To some people in Phoenix, the coyote is an image of wilderness. To others, it is simply a nuisance. No matter your perspective, humans have a limited understanding of what it’s like to live in the coyote’s world. In fact, we can never truly know what it is to be another animal.
Ron Broglio, an assistant professor in ASU’s Department of English, studies the limits of human perception and the impossibility of understanding the experience of animals. His upcoming book, Surface Encounters: Thinking With Animals and Art (University of Minnesota Press, Nov. 2011), explores the work of artists who focus on the human-animal relationship.
“Animals are the fur that jams the gears of the well-oiled social machine,” Broglio says. He is interested in the friction that sometimes occurs living in a world where humans and animals are forced to coexist.
“We have our world - it’s nicely planned - and then the very physicality of the animal, or its being an animal and not being human and cultured, sometimes disrupts what we want from the animal or what we want from our civil world.”
Broglio says he first became interested in understanding the experience of animals during a teaching stint at Oxford, where he met two artists who worked with taxidermy-stuffed polar bears. He realized that many animals only enter human history at the time of their death.
“In order to know something, we often destroy it. How can we get to know a world in its vitality and flourishing without causing violence?” Broglio asks.
To answer this question, Broglio studied artists, who he says are able to provoke a sense of wonder that goes beyond our scientific understanding of animals. One such example is the work of artistic duo Olly and Suzi, who specialize in drawing predator species in their natural habitats.
“Let’s say they’re working with great white sharks. They go into a dive tank in the water where the shark is, and as the shark is coming towards them, they draw the shark under water – the two of them hand over hand. Then they give the canvas to the shark. The shark might bite it or rub against it, and the bite marks then become its marking of the canvas. The canvas becomes a space that shares the animal’s world and the human world.”
Broglio explains that the canvas, once placed in a gallery, forces viewers to examine the negotiation of space between animal and human.
Surface Encounters also describes the work of artists Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson in one of their exhibitions entitled Uncertainty in the City.
“They interviewed people about what kind of animal constitutes a pest. In each case, it’s this question of encounter and what people take away from that encounter, whether they take away something of wonder and awe or of concern or anxiety,” Broglio says.
Like coyotes in Phoenix, people all over the world view animals differently. In England, for example, Broglio says some people perceive the fox as a welcomed glimpse of wilderness. Others see a pest, and would prefer that wildlife stay hidden from city life.
Why is it important to try and understand the life of an animal, or to be aware of how we perceive them? One reason, Broglio explains, is that studying the animal “decenters the human,” and forces us to think beyond our intellectual comfort zone.
“In the context of the college of arts and sciences, literature and art is usually humans talking about humans. No matter what academic discipline we’re in, looking at the animal takes us outside ourselves.”
In a broader sense, Broglio says studying animals reminds us that we share the Earth with others. With the effects of climate change already taking place, such as melting glaciers and rising sea levels, both the human and animal world is changing. But humans can’t experience these changes through the eyes of animals.
“I think it’s important to recognize that while humans and animals are on the same Earth, we’re in different worlds, Broglio says, “Ideally, looking at the animal world creates a sense of respect for something that it alien to us.”