Her name was Wayra. Her mother had most likely been shot by hunters and she had been taken, as a baby puma, to be sold on the South American black market. She became a house pet until, at the age of ten months, she grew too big, aggressive and demanding for her owners to care for. So they left her at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY), a Bolivian NGO that runs a series of animal refuges across Bolivia. They look after creatures like Wayra, many of which, due to their history, can never be released. CIWY lacks money, governmental support and manpower, and utilises the steady stream of travellers to give volunteers like myself the chance to work with cats, monkeys, birds, tapirs… a list of abused creatures that often feels endless.
CIWY’s core principle is to give the animals lives that are as close to how they would be in the wild as possible. There is a strong focus on enrichment, and with the cats this means that – wherever possible – they are taken out of their solitary jungle cages and walked, by volunteers, on jungle trails. Come floods, fires and mosquitoes, each cat is walked every day with an almost fanatical determination to ensure they are given a little slice of freedom.
Wayra was terrified when I met her. So was I. Having come from a desk job in London, I wasn’t sure about this jungle business. There was no electricity, no internet, no real washing facilities, no way to keep ‘the wild’ out. There were construction duties, such as lugging rocks on your back through waist high water, armadillos in the toilet and worms that hatched under your skin.
But I was privileged enough to spend all day, every day, with a puma. In the morning Wayra would lead me out of her cage and, tethered to each other on a rope, we would walk together through the trees. She would hiss and spit, bite and scratch me. But as I grew less scared so did she, and at some point the bites stopped. They became licks and licks became long naps side by side at the lagoon. When she caught the scent of a monkey, she let me chase it with her. When she swam, I swam too. These were animal encounters of the first order. And, as anyone who’s formed a relationship with a non-human will understand, she was the closest friend I have ever had.
Eventually, when I returned to England, I was heartbroken. I was the weirdo in the corner, the one who smelt slightly stale and didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t get it. I had been living with animals – I had been an animal myself, as was proper – but then suddenly, I wasn’t. I was ‘human’ again. And isn’t there something wrong there because, shouldn’t I be both? I had come to understand that I was, integrally, animal, but now that understanding made no sense.
In the end, after much faffing about and a bit of misery, I decided to set up a charity called ONCA. This stands for One Network for Conservation and the Arts and we launched in November 2012. Overturning an empty shop front in a dilapidated part of Brighton, we made the only inner city contemporary art gallery and performance space in the UK that asks questions, tells stories and initiates conversations about environmental change. Our exhibitions include visual art, storytelling, poetry, puppetry, performance, debate and music. We have curated projects about bird extinctions and the ice caps, journeys and migrations, plastic pollution, unrecyclable Christmas paper, bees and dogs and whales, human happiness and human loss.
When I first started, many people didn’t think there was much longevity in the idea of an environmental art gallery – particularly in a city centre. Environmental art is often stigmatised by the view that it doesn’t have much weight; it is the kind of art that observes rather than questions, documents rather than enquires. But as our sense of place in the world is beginning to change, so are artists stretching the boundaries of what ‘environmental art’ can do. Environmental art is becoming an essential and critical medium in our drive to understand the coming future. I was, and will continue to be, surprised that there was no other gallery that wanted to address, on a permanent basis, these types of questions. I believe such questions deserve and demand physical homes, and placing those homes in cities enables the most unlikely and disinterested audiences the chance of engagement. From the unconcerned town dweller to child to eco-activist, there is a permanent hub for debate and education, stories and conversations – both positive and negative.
ONCA has now been open eighteen months. We recently ran a programme of exhibitions about animal encounters in the forest, a theme that is very close to my heart. This is, of course, why I started the gallery in the first place. I wanted to address our disconnection from the animal inside, and the boundaries that we hide behind to ensure we remain strictly ‘human’. Some people have asked, but what represents more clearly our separation from the animal kingdom than an art gallery? Creativity is what sets us apart, and so how can a gallery enable us to reevaluate our connection, or disconnection, from other creatures? Everything there will be human-centric by nature and, as always, the stories told will be ours and ours alone.
We recently curated an exhibition entitled Exile. It was about this very issue, and we brought together over 30 artists, performers, storytellers, poets and puppeteers, trying to tell stories from a non-human viewpoint. Each piece explored the fragile relationships in our ecosystem and questioned whether humans can, in fact, be both animal and human.
One artwork that was particularly successful was a video piece entitled Licking Dogs by Angela Bartram. The camera zooms in on the profiles of a woman and a dog, facing each other. The participants spend the film licking, often enthusiastically French kissing each other. The woman, Bartram herself, stays constant whilst the dogs change. Some dogs are more enthusiastic about the process than others. One small black dog chooses not to engage at all, and there is an uncomfortable few minutes where he tries to look anywhere but at Bartram. The whole piece is so difficult to watch that many people refuse to. Why is it so repulsive? If it were a cat and a dog, a donkey and a dolphin, we would find it bizarre definitely, but the licking wouldn’t turn our stomachs. And this encapsulates the question that was at the centre of Exile. Who do we think we are, why do we think we are any more special than all other creatures on this planet, and how, ultimately, can we articulate this?
During an ONCA/Brighton University debate exploring how becoming animal can help to promote ecological activity, panelist Joanna Coleman cited Dr. Neil Theise’s estimation that we have 400 trillion cells in our bodies, only 4 trillion of which are human. She then went on to discuss Australian environmentalist Val Plumwood’s personal account of a crocodile attack whilst canoeing in the 1980s in Kakadu National Park:
Few of those who have experienced the crocodile’s death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror.
And yet, rather than spurning a ‘massive crocodile slaughter’, as Plumwood says most crocodile attacks in North Queensland often lead to, this experience inspired Plumwood to reform her understanding of place in the world. In 1996, she wrote about it in an essay entitled ‘Being Prey’:
Before the encounter, it was as if I saw the whole universe as framed by my own narrative, as though the two were joined perfectly and seamlessly together. As my own narrative and the larger story were ripped apart, I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being, I am more than just food!’ was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat. Reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible.
Large predators like lions and crocodiles present an important test for us. An ecosystem’s ability to support large predators is a mark of its ecological integrity. Crocodiles and other creatures that can take human life also present a test of our acceptance of our ecological identity. When they’re allowed to live freely, these creatures indicate our preparedness to coexist with the otherness of the earth, and to recognize ourselves in mutual, ecological terms, as part of the food chain, eaten as well as eater.
Our denial of this, of our true meaninglessness within a greater cycle, strikes hard when we consider the title phrase of our debate. Becoming Animal – why should we need to become, when we already are?
Debate chair Alan Boldon, Deputy Head of School at Brighton University for Research, Economic and Social Engagement, suggested that such events as Becoming Animal, where metamorphosis and paganism sit alongside conservation and science, do not happen enough – particularly in university settings. We all wear the blinkers of particular disciplines, but to see clearly we must seek help from others as we build up new visions of the world. ONCA is a gallery for the building up of these new visions. We bring people together from different spheres, and new discourses – new ways of seeing – are developed. Prior to Exile, we brought one hundred artists and young people into the gallery and asked them to create a piece of work, inspired by a tree, no bigger than 20cm cubed. Alongside this, we committed to planting one hundred new trees in central Brighton. Each artist and artwork symbolized a root, the same but infinitely different. Each interpretation was unique and, presented as a gallery exhibition, it appeared to me like the idea of tree itself became richer. I saw tree like I had never quite seen it before.
On the 18th September, the third in our series of forest/animal exhibitions launched. To the Trees: A Changing of Home is a solo exhibition by artist Jennifer Hooper. Hooper’s work is based on her nine-week residency at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia. It feels, almost, as if the gallery has come full circle. I brought back the idea, and now Hooper has installed the jungle and its animals within it. Sadly there is no Wayra as she was too nervous for Jennifer to meet, but that doesn’t matter – for me, she is always there. What she taught me over the years lies at the very heart of ONCA. During the Becoming Animal debate, award-winning nature writer Eleanor O’Hanlon discussed how she believes Eden not to be a place, but a state. A state, both commonplace and normal, which we can return to if we live in balance with the earth and its creatures. I have never in my life experienced this balance more than when I was in the jungle with Wayra, when I looked in another’s eyes and knew it didn’t matter what skins we wore.
People ask what I want the gallery to achieve. It is, and will always be, a medium through which to tell stories about the changing environment. But now I see that it is also about articulating this idea of balance. And exploring, through as many different mediums and skillsets as possible, how the city can – or rather needs to – feature in this balance. ‘My tears taste of fish’ is a line from a poem by eco-poet Susan Richardson, told beautifully during Becoming Animal. I find it difficult to imagine, my tears tasting of fish, as I sit at my desk and watch the cars speed by. Up on the hills later on, as the grass curls under my feet, it is easier. I would like to feel then that through places like the gallery and writers like Eleanor and Susan, we can bring these kinds of animal encounters – these not becomings of animal but beings – into daily life. And at some point, we can truly be animal again.
ONCA, One Network for Conservation and the Arts, is an environmental arts charity based in the South East of England that runs exhibitions, workshops and performances at their gallery venue in Brighton, initiating conversations about ecological change and raising awareness for frontline conservation projects.
On November 30th 2014, ONCA will observe the International Remembrance Day for Lost Species with a service at the Life Cairn on Mount Caburn, East Sussex. If you can’t join them there, please take a moment to mourn extinct species in whatever way feels right.