DOG VOICE: A MEMOIR

Publishing Author :  Julie Andreyev

Date Published : “Voice” not only stands for vocal utterance, but for
expressing oneself. Having a voice is seen as
representation –voicing one’s mind– participating,
voting, taking part in the governance of one’s
community and place in the world. In music,
voice refers to an individual’s vocal contribution to
the group; the specific tonal quality of the soloist
co-creates the collective character. Voice is
independent expression towards social
coherence. In human culture, non-human
animals have tended to be deprived of voice.
There is still a widespread notion that non-humans
have an inability to express –or even have–
thought and emotion; they are not capable of
speaking for themselves. They do not have rights.
But when you cohabitate with other species, such
as dogs, over the years you may start to notice
that they have a lot to say…
About 5 years ago (35 dog years) I was
having an art-related crisis. At the time, the work I
was making had little to do with animals as
subjects and I kept asking myself (and those who
would politely listen) “[w]hat value does art have in
culture if it is not engaged in the pressing matters
our time?” “Can art still be viable, meaningful, and
potentially transformative in this era of global
warming, famine, pandemic disease, economic
disparity, consumer industries that engage in
cruelty and suffering on vast scales, species
extermination, and severe ecological
degradation?”
In the midst of this personal crisis, Tom and Sugi
and I noticed a glimmer between us: a hopeful
promise. For us, narratives and activities of our
everyday featured more and more prominently.
Our relationship began to figure as potential for
creative content. As we established Animal Lover
(our interspecies collaborative practice), the d
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Julie Andreyev
Above, Tom and Sugi, below still from Youtube video Dog Walking Dog  Julie Andreyev
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unique individuals. I would set up a camera or
microphone, present a few instructions, see what
happened.
Philosopher Vicki Hearne, and others, stress
that domesticated animals be allowed to fulfill
their potential in order to achieve happiness. This
may take the form of work (for those who enjoy it).
Most dogs have been bred over centuries –a
millennia– to assist in human day-to-day business.
Historically, border collies tended sheep; terriers
caught rodents; hounds and pointers assisted with
hunting; and so on. The human species shaped
canines for behavioral traits that in our
contemporary culture have little relevance. Today,
the stay-at-home-companion conforms to the
human domestic schedule. This is potentially
problematic for a species bred to work. What
voice do these people possess in their change of
status from working animal to companion? They
may struggle to come to terms with this existence,
leading to states of hyperactivity, anxiety,
frustration, boredom, depression. The voice of
dysfunction.
On one particularly boring day, I was trying
(without success) to get Tom and Sugi to stop
barking out the window. Vocalizing is a trait we
humans have selected in dogs to alert us to
intruders –to guard the perimeter. The barking dog
is only doing his job! I had the idea to teach Tom
semiotics –what the word “bark” signified. He soon
learned. From there, not only could I ask him not to
bark, but we could formulate new modes of
communication. “Tom, can you bark?” was a start.
Tom honed his talents and began to express his
variable relations with the world. “Hello;” “I’m
happy;” “I’m having fun;” “Look at me” “I want a
ricecake;” “I’m upset;” “That’s not fair!”
But the canine world is nuanced, and
vocalizing is only a small part of their relationality.
Canines and other species differ from humans in
the way they come to understand things. Biologist
Dr. Peter Tyack points out that “since we’re such a
visual species, it’s hard for us to understand this.”
Dogs are primarily informed by their sense of smell
which is thousands of times more sensitive than
that of a human’s. Scientists note that dogs can
understand a substance diluted at 3 parts per
trillion! Clearly, they had a way of being that was
unique and importantly different.
In our collaboration, the challenge was to
translate the canine experience into human
cultural form using visual and auditory media. A
dog’s enjoyment of a car ride, for instance, can
be imagined as a fantastic rush of the senses, a
kind of psychedelic experience. By considering the
canine world-view, we humans have the potential
to expand our consciousness, go beyond known
modalities into experimental thought, and
potentially consider the non-human experience as
equally rich as that of humans.’
Sugi, a sensitive type, communicates
through silent contemplation. Using gaze and
gesture he quietly points out, asks for, insists on.
Any other dog would say Sugi was rude to stare.
But he learns a lot by observing Tom. “I can do
that too!” he seems to say. Now, when I set up a
camera, Sugi positions himself between it and
Tom, offering a kind of persistent force. Tom
complains.
This rivalry is rich content for @TomandSugi,
where they tweet about the finer points of artistic
coproduction. Mostly they argue. And they’re not
alone. Turns out there are thousands of people
out there in cyberspace observing,
contemplating, speaking and tweeting from the
companion point of view: Flappitybat, Feral
Pigeon, Goat on a Stump, Common Squirrel,
Turtlefeed, Beaglestitch, I am Otter, Puppyjones,
the late Tagi-t… Whole communities of on-line
animals represent their empathic relations with
humans. These voices contribute to swarms of
conversations, thoughts, emotions, and animal
expression. Their communicative desire is strong
enough to be understood by social media savvy
humans who find their lives more tolerable by
entering into the imaginative space of the animal.
The imaginative space of the animal: this is
where I find myself dwelling now. Tom and Sugi
and I have answered the questions I asked years
ago. But these answers have produced more
questions: “What are the ethical modes of working
with interspecies collaborators that involve
respect, and attention to their dignity and
happiness?”
For years I wondered why Tom would
scratch and rub his face on the carpets and
upholstery, sometimes in the snow. From
research, I learned that canines do this to express
their contentment. Tom was demonstrating,
smearing his scent with exuberance, seeming to
take possession –claiming territory– using his
voice.
Last summer, Tom and I enrolled in a
theremin building workshop. “Could I build a
theremin that we could both play– a kind of
instrument for 4 hands/paws?” I imagined Tom
contributing vibrato by scratching on a rug
interfaced with a pitch-control antenna, while I
tuned the volume and tonal range. We got gigs.
But things didn’t go exactly as expected. Before
each rehearsal and performance Tom got
anxious: his eyes widened; his legs shook; he
hyperventilated; he petitioned to go home.
It did not occur to me that dogs could
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suffer from stage-fright. What I did notice was that
he was fine at home, contentedly scratching his
rug, making sound and growling in
accompaniment. Here, we could play and he
could enjoy himself. I listened and adapted. OK,
he’s not a live performer; he’s a studio-recording
artist! We agreed that he could practice and
record at home and I would remix these during
the performances.
I am starting to hear more clearly now.
Tom and Sugi are good companions and they
demonstrate this to me in many ways, moment
by moment. They create the social coherence
and richness within the family, each with his own
voice contributing to the group chorus. But they
are also asking that I be a good companion. They
let me know that they need to be respected or
challenged. They want me to take responsibility. I
believe they too want to feel that their existence
has meaning.

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