Thursday, 29 January 2009
Photo Antony Hall, ENKI experiment 3, 2008
23 Jan – 22 March 09
Interspecies is a touring exhibition organised by the Arts Catalyst. It brings together a group of artists who actively question the sovereignty of the human species over animals.
The show has recently been the subject of debate on the Live Art Jicsmal e-list regarding the ethics of using live animals in art, with subscribers voicing concern regarding the exploitation of the animals involved. The fire of this debate was well fanned by Interspecies’ involvement with Glaxo Smith Kline – the animal-testing pharmaceutical multinational associated with the exhibition’s London tour. But any concerns that the opening evening on Friday would be disrupted by animal rights activists were unwarranted; the well-heeled and well behaved Manchester crowd that were packed into Cornerhouse Gallery were there to engage seriously with the central question of the exhibition: ‘can artists and animals work together as equals?’
Attempting to make visible familial connections between humans and primates, the aptly named Nicolas Primat screened various videos of himself interacting with tribes of monkeys and Bonobo apes. Also concentrating on shared ape/human behaviours, Rachel Mayeri presented ‘Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends’, (2007). Unlike feminist writer Donna Harraway’s re-thinking on otherness in human/dog relations in her 2003 ‘Companion Species Manifesto’, a publication that glimpses highly charged inter-species encounters on the page, Primat’s work did not embody the possibilities of the animal-human bond. The intimacy of his interactions was somewhat lost on video, making his sincere attempts to integrate himself –bare bottom first- into a chimpanzee family seem faintly absurd. In contrast, Mayeri’s sophisticated work was clearly meant for the screen; her filmic juxtaposition of Baboons’ mating behaviour set against human courting rituals was at once comical and disturbingly uncanny.
There is a lot of video in Interspecies. This is no doubt due to the numerous ethical and logistical considerations regarding bringing live animals into the gallery (a problem artist Beatrice de Costa did not solve by decorating PigeonBlog (2006) with odious dead, stuffed pigeons). But despite the challenges, two artists did manage to situate their project alongside its living subject in the gallery.
For ENKI Experiment 3, (2008) Anthony Hall built a makeshift booth and conducted a communication experiment between various members of the public and a Black Knife Ghost Fish, an electrogenic fish species. Inside the booth, fish and human participant influenced each other with sonic and magnetic signals, the results of which were transmitted to display equipment in the gallery space. Kira O’Reilly installed herself in a straw-filled enclosure with a pig named Deliah in order to explore shared animal/human intimacies in Falling Asleep with a Pig, (2008). These installations were undoubtedly the most successful. They engaged the audience in the moment of experimentation, enabling the complexities of the attendant research and theoretical sources to be projected onto the works’ material form, instead of from lengthy programme notes or wall texts. The public nature of these live experiments, experiencing the actual artist/animal signals, grunts and actions, also enabled audiences to witness the conditions of the collaboration, and judge for themselves whether the test subjects were indeed transgressing established animal/human relationships.
Photo Antony Hall, ENKI experiment 3, 2008
Interspecies is full of complex, heavily research based work that is located at the edges of current understanding concerning animal – human interaction. It is not easy to digest these years of specialist information in one surface glance. In addition, this work is almost entirely without precedent, it is experimental and interdisciplinary. For many aficionados, this makes for exciting art, but it also makes for work that is difficult and easily misinterpreted; an all too easy target for vociferous Jicsmail e-list members, hack art critics or unscrupulous headline hunting journalists.
Despite these risks, difficult questions do need to be asked of Interspecies: On what grounds is Ruth Maclennan’s ‘The Hawk and the Tower’, (2007- 09), a dizzying birds-eye or ‘bird cam’ video of North London, considered urgent here in the UK right now? What are the ethics of Primat exposing himself and his practice to unwitting apes? And if O’Reilly’s ‘Falling Asleep with a Pig’ is an equal collaboration between artist and Deliah, how can the work be mutually owned, documented and disseminated?
Rather than providing the answers to these questions, it is the questions themselves and their established fine art framework that is at stake in Interspecies. What we are left with is where, how and what to use in locating Interspecies; this intriguing hybrid animal that is equal parts science and science fiction.
Rachel Lois Clapham
Cornerhouse is running a series of education events involving the artists featured in Interspecies. The exhibition is also being debated on http://interspecies09.blogspot.com