[-empyre-] Street Cat Photo Booth: Urban Animals Need a Better Business Plan

Jordan Matthew Yerman jordan at internationaljettrash.com
Mon Oct 16 11:54:24 AEDT 2017

Hello everyone. 

I’m grateful to Margaretha for the warm introduction, and opportunity to share some of my work; as well as the chance to learn from all of you. It’s good to know I’m not alone in exploring the blurry edges of human/animal interaction and art-making; I had grown used to glassy-eyed stares at cocktail parties and on Bumble dates.

I also hope April and Matt are okay. I spent my teen years in the North Bay, and it really hurts to see so many friends, old and new, displaced. 

In 2011 I began The Street Cat Project, an ongoing photographic work with digital interventions that documents the behavior and roles of feral and semi-feral cats as they survive and interact in anthropocentric urban environments. The project suggests a notional metric for assessing the health of a city: the experiences of that city’s non-human citizens. Street cats must survive in an environment not built for them, subject to forces beyond their control or understanding: from cars to the money system. 

Many of these animals also suffer from illnesses and disabilities from blindness to missing ears and limbs. These cats are our non-human neighbors, and so I keep them at a documentarian distance: no cutesy noises or treats in exchange for photographs. Through the viewer’s engagement with images of an animal that is displaced from its common role as domesticated pet, the viewer has the opportunity to reflect on the ascribed value of animals by human societies. Or, as Julie so eloquently put it, “those marginalized animals are also someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, daughter.“

Street Cat Photo Booth is a multimedia artwork providing feline-scale shelter and food for local urban cats, growing as an extension of the Street Cat Project. Work on Street Cat Photo Booth began in 2015, in collaboration with artist and computer scientist Leigh M. Smith. We are exploring metacreation in conjunction with nonhuman stakeholders as well as the aesthetic potential for camera orientations primarily used for surveillance. 

Besides temporary protection from weather, food, and a comfortable surface on which to rest; Street Cat Photo Booth also contains an internet-connected digital camera, proximity sensor, and image processing server. The art-making relationship becomes one of cat, hardware, and network; offsetting the human photographer and manifesting itself into digital space. 

In viewing the results of cat-initiated photo shoots, the audience can playfully question the role of art creator, agency of animal subjects, authorship; and more broadly, the worth of marginalized and itinerant scavenger communities existing within urban environments––both animal, and, upon reflection, human. Taking the Street Cat Project’s practice of non-interference even further, Street Cat Photo Booth enables an animal-network interface with no direct human intervention, or even necessarily a direct human witness. 

While automated web cameras are commonplace in surveillance or animal observation, they are not typically designed for creative applications. In particular, simply producing a stream of images is problematic in that it requires the viewer to search through potentially many images in order to find pictures of street cats that show the character of the animal and environment, and that are visually appealing. Without the critical component of image choice by the photographer, a key aesthetic element of the photographic project would be lost in the automation of the photo booth. 

To address this, a machine learning algorithm is employed to decide when the automated camera has taken a portrait of a cat that would be deemed interesting. By training this image selector on a library of photographs drawn from the existing collection of the Street Cat Project, only images worthy of public interest are selected to be uploaded and shared on social media. We have termed this approach “preemptive curation”.

Automating the selection of photographs for sharing is achieved through a support vector machine algorithm trained on a histogram of oriented gradients, producing an upload/no-upload decision. When the proximity sensor triggers a sequence of image captures, the image classifier selects which of those images match the learned model of “good” cat pictures to upload, geo-tag, and share.

This model has been trained on pictures of front-facing cat portraits; capturing their faces, ears, and relative location of their heads within the frame. Rather than resort to explicit rules, the model is learnt from many example images from the Street Cat Project, which has resulted in close to 6000 images of street cats living in Vancouver, New York, Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Guatemala City, Manizales, Bogotá, Reykjavik, and Rome. (Actually, gotta get those Bogotá/Manizales/Rome photos into the library; thanks for reminding me.)

This forms a basis to examine the capricious and often-inconsistent worth placed on certain animals, and by extension, the worth placed on human beings; particularly those of marginalized communities. Viewers are drawn towards the natural attractiveness of the cats, while being confronted with the harsh environments in which these animals must survive, as well as the inherent danger and health impacts of the cats’ scavenging existence.

During our demonstrations in New York, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Manizales, human passersby immediately engaged in the cat-photo booth interaction, drawing the parallel between street animals and vulnerable people.

As it evolves, Street Cat Photo Booth answers the subtle challenge posed by artist and professor Natalie Jeremienko in her ISEA2016 keynote, recasting animals as participants in the digital economy in its exploration of what it means to be an urban resident. In the project’s next phase, a successful encounter with Street Cat Photo Booth will earn a cat some pocket money: upon uploading an image to Instagram, the photo booth will also trigger a cryptocurrency-mining task on an Amazon Web Server (AWS). This way, iterations of Street Cat Photo Booth can generate microwealth on behalf of locally-relevant street cat support groups, such as Manizales sin Maltrato Animal and Bogota’s la Fundación El Gato. 

In this manner, street cats unwittingly approach participation in capitalism (as do young humans), generating token amounts of money which can then be spent on their behalf by human intermediaries/allies.

The use of cryptocurrency as opposed to other methods of online monetization is intentional: cryptocurrency lays bare the belief system behind capital, which is the flip side of religion as described by Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Sapiens”: money has value not because we believe it does, but because we believe others believe it does. 

Even as existing financial institutions struggle to make sense of cryptocurrencies, these coins’ values continue to skyrocket beyond what one would expect of a stock or similar financial instrument: tech entrepreneur John McAfee declared via Twitter that BitCoin would reach a value $500,000/coin by 2020; “if not, I will eat my dick on national television.” [Note: The Street Cat Project does /not/ encourage this sort of demonstration.]

In empowering street cats to generate anthropocentric wealth, we seek to further an international and inter-species dialogue on fame, the inherent worth of marginalized urban populations, and economics in a digital world—three fundamentally related issues playing out against urban landscapes that are increasingly unfriendly to humans as they grow friendlier to capital. The process of re-seeing (to quote Julie again) applies not only to the cats in this case, but also to the systems that surround us: the last thing a fish will discover is water.

Originally, images created in Street Cat Photo Booth were output to http://instagram.com/streetcatphotobooth. At the moment, they’re going to http://twitter.com/streetcatphotos due to an Instagram API change. Leigh reckons he can eventually have the photo booth output to both digital spaces. 

Some visuals are available here:


… as well as here:


Similar work includes the Turkish-American documentary Kedi:


… as well as the photography of  Shoji Ogawa, who juxtaposes images of street cats and homeless residents of Osaka:


Discover more of Leigh M. Smith’s work here:


Jordan Matthew Yerman
jordan at internationaljettrash.com
Street Cat Photo Booth | 野良猫プリクラ: twitter.com/streetcatphotos
Sent from my phone. Please excuse my brevity and typos.
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