In the mouth of a polar bear: The undead feeling of the world

In this artistic research project Helen Pritchard and Cassandra Troyan engage with the production of trans-species animacy in the domains of edu-tainment, policing, and the military industrial complex. They interrogate the capacities of “legged robots designed to be used by the military, industrial, mining, energy, public safety and last-mile delivery applications” of Ghost Robotics, to animatronic spy animals made to look believable in the natural history BBC program, “Spy in the Wild”. All of which are violent scenes dependent on visualizing technologies of feeling the world through aggressive sensing, scanning and surveillance.

Posing as either helpful or harmless machines, such as the Boston Dynamics dogs that can pick up your laundry, to more-than-animate soldier combatants dancing to tracks such a “Do You Love Me”. These robots are often posed as feeling the world, although not through embodiment, but with undead visual practices. In their physicality, they are a spy, spirit, or wraith –– witness to the world they sense and scan, yet beyond and removed from the consequences of its material realities. A viewer is constantly left with the place where a face should be looking back at you, or to look into the eyes of an animal expecting recognition only to see a camera lens or computational sensor returning your gaze.

Through the para-fictional scenarios explored in these viral video poems they investigate how trans-species storytelling and visual sensing technologies if not countered otherwise can be imploded as a mode for structuring the racist western imaginary of militaristic carceral imperialist fantasy. Using the visual and sonic principals of click bait trauma-porn against itself, they reject a negative world-building project by instead approaching these techniques from a perspective of queer decolonial solidarity –– seeking to ultimately abolish the category of the species, along with the injurious technologies that could name, sense, and scan it as well.

Commissioned by DONE 5:The More-than-Human Mascarade and Foto Colectania.

DONE is a project by of creation and thinking that aims to approach the image’s not-so-new ecosystem in the post digital technology and Internet era. The format and activities vary in each edition, experimenting with new ways that generate and propagate ideas and contents.

1 Cluster fuck.mp4

A robotic snowball rolls towards a polar bear to get the close up shot, a hydraulic legged dog-like with onboard on-board speakers, thermal cameras and strobe lights runs towards a group of striking workers at a lithium mine. The dog-like robot gathers thermal images and navigates the tricky terrain via lidar, scanning up to 100 metres away that it sends back to the remote operator over a 5G connection.

If the striking workers get close to the faceless dog like-robot they may be injured, bones may be broken in the hydraulic limbs of the dog or rubber bullets fired––bone breaking across 16 channels. Meanwhile the blizzard cam gathers images of two sets of cubs as they emerge from winter maternity dens, and are stranded with very little food as the sea ice breaks away–––– endurance of the flesh of the world. Sweat, skills, intelligence; flesh, bones, skin, and labor; and other exploitable resources assembled as commodity through the sensing, scanning and acquisition of images. Laser robotic visions enrol the body, human or polar bear as the temporal mediator between the technical and geographic world. Animals-humans and the thickness of flesh testifying to this image-based violence.

faceless for image capture: 'back_depth', 'back_depth_in_visual_frame', 'back_fisheye_image', 'frontleft_depth', 'frontleft_depth_in_visual_frame', 'frontleft_fisheye_image', 'frontright_depth', 'frontright_depth_in_visual_frame', 'frontright_fisheye_image', 'left_depth', 'left_depth_in_visual_frame', 'left_fisheye_image', 'right_depth', 'right_depth_in_visual_frame', 'right_fisheye_image'. In addition, a cute roll cage of an integrated radiometric thermal camera, pan-tilt-zoom with 30x optical zoom, a spherical camera (360 x 170° view), high-sensitivity microphone for auditory inspections. A payload looking through you.

Sensing, scanning, framing with a rotation rate of 5-20hz the rolling robotic snowball camera and the hardened awkward gait of the robot dog, mark the differing operative realities between flesh and bones and the muscular metal lines of the hardware. Inertial frames, sensor frames, object frames, body frames, become the optic and the operative technology for the production, disciplining and maintenance of population whether polar bear or human. Frames of violence.

2 Polar Bear Habitat Tour_Speed Unbuilding.mp4

Let’s play a game.

You start by building a prison. The more people come to visit this prison, the more prisons you can build. The game’s success is premised upon building more elaborate and visually creative or aesthetically pleasing prisons that guests will pay more money to enjoy viewing the captives within. They would like to believe that those held captive have good lives and are treated well.

Planet Zoo is a construction and management simulation video game that explores designs role in reproducing authoritarian capitalist regimes of control. Every good architect is merely doing their job towards conservation, preservation, and education of the non-human species on display.

It’s original iteration, Zoo Tycoon, is based off of the game, RollerCoaster Tycoon, where you build theme parks and complete preset scenarios to become a successful amusement park entrepreneur. In Zoo Tycoon, you build amusement park styled prisons, where part of the entertainment includes removing all of the barriers to cages and letting the animals run free to maul, kill or potentially eat the tourists. In Planet Zoo, in a desire to make the game more family friendly, this feature was removed.

In these habitats of suffering, all forms of violence are calculated. This includes the necessary amount of space each animals needs in their enclosure to prevent death, despair, boredom, aggression or escape. The most popular creators have made extensive videos of their creations of polar bear habitats, all the while constantly lamenting the amount of space polar bears need in order to survive.

Some have even created zoos premised on heightening the drama of torment — “I Built an Unethical Zoo That’s an Actual Prison”, “I Built an Unethical Zoo Where Nobody Is Safe,” — where creator “Let’s Game It Out” acknowledges his role as an architect of suffering and the complicity of guests to view animals in these conditions. Some might see this as sadist abuse of the game’s intended purposes, but the popularity and prevalence of such videos only confirms that these games are built to enable such forms of violence not to discourage them.

Still, the polar bear persists in all sites of enclosure. Walking beyond the charted plane of movement, they scale, hunt, and wander on terrains plotted for their enrichment. The 3D rendering of these environments through the tools of development and spatial construction are broken down through their repetition and undoing.

To unbuild the prison is not a fantasy. It is an inevitability.

                                   Is it lack of imagination?

                                   Or the right music?

                                   What makes an easy meal

                                        is quicker than the rifle at your side

                                        or a handful of rocks

                                        every good victim knows this

                                        and can convince themselves

                                             you’re playing a game

                                             you’re in control

                                        as someone sits nearby

                                        watches you suffer

                                        and proclaims their innocence

                                        “You’ve got to give it all you got”

                                        You have to keep moving

                                        you have to survive

                                        but you’ve had so little time

                                             to learn how to

                                             yet you have no choice

3 Spot_Without_face.mp4

Barcelona, June 28 2021, the chief strategy officer beckons onto the stage a robot kin of Spot. The dog like robot named Gigi named after 5G walks stiffly on four legs navigating along a two dimensional route. The chief strategy officer exclaims "I'm happy to report that neither engineers nor robots were harmed in the process”. Afterall, Gigi and Spot are animate-enough and with the absence of a face wraith-enough. Gigi and Spot sit, roll and lie down faithfully, they need to be a dog, to stay close to the idea of a dog.

The shifting and unsteady terrains of who or what can be captured and de/con/tained; and who or what is animate enough to tell a story emerges. A story in which Spot traversing military demos, gaming simulations, art shows and industry protocols actively contributes to the construction of a narrative of dominance and subjugation to all living organisms under the name of species, protection and benefit. "We intend for our robotic murder-dog to benefit humanity" and "we condemn the portrayal and use of our robotic murder-dog for the purposes of murder”.

Gigi and Spot have enough signifiers to become species specific but at the same time you can dissociate it from being an animal or being your own pet. So as Spot patrols, shoots, scans and senses, you can be fine with it being a murder-dog or a border-policing dog, or an extraction-dog, or any other labours that you don’t want to sympathise with...but hey even if you slip for a moment and think Spot is kinda can say well dogs have always done these roles, haven’t they?

4 In the mouth of a polar bear.mp4

In the National Geographic series “Do or Die,” they present real-life scenarios to ask viewers what they would do in traumatic or life-threatening situations.

Binky the polar bear makes his debut in the video entitled “In the Mouth of the Polar Bear.” Based on an incident on July 29, 1994, at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, Australian tourist, Kathryn Warburton, jumped over two safety fences to get a better picture of Binky while he was sleeping. He took this opportunity to bite her leg and try to pull her in through the bars of his cage.

Presented in nauseating viral video editing style, replete with bad CGI re-enactment, and aggressive narration, the incident of Binky the polar bear’s attack is treated as a crime scene with Binky featured as the perpetrator.

In these few still shots, Binky is caught in the crosshairs of the camera as weapon. In the center of the viewfinder Binky is marked as a specimen to be classified and monitored. He is dangerous. He is an example of why we must not forget that despite his enclosure, wild animals are still never tame. He is an example of why we must not forget their power. He is made captive once over in these establishing frames that double as mugshots.

To destabilize this frame calls into question, which is greater: the logic of the law, or the law of nature? To refuse the frame, to refuse to be an eye witness, to refuse to be held accountable for the careless violence of others. The zoom used against itself, as a form of sabotage through disruption, erasure, and escape.

5 Spot Self observation.mp4

It is useful to run Spot from the command line to understand the basics for commanding Spot. Let’s make an asynchronous call in python for the paw, or the bone breaking moves and wait for the result from the returned future object. Once a choreography sequence is created, the UploadChoreography RPC will send the routine to the robot. Spot sit, lie down, kneel, sit, give paw. Spot sit, lie down, sprawl, stand to kneel, shoot, give paw. Spot sit, lie down, running man, sit, shoot, give paw. Spot sit, lie down, sway, sit, shoot, give paw. Spot sit, lie down, run, kneel to stand, shoot, give paw. Spot sit, lie down, roll, give paw. All programmable via an API using the xbox controller. Roll.Pitch.Yaw.

6 Fuck Around & Find Out.mp4

     For the creatures against capture

                                             abolition comes easily

                              a fluid tendency     that gets pulled along

                              in simple acts of sabotage    

                                   arms full of mud     tail like a hammer

                                   a fortress of wonder    

                              “red army capybara”

                                   we talk about times of struggle

                                   a long winter

                                   a longer cold

                                   a commodity that keeps changing

                         is elusive every      chance you attempt

                                        to take it

                              as the communist dolphins ask

                              for their tracksuits

After the attack, the image of Binky holding Warburton’s shoe in his mouth went viral. It made the international news and was featured on merchandise in the zoo’s gift shop. Shirts with the image were captioned with the phrase, “Send More Tourists: The Last One Got Away.” He did not release the shoe for three days, he was savoring this encounter.

Hundreds of people called the zoo after the event to make sure nothing would happen to Binky. “You better not hurt our bear.” They knew it was not his fault for being a polar bear, she got what she asked for. By his community of captors, Binky is not only redeemed from his criminal status, he is revered. He is rewarded the small pleasures of a predator living out his life in captivity, and the few moments of enrichment where he can enjoy indulgences as a present and active animal.

7 Spots World Frames.mp4

Now we have a pack of somewhat awkward, but nonetheless impressive (not to mention adorable) cloud addressable dogs. Let's develop advanced choreographed routines for Spot. The choreography service requires a special-permissions license, as well as Python and Spot SDK.The choreography framework is much less robust than other Spot behaviors. It should only be used on a flat floor with plenty of space and good traction. Some combinations of moves will be incompatible and will result in the robot falling. The same is true for some combinations of parameters for an individual move. The robot will fall down. It may take some trial-and-error to produce a script that looks good and succeeds reliably.

8 Hang in There, Smash the Cam.mp4

               Nurturing a snowball

               the eye of the land rolls along

               as distraction


                    righting a lens

                    waiting for another egg

                    that already contains the Earth

                         to emerge      and with it

                         solidify the core

                         the whimper

                         the gurgle

                         slow digital clicking

                              taken away by the waves

                              and drowned at sea

                              or refuse to say goodbye

Unlike the other animatronic figures in BBC’s “Spy in the Wild,” the polar bear spy cams are not actually polar bears. The bear’s sheer size and status as the largest carnivorous predator on land makes a robotic rendering of them impossible. Instead, the cameras exist as camouflaged elements in their Arctic environment, such as an iceberg, blizzard snowdrift, or snowball.

As the quintessential charismatic megafauna, the polar bear’s curiosity leads to frequent destruction of the technologies there to surveil them. Curiosity is a point of obsession mentioned endlessly by those present to observe the polar bears. Curiosity is what captivates humans, although curiosity can also be a best practice of sabotage by testing the supposedly unbreakable structure of these devices of capture.

Where does the violence actually reside? In the paws of the destroyer, or the colonial eye and hand of the camera maker? The video begins and ends with Binky, a violent captive who is expected to perform his curiosity just as his supposedly free counterparts in the wild.  

The polar bear, mascot of the climate crisis. We are forced to witness them suffer the brutality of their habitat loss, and the ways in which this brings them into closer contact with humans through their desperation for food. To witness this as a viewer, without recourse to action other than sympathy, the only option is for this mode of viewing to be destroyed.

The camera eye, zooming in and out, scanning the icy horizons, the gaze switching back and forth from a POV shot to a distant human perspective — here, the polar bear is a captive even in their “natural habitat.” Each atmospheric tendency exists as an undead actor, eyes without a face, consuming the landscape while being of it and in it, yet removed from consequences. When the lights go out, no camera goes hungry. Rebuild, re-design, this time with better decoys, and methods for diversion.

The optics of this apparatus leaves the polar bear with few choices. From static, to electronic glitches, and finally to black — only through their mouths, can the world expand again.

                                             No more tasks no more games

                                             no more tricks


                                             everything’s a metaphor for everything

                                             run out of this

                                                       ponytail headache

                                                       discounts on sleep for                   

                                                       the nightmare

                                             “Even if I sleep a shrimp’s sleep,

                                             my dreams are like that of a whale’s”

                                             unruly teenage dolphins     passing the puffer

                                             head of wax     incorporate the salt

                                             through buoyancy    

                                             you outgrow your invisibility

                                             as curiosity and survival go hand-in-hand

                                                       hang in there

                                                       smash the cam

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