The following interview was originally published on Bad at Sports in March, 2014. It has been reposted here as part of the August in the Anthropocene series.
In a 2007, Art Orienté objet, a French collaborative group comprised of Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin, began a series of body modification experiments intended to communicate with animals outside of language.”Basically the project was to artistically adapt Jacob von Uexkull’s Umwelt theory, which argues that the meaning of an environment differs from one animal to another in relation to its sensorial system” (Marion Laval-Jeantet, Self-Animality, Plastik: Art and Science, June 2011). The project began with an investigation of cats, and eventually culminated in a single piece, Felinanthropy, where Laval-Jeantet put on a pair of cat-like prosthetic hindquarters; by transforming her status as a bi-ped, she was able to change the hierarchical relation between herself and the cat. A subsequent experimental work led Mangin to put on a prosthetic giraffe head and engage giraffes in a zoo, exploring the giraffe’s ability to recognize Mangin not as a human, but as something almost giraffe. More recently, AOo embodied an equine perspective; Leval-Jeantet built up a tolerance to horse blood by injecting a small bit of the animal’s plasma into her system over the course of a year. She subsequently staged a horse blood transfusion performance with her partnerBenoît Mangin. What remains of Que le cheval vie en moi!, is the “relic,” a small, innocuous petri dish, with human/horse blood. In the following interview, (originally conducted for Paper Monument where an affiliated essay, “Humanimals” was published), I asked Laval-Jeantet a few questions about this work. All answers have been translated into English by Basia Kapolka.
Caroline Picard: What were you anticipating the affect of injecting horse plasma into your blood steam would be? How did you expectations measure up with the reality of your experience?
Marion Laval-Jeantet: In a certain way, I knew what to expect from the injection of the horse plasma since I had received injections of the horse antibodies one at a time during the preceding months. But it was still difficult to imagine what the effect of receiving all the antibodies at once would be. In actuality, my body’s reaction was much more unruly than predicted. I think the families of antibodies increased each other’s effects, so that the final reaction was very complex, affecting even my metabolism, my endocrine glands, my nervous system, as well as my sleep and appetite.
CP: Also, did you use the blood of one specific horse? Did your relationship with that horse change at all?
MLJ: I used the blood of three specific horses that belong to the laboratory I worked with. You couldn’t say I established genuine contact with the horses. On the other hand, I wasn’t specifically familiar with the horses before the experiment. The experiment changed my psyche so that I saw the horses differently after it, with a different appreciation. A familiarity.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about your horse-stilts? How did your experience of your own body change?
MJL: The stilts were mostly there to allow me a different way of communicating with the horse who was present during the performance. I was a little afraid of horses, actually. And it seems like horses attitudes change completely when your eyes are at the same height as theirs. With the stilts, my eyes were the same height as his, and I could see that the horse was calmer. It was also a way for me to be aware of the reversal of roles between me and the animal. And naturally, it was a way to distract myself from the possible anxiety that might arise because of the infusion. Because I was on stilts, I could only think of the goal: to join with the animal, and not of the psychological problems that might come out during the performance. Experiments with prosthetics always affect your fears about your body, and in the performance it was necessary that I have a strong sense of a double transformation, mental and biological.
CP: Do you feel like your “self” has been forever altered? In other words, there is an idea I believe I, at least, take for granted: that is that my self is continuous and sustaining throughout a linear experience of time. This assumption is challenged by ideas of drastic plastic surgery, transplants and cloning, for instance—the self as it was defined before is fundamentally no longer the same self it was before. It seems to me your work poses similar a question: how can a distinctly human self sustain its identity when it has become, also, part horse?
MJL: Your question about fundamental change is completely fair. At the moment, I have a very strong sense that my body, and also my identity were deeply changed by the experience. In a physical sense, it’s true. I will always have within me biological markers that bear witness to my meeting with the horse. The problem is that the external physiological effects seem to have only lasted a few months, and were strongest in the first four weeks. So today, even if there are some delayed reactions or long-term consequences, I can say that the transformation remains more in the mental structure than in the physical one. I have the sense of not having been completely human for some time. The experience changed my inner self forever. But this is also the case with previous strong experiences I’ve had, like my introduction to the pygmies of Gabon, who made me see death. Each of these experiences makes my thoughts and my existence more complex, the more they change them. I believe deeply in the adaptation of the human body. More than in homeostasis. Existence itself is a permanent transformation, a constantly-evolving system. You speak of changes made to the body, but I think grief, for example, shakes up identity much more. My aim is not so much a transformation of my essence, as the wish to respond to an eternal frustration: to finally feel the animal otherness in myself, but also to stop thinking from a purely anthropocentric point of view. Already, the pygmies succeeding in making me feel the spirits in the forest, during a trance. I think that I am less and less purely human, which is to say that I am fundamentally more and more human, in the utopian sense of philosophical humanism.
“The fascination with monsters â€” that is, with human and animal oddities and hybrids â€” is as old as human civilization. Indeed, a history of the monstrous would constitute a veritable history of culture and civilization, for the monstrous marks the boundary of culture, where it shades off into nature or some other form of radical otherness against which cultural identity is defined. Though the discourse on monstrosity is wildly heterogeneous, this culture-defining property is constant from ancient Greek, Babylonian, and Roman reports of monstrous races to contemporary discussions of animal and human cloning, stem-cell research, and ‘partial-birth abortions.'” from C.Cox’s essay Becoming AnimalÂ
Over the last several months, I have grown intensely interested in the relationship between humans and animals â€” this has, in no small part, inspired a number of interviews that have taken place on Badatsports. But Â there has been a significant amount of bleed off into other areas of my writing, thinking and reading. As my research and interest deepens so does the seeming impossible task of defining, clearly and fixedly, the distinction between human and animal. A more interesting question begins to emerge, however: Â how we do negotiate our own identity, and the identify of animals if such a differentiating border is impossible?
The question leads to subsequent Â and necessary upheaval; our whole way of life as human beings is predicated on an ancient insistence of difference. Humanity considers it somewhere between the beast and the divine, yet we cannot define that difference with certainty. That insecurity has led to an insistent reiteration of human superiority. “However one interprets it, whatever practical, technical, scientific, juridical, ethical, or political consequence one draws from it, no one can today deny this event â€” that is, the unprecedentedÂ proportions of this subjection of the animal. Such a subjection can be called violence in the most morally neutral sense of the term and even includes the interventionist violence that is practiced, as in some very minor and in no way dominant cases, let us never forget, in the service of or for the protection of the animal, but most often the human animal.” Â (p.25, Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am.)
At the same time, our species shares a collective sense that we are capable of destroying, (no, are destroying) the environment by way of that very separate identity to which we cling. Our subjection of not just animals, but also the earth, our profound ability to produce waste (I sat in a class once where the professor singled out humanity as the “messiest animal”) â€” an ability we seem incapable of controlling, makes the boundaries between human beings and “nature” impossible to support. Our sphere of influence underscores a deep and undeniable interconnectivity. Yet to accept, embrace, and work with such an integrated perspective requires a reorganizing a centuries-old hierarchy.
Certain artists face this predicament head on and make work about or around the upheaval of interspecies power dynamics. In an intriguing paper by Marie Laval-Jeantet, she describes her work with animals; under the moniker AOo, she and her partner Mangrin used prosthetic limbs, extending her neck to communicate with giraffes or wearing cat-like stilts to redefine her relationship with their cat. “It showed us the force of visual illusion which, irrespective of olfactory signs, was capable of transforming man into, if not exactly a deer, into a type of hybrid man-animal that was more acceptable to them [animals]” (Jeantet, Plastik: Art & Science).
In another instance, Natalie Jeremijenko created a series of sites that facilitate human/animal interactions called OOZ. Animals stay by choice, not because of cages. “OOZ is interactive Â â€” it provides humans a set of actions, the animals provide reactions and these couplets add to a collective pool of observations. The human/animal interface has two components: 1) an architecture of reciprocity, i.e. any action you can direct at an animal, it can direct at you, and 2) an information architecture of collective observation and interpretation. OOZ addresses learning that reveals interconnections among complex natural systems and the ongoing political effect of changing someone’s ideas about their role in the local environment.” The first phase of the project is slated for the Netherlands, where humans can explore the possibilities of geese-communication. Here, they climb into a “goose chair” that communicates with a robotic goose on the water. By moving their body within the “chair,” participants can manipulate the goose robot as it paddles through a pond full of geese. Meanwhile, pond animals learn to push certain buttons that will communicate phrases to human beings.
I read about Agnetha Dyck,Â a Canadian artist who has spent the last 14 years “collaborating” with bees to make sculptures. Through this work, she investigates interspecies communication.Â “[Her] research has included the beeâ€™s use of sound, sight, scent, vibration, and dance. [She is] studying the beeâ€™s use of the earthâ€™s magnetic fields as well as their use of the pheromones (chemicals) they produce to communicate with one another, with other species and possibly with the foliage they pollinate.”
In each of these efforts, there is a sense that something might be learned from non-humans â€” furthermore, what might be learned is potentially personal, something that akin to the rewards of friendship wherein one is not simply a subject studying an object. Very likely suffer these interpersonal dynamics are prone to equivalent interpersonal complications.
What could this look on a larger scale? How might humanity’s relationship to its environment change if it were to similarly give voice to the environment? At first glance Boliviaâ€™s Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierre (Law of Mother Nature) looks like an exotic stunt. In December 2010, President Evo Morales presented a bill in which Bolivia granted Mother Nature the rights of a â€œcollective public interest.â€ Accordingly, Nature is granted the right to â€œnot be affected by mega-infrastructures and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.â€ This is another attempt to translate the environment into human terms. Itâ€™s an effort to protect the natural world by giving it legal status. Individuals can become guardians of land in the same way that an adult might become the guardian of a child: protecting its human rights when it is unable to protect itself. Despite the initial sensation, the law is quite reasonable. Mother Nature is defined as â€œthe dynamic living system made up of an indivisible community of all living systems and living beings, interrelated, interdependent, sharing one common destinyâ€ (article 3). The implementation of “Nature’s” right would curtail any singular self-determination in order to account for the impact one action might have on others. Corporate interest would have to accommodate local populations, which would also have to accommodate one another. The sticking point of the law is that, as yet, there is no built-in system to moderate the interests and impact of different groups. The inter-relatedness of self-determined capitalism goes dumb in the face of interrelation. Because much of Boliviaâ€™s GDP comes from the harvesting of its natural resources (and the fallout environmental destruction) it is both of utmost importance the Bolivia be at the fore of this popular reform; both its immediate livelihood and long term sustenance hang in the balance. Bolivia is a peaking reminder of our global situation.