Watching YouTube with the Cat – Sally McKay

Repetitive artworks reveal that there is no such thing as repetition. We are all caught up in time. The “stillness” of a modular artwork exposes subtle shifts of constant change. The speedy, compact looping of an animated gif, such as Lorna Mills’ Mountain Light/Time, invites contemplation of perception itself as a temporal, lived experience.


Lorna Mills, Mountain Light/Time, 2016. Animated gif.

Lately, I have been watching YouTube videos with the cat. She likes speed, pursuits, and predation (evidenced by purring, tail-twitching, and occasional pounces at the screen). The cat is like an FPS gamer, with a taste for twitch-response and cathartic, violent outcomes. Her attention span is short, so I was recently surprised when a video captivated her for a full ten minutes. It was not fast-paced, but slow and repetitive. Also, nobody died.

The video[i] depicts a killer whale attack at Seaworld.[ii] The cat and I watch in mutual fascination as the whale (Kasatka) grabs a trainer (Ken Peters) by the foot and drags him around the pool. The footage is often blurry; vague dark masses wavering through a murk of pixels. The whale pulls the man down deep and keeps him there a long time. Then, slowly, she brings him to the surface. Peters gasps and tries to calm the whale with rhythmic pats, his foot in her jaws. Once his breathing steadies, the whale pulls him down again. Later they resurface. The whale repeats the deadly cycle. Finally, Kasatka releases the man’s foot. Peters pants, waits, pats the whale, makes a break for it, swims, scrambles out of the pool, and survives.

Suppression wanes and surges in a repetitive cycle. The man does not panic, the whale does not kill, and yet the cat is loving it; muscles engaged, shifting slightly with every nuance. I follow the news about killer whales in captivity, but why would this slow-paced video interest the cat, who has no such frame of reference? She likely can’t decipher the shapes that blur across our screen, but she knows a thing or two about the temporal pacing of tormenting prey. She will pause to watch and wait as a mouse (or moth or spider) calms itself and tries to stay alive. This dynamic of intensity/release, intensity/release is so ingrained in the feline experience that, perhaps, for her, the video’s motions convey a familiar repetition.

Some of my loved ones are mildly horrified that I let the cat watch YouTube. But she and I are friends who communicate through physical acts. If I am going to spend my time online, immersed in digital aesthetics, why not let her have a little taste? I recently had an argument about the internet with one of these same loved ones. They worried that young people aren’t having enough “real” experiences. The suggestion that online experience isn’t real upset me. I expend a lot of effort to help my students understand the embodied impacts of the technologies they so thoroughly inhabit. Having grown up without the internet, my world is different from theirs. Yet, I find this generation gap exasperating. People my age and older need to realize that there is no opting out of real experience, even if you happen to be slouching in a chair and staring at a screen.

As a Cold War Gen-X-er with a pre-millennial death-wish, I get the escapist lure of “virtual reality,” but really, there is no escape. We live in our bodies, our technologies are extensions of ourselves, our experiences are both individual and collective and the internet is a vast, diverse social and sensory environment, differently embodied for every participant. Me and the annoying anonymous person I am bickering with on some buried reddit thread are both unique, perceiving creatures and it feels important that we find ways to keep that in mind. Why? Because online interaction is the means by which many social norms are currently taking shape, and these cultural conditions affect cognition, consciousness, and identity in deeply meaningful ways.

A recent eflux post by Karen Archey[iii] drew attention to a 2004 rant by Ursula K. Le Guin.[iv] Le Guin was fed up with gendered constructs of technology that obscure its fundamental nature.

Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are … what they build with and what they build, their medicine – and so on and on. […] Technology is the active human interface with the material world. [v]

Explaining that technology is a communal activity, and not just a set of gadgets, Le Guin allies with a huge range of thinkers including Martin Heidegger, Marshall McLuhan, Ursula Franklin, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, and Rosi Braidotti, just to name a few. This notion of technology is also implied in recent theories from cognitive science, which posit consciousness as a generative process of interaction with the world.

Andy Clark advocates for embodied cognition, arguing that consciousness is not just a product of the brain, but a process of the brain and body in ongoing interaction with the world. In his latest book, Clark argues that the mind is a prediction machine. Drawing on prior knowledge and experience, “high level” conscious brain regions make predictions based on sensory information processing through “lower” regions. Learning takes place when things do not happen as expected. Clark explains,

Such systems exhibit powerful forms of learning and … deliver rich forms of context-sensitive processing and are able flexibly to combine top-down and bottom-up flows of information within the multilayer cascade.[vi]

Clark’s theory challenges linear, bottom-up models of mind by suggesting that conscious and non-conscious areas are simultaneously engaged. The mind/brain is not a passive organ, awaiting sensory stimulation, but an agent that generates information (as well as its own structure) through action in the world.

Repetition supports prediction but we pay more attention when something unexpected happens. The cat wants repetition when she demands to be fed at the same time every morning (and she will express outrage when the humans opt to sleep in late and confound her expectations). But it would be wrong to suggest that the cat prefers a life without surprises. When hunting, for example, she is alert to subtle sounds and movements, actively seeking disruptions in the patterns of her world. Clark explains that consciousness did not evolve in a static environment, and his predictive model accounts for “all the restless, playful, searching, and exploratory forms of behaviour that we know and love.”[vii] Repetition and the unexpected are intimately linked.

Clark’s theory applies to many species.[viii] The cat and I differ, however; she has no interest in symbols while I value words and images. Clark connects human symbolic communication with an “obsessive drive to engage in shared cultural practices”[ix] and our construction of “artefacts and designer environments.”[x] People are social, producing feedback and stimuli that extend the complexities of cognition into our collective spheres.

Watching the killer whale online, I assess her behaviour as the kind of seething violence that one might reasonably expect when complex beings are restricted and oppressed. I am interested in this kind of thing, and YouTube suggested the video based on my viewing history. While everyone’s internet is different, social media connects people with similar traits and tastes. These communities are affirming, but they can also be oppressively tribal, often clamping down on unique acts of self-expression. Social networks impose pressure to conform.

Two online slurs that I find troublesome are “attention whore” and “special snowflake.” People deploy these terms to enforce tribal boundaries. Such attacks can be vitriolic, as these excerpts from Urban Dictionary indicate.

Attention Whore: a girl on the internet who will do anything for attention… often she will claim to have been raped, complain that she’s fat or no one likes her (fishing for compliments), post pictures of herself nude or semi-nude, or just type provocative messages to members of the opposite sex in the hopes that one might not realize that she is just a fat attention whore. another common trick of the attention whore is to claim that she is bisexual or a lesbian.[xi]

‘Special snowflake’ syndrome, is a disease in which the subject believes that because she occupies a subculture mildly different to the mainstream, she is inherently better, and above them. The subject will never state that she is better, but it is implied, as is the belief that she is rare in her qualities, despite, in reality, being an only slightly less common cliché.[xii]

Ironically, these statements intended to quash othered forms of self-expression are in themselves powerful expressions of identity and allegiance. Of course, adolescent peer pressure existed before the internet, but social media entails a new level of intimacy, accessed through personal devices that live on or near the body at all times. The constant pressure to perform a public identity means that normative ideologies are easily internalized. Resistance requires obverse tribal bonds, producing freshly urgent identity politics.

Online activity does not equate with personhood. In a recent episode of the podcast Reply All, PJ Vogt interviewed reporter Sam Sanders about his experiences covering the July 7th shooting in Dallas. Saunders was appalled by social media at the time, “…it seemed like online, people were already going into their corners and already being hateful and critical and mean.”[xiii] But on the ground, Sanders had a different experience. He encountered many people who had gravitated to the site for no apparent reason, wandering around… thinking. As Vogt explained, they were processing “thoughts that were too complicated to put into a sound bite.”[xiv] Sanders suggested, “The internet is not the larger conversation, the internet is the smaller conversation.”[xv]

Repetitive affirmation of expectations is not enough. People sometimes also need to claim their special snowflake status and appreciate the surprising, unique, and contemplative workings of personal experience. Art can help. Acknowledging our own embodied perceptions within collective social constructs is a step towards changing how they also impact others’ lives.

When I watch videos with the cat, I can physically feel her sensing. Clark’s integrated processes of prediction, action, surprise and engagement are palpable. The cat helps me access media with a heightened, shared awareness that is similar to looking at art.

Art makes room for contemplation, welcoming thoughts and affects that are too complex for sound bites. In Lorna Mills’ Mountain Light/Time, for example, elemental forces of rock, light, and colour jitter in and out of being. The idea of a mountain’s stillness is evoked through motion; a fixed and endless loop. Images of light cascading across the mountain’s surface are conveyed through illuminated pixels that spill across the screen.

The gif takes on a sort of body, a persisting temporal entity that I respond to in a non-linguistic way. With every loop it stays the same, but I am subtly changed: my hair gets longer and my lunch gets more digested. Apparently, in one minute, 300 million of my cells will die.[xvi] Making a dramatic intervention, Mountain Light/Time was projected on multiple screens in Times Square for 3 minutes (11:57-midnight) every night for the month of March 2016. Within that symbolic bastion of corporate culture, that iconic temple to commodified distraction, a pixellated mountain looped through its own unique version of jerky stillness, calling out to the uniquely conscious bodies of all the people passing on the streets below.

Footnotes:

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiTvBtgrjsg

[ii] This event happened at SeaWorld San Diego in 2006. The YouTube caption incorrectly states that the event happened in Orlando where another whale, Tiklikum, killed a trainer in 2010. The story of Tilikum is covered in the 2013 documentary BlackFish: http://www.blackfishmovie.com/.

[iii] http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/ursula-k-le-guin-a-rant-about-technology/3977

[iv] http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Note-Technology.html

[v] http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Note-Technology.html

[vi] Andy Clark, Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action and the Embodied Mind, (New York : Oxford University Press, 2015), 277

[vii] Andy Clark, ibid., 48

[viii] Andy Clark, ibid., 276

[ix] Andy Clark, ibid., 277

[x] Andy Clark, ibid., 277

[xi] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=attention+whore

[xii] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Special%20Snowflake%20Syndrome

[xiii] https://gimletmedia.com/episode/70-stolen-valor/

[xiv] https://gimletmedia.com/episode/70-stolen-valor/

[xv] https://gimletmedia.com/episode/70-stolen-valor/

[xvi] http://academictips.org/interesting-facts/40-interesting-facts-about-the-human-body/

Sally McKay is an artist, art theorist, curator, and Assistant Professor of Art at McMaster University. Sally completed her PhD in Art History and Visual Culture at York University in 2014. Her research engages interdisciplinary questions in art and science, with specific focus on new materialism, post-humanism, neuroaesthetics, and new media. Recent publications include a chapter in the anthology Aesthetics and the Embodied Mind (2015), an essay in the spring issue of RACAR (2015), and an essay in the exhibition catalogue for Are You Experienced, curated by Melissa Bennett at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (2015). Sally is currently working on The Haunted Scanner, a collaborative research/creation project about MRI brain scanners, with Von Bark, Abudlla Al-Galiani, Mary Duncan, and Mikayla Salomons. Funding for The Haunted Scanner is generously provided by the Arts Research Board — ROADS at McMaster University and the Ontario Arts Council.