The visitor centre: artistic reconfigurations of multispecies relationships in an urban environment

Doctoral Thesis


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Extinctions and biodiversity loss in the age of the Anthropocene are closely related to speciesist attitudes and a lack of care for nonhuman species. This thesis is an examination of relational art practice and conversation as tools to encourage empathy and care for nonhuman species in urban environments, here specifically performed in the City of Tshwane/Pretoria. The thesis focus is predominately on non-reciprocal multispecies relationships between humans and wild and semi-wild species that occur in urban ecosystems. Cartesian dualism has conditioned humans to objectify and “other” nonhuman species, and in identifying this problem, this study examines representations of nonhuman species in natural history museums, where the categorical separation of human and nonhuman species is maintained through a static, hierarchical taxonomic narrative. This is demonstrated in a case study of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Tshwane. Whilst much scientific research has shifted towards a recognition of emerging and entangled organisms in multispecies assemblages, this study argues that the didactic method of natural history museums and other forms of public biological science deny a nuanced and horizontal relationship with nonhuman species. Through creative practice, the argument is made that an alternative mode of experience and understanding can allow for more caring and empathetic relationships with nonhuman species. The Visitor Centre was devised as a mobile hub with which to engage the public through the close consideration of constructed art objects that sparked conversations about urban nonhuman species. Assemblage and relational aesthetics were employed as creative methods that, through the phenomenological and dialogical workings of The Visitor Centre, were used to unsettle the limitations of species-specific categories by human design. By means of anthropomorphism and storytelling, the artwork brought forth considerations of nonhuman species as subjects, facilitating the emotional and empathetic responses that followed. In this research, both the impact of the conversations of the participants and the artist-researcher's multiple roles as creator, witness, listener, interlocutor and audience are made evident and are acknowledged as key strategies in the formation of this alternative space of relationship making.