Since 2014, I’ve installed over seventy public video projections of Thirty Times a Minute in Chicago, Portland, Detroit, New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming, New York, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. In the video dozens of captive elephants are caught in unending cycles of movement, bearing the weight of an unnatural existence in their small enclosures.
Installing Thirty Times a Minute as a large public video projection generates a layering of witness: the (implied) spectators at the zoo, coupled with viewers on the street. Passers-by are usually surprised by the video projection they encounter. With this project I am considering the potential impact interference within the public sphere can have. The effect is unmeasurable, yet holding a belief that an effect exists is an important aspect of the project for me.
Animals have been collected and held as objects of fascination throughout history, with modern zoos tracing back to the middle ages as menageries. This video projection series focuses on the complexities of keeping animals in captivity and raises questions about what it means to participate as a spectator of animals.
Wild animals kept on display, often outside of their natural climates and in the center of cities, become a lesson in contradiction. Projecting videos of the animals onto urban surfaces and out-of-context landscapes, interferes with public space and adds an additional layer of incongruence.
Many species right now are extremely vulnerable due to human consumption as well as habitat loss. Is captivity an answer to the imminent loss? Or can threatened species survive and be effectively protected so that they are able to thrive and live in their natural habitats? Many experts agree that likely no enclosure is sufficient for the widest-ranging animals. Also, do we take animals for granted if we are able to see them so easily in captivity, and when they exhibit unnatural behaviors in captivity (as is most often the case), do we accept this as normal? Anyone can see that existing models of captivity and display are ultimately not meant to serve the animals but rather the humans that watch them.
There are powerful myths surrounding animals, and these nostalgic or sacred connections seem to be driving humans to devour them to their very disappearance. My hope is that this work can contribute to pathways toward remedy.
Traveling to over sixty zoos in the US and Europe, I filmed elephants exhibiting what biologists refer to as stereotypy, a behavior only seen in captive animals, which includes rhythmic rocking, swaying, head bobbing, stepping back and forth and pacing. Thirty Times a Minute looks at elephants exhibiting stereotypy due to lack of adequate mental stimulation or an inability to engage in natural activities. These compulsive, repetitive movements can cause debilitating, life-threatening damage to the animals’ feet and joints.
The durational video of these repetitive movements within environments that nearly replicate one another, are made from stationary viewpoints, and when viewed en masse, become a larger study into unified, rhythmic movement. I am interested in the notion of collection as obsession, and ways that the project’s multiplicity, in form and content can mirror the endless and obsessive state of the animals’ behavior. Elephants communicate through infrasonic sound (sounds too low for humans to hear). The audio alludes to these hidden vocalizations.
The project title references the heart rate of an elephant. Elephant handlers have been known to tell spectators that elephants must sway because they doze while standing, and the swaying is in keeping with their heartbeat. This is wholly untrue. The real explanation is that these elephants are exhibiting neurosis due to lack of adequate mental stimulation. Elephants in the wild walk up to 50 miles a day. To me, the rocking represents a “wish-walk”—a way to soothe the distress associated with standing in an enclosure all day, often alone or with only one or two companions.
Through the observation of stereotypic behaviors in elephants, I am impelled to ask: in what ways do humans, along with all living beings, seek soothing and connectivity? Can ritualistic behaviors be viewed as a means of escape from present reality, and do forms of escape potentially—or inevitably—become debilitating distortions?
Thirty Times a Minute project website
This project has been partially funded by a Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs (DCASE) Individual Artist Project grant.