Antti Tenetz

How do machines learn to recognize animals?

Researcher: Antti Tenetz website: //

Text: Theun Karelse

Connecting with animals

During his Machine Wilderness residency Antti has collected lots of images as material to train a neural network on. Mostly the wolves and the birds in the tropical greenhouse, but also many other animals. The working process is as much about training the neural network as it is about connecting with the animals himself. Antti says that at home in the Finish Arctic, being in nature helps him forget his worries, a sentiment I’ve heard often expressed by people who live in rainforest, savannah or even keen gardeners.

Inspecting a camera-trap at the specialist in Wageningen.

What we are made of.

Antti wrote some time ago: We live in bioregions and watershed areas that are part of bigger systems. Analogue knowledge that accumulated in nature during 3.5 billion years of evolution is within and surrounds us. We should respond to what we are made of. We should try to see the animal within us as well as the non-human realm around us that we are an integral part of.

There is a lot of discussion and writing about multispecies perspectives and ecological thought in critical discourse. This is very theory-oriented. Not many people have walked among bears and wolves or swam in freezing arctic rivers. Antti Tenetz does. He describes himself as an artist and naturalist in equal parts. But anyone who meets him, will feel it right away, his profound connection to animals, rivers and forests. The bear, the wolf, the raven, they somehow seem to be with him.

Other worlds.

Technology as portals to other worlds

Antti describes how technology allows him to enter the worlds of animals. The scuba diving gear that enables him to dive with the Arctic Char in extremely cold rivers. Although once he found a small hole in his suit was exposing him to the cold, eventually leading him to get close to hypothermia and thus cardiac arrest, he stripped off and ran through the forest for miles to warm up his body. He sometimes speaks of going into the forest with enhanced hearing gear that help you hear the smallest sounds from far away. And then he just spends time listening to the forest. Hearing life there in amazing detail.

The technology he brings to ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo are camera-traps, used by ecologists to spot animals and animal behaviour during the day and night. He has a complex and varied set-up of 6 traps. Some work better at night, others give higher resolution images, and some are better for close-ups. At night Antti sees ARTIS as an entirely different kind of zoo than during daytime, because there are no human visitors and some animals have very different behaviour at night. Behaviour that the general public can’t see. The camera-trap serves here as a portal to help us see beyond the human realm.

The nightlives of the wolves

Joining the wolves

After meeting with Peter, who is in charge of the wolves and other carnivores in the park, we set up a working method for placing the cameras for observations at night. Antti seems to be speaking to the wolves, making small sounds. Later he says that sitting there with the wolves he wondered who is more enclosed, the wolf in the zoo or us humans in our concrete boxes and failing systems of hyper-capitalism.

The eye-contact is slightly different to the wolves he knows from the wild. Wild wolves stare at you all the time. He is getting to know them, letting them get to know his scent. The sense of smell in wolves is formidable according to Antti. They can smell prey from miles away, just like bears, polar bears and many other creatures can do. It makes you wonder what the wolves make of the scents here. They no doubt recognise regular visitors, Antti says, and can smell all the other animals not just in the zoo but also outside. It makes you wonder about the dogs being walked in the streets nearby, do they know their smells too? Do they recognise all of our perfume-brands? Can they smell the local coffee-shops and restaurants? How far into the city do their senses travel?

Working in the Tropical Greenhouse

Beyond our grasp

Antti loves the tropical greenhouse, because it is such a layered space. The complexity of the place, with its lush vegetation means you never see the space fully or can even get a sharp grasp on it. It defies any overview, which reminds him of the boreal forests he visits at home. It gives you complexity that challenges all the senses; the heat, the smells, the uneven ground. You walk through the space on very equal footing with the birds, bats and other animals there. In the tropical greenhouse, like the Finnish forest, you can forget the human world for a moment.