Slip like quiet fire through woods on velvet feet (bad fairies gave foxes their foxgloves to transform them into silent hunters)i. I hear a mouse think under a foot of snow, and making a springing high-dive pounce to catch it, such that my tail waves vertically, joyfully, ludicrously, in the air above me.
Foxing. In my dreams. But as a middle-aged human female, deaf in one ear, I concede it’s unlikely to happen ‘irl’ any time soon.
Over the last few years I have developed a ‘feral’ practice of visual art. By which I mean one that works in co-production with a diverse network of nonhuman and human persons, that escapes the confines of studio and gallery to seek crossings and connections, aesthetic influences, meaning and content from outside the human realm. The core of my work is developing strategies for and reflecting interspecies co-productions. The term ‘feral’ is used in contrast to notions of wildness/wilderness that conceive the wild in opposition to the human. Feral practice keeps the body and imagination of the human/artist clearly in the frame.
The project Foxing asks: how might one ‘meet fox’? (or meet foxes halfway).
The public project began with a pelt. Half-site of a real animal. So much debate circulates about foxes without the reality of them as living creatures being present. Having a living fox as an exhibit was not an option – foxes have better things to do. I felt that the shock of this real skin (all too easily available online) was critical, and timely. Death is the habitual consequence of foxes’ interaction with human beings. Alongside the pelt, two scrolling signs, performing oppositional descriptives: majestic/marauding/sly/thrilling /killer/beautiful/psycho… And on the internet, Fox News – a highly partial selection of ‘impressions’ made by foxes in the media.
Early one summer morning (I’m not known for early rising) I snuck out into the grey pre-dawn and walked up the hill behind our house towards the woods. I was walking along the edge of a field, and a fox was on the other side of the fence, just at the fringe of the wood. We stared at each other for a full ten seconds, before she slid away into the dimness of the trees. It was a moment of mutual capture. I held my breath as she held my gaze. I saw wariness and curiosity, I saw her trying to predict my next action, but saw neither mistrust nor fear. In London, fox encounters are now commonplace, but will they ever be ordinary? Foxes are still shy in the countryside, and this encounter was unique for me. The intensity of the moment stayed in me, it still thrills my imagination.
It is ecologically important to be passionate about the ordinary – the ordinary lives and interconnections between real creatures and the patch(es) of land that they inhabit.
How, then, to meet foxes halfway? I am somewhat un-certain… a little un-convinced (un- where once I was more so), by the Deleuze and Guattari-infused concept of ‘becoming animal’. Their heady language of transgressive becomings that allow a slippery rhizomatic identity is exciting, and yes, I was keen to disestablish a fixed identity. We can escape our constraints, our boring middle class politeness or whatever. But then are we not thrilling to the tune of ‘the other’ in a newly dubious way… one that lacks respect for difference-distance, one that lacks ‘situated knowledge’ or real empathy-humility? Perhaps it’s only me, but I have all this baggage which seems relevant. Multiple mediocrities of body and queries of mind prevent me from ‘becoming fox’. And, that failure might be, eventually, more interesting, more rich, more honest, than escaping from being this amorphous and contradictory, but circumscribed and situated, person.
My thinking is tied into a (wary) embrace of failure. My work took off in a totally new direction when I got ill. Unable to walk far, stay in any one position for long, or work at the pace I was used to, I spent loads of time uncomfortably moving/reclining around a (newly rural) house staring at things like the edge of the flower bed as it met the edge of the grass, and all the activity and liveliness going on in that square metre of what I’d previously considered to be not much.
It is ecologically important to be passionate about the ordinary – the ordinary lives and interconnections enacted between real creatures and the patch(es) of land that they inhabit (I am including human creatures here, despite our determination to live increasingly globalised, dematerialised, avatared lives). So, instead of becoming animal, I resonate now with Donna Haraway’s writing on meeting species. Haraway makes the point that companion species are not just sites of comfortable and stereotypical familial relations that drag human being/thinking backwards, as Deleuze and Guattari argue in their discussions of becoming animal, but, if taken seriously and followed through, can be portholes into new worlds of becoming-with, or autre–mondialisations, a term she borrows from Beatriz Preciado, lecturer in gender in Paris and Barcelona.
Haraway’s technique is to track the entangled histories of specific companion dogs (the claimed-as-wolf-crosses running in the Santa Cruz park, the Pyrenees livestock guarding dog Willem, playmate of her own Cayenne) with furious, intelligent curiosity, leading her to bedevilled and tangled multispecies histories of slavery, apartheid, herding, and middle eastern warzones. “The Akbash dogs [livestock guardian dogs in the Golan Heights] were the prosaic touch that made the story in the newspaper of more than passing interest in the huge canvas of fraught naturecultures and war in the Middle East… anywhere one really looks actual living wolves and dogs are waiting to guide humans into contested worldings.”ii
I found her ability to see into and through the very ordinary attachments real people have with real creatures towards new ways of thinking about the world deeply resonant, and impressive. Foxing attempts something of this, with the caveat that some ‘wolves’ are harder to meet than others. (My ‘wolves’ have turned somewhat russet – there being no wild wolves in the UK, and foxes are in some ways their nearest wild equivalent.).
Mostly, the foxes I spent time with, the foxes I drew, began by looking back at me with a slightly uncertain expression.
Several distinct strands have emerged. One of these has involved working with the foxes (and people) at The Fox Project, a rescue centre and ambulance service that covers South-East England. Understandably, the foxes at their care centre are at a low ebb. Even so, their gentleness and acceptance of the situation, and affability to humans comes as a surprise. When a new fox is brought in it might look terrified, but rarely for long. Mostly, the foxes I spent time with, the foxes I drew, began by looking back at me with a slightly uncertain expression, which became increasingly dreamy, even zen-like, as I continued to draw, before drifting off to sleep. Maybe, like me, they find watching someone concentrating on a craft activity soothing and hypnotic? Or then again, perhaps they were just tired.
The overwhelming feeling was the piquancy of ordinary empathy – of sharing the room with the warm, breathing, thinking presence of other living beings. A strong sense of likeness and mutuality. Yes I’m less furry, I have fewer legs, and certainly less nose, but my body beats, breathes, heats, hungers, and hurts in time with theirs.
The video Fox and Bear responded, bleakly, to this deep-in-the-bone sensation. Diego was a handsome dog fox found collapsed in Croydon. He was unresponsive when he was brought in, and had remained in a semi-conscious state for about an hour since being put to bed with blankets, a soft toy and a hot water bottle. The Fox Project workers had gone to another call and I was quietly drawing a different fox when Diego lurched into action. He staggered to his feet and bumped his head against the wire of the cage, and stood confused, panting. He tried a different direction but with the same results. He tried to climb the cage, pushing his nose into the corner, seeking an exit, before collapsing back down into a heap, his head turned away into the corner. All I could see was the heaving living mass of brindled fur that was his side. Except, bizarrely, a single visible gleaming eye – the uncanny gaze of a teddy bear.
The visceral disjuncture of life versus not life assailed me. In the abstract, I go a long way with the tenets of new materialism, which disturbs the junction of life and nonlife, noting the vitality and creativity of all matter. But not here. The furry fleecing of the stuffed bear up against the heaving fur of the ill fox. One bright dead plastic eye, versus two unseen unseeing fleshly eyes of the living animal. With the apocryphal chip of ice in my heart, I turned and picked up my video camera.
I wanted to ask my foxes some (open) questions. I wanted to capture their painterly traces.
In Foxing’s latest strand, I have been attempting to make an ‘interspecies action painting’ with my local foxes. My practice emerges from painting and I retain a deep interest in the intimacies of touch – the rub, the interchange, the marks made. I wanted to set up a contact zone in which to enact an exchange with ‘my’ foxes, who visit our garden, leave their “sudden sharp hot stink”iii on our gate, press their prints into the path that leads down behind a hedge to the shared lawn. In a post-humanist practice, visual artists perhaps have a head start, accustomed as they are to placing verbal communication as just “one semiotic, syntactical and rhetorical system among many. All animals… read and write, not with ink but with urine, faeces, and so very many other substances.”iv I wanted to ask my foxes some (open) questions. I wanted to capture their painterly traces.
I laid the patio with canvas tablecloth, stitched together in the freezing weather, and hid soft slabs of clay and paint-covered boards on the step up, to capture foxy footprints. I laid my table with dishes of homemade apple juice and elderberry wine, and spread it with peanuts, pheasant bones, fish skins, honey sandwiches, raw eggs. With the trail camera primed, I awaited the magic of interspecies art.
Foxes are supremely agile, and clearly have an aversion to getting their pretty feet near any dubious surfaces. After initial – what I didn’t appreciate at the time as runaway – success (three foxprints on a slab of river clay) Darren the dog fox (principal artist) has gone out of his way to avoid treading on my clay tiles or my paint traps.
On successive mornings over the winter, via infrared trailcam footage, I watch Darren manoeuvre around the patio, carefully finding every last peanut and piece of cheese without setting foot on my (inexplicably terrifying) clay slabs or trays of sticky paint (food colouring in a flour-thickened oil and water emulsion). It seems clear that he can’t see the scenario clearly, despite his glowing eyes. He is guided, overwhelmingly, by his nose.v It takes him quite a while and some circling, to pin down exactly where the wafts of peanut and cheese are coming from. He is also extremely determined. After seven previous patio circlings on the night pictured above, he zones in, reaches down from the step above, and carefully licks the one remaining peanut from where it had fallen onto the surface of my clay, without leaving a single mark.
It’s not so much that I am becoming fox, or Darren is becoming human, but rather that we have entered into an unpredictable, asymmetric conversation.
The following night I put the food in a truly inaccessible place, the only route in forcing his feet onto the scary clay tiles. Surely he will? He spends a long time sniffing, circling, staring, worrying, and is clearly unnerved by it all. And…? Nope. Darren even digs a hole from the other side of the fence to try to get at the food. My intentions are blocked (as are his) and take an underground swerve, arced via foxy resistance and illuminated by night-vision technology.
The Patio Project deliciously unearths what is at work in the feral practice of ‘making-with’: intra-active, embodied entanglements, throwing up expressive acts. In assemblage theory causality becomes reciprocal, porous. Concepts can arise and artworks can be made that could not be conceived or made by any of the participants in the assemblage in isolation, or a different configuration.
In Foxing, the foxy-human crossings are most revealing / productive between my and Darren’s asymmetric intentions, percepts, concepts and interpretations. The artwork is a product of both our specific relation, and our specific non-relation. Timothy Morton suggests that humanity cannot truly access the entities we encounter, that our consciousness and subjectivity are impassable barriers. We are caught in an inescapably ironic, alienated, claustrophobic position, but we can encounter the ‘strange stranger’ with a kind of melancholic tenderness.vi Because my practice and thinking emerge from assemblages and milieus that I physically inhabit and with which I am corporeally enmeshed (as do many, if not most, real ecological entities) these sentences read as problematic – do his attitudes leave real persons (of whatever species) and ecologies hanging, in favour of something more darkly, even self-centeredly, Romantic?
I turn to ecofeminist Val Plumwood to articulate a view nearer to my own experience, “We can… [act] not out of a stance of hyperseparation in which the other is alien and unknowable, or from the epistemologically problematic and ethically suspect stance of unity or identity… but through a stance of recognizing heterarchical continuity, of bioepistemological connection and understanding.”vii
So, it’s not so much that I am becoming fox, or Darren is becoming human, but rather that we have entered into an unpredictable, asymmetric conversation. Our multi-media-meetings are enacted thus far through paint, pawprints, peanuts, trailcam and holes… My ideas of how to elaborate and extend the dialogue include fascinatingly smelly sculptures, and a foxy ceramic wassail pot. I can’t wait. But I might have to (to avoid a terrible conflict of interest) because spring is in the air, and the ducks are back.
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.
i. Traditional Norwegian myth via www.charlottebond.co.uk
ii. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet , 2008
iii. Ted Hughes, The Thought Fox, 1957
iv. Julian Yates, Sheep Tracks – a multispecies impression; in Animal Vegetable Mineral: ethics and objects, 2012
v. Pioneering naturalist David Macdonald followed the fortunes of a blind fox in Oxford, and it survived for two years, before finally befalling the usual fate of the city’s foxes – being run over. See his book, Running With the Fox, 1989
vi. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, 2010
vii. Chaone Mallory, Val Plumwood and ecofeminist political solidarity: standing with the natural other, 2009