Collaboration with Marissa Benedict, performed at Dfltr Gallery, August 2011
In 1974, in perhaps his most famous Action (I Like America and America Likes Me), Beuys locked himself in a room for three days with a coyote – a forced encounter with one of America’s most elusive and ghost-like creatures. In Native American mythology, the coyote is the embodiment of the trickster, a creature who as the power to move fluidly between the physical and spiritual worlds. In the intervening years of European settlement of the North American continent, the coyote has been stripped of its power, reduced to the status of a pest and a nuisance, preying
upon suburban cats for survival. Coyotes have infiltrated almost every city across the nation, from Southern California to New England. They exist in the nicks and crannies of urban infrastructure having developed a particular culture of invisibility, enabling them to live side by side with humans; a life “underground.”
According to radio-telemetry studies published by Cook County Urban Coyote Ecology and Management, urban coyotes have modified they natural behaviors, shifting their times of activity towards the nocturnal, their social behavior to smaller packs with less howling, and their range, all to avoid human contact. Stanley Gehrt writes in hispaper, Ecology of Coyotes in Urban Landscapes:
Size of coyote home ranges (mean home range sizes among urban studies ranged 5 – 13 km2) generally exhibit a negative trend with urbanization when compared to rural studies, but this is complicated by a trend within urban landscapes in which coyote home ranges tend to increase with fragmentation and development. Studies have consistently reported an increase in diurnal activity with human use areas. Although coyotes in some areas avoid human use areas, they are nevertheless frequently in close proximity to people (Gehrt 1).
What these studies do not addressed is the potential impact – both physical and psychological – that radio collars, which coyote researcher and tracking groups attach to coyotes to conduct these behavioural studies, could have on the urban coyote consciousness. Is there some possibility that urban coyotes, hooked up to radiocollars their entire adult lives, have been somehow fundamentally altered as they are washed over by continuous radio waves? Just as human behavior has been radically altered (social isolation, swarming behaviors, heightening vehicular deaths, etc.) by our intimate relationship with the radio receivers we carry with us, could these same symptoms in coyote behavior have the same source? In studies where magnets were implanted in human subjects’ skin, the human mind adapted to the body’snew relationship to gravitational fields; could therebe a similar effect that radio collars are having on
Whether influenced by technology or the depersonalizing bleakness of the urban built environment, the shift from coyote pack behavior to
solitary roaming fundamentally challenges existential and moral philosophy as being the providence of the human. Simone De Beauvoir writes in The
Ethics of Ambiguity:
Satre in Being and Nothingness fundamentally defines man, that being whose being is not to be, that subjectivity which realizes itself only as a presence in the world, that engages freedom, that surging of for-oneself which is immediately given to others. But it is also claimed that existentialism is a philosophy of the absurd and despair. It encloses man in a sterile anguish, in an empty subjectivity. It is incapable of furnishing him with any principle for making choices (De Beauvoir 1)
It is hard not to see the urban coyote, roaming the dark and windy streets of Chicago alone – like the “ghost of the city” – as anything other then the “being whose being is not to be.” Speaking dialectially, the coyote finds herself in this sterile anguish, this very denial of her nature.
But in this, a certain ethical possibility reveals itself, an ethics which begins with the recognition of the certainty of failure:
But it is also true that the most optimistic ethics have all begun by emphasizing the element of failure involved in the condition of man; without failure, no ethics; for a being who, from the very start, wouldbe an exact co-incidence with himself, in a perfect plenitude, the notion of having-to-be-would have no meaning. (De Beauvoir 1)
We believe that we can and can only learn what it means to be human through engagement with the “true existentialists” that silently share our urban landscape.
For this reason, we have begun, at live performance events, to attempt to locate and communicating with the invisible Chicago coyote population via their radio collar attachments (the first of these performances occured on August 27th during Heroic: Please! at Debifrillator Gallery, Chicago, IL). We see the radio collars as both receivers (their intended purpose) and transmitters (an unintended potential). Although all of our attempts in communication at present have been failures, we believe there is a distinctive productivity to this failure. These failures, absurd and despairing, lunge us and our viewers towards an ambiguous post-human ethics. At the same time, these performances challenge science to acknowledge the dialectical nature of its interaction with non-humans, best described through the dialectical materialism of Marxist thought. As Jean Paul Sartre points out in the Dogmatic Dialetic and the Critical Dialectic:
It is possible that a deeper knowledge of its object, through its contradictions, will force biology to consider the organism in its totality, that is to say, dialectically, and to consider all biological facts in their relation of interiority. This is possible, but it is not certain. In any event, it is curious that Marxists, as dialecticians of nature, denounce as idealists those who, like Goldstein, attempt (rightly or wrongly) to consider organic beings as totalities although this only involves showing (or trying to show) the dialectical irreducibility of the ‘state of matter’ which is life, to another state – inorganic matter –
which nevertheless generated it (Sartre 1)
Sartre, in order to save the interiority of his (human-based) existentialism from the materialism of science and classic Marxism, opens the door- perhaps unintentionally through his use of dialectical materialism – to hylozoism. Seen through the lens of this political theory, hylozoism must be more then an ontology, but a praxis, a praxis to protect and make space for the interiority of all beings. In this case, hylozoism calls us to make ourselves into responsive and respectful allies, specifically, to counter the penoptic hyper-surveillance of the radio-collared urban coyote.
At the same time, we see this attempt to engage our urban coyotes as another avenue to understand the creature that is Chicago. As Carl Sandberg writes in his poem, Chicago:
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
All of us here, individually and collectively, are all involved in a fierce struggle to survive in a city that has just wandered off the prairie. If life is a proposition, it is a precarious one, one that must continuously rework and reassert itself to be in relation to the reality (or realities) that supports its continuity. We see this struggle–the fierce willfullness to be something other then nothing–as the necessary metaphysical condition for every being, idea, or object that manages to sustain itself as a totality: hylozoism. Yet this willfulness need not be interior, something we all must find in ourselves, but can emerge through relations -through collaboration, through empathy, through engagement with the world and its beings and objects. Again Sandberg:
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
Chicago laughs us: we are its cackles, its howls, its reverberations off high buildings. We are its proposition.