Volume 4. No. 1. Summer 2011
ISSN 1752-6388


Jan Verwoert


1. Animation Art and Snake Dances

Jan Verwoert, Nuts?, Alberta, Canada
Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

To know what another human being feels is already hard enough. So why would we even want to speculate about animals and emotions? Frankly, because animals touch our feelings. They can prompt the strongest reactions: great affection, love, care, laughter, sadness, disgust, sheer panic… Still you never know if you're imagining things, and if what you're experiencing is not just an echo of your own emotions, amplified beyond all proportion by the fact, in the place of real reciprocity, there is only a gap to fill with whatever you put in yourself. How else could it be that someone who's actually around animals all the time, a farmer for instance, would treat livestock with the knowledgeable but largely habitual manner in which a carpenter treats timber or a museum guard shares a room with an artwork?

Could it then be that animals only move me because that's how I know it from the movies? Show me animations with animals that talk, act, cry, argue, dance, laugh or die and I'll be captivated and moved to laughter or tears; it works in an instant. But why would animations work so well if it wasn't for the fact that they tap into the intuitive knowledge and emotional capacities that constitute the animist approach to the world: our readiness to see the reality of our surroundings imbued with an anima, a soul, that is, to perceive it fully literally as animated (in German I would write "beseelt": besouled). If animism still remains present as a substratum of our experience of the world, then maybe this is because it really testifies to something fundamental: a sense of connectedness to our surroundings, an awareness of being in a state of overall animation together with what there is beyond ourselves: An exuberant sea sponge in shorts, a buccaneer mouse with philosophical views, or a resourceful band of penguins, as silly as they may be, then represent the surviving ambassadors of a capacity to experience the world spiritually.

Jan Verwoert, Automatic Fur the People, Calgary Airport
Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

This is a rough paraphrase of a thought Adorno keeps returning to in his Aesthetic Theory: He maintains that there is an affinity to nature — the irrepressible joy of the "collusion with animals" — that art can remind us of.1 And it is also through this bond, he argues, that art resists the dictates of instrumental reason (which reduces all things to disposable means). It is the imitation of nature, mimesis, which Adorno sees as a practice affirming this bond. Surprisingly, he therefore discusses mimesis not primarily in terms of representation, but in regard to a notion of likeness that stays close to the premises of animist magic: Drawing or painting after nature, of 'taking someone's likeness', in this sense is an act of practical empathy in which one attunes oneself to someone or something else's features. In a sense, mimesis performed turns into the closest thing to mimicry, a process of becoming (the) other. That imitation should be referred to as aping only confirms this animist—or animalist, if you will—bond between the creature aping and the creature aped. It's not even that fanciful. The magic may simply lie in a new motion entering your wrist while you try to draw someone or something (or play someone's music) or words you hadn't used before appearing on the page in the effort to portray a person, situation, or idea. That's the moment of animation, when the work or thought comes to life because something in the work or thought happens that finds its rhythm in—and touches on—something other than just itself.

Further riffing on Adorno's motif, one could argue that this residual dimension of animist resonances and likenesses, rather than being premodern or primordial, on the contrary, is a dimension that many modernist avantgardists pushed to the fore: the cubist collage taking mimicry to the point of pasting the thing itself, be it newspaper or cinema ticket stub into the painting; and sculpture after surrealism becoming increasingly totemistic in its insistence on summoning the spirits of the material world by taking its very material–the object, the commodity—and transforming it into a magically hyperreal imitation of itself.

The point, however, is not to provide a rationale for such intense acts of imitation, empathy or mimicry at the heart of art and thinking. But rather to admit—or insist— that on the level of animation, where art and thoughts come alive, forces of animism remain in full effect, and things at some point inevitably get a bit gaga. It's hard to deny that assembling before something someone put in a gallery and letting oneself be affected by it — that is, to experience that material manifestation as animating feelings and thoughts — is as bizarre as any tribal dance ritual may appear to an uninitiated outsider. What's more, to speak about an artwork as having meaning and being full of feeling is in no way different from what a believer in animist magic would do by, for instance, maintaining that a particular demon resides in an amulet and thereby permits it to be, or do certain things.2

In the history of art history Aby Warburg embodies that realization of a deep bond between animism and art interpretation. It's the snake ritual of the native American Hopi tribe that he chooses to lecture about (as a model for his understanding of how art and culture work) in 1923 to prove to his colleagues that he was ready to leave the mental hospital and return to the university. Ironically or not, this gesture remains a reminder of all that art history seeks to deny in its desperate attempts to pass as an objective science: its ties to magical practices where meaning becomes animated because you dance a dance in the course of which things and spirits come to speak through and to each other (and paintings, for instance, cease to be merely some oil on canvas).3 To pretend the act of interpretation—of claiming that the art object would talk to you and say something—would not always be a snake dance of sorts, is to renounce the art in art history, i.e. arguably all that is animating and alive (aka fun) about art in the first place.

If that were so, the consequence is that in the act of making and talking about art, we still practice a form of animism, by relating to the material world as if it had an anima, a soul, that corresponded to ours, and testified to this correspondence by speaking to us through material manifestations. Without that attribution of a soul to the material world, that belief in a besoulment (Beseelung) artefacts would just be objects and we wouldn't even bother looking at them, as something that speaks, as art; or believe someone who claimed an artefact said something to them. Animation is key to our enterprise; picture the basics of the art discourse, and what we are to each other and the works, is a parliament of fowls.

2. Ecologizing Emotion

Jan Verwoert, Dog, HBC, Berlin
Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Still, there is the issue of cruelty. Not primarily that of animals, but that of humans. Arguably, some of the most atrocious deeds committed by human beings against their own (and other) species were performed with the attitude that whoever can give a soul to the world, can also take it away4: Power triumphs by dividing the world into the rightfully living and those that, officially deprived of an anima, can be treated worse than animals, as bare life, mere stock, quantities without qualities. The question is whether the attribution of a soul in a modern industrial medium like animation film does not have uncanny resonances in the logic of an administrative apparatus assigning soul to some and not to others. How else would you explain the latent and not so latent biopolitics of the Disney empire? There is no innocence in animation. And the indulgence in a world of spiritual affectation — of which one fully knows that it's irretrievably lost—rarely amounts to more than a denial of the inequalities and injustices that prevail all around.

So, there are very strong reasons for being wary of the projection of likeness onto nature: It has not only generated brain-numbing illusions of a return to a garden of Eden in technicolour, but also provided justifications for intolerable worldviews, from social Darwinism to sexism, racism, homophobia. You name it, and there'll be a science, animation or nature documentary to make its contrived claims/fears seem founded upon something that animals allegedly do or don't do. That ideologies use nature to justify their constructions is undeniable. Which doesn't mean, though, that all attempts to speak about nature would conversely be ideological. Chances are high that they are. But it's not a given.

Jan Verwoert, Mountain Goats, Alberta, Canada
Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Still, it's not clear what it would even mean to speak about nature outside ideology and whether it's possible at all. Is it already romantic to say that nature is a limit (or threshold) of discourse? And that one way of moving towards that limit is by working through—and exorcising—the remnants of ideology from one's imagination? Take Werner Herzog's work: It is a strong example of a natural romantic seeking to exorcise natural romanticism from his perception of the world, in order to get to a threshold where an encounter with nature is possible, even and especially when that experience is stunningly bland. In the film Grizzly Man (2005), Herzog's take on Timothy Treadwell—a man who lived with grizzlies in the wild, celebrating the chance of empathetic conviviality, but got killed by them in the end—is expressed in an iconic line from his voice-over: “What haunts me is that, in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Surely, you could turn this statement back into a building block for an ideology (Nietzschean of sorts). But in the context of the movie it only marks the threshold, the limit on which an animal resists anthropomorphic projection: the overwhelming indifference of nature.

In a sense, this sceptical position resonates with an argument being voiced in recent ecological debates5: that emotionalizing nature makes us misrepresent the problem. When we talk about the planet or a dying species as if it were an infant in need of our care, we effectively put ourselves in the position of an adult that can choose how—if and when—to act. Which is grossly misconstrued. Neither are we at liberty to choose if and when to do something, nor is nature necessarily the needy party in the equation. It might indeed be overwhelmingly indifferent to the coming and going of the species and atmospheric conditions. Projecting the need onto nature is to pretend it was in trouble, not us, and keep calm about changes. So instead of being emotional about nature, we'd better be rational about the destruction of our habitat, and stop it. That's the argument.

It rings true. But it also begs the question whether emotion is the problem, or just the manner in which we invest it? If emotionalizing ecology is delusional because it's a unilateral move (of one party projecting on the other), what would happen if we reversed its logic and tried ecologizing emotion? For if there is something to be learned from the deep knowledge of animism, it may be precisely this: the capacity to experience emotion as a medium that permits us to perceive, avow and respond to the multiple interdependencies we're tied into, by virtue of the fact that we're alive among other beings on this planet. Emotion here would imply heightened lateral awareness, not so much a feeling towards but rather a feeling within a situation. And awareness here may not even have to manifest itself in the overproduction of consciousness, for which new age thinking is notoriously mocked. Animist practices, while creating hyper-awareness, are equally characterized by a surreal form of sheer practicality. If, for instance, you assume that stealing the bones from the animal you have eaten will give other people power over you, you make sure to dispose of the bones properly.6 Or: If you know you owe a lot to the bison you just ate, you go climb a mountain that looks like a sleeping bison to meet the souls of dead bison and honour them.7 Emotional intuition is enacted in a practice that physically relates social questions to the environment in which they occur.

This is not about making peace with nature. It's no grand revelation either, but if the ecological disaster should make us rethink how we understand ourselves as acting, feeling subjects, within our habitat, then animist knowledge does have a lot to offer: the awareness that acting and feeling do not isolate and distance you from your surroundings, but tie you into it, and that, conversely, being tied into your surroundings does not deprive you of your power to act and feel, but actually enables you to do so. To act and feel, here, is to actualize the potentials given in the resonances between everything that is part of the situation you too are presently in. Animism is a form of equally sensitive and practical situationism.

But then again, the problem I cannot figure out, honestly, is what constitutes a situation or an environment in this sense today? The most obvious answer would be to think local. If responsibility comes from responding to what is around you, to shape your living conditions in response to and in tune with a local environment would indeed seem the most sound thing to do. But then pollution is global. And so are the conditions that keep creatures like myself alive. Since the Renaissance, art exchange has been happening along global trade routes. It hasn't changed much. Businessmen in the front seats, us in the back of the same carriers. Only, now the fuel those planes run on puts a hole in the sky. And when you take a plane to attend an art event in New Zealand you can check for yourself that, yes, the hole is there, because you end up with a surreal sunburn from pretending it wasn't. So does a bright red head bring the message home? What message? To stay where you are and keep things local? My local has never fed me and it doesn't look like it will anytime soon. Cheap flights sustain the eco-system of art and thinking that keeps me alive, mentally and materially. If this is the situation, which dead bison do I go see? Seriously. Someone help me with this one!

3. Locomotive Animals

Spiritually though, Adorno may still count as a good bison to visit. I believe there is still a lot to be gained from his intuition that a particular form of relating to what is around you, through art and thinking, could create some kind of an alternative. Particularly so when we can probably agree on the diagnosis that the mindset behind the industrial destruction of nature is the instrumentalist (imperialist) attitude, i.e. the belief that to act effectively means to seize, submit and exploit the material world and make everything a disposable means to this end. If that should be so, then Adorno does have a point in suggesting that working towards a different understanding of the relations of means to ends is where the immanent politics and ethics of art could be at.

To even appreciate the difference an artwork can make by realizing an alternative relation of means and ends, however, one would, for a moment at least, have to adjust the horizon in which the problem is addressed. The crux is that we obviously cannot ignore the global perspective, but that—provided you're not currently heading a government, major corporation or NGO—to imagine your own possible agency on that global level tends to be very difficult and, in effect, more often than not results in the paralyzing conclusion that there's nothing much we can do (as art, compared to the mass and social media, rates as a comparatively weak medium for immediate mobilization). To avoid the predictable despair that big picture theories notoriously plunge you into, a leap into the particularities of practice promises to be the best help. (For why would we waste our intelligence on proving that nothing we do makes a difference? What are we trying to prove there? To whom?)

So, on the level of art practice, if there should be an immanent politics and ethics of artistic form that can run counter to a destructive instrumentalist ideology, how could we picture that being enacted? Or more specifically: If there is some potential in animist attunement as a force of defiance, how would that be actualized? Let's discuss basic examples: A golden rule in the movie industry used to be, don't work with animals. You can't control them. What is it that you can't control? The way the animal moves. It moves in strange ways. If you want your movie to be straight you can't have erratic motions in it. If straight is what you hate, however, the motion of the animal is precisely what you will embrace. How do you put the motion of an animal in a movie? It can be the actual creature running through the image, at the speed and with the trajectory it likes best. It can but it doesn't have to be that literal. There are many incredible cinematic moments (say, in Atonioni or Agnes Varda) where a thing acquires the same erratic animated/animating qualities that a living creature has. Think surrealist sculpture: a thing with a life of its own, that does not fully fit into the picture or story, because it retains its own magic in its opaque material presence. It doesn't do what you want it to do just because you point a camera at it. It may be factually indifferent to your gaze. And precisely because of that it animates the picture you shoot, as a force of a stubborn defiance against pictoriality within it. Plus, the way things move can be as strange as that of creatures. It's easy to test. Grab a round object close to you and let it roll on the floor. You'll never know exactly where it goes. Why else could people be so fascinated by kicking, throwing, hitting and catching a ball or watching other people do it. The ball is an animal. Motionwise. Praise the ball! And all that moves like it can: in a manner which is not entirely controllable and therefore a bit crazy, un poco loco, not just any motion, but a locomotion.8 Animals are locomotives. And a work or thought that sets the relations of means and ends shifting has a locomotive energy going inside.

There are different ways to speak about locomotive work. In music you can say it has got soul (the funk or swing, or traditionally in Spanish: duende). Risky to say so, because again we assign soul. As if we could give and take it away! But wait, in this case, that is precisely not the point. Because locomotive qualities, like soul, funk, swing or duende, are what they are precisely because you cannot give or take them away at will. You can't even bank on having them on the next day when you had them on the night before. When you loose them on the given night, it's hard to get them back. You lose the locomotion, the audience doesn't feel you anymore, the show goes down badly. Badly. It's a humbling experience. But if it's there, you connect, everything rolls by itself and people have a ball. They do. You do. If the experience of a performance practice9 attunes you to any part of animist knowledge it's first of all this realization: things in a space with people are emotively in motion; you either feel that motion and relate to it, so it can resonate with your rhythm, or the spirits will leave the building, faster than it takes to spell "snake dance".

Jan Verwoert, View from Desk, Cove Park, Scotland
Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Motion is in sound but also in smell. After all that's what funk comes from. Why not speak about taste in a similar way? Not in terms of the taste that a connoisseur may claim to have acquired. More in terms of the smell of class the connoisseur exudes when asserting notions of taste. Bad smell. Versus good taste, let's say, of something or someone you relate to with your mouth. Not cannibalistically, just tastefully, fully tasting (of) something good. Life tends to be good when it also smells and tastes of something or someone other than just yourself, but of something or someone special. And it loses all colour when that smell and taste is gone. Then it's just the same old song but with a different meaning, and no real sense.

On a very existential level there is a taste, smell and colour to how things make sense when they do. You would never want to reduce art to just that. It can be about much more. But still—and here phenomenology and animist magic border on each other—on the basic existential level of the colouring of perception art can and does change a lot. Beyond the direct physical engagement with a place through performance, interventions, sculpture or installation, it is arguably very much also the colouring of perception that makes art become environmental. Movies create a sense of spatiality through the sound, more so than through the image. Sound and music set the mood and open up the space at the same time. When you have a song in your head or an idea in front of your mind's eye, the world around you looks different. The environment resonates differently with the colouring affected by the sound, taste, smell and mood of that song or idea.

If we now address the question again of how to defy the instrumentalist mindset in the spirit of animist attunement, then perhaps the oppositions could be formulated like this: Manipulators instrumentalize the tools for colouring perception to master their means, dictate the moods and thereby build environments of control. The crucial difference lies in the lesson which the crux of the swing, soul, funk and duende can give you: you can't fully control it or possess it for good. So the point would be to insist that an art that makes a difference resides in an attunement, and partial surrender to the locomotion of the means, not in their mere control. The spirit of that surrender may be the spirit of locanimation, an animal spirit, following an erratic motion, guided by the smell of gods, or just something tasty. You won't be able to safely say if it's one or the other, or anything at all, since there is no way to verify that the creature or thing is not completely indifferent to your animist intuitions. That's the hardest position to sustain: allowing for indifference, not enforcing intentions instrumentally, but still remaining intuitively attuned enough to respond and act.

A short manual for a snake dance.

Ridiculous unless you apply it and see if it works…

1 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), see particularly pp.118-19.

2 Here I rely on the interviews in Gitte Villesen's fantastic filmJuju (White Magic) (2008).

3 In part I am here paraphrasing thoughts on the proximity of Aby Warburg's method to a magical epistemology developed by Giorgio Agamben in his amazing essay ‘Theory of Signatures,’ in Agamben,The Signature of All Things - On Method (New York: Zone Books, 2009), p.33-80. On Warburg, p.56-7.

4 I am indebted here to Anton Vidokle for, in conversation, raising the objection to my overuse of soul-metaphors that power has historically claimed the right to attribute and cruelly withdraw the status of 'having a soul' at will.

5 I owe this passage to Francesco Manacorda who relayed the argument in a discussion at the Temporäre Kunsthalle in Berlin.

6 As described by Géza Róheim in Animism, Magic and the Divine King (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972). I am indebted to Timmy van Zoelen for pushing the book into my hands.

7 The Sleeping Bison mountain overlooks Banff, Alberta, Canada. Information about local native practices and great hosting, received from Kitty Scott. Thank you!

8 Attempts at such a theory of locomotion were the initially unplanned outcome of my lecture series "Why are conceptual artists painting again? Because they think it's a good idea." in 2009; their publication in e-flux magazine is in preparation.

9 This includes art, theatre and music performance as much as the performative dimension of discourse, in a teaching or lecture situation as well as in a social situation in which a group seeks to arrive at a decision together. I can't say very much about team sports but I remember a conversation with Roderick Buchanan in which we realized that the experience of playing music with a band seems very much similar to that of playing football in a team in respect to the crucial importance of an intuitive understanding of the very particular manner in which the people you play with move: the lateral awareness of the other's motion that allows a pass to go right where the other player will be, or a bass line to just klick with the kick drum and push the whole music forward. It's not just play. It's the intuitive animational force of progressive collective locomotion: loco-co-motion.