Between 2009 and 2017, I traveled to over eighty zoos in the US and Europe and filmed captive elephants exhibiting what biologists refer to as stereotypy, a behavior only seen in captive animals, which includes rhythmic rocking, head bobbing, stepping back and forth, and pacing.

I distilled my footage into a video that weaves together dozens of captive elephants caught in unending cycles of movement, bearing the weight of an unnatural existence in their small enclosures. I created this work out of a desire to generate reflection and bring attention to the experience of captivity and to cultivate empathy across species.

In over ninety locations, during the past five years, I have installed guerilla public projections of the captive elephants video, Thirty Times a Minute. The presence of these massive, intelligent, far-roaming, emotional animals in urban zoos exemplifies contradiction and discordance, and my public projections of their image onto urban walls and out-of-context surfaces interferes with public space and adds to the layers of incongruity. This project contributes to the idea that sentient beings are not meant for spectacle or display.

In projecting videos I am considering the potential impact interference within the public sphere can have. The video reveals the elephants’ distress, power, and grace. The public installations trigger conversations between strangers, discussions about isolation and friendship and what is humane. My hope is that this work can contribute to pathways toward greater empathy and care. By examining our treatment of animals, we can see who we are.

Many species right now are extremely vulnerable due to human consumption as well as habitat loss caused by climate change. Is captivity an answer to the imminent loss? Or can threatened species survive and be effectively protected so that they are able to thrive and live in their natural habitats? Experts agree that likely no enclosure is sufficient for the widest-ranging animals. Also, do we take animals for granted if we are able to see them so easily in captivity, and when they exhibit unnatural behaviors in captivity (as is most often the case), do we accept this as normal? Existing models of captivity and display are ultimately not meant to serve the animals but rather the humans that watch them.

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There are powerful myths surrounding animals, and these nostalgic or sacred connections seem to be driving humans to devour them to their very disappearance. My hope is that this work can contribute to pathways toward remedy.

The durational video of these repetitive movements within environments that nearly replicate one another, are made from stationary viewpoints, and when viewed en masse, become a larger study into unified, rhythmic movement. I am interested in the notion of collection as obsession, and ways that the project’s multiplicity, in form and content can mirror the endless and obsessive state of the animals’ behavior. Elephants communicate through infrasonic sound (sounds too low for humans to hear). The audio alludes to these hidden vocalizations.

The project title references the heart rate of an elephant. Elephant handlers have been known to tell spectators that elephants must sway because they doze while standing, and the swaying is in keeping with their heartbeat. This is wholly untrue. The real explanation is that these elephants are exhibiting neurosis due to lack of adequate mental stimulation. Elephants in the wild walk up to 50 miles a day. To me, the rocking represents a “wish-walk”—a way to soothe the distress associated with standing in an enclosure all day, often alone or with only one or two companions.

Through the observation of stereotypic behaviors in elephants, I am impelled to ask: in what ways do humans, along with all living beings, seek soothing and connectivity? Can ritualistic behaviors be viewed as a means of escape from present reality, and do forms of escape potentially—or inevitably—become debilitating distortions?


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