Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Pet Store - Creatures as Commodities - (featuring murals by "Phlegm")

"Cat" - urban mural - Sheffield, England - "Phlegm" (found here)
(Click on all images to enlarge)

"The more we exile ourselves from nature, the more we crave its miracle waters. Just as our ancient ancestors drew animals on cave walls and carved animals from wood and bone, we decorate our homes with animal prints and motifs, give our children stuffed animals to clutch, cartoon animals to watch, animal stories to read. We call one another by “pet” names, wear animal-print clothes. We ogle plants and animals up close on television, the Internet and in the movies. We may not worship the animals we see, but we still regard them as necessary physical and spiritual companions. Technological nature can’t completely satisfy that yearning.

But what if, through novelty and convenience, digital nature replaces biological nature? Studies show that we’ll suffer. Richard Louv writes of widespread “nature-deficit disorder” among children who mainly play indoors — something new in the history of humankind. He sees it leading to attention problems, obesity, depression and lack of creativity. Adults suffer equally. Patients with a view of trees heal faster than those forced to stare at city buildings. In studies conducted by Peter H. Kahn and his colleagues at the University of Washington, workers in windowless offices were given flat screen views of nature. They reaped the benefits of greater health, happiness and efficiency than those without virtual windows. But, importantly, they weren’t as happy, healthy or creative as people given real windows with real views of nature."

- From the 2012 NYT article, Nature: Now Showing on TV, by Diane Ackerman *


It was a fairly nondescript summer day... hot and hazy, glazed over with that white-gold cast that defines a predominately cloudy sky. I was in my car with no particular destination, but, as is usual, found myself gravitating towards the coast, as if the ocean was some huge magnet and neither myself (nor my car) had any choice in the matter.

Lying between myself and the shore, however, is Route 1, which, in part, is just one long, extended strip mall, punctuated by an endless repetition of shoe-box shaped buildings, identified only by their corresponding rectangular signs. These advertise everything from food to furniture, service stations, beauty salons, craft stores, consignment shops, and the occasional "Psychic Reading". On impulse I drove into the black-topped parking lot belonging to one block of buildings, featuring an outlet of a popular pet store franchise. I'd been there before... I liked to look at the small, exotic fish in the marine-life aquariums, so, I went in...

It seems they're selling starfish now... the two specimens featured were found on the sides of the small glass tank as if they were attempting to escape the confines of their unnatural enclosures. They looked incongruous there... not quite real... grey and rubbery, as if the florescent lighting and the linoleum floor had sucked the vitality right out of them.

"Fish" - urban mural - Bantry, Ireland - "Phlegm" (found here)

The exotic fish tanks fill one semi-circular wall in this area. I knelt down to visit one particularly pretty, ultramarine blue creature. He (or she) swam up to the glass, undulating its tiny fins as it inspected me. At the same time, another woman joined me... she seemed to be in a some hurry, glancing at the fish as if she was were browsing the curtain aisle of a department store... possibly determining what color of organic life would complement her living room decor. Apparently, none of the animals matched her rug. Worse still, she had a small son, who obviously had no interest at all in what lived (and died) in the glass tanks. Peering into one, he made the required exclamation... something along the lines of: "Oh, look, a fish." But, one could tell that, for him, the animals held no real significance... the actual organisms being much less entertaining than the virtual creatures he sees magnified on his family TV screen every day, or the colorful animations he can view on his I-Pad. He tugged his mother's arm in impatience. He wanted to leave; presumably to return to his TV screen at home, or the I-Pad, he'd reluctantly left in the car.

I passed a tank filled with numerous painted turtles, the kind I occasionally used to find as a child in a local pond. Here, there were far too many of them, and this, in itself, seemed wrong. They were, at least, lively - or, possibly just agitated - unlike the "Russian tortoises" in another tank; listless creatures, far - too far - from their natural environment. I waited and watched as one attempted to slowly propel itself towards the side of the tank where I stood. But, any activity on its part seemed to be such a painful and laborious process, I was sorry to have caused it so much bother. The tortoise kept rubbing its face, as if it was trying to clear some film from its eyes. Parasites? I wanted to enquire about it, but there were no sales people in view. In the end, it's as if I was also trapped in some weird, somnambulistic state of inertia, forcing me to continue walking despite a sense of guilt and unease.

"Turtle" - urban mural - "Phlegm" (found here)

Just then, I heard chirping sounds, and found myself face to face(s) with numerous living crickets, parceled out into small bags which lined a cardboard display. As unlucky as the reptiles might be in this consumer's zoo, the insects - the reptiles' designated dinner - were far less fortunate. I continued past a shelf stacked with tiny transparent food containers... each housing a single cramped Betta fish, its glorious fins bent at right angles under a flat, plastic lid. Close by were aisles and aisles of dog and cat paraphernalia; but, happily, no misfortunate specimens of those "domestic" creatures were in sight.

Then, I came to the birds for sale.

In truth, nothing is more unnatural than a caged bird. It goes against every inclination a flying life-form might have. And the ones in front of me were no exception. Apart from the parakeets - those spritely and gregarious characters - and a host of tiny, unidentified birds in a neighboring cage, the other caged avians looked forlorn; huddled beneath their unhealthy plumage, unwilling to even gaze at me through the wire bars. They knew their plight was futile, and so did I, as I reeled back towards the door I previously entered; a sudden bout of nauseousness coming on. I left the store.

? - urban mural -  2013, "Phlegm" (found here)

Back in the parking lot, I saw a party of small, brown sparrows, dancing and chattering around what appeared to be the remains of a fast-food container. Sparrows are survivors. That much is plain. But, the sight of them there and then only intensified my nausea.

The car was unbearably hot as I sat back behind the wheel. Gradually, I steered it towards the main road, where a procession of cars sat idling by a traffic light.  Suddenly, there was a small flash of light darting in and around the line of vehicles. It almost brought to mind a ghostly form of Tinker Bell, and, yet, I knew it wasn't a ghost, nor the apparition of any storybook creature. It was, in reality, a dragonfly, using it's natural cloaking device (i.e., motion camouflage) to escape detection. But, it didn't escape mine. The sunlight traced the outer perimeter of its wings for only a second... before it vanished - like an echo - past the parade of snarling engines which had resumed.


About the Artist

I found "Phlegm" when I finished writing this post, and I couldn't have been luckier. Not only is his work sheer genius and brilliantly executed, but his themes - his storytelling - reflects an underlying post-modern horror that has recently crept into my own personal zeitgeist... and, in a wonderfully synchronistic way, illustrates "The Pet Store" (a true story) to perfection.

A native of Sheffield, England, "Phlegm" - obviously an alias, and a good one - is an enigmatic cartoonist who incorporates his unique visions with urban landscapes all over the world. Buildings, fences, walls, doors, and other architectural elements are his canvases, which lend an almost transdimensional perspective to his images. His preferred medium is "cheap Indian car paints." 

You can see the artist at work in this video. A book of his amazing images can be found here. For more online photos of his murals, click on the links provided in the captions; for a few more, try here.

In my eyes, Phlegm is an artist for our times. My favorite mural of his is the one with the maniacal creepy humanoid and the bird-cages (re: detail featured above), which is, in essence, his lief-motif. Note that his animals, regardless of how mechanized, exude far more of human quality than the humanoids!



A dragonfly - Anax Imperator - Photo Credit: 2004, David Kitiching

Robotic Dragonflies... "just like a real dragonfly."  (?)

"Dragonfly has complex flight characteristics, and Festo has managed to incorporate these sophisticated mechanisms into BionicOpter robotic dragonfly. Just like a real dragonfly, this robot is extremely light, can fly in all directions, hover in mid-air and glide without beating its wings. In order to control flapping frequency and twisting of each wing, there’s amplitude controller incorporated in it, tilting the wings can determine the direction of thrust. By combining all those aspects, this remote-controlled dragonfly can be directed to any position in space.

The combination of lightweight construction and components such as sensors, actuators, control systems enable this robot a unique way of flying. We can think of several cool tasks that BionicOpter robotic dragonfly can be really useful, such as: exchange secret messages, spy cams, science projects, explore hard-to-reach places, etc."

"Steven Wiederman and David O'Carroll from the Center for Neuroscience Research at the University of Adelaide in Australia have been studying insect vision in the hopes of improving artificial vision for robotics and to develop neural prosthetics. They've found that dragonflies have an unusual visual circuit that allows them to see dark moving objects."

A dragonfly laboratory specimen. You, too, can make a living out of torturing small creatures...

"The scientists constructed a super-thin circuit board (the size of a pinky fingernail and much thinner than a hair) with an even smaller processor to amplify the insect’s neural signals. They then performed "insect brain surgery" under a microscope, embedding wires in the dragonfly’s belly. These wires connected to the backpack, which wirelessly broadcast the signals to a computer."

- From: Takes of Extreme Creativity: How To Make a Backpack For a Dragonfly

"The final version of the insect-borne pack is light enough that the dragonflies aren't dragged down by it. It weighs 40 milligrams, about 10 percent of a dragonfly's weight, and is secured to its body with a little dab of superglue. It's powered by radio waves gathered by the long antennae extending from the pack.

Once the dragonflies were strapped in for studying, the researchers set them loose in a room designed to look like a meadow, with turf and a pond -- a plain white room stressed them out too much, and they spent too much time trying to escape rather than hunt down flies. In the artificial lushness of the fake meadow, Leonardo and his team could watch their subjects dart around on the hunt through high-speed infrared cameras."

- From: Want To Study A Dragonfly? Put A Teeny Backpack On It

"The question that fascinates Leonardo is how those neurons and others transform information about the visual scene into a plan of action, and how they continuously update the plan as the dragonfly and its prey move through space. All animals do this type of transformation, from a center fielder running down a fly ball to a lion running down a gazelle. But a neuroscientist can’t exactly study those situations in the lab.

“The dragonfly is a convenient and beautiful and elegant means to an end,” Leonardo said."


Believe it or not, I found these links after I drafted "The Pet Store;" but, allow me to make myself perfectly clear: I am not always favorably impressed with the quotes I post. And, although I generally leave it to the ability of the reader to intuit why I've posted the quotes to begin with, I'm making an exception here.

In truth, the dragonfly surveillance "toys" are one thing. That we presently live in a society where privacy is at a minimum is a given. That a certain segment of the population is so enamored with mechanical replications of of living things is, in my eyes, another given. You might say it's a symptom of an underlying degenerative disorder - not to mention the product of several gross misconceptions - which has become, through a certain degree of media manipulation, something for which we are all supposed to join hands and celebrate.

At the risk of adding to my unpopularity, I, for one, am not joining the celebration.

There are those little boys who have a habit of pulling wings off flies. Nowadays this behavior is considered sociopathic. Has this trait become the prerequisite for entering the field of biology? Hence, "experimentation" of the sort we find in the "Backpack" quotes, where an organism becomes no more than the "means to an end." And, this variety of experimentation is now fairly standard practice in biomechanics (a previous example can be found here) (a more recent one - regarding marine life - can be found here).

The present Techno-Mechanistic (Tech-Mech, for short) world-view seems to be becoming the "norm"; the sublimation of life, nature and creature-hood lying central to its general theme. We are called upon to embrace the advent of artificial life and artificial intelligence, to which we are being systematically, psychologically engineered to except. We are informed in myriad ways that "artificiality" is a requirement for our evolution. But, Is it? Or, is it merely the requirements of the Tech-Mechs... and the multimillionaire technocrats who support and are supported by them?

Note: One technocrat who, apparently, has some reservations in this matter is Elon Musk, quoted here from a June, 2014 "The Blaze" article:

"Musk said he is a supporter of certain firms that focus on artificial intelligence, like DeepMind (before Google acquired it) and a company called Vicarious. But Musk says his strategy is less focused on making money, but to keep a watchful eye on the growing technology.

“Mostly I sort of – it’s not from the standpoint of actually trying to make any investment return,” he explained. “It’s really, I like to just keep an eye on what’s going on with artificial intelligence. I think there is potentially a dangerous outcome there.”

When asked what AI could be used for, Musk had a murky answer.

“I don’t know. But there are some scary outcomes. And we should try to make sure the outcomes are good, not bad."

To which I say, thank you, Elon Musk.

* My special thanks goes out to Terri Windling, who so kindly supplied me with the NYT link; the Ackerman quote at the beginning of this post - much like Phlegm's artwork - couldn't have been more perfect.

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