The Nature of the 'Animal-Thing'

The Curpanion technology we are developing fundamentally stems from a desire to breathe renewed life into the bodies of creatures whose mortal lives ended long ago. In the process of taxidermy, deceased animal bodies with flesh removed and skins and skulls reconfigured embark on afterlives which seem, on the face of things, to be quite removed from their existences pre-mortem. Yet, despite a fundamental transformation such as this, there exists a dichotomy in taxidermied animals which, in many ways, reflects that of their lives.

Animals in Western human cultures inhabit an in-between space in which they are both object and subject. We have tended to understand and define animal life in ways which are, at their core, confusing and often contradictory. Through the introduction of animal life to children as a key facet of their learning about the rest of the natural world, we position them as separate, as ‘other’. Contradictorily we also position them as members of our families, as cherished companions with which we authentically share our lives, and in them we perceive a certain richness of individuality. Yet we also sit at our dinner tables to chow down on the delicious morsels of their once living bodies, and we place substantial value on the warmth and style their skins can endow upon our naked bodies. We visit them in sites of spectacle where their presence is often critical to our entertainment or education and we hound the unwanted from our ‘human’ places.


Fig. 1. In the slaughterhouse, Lovis Corinth, 1893

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Fig. 2. A View of the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, London, 1835; showing figures by the camel house to the left and to the right a pen filled with sheep, goats and a zebra. From the Collection of the Museum of London.

Fig. 3. Antonio Cruz/Abr, ‘A blind man is led by a guide dog in Brasilia, Brazil’ (2006)

In these ways, animals in human societies are seen both as objects of human convenience and as individual subjects with their own lives which are innately valuable in themselves. Embroiled within these relationships sits a fundamental Western uncertainty about the nature of humanity and what it is (or isn’t) that ontologically separates us from the rest of the natural world. In our pets we identify common ground and shared experience, yet on the dinner plate we are as far removed from ‘them’ as we can possibly be. This said, recent innovations in biotechnology and xenotransplantation are increasingly questioning this separateness and thus the distinctions we make between human and animal, nature and culture, the artificial and the real.

These questions and contradictions have long been embodied in the taxidermy animal, which is what makes them so compelling. Ontologically lifeless, the point of taxidermy is to mimetically reproduce the animal, to make it appear lifelike. Through increasingly ‘realistic’ representation via ever more sophisticated taxidermy techniques (and later, through habitat dioramas: see a forthcoming blog post), the remodeled animal could be made to appear to be alive, merely stilled for an extended moment. This said, witnessing animals on the point of movement and often returning our gaze, sits alongside the certain knowledge that the creature before us is no living creature at all. Alive and dead at the same time; animal and object; animal-thing.

Fig. 4. ‘Deer at the American Museum of Natural History;,

The dynamics inherent in the ways in which humans understand animals, alive and dead, has been a key concern in the conceptualisation of Curpanion technology. Aside from the ‘re-animation’ of taxidermy, initial ideas seemed to take us in the direction of the creation of an inanimate object which merely facilitated the liveliness of the museum exhibits and enabled their curation online while remaining ‘dead’ in itself. The REACT Objects Sandbox on 13 and 14 March was instrumental in alerting the team to the potential inherent in enlivening the Curpanion object itself. How might we engender a greater sense of the fluidity and liveliness of the object in a practical yet exciting way, and in so doing create a ‘pocket beastie’ rather than merely another inaccessible smartphone-esque piece of pocket tech? Further, we now envision the Curpanion to be unique to the user, crafting a greater sense of relationship between the user and their ‘pocket beastie’. In this sense the relationships between user and Curpanion echoes the intimate human-animal relationships that pervade our physical lives.

Initial ideas surrounding this aspiration have included developing a changeable Curpanion ‘skin’, overlaying a basic tech unit and which acts as a hybrid animal, representing the collecting experience of the individual user by physically modifying the appearance of the Curpanion like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Alternatively, we wondered about the pros and cons of being able to change the device’s appearance through the local application of stickers, stamps, or colour. Indeed, we are considering how users might grow their own Curpanion skins for their personal pocket beasties; might each exhibit encountered by the Curpanion unlock an online colour and shape palette which the user can then use to ‘mix up’ the complexion of their creature? How we do this is yet to be determined; is there scope in the use of memory or muscle wire, and might this make the Curpanion too fragile to last as a lifelong companion creature? We are also wondering about the ways in which our Curpanion might recognize its place in a global ecology of pocket beasties; will it interact with other Curpanions, physically and online, glowing, vibrating or emitting the noises of the wilds when it encounters another Curpanion creature?

These are the questions which currently compel the Curpanion team. In the creation of our own animal-thing, or pocket-beastie, we are looking to capture the expressive liveliness of non-human life in a shared world.

Andy and Merle