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Animals, Exploitation, and Art: The Work of Colleen Plumb

A riveting interview about how artwork can foster compassion and empathy.

Courtesy of Colleen Plumb
Source: Courtesy of Colleen Plumb

A few months ago, I learned about the important work of artist Colleen Plumb in an outstanding essay by Julia Cooke called "Can an Artist Help Captive Elephants Win Legal Personhood?" I was intrigued by the power of Ms. Plumb's artwork and the stunning images of elephants who are held captive by humans for human entertainment. In her piece Ms. Cooke writes:

Plumb’s elephants are literally many, but in video they appear as one. For her multimedia project, Thirty Times a Minute, she filmed video of their rocking and swaying, bobbing their heads and swinging their trunks, pacing in their cages or seeming almost to dance. She created a video loop of this stereotypic behavior, the pachyderm’s reaction to the constraints of captivity—in the wild, elephants walk up to 50 miles a day—and named it after an elephant’s heartbeat. Circus handlers have been known to explain stereotypic behavior to curious crowds by crediting it to an elephant’s keeping time with his pulse.

I reread Ms. Cooke's essay a few times and each time I learned more and more about the power of art in explaining how nonhuman animals (animals) are exploited by humans. I wanted to know more about Ms. Plumb's work, so I asked her if she had time to answer a few questions. I was thrilled when she said "yes," and our interview went as follows.

Animals Are Outside Today ... was a study into the limitless and contradictory ways animals intertwine our lives: we love animals and simultaneously many will eat, wear, and watch them for entertainment.

Courtesy of Colleen Plumb
Source: Courtesy of Colleen Plumb

Can you please tell readers about your background and how and why you decided to weave together art and animal protection.

I grew up in Chicago and spent a lot of time running around outside with my friends and climbing trees and playing in alleys. It was a very urban childhood but I also remember a great deal of nature around me–parks and backyards and empty lots with willow trees and the lake! So much time was spent at the beaches. My dad was a policeman, a homicide detective, and he took us camping a lot, and canoeing on rivers in the surrounding forest preserves. He instilled in my siblings and me an appreciation for nature. I think all of that influences me and my work today—to seek connection or pay attention to the wild around me.

I studied drawing and graphic design in college. I worked a few years at a design firm and left to pursue art, going back to school for an MFA in photography. After graduating, I worked independently for about 12 years on a project photographing the myriad ways animals are woven into our lives, and in 2011 my first monograph, Animals Are Outside Today, was published by Radius Books. It was a study into the limitless and contradictory ways animals intertwine our lives: we love animals and simultaneously many will eat, wear, and watch them for entertainment.

I did not begin that project thinking about animal protection. It has been a very gradual process. I grew into seeing that work as an examination of the ways we use animals, and it became a gateway into my current project that looks at the misguided practice of displaying captive animals. I wanted to include a circus photograph in my book, which became a turning point for me and led me to my current project Thirty Times a Minute. Circuses are one of the most glaring ways animals are exploited; I photographed the “pre-show” at a circus in Chicago. There were elephants doing “training demonstrations,” and I sought to make a photograph that could illustrate the absurdity and out-datedness of a circus. (photo attached)

I see how our capitalistic society programs us to see human domination and captivity as a normal thing, instead of encouraging oneness, symbiosis and interdependence. To go to the circus and see a massive animal lie down on command and then her effort to stand up, by sweeping her legs with great momentum to roll her body weight over her four delicately padded feet with such grace, is magnificent to witness. But with a clear-eyed perspective anyone can see that witnessing this is a distortion—a warped idea of entertainment in a sports arena with hundreds of other people gathered around, and one trainer with a metal stabbing device commanding the elephant to do as she’s told (or else get stabbed in the most sensitive places, or worse backstage). Thankfully that practice has mostly died out or has been banned. This gives me hope that other things widely understood as normal—animals on display at zoos—also will become obsolete.

Why do you think art is a good way to inform people about the lives of nonhuman animals -- their cognitive and emotional capacities and their need for all the help they can get from humans?

I make work that presents information and allows the viewer to find their own entry into it. Thirty Times a Minute is a video project that focuses on the complexities of keeping animals in captivity and raises questions about what it means to participate as a spectator of animals. Projecting the video onto urban surfaces and out-of-context landscapes, interferes with public space and adds a layer of incongruence and generates a layering of witness: the (implied) spectators at the zoo, coupled with viewers on the street.

All of my hours watching elephants, and watching people watch elephants, has changed me. It has led me to think about the universality of suffering, avenues toward compassion, and the wish for the well-being of all living things. The video reveals the elephants’ distress, power, and grace. The public installations trigger conversations between strangers—talking about isolation and friendship and what is humane. Through these conversations, incremental or momentary connectedness occurs. The public projections have grown into an offering: honoring the place of projection, the spectators that stop to watch, and the elephants themselves. My hope is that this work can contribute to pathways toward remedy.

I did not originally intend to make work to affect change or inform people. It has happened as a result of investigating something and following an impulse that informed me; one thing kept leading to another. I began after that circus pre-show with a quest to find out about the lives of captive elephants in zoos. I also discovered The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. I wanted to travel there to show my young daughters the open space where the elephants lived at the sanctuary, compared to zoo elephants. We drove from Chicago and arrived at the unmarked gate of the sanctuary, climbed up onto the roof of our car to see a vast landscape, and it was quiet. When we left, we drove along the perimeter fence listening to Snatam Kaur’s beautiful singing and it felt wonderful. We were happy the elephants were inside there and it was not for us to gawk at them.

After that trip I became obsessed with going to zoos to ‘collect evidence’ of the reality of the situation for zoo elephants. I filmed elephants exhibiting stereotypic behavior at 75 zoos in the US and Europe, rocking, swaying, swinging their trunks and bodies, or pacing. It was awful to do that over and over for 5 years. I drove so many miles and wondered what the heck I was doing. At every zoo I felt like an alien, seeing what seemed no one else was seeing, and fought feelings of both depression and anger. Anyway, I continued to film and said hello to each of them with a compassionate voice. I like to think that my hanging around filming them for so long made their day a little bit more interesting. It is awe-inspiring to see an elephant up close, and it’s seductive and has been made normal for generations, but it’s just not fair to them- they have to stay locked up day after day, year after year, and we get to walk away and go buy some Dots ice cream. (Zoos are so consistent in their offerings and consumption set-ups.)

When I began doing public projections of my video that weaves together all of the elephants exhibiting stereotypic behavior, I was only planning the single event after I received a grant from the City of Chicago, and hosted a public event at a community center where I gave a talk and installed the projection outside on the side wall; inside was a senior center, teens playing basketball, gymnastics for kids, a community kitchen, workout gym –it was a very diverse and vibrant spot. I saw the reaction from people coming and going, noticing the video and asking about it, and the most interesting part was the connection and understanding I witnessed. One guy got out of his car, looked at it, looked at me, and all he said was ‘man, we are messed up’. After that installation I became hooked on doing public projections and talking to people about captive elephants and stereotypic behavior. Something profound always happens when I set up and project the video.

Courtesy of Colleen Plumb
Source: Courtesy of Colleen Plumb

I know you're interested in "personhood" in other animals. How did you get interested in this particular topic and what are you doing in this arena?

The work being done by Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is groundbreaking and ahead of its time. Eventually humans will get to a point where we see the injustices and heavy price that other animals have been paying for our benefit throughout history. Since the beginning of agrarian society we have been off-kilter regarding how animals are viewed. My hope is that because of people working hard on the behalf of animals (like you as well as NhRP) we will eventually get back to a point where it will be accepted that all living creatures value their own lives as much as we ourselves do, and respect and symbiosis will be the norm.

The work I am doing is incremental, guerilla, one projection at a time, speaking with anyone receptive or interested, about the negative effect captivity has on elephants. I always share about the Nonhuman Rights Project and try to explain what personhood is and share what I have learned. The movie Unlocking the Cage is something I mention as well. Unfortunately, the case filed by NhRP on behalf of three zoo elephants in Connecticut was dismissed, but they will refile. I know that eventually personhood will be granted to animals, it just is a matter of time. An Orangutan in Argentina was granted personhood, so there is now a world precedent. As you note, Julia Cook wrote a piece for Lit Hub about my work in conjunction with the work of NhRP and other artists looking at animals in their work.

I became interested in this arena after attending a screening of "Unlocking the Cage" in Portland Oregon, where Steven Wise and the filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker were in attendance. After hearing Mr. Wise I realized I must take a firmer stance, and clarify my point of view. As an artist I do not want to shut down conversation or shove ideas, but instead let the work speak for itself. But I was wavering in my views about captivity and trying to keep an open mind that maybe there is something positive in seeing a living, captive animal, as zoo advocates insist. But after so many zoos and witnessing so much obvious neurosis and pain and horror and loneliness in the animals I came to the conclusion that there is nothing that can justify imprisoning animals. They suffer their entire lives.

I remember being in Syracuse and seeing Siri, who is exactly my age, and finding out that she has lived in that same spot rocking and swinging her trunk and leg all day long, every day, and I compared her life to my life: the time I was born she was there, in kindergarten she was there, when I went to high school she was standing there, after college and in grad school, when I got married, she was still there. When I had my babies (and got to keep them with me—they take the babies away, eventually, in every case) she was there, now that my older daughter is in high school, Siri is still there. I saw her again this summer limping around, swollen feet, with skin sores and scratches, and it just is so heavy and much easier to not think about. There are so many problems to deal with in a society and I wonder why do I care so much about these animals? I think it is because it would be easier to not be cruel than it is to be cruel. That the sickness of domination and power hungriness can end if we choose it. Abuse of power persists through history, and if we begin teaching and thinking compassionately, if compassion is nurtured just as much as test scores, and taking a sober look at injustices inflicted on the least powerful among us, perhaps compassion will spread to all areas where it is needed. The way we treat animals reveals our humanity bears repeating.

Can you summarize the major messages you'd like to get out to readers and also to people who view your art.

The first step is to question the paradigm of zoos. To question if looking at animals held in captivity is a good thing to teach kids. I asked my daughter’s 5th grade teacher to not go to the zoo for their field trip, and they didn’t go. Small steps like that can help. There are nature centers or alternatives to zoos in most cities that need support. We could all let zoos know that we don’t wish to see living, sentient animals held on display. The family time, playground areas, music events are all great; to have places to walk in nature, or have explorer costumes and treasure hunts – things that might actually be fun and would be less costly than keeping animals could be substitutes to seeing animals. Right now we are lulled into inaction about real issues regarding habitat loss. In Detroit they had a thermal camera set up next to a polar bear enclosure viewing glass and everyone was more interested in the thermal camera. Sprinklers and jungle gyms are always the most crowded areas. So why not get rid of the cruelty and keep the pastime activities? Finding alternative activities could be a solution to maintain ticket sales and jobs. Of course zoos won’t be able to release animals to the wild but they could stop breeding and importing them, and turn their enterprises into nature parks. "Elephant Voices” has a lot of expert, viable ideas. Maintaining effective conservation programs is important of course, but we have to stop lying to ourselves and rationalizing that zoos are anything but prisons for innocent animals. There must be a substitute, so families can go somewhere together, but not at the expense of other sentient beings.​​

Who is the intended audience for your work?

The public projections are installed for anyone who is passing by on the street- I want people to see the neurotic behavior and understand that captivity is cruel and try to create something magical and transformative. 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.

Since 2014 I’ve installed over eighty public video projections of Thirty Times a Minute in Chicago, Portland, Detroit, New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Toronto, Rochester, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland, and recently in Reykjavik, Iceland. 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.

What are some of your current and future projects?

Captive polar bears suffer tremendously and they often pace incessantly. Captivity is not an answer to the loss of their habitat.

I am continuing to do the projections and preparing a book of photographs I’ve made during each of the projections. I hope to use the book as a platform to talk about ending captivity and do more public projection events where I can install the video and give talks.

I also am working on a captive polar bear project, incorporating graphs from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Captive polar bears suffer tremendously and they often pace incessantly. Captivity is not an answer to the loss of their habitat. I hope to erase that notion – saving habitat is the only answer as they cannot thrive in captivity and it is inhumane to keep them in any size enclosure.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Ask zoos to stop their breeding programs today ... Banish the idea of captivity, it is a relic of the past and support organizations that protect habitat.

Please do not use products containing palm oil. Orangutans will have nowhere to live if their forests keep turning into palm oil plantations. Their habitat is in Indonesia and the forest is disappearing. Also, do not buy ivory (understatement), do not ride elephants, support organizations like The Nonhuman Rights Project, Elephant Voices, and In Defense of Animals.

Ask zoos to stop their breeding programs today. Tell them you won’t buy a membership unless they stop the breeding. And tell them you will still buy a ticket and walk around even if there are no animals- we can find other ways to enjoy zoos besides cruel gawking at animals. Banish the idea of captivity, it is a relic of the past and support organizations that protect habitat.

Art can change people's lives and those of many nonhuman animals

Thank you Colleen, for such an informative and important interview.

One part of Ms. Cooke's essay to which I return frequently reads:

Plumb had found a fresh way to set the human and natural worlds against one another, separating layers of viewership and complicity and constraint as light separates through a prism. She’d confronted each person walking past or through the projection, or falling asleep with a lurking elephant outside, with the sudden opportunity to pull the experience into their own lives. In this she had found a reverberation of the wildness to which her elephants would never return.

She is right on the mark. I hope Ms. Plumb's words and her profoundly moving artwork will garner a global audience, for animal exploitation is rampant and knows no geographic bounds. Ms. Plumb's images are that important for fostering compassion and empathy for the plight of nonhuman animals who are used and abused in myriad situations "in the name of humans." Her images are worth countless words and moved me to tears. I'm sure they will generate wide-ranging discussions, and I hope that among the viewers are youngsters who are ambassadors for the future. Portraying animals in art could well change their lives and the lives of many nonhuman animals.

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