When two rats spontaneously started capturing their own images with a camera affixed to their enclosure, artist Augustin Lignier described the experience as making him feel “super powerful.”
As part of his graduate studies in 2021, Lignier acquired two rats from a pet store in his residence in France and constructed an intricate cage for them, as he recounted to CNN. Employing a mechanism that rewarded the rodents with sugar each time they pressed a button, he trained them to take photos of themselves. In doing so, he aimed to offer a commentary on concepts like pleasure, reward, and the addictive behaviors fostered by social media.
Purposefully emulating the amusing animal content ubiquitous on social platforms, the self-portraits of the rats served as a “charming” approach to delve into themes such as diminishing attention spans and the influence of social media algorithms.
“When you possess such power, even if it’s just with two small rats and not billions of people, you feel like you can manipulate everything,” he remarked. “And this is a really peculiar feeling.”
Lignier based the design of the cage on the “Skinner Box,” a device created by American psychologist B.F. Skinner for the study of animal behavior. The artist drew inspiration from scientific experiments conducted by Skinner in the 1950s, involving training animals to perform complex tasks.
As the two rats—named Augustin and Arthur, after Lignier and his brother—explored their new surroundings, they would occasionally touch the button that dispensed sugar, according to Lignier. Over about a week, they began to grasp the positive effect of pressing the button, associating it with the sugar reward.
Once this understanding was established, Lignier relocated them to a standard cage, intending to make them forget about the sugar, before returning them to the original cage. However, this time, the button did not consistently release sugar.
Although the sugar release was now randomized, the rats’ brains, linking pleasure to sugar and sugar to the button, continued to prompt them to touch it. Lignier noted that the rats would sometimes press the button for sugar more than once a minute, resulting in a series of selfies. Some of these images gave the impression of being shot against a pristine white background, while others adopted a more close-up “headshot” style.
The concept of offering randomized rewards in exchange for selfies paralleled the strategies employed by social media companies and dating apps to keep users engaged, according to Lignier.
“Every time they (the rats) push the button, they have dopamine in their brain, and then it records the exact moment they were touching it,” Lignier explained. “I was fascinated by this.”
After spending a few days capturing selfies, the pet rats were entrusted to Lignier’s mother in Arles, southern France, until they passed away and were laid to rest in her backyard garden.