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The idea started from a commission to design some collecting boxes for the Natural History museum. They wanted the boxes to entertain people queuing to see the animatronic dinosaurs. ‘Pet or Meat’ seemed a good test to see how broadly they were prepared to consider the subject of natural history. They didn’t like it, so that was the end of the commission.

A year or two later, my 19 year old tabby cat Joan died. I missed her a lot, and the house felt really empty with no animal about, so a few months later we acquired a one year old black male cat called Sweep from a local couple who were moving and couldn’t take him with them. He is a great character. The official advice is to keep a new cat indoors for two weeks before letting it out, but after a few days Sweep was utterly miserable and shitting on the carpet so we tried opening the door. He immediately escaped and all we saw of him for the next week were the remains of rabbits and voles he left outside the door. We gradually tempted him back with food and he has become very affectionate on his own terms – which sometimes means biting or attacking an arm or leg, while purring loudly. I love him, he’s the only cat I’ve ever had that could survive as a wild animal – he could easily feed himself if he needed to. But his behavior is sometimes really upsetting. Last Easter, when my daughter and my sister came to stay we were cooking a meal one evening. Sweep was torturing a baby rabbit outside. He likes the game to go on for as long as possible and on this occasion, the screams continued for two hours. Ellie’s husband even managed to rescue the rabbit at one point, but Sweep caught up with it again.

Its not easy taking photos of Sweep

I am completely mad. I buy Sweep’s love with pet food, while accepting that he kills anything in sight for fun. His principle prey is small rodents and rabbits, but he’s also killed quite a few birds, including our family of moorhens, and even the occasional weasel and pheasant.

 Anyway Sweep made the idea of “pet or meat” resurface. Once I had actually started making the machine, I realised that grisly themes are very traditional for amusement arcade working models. Executions of all shapes and forms used to be the most popular subject . English executions (hanging), French executions (guillotine), American executions (electric chair), and Chinese executions (beheading). Pet or Meat is really just a 21st century version.


(executions video)


At the time I was reading Timothy Taylor’s brilliant book, ‘The Technological Ape’. He thinks that cooking, more than general tool use, is a thing that fundamentally separates us from other animals. He starts the chapter on cooking with this quote:

 “I picked up a small dying wallaby, whose mother had thrown it from her pouch. It weighed about two ounces, and was scarcely yet furnished with fur. The instant I saw it, like an eagle I pounced upon it and ate it raw, dying as it was, fur and all. The delicious taste of the creature I shall never forget.”
(Ernest Giles, Geographic Travels in Central Australia, 1875)     

The man was starving and probably hallucinating, having walked across an Australian desert, but it is still shocking, both because he eats the entire animal, fur and all, and because its still alive. Taylor’s point is to remind us the strong taboos we have about food. The idea for Pet or Meat came from my bafflement how I both love watching lambs frolicking about in a field, and equally eating a lamb chop. It hadn’t occurred to me that mixing the two is a modern taboo.


Personally I’m not tempted to become vegetarian, but I am now keen on only eating free range meat. This is easy at home, but tricky with bought sandwiches and restaurant food.



(Making Pet or Meat video)

Technically, it’s the simplest arcade machine I’ve made for a while. Making the figures was fun. I’d worked out the style a few years ago when making a collection box and knew it was worth revisiting. I had been intending to video the entire process of making this machine, but I quickly got so absorbed making the figures that I couldn’t continue the video.


I always start with a drawing, but the carving inevitably takes on a life of its own

I wanted it to feel satisfying turning the handle and ended up with a big flywheel, so the arrow continues spinning for quite a while. I learnt a lot trying to reduce the friction of the bearings and transmissions. By chance, I’d used a big steel toothed pulley for the flywheel. When I held a bit of nylon packaging strip against the teeth it made such a good noise, giving a completely intuitive feel of the speed of the arrow (its almost impossible to see the changes of speed by eye). The nylon strip had strange resonance points where the noise gets really distorted and these were distracting so I experimented with a ‘gear tooth’ sensor. This is a quite an old fashioned sensor used for timing the speeds of rotating machinery but I thought it was probably similar to the pickup on an electric guitar. I tried connecting the output of the sensor to my computer speakers and it worked, though I had to add a pre-amp to adjust the volume.

I wasn’t sure what style to make the case. I was tempted to make it really ornate, with lots of wooden elaborate mouldings and gold leaf. But I often hear people in the arcade saying how old fashioned it all is, so I knew this would just confirm their views. So I tried to think Ikea - minimal/modernism revisited. Not my personal taste but definitely not Victorian.

 Glass is a wonderful material, it looks smart and modern, and perfect for someone like me who is really bad at painting. When I paint on the back of the glass, it looks perfect from the front however bad the paint job is on the back.

I designed a sort of ‘pet or meat’ wallpaper. I cut out the lambs and joints of meat on my vinyl cutter, stuck them on glass and then painted ordinary gloss paint over it all. Glass is also good value. The toughened glass for the casing of the machine, complete with quite a lot of holes and polished edges, cost less than £150. 

The machine stayed in my shed for a few months after it was finished, so I had quite a few opportunities to try it out on visitors. I had never thought that people would use it more than once, but when they had seen one outcome, it was obviously compulsive to carry on to see the other one, and this often took quite a few attempts!  Encouraged by the general reaction, I tried contacting the few journalists I know a bit, but none were interested. I’ve never had any luck persuading a journalist to write anything.  





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