Still from a film by Duncan Marquiss, Duncan Marquiss, 'Mirror Test'

(T)he whole experience is a shared experience, an experience of being ‘with’. Rather than saying that Lorenz became a jackdaw, I suggest that Lorenz became a ‘jackdaw-with-human’ as much as the jackdaw became in some ways a ‘human-with-jackdaw.

Vinciane Despret

In the beginning you barely see anything; images are blurred as if you had bad eyesight or you just woke up from a long sleep. In contrast, the sound you hear is familiar, domestic even, especially if you ever had a bird or a rodent as a pet, and you recognise the rumour of a small creature rattling against metal bars at an uneven pace. For me, these are sounds of childhood: a hamster biting a cage, a budgerigar jumping on a perch, a canary pecking at a bar—animals’ rhythmic negotiation with the space of their confinement. It took me many years, decades even, to understand that my care was these creatures’ torture and my joy their oppression. But now, recalling those relationships through the opening sound of this film, I wonder if I loved those animals because I kept them or if I kept them because I loved them. A combination of both, probably—you desire an abstract company that you learn to love through a process of transformation in which the animal grows inside you in parallel to the imprint you leave on the animal. And them? Where do these animals stand in this equation between love and possession? How does a person’s love, care but also manipulation and observation affect their lives and make them who they are? How are they able to regulate their availability and resistance, their trust and apprehension, and to teach humans, through their sounds and gestures, how to understand them? And love? What is love’s place in this relationship?

Image from Mirror Test by Duncan Marquiss

Challenging the visual dominance of cinema, the opening scenes of Duncan Marquiss’ short film Mirror Test invite us to understand the world through other senses, beyond visuality, and to discover a cognitive experience that is led by hearing. This decision assumes a particular importance in relation to the current technological and ecological situation. If today’s high-resolution digital recording devices are producing images that are sharper than we can perceive, offering an excess of texture and detail that give a post-human impression of the real, the last decades have been signed by an evident disappearance of wildlife that makes the animals rendered through those same cameras even stranger and more diaphanous, despite their superlative definition. This disjuncture, between how excessively well you can see and how extremely rare is what you may capture, places nature cinema in an almost forensic category that Marquiss further explores by offering clues to an auditory source that can’t be fully grasped.

If the aural experience of the film’s opening moments brought me back to my childhood relationship to domestic animals, this wasn’t a casual occurrence: as the film soon reveals, Marquiss is portraying a jackdaw who lives in the company of two humans: the opening sounds are of the bird’s interaction with a cage, and they will soon give way to a series of sequences of the bird roaming free around the house. Marquiss films the inquisitive jackdaw jumping and flying around, clearly at ease in this house that belongs to her as much as to the people who keep her: looking outside the window on a rainy day; nibbling at a slice of bread; grabbing the lids of a set of margarine boxes; drinking water directly from the tap (her beak fits perfectly inside the metal pipe); having a bath in the sink, her wet feathers ruffled in a very funny way—snippets of the animal’s daily life that are as banal to her as curious to us, or at least to those of us who are not used to seeing a human home being shared with a corvid.

Image from Mirror Test by Duncan Marquiss

The house-owners and jackdaw hosts, Kerstin and Stephan Voigt (a middle-aged couple who run a corvid sanctuary in the Isle of Wight), can be heard but never seen, a decision that enhances the separation between the aural and the visual components of the film. However, if the overlaying of the Voigts’ voices to the images of the jackdaw might have imposed a didactic tone to the film, they instead allow viewers to focus entirely on the bird and to how she occupies a human environment in a way that simultaneously participates and is profoundly separated from it. The Voigts’ voices aren’t telling us how to look at a domestic jackdaw, or teaching us a lesson on the jackdaw-human interaction system, but to provide narrative fragments of the shared lives of these three individuals. The Voigts remember their past; they tell stories that took place during crucial events of Europe’s recent history, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Eastern Bloc. These accounts are combined with their impressions of the bird’s status, her cognitive and perceptive capacities, her sense of self. Images of the bird flow atop this layer of sound without illustrating what is being said. Indifferent to all this, living her bird life in a human-bird space, the jackdaw simply is.

Image from Mirror Test by Duncan Marquiss

In The Body  We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis (2004), a beautifully-written text that is as much a tribute to American psychologist William James as a profound reflection on human-animal mutual conditionings in life and theory, philosopher Vinciane Despret describes two kinds of ethologists: the hunter, who follows and observes the animals in their own field, and the cattle-breeder, who keeps the animals, providing them with the most natural conditions within a human environment. Konrad Lorenz, Despret sustains, is a cattle-breeder while Nikolaas Tinbergen a hunter. The lives of these two well-known ornithologists (inasmuch as ornithologists may be well-known) were weaved together on more occasions than in 1973, when they jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with ethologist Karl von Frisch. Sometimes they stood on opposite poles of the same history, as with how they experienced the Second World War, when Tinbergen was a war prisoner of the Nazis and Lorenz an examining psychologist for the Wehrmacht. If their political stances led them apart, they were brought together, before and after the war, by their deep love and curiosity for animals, in particular birds (Lorenz by jackdaws and geese, Tinbergen by gulls), and a profound desire to grasp and define animal behaviour and sentience beyond the deterministic conception of instinct and its association to automatism.

‘If we follow carefully how some of these scientists create access to the creatures they study, the way they are moved by their subjects of interest, the way they give them a chance to be interesting and to articulate other things, we notice that the signs that define subject and object, what talks and what is talked about, subjectivity and objectivity, are redistributed in a new manner,’ writes Despret in her text. The same description could be applied to the relationships between the various figures that constitute this film. The interest with which Marquiss’ lens follows the jackdaw, is moved by the jackdaw, and in turn moves us by its closeness and intimacy, bypasses the physical and conceptual traditions of documentary to enter a realm of experimental companionship. Together, jackdaw and camera become two dark creatures – one feathered and warm, with her inquisitive blue eyes that detect every detail, the other metallic and mechanic, with its large monocular vision – that at once belong and are external to the human context that surrounds them. They invent a curious system of togetherness, of being with one another, of coexisting as aliens in a familiar space.

Image from Mirror Test by Duncan Marquiss

The film’s title, Mirror Test, alludes to an experiment developed in 1970 by the North American psychologist Gordon Gallup. The test consists in confronting animals with a mirror to understand if they recognise their own image; if they do, they pass the test because they demonstrate a sense of self-awareness, if they don’t, they reveal no consciousness of themselves and hence no individuality. There’s no space for ‘if’, ‘but’, ‘somehow’: the test’s results appear as a yes or no sentence.

Despite being widely used, the mirror test relies on behaviours and values that submit different animals to the same set of rigid parameters, which are dictated by a human-centric mind. The test doesn’t take into account that visual stimuli may not be as important for many species as they are for humans; nor that different species and individuals may express curiosity and perplexity in different ways, just like different humans may respond differently to seeing their image reflected on a mirror. In fact, the mirror test relies on an individual’s interest in a very partial representation of their self; of a picture with no haptic, auditory, olfactory or physiological correspondence to its source: a mirror-image, an object-image, an apparition without a spectre.

If we consider the mirror a tool and the tool a machine, it becomes clear how the mirror test is the opposite of another famous cognitive assessment, the Turing test, invented by the English mathematician Alan Turing in 1950. Despite their similarities, the questions both tests pose are diametrically opposed: individuals succeed the mirror test when they believe the machine-image (the reflection) corresponds to their real self, while individuals succeed the Turing test if they distinguish the machine-image (the con-human machine) from a real person. This paradox reveals how such established and widely accepted systems of scientific examination are highly idiosyncratic, demanding a different response to a similar question.

Image from Mirror Test by Duncan Marquiss

But besides exposing the traps and fallacies of scientific inquiry, what is the purpose of bringing the Turing test into this reflection on Mirror Test, the film? Ultimately, what Mirror Test reveals and portrays is the fantastic alliance between a humanised jackdaw and a human-made camera. When the jackdaw looks at the camera, she isn’t looking at herself projected within it (she’s thus ignoring the questions posed by the mirror test) nor at us, viewers who will one day look at her through what the camera captures (she’s thus ignoring the person-machine confusion triggered by the Turing test). When she looks at the camera, she looks at his machine-creature that joins her hopping around the house, a possible ally, a possible nuisance, a possible companion. Together, jackdaw and camera establish a new relationship, a new mode of coexistence, the camera becoming machine-bird, the bird becoming bird-machine.

This text was written to accompany Duncan Marquiss’ film Mirror Test, commissioned as part of Artists in the Cinema 2020.


Filipa Ramos

Filipa Ramos is a Lisbon-born writer based in London. Her research looks at humans’ engagement with animals in the contexts of art and artists’ cinema. Ramos is Curator of Art Basel Film. With Andrea Lissoni, she founded and curates Vdrome, a programme of screenings of artists’ films. She is Lecturer at the MRes Arts at Central Saint Martins, London and the Master Programme of the Arts Institute of Basel. Ramos was Editor in Chief of art-agenda, Associate Editor of Manifesta Journal and contributed for Documenta 13 (2012) and 14 (2017). She edited Animals (Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2016) and curated the group exhibition Animalesque (Bildmuseet Umeå, Summer 2019, and BALTIC, Gateshead, Winter 2019/20). She curates the symposia series The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish with Lucia Pietroiusti for the Serpentine Galleries.