Epizoic media and multispecies ethnography

“Multispecies ethnographers are studying the host of organisms whose lives and deaths are linked to human social worlds. A project allied with Eduardo Kohn’s ‘anthropology of life’—’an anthropology that is not just confined to the human but is concerned with the effects of our entanglements with other kinds of living selves’—multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces. Such ethnography also follows Susan Leigh Star, who suggests ‘it is both more analytically interesting and more politically just to begin with the question, cui bono? [to whose benefit?] than to begin with a celebration of the fact of human/non-human mingling’.”

– Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography (pdf)

Our Counting Sheep project certainly falls within the realm of multispecies ethnography, but the addition of critical or speculative design also conjures ties to what have recently been called “epizoic media.”

epizoon, n. (pl. epizoa)
A parasitic animal that lives on the exterior of the body of another animal.

epizoic, adj.
Of or pertaining to epizoa.

media, n.
The main means of mass communication.

At the Institute for Augmented Ecology–a temporary office within FoAM as part of the groworld project–Theun Karelse has compiled a list of epizoic media projects as part of their investigations into “trans-species social networks.” Justin Pickard considers the list a good way to “start to bend your brain around the (still permeable) boundaries of the field” and adds a few more projects to the mix, but epizoic media are dominated by mammals and birds equipped with GPS, sensors and/or cameras. I wrote about PigeonBlog in a 2008 article on sensor technologies and community mapping, and I’ve always been a fan of Anab Jain’s Luka Live project, but what really struck me as seductive were the insect and bacteria projects. (Jussi Parikka’s Insect Media, anyone?)

For example, Angelo Vermeulen’s Corrupted C#n#m# started with the “colonisation of digital media with biological organisms” and has most recently turned to “Madagascar hissing cockroaches that were transformed into ‘cyberinsects’ capable of disrupting video data.”

And Chris Woebken’s Moth project “consists of a set of tools that provide a framework to create a language for facilitating new insect/human interactions … The advantage of involving an insect as a living sensor is you can create a relationship with it, by watching its behavior and seeing it’s alive rather than just reading data output or detecting color change. The insect as sensor can become an entity of trust – rather than something you might shy away from or even be repulsed by.”

Although beautiful and evocative, I have to ask if these projects perpetuate the “celebration of the fact of human/non-human mingling”? Or, put differently, do they really help us question “how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces”?

Perhaps Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s documentary on Montana sheep herding, Sweetgrass, is “better” multispecies ethnography? I don’t know. But I do find it curious that although it was rejected by ethnographic film festivals it’s found more, or less, favour with movie critics and publics–maybe because it one of those films that “show more than they tell, and allow us to delve in and experience the issues at hand rather than dissect them from above.”

On the other end of the media production spectrum, what about animal webcams? Geoff Manaugh recently pointed to an article in the LATimes that raises some interesting and important points:

“Animal cams are voyeurism without guilt, intimacy without the invasion of privacy. And those lives don’t lose any intrigue for not being human; part of why I became a biologist is that fascination with beings that seem both exactly like us and a universe apart. The cams let the rest of the world, the non-scientists, in on the fun. Yet it’s that quality of animals appearing to be just like us that makes me want to drop a cautionary pebble into the live video stream. The comments on webcam sites are rife with anthropomorphism, not surprisingly, and even when this is pointed out, the contributors are often undaunted … But there is a danger in claiming such kinship too insistently. Appearances aside, animals are not just like us, any more than they are all like each other. Rabbits have different lives than bluebirds, and we should expect neither to replicate our own. How can we know what animals feel? The fact is that we can’t. We can look at animal brains, and we can observe their behavior, but their inner lives are mysterious. 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.”

So if we’re not looking at animals from our perspective, can we see what they see instead? Again, Geoff suggests that it’s not that easy:

“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?”

But maybe we’re experiencing issues that are particular to visuals without voice; after all, stories told from the perspective of animals are an integral part of our cultural myths and written literature. But do we, as the biologist above suggests, risk missing something because of our tendency to anthropomorphise through words? Or do we just need to tell stories about animals that are both more and less than human? Post-human media, if you will.

Luka, the Wifi Dog, is a lovely example of epizoic/posthuman media. But the project’s connection to critical design also puts it, I think, firmly within the kind of multispecies ethnography that asks the hard question, “in whose interest?”

Luka, the Wifi Dog from Superflux on Vimeo.

Is design fiction different? As Julian Bleecker describes it, it may be:

“This kind of prototype has nothing to prove — they do not represent technical possibility. They are prototypes that give shape and form and weight to one’s imagined idea. This is a kind of prototyping that couples the speculation inherent in design with the creative license of fiction and the pragmatic, imminent reality of fact. Tangible, materialized props that live in between fact and fiction and are both speculative and possible. They aren’t specifications for making, but they are specifications for imagining.”

So we don’t need or want to make these designs, but we do want or need to imagine with or through them? (Hmm.)

For Nordes 2011, Andrew Morrison wrote a paper called Reflections of a Wireless Ruminant, which looks from the future back to the present and describes ubiquitous computing from the perspective of a dairy cow, “Here I am, released but regulated in this new free range urban paddock … Free to roam, no charges!”

Catherine Caudwell, one of my PhD students, is also doing some brilliant work around electronic companion fan-fiction as speculative design. She’s interested in stories about objects, and objects designed to tell stories, but I’ll have to ask her if she sees any of this as providing “specifications for imagining.”

But reading back over what I’ve posted so far, I see I’m losing the thread and should probably stop. Thinking out loud is all right, though, huh?


Cultural Anthropology on The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography
Donna Haraway on Playing Cat’s Cradle with Companion Species
Joanna Zylinska on The Human after the Post-humanist Critique or, the Fantasy of Interspecies Ethics
New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies
Australian Animal Studies Group
British Sociological Association Animal/Human Studies Group