Upsetting Expectations

April 4, 2012 · Print This Article

Natalie Jeremijenko, Robotic Geese, 2003.

“The fascination with monsters — that is, with human and animal oddities and hybrids — 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 Animal 

Over the last several months, I have grown intensely interested in the relationship between humans and animals — this has, in no small part, inspired a number of interviews that have taken place on Badatsports. But  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:  how we do negotiate our own identity, and the identify of animals if such a differentiating border is impossible?

The question leads to subsequent  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 — that is, the unprecedented 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.”  (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”) — 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.

Art orienté objet (Laval-Jeantet & Mangin), Félinanthropie, 2007

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  — 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, a Canadian artist who has spent the last 14 years “collaborating” with bees to make sculptures. Through this work, she investigates interspecies communication. “[Her] research has included the bee’s use of sound, sight, scent, vibration, and dance. [She is] studying the bee’s use of the earth’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 — 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 Bolivia’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 “collective public interest.” Accordingly, Nature is granted the right to “not be affected by mega-infrastructures and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.” This is another attempt to translate the environment into human terms. It’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 “the dynamic living system made up of an indivisible community of all living systems and living beings, interrelated, interdependent, sharing one common destiny” (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 Bolivia’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.