Exhibition Project
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human
Animal Perspectives

Friedrich Weltzien, Jessica Ullrich
Being Human: On the Exhibition “Becoming Animal, Becoming Human”

Who at the moment does not have the feeling we are living in a time of upheaval? The financial crisis (and the social crisis that many fear may follow in its wake) that is leading whole economies around the world to the brink of collapse merely serves to reinforce this impression. It is similarly fostered by a battle for dominance between various concepts of what it means to be a good person, as can be seen in culturally and religiously motivated confrontations, wars and terrorist attacks. Above all, however, global warming – which represents nothing short of a caesura of natural-historic dimensions – fosters this uneasy feeling in the face of melting polar ice caps. Indeed, the polar bear, or more properly its image, has begun to symbolize this feeling.

The Western the relationship to nature, as articulated in the Christian directive “subdue the earth”, has apparently reached the limit of its capacity. Human beings, the crown of creation, must acknowledge that without subjects it is difficult to demonstrate their superiority. Concepts that understand other earthly life forms as fellow creatures rather than objects for human use are beginning to gain influence in this period of crisis.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in his book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin showed that human beings, too, were merely animals. In so doing, however, the stature of animals was not necessarily raised; instead, in the end the human body also became an object of human manipulation. The debates surrounding gene manipulation and cloning are not the only contemporary examples revealing just how bitter the struggle for an updated image of humanity has become. If the human body constitutes nothing more than a typical product of nature, why not treat it like wheat, corn or Dolly the sheep?

In the search for answers – or perhaps we should say more cautiously: suggestions – to these thorny questions, art can lend a helping hand. Only in the field of art can influences deriving from cutting edge science, philosophical inquiries and traditional myths and fairy tales be combined; current worries as well as archetypal fears be given expression; utopian plans and childlike fantasies, shamanistic rituals or well-known objectification strategies be intermingled. Art is an effective medium for uncovering fresh impulses in the search for a new human identity.

Animal Studies

A text, now nearly 30 years old, provided a cue for the exhibition title, as well as the criteria for selecting artists. In 1980, French philosophers Gilles Deleuze und Félix Guattari published Mille Plateaux (1). In the political tradition of the Left, and seeking new societal forms in the spirit of 1968, they observed the following in art: „writing is traversed by strange becomings that are not becomings-writer, but becomings-rat, becomings-insect, becomings-wolf, etc...“. Since that time, the phrase “becoming animal” has often been linked with artistic production.

The critical question for us, however, was first posed by British art historian Steve Baker: What does becoming animal actually look like? We have accordingly included an updated version of his essay in our catalog, and for this we owe a debt of gratitude to Professor Baker. We have also incorporated a second intellectual position, drawn from Donna Haraway’s latest book, When Species Meet, in which Haraway, the gray eminence of Animal Studies, critiques Deleuze and Guattari’s theory. Evincing little respect, she abbreviates the philosophers’ names to D&G and in so doing subtly inserts them into the context of fashion. While tersely sifting through the weaknesses of their argument, however, she nevertheless indicates contact zones that allow work on the relationship between humans and animals to proceed. On this point we agree with her: A new human self-image can best be developed by working closely with animals. Such an approach is clearly exemplified by the use of the phrase “human and nonhuman animals.” At this point, though, we go beyond her: Becoming human means becoming animal. But how can we envision that? If artistic production is understood as a genuinely human activity; if, moreover, the technique of artistic production is examined through the lens of becoming animal, then becoming animal is identical to becoming human. In that case, then, where do we locate the border between humans and animals?

As long as we persist in speaking of becoming human, this border between humans and animals will remain in place. But in available definitions, it proves to be nothing more than a construct whose empirical basis does not hold up to closer analysis. If, on the one hand, by means of gene transfers, biotechnology can transfer formerly species-specific characteristics between species and, on the other hand, behavioral research continues to discover in the animal kingdom more and more attributes once thought to be defining for humans – the use of tools; language and consciousness; creativity and the capacity for abstract thought, to name just a few – then weighty ethical questions begin to crop up. The issues involved, for example in the demand for human rights for apes, can be seen as a first step toward equality between human and nonhuman animals.

The artists we have invited to this show are putting their fingers in the wound. Art is not presented as a solid, unassailable achievement, as a celebration of the human. Rather, it presents itself as a visualization of becoming, a constantly shifting development that tends to obscure differences rather than inscribe them. It is interested not in canonization or conventionalization, not in laws concerning beauty and proportion, but rather in processes and transformations, metamorphoses and transitional stages. Absolutes are conceptually remote here; everything that exists does so only by virtue of its relation to itself and others. Here, nothing exists in isolation; each usurpatory gesture necessarily leads to self-mutilation because without trust in the not-me self-preservation would not be possible.

Becoming animal represents an attempt at entering into cooperation, into togetherness, to cross a threshold into a form of equality and emancipation, rather than continue to search for further justifications for destructive superiority. In considering established power relations and normative concepts and mechanisms of inclusivity and exclusivity, which at the moment have attained a global volatility seldom seen before, the suggestion that we understand becoming human as becoming animal and the artistic realization of this suggestion, offers stimulus to our thought.

What does becoming human, so conceived, look like? In any case, it is not a question of imitation, of the mere simulation of animal behaviors. The artists whom we have selected attempt, rather, to represent human identity as a cross-species performance. “I” is not so much an autonomous, sovereign subject as a knot in a network of relationships. Rather than fixed, meanings are always re-negotiated; sense does not exist per se – it emerges. In these attempts at becoming human, a characteristic movement of reversal can be observed: animals are assigned tasks which essentially presuppose human skills or characteristics in order to be carried out. There are videos, for instance, in which dogs wielding cameras can be seen producing art, where monkeys or elephants create paintings, and the term authorship falls by the wayside. Such a “becoming human” on the part of animals raises doubts about whether certain anthropological criteria, for example the ability to create and to function within a culture, should be limited to humans.

Such works originate in attempts at entering into the personality of an animal, seeing through the eyes of an animal or seeing as an animal. The theoretical underpinning for such an understanding is a capacity for taking action which is granted to animals: “Agency,” (2) as it is called in Animal Studies. When animals are granted the status of actors in artworks, they confirm this agency, which has long been considered uniquely human.

Art and Animal Studies

The capacity for “agency” is by no means limited to higher animals, let alone primates. While apes do make an appearance in two works featured in the exhibition, dogs turn up more often: They are the focus of three works. Birds, octopi, rats, cats and bears are each represented once. Along with these animals, other positions exist in metamorphosis, showing hybrids or hypothetical creatures, each of which – in the throes of becoming – present their own connections between humans and animals.

The contributions from Jana Sterbak and Jo Longhurst allow us, in different ways, to slip into the skins of dogs so we can see through their eyes. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid teach elephants to supply the art market rather than the wood market, as they did in the past. Aurelia Mihai presents a shamanistic transformation of young people into bears as a traditional, celebratory trying-on of animal identities. Eija-Liisa Ahtila plays with the body language of animals and Marcus Coates with their voices, while Catherine Bell exchanges bodily fluids with octopi. Angela Köntje and Peter Frey document and archive tendencies toward anthropomorphism in animals.

Performative becoming and transformation processes, both genetically and morphologically, appear in various works. Daniel Lee looks to the past and retraces evolution as a sliding motion; Patricia Piccinini’s glance, on the other hand, is pointed toward a potential future condition. Deborah Sengl recombines the body parts and fur of various animals, while in the works of Reiner Maria Matysik, Kathy High, John Isaacs and Iris Schieferstein creatures can be seen which in themselves establish a cross-species connection between humans and animals.

If being is grasped not as a static condition which one first falls into and, in the end, falls back out of but rather as continuous becoming, then it can also be expressed in the choice of artistic medium. This understanding of being is visible in the prevalence of installations incorporating video and film images. However, video and film were not selected simply because moving images can more strikingly communicate dynamic processes and metamorphoses, as Matysik and Lee’s films do, but also because works which consume space in a room force visitors to take positions, to adopt standpoints. Perhaps in this connection Jo Longhurst is paradigmatic, with her greyhounds at eye-level compelling us literally to kneel down before art.

In any case, it is necessary to move, to prowl around objects, to peek around corners, to let our eyes wander and to prick up our ears. In works by Mihai, or Köntje and Frey, visitors venture between the fronts or, with High, they can take a look in the cooking pots. Bell’s and Coates’ video performances reveal themselves only gradually. Sterbak’s large projection encompasses sizeable wall space and yet for the most part viewers have to make sense of it themselves. Visitors must also view Sengl’s, Isaacs’ and Schieferstein’s sculptural works from all sides, as they do not reveal their humor at first glance. The same also holds true for the graphic and photographic pieces of Piccinini, Ahtila, and Komar and Melamid.

The exhibition offers no conclusions, formulates no summaries, exhausts no completeness. Instead, there are indications, breaches, stagings; everything remains questionable, doubtful, rudimentary. Humor is an important element of this flux. The works will have often made us smile, even if many of them also contain something thoughtful, melancholy or even eerie. Whoever has maintained a close give-and-take relationship with a mammal, either human or nonhuman, knows that joy comprises an essential basis for all togetherness – just as Donna Haraway would also like “joy” to be a central word in engagement with the various species.

Roaming About

For that reason, we do not wish to warn, complain or regret; we are following a positive impulse, seeking methods for a playful approach to one another. A tour of the exhibition, accordingly, should not be completed like a lesson – no homework will be assigned, no memory skills trained, no material tested. We want to inspire visitors to practice becoming animal for a while.

Part of this experience also includes continuing the journey outside the exhibition rooms. In our opinion, the most important starting point is the exhibition “Tierperspektiven” [Animal Perspectives] which is running concurrently in the Georg Kolbe Museum and in the project room Souterrain. Another station on the journey is the film series at the Arsenal cinema, Potsdamer Platz, being presented in cooperation with our exhibition. Lastly, an international colloquium is also offering scholarly lectures, discussions with artists, and a screening of artist videos (3). With these offerings, wandering around the city can be considered an experience of becoming animal – and while walking the streets, these newly-acquired perspectives may quite possibly be tested in ad hoc contacts with nonhuman animals.

In its forty years of existence, the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst [New Association for Fine Arts, abbreviated NGBK] has always been a site for examining the political and social dimensions of art. Nevertheless, in organizing this exhibition we were not primarily interested in the ethical or legal consequences of a debate which examines for example whether and which animals can be viewed as people. For us, the specific aesthetic question, the sensory consequences of the question of where being animal ends and being human begins, was decisive.

Wherever becoming animal emerges as an artistic strategy, an additional dimension arises which in the discussion of institutionalization, for example in legislation, cannot be addressed. This genuinely artistic approach makes it possible to maintain a distance from all potential effects of rationalization and universalization. Intuitive designs, emotional or instinctive reactions, unrehearsed, unarticulated, incomprehensible statements, presentiments, roaming and wandering movements mark this world and are therefore bearers of that activity infiltrating practical reason which D&G then termed becoming animal.

At a time in which becoming animal has literally developed into a reality which could not have been predicted in 1980, it has gained sensory epistemic value as a method of seeing the other represented in the animalistic: “I” has long been another. The Human Genome Project has in the meantime provided the statistical proof. Under this impression, the ethical impulse given us by nature should, as Immanuel Kant suggests, lead us to wholly and automatically experience ourselves as human animals. From an artistic perspective, then, people would be spared from the unreasonable demand to which neurobiology has recently had to respond: Rather than attributing free will to animals, humans are instead being described as mere stimulus-reaction machines, and freedom of choice exposed as a philosophical phantasm.

We have no new answer to the basic anthropological question: What makes a human human? We suggest, however, that this query no longer be formulated as a mandate for differentiation. The sharp outlines of human being cannot be inscribed; the margins fray toward the animal. Identity, as theorists like Judith Butler have long described, must be continually performed. Becoming animal offers a way out of the categorical binary imperative of man or woman, inside or outside, human or animal, integrated or disintegrated. Instead, it offers all sorts of half measures and approximations, uncertainties, mixtures and ruptures, hybrids and bastards.

Thirty years Becoming Animal, 40 years NGBK, 150 years On the Origin of Species – a meaningless numerical salad for those who scurry and swarm, wriggle and flap, rave and cackle. Perhaps that is yet another message of the exhibition: the deep peace of nibbling and snooping.

(1) English edition: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [Mille plateaux. Paris 1980].

(2) Research fields in Animal Studies include critical analysis of the fine arts, film, literature, and popular culture with regard to cultural and social levels of meaning in human-animal relations. The following collections provide a good entry point into this theory: Petzer Atterton and Matthew Calarco (eds.): Animal Philosophy. Essential Readings in Continental Thought, London/New York 2005; Linda Kalof and Amy J. Fitzgerald (eds): The Animals Reader. The Essential Classic and Contemporary Writings. New York 2007.

(3) For readerly wandering, the following provide suitable routes: Jessica Ullrich, Friedrich Weltzien and Heike Fuhlbrügge (eds.): Ich, das Tier. Tiere als Persönlichkeiten in der Kulturgeschichte. Berlin 2008; Deleuzian – a volume of the internet magazine Antennae (Antennae. Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. Issue 4, Winter 2007, › PDF) devoted to the French philosopher; Nato Thompson and Christoph Cox (eds.): Becoming Animal. Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. Exhibition catalogue, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 2006.