MAKING SENSE OF THE NONHUMAN EXPERIENCE

NYC cross section
By Mariann Asayan, Rami Saab and Jeffrey Marino
The New School for Public Engagement
asaym734@newschool.edu, saabr235@newschool.edu, marij287@newschool.edu

 

Batteries Not Included. The NONHUMANS | NYC Kit enables users to alter their sensorial acuities: eyeglass frames with clip-on shades, earplugs, compass, and cell/wifi signal blocking wallet. Also included: field guide, notebook, pencil and chalk.

NonHumans | NYC – THE KIT
Photo credit: Mariann Asayan, Rami Saab and Jeffrey Marino

 

Awakening a Point of View

NONHUMANS | NYC interfaces with the multisensorial dimensions of urban living that typically escape human perception. Particularly as humans’ interaction with their urban environments is mediated through digital devices, we acknowledge that humans (and their technological appendages) are privy only to a limited spectrum of senses and intelligences. We aim to shift people’s perspective. We’re inspired by the existential question posed by moral philosopher Thomas Nagel in his essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”

I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat… To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals…The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like. [1]

For Nagel, the subjective nature of experience is inherently unknowable, not only in human to human relations (as evidenced today in an era of “alternative facts”) but also in trans-species relations. There is nonetheless a rich body of work exploring trans-species communication, understanding and knowability, by authors such as Temple Grandin, Tora Holmberg, Murray Shanahan, Donna Haraway and Peter Godrey-Smith [2]. And Thomas Thwaites explores the very boundaries of trans-species translation and empathy, setting for himself this personal challenge:

“Wouldn’t it be nice to step away from the complexities of the world…galloping across the landscape: free!  Wouldn’t it be nice to be an animal just for a bit?”[3]

In an extensive bit of life/performance art, Thwaites physically alters his posture, gait, and proprioception so that his subjective experience becomes more goat-like, documenting the process of this lifestyle quest in GoatMan, How I Took a Holiday from Being Human. Thwaites rather sheepishly (!) consults a shaman to guide his self-animal-identification; she reminds him that “…people have been trying to bridge the gap between animal and human always. Always.” [4]

Occupying a New Perspective

 

NonHumans | NYC – PROCESS
If we can make contact with [non-humans] as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. [5]
Photo credit: Mariann Asayan, Rami Saab and Jeffrey Marino

 

 

The NONHUMANS | NYC interface we envision will shift our participants’ perspective, and is dependent neither on the prosthetics and lifestyle antics of Thwaites, nor the philosophic athletics of Nagel. Instead, through a combination of analog (non-electronic) objects and tools, along with a set of behavioral instructions and a field notebook, NONHUMANS | NYC  guides the user in a directed experience ‘connecting’ with three iconic NYC animals. The process of bridging the experiential gap is to learn from, and about, another species and  its way of being – by walking in its shoes (or claws, so to speak). The result of the guided experience is a net gain of urban animal intelligence, from which, as we will describe below, we can derive new insights to improve urban living.

NONHUMANS | NYC models the kinesthetic behavior of the rat, the squirrel, and the pigeon. These animals present three distinct modalities of inhabiting the city; they often interface with humans in corresponding domains – subway, park, and plaza. The strata of their urban behavior – the subterranean, the arboreal, and the aerial – coincide (as a group) with urban life for New Yorkers, who take the A train, scurry across streets, climb stairs and flock in elevators all the time. All four species intersect at street level. Humans directly and indirectly provide all the nourishment on which these urban animals thrive.

“We live in an essentially interdependent world where the fate of each being, of whatever kind, is intimately linked to that of all others.” [6]

Co-existential challenges notwithstanding, rat, squirrel, and pigeon are extremely well-adapted to our human-centric urban spaces. What can we learn from them? Can we arrive at an urban environment better suited for all by being more sensitive to the lives of our animal co-habitants? To answer these questions, and to determine the components of the NONHUMANS | NYC field kit, we identified a select few of their behavior patterns and determined some trans-species correlatives for our curious (and hopefully willing) human participants. Activating these correlatives requires a recalibration of human senses in different ways, depending on the animal, in combination with going off the grid (no wifi, no internet, no cell service).

In researching our animals’ behavior we determined a ‘primary’ sense to use in our model. We learned that rats typically maintain constant body contact with their surroundings – pressing up against tunnel walls – and that they remain within 100 feet of their nest. Squirrels forage on ground level, and are hard-wired alert to danger and relax only in trees, in their arboreal home. Pigeons combine instinctive homing capabilities with dynamic flexibility of leadership as they flock.

Humans navigate their surroundings primarily by sight and sound. With our kit we temporarily reduce the acuity of vision and hearing of participants, stimulating reliance upon alternative senses and altered perception.  Touch, for example, as correlation to the poor eyesight and tactile acuity of the rat. Squirrels discern fewer colors than humans, so participants traverse the active, risky urban world experiencing fewer colors than they are used to. And we disrupt digital wayfinding so pigeon-participants must access their own ‘homing instinct’ and act on it.

Fig. 1

The NONHUMANS | NYC Trans-species Behavioral Correlatives:

Animal Icon Sense Primary behavior Trans-species correlative change Trans-species correlative behavior (human)
Rat Touch acuity Stays within 100’ of nest [7] Vision Impairment Stay within 5 blocks of home
Squirrel Spatial acuity Forages on ground, is safe and nests in trees [8] Vision Color Never without trees in sight, never above treeline
Pigeon Homing acuity Sticks with the flock [9] Orientation Wayfind home without external tools

 

Through these various objects and prompts, users can take up our ‘non-human’ challenge, effectively using animal-intelligence and behavior as tools to test the livability and health of our city.

 

NonHumans | NYC – SYSTEM MAP
NONHUMANS | NYC shifts the perspective of individual participants and provides city-specific feedback from the experience. The model can be easily customized to any locale.
Photo credit: Mariann Asayan, Rami Saab and Jeffrey Marino

_____________________________________________

 

 

 

[1]  Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4, (October 1974): 435-50.

[2] Murray Shanahan extends Nagel’s inquiry to the octopus “as the closest thing we will come to meeting an intelligent alien,” while Temple Grandin invents a “hugging machine” for the calming effect felt by a cow closely pressed at the center of the herd, Animals In Translation (NY, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005).

[3] Thomas Thwaites, GoatMan, How I Took a Holiday from Being Human, (NY, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), 15.

[4] ibid., 34.

[5] Murray Shanahan, “Conscious Exotica – Beyond humans, what other kinds of minds might be out there?” Aeon Essays, (Feb. 20, 2017): http://bit.ly/2qP1CSx.

[6] Matthieu Ricard, A Plea for the Animals, (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2016), p3.

[7] Robert Sullivan, Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, (NY, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004).

[8]Lowell W. Adams, Urban Wildlife Habitats: A Landscape Perspective. Wildlife Habitats Version 3, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press,1994), 57.

[9] Isobel Watts, Máté Nagy, Theresa Burt de Perera, Dora Biro, “Misinformed leaders lose influence over pigeon flocks”, Biology Letters, Royal Society Publishing (Dec 9, 2016).

________________________________________________________________

 

NONHUMANS | NYC – Appendix

Our project proceeded from this:

photo by Kate Fisher

 

to this:

NonHumans | NYC – Whiteboard

to this:

NonHumans | NYC – Audience Service Blueprint

 

to this:

Click for Slideshow