Miguel Suarez, Chicken-Killing Performance, Alberta, Canada, 2013. More about it here
How does the animal function as a kind of tool for allowing humans to think through their own identities? It seems that a lot of artists you’re writing about are trying to envision a very far-out point in the dispersal of fixed identities, to the point at which identities disappear.
There are several points that are raised there. In terms of moving beyond identities, I think you’re right in saying that there doesn’t appear to be a fixed point towards which one could move. Certainly the way in which, say, Deleuze and Guattari elaborate their concept of “becoming-animal” in A Thousand Plateaus as a creative, social process in which there is a chance of liberating oneself from being bound by identities, presents the notion of becoming as something that is not a matter of moving from one identity to another identity. The becoming is itself the point, and since in their view all becomings are, in a sense, becomings-animal, this gives the animal a privileged and markedly creative place in their philosophy.
Marco Evaristti, Blenders and Goldfish, 2000. More about it here
There is an overwhelming amount of overtly sentimental imagery out there which does a certain kind of work, and that’s fine. I’m not saying that one could shift to a culture in which one simply got rid of greeting cards that had sentimental animal imagery on them. I’m talking about a different kind of work, work that uses animal imagery in a much more self-conscious way. It’s a way which I guess is broadly related to the notion of the artist that Lyotard had: the artist as someone who has particular kinds of responsibilities in the postmodern world to work against complacency, to refuse what he calls the “solace of good forms,” to continue to try to problematize things.
Eduardo Kac, GFP Bunny, 2000. More about it here
To what extent do you think animals are used as passive tools by artists while they work through issues of subjectivity and identity?
There are quite a lot of dimensions to this question. I ended up devising the term “botched taxidermy” as a rather clumsy catch-all phrase for a variety of contemporary art practice that engages with the animal at some level or other. In some cases it involves taxidermy itself, but in all cases the animal, dead or alive, is present in all its awkward, pressing thing-ness. I think what many of the artists I’ve been discussing are doing in their presentation of the animal as some kind of clumsy compound of human and animal elements is to reinforce the notion that the comfortable, utopian conception of nature in which humans had unmediated access to animals and lived in some kind of unproblematic harmony with them does not look like a practical way forward, either in terms of how one thinks philosophically about them, or in terms of how on a practical level one might work for the improvement of their living conditions.
Toward the end of The Postmodern Animal I became interested in your discussion of pets. It was partly out of selfish reasons since I have two cats. You mention Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that “anyone who likes a dog or a cat is a fool.” But you also discuss other writers who have complicated that attitude and left space open for a more complex relationship between humans and their pets. In the end I wasn’t quite clear on your own position. I know you weren’t really posing it in those terms, but how do you feel about the presence of pets?
Well, we have cats, too. And although that has probably influenced my writing in ways I don’t quite recognize, I certainly tried throughout the book to avoid taking too partisan a position. What interests me very much, though, is the idea you come across in the work of an artist like Carolee Schneemann but also, maybe more surprisingly, in Derrida’s recent philosophical writings — the idea that they might learn things from their cats that are not easily learned anywhere else.
For both of them it’s a matter of taking the time to engage with the cat’s own point of view, and then of thinking about the impact of that point of view on their own work. There’s this great statement by Schneemann where she says of Kitch, one of her cats, something along the lines of “her steady focus enabled me to consider her regard as an aperture in motion.” It’s as though the animal allows the artist to learn something new, see something differently. And Derrida says that his cat provokes a kind of “critical uneasiness” in him, and he seems to imply that this uneasiness may be the only frame of mind in which any responsible human thinking about animals can really begin.
excerpt from Where the wild things are: An interview with Steve Baker, by Gregory Williams, in Cabinet, Issue 4, Fall 2001. Continue reading here