Cat among the pigeons

London is full of pigeons. It is their perfect environment and they occupy the city in unnatural numbers. Like many other urban animals, pigeons exploit the protection and sustenance the city offers. There is always food to be found, in bins, on the street after bars close or directly from the human hand (sometimes shared, sometimes stolen).

Natural cliff dwellers, city buildings provide the perfect nest sites for pigeons. There is plenty of space so there is little competition for the best nest sites and very few predators. Add to this the warmth and protection from adverse weather that tall buildings and human activity provides and you have the perfect habitat for pigeons.

Finding myself with some free time one day I began to stalk the pigeons. I chose an individual and followed it for as long as I could. When I lost it I would choose another and follow that pigeon instead. I followed as they bobbed along, pecking at cigarette butts and chewing gum on the pavement, as they flitted from bench to branch and back again. I watched them squabble over discarded chips and limp through a forest of commuters’ legs.

As I stalked the pigeons through London I realised I was moving differently to the other people in the street. They walked with purpose; fluidly and rhythmically at speed while I moved slowly, pausing, considering, stepping lightly. I viewed the city through hunters’ eyes, noticing details invisible to the rush of people around me. Aware of the sounds of birds, the smell of spices from an open window nearby and the feel of cobbles beneath my feet, my senses heightened, I moved like a cat across the city with no particular direction. Before long I was lost. It was wonderfully freeing. With no idea where I was I let my instincts lead me until I found the river and was back in familiar territory.

This time meandering through the streets of London allowed me to meditate on city life and our relationships with the animals we share it with (willingly or otherwise). Dundee is of course a lot smaller than London, however its proximity to open countryside as well as the sea allows for a huge diversity of life.

I began to question what exactly our relationships with other animals in the city are; how do we negotiate sharing city space with such diverse creatures? What problems arise from this close proximity? And what does it mean to be an Urban Animal?

The Human Animal

“Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” 

Albert Camus

I have often explored the idea of the “Animal” in my work and the relationship between man and other life has been on my mind recently for one reason or another. As I contemplate the direction my life and my art practice will take in the coming months I feel somewhat compelled to return to this concept to see how I can evolve my thoughts on it and what insights I can gain from exploring it through a freshly developed performative practice.

I find it interesting that such a divide is made between nature and culture and especially between human animals and non human animals. There is often a negative reaction to the notion that man is an animal, as though to acknowledge this is to somehow degrade man. It is seen as an insult by a species which has declared itself privileged among the life on earth.

It seems paradoxical that the same men who will argue adamantly that we evolved from apes will also attest to our apparent elevation from the natural to the cultural. While it seems true that we have “artificially” interfered with our physical evolution through the development of medicine and technology; allowing us to cure diseases and prolong life which may otherwise have altered the human gene pool, these changes merely indicate an alternative direction in our evolution. We are a species of inventive tool users, our tools have just got a bit more complicated over the years.

Culture is natural. The human city is no less natural than a beehive or termite colony. We build ourselves shelters and interact with each other to survive just as all animals do. We are still driven by the same primal instincts that we were millions of years ago; to live and eat and reproduce. It is these drives that are at the heart of all our advances.

Despite this, and to the other extreme, there is often a tendency to villainize man amongst ecological circles; to suggest that we are unworthy compared to other animals as we are “destroying the planet”.  This is untrue. We are in the grand scheme of things a blip on the surface of the world, life has existed for millions of years and will continue to exist when we are gone. That is not to say that we aren’t having a significant effect on the species we share the planet with; neither does this give us the right to abuse the planet, but the arrogance of assuming that we could bring about the destruction of life on earth serves only to perpetuate the myth that we are somehow above nature.

We are the biggest danger to our own existence. We should not be worried about destroying the planet but rather about destroying human life on the planet. We need to reconnect to our animality; to see ourselves as part of nature in order to rebalance our relationship with the planet and our relationships with each other. Once we stop seeing the world and the life on it as commodities for our own convenience and allow ourselves to recognise our place in the ecosystem, we can begin to reach an equilibrium with the world we live in.

What is needed it would seem is a re-evaluation and a re-education and then perhaps there will still be a place for the human animal on Earth.