Animal Cameras

Virtual Reality and Factory Farming
Bogna Konior

Section

Media & Resources

Classification

Essay

Artist

Bogna Konior

Project

Speculative Ecologies

Bogna Konior contemplates the extent to which the experience of animals in contemporary meat production is accessible to humans. She is mainly critical of the project “iAnimal,” which offers the opportunity to experience what it is like to see the world from the point of view of chickens or cows just before slaughter. Konior understands the 360-degree video as just another product that only appears to be ecological, whereas in fact it actually serves the economic and sadistic interests of the viewer.

 

Rendering signifies both the mimetic act of making a copy, that is, reproducing or interpreting an object in linguistic, painterly, musical, filmic, or other media (new technologies of 3-D digital animation are, for instance, called “renderers”) and the industrial boiling down and recycling of animal remains.

Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) 20.

Since 2012, filmmaker Mark Devries has been flying drones over large factory farms. The footage reveals toxic lagoons of waste spilling out around neat, evenly spaced-out white cubes. Hundreds of feet long, these lakes of excrement surround the tiny compounds in which farm animals spend their lives, wastelands are similarly captured by a series of aerial photographs by Mishka Heller. Resembling the surfaces of alien planets, or wounds in the flesh of the land, the photographs amplify, through colour, the effects of pollutants, such as hydrogen sulfite and nitrates. While new media allows for these novel vectors of visuality in portraying the hidden lives of animals, living animals occupy secluded spaces. As the most literal illustration of this deadly game of sight and occlusion, Mercy for Animals reports that in South Korea alone, almost three million animals were buried alive following a flu outbreak in 2011 as euthanasia supplies ran out.3 A simple Google search can reveal surreal photographs of health officials in protective gear dumping hundreds of live animals into impromptu mass graves or leading an eerily unsuspecting group of ducks into a pit. Expanding in size and profit, factory farms are increasingly difficult to document. Thus, Deveries’ and Heller’s lenses work around their objects, circling them like a frightened animal, too cautious to come close.

In 2007, Forbes called agriculture “the world’s biggest industry.”4 It is also ripe with innovation: from artificial intelligence systems that monitor cockroach farms in China5 to facial recognition technology for cows6 and the nascent industry of artificial meat.7 The marriage of innovation and business also characterizes new media practices that artists and activists interested in factory farming utilize. Surveillance and computer graphics mould how humans look at farm animals but also how artists respond to that look. Satellite mapping, CCTV, Google Earth, aerial and drone photography — these technologies join the long line of what Michel Foucault in 1973 called “biopolitical” tools of productivity, bookkeeping and disciplinary technologies of labour that extract value from life itself (and from its corollary — death). Ours is a time when capital and life have become the same.8 The frantic reproduction of animal life in factory farms is the condition for capitalism’s self-renewing loop. Capital plants life and plants itself through life, a parasite that nests in one body after another, exhausting it, selling it, exploiting it, and beginning the cycle anew. This is a pattern of cunning and intelligence, a wit that has to be outsmarted. Some believe we can do so by seeing better. Can we?

The way we look at factory farms is increasingly mediated, it is not simply an aesthetic choice, but also a response to a policy that prevents an unmediated look. The United States government, among others, uses drastic measures to protect the agricultural industry, such as the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act aimed at activists who, for example, free minks from fur farm cages, an offence punishable by up to ten years in prison. Recently, seeking to protect themselves from graphic video exposure, multiple corporate farm owners introduced Ag-gag laws that ban journalists and activists from documenting their grounds. This is because such actions were successful — between 2007 and 2009 several videos documenting cruelty at factory farms, such as grinding up baby chicks alive or regular brutal beatings of cattle, led to industry boycotts, criminal charges, and closure of multiple facilities.9 Lobbyists reacted immediately: Over the next few years, sixteen states introduced Ag-gag laws.10 Therefore, artists and activists have turned to virtual reality.

Colloquially, ‘virtual reality’ has come to mean a digitally created environment in which the user can participate, usually through a head-mounted display apparatus. Motion-tracking systems of variable sophistication assure that she can move in real-time within the virtual world, which can sufficiently respond to her movements. The new medium is hailed as a prophet of change, believed to be ever more ‘realistic’ than the impartial experiences that other technologies deliver. Virtual reality has been recently called “a game-changer for animal advocates.”11 Exalted user reviews, ranging from ‘this is unlike anything I have seen before’ to ‘I will never eat animal products again’ are often included in how activists sell the project. On the iAnimal website, one user insists that “something extra-powerful comes across in VR. The heightened visual closeness brings about heightened emotional attunement.”

The team behind iAnimal, at this moment the most well-known series of VR factory farm documentaries, which has so far made three VR films outlining the tortured lives of farmed chickens, pigs and cows, wants to deliver this immersive experience by filming from “the point of view of the animal […] so that you actually feel like you’re in a flock of chickens.”12 In principle, a bond between humans and machines, virtual reality is increasingly used to observe animals or — more so — to ‘become’ animals through technological immersion. “It actually puts you in the animal’s place,” says the campaign director of Last Chance for Animals.13 Addressed in the second person to ‘you,’ the animal, the voiceover proclaims: “Your horns are burnt off without an anesthetic and you spend your life plagued by illness and loneliness.” Through these revelations of what we often already know but, it is argued, do not feel, activist art wants to lift the veil on what is hiding in plain sight. Yet, if we want seriously think about how animals are mediated through these technologies, we might have to drop this old tune and ask: What is going on when virtual reality aims to put us ‘in the place of’ an animal?

One explanation is simple enough, Animal VR documentaries are celebrated as empathy factories. With the introduction of every new medium, this argument cyclically returns: We have already thought that war photography and documentary filmmaking would result in an empathy explosion, effectively preventing what it was showing.14 That never happened. These media did, however, change visual culture, making violence a permanent element of it. Horror theorists explain that when we watch gore or torture from a safe position, watching violence can be actually thrilling — not because we are all sadistic deep down but because it cements the sensation that, contrary to the victims on our screens, we are safe and we have made it through the screening; it is cathartic15 and lets us reflect on the notion of evil from a protected position of distance.16 We emerge victorious — the fleeting, intense proximity to violence makes clear to us that the world of bodily violence is, luckily, not our own, at least not now because we are still the ones in the lucky position to bestow empathy rather than have it gifted upon us. Furthermore, the brain can experience an influx of intense emotions as pleasurable irrespective of their content — excitement and anxiety are experienced similarly in the body and one can be tipped over into the other, a design feature that horror films often exploit.17 And even if we were to experience sympathy rooted in terror, this does not have to turn into political action — in fact, we could argue that today the question of ethics has increasingly taken over the question of politics, to the detriment of change.

But something else is happening here: the desire to use new technologies to become animals. This is particularly peculiar because the iAnimal ‘films’ — or any of the recent virtual reality documentaries about factory farming — provide us with distinctly human perception of image and sound. Do we really see as animals do by immersing ourselves in these virtual experiences? No. In reality, chickens have three eyelids and can move each eye independently. They have a 300-degree field of vision without turning their heads. Cows can see everywhere apart from directly behind them. Compared to humans, they have a limited depth perception — they cannot tell a shadow from a ditch. They can see red but they cannot see blue very well. Pigs rarely look up and primarily focus their eyesight on the ground. Unlike these animals, humans share their perceptual capacities with predators such as cats — our eyes face forward within a 180-degree field of vision, and our depth perception is really good because we need to be able to pick out prey from our surroundings. iAnimal VR films, promising to ‘put us in the place’ of the farmed animal are giving us the opposite, filming from the perspective of an apex predator, with the corresponding field of vision, focus and colors. Within the virtual experience, you are addressed as a prey animal — a pig or a chicken — and yet the perception you are endowed with is that of a hunter. A wolf in a sheep’s clothing, we could say: The pre-supposed perception of a farm animal is colonized within a human mode of seeing.

This failure is inscribed into the very idea of ‘becoming-animal,’ a concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, which is often taken too literally. For Deleuze and Guattari, there are three types of animals: Oedipalised or humanized, whose history and character derives from their history with humans; archetypical or symbolic; and demonic, their favorite, an ever-evolving, flexible multiplicity that destroys stable identity.18 In the demonic becoming, the human is scattered, becomes animalistic, multiple like a pack of wolves, the ego falls apart — this is not about imitating animals but about collapsing the self. The ‘animal’ here is a mediator of this collapse and even though Deleuzians might try to convince us that ‘these concepts are not metaphors!’, the ‘animal’ in ‘becoming-animal’ decisively is. (This is why Donna Haraway raged against the two philosophers, writing that “No earthly animal would look twice at these authors, at least not in their textual garb in this chapter.”19 This is all understandable, given that Deleuze and Guattari wrote Capitalism and Schizophrenia to understand the human psyche as a multiplicity, rather than through the individual Oedipal subject stuck in parental relations as psychoanalysis posited. The demonic animal serves as a stand-in for something like a facial dis​recognition system but has as little to do with animals as iAnimal has with animal vision. As John Ó Maoilerca rightfully asks, what’s in it for the animals?20 Are they to become a tool for a thinly veiled power-trip under the guise of ethical anti-anthropocentrism, proving our highest and most commendable ethical impulses by nobly taking on the perceptions of others? It might just be that this new aesthetic desire to dissolve humanity through becoming ‘animals’ is the highest form that anthropocentrism has yet taken: as if we could escape the terror of our humanity, or rather of not knowing what our humanity even is by nesting ourselves in another mode of being. What’s in it for the animals when they become the simulated skins that we live in?

The desire to become remains, however, and it is an interesting one because it hides something else. What are we becoming when we try to ‘become an animal’ through iAnimal? The self-proclaimed ethical desire to become animal hides another longing: that of to become technologies. For do we become animals through these virtual reality experiences? Not at all — this is not how the animals see. It is how the technology is configured to see. We ‘become’ technology. We become the eye of the camera. The camera is, however, no longer the mechanical “third eye” that early film theorists such as Dziga Vertov celebrated. The camera is a computer. It renders rather than records.

In Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, Nicole Shukin describes in great depth the centrality of ‘rendering’ to contemporary visual culture and factory farming. She notices that the word denotes both the processing of an image in computing and the processing of an animal carcass. ‘Rendering’ is then a material act on both ends: in the cultural industries on the one hand, and in industrial farming on another, two sides of the same coin. We can render a 3D image and we can render a corpse. Despite its relation to computation and potential for figurative abstraction, Shukin notices that it is a self-proclaimed ‘realism’ that is often taken as the goal of rendering: “Although rendering expands the sense of mimesis beyond its canonical associations with realist rendition, market cultures’ hot pursuit of the representational goal of realism via new technological fidelities remain[s] vital to its logic.”21 Indeed, the obsession with ‘realism’ also fuels the iAnimal project. “The meat industry always complains that we’re using selective footage, narrow vantage points and editing to make things seem worse,” an animal rights activist praises the new technology, “but with VR, you’re seeing exactly what we saw and hearing exactly what we heard.”22

Perhaps it is rendering, not becoming, that best describes what happens between humans, animals and technologies in iAnimal. The promise of seeing like animals or even, as the makers claim, one day experiencing in VR the “soul-destroying stench” of factory farming tells us something about how farm animals are mediated today. For it is precisely processing that, as Shukin tells us, reveals how “literal currencies of animal life, such as meat, can be shown […] with symbolic sense, [while] filmic or digital animations can be pressured to reveal their carnal contingencies.”23 The labour that animals perform by being processed unites factory farming and the cultural industries. Animals are both the aesthetic subject and the material. Before digital cinema, film stock was animal stock because photographic gelatin was “derived from the waste of industrial slaughter.”24 If we focus on ‘rendering’ animals in digital images rather than becoming animals through them, we will also be motivated to look at the economic conditions in which these technologies operate and the larger ecology of labour, pollution and industrial development.

The three iAnimal films do not hide their links to the industry. Each is narrated by a celebrity — Evanna Lynch of the Harry Potter films, Tony Kanal of the band No Doubt, and tattoo artist and cosmetics entrepreneur Kat von D. The production studio behind iAnimal is located on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. The technical team and the star power behind these films comes from its proximity to Hollywood, as it the case with the Factory Farming 360 documentary produced by Last Chance for Animals. No wonder that some of the films ended up at the lucrative Sundance film festival, where they attracted attention because of the novelty of the aesthetic experience. They pair dramatic narratives with a gritty documentary aesthetic. Factory Farming 360 is also filmed ‘as if’ from a pig’s perspective, dramatically narrated by a celebrity who describes the torment of castration without an anesthetic and accompanied by a horror movie-like synth soundtrack ‘as if’ the dead animals were about to awaken as zombies. Inevitably, the films end with a market-focused message: buy plant-based products, not meat. A hub of vegan food, Los Angeles and its VR production studios are tied to this idea of ethical consumerism. iAnimal focuses on delivering a technologically-exciting, personal experience of terror as well as a market-driven solution to it.

Considering these solutions, we should bear in mind that industrial agriculture accounts for one-third of global greenhouse gas emission. Humans did not exist the last time there was so much CO2 in the air. Methane released from animals’ belching and their manure warms up the planet. The number of living animals has drastically shrunk over the past decades, largely due to humanity’s industrial practices — we have lost 50% of wildlife since the 1970s. At the same time, life has multiplied and accelerated for industrial farming — the number of livestock animals we now have on the planet exceeds the number of any other mammal group. Historian Yuval Harari writes, “Earth is home to about 7 billion humans, weighing together about 300 million tons. It is also home to several dozen billion farm animals — cows, pigs, chickens and so forth — whose total biomass is about 700 million tons.”25 Their bodily labour and death, processed at the factory production line and rendered in digital images has become the logic of our civilization. Fredric Jameson once wrote that all cultural narratives are informed by a “political unconscious” — cultural works talk about politics whether they want to or not, they remain symptoms of the logic of capitalist production. Now, as we are re-evaluating the relationship between humans and other forms of life on the planet, we welcome the dawn of a climate unconscious, as Julie Leyda says, with climate change underlying all cultural production. Factory farming constitutes an important part of it.

How does iAnimal fit into this? Focused on technological novelty and ethics, its narrative remains within uniquely human perception, economy and aesthetic pleasure. The images of suffering animals are produced to advertise the relocating of monetary capital towards ‘organic’ or ‘green’ products, some of which can carry a bigger carbon footprint than animal products.26 All of this is underlined by a certain nostalgia, as if a pastoral relationship to the environment could be restored. This mirrors the belief that we can still return to a pre-cataclysmic world and that climate change can be reversed if only we felt correctly and then bought the right things. It is obvious that the relationship between animals, ecology and human technology is dominated by corporate and industrial imagination, yet it is less obvious that the narrative of empathy is a part of the same image. Rendering animals within such a dream of an uncorrupted past, a mythical land of organic farming and stable ecosystems has already become the territory of green capitalism, with its frontmen on LA boulevards.

Virtual reality films like iAnimals are a failed identity politics for the animals – they grant visibility without allowing an exit. In the times when political change seems unreachable by standard means, ethical experiences can temporarily make us feel that we are at least trying to share the pain of others. They do not necessarily help us to understand the nature of systemic change or how to achieve it, and the comfort of engagement that they provide is fleeting so that we may need to reach it in increasingly novel ways, much more provoking to the senses than working to influence legislation or corporate funding structures. Would farm animals care about what the affective states are that motivate us to change the laws around factory farming? In fact, would they care if we did it out of cold-hearted risk assessment and selfish self-preservation? Activists cannot be blamed for using every single resource that they have at their disposal but looking at history, and remembering that war photography did not stop wars, we should be wary of the limitations of ‘empathetic cameras.’

Images courtesy of BCAAsystem.


Author’s note: I would like to thank Mari Bastashevski for her comments and support in developing this ongoing collaboration on animals and technology.


Works Cited

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