Bird's Eye View
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The last time we heard from photographer Gerco de Ruijter, he was photographing tree farms from above using fishing poles and kites; now he's back, having explored the biological edges of aerial photography by sending a pigeon aloft with a small video camera to perform a kind of animal surveillance of the urban landscape far below.
As Michel Banabila, who composed the music for de Ruijter's film, explains, "the exhibition Loslaten (Letting Go) is showing two linear video shots made with a small video camera attached to a pigeon. The pigeon is flying over the city of Delft and flies home, following the A13 highway towards Rotterdam." The bird thus reveals its own geography: tracking artificial landmarks of human infrastructure—the A13—and piecing together its own optical environment in the process.
The pigeon's technical repurposing here—an animal turned instrument of surveillance—resembles the increasingly ubiquitous throwable UAVs designed by companies like AeroVironment: small-scale, easily deployed, aerodynamically sophisticated, biomorphic landscape photography. As if the Ansel Adams of the future will not use a tripod at all, but will instead release demilitarized machine-flocks of animalistic throw-drones into the skies of spectacular landscapes around the world.
[Images: The Raven throw-drone by AeroVironment, photos courtesy of the U.S. military via Wikipedia].
But what I've written so far overlooks a more obvious point, which is that de Ruijter's work reveals as much about the pigeon holding the camera as it does about the urban forms passing by in a blur below. The pigeon here offers its own kind of autobiography, documenting its own passage through the landscape as it produces this ersatz documentary.
Several years ago, the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) hosted a small exhibition called On the Farm: Live Stock Footage by Livestock. "In this exhibit," CLUI wrote, "farm animals show us their point of view through wireless video cameras installed temporarily on their heads and necks by virtuoso animal and plant videographer Sam Easterson. Easterson’s technology enables a cow, a pig, a goat, a chicken, a sheep, and a horse to guide us around their world; what they look at, what catches their attention, how they move through space, and how they relate to one another, on the farm." More broadly, Easterson's project sought "to create the world’s largest library of video footage that has been captured from the perspective of animals, plants and the environments they inhabit. The company creates its video footage by outfitting wild animal and plants with ‘helmet-mounted’ video cameras. It also installs micro video cameras deep inside animal and plant habitats."
Speaking only for myself, however, the results were unwatchable: the footage—bouncing around constantly and never focusing on one single thing, then blurring left and right before colliding with the ground only to slide off trembling around the pasture some more—was literally nauseating and I found myself having to continually look away, as if blinking. Was there something about seeing the world from the perspective of an animal that can make a human sick? Admittedly, the anamorphic stutter-step of de Ruijter's pigeon film invokes a not dissimilar reaction. (I should add that I believe I was watching Easterman's pig footage).
[Images: An installation shot from On the Farm: Live Stock Footage by Livestock at CLUI].
Taking a different view—looking at animals on film, as opposed to animals filming—the L.A. Times recently looked at the popular phenomenon of "animal webcams," trying to understand their human appeal:
From amateur setups near backyard bird nests to elaborate video systems chronicling the daily activities of sharks and polar bears, live webcams of animals show us birth, romance, skullduggery and death — animals behaving like animals 24/7. Birds of prey such as hawks and eagles are particularly popular, but with a little searching, you can watch the day-to-day goings-on of squirrels, meerkats, bears and even chickens. (For you doubters out there, chickens lead lives of endless drama and amusement. Trust me.).The article's author, a biologist, warns against too easily interpreting this growing archive of animal footage: "If we convince ourselves that animals reflect our own feelings—nothing more, nothing less—we are cheated of discovering what other species are really like, and we run the risk of homogenizing them into one giant beastly human reflection. What's more, we often impose our biases on animals, assuming that what we see is what humans do. And then we miss things."
What, then, can we learn not only about the anonymous pigeon filmmaker let go into the world by Gerco de Ruijter, but about our own urban environment as seen through the pigeon's surrogate eyes? Perhaps nothing at all, to be honest—but expanding the possibilities for authorship, and giving animals the ability to contribute directly, through film, to a larger project of urban documentation, is a thrilling proposition.
(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: On the Grid. Animal webcam story found via @pruned. See also the now famous "monkey self-portrait"—as well as the old 1980s film Beastmaster—a kind of Krull Lite™—for its own "throwable drone": a telepathic falcon named Sharak).