Iin the years leading up to and throughout World War II, researchers of animal behavior fully embraced film technology as a means of better capturing the everyday experiences of their test subjects—whether exploring the nuances of contemporary chimpanzee society or conduct gruesome survival experiments rat eat rat to determine the “carrying capacity” of the Earth. However, once the studies were completed, much of this scientific content was simply shelved.

In his new book, The Celluloid Specimen: A Moving Image Study in Animal Life, Seattle University Assistant Professor of Film Studies Dr. Ben Schultz-Figueroa pulls these historical archives out of the vacuum of academic research to examine how they have influenced America’s scientific and moral compasses ever since. In the excerpt below, Schultz-Figueroa recounts the Allied military effort to guide precision aerial munitions to their targets using live pigeons as airborne reticles.

University of California Press

Sample from The Celluloid Specimen: A Moving Image Study in Animal Life by Ben Schultz-Figueroa, published by University of California Press. © 2023 by Ben Schultz-Figueroa.

Project Pigeon: Imaging the war animal through optical technology

In his 1979 autobiography The making of the behaviorist, B.F. Skinner recounted a fateful train ride to Chicago in 1940, just after the Nazis invaded Denmark. Looking out of a train window, the famous behaviorist was pondering the destructive power of aerial warfare when his gaze unexpectedly caught “a flock of birds that rose and circled in formation as they flew along with the train.” Skinner recounts: “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and exceptional maneuverability. Couldn’t they aim a missile?” Observing the flock’s coordination, its “heave and roll,” inspired Skinner to a new vision of aerial warfare that united the senses and movements of living animals with the destructive power of modern ballistics. That spur of the moment launched a three-year project to weaponize pigeons, codenamed Project Pigeon, by having them fly a bomb from their noses, a project that linked laboratory research, military technology and private industry.

This strange story is popularly discussed as a historical fluke, a wacky one-off in military research and development. As Skinner himself described it, one of the main obstacles to Project Pigeon, even at the time, was the perception of a rocket piloted by pigeons as a “wacky idea”. But I will argue in this section that this is actually a telling example of the weaponization of animals in a modern technological environment where optical media are increasingly deployed on the battlefield, a transformation with increasing strategic and ethical implications for the way war is fought. today. I demonstrate that Project Pigeon is historically placed at the intersection of a decisive shift in warfare, away from the model of a complex game of chess played by generals and their armies, to an ecological framework in which a wide range of non-human agents play a decisive role. As Jussi Parikka recently described a similar shift in artificial intelligence, it was a movement toward “agents that express complex behavior, not through preprogramming and centralization, but through autonomy, emergence, and distributed functioning.” The rocket developed and marketed by Project Pigeon is based on transforming the pigeon from an individual consciousness into a living machine emptied of intentionality to leave behind only controlled but dynamic and complex behavior that can be designed and has trust to operate without the supervision of a human commander. It’s a reimagining of what a fighter can be that no longer depends on a human actor making decisions, but rather on a complex set of interactions between organism, device and environment. As we shall see, the vision of a bomb piloted by pigeons foreshadows the inhuman vision of the smart bomb, the drone, and the military robot, where artificial intelligence and computer algorithms replace the operations of its animal counterpart.

Media and film scholars have written extensively about the transforming visual landscape of the battlefield and the place of film in this changing history. Militaries around the world are pushing for the film to be used in dramatically unorthodox ways. Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson argue that the US military has historically used film as an “iterative apparatus with multiple capabilities and functions”, experimenting with camera, projector and screen design to suit new strategic interests as they arise. As Wasson argues in her chapter on experimental projection practices, the US military “boldly exposed the established routines and structures of cinema, recreating film projection as just one integral element of a growing institution with highly complex needs.” As propaganda, the film was used to introduce the military to civilians at home and abroad; as training films it was used to instruct large numbers of recruits in sequence; such as industrial and commercial films, different branches of the military used it to talk to each other. Like these examples, Project Pigeon relies on a radically unorthodox use of film that takes it into new terrain, interfering with the long-standing relationship between the moving image and its viewers to manage its impact on non-human viewers as well as humans. Here we will see a previously unexplored use of optical media in which film was the catalyst for transforming animals into weapons and fighters.

Project Pigeon was one of the earliest projects to emerge from a remarkable and influential career. Skinner would become one of the most prominent voices in American psychology, introducing the “Skinner box” to the study of animal behavior and the highly influential theory of “operant conditioning.” His influence is not limited to the sciences, but is also widely felt in conversations in political theory, linguistics, and philosophy. As James Capshew has shown, much of Skinner’s later, more famous research originated from this military study of pigeon-guided ballistics. Developing from initial independent trials in 1940, Project Pigeon secured funding from the US Army Research and Development Office in 1943. The culmination of this work placed three pigeons in the head of a rocket; the birds were trained to peck at a screen showing incoming targets. These hits were then translated into instructions for the missile’s guidance system. The target was a 1940s version of a smart bomb, which of course could adjust in flight in response to the target’s movement. Although Project Pigeon progressed relatively quickly, the US Army was ultimately denied additional funds in December 1943, effectively ending Skinner’s brief oversight of the project. In 1948, however, the US Naval Research Laboratory picked up Skinner’s research and renamed it “Project ORCON”—short for “organic” and “control.” Here, with Skinner’s consultation, the tracking pigeons’ ability to guide missiles to their intended targets was methodically tested, demonstrating large differences in reliability. Ultimately, the performance and accuracy of the pigeons relied on so many uncontrollable factors that Project ORCON, like Project Pigeon before it, was abandoned.

Moving images play two central roles in Project Pigeon: first, as a means of orienting the pigeons in space and testing the accuracy of their responses, examples of what Haroun Farocki calls “operational imagery,” and second, as a tool to persuade potential sponsors of the pigeon’s ability to act as a weapon. The first use of moving image technology appeared in the final design of Project Pigeon, where each of the three pigeons continuously responded to a camera obscura that was installed in the front of the bomb. The pigeons were trained to determine the shape of incoming targets on separate screens (or “plates”) by pecking at them as the bomb fell, which would then cause it to change course. This screen was connected to the guidance of the bomb by four small rubber pneumatic tubes that were attached to each side of the frame, which directed a constant stream of air to a pneumatic intake system that controlled the bomb thrusters. As Skinner explains, “When the rocket was on target, the pigeon pecked the center of the plate, all the valves let in equal amounts of air, and the tambours remained in neutral positions. But if the image moved just a quarter of an inch off center, which corresponds to a very small angular displacement of the target, more air was admitted from the flaps on one side, and the resulting displacement of the tambours sent appropriate corrective commands directly to the servo system.”

In the later iteration of the ORCON project, the pigeons were tested and trained with color films taken from footage recorded of a jet aircraft performing dives on a destroyer and a cargo ship, and the pneumatic relays between the servo system and the screen were replaced with electric currents. Here, the camera obscura and training films were used to integrate the live behavior of the pigeon into the mechanism of the bomb itself and create immersive simulations for these non-human pilots to fully implement their behavior.

A second use of moving images for this research was realized in a set of promotional films for Project Pigeon, which Skinner largely credits with securing its initial funding from General Mills Inc. and the later renewal of the research by the Navy as Project ORCON. Skinner’s letters show that there were numerous films made for this purpose, which were often recut to include new footage. I have currently been able to find only one version of the many films produced by Skinner, the latest iteration made to promote Project ORCON. It is unclear whether previous versions exist and have yet to be found or were disassembled to create each new version. Based on the surviving example, it appears that these commercials were used to dramatically portray pigeons as reliable and controllable instruments. Their images depict birds surrounded by cutting-edge technology, rapidly and competently responding to a dynamic array of changing stimuli. These promotional films played a major rhetorical role in persuading the government and private sponsors to support the project. Skinner wrote that one demonstration film was shown “so often that it was completely worn out, but in the end a good effect was found to support a thorough investigation.” This contrasted sharply with the live performance of the pigeons’ work, of which Skinner wrote: “the spectacle of a live pigeon performing its task, no matter how beautifully, simply reminded the committee how utterly fantastic our proposal was.” Here the moving image performs essentially a symbolic function, primarily related to shaping the image of weaponized animal bodies.

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