Volume 4. No. 1. Summer 2011
Susan McHugh: Let’s begin at the beginning. Where does this project start for you?
Steve Baker: The photograph of the flattened rabbit on Woodbastwick Road. I was out cycling with a friend in a very beautiful part of rural Norfolk, and glimpsed this extraordinary body shape as we sped past. Without knowing exactly why, I decided within about half a mile that I wanted to go back to photograph it. Once I got back there, I stood at the side of the road, leaning over the bike so that I could photograph the body directly from above.
SM:It’s intriguing that you decided on a landscape (and not the obvious portrait) format for this and for all of these roadkill pictures, right? which seems to resonate with the where-and-when names you have given them, too.
SB: It was the most obvious way to hold the compact digital camera that I had with me, I suspect. I just took this one photograph of the body, partly because it felt like a rather odd thing to be doing at all, and then moved off quickly. Once back on the bike with that first photograph, the idea of captioning it with the location and date seemed obvious, so I suppose I must have had some idea of other people seeing the image.
SM:But you weren’t really sure then that you were setting out to make a series?
SB: Over the next few rides I started documenting more of these bodies and thinking about how to use the images. Thinking, too, about why I was taking them and what relation they might have to my academic engagement with other artists' animal imagery. But it didn't seem to me that simply presenting individual captioned roadkill images would be enough. It wasn't that they couldn't have been presented like that in an art context; it just didn't seem sufficiently interesting or engaged.
SM:So it’s a question of engagement – and sufficient engagement – with roadkill that explains how the one image led to a series of stacked diptychs.
There’s a lot more to say there, especially about how form matters so much (and so surgically strikes at conventions of formalist aesthetics?) in these images.
SB: The doubling up, the vertical stacking, was a way of dealing with that insufficiency, and it also reflects a long-standing fascination with juxtapositions. You've heard me talk about how much I love that thing that Jim Dine said in the 1960s about his art: ‘I trust objects so much. I trust disparate elements going together’. (The book I'm now working on is going to open with that statement, I think.)
SM:Yes, that’s a great line, one that makes me realize how much I take for granted about the aesthetics of juxtaposition (not to mention how I anthropomorphize objects too much to trust them). But somehow I think of vertical pairings as more contemporary. Is Dine’s work behind this stylistic decision as well?
SB: The clearest influence on the format I ended up with for Norfolk Roadkill, Mainly was the Hare and Buzzard series of paintings by Dave Bullock, from 2004-05, which I'd talked about briefly in my paper for The Animal Gaze conference [www.animalgaze.org]. There's usually a dividing line (sometimes permeable) that can be read either as a horizon or as the point where two vertically stacked panels meet.
Fig.1. Dave Bullock, Harbinger (mixed media on paper, 150 x 158 cm), 2005, from the Hare and Buzzard series
The fact that in some of these large paintings the hare is above the buzzard, rather than below, tends to reinforce that ambiguity. You can find similar stacked ‘panels’ in medieval manuscripts such as the Rochester Bestiary, too, and all of this was starting to feel somehow appropriate given Norfolk's extraordinary surviving medieval heritage. I think initially I'd planned that my own stacked diptychs (as you call them) would – like Bullock’s paintings – be juxtapositions of two flattened animals. But it didn't quite work out that way.
SM:Most of the time, it seems that the second image does not include an animal, certainly not a dead animal. And it’s all the more curious to me that, in each instance, you’ve chosen to stack each roadkill image with another that calls attention to history as part and parcel of a sense of place.
SB: How do you mean?
SM:Well, it’s the contrasting temporal dimensions of these images that seem especially haunting. Past (passed?) lives are inscribed not simply in the roadkill portions – which you’re careful to depict at all stages, from freshly bloodied to even the ghostly stains and remains of just a few bits of fur, feather, bone – but also in the particularly medieval landscape bits, whose varieties and conditions inscribe very precise historical and geographic locales, maybe more obviously to non-locals even than the varieties of flora and fauna alongside them.
SB: Yes. It was a passing comment of yours, when I first sent some of these images to you a few months ago, that got me thinking more, and differently, about the whole issue of space and place here. You said something to the effect that the juxtapositions with the non-roadkill photographs helped to remind you that you weren't looking at roadkill from your own neighbourhood in Maine. Before that, I hadn't thought consciously about the geographical specificity of what I was doing.
SM:So, in a sense, this series is a record of your rediscovering Norfolk?
SB: Yes, we’d only moved back to Norfolk (after many years away) about six months before I started making this work. And the stacked pairings, I can now see, amount to what I suppose is a peculiar kind of travelogue. It's only the location of the roadkill images that I identify in the captions, but all of the non-roadkill images were photographed locally too, mostly just as a record of my enthusiasms. The idea of making work that emerged fairly naturally from the things I was already doing in the area (when I wasn't sitting at home writing) – like going cycling, looking at wonderful bits of sculpture and fragments of wall painting in the hundreds of local medieval churches, looking in rockpools on the beach, taking a pseudo-anthropological interest in the culture and architecture of bird-watching hides, and so on – seemed appropriate, though I'd be hard pressed to explain exactly why.
SM:Oh, I’ll press you: why?
SB: Perhaps because it didn't feel forced.
SM:And there’s another way in which this series constitutes a rediscovery, yes? I think it helps to know, too, that, while you come to this work through a career in contemporary art history, you initially trained as a graphic designer, and you have recently been involved in collaborations with other artists.
SB: I wanted to get back to making some of my own work - something I hadn't really done since the mid-1980s, when I was occasionally exhibiting large, bad drawings, usually with a lot of text on them. (One was called ‘How I imagine Stanley Fish to look, having never seen a photograph of him’—you get the general idea.) Then in 2005 I collaborated with Edwina Ashton on a big installation for theAnimal Nature group show in Pittsburgh, and more recently worked with Kate Downhill on another (as yet unrealized) installation-based project. But I couldn't go on depending on collaborations with other artists; I wanted to make my own work, but had no idea what it would be. The roadkill stuff came as a big surprise, because I'd never worked with photography before.
SM:Something that I wonder about more as I look at these images is how much you’re thinking and maybe learning about ways of looking through the choices you’ve made in photographing and then crafting these images of Norfolk roadkill.
SB: I like your focus on looking.
SM:Do you think it’s this aspect in particular that situates this work amid an emergent tradition of animal art? More specifically, I wonder whether there is something somewhat didactic about contemporary animal art – and I recall that you left that an open question in the discussion following your plenary talk at ‘Minding Animals’—which might be identified as an encouragement to look from different angles, here training us as viewers to use our eyes (more like mycologists or entomologists) to look down rather than across, taking us along to see how, as much as where, you find the figures in the field, so to speak.… this is a stretch, isn’t it?
SB: I think I need to talk about two (probably) irreconcilable things I seemed to be doing, or wanting to do. In addition to that desire to make my own work again, pretty much as soon as I'd started on it I saw that there was also scope here to look into – in a different way – the kinds of decision-making undertaken all the time by a lot of the artists I write about. These are people who are using or creating animal imagery they know to be controversial, distressing, violent-looking – the whole ‘botched taxidermy’ thing, as I called it – but without any intention of being gratuitously shocking.
SM:And you’ve been careful to explain that they’re a motley crew, that is, that there are many artists involved in doing this, moving in many different directions.
SB: They're working from a whole bunch of different motives, but most of their practices can be read as opening up the ways in which humans might think about other animals. And there's a formal toughness to their work: it's unflinching because they're working with form, and not – to oversimplify—with sentiment-drenched content. I've been hammering on about this for years in my academic work, but photographing the Woodbastwick Road rabbit made me see that there was an opportunity to find out for myself what it was like to have to make some of those kinds of decisions.
SM:Say more about ‘formal toughness’. I’ve heard you say that before, and I think I know what you mean, but it’s also so important to the kind of work that we do that I’d like you to be more precise.
SB: For me, at least, this kind of subject matter raises issues about the things we do and don't look at, the things we do and don't record, the things we do and don't give ourselves permission to look at. But I can also see that for some, the whole idea of going round on a bike photographing roadkill and then flagging the results up as art might look grotesquely self-indulgent and gratuitous. And the fact that I wasn't (and still am not) entirely clear what I was doing might, for them, reinforce that perception. On the other hand – and you alluded to this earlier – I certainly didn't want to make work that was didactic or moralizing or sentimental. How to figure out for myself the formal and aesthetic decisions (the ‘sobriety’, as Deleuze and Guattari persuasively call it) that would convey that to anyone seeing the work was a key part of the process.
SM: Nevertheless, it seems that these decision-making processes are precisely what do not matter to people who insist on putting a different set of principles first in animal art.
SB: You’re right. As Haraway says in a different context, ‘the capacity to respond . . . should not be expected to take on symmetrical shapes and textures for all the parties’.1
SM:I love her approach to ethics, her insistence that responsibilities require first responsiveness in animal science as much as training, only I puzzle over how response can come before any technique, method, or other ‘calculation’ (Haraway’s term) when it comes to representing animals. Her model certainly helps to explain howNorfolk Roadkill, Mainly begins with your response to the rabbit. But Haraway’s more recent comments about narrating her training in canine agility as ‘doing theory in the vernacular’ make me curious about what cultivates this sense of responsiveness. Somehow this prompts me to ask: do you see yourself as doing art, theory or both in this series?
SB:That’s a blunt question. OK. If the series is judged to work as art but to fail as theory, that’s fine by me. But if it works as theory andfails as art, that’s useless. Useless. And the two distinct things I’m trying to do here may indeedbe irreconcilable. A pseudo-academic investigation (that happens to be conducted by making imagery myself) into how other artists make decisions about their own animal imagery may not sit easily alongside (or map itself onto) the simultaneous desire to make a body of work that stands up on its own terms.
SM:Perhaps it will help to walk through some of these decisions that you made in order to put this project together. You’re taking us as viewers along your bicycling routes, yes? This implies a kind of repetition or possible remapping, recycling of routes.
SB: Yes, most of the bike rides are circular routes to and from home, undertaken for the pleasure of being out on the bike, with the roadkill encounters as, in one sense, unwelcome interruptions. But once the series was under way, it of course became harder to maintain that politically correct line (‘unwelcome interruptions’) because without them, the work wouldn't exist, and the thinking space that the work opens up for me wouldn't exist. It is, in a sense, a mapping project.
SM:I notice that you keep returning to the language of cartography as you describe what you’re doing. To put a fine point on it, though, the finished work is very different, say, from the moose-car-crash map published biennially by my state’s Department of Transportation (dots clustered along the major roadways, intended to scare drivers into slowing down). Your work opens up a whole different set of questions, like . . .
SB: What does the spectrum of roadkill bodies in Norfolk, in 2009, look like? How is the unexpected beauty of some of those dead and sometimes mutilated bodies to be accommodated? And how, of course, is my own implication in the recording and presenting of those bodies to be acknowledged?
SM:I’m glad that you asked that last one. How do you deal with that?
SB: The very decision to photograph roadkill implicates me to some extent (even if only in a rather trivial way) in the deaths of the animals I photograph. The decision to allow details of the bike, or its shadow, into some of those photographs could be seen as acknowledging or marking that implication. But it does so in a kind of uncontrollable way. It can be read as anything from honest (the bike was there, so why pretend it wasn't?) to self-indulgent or even self-congratulatory (it fairly clearly wasn't me that killed that animal, the glimpse of a pedal seems to say).
SM:Am I right in thinking that it’s significant that the bike isn’t always used in the same way? I’m thinking especially of ‘St Faith’s Road, 7/9/09’,where the image juxtaposition makes the wheel-shadow also a sort of echo or refraction of the halo in the medieval image.
SB: That kind of visual echoing is something I’ve always admired in Sue Coe’s work, where formal echoes and repetitions render her subject matter much more ethically complex and compromised. But in these images, as I discovered early on, it's formal questions that predominate. The ‘ethical’ looks after itself, if indeed it figures at all…
SM:Your bicycle also only inscribes your presence sometimes, whereas in a subtle way your choice of media always automatically does this (i.e., the time-stamp and model number now encoded in every digital image, the electronic ‘fingerprints’ that make them so useful for forensics). What do you think about this self-implicating aspect of photography?
SB: At the ‘Minding Animals’ conference last year, when I already had the idea for the diptych format but hadn't actually started putting the photographs together, I spent some time talking about this issue to the California-based artist Julia Schlosser, whose own practice is largely photographic. She pointed me back towards Lee Friedlander's self-portraits from the 1960s, which are usually photographs of other things and other people, with the artist's own shadow or reflection somehow finding its way into the image, either subtly or entirely blatantly. I don't see my pieces as self-portraits in any sense, but it was useful to think about how everything depends on the particular manner in which the photographer's presence is pictorially marked in any given image, rather than on the general idea of employing such a technique.
SM:Instead, in each case, you have chosen to (as you say) pictorially mark a particular animal as well. At least, I don’t think I see any repeats.
SB: I was clear from the start that any animal could only figure once in the series. The captions, which always refer to the roadkill image in each pairing, and never to the non-roadkill image, therefore have a kind of memorializing function. It's the date and place that this particular animal was encountered and photographed (which is not necessarily the date it was killed, of course). I was photographing all the roadkill I came across, from the terrible fresh deaths of the Lady Lane squirrel and the Barningham Road hare – only moments earlier, by the look of them – to the stray feathers and stains left on Church Lane, Spixworth, for example. I was very struck by something that Angela Singer, the New Zealand-based artist I've written quite a lot about, said about some of her recycled taxidermy pieces: ‘The animal, having no grave site, no bodily burial, becomes its own memorial.’ I don't want to overstate this memorializing function in my own work, but it's why having only one image of each animal seemed the right decision.
SM:Earlier, you mentioned Dave Bullock’s pairings of flattened animal images in his paintings as a key influence, only with photography you’re engaging with a different set of processes in producing this effect.
SB: There's a flatness and frontality to the roadkill images, because they're always taken in the same way: landscape-format, taken from the side of the road (the left, as this is the UK), looking directly down at the body.
SM:Do you move the bodies around? I might be tempted to tug them off to the edge of the road, if only not to get hit, too.
SB: Nothing at all is staged in the photographs. They're taken quickly, not least because I've no wish to fetishize the aesthetic decision-making that they nevertheless necessarily involve. And they're never subsequently manipulated, cropped or inverted.
SM:These formal and aesthetic decisions must build in some serious challenges for you. But to get back to flattening: these parameters also call attention to the ways in which, before you arrive, the bodies categorically have been manipulated. What I mean is that they’re shaped by forces larger than any artist, which are already quite literally ‘flattening’ them. For this reason, I’m even more intrigued that, in so many of the images like ‘Woodbastwick Road, 24/6/09’, the animal does not seem to have been freshly or even simply clipped by one car, but really battered, repeatedly crushed by multiple vehicles as well as dissolved by microbes (and maybe dismembered by scavengers along the way). I don’t say this to be macabre, but rather to spell out a bigger question: where do you see your cycles fitting (or not) with these other ones, that is, your processes of discovery and art-making in relation to these animals who are also selected for having been involved in others’ tours, delivery routes, commutes, and food chains that in turn write other dimensions (if not actors, forces, flows) into these scenes?
SB: You're quite right, of course, to raise these larger questions about the systems, or cycles, or forces that are in play here. It's perhaps one of the weaknesses of my approach that I tend not to attend to this very much at all.
SM:Surely this weakness—or, to be fair, this difficulty of attending to so many systems that converge in roadkill—characterizes most attempts to engage this subject?
SB: Helen Molesworth certainly raises it in her essay about Bob Braine's roadkill photographs, which I became aware of some time after I started doing mine. She discusses both the ‘system of occlusion’ she sees at work in allowing the ubiquity of roadkill to be widely overlooked, and the idea that ‘roadkill are the (forensic) evidence of our daily ecosystems’.2 In the animal's death, she suggests, ‘in the transformation of one element of a system, the system itself becomes exposed’.
SM:You’re reminding me of W.J.T. Mitchell’s argument about public art and violence never being far from one another because they’re systemically linked. In treatments of roadkill, though, it seems like animals can all too readily become stand-ins for the systems.
SB: And that makes me think of the social scientist Mike Michael's article ‘Roadkill: Between humans, nonhuman animals, and technologies,’ to which I'm much less sympathetic. His level of engagement involves mapping ‘automobility’ on to ‘animobility’, and pursuing what to me seems the dead end issue of ‘what species can count as roadkill’.3 What gets lost in his approach is any sense of attending to the animal, dead as it is. This is why I'd rather go along with Barthes in his naive fondness (in Camera Lucida) for photography's manner of designating ‘reality’: ‘tathata, as Alan Watts has it, the fact of being this, of being thus, of being so’.
SM:So your images are attempts to attend to the dead animal? Now I’m wondering how anyone could do this with just words.
SB: After all of the images had been made, Cary Wolfe pointed me towards a fine short essay by Barry Lopez called ‘Apologia’ (which I think first appeared twenty years ago as ‘Who are these animals we kill?’ in Harper's).4 It's probably the best of the very few things I've read about roadkill.
SM:It’s interesting that it came to your attention later in the process. More importantly, what do you like about that piece?
SB: Lopez writes about driving across the United States and stopping when he encounters roadkill, to carry or drag the animal off the road, out of sight, and in some cases to give the body ‘some semblance of burial’—‘out of decency, I think’, he remarks.He's also self-conscious about this unusual course of action: ‘While I wait to retrieve these creatures I do not meet the eyes of passing drivers,’ he notes.This rang a bell with me because I still feel awkward about stopping to photograph these bodies if there are other road-users around.
SM:Yet, because he’s touching them, moving them around, manipulating them, that seems really different from what you are doing.
SB: Moving them had never occurred to me, because what I was doing was documenting and mapping what was there, not manipulating it.So even if it lacks a certain ‘decency,’ I stand by what I was doing because the images aim to convey the sense that this is how it was.But Lopez describes his own actions as ‘a technique of awareness’, and I like that phrase a lot.I hope in its own different way that's what I'm doing too.
SM: And in both cases it’s something entirely different from celebrating the life of an individual (or in Tom Regan’s infamous phrasing ‘the subject of a life’). At least, I think so because the pet memoirs, animal films, and other stories that interest me – by far a tiny fraction of all that are out there—inscribe animals’ deaths in ways that align with your position, insisting that whatever remains, whatever peculiar animal traces (in Derridean terms) or intensities (Deleuzian), are not readily or even necessarily quantifiable. What seems so special about Norfolk Roadkill, Mainly, in this respect,is that you’re also making room for open and ongoing engagements, including misprisions or misrecognitions.
SB: You’d asked me at some point about whether this work could ‘contain’ its animal content, which I found a fascinating question.My answer was no, it spills out, spills over.More specifically, that uncontainment, overspill, unquantifiability, means that in some of these photographs the species identity of the roadkill body is not always evident.
SM:Perhaps this is a good moment to confess that I totally missed that ‘Buxton Road, near Aylsham, 17/ 11/ 09,’ was a dog?
SB: I'd go further and say that it doesn't matter.In figuring it, picturing it, as a previously living thing, it would be a distraction to invite viewers to indulge their likely sympathies for some species over others.But other writers and artists seem to think that species identification does matter.The creatures in Bob Braine's roadkill photographs, as Molesworth notes, are identified by ‘location, position and species’.And Barry Lopez writes movingly but rather apologetically: ‘I turn this one around slowly in my hands.It could be a western gull, a mew gull, a California gull.I do not remember well enough the bill markings, the colour of the legs’.But he goes on immediately (and to my mind more pertinently) to say: ‘I have no doubt about the vertebrae shattered beneath the seamless white of its ropy neck’.Whether shaping it in words or imagery, the recording and marking of a particular creature's violent death seems the sharper point to make than the neat categorization of the species it belonged to. If the caption tells you, you don't have to do any looking, any work.
SM:There’s an assumption in what you just said about the dynamic relations of animals, texts, and people that necessarily moves the visual work here out of the narrow field of artistic control or intentionality.
SB: The image and the viewer have to do work, and in the case of roadkill imagery the animal content's overspill or uncontainment may be part of how that work obscurely gets done.
SM:If I’m following you correctly, this might be another way of characterizing the contemporary animal art that interests you, too: that this body of work very effectively contests the notion that any one formalism—that is, what all too often gets taught as a transcendent, unchanging set of aesthetics—can discipline a creative practice? This sensibility is consistent across post-structuralist approaches to narrative (which by no means excludes the visual) as well.
SB: What you say about formalism there reminds me of Wolfe’s recent comments on Luhmann’s ‘redefinition of form’.Crucially, for Wolfe, Luhmann’s work ‘uncouples the question of form from the humanist project of moral edification and ethical education’.And for me there’s a link back too to Lyotard’s scathing remarks (inThe Postmodern Condition) on art that is content merely to offer ‘the solace of good forms’.This is why there’s a space—a necessity, even—both for the brutal and for the bracketing-out of ‘ethics’ in the forms taken by contemporary animal art.
SM:And also for separating the imperatives of forms and disciplines? I’ve found your recent statements about animal art not having to illustrate philosophical points so helpful for articulating similar perspectives on animal stories. Yet, with narrative, the disciplinary (in my case, literary) framework can also limit considerations of the posthumanistic, rather, post-disciplinary complexities of this particular form. I wonder how you think about that dimension ofNorfolk Roadkill, Mainly.
SB: Put two images together and yes, of course, there's an exchange that it's by no means unreasonable to call a narrative.But these weren't put together as mini-stories, let alone mini-stories with a meaning and a moral!And yet in some cases that's what people seem to look for in them.
SM:Audiences are all too quick to reduce animal narratives to the terms of symbolic interpretation. I’m frustrated by that as a theorist, and imagine it’s infuriating to an artist.
SB: That's for me to sort out, to try to make the diptychs sufficiently resistant to that.There's an early one, with a dead bird in the upper image and a living butterfly at the edge of the lower, that many people seem unable to resist reading symbolically—to the extent that I still consider just eliminating it from the series.They don't do it with the one with the dead rat at the top and the living flies on the grubby window below, interestingly!
SM:So species differences matter in a way that species identification doesn’t. I think I’m beginning to understand more about why juxtapositions work for you as an approach to form that gets viewers involved in the visual processes of animal representation. What I mean is that there’s a way of reading your compositions as shepherding attention—and, with the stacking, it is deliberately up or down, directly—to other details that announce: this comes from a particular place, this is about localizing lives that have been lived, lost, shared on the roads of Norfolk.
SB:That brings me to one aspect of this work that didn't work out as I'd hoped.It was, as you say, about ‘shepherding attention’, and perhaps trying to do it in too controlling a way.
SB: I had this idea for something that I thought of as a kind of switching gaze.This developed from some of the early doublings that I rejected.They'd just been too pastoral: a splattered and splayed squirrel's body in the lower image, and in the image above, another bit of road surface in dappled sunlight with a twig of oak leaves lying across it – that sort of thing.I knew I didn't want the non-roadkill image to be a compensatory image, consoling and placating the viewer, offering the eye a refuge from the gore.If I could find non-roadkill images that were sufficiently troubling or unwelcome to look at, I thought, it might be possible to trigger a kind of switching of the viewer's attention back and forth across the pairings, with no desire to linger on either but nowhere else to look other than looking away altogether.But very few of the combinations I arrived at came anywhere close to doing that.
SM:My partner Mik suggested a (to me) strangely psychoanalytic interpretation of your switching: that you're trying to reproduce the effect of your initial encounter, that is, of first passing by, then turning back to look at the rabbit on Woodbastwick Road, which he thinks is what defines artistic looking (getting out of the everyday haze, away from all of it passing by, and into noticing something). Either way, we agree that your switching is a really suggestive, formally risky notion.
SB: That's an intriguing interpretation. But as you’ll have gathered, I don't think that idea of the ‘switching gaze’ was very productive in the end. There's something disagreeably punitive and judgemental about it: you will look at this, you can't look away.I’m now inclined to see the purpose of the diptych format as a looser attempt to open things up without closing them back down – it seems more trusting.
SB: The non-roadkill image in the pairing opens up and invites readings of the roadkill image without funnelling the viewer towards any specific reading.The medieval drapery above the ‘horizon’ line in ‘Dobbs’ Lane, 22/ 9/ 09’ reads, or acts on, the streak of fur in the road below it.As I said earlier, the roadkill photographs on their own seemed insufficient.Unanchored, uncontextualized, they just looked gratuitous.Blunt and brutal but – for want of a better word – aimless.The irony here is that at one level they're at their goriest, their most uncompromising and unforgiving, when presented on their own.To juxtapose them with anything else risks diluting their effect, so the juxtapositions are a matter of making something register, of keeping an eye out for what biosemiotics (Bateson, originally, I think) calls ‘a difference that makes a difference’.Though this makes it sound far too grand, and more purposeful than it actually is.And even then, there's a quality-control issue that I continue to struggle with, and not having worked with photography before is probably both a help and a hindrance.
SM:I like it that you resist fetishizing the medium, as you put it, because that brings you – and us, for that matter – more plainly into a process of deliberation with these texts and processes. But, to get viewers into this conversation with you, I’m also aware that you have to create something first, and that the way you’re doing it involves bringing together very different images. How do you decide which two should be paired?
SB: It's a matter of figuring out what works and what doesn't work.Some roadkill photographs go through various pairings before I get anywhere near to settling on one.‘Church Street, Horsham St Faith, 9/ 8/ 09,’ the one I think of as ‘the drain pigeon’, is currently on its third pairing, with the discarded road sign, and I'm still not sure about it.
SM: That’s surprising, because that’s one that stood out for me right away, the ubiquitously despised pigeon (are they called ‘air rats’ there, too?) paired with the Euro road sign (again, reminding me that I’m not in Kansas or Maine anymore), the right angles making me look twice, and twice again, at a dead animal who is no longer familiar, yet oddly more attractive to contemplate.
SB: In many cases the ‘look’ of these splayed animal bodies is both terrible and magnificent, and that's a hard thing to find another image that works with.And it’s instructive to hear you using a phrase like ‘more attractive to contemplate’—things like the dog, and the newly-dead Lady Lane squirrel, and the drain pigeon here, were horrible things to see and to photograph.If they’re now something more, or other, than horrible, that may be a good thing.But your comment about the right angles is interesting too, and kind of connects with something you said elsewhere about a lack of human presence in the images.The hard straight lines of the drain and the road sign—evidence of contemporary human manufacture—are something of which I’ve been wary in these images.The other ‘human’ elements, usually medieval, don't have quite these hard lines. Neither, crucially, does the bike. The glimpsed forms of the pedals, wheels and frame are mainly curved.In many cases, within the image, it’s the dividing ‘horizon’ line that is the hardest line there: the most constructed mark, the most violent gesture.
SM:I guess it’s an uneasily shifting sense of attraction to/ discomfort with these images that makes me in the end want to go for some kind of grandiose claim about how your aesthetic treatment here of deaths ordinarily dismissed as collateral damage maybe underscores the violence inherent in systems that devalue animals and artists alike.
SB: You seem to imply that I have an agenda here, an argument, and that the work is a means of presenting it.I don't, and it isn't.The work, once made, is a thing, an object (albeit a flattened object about other flattened objects).It just sits there, awkwardly.I value that awkwardness, and that’s why I'm more inclined to trust the pieces that are marked by a certain ineptitude, disjunction, bad fit.Like the odd contraption below the Lady Lane squirrel.What kind of weird assemblage do their combined forms add up to?
SM:That pairing is such a striking assemblage, but why? Is it the freshly mangled head atop long-ago worn wheels? The fuzzy body not quite juxtaposed with the clean geometric vehicle, yet together connected through a single line? Part of my confusion here is that I haven’t a clue what the machine is, yet I see at least one dead grey squirrel every day I’m on the road here.
SB: Across the discontinuity of the two juxtaposed images there’s some sense of an ugly continuity between these two ‘figures’ on their relatively neutral grounds.Whatever it is that happens here (and indeed in all the other pieces), it all happens and only happens in the reading-across.And maybe it helps that it’s not easy to tell what the thing with wheels is.
1 Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 71.
2 Helen Molesworth, ‘This car stops for road kill,’ in Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman (eds.), Concrete Jungle: A Pop Media Investigation of Death and Survival in Urban Ecosystems (New York: Juno Books, 1996), pp. 177-80.
3 Mike Michael, ‘Roadkill: Between humans, nonhuman animals, and technologies’,Society & Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies, 12:4, 2004, pp. 277-98.
4 Barry Lopez, ‘Apologia,’ in About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (London: Harvill, 1999), pp. 113-18.