Chim↑Pom – Black of Death (2007)
In approaching this case study, I will enact a qualitative textual analysis of Chim↑Pom’s “Black of Death” using documentation of the work, as well as online interviews with the members of Chim↑Pom. My own response to the work will draw on recent and historical events which seem to influence the artwork, and will posit possible interpretations as situated within the frame of tactical media art.
Japanese artist collective Chim↑Pom has a history of working within tactical and interventionist media. One of their first major projects involved catching live rats, performing taxidermy on them, and manipulating their appearance so they resembled the popular character Pikachu from Pokemon. In that, as with many of their other works, they created video documentation of the process, which was displayed in addition to the posed rodents. In “Black of Death” (2007), they once again manipulate wild creatures, however, this time it is (merely!) psychologically rather than physically. Their video documentation of the event captures a performance of sorts, where they collect and manoeuvre crows from around the city by using a taxidermied crow as a lure. They drive the decoy through the streets of Tokyo, while simultaneously blasting crow noises through a megaphone. This simple ploy consequently assembles masses of crows from around the city, which they then lead to a series of notable landmarks in the city. The final work also included a series of photographs from the performance, which were packaged as a souvenir postcard set (“Black of Death”).
What is interesting with this process is that although their work is documented and distributed using modern technology, the actual performance of it is completely low-tech. It consists of a stuffed crow and a megaphone mechanically moved around the city, in order to draw the crows around like the Pied Piper. It is a pretty basic form of trickery which has been, and is still, used in hunting practices. In some ways, this basic manipulation of animal instincts is probably more emotionally disturbing than the more common practice of physical corralling. Most farming and animal husbandry moves the animal’s body unwillingly, through coercion such as sheep-dogs, fencing, machines or weapons, and we don’t give it a second thought. However, the act of mass mental manipulation of the animals draws attention to their existence in an unusual way. In his online blog, architect and writer Léopold Lambert notes that “[t]his project is appealing… for the introduction of wildness in our tamed domestic environment. In order to do so, they used animals that we are used to see around but that never really reach to carry this strange anxiety that this scene provides. I thus interpret this operation as a manifesto for strangeness as a political weapon, the one that makes a well known environment slightly different from normally and this way, triggers the awareness and imagination”. I would argue that in addition to the disjunction between domestic normality and the wild, the choice of crows as the target for this project creates a very different connotation than if another bird or animal had been chosen. The crow is pretty widely renowned as a clever animal. Recent studies have shown that they are able to manipulate tools (“Crow”) and recognize human faces (Nijhuis), and many cultures around the world have labelled the crow as a trickster, related to spirits, death and the divine, and as messengers (“Crow”). As such, humans seems to culturally relate to the crow, more-so than say pigeons or sea-gulls, both whom are seen as stupid pests in most urban centres. This intelligence seems to put crows in a different category than other animals, and may also lead to identification with them. Here the ideas of being psychically manipulated in subtle and often un-noticed ways align with many global political concerns like corporate and governmental data collection, global economic systems that seem completely out of our control and industrial destruction of our environment. These issues can make us feel like we lack control of our own lives, and are constantly directed by unseen forces that may or may not have our best interests at heart.
Although we may not always associate crows as pests, Japan is especially struggling with a massive increase in bird populations, which has led to the increase in measures to deal with them as pests. Martin Fackler’s New York Times article writes that officials attribute this increase in crow populations to the “growing abundance of garbage, a product of Japan’s embrace of more wasteful Western lifestyles”. This shared interest in garbage is what draws Chim↑Pom to crows, rats and humans (Corkill). If humans are like the pests that we seek to eradicate, what questions and issues does that raise? What sort of reflection of ourselves are we seeing as we struggle with the crows and rats for territory? And will we win? Chim↑Pom’s Tokyo rats were chosen because they have developed an immunity to rat poisons which makes them impossible to eradicate, and similarly Fackler’s article also relates a story where the crows resist attempts to displace them. Fackler writes that “the crows have proven clever at foiling human efforts to control them. In Kagoshima, they are even trying to outsmart the Crow Patrol. The birds have begun building dummy nests as decoys to draw patrol members away from their real nests”. He continues to describe how the crows are winning the territorial battle, increasing the number of nests and causing blackouts in the national power supply. In a suicidal tactic, a crow jammed its beak into a power line, shutting down power for 610 homes and businesses. In others, the crows have disrupted “Japan’s super-modern technological infrastrure”, cutting fibre optic lines and closing down high-speed train services (Fackler).
This active warfare over territory, and uncomfortable proximity between humans and the animals they deem pests seems to connect with the title of Chim↑Pom’s project “Black of Death”. In an interview with Ayana for Ping Mag, Chim↑Pom member Ushiro suggests that the title, “Black of Death”, makes him think of the “funeral of a mafia leader, or crows circling above a bad man about to die”. Similarly, it makes me think of the Black Death, a plague carried by rat fleas, which decimated European populations in the 14th century. The plague had a profound effect due to the close proximity in which humans and animals existed, along with poor understanding of medical science and hygiene. Linked to garbage, unsanitary living conditions and poverty, The Black Death and “Black of Death” share many similarities. It is one of the few historical incidences of mass human causality which still remains common knowledge in Western culture, and although it was generated by a natural disease phenomenon, it has shaped human practices around sanitation since, and also around treatment of ill, outsider and impoverished populations. Wikipedia notes that the plague “irrevocably chang[ed] the social structure, and resulted in widespread persecution of minorities such as Jews, foreigners, beggars, and lepers… Renewed religious fervor and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of the Black Death… Because 14th-century healers were at a loss to explain the cause, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s emergence. The governments of Europe had no apparent response to the crisis because no one knew its cause or how it spread. The mechanism of infection and transmission of diseases was little understood in the 14th century; many people believed only God’s anger could produce such horrific displays”. Shifting the blame from natural causes onto human scapegoats, shifts the dialogue around the disease into something that was created and controlled by humans. This idea of human initiated disaster echoes through “Black of Death”, not only in the notion that the accumulation of human garbage is accelerating the population growth of pests, but also in their photographic reference as part of the postcards to the grave-site of Taro Okamoto, a famous Japanese artist who created “The Myth of Tomorrow”, a large-scale mural depicting the effects of the atomic bomb. Chim↑Pom later created an intervention of the mural, adding an additional panel depicting the recent Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Although it is only a single image within the larger scope of the “Black of Death” project, it does seem to suggest a connection between human activity and these large-scale disasters, the ways we act in the world and the consequence it has on us and on nature.
Ayana. “Chim↑Pom: An Art Squad of 6”. Trans. Kevin Mcgue. Ping Mag. 17 January 2008. Web. 3 December 2013. <http://pingmag.jp/2008/01/17/chimpom/>.
“Black Death”. Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 2 December 2013. Web. 3 December 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death>.
Chim↑Pom. “Black of Death”. Chim↑Pom. Chim↑Pom. Web. 3 December 2013. <http://chimpom.jp/bod.html>.
Corkill, Edan. “Chim↑Pom”. Frieze. 2 October 2008. Web. 3 December 2013. <https://www.frieze.com/shows/review/chim_pom/>
“Crow”. Wikipedia The Free Encylopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 24 November 2013. Web. 3 December 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crow>.
Fackler, Martin. “Japan Fights Crowds of Crows”. The New York Times. 7 May 2008. Web. 3 December 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/07/world/asia/07crows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.
Lambert, Léopold . “# RESISTIVE OPERATIONS /// Black of Death by Chim Pom: A Manifesto for Strangeness”. The Funambulist: architectural narratives. 19 November 2011. Web. 3 December 2013. <http://thefunambulist.net/2011/11/19/resistive-operations-black-of-death-by-chim- pom/>.
Nijhuis, Michelle. “Friend or Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face It Seems”. The New York Times. 25 August 2008. Web. 3 December 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html?_r=0>.