Martin Rowe, CAF co-vice president, writes:
Looming clouds and threats of a thunderstorm didn’t deter the dozen or so enthusiasts who arrived at the south-east corner of Central Park in New York City on a Friday evening in August to experience the latest installment of the Synanthrope Preserve, a project of interdisciplinary artist Gal Nissim and experience designer Jessica Scott-Dutcher.
Nissim and Scott-Dutcher, who received a CAF grant in 2017, are interested in the non-domesticated animals who live with us (the literal meaning of synanthrope), and their work interrogates our suppositions about and attitudes to the “natural” and “artificial,” who constitutes a “pest” and who doesn’t, and the social and ecological niches that we all occupy. Their first Synanthrope Preserve project explored how pigeons, once highly valued, became “rats with wings,” and consisted of an audio tour of Washington Square. The second, Washing Bear, focuses on that ultimate scavenger and city perennial, the raccoon (or Procyon lotor, which translates to “washing bear”).
At eight o’clock, 2018 CAF grantee Radhika Subramaniam and I set off into the park as darkness closed in. Our footsteps were matched by those on the audio, Scott-Dutcher’s warm and gentle interrogatives guiding us physically and intellectually in surprising directions, accompanied by layers of ambient sounds that mixed eerily with those we experienced in real time. We wound past Wollman Rink, along the literary walk, and over the lake to the Ramble. There, in almost total darkness except for our flashlights, we encountered four raccoons busying themselves with dinner by the trashcans.
Throughout the tour, Nissim and Scott-Dutcher stimulated questions about what we thought we were seeing, and how we might relate to those creatures whose habit we’ve created and who live among us. Did these animals re-naturalize the artificial? Did they remind us of the balance between native-born and immigrant in an ecosystem that was always changing? Did they demand that we reconsider who was the “trash animal,” given our own messiness and our notions of appropriate and inappropriate recycling?
As we gathered on the bridge over the lake at the end of our tour, Nissim and Scott-Dutcher told us that their next project (still in its early stages) would be on the Norway rat. For now, you can take the Washing Bear Tour of Central Park by downloading the audio from the website. Note: this is a summer activity and the animals typically eat around thirty minutes after dusk, so you’ll need to calibrate your visit as the days shorten.