Why look at animals?

ArtScience interfaculty

Lead: Cocky Eek, with guests: Kenzo Kusuda and Thijs de Zeeuw website: //interfaculty.nl/

Students: Daan Boer, Pelle Schilling, Olivier Blom, Christine Gronborg, Andrzey Konieczny, Ziming Zhao, Jacob Wallett, Tom de Kok, Lola Brancovich, Myles Merckel, Simon Barette.

Why look at animals?

Why look at animals? is the title of a famous book by John Berger who wrote that we underestimate animals;

“To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather is to project a 19th-century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial, ..”

Why look at animals was also the starting question for a student fieldwork session during Machine Wilderness. In a way this course asked if we can rediscover animals as highly esteemed informants and guides, but as field research was entirely open to what might unfold during the process.

ArtScience interfaculty students spent 2 weeks doing research in ARTIS Amsterdam Royal zoo. These are students who are used to doing research, working in specific contexts, working collaboratively and often have a strong scientific interest. Perfect young researchers for a field session in this kind of setting. Typically an ArtScience student not only is comfortable expressing themselves creatively in various media, but often they develop their own media. Interesting to see, therefor what being among extremely varied organisms with wide ranging behaviours, signalling and life-worlds would trigger in these students.

Here are some of the notes, images, observations and experiments by the students:

Jacob reading a text to the herons.

Jacob Wallett

This text came from watching the herons at the zoo, who live there by choice. That is, because the zoo has lots of tall trees, and because there are a lot of things to eat (more on this later), and perhaps because they like the company. There are two species of heron in the zoo: the large grey heron, and the smaller black-crowned night herons. I was interested in the status of these animals in the zoo – officially they are not part of the collection, but the zoo seems proud of them, and the colony of black-crowned night herons is an important one for this rare and protected species. The grey herons cover large distances, and quite likely some individuals born in Artis will move on to Germany or Belgium or the UK.

Over two weeks I asked a few people about them and got some inconclusive statements. On the last day of the course I found the right person to talk to. I found him because as he drove past in a large cart every heron in the area turned their heads and watched him, this simultaneous turn of the head all the more conspicuous because of their long beaks. They literally all stopped what they were doing to watch him and I knew he was the person I was looking for. I caught up with his cart and he stopped to talk to me. He was suspicious of my questions at first, and asked me to clarify exactly what I wanted to know, and also who I was and to what extent I was professionally involved in heron business.

“I’m an art student”

Good enough. Then he warmed up and told me a lot about the herons. He was passionate and totally unsentimental, probably a desirable combination in someone who works with animals. Neither the grey herons or the black-crowned night herons are part of the collection, but as a protected species the latter are now fed by the zoo, making them ‘semi-wild’. To feed one and not the other requires some clever design; the zoo has developed open cages that stand on long legs, too small for the grey heron and perfect for the smaller black-crowned night herons, who stand hunched inside throughout the day when they are mostly inactive.

The following text was read out-loud to the herons, who naturally didn’t listen.

The zoo receives many visitors. Indeed, most at the zoo are visiting. Some visitors fly in from very far away; other visitors were born in the zoo. Some visitors come to the zoo on the backs or in the mouths or in the fur or on the feet of other visitors, and some dig their way in under the fences. Some came here so long ago that all but the slowest beings have forgotten what it was like before they were here to hold the ground together or hold the roof up. Still visiting, slowly.

All visitors are on a schedule and all make choices; there are many things to sense and many encounters to have here.

The human visitors are only allowed in between the hours of 9 and 6 – that is their schedule – but the others come and go at different times, and in different ways. By entering the ARTIS site the Visitors accept the following regulations:

The following is prohibited –

  • To stray outside the designated paths, corridors, rooms and playing fields.
  • To enter enclosures or to pass the no entry zone of enclosures.
  • To disturb animals in enclosures or place items in enclosures.
  • To insert or move body parts or objects through, over, in or under enclosures and pens.
  • To appropriate, steal, disturb, destroy, damage or remove items belonging to ARTIS or otherwise present on the site, including animals, trees, plants, works of art and furniture.
  • To use the items present on the ARTIS site in a manner other than that for which they are intended according to their nature and design.
  • To bring or admit animals onto the ARTIS grounds, or take animals from the ARTIS grounds (assistance dogs on a lead are permitted under certain conditions).
  • To behave or dress in an offensive manner, to cause noise, nuisance or otherwise disrupt order at the ARTIS site or exhibit otherwise socially unbecoming behaviour.
  • To deposit waste outside the indicated waste bins.
  • To stand, swim or bathe in the waters or water features on the ARTIS site.
  • To eat and drink at the Lemur Land.
  • To leave cars in the car park for more than 24 hours.


At this exact moment a pigeon has crossed over the main gate; and there is a morpho menelaus butterfly resting on a Balanciaga baseball cap; and the youngest sea-lion has picked up a stone in its mouth; and a speckled cape tortoise has laid eyes on an Australian man named Dave for the first time in history.

And in the middle of a small body of water, in the middle of a park, in the middle of a city, in the middle of the land, in the middle of the north sea, there is a heron breaking all the rules, and making heron choices about what to visit next – a silver glimmer twenty centimetres below the surface of the water; a stick of perfect proportions lying on wet grass; a cage of just the right size.

A frog singing in the tropical butterfly-house.

Christine Grønborg

The soundscape in the tropical butterfly green house made a big impression on me from the start as it was the first place I visited. At first I though the massive soundscape stem from crickets but realised it were frogs singing. A poisonous Amazon frog. I was informed the frogs were triggered by a looping sound recording while normally they would sing only closer to night time. Now they were singing all during the day.

This somewhat absurd information started questions I never thought about before -
Somehow it makes sense : while everything else related to a zoo environment is very constructed and artificially designed in order to create a certain environment or habitat, why would sound not be an element in this composition?
Were other areas of the Zoo utilising sound composition to enhance certain behaviour or create a specific atmosphere?

I tried to mimic the principles of the shy frogs through a simple frog sound installation prototype. I was very focused on the soundscape of the Zoo. And listening. I listened for long time in the bird house and near by the Scarlet Ibis. Tried to tune into their being. With closed eyes the source of the sounds becomes less obvious and sounds melt into each other. The movement of the plastic door slices became flapping of bird wings. Animals and children screaming was one and the same. How does the soundscapes evolve in the Zoo? Method for evolutionary sonic animals - listening and imagining.

Long term listening sessions. In the bird house. Other places where fences are less defined. Many hours. Developing a method for listening. Long term listening allows for a meditative state, a presence, and slowing down into other rhythms.

How to distinguish the sound from the source?
What to listen for? I find myself confused about this
How to unsee the tree but only see the person? The animal. The human.

How to unhear the concept but listen to the sound?

Some sound characters : global - focal II distant - intimate II internal - external

The Scarlet Ibis up in the trees. What does their world sound like? What is their perception range?

Borrowing the ears of the sounds. Very inspired by Kenzo in the Zoo.
Sounds - they are all arriving at the same slice of time. Binding it together as much as I can bind them. Imagination is different from fantasy. Imagination is rooted into the physical, the body, the tactile. It is situated. (As to Kenzo)

In the end I made a guided listening session.
Sensing the sounding body: The continuum of the sonic space becomes your body of organs. The external sounds are situated in your body and your body is situated in the sounds, expanding through the space. Rooted in two weeks in the Zoo.

About the frogs, on the last day we learned from more people and volunteers that no soundscape recording was playing in the butterfly greenhouse after all. What sparked the interest and focus on sound research showed to be an ambigious mystery. Perhaps this story shows more about general intercommunication within and about different species than about a specific soundscape for frogs.

Olivier presenting his antennae.

Olivier Blom

The insects interest me. They are so diverse and have wildly varied abilities and senses.

When visiting the butterfly-house I noticed their antennae, or feelers (voelsprieten in Dutch). Feelers implies sense of touch, but I read a little online and they relate to many other senses.

Antennae can be sensitive to smell, taste and hearing. There was an article about species with senses that are so sensitive, that they in a way become useless.

I think its interesting to extend our senses. I want to try and make antennae or feelers with sensors on them and explore a space.

A spectrogram from the birdhouse by Myles
showing disrupted birdsong.

Myles Merckel

Birds’ vocalizations are an incredibly complex form of communication. The transmission and reception of these signals are crucial to individual survival and reproduction. Birds have been shown to adapt their songs to increase the efficiency of communication. One example of this is the Acoustic Niche Hypothesis[1] (Bernie Krause) which argues “acoustic space is a resource that can be partitioned both spectrally and temporally”[2].

In complex and diverse ecologies where many species are trying to communicate, overlapping signals lead to acoustic interferences and signal masking. This has led to a communal organization of communication within animals living in shared acoustic ecologies. Many birds (except for “close-ended learners[3]) Are able to adapt their song spectrally, to fit it within a tighter frequency band, and temporally meaning they react to gaps within their communication band to avoid vocalizing over the call of another animal.

These interactions between native species in a shared acoustic ecology have encoded another element of complexity into an already intricate sound. The presence of a monkey call or a cicada's hum can be felt within the boundaries of a bird's song.

We go to great lengths to recreate environments and climates for animals in captivity, to preserve natural behavioral patterns and interactions. But we make no attempts to preserve the variety and complexity of unique information that is contained in bird songs. Bird songs differ geographically and individually; there is no universal sound of a species. They are constantly evolving and mutating, unstable and uncategorizable.

We tend to borrow language from music to describe and organize bird calls. But seven note scales and quantized rhythms lack the resolution to accurately capture and notate the vocalizations of birds; micro-shifts in temporality and pitch, slip unnoticed through the gaps between even microtones. Yet these almost imperceptible changes can represent a reaction to a colossal event occurring somewhere downstream in a birds’ entangled network of connections.

The visual analysis of spectrograms offers a solution to the issue of resolution. They provide a way to gain insight into the canopy-like structure and organization (or lack thereof) that exists within shared sonic environments. They visually render the full acoustic spectrum far beyond the limits of our hearing, revealing bandwidths of interactions we are unable to perceive. Within a singular recording, it is possible to observe sonic changes across the entire ecological network alongside micro-shifts in the frequency of a singular bird’s call. Spectrograms can make clear the uncontestable effect the acoustic environment has on a bird’s vocalization.

Simulations of natural environments and systems always falter when the details are scrutinized. It is an impossible task to recreate the complexity of nature. This issue is amplified within the audio domain. Enclosures for animals in captivity cannot be anechoic chambers isolated from anthropogenic noise. The systems and infrastructures required for the rearrangement of animals from wild to captive comes with an acoustic penalty.

European air-conditioning units replace the evening drone of a South American bullfrog. Sliding automatic doors populate the frequencies once filled by with the periodic calls of finches. How are these new animal/machine hybrid ecologies mutating the vocalizations of birds? The mass of ecological data encoded into bird calls is slowly being over-written by the environments that are built to conserve them. Should we attempt to preserve the wild bird's song when bringing species into conservation? or would these conserved songs only be Simulacrums[4] of their wild song?

Bird song is a material witness[5] to past and present ecologies. But unlike ice cores or rock strata, we cannot freeze bird songs in cooled laboratories or sterile labs. A singular Wreathed hornbill is adjusting its call temporally to make space for the call of a clicking gas heater. Possibly overwriting its entanglement with the calls of an unknown cricket species that it once shared an acoustic environment with, deep in the tropical evergreen forests of southern Bhutan. Do we have to accept these changes? Are these new animal-machine entanglements becoming markers of our efforts of conservation for later generations to de-code?

1 Krause, Bernie. (1993). The Niche Hypothesis: A virtual symphony of animal sounds, the origins of musical expression and the health of habitats. Soundscape Newsletter (World Forum for Acoustic Ecology).
2 Hart, Patrick & Paxton, Kristina & Ibanez, Thomas & Tredinnick, Grace & Sebastián-González, Esther & Tanimoto- Johnson, Ann. (2020). Acoustic niche partitioning in two tropical wet forest bird communities.
10.1101/2020.08.17.253674. 3 Lewis RN, Williams LJ, Gilman RT. The uses and implications of avian vocalizations for conservation planning. Conserv Biol. 2021 Feb;35(1):50-63. doi: 10.1111/cobi.13465. Epub 2020 Apr 15. PMID: 31989696; PMCID: PMC7984439.
4 Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation (S. Glaser, Trans.). University of Michigan Press.
5 Schuppli, S. (2020). Material witness: Media, forensics, evidence.

(emphasis in the text is by Theun)

Pelle listening in the birdhouse.

Pelle Schilling

We as humans experience the world through our rationality and our language. It's impossible to switch off the knowing of language and awareness of our thoughts. This awareness of our cognition, "metacognition" is what a lot of researchers and philosophers say distincts us from animals. Animals have the ability to just be, instead of being aware of their thoughts, of their cognition, I think at least.

Animals are cognitive beings, they process their surroundings, they communicate, they learn from experiences, they play games. But I think they don't have this metacognition. The lack of metacognition translates into behaviour that most of us humans would probably like to describe as rudimentary, or maybe even dumb. And the passiveness a lot of the animals exhibit could be described as laziness. Which is interesting but also very weird and stupid in a way. Translating animal behaviour into our rational language is just a way for us to relate to our rationality to their world. But once again, I think animals just are, they dont give a fuck about our ratio. They don't even have the concept of giving a fuck. Probably, how can I know?

I envy this lack of metacognition, the ability to experience my perception as is, without train on thought steaming on indefinitely.

The closest I got during the residency to ratiolessness was when I decided to lay down on a bench in the bird house. I laid there for around 2 or 3 hours. During this time I never fully fell asleep but I did start to glide in and out of consciousness. By being in this pre-sleep state I felt my ratio turning down. The train of thought was still happily steaming on but the tracks were merging and there were more trains running at the same time. Because the fluidity of thought in that state it became easier to just experience the surroundings. The ratio still tries to fight in my head but it loses its sharpness and makes less sense. It felt like becoming a bit more of an animal and a bit less human in a way.

Lola presenting her writing.

Lola Brancovich

I kept working on/with the ‘exclosure method’ which consists in tracing a mental journey trough the harsh lines from one umwelt to the other in a consistent distance, using points of relation that give generous flows of introspection by taking ‘steps out of ourselves’ using points of relation and exactly the same amount of steps back into ourselves .

Composite environments brought me to introspection of my body as composite environment.
I am pregnant of the space, the space is pregnant with me. We produce emotion and it produces us
There is no barrier,
It is not a fence , not a defence but a de-fencing
An enclosure to be turned into a exclosure
Ambitious experiments, ambiguous bodies, experiences making bodies and bodies making experiences , signs that wonder, hesitate to fix themselves

The inner world is outside the outer world passes inside.

The ability for me to guide people trough this method is the next 'step' i want to pursue.

Ziming: "the bird is standing with wide spread wings,
saying to itself, i’m flying, i’m flying!"

Ziming Zhao

In the process of photographing animals, I travel to and from all corners of the zoo, gradually starting a process of constantly visiting neighbors and observing their behavior. Based on the understanding of their dynamics, a process of intimacy is established.

Tom and Myles in the birdhouse.

Tom de Kok

The first day:

In the first day of the course we had to pick an animal and try to become the animal in the space. I was a jellyfish and first I felt vulnerable but I took the time and got more into it, I felt one with the water and had a powerful feeling. I tried to imagine not having a brain and let the water control me. That made me feel safe and connected to all the organisms surrounding me. But on a very different level than I do as a human. This was interesting to me and empathizing with animals and their sensory perception become one of my main interests for the upcoming days.

Day in the forest:

After a long meditation in the forest I did a listening session and I tried to observe all the sounds surrounding me. There were a few very interesting topics that came to mind and the most important elements were rhythm and silence.

I tried to write down all the rhythmic information that I heard in +- 1 hour:

Crow: 70bpm 1x meh meh meh meh (20min silence) 1x meh meh meh meh
Airplanes: 4x 2 minutes of slow doppler effect
Falling stick: 1x short
2 note bird? 200 bpm flams of 7 8th notes and long silences of 1 minute in between
Woodpecker: 800 bpm 1x roll of 1 second
Alien weirdo bird: chaotic bpm switches and so fast that I'm not sure what's going on
Plastic/metal bird: 2x slowly building down likes its falling apart HardsoftsoftHardsoftsoftHard bird: 130 bpm 7x
Machine bird: 100 bpm 1 8th note 2 notes of silence, 1 8th note silence and 1 8th note
Dog: Not really a bpm 8x times
Highway: Drone of non stop noise
Personal favorite; psytrance triplet goa drop bird: 140bpm HssHssHHssHHHssHssH (Hard soft)
Swing bird: 140 bpm 10x

Next days in the zoo:

I wanted to spent most of the time in the 3 indoor bird houses and observe what is going in sound and behavior. I had a few sketches of questions for myself, which were:

  • Does sound only feel good if after it there is silence? And does silence only feel good when you know that after it sound comes back?
  • What does silence mean for birds? What does silence mean for humans?
  • How do birds hear and are they influenced by the artificial sounds like fan noises, broken fan ticking noises, reverb etc.
  • Birds chose the timing of their sound very precisely and careful, so they don't get unnecessary attention by dangerous other species, what happens with the birds in the zoo when they are surrounded by birds that they normally wouldn't meet?

Human hearing is between 20-20000 hz and threshold is 0 db. Most birds can hear between 1000-4000 hz and are the most sensitive in that range. But the hearing range of frequencies is not the impressive part about the birds, because they are very sensitive to the tone and rhythm of sound. This is so they can more easily discern sounds. Their brain is incredible and can process sound up to 10 times as fast as humans. As humans we can process 1 of 20th of a second but birds can hear 1 of 200th of a second. A lot of birds have a soft(er) layer of feathers on top of their ears, the feathers are there for the same reason that we use ''pop filters''.

I tried to do some research in birdhouse 1 on the amazing mustache birds aka; Inca tern. Their natural environment is on the coast of Peru and Chile. They can hear between 1000 hz and 5000 hz, which is a pretty common hearing range. Their hearing threshold is; 20 dB. And their vocal sound that I recorded are audible between the 400hz to 10,000 hz which is twice as high and almost 3 times as low as their hearing range. Which means they make sound that they can't process themselves. The fan in their reservoir is extremely low and they even have lower frequency range than our human ears can perceive.

I can hear the fan starting from 20 hz all the way to 10,000 hz and there is a peak at 145 hz. For humans this is a very dominant sound in the entire building, but its also pretty easy to forget, because of consistency of noise and obviously the presence of the birds. There was also a broken fan ticking in birdhouse 2 and this was in the range of 5500 -13000 hz. Its hard to tell how big the influence is on the inca terns, they have the ability to hear the fan in terms of frequency. In their natural environment, by the coast of Peru and Chile, they live by the sea. The waves of the sea also have a pretty big spectrum in frequencies, which in the mid/high end is quite similar to the fan noise in the zoo.

One funny thing that happened in birdhouse 2 was that one of the inca terns moved independently from birdhouse 1 to birdhouse 2 and then stayed there for an average of 4 minutes and mainly focused on the water. Sometimes he would fly into the water and then quickly flew back to the side. After the 4 minutes he went back through the plastic doors by himself to birdhouse 1. This happened once every 20 minutes and Myles made a video that I opened the door for the bird, which is really funny.

Last day in the zoo:

I wanted to make a better understanding of what it’s like to have a brain that can process rhythm 10 times as fast as a human and what is happening beyond our perception in their beautiful complex sounds. In the last day I went back to the birdhouse again and tried to record the birds as good as possible with the one condenser mic that I have. Then I tried to calculate how to pitch the bird recordings down, so it was 10 times as slow. The results are a bit lo-fi because of the noisy birdhouse acoustics and the audio editing of the pitch, but still very interesting to listen to. Listen to them here. For the future I would love to recreate those rhythms and tonality of my recordings and see how it feels to play and listen with them.

Kenzo on animal anatomy and performance.

Andrzej Konieczny

Question about why look at animals become a question of how to become an animal? How to unfold layers of social behaviors to encounter presence and possibility to by driven by observation and primal urges of the body. While making observations I didn’t wanted to be an observer of the animal phenomenas, but how we as human beings can incorporate animalistic movements to extend practice of everyday presence.

How to be us?
How to be closer to the reality?
How to be closer to the reality of performing?

As a practice we can make our body tired and create a frame of exhaustion for unfolding the natural movement that is layered by focal points of the solidified behaviors.

How to become presence?
How to create accidental expression?
How to create space for unexpected and unrepresentable?

After animal observation I tried to incorporate unexpected and accidental expression of animals that was not connected directly to basic need of a being. It could be body language, exploring places, playing with shadow and perception of a light, occurred sounds and many subtle movements that was driven by curiosity of a animals.

After all, main point of the embodied research is how become performer without performing? To add all observations and embodied empathy as our second nature and natural language of expression?

Daan testing sounds inspired by porcupine quills.


I was in the tropical greenhouse bonding (or whatever) with the Victorian Crown pigeon. I want to explore more with the animals and see which I can become.

As I became more at ease in the zoo I noticed visitors stopping at enclosures for only a moment, just trying to have seen an animal before moving on. As I had become fascinated with a few specific animals and had learned to appreciate them more, I wanted to find ways to engage with animals and slow down the visit, without resorting to shouting, howling, banging, or other behaviours that might have gotten the attention of the animal but wouldn't have given me a connection beneficial to both sides of the fence. Over the course of the two weeks I further developed a practice of taking on the perspective of animals, studying behaviour, trying to communicate with and embodying different species.


The first animals that caught me were the two Indian crested porcupines. They seemed very friendly and at the same time dangerous and threatening. Their personality seemed to be reflected in their quills. They have medium length quills around their face, almost hair-like at the ends. After petting them I knew they are friendly. Further down their bodies were the longest quills, marked with several white stripes. These aren't very sharp but if they put them up, almost like a peacock does its feathers, it looked very dangerous. Another type of quill to warn their potential predators are the short, thick and open quills on their tails. These aren't coloured nor look impressive, but are used to rattle when defending themselves. Finally they have the two-toned, short, thick and extremely sharp quills they use to stab their predators with. They fall out easily and are known to have killed lions and tigers by infecting the wounds inflicted.

Their quills seemed like a very good way of getting closer to them, but directly interacting with them beyond a fleeting stroke on their nose wasn't possible nor beneficial to them. Instead I choose to become them, as far possible. I studied their behaviour and tried to instinctually get a sense of how the porcupine experiences the world. I then attempted to take part of their body and add it to mine. With thick paper straws taped to my back I noticed how this influenced how I felt and expressed myself. With only the open quills on my back, none of the defensive weaponry and being part of a group of humans, I felt like the quills were openly showing others how I felt. It became another way to communicate, but because I was the only human-porcupine around I could only speak and be heard, I couldn't converse.

During the last day in the zoo I shared my understanding of what being a porcupine is like. Outside in the cold wind, crouched between some bushes for warmth and protection, I became aware of people watching me. I wasn't sure what they wanted, what they were there for. I was curious, approached, retreated. I didn't try to communicate with them but I expressed myself with the quills on my back and my body language. Once I had enough of being watched I found a spot out of sight and out of the wind and waited for them to leave.


I have had a fascination with birds ever since I realised they are dinosaurs. I have felt a connection with them since I befriended a pigeon on my balcony and tried to communicate with it, copying its movements and sounds, eventually being able to call it over and have it trust me.

So when I found the biggest species of pigeon in the world, the Victoria Crowned pigeon, in the tropical greenhouse, I wanted to try it with them. Early in the mornings and late in the days without people around, I would study it, mirror its movements and sounds and try to communicate with it. It really made me appreciate how smart, interesting, different and yet similar to us they are. Impossible to know exactly what it thinks and whether it thinks at all, it was still clear there was some level of understanding between us. Being able to be in the same space as another entity really puts you on a more equal footing. Either one of us could decide to leave, to approach. I was in his territory and he let me be, becoming used to me and doing his thing.