I am so excited to share this new video I made with Jim James and his dog Emmy. Please share with dog lovers and animal lovers and stay tuned for many more stories to come.
I opened the New York Times today and discovered a video on Zoos in America. Last week’s Times featured a front page article on the commonalities between human animal diseases and non human animal diseases. Apparently, other species suffer from many of the same psychological and physical diseases as we do and veterinarians are being asked to chime in on human conditions with their solutions. PBS just broadcast two powerful documentaries on the connection we have with dogs and cats (Shelter Me and Why We Love Dogs and Cats.)
I am so heartened by the growing interest in what we share in common with other species. There is a long way to go but social change takes time.
I am so happy to see the mainstream media start to venture into what in past years would have seemed the dangerous zone of anthropomorphizing. I keep envisioning it becoming more profound – nightly newscasters showing animals needing adoption, or weather forecasters mentioning that people should slow down on the roads because of salamander migrations and animals coming out of hibernation or babies being born who don’t know about cars…or of the devastation on our psyche, on the environment, on the unlucky animals in factory farms which wouldn’t exist without our tax subsidies and being far away from most of our viewing. (Factory farms have just lobbied to make it illegal for photographers or videographers to enter their facilities). With every day, I hope to bring this into focus through whatever means I have as an artist.
The One Language Project – The photographs I am taking and the accompanying essays by the owners, will be expanding for use in an App for the ipad and for viewing on the website with hyperlinks and infographics. Check out the page and consider commissioning a portrait of your dog to be used in the installations or donating to the project. This public art project is a powerful way to put other species in front of us and show our interconnections across species divides through the one language of emotion we all share.
The questions I’m including in the next installation June 22nd of One Language: For the Love of Dogs:
“What would we do differently if we referred to all other individuals in other species as a someone instead of a something? Should we be drawing lines or should we instead by drawing circles?”
Next year, maybe cows, or cats, or ferrets or parrots or pigs? Our longing for connection with other species is that longing we have for touch, voice, relationship, belonging. Maybe it is as close as your yard, your rooftop, your living room. There is someone who needs you to listen – whether the cardinal at your window, the dog at your side, the elephants fighting for survival, or your neighbor next door, hidden from view in loneliness and struggle. We are all animals with similar needs and great capacity for bringing joy.
“What if the world embodied our highest potential? What would it look like? As the structures of modern society crumble, where do we find solutions that can help us build the future that serves us all?
Below is a short film that is thought-provoking. Please watch and share!
One Language: For the Love of Dogs – is phase one of an expanding and ongoing exploration of the one language we share with with other species and one another – emotion.
I am absolutely thrilled to combine my love for photography, video and audio storytelling with the mission of Naturestage in this project which encapsulates much of my most recent work and which I think has the power to engage people in conversations about our role alongside the other species on the planet.
Here are photos from today’s new installation in the Dakota Puffin Dog Boutique on Charles Street in Boston. Many thanks to Nicole, the owner, for giving us wall space for the exhibit, and to the owners of the dogs who wrote heart-felt short essays and allowed me to photograph their wonderful dogs. It brings me so much joy to discover the stories of these animals through the eyes and hearts of their owners, and to involve more and more people and their pets in this project. We hope the idea will attract backers for parts of this project which will help bring the exhibit to different spaces and cover the cost of taking the photos and reproducing them on the canvases.
Here is where you come in. If you have a dog or know someone who has a story to share about their dog, please consider becoming part of this exhibition as it reproduces for the walls of office buildings, dental offices, restaurants, galleries, libraries, hospitals and schools. I will take photos of your dog on location and then work with you to write a short paragraph or two about how your dog has changed your life. One goal of the project is to bring the connection we share with other animals into mainstream conversation and shed light on our conflicting treatment of animals in society and how to build empathy, understanding and respect for those beings which rely on us to take their interests to heart. One Language – For the Love of Dogs, opened today!
A discussion in Prospect Park, Brooklyn with painter Gary Dunn about art, urban parks and the value of building a craft.
Government silent as more elephants are slaughtered (Zimbabwe)
January 19, 2012
Chiredzi(ZimEye)Zimbabwe’s elephants continue to be butchered and this week, another elephant was found bleeding to its death, just as the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry remained quiet.
A number of healthy elephants were this week killed in Zimbabwe’s Chiredzi Conservation area which is now gradually being turned into a makeshift farming area by invaders.
Another elephant (pictured) was found shot in the Chiredzi River Conservancy and the herd chased with ‘something like 10 shots being fired’ according to witnesses.
The total number elephants wounded as a result of the shooting to date is not known.
Large trees are still being chopped down to make way for crops that do not do well in the Lowveld.
A Conservationist in the area told ZimEye:
After seeing the 44 wild elephants at our little dam on Saturday 14.1.12 morning and noon we heard 4 shots from our homestead on the western side of the dam at 3.30.
Monday morning at 7am we heard another 5 shots within half an hour. Monday afternoon one young elephant cow carcass was found, probably shot 4 or 5 days earlier on the eastern side of the Mungwezi River on Oscro. One tusk had been removed and the tail.
Tuesday lunch time another adult, lactating cow was found between our boundary and the Oscro ZRP station, tusks removed.
Tuesday late afternoon another elephant probably a young bull, was found lying on his brisket, tusks removed.
Other shots were reported on previous days, but too far for us to hear. How many more are lying rotting in the bush, how many more are running around with bullet holes, how many calves have lost their mothers?
“Large areas that have been cleared over the years are slowly become desertified and destroyed. Maize wilting where it has been planted in CRC, some patches have been completely burnt by the sun.
This is a tragedy on large scale that is taking place, and no one who has been put in positions to protect our wildlife and environment doing anything positive to do something to stop this destruction. The wildlife is being terrorized and traumatised,” a witness told ZimEye.
Efforts to get a comment from the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry were fruitless at the time of writing but earlier communication sent to the ministry in October last year still has not been replied to.
One of my friends has truly the most extraordinary collection of books of anyone I know, and I confess, I’ve photographed her books (with her permission). I thought maybe you’d be interested in some of the books lining my shelves, covering topics from fundraising in the arts, to empathy and compassion, economics, essays by naturalists, poetic writings on nature and animals, etc.
Connecting the presidential pardon of a turkey on Thanksgiving to the need for a educational focus on empathy for other species, might seem a stretch. Then again, after reading much of David Livingtone Smith’s fascinating book, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, I’m not so sure.
It seems that, according to Livingstone Smith, humans in all cultures and throughout recorded history have prepared for war through dehumanizing their perceived enemy, often equating them with some type of animal or insect. As Smith points out in detail, recent examples of this abound in war reporting and in the language used by people involved in genocide. Inhumane treatment of prisoners of war seems closely tied with animal references – dogs, vermin, rats. Jane Goodall has said that humans are the only animal capable of conscious cruelty, which makes this use of animal imagery to justify cruelty all the more ironic.
In a recent interview which I highly recommend reading, Goodall says “It simply doesn’t make sense that the most intellectually smart creature that has ever walked on planet Earth is destroying its only home, and destroying it so heedlessly. So how do we mend the damaged connection between brain and heart? Through the youth.”
Human activities are causing the sixth greatest extinction known on the planet. It seems as if there couldn’t be a more important moment in history to take action and stop such needless suffering and extermination of other species, whether willingly or unwittingly. Take, for example, the impending extinction of tuna due to overfishing and trawling in the oceans, the impending extinction of the Asian elephant in the wild, great apes and big cats on the decline, countless species that are less familiar to us but are dying from hunger, pollution and dwindling habitats. Although extinction is a part of the unfolding of life in its fluid and ever-shifting forms, it has never happened so quickly and pervasively due to human activities.
Goodall affirms the power of stories and of children’s hope and ability to change their parents but says that behavior change requires a multi-leveled approach. Most importantly, she emphasizes nurturing the hope that children naturally have about the world and giving them tools to implement their compassion. She also makes clear that she is not fighting for animal rights, per se, but for human responsibility. This is also my aim with Naturestage – to create connection and empathy that make audiences and students want to protect other species and ecosystems.
A recent column in The Stone, one of my favorite blogs on philosophy in the New York Times, discusses the link between the practice of pardoning a turkey on the eve of Thanksgiving and the “strange power vested in politicians to decide the earthly fates of death-row prisoners.” If we were more empathic and sensitized to the needs of other animals, might this not extend to how easily we could be manipulated into becoming dehumanizers of other humans?
David Brooks, regular op-ed contributor and author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, has also written a thought-provoking post on the new buzzword, empathy. In his October article, “Empathy versus action: Don’t just feel – lend a hand”, Brooks suggests that feeling empathy is not enough; that for empathy to be connected to positive social action, it must be connected to moral codes. As Brooks points out, peoples’ codes often conflict.
He writes “In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.”
Examining one’s moral values and talking about social codes is a thorny path to pursue as an educator. Enter art, the great means of forming empathy and simultaneously questioning our individual moral codes. Some of the greatest art causes you to examine your own inner limits of where your feeling urges you to act and why you do or don’t follow through on that urge. Picasso’s Guernica depicts the horrors of war, but does it turn the viewers into peace activists? Do people understand it without knowing its context? The painting did indeed raise world attention to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Picasso scholar Becht-Jördens writes,
In his chef d’oevre, Picasso seems to be trying to define his role and his power as an artist in the face of political power and violence. But far from being a mere political painting, Guernica should be seen as Picasso’s comment on what art can actually contribute towards the self-assertion that liberates every human being and protects the individual against overwhelming forces such as political crime, war, and death.
I discovered through my current interest in incorporating animation for The Elephant Project films, that a fellow artist, animator extraordinaire Ed Hooks, has coincidentally read and written about the same article by Brooks. He has this to say, and I agree completely. The most crucial element of the following is that humans can imagine what others are feeling based on what they see others doing. This naturally extends to how other animals behave. He writes,
…The way that empathy is triggered in acting – on stage and in animation – is through action. Emotion by itself is not actable and has zero theatrical value. Acting is doing. It is nice that you can make a character have the illusion of emotion, but that is not enough. The formula you want to remember is this: Thinking tends to lead to conclusions, and emotion tends to lead to action.” The audience sees what your character is doing and then, through empathy, relates to the emotion that led to that action.
Empathy is an innate trait in humans. It is necessary because we are social creatures that organize in groups in order to survive. If a person is unable to empathize, he is a sociopath. There is a lot of research showing that there is a specific section of the brain that is involved with empathy. In sociopaths – serial killers and such – that section is inactive. One of the characteristics of autism is an inability to empathize, which is why autistic children most often do not want to look you in the eye. They are unable to interpret the emotion they see in you, so it is more comfortable not to see it at all.
There are smart people who assert that an ability to empathize can be developed and strengthened, like strengthening a muscle. I disagree. Your ability to empathize is what it is, and it has been with you since birth. The real issue is not how to increase the ability to empathize, but to acknowledge the values that are behind the emotions we express, and the actions we take as a result. As David Brooks observes in that September 30th column, the presence of empathy is no assurance that a person will act responsibly or morally. A human is the only creature that can know something is wrong, and still do it.
One of the implications of Ed Hooks’ discussion of the use of action to evoke empathy with animated characters is that in real non-animated life, our actions do in fact influence how we feel. This is verified by Nick Cooney in his book, Change of Heart. He has been touring around the country speaking to activists of all stripes about how to really cause behavioral change in others and how we often think we believe in something, because it is how we have been accustomed to acting.
One of his insights that fuels my thinking about how music, theater and film can use their emotional and storytelling power to cause compassionate action is this: “people often learn what their beliefs are by looking at their own actions. We typically think things work the other way around…in our advocacy work we usually operate under the assumption that we first have to change people’s beliefs, which will in turn cause them to change their behavior…Behavior creates attitude: in part because we learn more about the issue, but also because we decide how we feel about an issue by looking at the things we say and do.” p. 61, Change of Heart.
In my multi-media presentation, Saving the Elephants, Saving Ourselves: The Role of Art in Social Change, I show examples of the numerous artists who are using their art forms to raise awareness for the human connection to elephants, and to their struggle for survival. Art here is crucial, not only in raising awareness, but in building empathy through action. Here is a photo from the Human Elephant Foundation, based in South Africa, of children making an elephant sculpture which is then exhibited with flower petals.
My wish for The Elephant Project film set and curriculum is that through working with the material using an art form, through actually making art – whether in music, dance, video, poetry or theater – students can truly integrate the heart with the hands and the head and feel their kinship with the rest of the beings on the planet, motivating them more strongly than anything else to be global caretakers in whatever way they can.
Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right. – Jane Goodall
For more powerful quotes from Jane Goodall, a courageous voice for the non-human animals and for social justice, please visit this page.