thinking about David Abram film – Becoming Animal

“It’s weird, you know, the way so many people accept the notion that stone is inanimate, that rock doesn’t move. I mean, really, this here cliff moves me every time that I see it.”
― David Abram, Becoming Animal

The issue of [a film] being a record of human existence is very powerful, our need to use tech to document human behaviour, as we do so when we document the world around us. The only painful thing, as an artist/filmmaker,  is it is pointless, because once humans become extinct, there will be no means for other species to access our existence through those technologies.” 

That last line is, I feel, key to the issue: “once humans become extinct, there will be no means for other species to access our existence through those technologies.”

What does this mean to me, to humanity, to the process of being an artist, a film-maker, a writer, a recorder. Have we become little more than  recorders of our own demise? 

Why do we document our lives?  With social media abounding many of us do that daily, others write, draw, make films, make objects. If ALL human beings cease to exist, will any of that matter?

Abram talks eloquently about the arrival of language and the word. How that major change in perception, that ability to verbalise, to describe, to record, overpowered our sensory bodies. To some degree, one might say that our bodies have become little more than sensors in the service of production of useless artefacts. 

And whilst we avidly document, photograph, capture what the natural world consists of, we have lost our ability to be part of nature, no longer on equal terms. We act as if it is there to serve us. But to what end?  And, should it be that humans disappear from the face of the planet, yet other species survive, what will our recording efforts mean to them?


As I write this, I recall an essay I wrote years ago, Virtual Lobotomy, which is on Medium and still resonates with this thinking. Essentially, my studio had been burgled and I reflected on whether digital content existed or not, and questioned what, exactly, had I lost?

“When I lost my digital files, the concept of memory returned to its original meaning. Much of the lost work remains only in my memory, as opposed to the computer’s memory, with no material evidence of its prior existence.”

Implications for my studio practice

I have made copious notes while watching the film. Oddly for me, they are handwritten in a paper book. Whilst for many that is their usual way of notetaking, it is not mine. Primarily because my handwriting is terrible. I once made a film about it, with subtitles and voiceover (in Georgian), which was part of the double bind of bad handwriting needing deciphering.

What fascinates me about Becoming Animal is that it has a meta-narrative. It is a film about documentary film-making. About how the film crew capture, edit, and represent what they want the viewer to see. A rich palimpsest  of construct upon construct.

The filming method raises awareness of the lens based visuals, the conceit of exploring the natural world through a lens, editing that, then sharing it as film footage. The collaged layers, the juxtaposition of human and animal, the visual parallels exposed. The film-makers process, their presence in the frames, their equipment unhidden from the viewer, as mostly happens in wildlife programmes on TV. The soundtrack also creates a nature/culture experience, the sounds of the animals urinating juxtaposed with a running river. One of the high points of human sensibility of the sublime is when choral human voices rise up and drown out the sounds of the wild. Or when the elk’s groans are drowned out by the noise of cars on the road.

There is a lot of static camera work, a la David Lodge, with creatures (this term is used by me to denote both animals and humans) ambling in and out of frame. But there is also a point where the cameraman talks to the viewer about how his gaze sometimes tracks a bird in the sky. Later on in the film, you hear him say “we must catch that” as he looks up – this time, a plane, not a bird, crosses the mountainous skyline. 

David Abram shares his thoughts to camera too. He is very camera conscious of the fact that we shall be passively observing him, more aware of the camera’s gaze than the wild animals are. We must not forget that those ‘wild’ animals are living within a gated community of a wildlife park, therefore more used to being objectified than Abram is.

I must not forget that when I visit the river, I become part of that place. Moved by it. Touched by it. It may sense my gaze. When I make drawings of it I use earth materials to depict it – charcoal, chalk. When I film it I honour it with light and capture not only the visual but the sound too. The birds wrap around me when I stay still. I become invisible to them.

I dislike being photographed and filmed, yet the artworks I make reveal me more than any lens will ever do.

Here are some experimental films I have been making, in response to this thinking




Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

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