboy, has recently also been considering the power of myths in folk lore cultures to influence collective beliefs and behaviours that contributed towards a more ecological balanced and reciprocal relations between humans, the land and other species that they share it with.
In this episode he talks about mythology of some indigenous cultures such as crow nation people that retold the origin myth of ‘old man coyote’, a narrative that puts the coyote at the centre of creation of life. This myth gave the coyote a sacred protection for thousands of years, until European settlers began to invade the area and started killing the coyote as part of their colonial invasion. At the beginning of the 20th century scientists were dumb struck trying to understand the dying conditions of the rivers and the decreasing of the number of salmon in Yellowstone until they realised that the coyote wolf is a keystone species for Yellowstone national park ( a keystone species being is an integral plant, animal or bacteria to an ecosystem that could not survive without it). The extinction of Coyotes in Yellowstone national park had led to ecological imbalance and distorting biodiversity that had implications for mammals, fish, insects, plants and bacteria. Blindboy asks how is it that the recent scientific research into biodiversity and folklore mythology from thousands of years ago reach the same awareness and understanding towards protecting biodiversity and ensuring interspecies survival?
He goes further to add that this is not a singular story but can be tracked along many myths and ancient folklore that contain deity like representations of land and animals with sacred or mythological powers that were repeatedly told to ensure our survival and maintain a harmonious ecology and healthy biodiversity. Returning to the interspecies festival in Finsbury Park, I like to think that the sight of a mob of humans disguised as bees, dogs, geese, squirrels, trees and grass shouting “We Die!, You Die!” might become re-told similar to an ancient myth that adorned supernatural or sacred properties to non human life to communicate equally important lessons for protecting biodiversity and ecological survival.
If your heading to any of these festivals this summer keep your eyes out for a human impersonating a postie, usually dressed in red braces and a bow tie can be found by the red post office sorting office (that looks alot like a shed) or out in the campsites on early morning rounds.
Pete the Monkey Festival 13 - 15 July has now become a regular excursion for the Secret Post Office as we ferry over to Normandy with an excessive amount of UK stamps and attempt to navigate the differences between Royal Mail and La Poste!
Green Man Festival 17 - 20th August a keystone for many of the posties as we spend 3 days delivering mail under the epic sugar loaf mountain in the Breacon Beacons.
End of the Road Festival 31 August - 3 September To celebrate the end of another summer season the posties can usually be found in the Llama tree gardens playing cornhole, dancing at the pirate ship, getting their tops off and very occasionally delivering some mail.
MA fine art show at Camberwell College of Arts is open all this week 3 - 8th July feat work from all 6 pathways, including an excellent series of installations by the students on Computational Arts.
Unruly Bodies has opened at CCA in Goldsmiths is open to 3rd September.13 female and non binary artists exploring monstrous embodiment as a form of resistance.
RCA 2023 graduation shows at Truman Brewery - 13 - 16 July over 1000 students (!) from the 2 year MA programme come together to showcase their final projects
I am really loving the new podcast series on Witches available on BBC sounds the host talks to so many interesting people who practice witchcraft in contemporary culture and contextualises each episode within a broader critical discussion from feminist politics and land rights.
That is all for me for now, have an amazing July and August - I will be trying to get through as much of these books as i can while spending time fossil hunting and beach combing.
If you enjoyed this please do share it or if you have comments, thoughts or suggestions for things that might be of interest Id love to hear them as I try to stretch out the summer months.
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