Volume 4. No. 1. Summer 2011
Introduction – Francis Bacon’s Cages
During the second half of the 1940s, Francis Bacon found himself involved in a long-lasting fascination with the Portrait of Pope Innocent X, a painting by Velasquez from 1650. Over a decade of incessant work, resulted in an exploration of previously uncharted territories within the genre of portraiture. This experimental journey led to the defining of a highly original and personal approach that equally shocked and charmed. At the core of this newly defined aesthetic, lay an abrasive level of distortion and the use of vertical and diagonal brushstrokes arranged to define the rigid structure of a cage surrounding the seated screaming figure of the Pope.
As well as exploring the use of cages as constrictive structures through portraiture, Bacon simultaneously questioned the meaning of the anguished screaming mouth, originally inspired by a still from Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925). It is indeed the tension between these two elements, the scream and the cage, that contributes to the remarkable innovative quality of the painting. These elements are interlinked and indissoluble; the former, a resultant of the presence of the latter; both clearly outlined, however materially impalpable.
The bars making Bacon’s Pope captive are alluded to, not real, and as such these are painted with a relatively dry-brush, which allows for what stands behind them in the pictorial plane to transpire. This allusiveness does not, however, diminish the weight these bear, and the sense of claustrophobia they induce in the viewer.
The bars allude to universal existentialist entrapments contingent to the metaphysics of the human condition as well as to the limitations imposed by the public persona to which one subscribes or to which one is relegated by society. It is here worth remembering that according to Bacon’s Nietzschean atheism, which he stuck to right until the end of his life, ‘the body itself is a cage’.
The scream, haunting in its spectral pictorial silence, also acquires here a primordial and universal aura, especially if we take into consideration Bacon’s view that ‘we all come to life with a scream’. In a variant of the theme from HeadSurrounded by Sides of Beef (1954), Bacon introduces hunks of raw meat to both sides of the Pope’s head. Focusing on a close analysis of the subject in ‘The Body, the Meat, the Spirit: Becoming Animal’, Deleuze notes that: ‘The scream, which issues from the Pope’s mouth […] have meat as their object.’1 ‘We are meat, we are potential carcasses’, said Bacon, ‘whenever I am at a butcher’s I always think it astonishing it’s not me hanging on the hook must be pure chance.’2 As Deleuze explains, ‘meat is not dead flesh, it retains all the sufferings and assumes all the colours of living flesh. It manifests such convulsive pain and vulnerability […]. Meat is the common zone of man and beast, their zone of indiscernibility’.3
To Bataille, the open mouth also is bestial as it stands in diametric opposition to the magisterial look of the face with a closed mouth.4 This overlaying of zone of indiscernibility is at the core of the becoming animal, the most deceptive and subversive concept defined through the philosophical plateaus of Deleuze and Guattari. Becoming animal is a movement from major to minor, a deterritorialization in which a subject no longer occupies a realm of stability and identity but is instead folded imperceptibly into a movement; most importantly, becoming animal, according to the authors, is not imitation but a matter of intensities:
Do not imitate a dog, but make your organism enter into composition with something else in such a way that the particles emitted from the aggregate thus composed will be canine as a function of the relation of movement and rest, or of molecular proximity, into which they enter.5
Becoming animal is an elusive participatory movement that may stake out a flight of escape from the contingencies and restrictions of our human condition, in other words, a kind of un-humaning of the human in favour of embracing new and unknown trajectories.
On the pages of Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature andA Thousand Plateaus, the becoming animal unfolds into a fascinating cartography of possibilities; each defining-trait, revealing the inherent and powerful potentials involved in this transitional process.
From this perspective, the bars visible in Bacon’s paintings, could be understood as the representation of those boundaries that becoming animal so ambitiously aims to break down in order to explore the multiplicity of opportunities involved in the process; for it could be argued that we are all jailers and prisoners and that language and clothes could be the bars of our cages.
At the Francis Bacon retrospective held at Tate Britain at the end of 2008, room 2, titled Zone displayed side by side and opposite to each other, a selection of works featuring three portraits of Pope Innocent X, a few anonymous nudes and some animals, each surrounded by cage-like structures. Effectively placing the viewer at the centre of this context, the curatorial solution resonated with Foucault’s reading of the Panopticon where ‘Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor’ - in this case the gallery viewer - ‘but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.’6 The Panopticon, Foucault explains, ‘is a royal menagerie, with the difference that: the animal is replaced by man’.7 Here, it is plain to see, that men and animal scream with the same intensity.
‘What does becoming animal look like?’ asked Steve Baker in his challenging essay from 2002. The question was pivotal at the time it was posed, and it can be argued that it is still of relevance today, as many artists have since engaged in the quest for an experimental state of identity-suspension involving the animal. Each artist, following personal and different routes leading to different animal becomings, has in the process, expanded and revised the concept originally defined by Deleuze and Guattari.
We could extend the question to ask, ‘how does the animal function within the becoming animal in contemporary art and to what ends?’ Through the recent animal-studies revision and expansion of the concept of animality, we could ask if becoming animal has in fact anything to do with understanding or experiencing non-humans in different ways; or if becoming animal, as enacted through the visual arts, is somewhat trapped in a Cartesian conception of the animal as ‘lacking consciousness’ justifying the assumption that an abandoning of our own human consciousness could automatically translate into becoming animal. It seems a constant element of all stagings of peformative becoming animal that such human prerogative as language is abandoned (in its human form), in order to be replaced by a pidgin language of some description – a language somewhere in between animal and human, but only symbolically so. Is becoming animal in contemporary art a matter revolving around quantitative notions through which the animal is still the one that ‘is poor in world’?8 Could we perhaps go as far as arguing that within the parameters of the becoming animal, the animal is ‘a body that feels’ and the human is a ‘body that thinks’?
Joseph Beuys – I Like America and America Likes Me
The now legendary week-long co-inhabitancy between Beuys and a coyote inI Like America and America Likes Me from 1974, could be understood as a quasi-performative instance of early becoming animal. In the Galerie Rene Block (New York) like in a painting by Bacon, man and animal were separated from the audience by a metal chain-link barrier, effectively turning the exhibiting space into a cage. Behind the metal chain-link, the identity of each subject was heavily brought into question through the shamanic rituals performed by Beuys and by the traditional symbolic Native American context inherent to the coyote. Perceived as a
shadowy deity, outsider, a playfully amoral transgressor and impersonator, often of other animals; an interstitial creature able to move freely between the worlds of the everyday and the sacred. The coyote was in Native American tradition, “the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries”.9
For Carl Jung, the coyote was an archetypal trickster figure, an anima(l) mundi, whilst Donna Haraway identifies the animal as a ‘creature of mediation’ in a similar way to the cyborg and the dog.10
An animal symbolically transversed by a range of potential becomings, the coyote, also effectively is a wild dog, a status that from multiple perspectives further complicates its function within the work. ‘In symbolic terms’, Serpell explains, ‘the domestic dog exists precariously in the no-man’s land between the human and the non-human worlds. It is an interstitial creature neither person nor beast, forever oscillating uncomfortably between the role of high-status animal and low-status person.’11
As a wild dog, or under-dog, the coyote thus is also ridden with elements of its underlying canine nature, however exacerbated by its wild essence these may be. Beuys’ human signification within the performative space was also further problematized by the presence of objects used to perform the basic shamanic rituals that, on a daily basis, entertained both guests.A blanket of grey felt, an archetypal material recurring obsessively in Beuys’ work as one linked to personal experience of trauma, allowed the artist to conceal his human body, transforming it into an unidentified vertical mass through which a walking stick would peep out. At times he stood, wrapped in the blanket of felt, leaning on a large shepherd’s staff. At other times he watched the coyote, as the coyote watched him, and cautiously circled the man, or shredded the blanket to pieces, and at times he engaged in symbolic gestures, such as striking a large triangle or tossing his leather gloves to the animal. The performance continuously shifted between elements that were required by the realities of the situation, and elements that had purely symbolic character.12 Through his anonymous and neutral self-styled shamanic presence, Beuys established a link with the animal which was described by Caroline Tisdall as a mutual, creative co-evolution, a conjunction oppositorum of the marginalized for collective contemplation. The shaman, it is worth remembering here, is a highly transitional figure too, one capable of entering a trance in order to undertake journeys forbidden to common mortals and explore the depths of entities inconceivable to the human mind. In the gallery space, the trickster figure of the coyote, along with its multiple layers of wild-canine complexity, coupled to the shamanic aura with which Beuys invested himself, merged in the generating of a creative becoming of some description.The identities of animal and man, obliterated by contextual layers and shamanic performativity, generated a vacuum through which a becoming could take place. Beuys explains:
the coyote did not simply feature in the work as one of the props presented in the space but that it instead turned out to be an important co-operator in the production of freedom, where the animal enabled the artist to edge closer to that which the human being cannot understand.13
The becoming induced through I Like America and America Likes Me, involves an intensive convergence between human and animal, leading the human towards a level of animality. However, there is an element that differentiates this work from the more contemporary stream of performative becoming animal, which clearly takes Beuys’ work as its starting point. This element could be identified in the presence of the real animal itself within the performative work. In parallel to the dynamics that seem to dominate the representation of the animal in painting and photography, it is when the animal is absent from the pictorial and photographic plane that a different, non-objectified presence comes into play. From this perspective, the obstacle involved in I Like America and America Likes Me, mainly lies between two extremes. The coyote, through its multilayered historical and psychoanalytical contextual trail, becomes an unstable being (at least in its signifying role), a creature of mediation, however one that here, within the syntagmatic structure of the work, mainly stands in for the ancestors of Native Americans. It is worth remembering that the animal was treated by white Europeans as a pest and as such it was exterminated in an analogous process to that which wiped away Native American cultures. Therefore, the presence of this specific animal, with its intrinsic symbolic values is tangled within an historical and cultural signifying web, which makes it anything but free.Ultimately, the symbolic significations of the coyote are rendered indissoluble from the animal by the title of the piece, where I Like America, and America Likes Me anchors the presence of the coyote to an effective metaphorical embodiment of America, more than that of an animal defined by its own animality. With its symmetrical title, the piece offers readings charged with political provocation and historical references that overshadow the metaphysical encounter between human and animal and the resulting becoming generated from this interaction.
However,I Like America, and America Likes Me anticipated Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the becoming animal and as such, it should not be interpreted as commenting or addressing the concept directly, but as a precursor which bravely operates within an empirical frame. The piece unveiled the complexities involved in the signification of animals in art and it did so in an innovative way, but how much of this pioneering becoming was perceived by the audience? Do we have to assume that the becoming in question was only a matter between the artist and the animal and that it, therefore, did not make it to the other side of the chain-link mesh? If so, how important is it that through the translation of the concept from the philosophical word to the artistic statement, the audience becomes participant in the becoming?
Oleg Kulik – I Bite America and America Bites Me
In April 1997, Russian performance artist Oleg Kulik brought the performance I Bite America and America Bites Me to New York’s Deitch Projects space. Arriving from Moscow, not as a man but as a dog, Kulik spent his two-week visit living in a heavily secured dog-house, purposely built within the gallery space. Visitors were invited to put on protective suits to enter the structure and interact with the dog. As in Kulik’s previous performances in Europe, viewers were stunned by the degree of his transformation from man to dog.14
The title of Kulik’s performance is of course a parody, located somewhere between the clear reprise and the playful revision, of Beuys’ original 1974 work. In this quasi-performance, the artist also was confined to a cage-like room in which the action took place. Roberta Smith, reviewing the show for the New York Times, relates: :
Pit bull is the breed brought to mind by the sound of Mr. Kulik's ferocious growls and barks bouncing off the walls of his cage-like room; likewise, by the sight of his square, close-cropped head and muscular body as he roams about on all fours, craning at barred windows, growling at onlookers, pausing at water and food bowls and finally curling up on his pallet, all the while wearing nothing but a thick studded collar.15
In an echo of Beuys’ performance, where the artist was driven from the airport to the gallery in an ambulance, never touching the American soil; Kulik, jumped straight from the airport into a waiting van, where he stripped off his clothes, put on a dog coat, collar, leash and muzzle and began communicating only in a dog-like language. Once in the gallery space, however, Kulik’s performance operated rather differently from Beuys’, mainly because of the absence of the real animal and because it involved the direct interaction of the viewers, who one at a time, were allowed to enter the dog’s house. Inside, Kulik acted the role of the dog; one that became disarmingly poignant as the viewer, exposed to dog-behaviour enacted by a human was deterritorialized by the layers of anthropocentrism, which consistently define our relationships with dogs.
The conflation of human and dog through the performance, a becoming of which Deleuze would have not approved as based on behavioural mimicry, effectively posed questions regarding our emotional engagement with canines, an investment which at times seems to overshadow that reserved to other human beings. This, it could be argued, is a substantial difference between Beuys’ and Kulik’s performances in that, in Kulik’s work the audience participate in becoming, directly experiencing a deterritorialization generated by the conflation of man and dog.
This certainly is problematic as in the case of Kulik, the performance subtly shifts between the comedic and the pathetic, the ferociously scary and utterly vulnerable. Where Beuys’ coyote might have symbolised Native America, ‘dog-Kulik’ could be read as a stand-in for Russia, its unpredictability, its now tame, now aggressive political presence, and its closeness and distance with the West. Here too, the title anchors our interpretation of the work within different parameters from those purely involved in the becoming animal. This work, as with Beuys’, is built over different channels, individually functioning at different levels and intensities; the becoming animal happens to be one of these channels. Each channel, like in a multi-track layered sound-piece adds elements to the overall signification of the work. For instance, one channel of I Bite America and America Bites Me features echoes of Diogenes’ Dog, a classical archetypal becoming animal. However, a number of other channels of Kulik’s piece bear more contemporary socio-political, non-animal related rhythms.
In Winter 2008, in an interview with the artist, I asked: ‘What does it mean to live a dog’s life?’ Kulik responded:
I submitted all the power of imagination, consciousness, my understanding of social topicality, my notions of the integrity of form and content, of everything that is usually ascribed to a decent artist, to one goal: to be a dog in my performance. And it worked. And it wasn’t that easy. Try it when you have time to spare. I don’t think I communicated really much. People entering my cage faced very simple questions, like whether I would bite or would not bite them, whether I’m clever or an idiot. But the main thing was that they interpreted me as some biological creature, which does not belong to any definite species and has no status at all. They examined this unprecedented becoming animal and even looked if it matched them.16
This unprecedented becoming triggered by the abrasive discrepancy between the naked human body and the behavioural repertoire associated with canines is at the core of Kulik’s piece. Here, the sense of incongruity is strong and troubles the viewer through a subversion of conventional taxonomy. As such, the becoming demands a leap of imagination capable to reach beyond the comfortable, the rational, and the known, whilst simultaneously excluding at once the possibility for the irrational, suggesting instead the plausibility of different systems of rationality.
Marcus Coates – Beyond Performance
Marcus Coates currently is the most prominent Western contemporary artist to engage with the concept of becoming animal. Over numerous performance and video-works, Coates has deconstructed and interpreted the work of Deleuze and Guattari from multiple perspectives; at times literally translating key concepts into challenging visual syntaxes, and at others re-interpreting some in order to identify new and original plateaus.
InJourney to the Lower World, from 2004, Coates directly borrowed the shamanic persona presented by Beuys in I Like America and America Likes Me and conflated the human and the animal in an analogous way to that performed by Oleg Kulik in I Bite America and America Bites Me. However, here the becoming enacted by Coates functions within the reception of a doubled up audience.
Coates was inducted to the ancient techniques of shamanism on a weekend course in Notting Hill, London. The workshop trained participants to access a ‘non-ordinary’ psychic dimension with the aid of chanting, ‘ethnic’ drumming and dream-catchers. Coates openly discussed the process as essentially being a form of imaginative visualization.17 His shamanic performance goes however beyond the impersonation of Beuys, in the sense that the artist here enters a trance through which the spirits of animals that Coates encounters and consults through his journey, provide the answer to an original question posed by the audience. Unlike the previous performance pieces here discussed,Journey to the Lower World is a video-work capturing the shamanic ritual held in a Liverpool tower-block scheduled for demolition. Like in Beuys’ and Kulik’s performances, the space in which the action takes place is representative of metaphorical human entrapments. The tower-block is featured in a few long shots at the beginning and end of the film. With its bulky and blunt silhouette towering over the rest of the grey surrounding cityscape, we cannot help but read the building as a prison of some description; a centre of isolation from nature but also from the rest of the urban context.
The ritual takes place in the living room at one of the apartments in the block, where a small crowd of bemused residents have gathered to ask the shaman a pivotal question about the demolition of the site and the building of a new urban reality in its place in which the residents will be re-housed. The question one resident puts forward is: ‘Do we have a protector for this site? What is it?’
It isn’t long before Coates begins producing grunts, feral whistles and barks, as he undertakes a journey which will involve numerous encounters with animals. These will provide a final answer to the audience; one here multiplied: there is an audience in the video, who experiences the performance directly. This is the one that swings between moments of dogmatic intensity and suspicious mistrust, bemused by Coates’ confident grunts and barks as he jerks around the lounge wearing a red deer skin. And there is an audience watching the video in the exhibition space, watching the audience, watching the performance, whose experience is simultaneously direct and mediated by the responses of the audience in the video. However surprisingly, this audience too finds itself swinging between dogmatic intensity and suspicious mistrust.
Aside from producing the answer to the original question, and being informed of the result of such travel, Coates’ audience, unlike that involved in Kulik’s work, seem predominantly to occupy a more passive role and therefore not to actively partake in any becoming. However, it could be argued that, a ritual is a performative action in which an audience is needed for the process in question to function purposively. However seated and not physically joining in, it is apparent that somehow Coates’ audiences are led through a journey unfolding multiple discoveries and revelations about themselves as members of a community with their shared hopes, anxieties and dreams. In this work, a becoming animal is triggered through the shamanic trance as the artist abandons human-language and adopts a range of mock animal-languages suited to communication with the animal spirits he encounters through the journey. Thorough this process, Coates’ mouth is frequently seen wide open, an accented reminder of the bestial quality overtaking him through the trance.
Again, Deleuze and Guattari, would not have approved of this becoming, as in fact, this too, relies on resemblance, imitation and identification. In A Thousand Plateaus, they warn us that, ‘Becoming does not occur in the imagination… Becomings are neither dreams nor fantasies. They are perfectly real’.18 But they also state that becoming is a pure event, a simultaneity whose characteristic is to elude the present: ‘Insofar as it eludes the present, becoming does not tolerate the separation of the distinction of before and after, or of past and future.’19
Suspended somewhere between these two parameters, Coates simultaneously embraces and contradicts Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of the process. Essentially, in this performative work, Coates consistently resembles, imitates and identifies with a range of animals, however, it could be argued that his ‘trance-like journey’ constitutes an a-synchronous milieu poised within the linear narrative of the performance itself, effectively eluding the present, and blurring the boundaries between past and future. When I interviewed the artist in 2007, he explained:
The work isn’t necessarily about birds or animals; they are a vehicle for looking at humanness. Becoming animal suggests a progression from one state of being to another, from one’s consciousness to another’s – specifically to that of a different species. The attempted leap between these is of interest to me. One skill I have developed and it is probably the reason why I chose to be an artist, is the conscious study and practise of moving between personas and positions of identification. This, along with an interest in natural history has led me to adopt becoming animal as an investigative device. More recently I have looked at the historical use for becoming animal particularly shamanism and have started to employ this ‘skill’ in society as a direct benefit for communities.20
InDawn Chorus, the uplifting presence of bird-songs audible within the exhibiting space is offset by the absence of real birds as replaced by 19 screens showing people of different social extraction and ethnic backgrounds bursting into surprisingly credible birdsongs. A closer look reveals that although looking ordinary, each subject nervously fidget like birds.
Here, Coates addresses one of the archetypal attributes which has, throughout Western history, been pivotal in asserting a clear demarcation and distinction between animal and human realms: language. In his approach to the topic, Coates not only demonstrates the ability to devise rather ingenious representational strategies, he also couples his intellectual dexterity with a sophisticated and high-tech exploitation of the specificities offered by the kinetic plasticity of film; for indeed it could be here argued that each subject, captured in each screen, is in the words of Donna Haraway, ‘a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’.21
For this project Coates spent two weeks camping with wildlife sound recordist, Geoff Sample; living in a motor home in Northumberland, getting up at 3 a.m. to activate a 24-track digital recorder. As Coates recalls:
We recorded 3 or 4 hours each morning for a total of 60 hours over 2 weeks. Then we had to pick the best morning with the broadest range and level of communication between birds. We took the recording of birdsongs back to the studio and slowed them down about 20 times. Interestingly, a birdsong at normal speed could contain 4 or 5 notes but slowed down it could reveal up to 40 notes offering a different level of complexity to the listener. We then asked singers to sing along with it whilst we were filming and then sped up the film 20 times.22
Most subjects included in Dawn Chorus are amateur singers from Bristol, handpicked at choir rehearsals. Piers Partridge a musician from Bristol who was filmed in his garden-shed impersonated a Blackbird. ‘I found myself going deeper and deeper into the quality of the sound’, he recalled. ‘The Blackbird had one or two favourite riffs, so I’d think, “Ok, here it goes.” I imagined myself as a Blackbird on a spring morning, very early in a high place, having the freedom not to think but just to let the sound come out’. With that came some interesting movements: ‘I was cocking my head to look around. I felt really spaced out. When it finished I was miles away’.23
As with Kulik’s becoming dog, and Journey to the Lower World’s shamanic ritual, here becoming animal is induced through behavioural mimicry, and mainly via the renouncement of human language in favour of a mock animal-sounding language. This could be taken as a critical point imbedded in becoming animal, as the renouncing of human language may be simultaneously understood as the obliteration of human thinking, under the overall assumption that animals do not think. However, here too, there are more tracks to the work. The principal track here owes its structural and elemental essence to Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of ‘minor literature’ as featured in their volume on Kafka’s writings.24 According to Deleuze and Guattari, a minor literature is an alternative language that relies on the deterritorialization of language by intensifying features already inherent to it. The three characteristics of a minor literature are the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation.25
InDawn Chorus, the literature produced is ‘written’ in the form of an animal language. Birds have very complex vocal communication patterns, which have comparisons to our own, even having varying geographical dialects within the same species. In order to allow his singers to convincingly reproduce a ‘bird language’, Coates deterritorializes the animal language by slowing its rhythms down, so that it could travel from a bird’s beak to the human’s mouth. As it is slowed down, the bird’s language is phonetically transposed into the territory of human language. The speeding up of the film problematizes this instance further by deterritorializing the body language of the bird into the body of the human. The becoming triggered by Coates here is largely generated by the conflation of the animal and human voice as well as the animal and human body languages. Through the representational overlapping of man and animal on film, Dawn Chorus places an emphasis on the fact that the anatomical constitution of a being also plays a role in the production of phonemes. Birds, not only have a very different body from ours, but also one that works at a much faster speed than ours. This speed plays a defining role in the production of sounds that we, without the use of technology, would not be physically able to produce. The function of this element in the work relies again on the assumption that animals’ physicality is a prevailing trait, that without intellect all they have is their anatomy, their bodies. But can we ever know for sure?
Part of the appeal of Dawn Chorus lies in its melancholic atmosphere generated by the fact that each subject is caught in isolation performing their song to an anonymous, perhaps absent listener. Coates took great care in capturing his subjects within their own habitats. So we see a doctor in his studio, a secretary at her desk, a pensioner at home, and so on. In each screen, the backdrop is always an indoor scenario, a room, in many ways a cage, one that, like in Bacon’s paintings, holds us together by capturing us in our human and social persona. ‘We filmed each person in their own habitat, in their homes or workplace’, says Coates, ‘We wanted them to preserve some humanness.’26
A characteristic of minor literatures, Deleuze and Guattari explain, is that the individual is inextricable from the socius, the subject linked to the political: ‘its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics.The individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, magnified, because a whole other story is vibrating in it’.27
Coates’ choir singers are politicized by the realist quality imbedded in the backgrounds that contain them, as well as by their multi-ethnic origins which reference the social reality of contemporary Britain. In the presence of the 19 screens that form the work, the visual and the phonic take on a collective enunciative value that is encapsulated by the essence of the choir as an assemblage of equally relevant/irrelevant voices. This political nature then, is inseparable from another characteristic of a minor literature, its collective value.Deleuze and Guattari explain the inextricability of the political and the collective: ‘Indeed, precisely because talent isn’t abundant in a minor literature, there are no possibilities for an individuated enunciation that would belong to this or that “master” and that could be separated from a collective enunciation.’28
Dawn Chorus is to date, one of the most original and experimental instances of becoming animal in contemporary art, as through the direct involvement of technology, it allows for a much needed departure from the realm of performance, which up do date had become the predominant vehicle for the becoming animal in art. The ultimate challenge presented by Dawn Chorus is that the becoming, here involves an animal taxonomically very distant from humans. Becomings involving other animals than mammals, it could be argued, belong to a different category altogether, one where the leap between human and animal is much greater in breadth. Through this distance, anthropocentric overlaying dissipates, creating a vacuum for other potentialities to manifest.
Dawn Chorus paradoxically reverses Descartes’ reasoning trajectories on animals and language by metaphorically turning us into parrots and magpies that, as he claimed, ‘can pronounce words, and nevertheless cannot speak as we do, that is, in showing that they think what they are saying’.29 From this perspective it deterritorializes us within an unknown area, an area of animal competence, which automatically appears to be an area of human incompetence.
One of the most interesting traits of Dawn Chorus is presented by the unfulfilled stereotypical connections we, the viewers, would automatically like to establish between the sex, race and social status of the singers and the surroundings in which they exist. Here the viewer is deterritorialized by the conflation of human and animal (as in Kulik) as they experience a multilayered dissolution of taxonomical certainties. From this perspective, the viewer’s expectation of how they ought to speak is not fulfilled. What is consistently removed from the socio-cultural equation is their accent and fluency; challenging our expectations of what a doctor should sound like and how a secretary may express herself. Interestingly, through this multiple and simultaneous becoming, the choice of words, inflection, accent, and syntax are all replaced by what seems to be a universal language: that of birds, obliterating, at least on screen, the boundaries of race, gender, and social class. As in all the works discussed here, Dawn Chorus uses the animal as tool to undo and challenge the human condition.
But as we stand in the gallery space unsettled but seduced by the piece, a question still stands. How much of becoming animal is about becoming more human?This is the abyss that indirectly, the becoming animal tries to bridge. Humans secretly hope that animals think. We want them to think. Of course animals think; however they do this following trajectories and in response to stimuli that exist well outside our field of competency. We teach sign language to chimps and wonder how much of a parrot’s word exists beyond the realm of phonetics. We delight in a You Tube film of a dog dreaming during sleep because we too dream. However, simultaneously, we understand hardwired natural urges fulfilled not by logic but out of instinct and romanticize this lack of thought as it appears somewhat more natural, more alive, something we once possessed but lost with the rise of civilization and the quest for rationalisation. We paradoxically envy this unthinking savagery as a means of becoming animal. Nevertheless, through the processes involved in the becoming animal, and the use of the animal as a vehicle, a multitude of departures may effectively present the opportunity, if nothing else, to explore further our human condition, more so than animality, from different and less predictable perspectives.
But what about the animal?
1 Gilles Deleuze,Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, translated by Daniel W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2003), p. 19.
2 Mathew Gale and Chris Stephens, Francis Bacon (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), p. 137.
3 Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon, p. 71.
4 Georges Bataille, Oeuvres Complètes I. Premiers Écrits 1922–1940 (Gallimard, Paris, 1970), p. 237.
5 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 1988), p. 237-38.
6 Michael Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 199.
7 Michael Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 200.
8 Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 177.
9 Karl Kerényi, ‘The Trickster in relation to Greek mythology’, in Paul Radin (ed),The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Bell Publishing, 1972), p. 185.
10 David Williams, ‘Inappropriate/d Others, or the Difficulties of Being a Dog’, in The Drama Review 51:1 (T193) Spring 2007. p. 98.
11 James Serpell (ed), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 254
12 Uwe M.Schneede, Joseph Beuys Die Aktionen. Kommentiertes Verzeichnis mit fotografischen Dokumentationen, Ostfildern-Ruit bei Stuttgart (Verlag: Gerd Hatje, 1998), p. 330.
13 Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys: Coyote (Munich: Schirmer-Mosel, 1980), p. 26-28.
15 Roberta Smith, ‘Becoming a Dog by Acting Like One’, The New York Times, 18 April 1997.http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/18/arts/on-becoming-a-dog-by-acting-like-one.html [Accessed 12 March 2009].
16 Giovanni Aloi with Oleg Kulik, ‘Oleg Kulik: Artificial Paradise’,Antennae 8:2, 2009. p. 34.
17 Jonathan Griffin, ‘Shamanism and Anthropomorphism’, Frieze, Jun-Aug 2007.http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/focus_marcus_coates/ [Accessed 10 April 2009].
18 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Continuum, 1988), p. 237-238.
19 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, edited by Constantin V. Boundas (London: Continuum 2001), p. 1.
20 Marcus Coates, ‘In Conversation With Marcus Coates’, Antennae 4, 2007. p. 33.
21 Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991). p. 150.
22 Marcus Coates, ‘In Conversation With Marcus Coates’, p. 19.
23 Viv Groskop, ‘Chirps with everything’, Guardian, 25 January 2007.http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2007/ jan/25/art.vivgroskop [Accessed 10 April 2009].
24 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, translated by Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
25 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka, p. 18.
26 Marcus Coates, ‘In Conversation With Marcus Coates’
27 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka, p. 18.
28 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka, p. 17.
29 René Descartes,Discourse on Method and Meditations 1637, translated by Laurence J. Lafleur (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1960), p. 42.