—New Media as Zoopoetic Space
A gregarious bird named Samson is a permanent tenant of Kaarakin—a conservation centre near Perth, Western Australia, devoted to the rehabilitation of the region’s endangered black cockatoos (Kaarakin Black Cockatoo Centre, ‘About’). Born in the bushland outside the sanctuary fences, he will never be reintroduced to the wild because of the severity of injuries incurred in a motor vehicle collision. As we cautiously enter his foliage-filled enclosure, he swoops instantaneously to the shoulders of the three men in our tour group—including me. Although a ‘dominant’ cockatoo kept separate from other male birds to maintain peaceful ornithological relations at the centre, Samson has a surprising fondness for male humans. Our volunteer guide tells us that this affectionate performance is well-known at Kaarakin, as she chuckles lightly at the black cockatoo’s proven lack of heed for the opposite sex of our species. The affable creature’s pleasure is unmistakable: he innervates his crest feathers, tiptoes up my arm and behind my neck, agitates my brimmed hat with his curved proboscis, and then trickles like a rivulet down my outstretched limb. Settling momentarily on my hand, he then whooshes off to his perch, with a heaviness of flight and an air of determined content—as ancient and choreographic as the habitat of which he is still part, despite his captivity.
Cockatoos comprise twenty-one species of parrots belonging to the biological family Cacatuidae common throughout Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Southeast Asia. Within Australia, there are five species of black cockatoos, all of which are endemic to the country (Pizzey, Field, 163-69). Of these, two species (Carnaby’s and Baudin’s) and one sub-species (forest red-tailed) occur only in the biodiverse south-west corner of Western Australia where extensive forests, woodlands and sandplains historically provided abundant places to breed and locate food (Johnstone & Storr, Handbook). Although interacting with these birds—in the intimate way that I did with Samson—is highly unlikely for most people, wild black cockatoos make their physical presences widely known through distinct mannerisms and modes of being, including guttural noises and stridulous calls issued from the tops of trees while feeding, or as a flock in flight. Sonically meaningful, the name Kaarakin, given to the conservation centre, derives from the Aboriginal Australian word karak denoting the cry of the red-tailed black cockatoo (Bindon & Chadwick, Nyoongar, 80). Onomatopoeically, the nineteenth-century British ornithologist John Gould recorded the term kar-rak as reflecting the cockatoo’s ‘very harsh and grating cry, resembling the native name’ (Gould, Handbook, 17).
Notwithstanding their visual and auditory appeal—as well as their rarity and endemism—the black cockatoos of metropolitan Perth and the south-west Australian region are gravely threatened by habitat clearing and the tragic impacts of suburbanisation on bushland environments (Byrne et al., 2015). Confirming this dire context is the Great Cocky Count, a community-based field inventory of black cockatoos that has become, over the last seven years, one of the ‘largest citizen science surveys of its kind in Australia’ (ii). The 2015 survey points to a trend of 15% annual decline in the overall black cockatoo population of the Perth area, despite concerted community-based conservation efforts. In the Anthropocene—the present era marked by widespread anthropogenic loss of nonhuman life—people around the world are turning increasingly towards new media as outlets for expressing their environmental concerns (Maxwell, Raundalen & Vestberg, Media; Cox & Pezzullo, Environmental, 177-203), galvanising animal welfare campaigns (Rodan & Mummery, ‘Make’), acquiring knowledge about ecologically sensitive practices (Haider, ‘Taking’; Haider, ‘Interrupting’) and engendering appreciation for the natural world that endures, in spite of the predominance of human exceptionalism and the homogenising impacts of hypercapitalism (Viglianisi & Sabella, ‘Biodiversity’). Empathic public interest in non-domesticated birds and their ecological predicaments, as reflected in new media use, also holds true for Western Australia’s endemic avian species. Most obvious are the popular social media websites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that serve as mechanisms for valuing the beauty of black cockatoos, discussing their threatened status and supporting practical measures, such as the annual Great Cocky Count.
In speaking to the theme ‘new media animals’ through endangered avian life, this article focuses on the image sharing website Flickr, specifically analysing and conceptualising Flickr’s online black cockatoo conservation community through a study of imagery, tags and comments. This focus on black cockatoos as animal subjects mediated by Flickr allows me to postulate some of the conditions under which new media becomes a ‘zoopoetic’ space. Such a space, I argue, is characterised by the dynamic interplay of avian bodily poiesis, human and bird affect, conservation values and the ‘vitality’ of media itself. Proposed by Jacques Derrida (Beast; Derrida & Wills, ‘Animal’) and subsequently theorised by ecocritics and animal studies scholars, the term ‘zoopoetics’, according to Aaron Moe, can be defined as ‘the process of discovering innovative breakthroughs in [poetic] form through an attentiveness to another species’ bodily poiesis’ (Zoopoetics, 10). My analysis of Flickr is lodged within the broader consideration of media vitality, characterized as ‘recognizing our entanglement with media on a sociocultural as well as biological level’ (Kember & Zylinska, Life, 1). Applying concepts of zoopoetics and media vitality to Flickr—photographs and written comments in this instance, rather than poetry per se—this article examines the sensuous yet mutable (or, in other words, ‘flickering’) bodily poiesis of cockatoos, as captured in online imagery.
Historical Mediation of Black Cockatoos
Underlying my zoopoetic approach to Flick(e)ring cockatoos is what I identify as continuity between new media content and pre-digital renderings of the species in paintings, etchings and illustrations from Western Australian history. Indeed, Samson’s energetic demeanour reflects the pronounced gestures and range of enunciations cockatoos produce in response to their settings and environments—characteristics that have captivated yet challenged human perception over time (Cameron, Cockatoos). Although confined to his cage, he expresses cockatoo affect and its embodied dimensions: pleasure, joy, exuberance and inquisitiveness in relation to the world, to other species and to the conditions of his corporeality. Developing these themes, this section provides a condensed historical overview of black cockatoo cultural history in order to show, later in the article, how the bodily poiesis of cockatoos remains central to Flickr as a zoopoetic space of sociocultural, biological and ecological entanglements.
Since the first Australian specimens began to reach Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, natural historians have endeavoured to represent (or ‘capture’—a term that becomes crucial later in this article to the analysis of online avian photographic communities) the perpetually shifting bodily habits and sensory gestures of cockatoos as they fly, feed, cry and roost. In the late 1600s, the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi became the first to illustrate a cockatoo, classifying the bird as ‘psittacus albus cristatus’ (Rikken, Exotic, 426). However, it was not until 1832 that the British artist Edward Lear created the first extant image of a Baudin’s—a hand-coloured lithograph included in Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (Lear, Illustrations).
Edward Lear, Calyptorhynchus baudinii, Baudin’s Cockatoo (1832). Hand-Coloured Lithograph.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Grasping the upright branch of a eucalypt tree with faintly sketched ovate leaves, the female cockatoo bears the identifiable traits of its species: white ear patches and two white rectangular markings—also called panels or bands—on its tail feathers with ‘all the feathers narrowly tipped with dull white’ (Gould, Handbook, 26). The sharp hook of the horn-coloured bill facilitates the extraction of seeds from tough fruit capsules and allows her to excavate wood fibres in search of nutritious larvae (Pizzey, Field, 165). The composition of Lear’s lithograph centres on the scalloped pattern of the underbelly’s white-capped feathers and the zygodactyl feet consisting of two forward-facing and two backward-facing toes, permitting her to clutch the gum tree securely while feeding with an air of abandonment.
Gould’s The Birds of Australia (1840–1848)—the first exhaustive survey of Australian ornithology, including close to 700 species, of which half were newly described by science—also features an early rendering of a Baudin’s. In a more recent edition, alongside the Baudin’s image, a remark by ornithologist Abram Rutgers encapsulates quintessential black cockatoo sensory indulgence: ‘They are very fond of nectar which they suck out of blossoms and as they hang upside down on a branch the nectar runs out of their beaks’ (Gould & Rutgers, Birds, 132–33). Gould’s illustration details vividly the blue-greenish gloss of the female’s forehead feathers as well as the crescent-shaped off-white tips of her underside as she grips a branch of what could be a banksia—known as one of Baudin’s preferred sources of nectar. Later, in the seminal book Birds of Western Australia, originally published in 1948, naturalists Vincent Serventy and Hubert Whittell likewise note the prolific consumption of nectar by Baudin’s, while graphically confirming the inhumane hunting practices and social attitudes projected on the species during this era: ‘If a bird is shot when feeding on the blossoms the crop will be found to be crammed with fluid which will pour out of the beak when the head is held down’ (Serventy & Whittell, Birds, 270). Indeed, owing to its capacious appetite for orchard fruits, Baudin’s was declared a vermin species targeted for population control throughout the region between 1926 and the late 1970s (Serventy & Whittell, Birds, 271). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) presently considers the cockatoo endangered, and cites shooting by orchardists and loss of nesting hollows as the principal reasons for a 50% decline in population since the 1950s (Garnett, Szabo & Dutson, Action).
The naming of avian life inscribes histories that link human perception to the bodily poiesis of the birds themselves. This is especially true of Baudin’s—scientifically named Calyptorhynchus baudinii and known as long-billed black cockatoo and white-tailed black cockatoo for its characteristic markings, evident in the depictions of Lear and Gould. Its common and taxonomic names memorialise the eighteenth-century French explorer Nicolas Baudin who extensively documented Australian birds. According to historical sources, the species’ Aboriginal denominations varied according to region, but were united in their shared mimesis of cockatoo voicings: oo-lack (Perth), ngo-lak or ngol-ye-nuk (Avon River near Northam), woo-lock (Albany) and gnular (Pallinup River near Katanning) (Serventy & Whittell, Birds, 269). Citing oo-lack, Gould observes that ‘when on the wing it frequently utters a note very similar to its aboriginal name; at other times when perched on the trees it emits a harsh croaking sound, which is kept up all the time the bird is feeding’ (Gould, Handbook, 26). In the same way, the sonic resonances of cockatoos reverberated for early twentieth-century Perth residents, who correlated the Baudin’s call to the approach of precipitation. The season of ‘autumn has earned for them a reputation as harbingers of rain. Their presence on these movements is heralded by their strange wailing cries, from which the Aborigines gave them the name “Oo-lack”’ (Serventy & Whittell, Birds, 270).
In 1837, Gould classified the forest red-tailed black cockatoo Calyptorhynchus banksii naso, denoting the relatively large bill of the sub-species (naso). Its food source remains limited principally to one tree—the marri eucalypt—only found in the south-west region. Due to specific feeding and roosting requirements, red-tailed black cockatoos are acutely vulnerable to environmental destruction (Chapman, Forest, v). As Gould observes of the habitus of the cockatoo, ‘it breeds in the holes of trees, where it deposits its snow-white eggs on the soft dead wood [...] It flies slowly and heavily, and while on the wing utters a very harsh and grating cry, resembling the native name’ (Gould, Handbook, 17). Imaginatively, the Aboriginal names koorark and kor-rar-ra are grating cries ‘reminiscent of [a] loud rusty windmill’ (Pizzey, Field Guide, 164). From the Australian pictorial record, a hand-coloured engraving in Admiral Arthur Phillip’s account, Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay from 1789, shows the related eastern Australian species, Calyptorhynchus magnificus, perched on a banksia tree with its fully fanned tail feathers exhibiting strong, characteristic red bands (Phillip, Voyage). Similarly, the Western Australian sub-species, Calyptorhynchus banksii naso, features the prominent scarlet panels of the feathers and the uniformly black plumage of the rest of the body (also see Gould & Rutgers, Birds, 131).
The third species discussed in this article, the endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris)—or short-billed black cockatoo—also bears an evocative naming history, in particular, honouring Australian ornithologist Ivan Carnaby who first described the bird in 1948. Closely related to Baudin’s, Carnaby’s is distinguished by whiteish-yellow ear feathers, as well as the specific bill and eye colourations of the males and females. These cultural snapshots of Carnaby’s, Baudin’s and forest red-tailed black cockatoos—focusing on their embodiment in art, history and conservation—imply the following points: (a) throughout Australian history, artists, writers, naturalists and Indigenous people have attempted to mediate cockatoo corporeality, expressed in the birds’ positions and movements of beaks, eyes and feet as well as their sonic registers; (b) unlike plants, mammals, and many other birds, the bodily poiesis of black cockatoos is radically mutable, changing quickly before the human subject and characterised by an array of inimitable calls, cries, wails and utterances; and (c) the friction between the desire to ‘capture’ cockatoos in representational forms synchronically (in a fixed instance) and to express, parallel or mimic the living bodily poiesis—the zoopoetics—of the birds diachronically (over time) underlies the emergence of affective eco-digital spaces, such as Flickr.
Zoopoetics and the Vitality of Media
In his lecture, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Jacques Derrida inserts the neologism ‘zoopoetics’ briefly into his contemplation of ‘a real cat’—in distinction to a metaphorical or symbolic feline that might belong, for instance, to ‘Kafka’s vast zoopoetics, something that nevertheless solicits attention, endlessly and from a novel perspective’ (Derrida, ‘Animal’, 374; emphasis added). With an actual cat in focus, Derrida questions the shared corporeality of interspecies encounter, whereby the orderly Cartesian distinction between the bodies of subjects (humanity) and those of objects (everything else, including felines and birds) erodes: ‘Before the cat that looks at me naked, would I be ashamed like an animal that no longer has the sense of his nudity [...] Who am I therefore? Who is it that I am (following)? Whom should this be asked of if not of the other? [...] An animal looks at me. What should I think of this sentence?’ (ibid.). Derrida modernises the ancient Greek notion poiesis—the etymological root of poetry—denoting a making, a bringing forth and an unconcealment of being. As Giorgio Agamben explains, poiesis entails a ‘pro-duction into presence, the fact that something passed from nonbeing to being’ (Man, 68). Following from Derrida’s interpretation, zoopoetics signifies the shared passage of animate and inanimate things into being—their co-constituted makings in direct correspondence to animal presence. Regarding cockatoos, poiesis would, then, encompass both avian embodiment—in this instance, a real bird substituting for a real cat—as well as the mimesis of avian gestures in representations, such as poetry or photography, as well as across old and new forms of media.
Ecocritic Aaron Moe (Zoopoetics, 5) extends Derrida’s zoopoetics by foregrounding animal gestures and vocalisations—two prominent aspects of the previous section’s historical synopsis. For Moe, zoopoetics—as the co-constitutive bringing forth of the animal, its human mediators and its representations—is associated intimately with bodily enunciations and, thus, demands perceptual vigilance to zoological modes of expression. In Moe’s terms, the dissolution of the time-worn subject (human) and object (bird) categorical gulf is brought forth through gestures that ‘dissolve the supposed divide between human poiesis and animal poiesis; between the gestures of speech, the gestures of the poetic page, and the gestures of the body. Gestures are what makes imitation possible’ (Zoopoetics, 27). In other words, the making of ecological poetry reflects the poiesis of animals and other organisms as agentic subjects. Applying zoopoetics to avian life, he further characterises the ‘bodily poiesis of birds’ (68) as an ‘energy [that is] exclamatory, inquisitive or declarative’ (69)—three adjectives that aptly suit south-west Australian black cockatoos. Moe’s investigation of poiesis elicits questions about the pertinence of zoopoetics to the avian content of new media domains, such as Flickr. Specifically, how are new medial landscapes shaped by avian poiesis, beyond the obvious interlocking of Twitter and bird utterance—tweeting—as a ‘metaphor for our engagement with networked media’ (Pfister, ‘Short’, 130)? Conversely, how might avian poiesis—including aspects of cockatoo behaviour, habitat and conservation—be shaped, impacted or transformed through the emergence of new media? I will argue that underlying these considerations is a dialectic between new media and avian poiesis.
As Moe points out, it is instructive to consider philosopher Brian Rotman’s gesturology for its elucidation of zoopoetics. In Becoming Beside Ourselves, Rotman counters the popular, prevailing notion of gesture as ‘crude and pantomimic, an atavistic, semantically impoverished mode of sense making’ by differentiating between ‘emblems’ and ‘gesticulations’ (Becoming, 15). According to his schema, emblems comprise what is normally regarded as semiotic bodily gestures, including, by extrapolation to nonhumans, those of birds: whooshing of wings, gripping of branches, revolution of eyes towards human observers, or tilting of heads during ecstatic episodes of feeding. Although Rotman is thinking specifically about human emblems, the evental character of gestural effects and affects, as situated and embodied performances, offers conceptual traction for black cockatoo zoopoetics in new media environments (19). Banksia nectar streaming from Baudin’s beaks, the species’ harsh and grating calls, and their slow and heavy flight, for instance, are avian emblems that populate historical mediations (illustrations, engravings, etchings, nomenclature and written accounts) as well as new media imagery. In contrast to emblems, for Rotman, gesticulation is a form of gesture that accompanies, supplements or enhances oral narration (20-22). Gesticulation can be defined as the ‘fleeting, often barely discernible, seemingly idiosyncratic and indefinite gestures of the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, and face’ that accompany verbal utterance (20). Thus, to recognise Rotman’s notion of gesticulation in the avian is to acknowledge animal expressions of language—a conceptual shift towards non-anthropocentric notions of rhetoric, previously forwarded by communications scholars George Kennedy in his seminal essay ‘A Hoot in the Dark’ and, more recently, by Emily Plec in arguing for a ‘corporeal rhetorics’ of the natural world (‘Perspectives’, 7). Avian gesticulation is evident in the physical expressions accompanying cockatoo modes of voicing: calls, cries and wails. A corporeal rhetorics of cockatoos engages their emblems and gesticulations, constituting zoopoetic gesturality that is apparent in historical and new media representations alike.
Turning now to new media contexts, I suggest that the gesturality of cockatoo zoopoetics conveys what Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska call the ‘vitality’ or ‘lifeness’ of media (Life). More than the liveness, power or immediacy of media, lifeness signifies the ‘possibility of the emergence of forms always new’ and the generation of ‘unprecedented connections and unexpected events’ through and within media (24). As a biopolitical conceptualisation, lifeness invokes the temporal aspects of media—duration, transience and, invariably, obsolescence and death (xvi). Reflecting a systems model, liveness is the dynamic process of mediation that takes shape through the ‘interlocking’ of technical, biological, social and political agents and processes (160). More broadly relevant to media vitality are concepts of ‘intermediation’ (Hayles, ‘Intermediation’), which understands biological or digital systems as having the capacity to interlock with modes of representation, as well as the notion of ‘media ecology’, foregrounding the ecological and systems aspects of media (Strate, ‘Media’). Within the new media model developing here, the zoopoetics of black cockatoos stands for more than the immediacy of birds flying in a YouTube clip or the urgency of their threatened status as communicated phatically in Twitter. Instead, the zoopoetics of cockatoos—their embodied gesturality—intertwines dialogically with new media, blurring the distinction between technological, social, biological and ecological categories of poiesis; and marking a co-becoming of these forms.
Flickr as Zoopoetic Space
Founded in 2004, the video and photosharing website Flickr has been examined by media scholars for its promotion of vernacular creativity and citizen journalism (Cox, ‘Flickr’, 493). As a social networking site, Flickr allows users to tag—and geotag—content and set up profiles including personal favourites, group memberships, comments and other customised data (496). Environmental scholars and critics have considered Flickr—albeit, only in passing—as a tool for transforming how communities engage in ecological activism (Organ, ‘New Tactics’), for promoting awareness of key historical environmental campaigns through the hosting of archival images (Cox & Pezzullo, Environmental), for recruiting public involvement in mapping urban sustainability (Cartwright, ‘City’) and for memorialising natural disasters (Preis et al., ‘Quantifying’). In contrast to these interpretations, I shall theorise Flickr as a zoopoetic space through an abbreviated qualitative reading of its black cockatoo content. My suggestion is that the ‘vitality’ of Flickr’s avian conservation community reflects an intergrading of affective human responses to cockatoo endangerment, aesthetic expressions of the cockatoos’ visual beauty as mediated—or captured—in images, and the bodily poiesis of the pictorialised birds themselves. In eliciting the zoopoetic dimensions of Flickr, I follow Damien Pfister’s characterisation of social networking sites as ‘phatic media cultures’ relying on, and potentially enhancing, ‘prudent’ (or, what I read as, ornithologically ethical and conscientious) affective response (Pfister, ‘Short’, 129).
There is a broad range of Flickr groups devoted principally to photographic images of birds, although videos, art, screenshots and other visual materials are also uploaded. For example, an active group since the founding of Flickr in 2004, ‘Birds’ has more than 18,000 members and 740,000 items, as of December 2015. Although slightly younger, the group ‘Birds, Birds Birds’ (2005) has 32,000 members and over 1 million photos. One of the largest avian-related groups is ‘Bird Photos’, established in 2008 and presently comprising 68,000 subscribers with access to 1.9 million images. Of the smaller and more specialised groups there are ‘Birds & More Birds’ (2011), with 900 members and 13,000 photos, as well as the biologically themed ‘Parrots & Cockatoos of Australasia’ (2008) with 88 members and 700 photographs. Content (i.e. images and comments) referring to black cockatoos is contained within these groups, as well as other nationally-specific (‘Australian Birds’ with 3,200 members and 92,000 photos) and regionally-specific (‘South West WA’ with 398 members and 6,300 items) ones. Larger groups, such as ‘Bird Photos’, feature discussion threads (548, in this instance) and a ranking of the most prolific contributors (notjes1966 with close to 13,000 images uploaded). In comparison, the smaller ‘Birds, Birds Birds’ has 364 threads with its most active contributor furnishing 4,700 contributions.
Due to their broad scope, these Flickr groups and others invariably contain material about the three endemic south-west Australian cockatoos: Baudin’s, Carnaby’s and forest red-tailed. As of December 2015, a general Flickr search for the Latinate name Calyptorhynchus baudinii yielded 74 images, whereas the keywords ‘Baudin’s cockatoo’ presented 89. ‘Calyptorhynchus latirostris’ resulted in 247 images, and ‘Carnaby’s cockatoo’, 510. ‘Calyptorhynchus banksii naso’ called up 105 images, and ‘forest red-tailed black cockatoo’, 160. Images of the south-west WA cockatoos are also found via the generic search for ‘black cockatoo’, which yields 14,000 images of all species and sub-species. Some contributors could be unaware of the exact nomenclature of their photographic subjects and, therefore, unable to tag and categorise images with taxonomic precision. Black cockatoo tags range from ‘Australian bird’ and ‘Australian parrot’ to ‘outdoor’ and ‘Canon’ (the camera brand used), whereas examples of associated groups range from ‘parrots, parrots, parrots!’ to ‘Australian nature photographers’. Users opt to ‘fave’ images, as well as follow the portfolios of individual photographers. The image preambles (i.e. the commentaries written by the photographer as introductions to their photographs) range from extended Wikipedia-style overviews of species to more concise and evocative personalised narratives of locations and conditions of ‘capture’, along with self-analysis of photo composition. An example is John Dart’s ‘Female Red Tailed Black Cockatoo’ contextualised by the following anecdote: ‘It took a bit of scrub bashing to get near this beauty! :) We saw 3 birds, the same as our last bird group outing to the Twin Creeks Reserve, Porungorups, WA. They were quietly feeding, it is the first time that I have really noticed the chest banding!’ Although exhibiting a modest number of views (1,050), the image was enthusiastically received by its small but dedicated audience, as indicated by the phatically inflected responses: ‘lovely’, ‘beautiful’, ‘outstanding’ and ‘fantastic’.
To narrow the extent of this purview, I used Flickr’s ‘interestingness’ indicator to sort search results from high to low. I then chose examples from the top ranking images identified by each of three common names: ‘Baudin’s cockatoo’, ‘Carnaby’s cockatoo’ and ‘forest red-tailed black cockatoo’. Flickr bases the value of interestingness on an algorithm combining click-through rates (ratio of link clicks to total views of page), comments, tags and favorites (Flickr, ‘Interestingness!’). In December 2015, the first-ranked ‘interesting’ image of a Baudin’s was ‘Cockatoo in Flight’ by Julie Holland—though the image is no longer available. The composition centred on the outstretched white tail bands and taut wings of a bird poised to land on a bottlebrush tree against the stormy gray sky of the background. The dark eyes of the cockatoo focus intently at the viewer as the in-flight manoeuvre is negotiated. Many of the comments praised the astute timing of the photographer and the resultant aesthetic effects of the image: ‘Your timing was spot on’, ‘spot on action’, ‘awesome timing ... just love the flight turn’ and ‘the light shining through those wings is spectacular’. What would have otherwise been an ephemeral bodily gesture—the turning of a cockatoo just before landing—is laid bare and framed in a moment accessible to visual apprehension through new media. Hence, the rhetoric of capture prevails in phrases such as ‘great capture’, ‘awesome ... in-flight capture’ and ‘you really caught the light and the action beautifully’. Nevertheless, despite the resolute appreciation of the Flickr avian enthusiasts, there was scant indication of the species’ precarious conservation status in the preamble—which indeed was absent—or in the followers’ comments.
Whereas ‘Cockatoo in Flight’ attends to one dimension of cockatoo bodily poiesis—flying en route to feeding or roosting—‘Baudin’s Black Cockatoo’, also by Flickr enthusiast Julie Holland, presents an image of a bird with a fully gaping beak preparing to consume a ‘honky’ nut of the red gum tree (Corymbia calophylla). Rather than the openness of the sky, the background consists of the intertangling of leaves, nuts and branches with the figure of the Baudin’s ensconced within—balanced as one claw clings to the tree and the other to the nut. The pink hue of the skin encircling his eye confirms the cockatoo as male. The roughness of the cockatoo’s gum nut, in contrast to the smoothness of the others, indicates the older age of the food source and, perhaps, its greater palatability. Although departing compositionally from the in-flight capture, the portrait of the cockatoo on the cusp of feeding is comparably intimate, as implied by some of the remarks: ‘hungry-looking fella’, ‘great catch, mouth wide open’ and ‘what a great capture’. An image from a different photographer, ‘Baudin’s Cockatoo’, depicts a bird perched at the top of a dead tree and with its back to the viewer. Black cockatoo gestural poiesis—in this instance, as influenced by the weather—informs the photographer’s statement that ‘the cold wind has ruffled his neck feathers’. Nevertheless, none of the top-five Baudin’s images, retrieved according to the criteria of interestingness, allude to the population decline of the species. Instead, the content expresses penetrating awareness of the visual beauty of cockatoos, as well as the photographers’ abilities to arrest the intrinsic mutability of these birds through imagistic (and technologically-based) intervention. Moments of poietic disclosure—the intense gaze of the cockatoo towards the camera, or contentment in the second before feeding—distinguish these mediations as exceptional or praiseworthy, in the aesthetic judgement of members.
‘Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo’, by Flickr user 2mag7, ranked the highest according to the interestingness criteria, and has received over 3,000 views as of December 2015. The male Carnaby’s, with his blackish bill and pink splotch around the eye, turns his head while feeding in a banksia tree. His gaze to the viewer—as in other portraits of its kind—incites the human desire for interspecies contact, intimacy and, even, communication (Haraway, When). Unlike the Baudin’s material discussed previously, the image’s preamble emphasises the cockatoo’s endangered status: ‘It lives only in southwest Australia where large-scale clearing for farming has fragmented much of its habitat’. However, in keeping with the Baudin’s pages, the rhetoric of capture and timing in tandem with an aesthetics of beauty, rather than the exigencies of conservation, are markedly apparent in the comments. ‘White Tailed Cockatoo’ presents a counter-example to this image. Here, a male Carnaby’s bears characteristic features: the red circle of eye skin, the off-white patch below the eye and the overlapping of white-tipped body feathers. He is perched atop a fence post, the steel barbs of the wire only centimetres below the white bands of his tail feathers. The preamble by the photographers, ‘Jean and Fred’, expresses the narrative outlining the shared poiesis of cockatoo, mediation and mediators: ‘It was wonderful to see a flock of these feeding on the grasses by the roadside. When a vehicle would pass, they flew to the nearby fence’. Furthermore, the discussion foregrounds the conservation status of Carnaby’s prominently through affective language: ‘how awful that it is endangered’ and ‘it’s heartbreaking to know they are on the way to extinction’. The mediation even rouses the memories of some avian photography connoisseurs in which, for instance, one commentator recalls ‘huge flocks of them flying over the house but the numbers dwindled’. These examples—limited though by my selective approach to Flickr through the interestingness parameter—signify the potential of new media to become an eco-affective and zoopoetic space; the affective power of the Flickr content emerges through the co-shaping of mediations (imagery and comments), subjects (cockatoos) and human agents.
The first five results of a search for ‘forest red-tailed black cockatoo’ yielded images by a Flickr member with a considerable 8,000 followers and who specialises in Australian nature imagery. However, I soon realised—and the geotags confirmed my hunch—that all were of the Queensland species Calyptorhynchus banksii rather than the south-west Australian sub-species. As a result, in this instance, I decided to search for the Latinate name Calyptorhynchus banksii naso. Of note from the results is Ian Wallace’s ‘Even Adult Male Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos Are Clowns’ showing the scarlet-coloured bands of the tail feathers as the male clasps a branch, elevates his wing and lowers his head for balance while looking forward. Invoking a common threat to conservation during the colonial-era history of the species, one Flickr user remarks, ‘I believe that they are still being shot occasionally by orchardists’. In contrast, other pages, based on the interestingness parameter, refer less to conservation issues and more to the imagistic value of the cockatoos, particularly as unique ‘objects’ of the tourist gaze found only in the south-west of Western Australia. As for Baudin’s and Carnaby’s, photographs, in which forest red-tailed black cockatoos exhibit the ‘reverse gaze’, defined as the gaze of the photographic subject back to the photographer (Gillespie, ‘Tourist’), have greater affective resonance. Additionally, in reference to his image ‘Red Tailed Black Cockatoo Close Up’, photographer John Dart presents an embodied preamble: ‘It took a bit of crawling to get this one and probably picked up two ticks in the thick scrub’. His physical exertions obviously paid off, if comments from followers are any indication: ‘Crikey, that’s a real bird’s eye view’ and ‘wonderful shot ... eye to eye’. The red-tailed black cockatoo, distinguished as female by the yellow spots on her feathers, fondles a red gum tree blossom while facing the viewer in an instantiation of interspecies gestural exchange.
The final arm of my Flickr search strategy attempted to identify the extent to which the sonic registers of black cockatoos—significant in historical accounts—figure into new media content. Thus, I inserted ‘call’ after each of the main search terms (‘Baudin’s cockatoo’, ‘Carnaby’s cockatoo’ and ‘Calyptorhynchus banksii naso’). Of interest from the results was Terri Turner’s ‘Red Tail Visit 4’ preamble, composed in verse and memorialising the disappearing call of the red-tailed black cockatoo as a forest presence: ‘Up to 30 years ago / they still flew in mighty flocks [...] casting shadows over all that lay below / their screeching calls / signaling the seasons’ change [...] in this land abounding’. The photo itself consists of a scene devoid of cockatoos that, instead, depicts the silhouettes of trees against a background of clear radiant sky. The creative interplay of the empty image and the doleful words points to the possibility of mediation without representation—or mediation of bird life through the corporeal absence of species. One follower notes the ‘almost elegiac words’. Of the three searches, ‘Carnaby’s cockatoo call’ resulted in the longest list of images. The first was ‘Carnaby’s Cockatoo Feeding on Hakea’, by Jennie Stock, a close-up of a male poised on the native hakea tree. Stock’s preamble offers a short narrative centring on the sonicity of the cockatoo: ‘I was just about to leave home for a coffee date when I heard these iconic birds calling. A small group of three were feeding on one of the native plants we have growing in our front garden. Needless-to-say, I was a little late for my coffee date’. A follower responded by qualifying the image as a ‘terrific intimate portrait’. Another acoustically attentive preamble by Paul Schipper, in setting the context for his photograph ‘Black Cockatoo’, details the following encounter: ‘I was out walking with the dog and tried a new path. I could suddenly hear these black cockatoos in the banksia scrub all around me. They are very loud birds and not too shy. When they stop their calling, all you can hear is this eerie munching and crunching as they feed on the flower buds and seed in the scrub’.
Conclusion: Zoopoetics and the Digital Environmental Humanities
Zoopoetic new media spaces—postulated through the example of Flickr’s avian community—are complex interweavings of cross-species intimacy, aesthetic response, affective register, gestural expression and conservation value. Such sites involve the entanglement of technologies, biologies, ecologies, corporealities, affectivities and, indeed, politics—here, all in reference to the avian. The interlocking of these elements is integral to a conceptualisation of Flickr—and other forms of new media, and media more generally—as vital media engaged with lifeness rather than mediating liveness, in Kember and Zylinska’s terms. By extending the historical mediation of cockatoos in Australian names, images and text, the lifeness of Flickr’s avian content reflects a vibrant, ongoing human fascination for the bodily poiesis of these endemic birds—especially their feeding behaviours, physical enunciations when flying or roosting, and evocative range of auditory expressions. The co-shaping of mediation (images, words), mediator (human artists or writers) and avian subjects (in this instance, black cockatoos) becomes especially tenable when we consider the possible extent to which new media influences or supports (or, conversely undermines or devalues) the conservation of real endangered birds living in actually changing places. Just as the Flickr items presented here can be interpreted as mimesis of black cockatoo gesturality, so too does cockatoo poiesis itself come to be shaped by new media technologies that, at the same time, mould human behaviours, actions and decisions in the non-digital realm. A new ‘media ecology’ that attends seriously to species decline and the exigencies of the Anthropocene would build upon the interactive potential of zoopoetic spaces, such as Flickr, as well as the aesthetic gravitas of avian imagery for the benefit of living birds in actually threatened environments.
New media holds vast potential as a support mechanism for protecting the environment and enhancing public awareness of non-human lives. However, conservation values will not be engendered solely through beautiful or appealing images of threatened species, such as black cockatoos, but rather through engagement with the dynamism of zoopoetic spaces themselves. I have asserted that zoopoetic spaces constitute a heterogeneous mix of affective concern for the plight of non-human species, recognition of animalistic modes of corporeality, appreciation of the aesthetic features of animal subjects as represented in images, and occasional activist or political momentum. By way of conclusion, I wish to speculate briefly about the broader conceptual context in which considerations of zoopoetics and the mediation of avian life could be explored further. The emerging field of the digital environmental humanities provides a basis for critiquing the relationship between the direct experience of the natural world (including bird species such as black cockatoos) and its mediation by technologies (Jørgensen, ‘Armchair’, 97). For Stephanie Posthumus and Stéfan Sinclair (‘Reading’, 269), the interdisciplinarity of the digital environmental humanities provokes questions about environment, community, region, data, time and the very nature of critique. Other questions central to the field emphasise ‘telling the stories of non-human entities’ in digital formats; and its relevance to archives and visualisations (269). As both an image archive and a platform for visualising birds, not only cockatoos, Flickr, as the case study developed here, underscores notions of intermediation as important concerns for future digital environmental humanities research into new media. Assessing the ecological implications of new media involves much more than linking relatively well-established ideas in environmental discourse, such as ‘nature deficit disorder’ (Louv, Last), to emerging technologies and running the risk of inciting extremes from techno-bashing to techno-utopianism. Rather, rethinking new media in these terms necessitates critiquing the epistemologies of exceptionalism that perpetuate human-nature-technology divisions in the first place. As this article has attempted to argue by analysing black cockatoo mediation over time, poiesis and gesture are vital and promising tenets for doing so.
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