Symposium on animals and art: posthuman self-discovery

In Berlin’s Sophiensalen, the focus was on the striking accumulation of human-animal encounters in contemporary performances.

Animalistic: "Animal Dances" by Martin Nachbar (2013) Photo: Gerhard F. Ludwig.

A cat lies on a sofa, its front legs dangling relaxed over the backrest. She is watching a "Performance for Pets." Over the past three years, Vienna-based artists* Krõõt Juurak and Alex Bailey have developed this myth-encircled format (because it is performed exclusively in the private spaces of animals and their caregivers).

It can’t be far from the dog groomer to the all-inclusive pet vacation to theatrical entertainment, they thought. Now they are presenting "Performances for Pets" for the first time at Berlin’s Sophiensaele as part of the two-day symposium "Animal Dances – Menschen Tiere Relationen" (curated by Martin Nachbar and Maximilian Haas). And they did so on the basis of smartphone videos made by the viewers’ caregivers.

There are two categories so far: one for dogs, one for cats. The latter would have surprisingly human-like spectator behavior, with one exception: when there are several of them, they take turns watching. Most of the composites of the performances were developed by trial-and-error. Initially, Juurak and Bailey thought, for instance, that cats were more comfortable with contemporary art (conceptual puzzlescapes for self-discovery) and dogs preferred traditional entertainment formats, thus were more conservative. Until they went to an animal psychologist who disproved that.

Dogs, for example, could not cope well with silence in the form of paused movement, which made them nervous, but they were not conservative for that reason. Since then, the stylistic claim has been: cats more, dogs less Spångberg – a running gag of Juurak’s and Bailey’s presentation, which refers to the extreme lack of tension of the Swedish performer Mårten Spångberg. According to this sorting, however, human audiences can then be divided into cats and dogs.

It’s not about the "cuteness" aesthetic of social media

"Performances for Pets" is the most radical version of the current interest in animals in the dance-related performance scene. What most of the works have in common is an empathetic approach to the other species. However, this current fluidity in relation to different corporealities has its point of reference less in animal activism (nor in the "cute" aesthetics of social media) than in questions of identity politics: "animal dances" as an exercise in the state of a "posthuman animal" or a corporeality that is no longer predefined.

Some examples: Antonia Baehr creates her alter egos in "Abecedarium Bestiarium" (2013) from the characteristics of extinct animals; Xavier Le Roy lets his performers experience non-conscious nudity in the literal "low pieces" in the sense of Jacques Derrida; in "Balthazar" (2015), David Weber-Krebs (in the style of Joseph Beuys’ "I like America and America likes Me") creates a stage dialogue between an untrained donkey and human performers with few means; and Martin Nachbar slims down his "Animal Dances" from 2013 for the symposium on outdoor solo with a focus on the integration of animal prostheses.

In her opening lecture, Berlin-based dance scholar Gabriele Brandstetter develops this attitude of empathy from a juxtaposition of modern and contemporary techniques. At the beginning of the last century, the animal was considered a symbol for the Other. Its movement patterns, in line with racist habits of reception, were imitated and exoticized like dances of non-European human cultures.

Is the domestication reversible?

Today’s approach, on the other hand, is an attempt at "embodied communication" derived (here) from Derrida and Donna Haraway – applied to the examples: not a speaking about, but a speaking with on the one hand, an "animal drag" on the other. However, the fact that subjugation cannot be reversed remains (for the time being?) the conclusion in her lecture as well as in the discussion rounds.

There is, however, also a counter-utopia, thrown in spiritedly by the art-philosopher Fahim Amir, who teaches in Linz. His material is intended as a preparation for "a history of animals as a history of resistance. Bird’s-eye view: from the bourgeois struggle against the 20,000 or so free-range New York pigs in the 1820s to the development of human assembly-line labor in Chicago in the 1870s-90s – as a result of the failure of industrial killing and gutting machinery, again primarily on pigs. Subsequent centuries are yet to come.

Overall, however, despite Amir’s foray into activist concepts, the weekend symposium is really more about aesthetic empathy techniques in the sense of posthuman self-discovery than it is about questions that arise in the process of pig-on-stage dissection. Ethical questions are implicit in this unagitatedly questioning and observing symposium, without becoming categorical. Or, as the cultural theorist Karin Harrasser derives (in her wonderful lecture on coherence) from Alexander Kluge: The right to be treated with all one’s body parts at least as carefully as a screw, namely with feeling, should apply to everyone.

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