Questions of identity and creativity have been increasingly framed in contemporary art and philosophy through the use of animals and animal imagery. Steve Baker, whose books include The Postmodern Animal and Picturing the Beast, has written extensively on attitudes towards animals in twentieth- and twenty-first–century art, philosophy, and popular culture. A founding member of the UK Animal Studies Working Group, he is also using this research to promote the significance of humanities perspectives within the developing academic field of "animal studies." Gregory Williams spoke with him by phone.
In The Postmodern Animal, what are some of the basic distinctions you draw between modern and postmodern animals?
One of the pieces that I came across only a matter of months before completing the book was a video by Edwina Ashton called Sheep , in which she's dressed up in this homemade, very clumsy-looking sheep costume, telling a series of appallingly bad children's sheep jokes, wringing her hands, looking incredibly uncomfortable, seeming almost to be taking the mickey out of this identity that she's put herself into. More than any other single work, this piece lodged in my mind and helped me clarify what I meant by the distinction between the postmodern animal and, let's say, some idea of a modern or modernist animal. There was no symbolism or metaphor involved, nothing to keep the animal-as-other at a safe and comfortable distance, but instead a sense of the artist embracing and garbing herself in this awkward, provisional, and rather unflattering identity—getting close to the animal without worrying too much about the consequences. And the idea that the animal was performed here seemed important, too. Painting seems to be a very difficult medium for the postmodern animal—they're far more often either performed or presented rather than represented.
I'm interested in your ideas about the animal as an agent. It's worth considering to what extent artists can work in tandem with animals to give them a degree of subjectivity as in, for example, Komar and Melamid's work with elephants.
That's an interesting case, partly because I think it's really complicated to figure out what exactly they were trying to do. I'm reluctant to criticize work of that sort too much, because it's clearly done for a good cause: to raise money for the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project that they're running in Thailand. But if you look at their website www.elephantart.com and the way in which they describe their book about the project, they call it "riotously funny" but at the same time they're saying that it makes startling revelations about the nature of art itself. But as somebody pointed out to me recently, the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage has apparently had its elephants producing paintings for years without ever claiming that the results were to be taken seriously as art. I think there are more interesting examples than Komar and Melamid of artists working in this kind of field. There's a French painter called Tessarolo who—this must have been back in the 1970s or 80s—produced some paintings with a female chimpanzee called Kunda. Unlike the majority of those experiments from the 50s onward to get chimpanzees to produce paintings and then to debate whether or not they constitute works of art, the pieces that Tessarolo and Kunda were doing involved a kind of exchange, with them both working on the same canvas at the same time. She would put some marks down, he would respond to them; sometimes she would find them okay and make further marks, sometimes she'd actually erase his marks. And although it's not the same kind of playful or æsthetic exchange, the British artists Olly and Suzi, who work in the wild painting predators at very close quarters, have on some occasions tried to get those animals actually to make marks on the paintings themselves. This is so that some kind of physical, visible trace of the animal is still there when the painting is subsequently exhibited. Of course they wouldn't want to claim for a moment that the mark-making done by a shark taking a chunk out of a painting in itself constituted art. But they are clearly interested in negotiating a way in which those marks might be incorporated into works that do count as art.
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.
You've written about artists using animals to destabilize
meaning. Is it possible for artists to avoid referring back to
something known and recognizable?
In terms of getting beyond meaning and this phrase that I use about the
"unmeaning" of animals, essentially what I'm trying to get at is that
as soon as one tries to use animals to mean something or to inquire
into what animals mean, it becomes more difficult than ever to escape a
human-centered perspective. A statement made recently by the sculptor
Anish Kapoor—nothing to do with animals as such, but to do with this
idea of meanings and messages and so on—suggested that "giving messages
is in a sense the first step toward the sentimental." And for me one of
the problems is that it's very difficult to think of how humans can
produce meanings that are not at some level going to be anthropocentric
and anthropomorphic. As soon as one gets into that, one is potentially
dealing with a sentimental relation to the animal. Now, there are many
people who would say that sentimentality has been given an unduly bad
name in relation to human thinking about animals. But I think that art
is arguably a special case here because some of the artists I've talked
to in researching this book have pets themselves, and have no
particular objection to the claim that they may be sentimental about
those animals. But they know that they are working in a context where
they really can't afford to have their art labeled as sentimental
because to label it as such immediately removes any degree of
seriousness or critical engagement from it. This leads us to what I've
called the "botched taxidermy" question. It's almost as though in order
to make any kind of serious statement about animals they have to devise
an æsthetic means which will not immediately be open to being
criticized as sentimental. Something of the aggression, something of
the damage, something of the perversity inflicted on contemporary
animal imagery is simply to keep it on the right side of that division
between serious art and sentimental art, given a history in the 19th
and 20th centuries of animal art being so overwhelmingly associated
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.
That reminds me of your discussion of Deleuze and
Guattari's notion of the "sorcerer" in furthering this process of
becoming-animal. It concerned me a bit, because it seems to position
the artist as a kind of mystical figure. What is the sorcerer for
Deleuze and Guattari?
Yes, the sorcerer. It does seem to be an extraordinary word to
introduce. But I think it's partly used tongue-in-cheek—"we sorcerers,"
they call themselves—and partly a means of avoiding or minimizing the
use of other more contemporary but equally loaded terms, such as
"artist." Language does a peculiar but particular kind of work for
them. It's to be taken seriously but not always literally, addressing a
"reality" but often in deliberately arcane terms.
At one point they argue that the majority of people will have somewhere
in their expe-rience memories of a kind of instant at which in an
exchange with an animal they suddenly got a glimpse of something that
wasn't to do with the ordinary boundaries of human identity. Rather
than thinking in terms of some kind of utopia where one got away from
the worst effects of identity thinking and its political consequences,
they're looking instead to the ways in which creative activity—which in
their view is prompted by a thinking about, or an interaction with,
animals—can serve to open up a model of experience that is quite other
than that which the psychoanalytic model of the individual human
subject would ordinarily allow. A lot of what they're doing in their
exploration of becoming-animal is concerned to see how one can get at
those instances, how one can prolong them, inhabit them as artist or
"sorcerer," how one can in a very sober and cautious manner—and those
are their words—seek to elaborate an alternative to the psychoanalytic
account of what it is to be human.
To what extent do you think animals are used as passive
tools by artists while they work through issues of subjectivity and
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.
What do you think about the sense of responsibility
artists should have toward animals? What is your take on the Eduardo
Kac case, for instance?
The GFP Bunny artwork, with the transgenic albino rabbit he named Alba
that glows green under fluorescent light, you mean? That's a very
interesting case, but it does raise a whole set of problems. I just
checked his website www.ekac.org
this morning to see if there'd been any developments in his campaign to
get Alba released from the Inra laboratory in France and it doesn't
seem to have moved forward. Again, I'm reluctant to be critical of
someone doing work of this kind, because although I think that it's an
unconvincing a way of exploring the issues that he wants to address,
there is enough about what he's doing to suggest that it's done as a
serious rather than as a deliberately controversial activity, and
enough in his own statements to suggest, whether or not we would agree
with this, that he is doing it with a sense of responsibility. He
actually says at one point that "responsibility is key" in what he's
doing. And he's also quite explicit about not wanting to be involved in
producing art that harms animals. I think there is a considerable
problem here, which is that there is very little to distinguish what he
seems to have done in that French laboratory in the name of art from
the ways in which an animal might be used in a research laboratory with
no art context at all. In January this year reports were published on
work done at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center on the first
genetically modified primate. And this first monkey had been produced
using exactly the same technology that Kac himself used, with this
green fluorescent jellyfish protein inserted into its dna, in order to
produce an animal in which the progress of various human diseases
subsequently introduced in that animal's body can be traced and
So in that case it becomes used in a more positive, constructive manner.
I'm sure that's what the scientists would argue. But what's
particularly revealing about that case of the first gm primate is a
comment from one of the scientists involved. He said, "We're at an
extraordinary moment in the history of humans." And it's almost again
as if the animal is actually invisible there. The animal is simply the
medium through which this is done.
It reminded me of two other instances where again the ethical issues
seemed to prompt rather surprising responses from animal advocates. On
the one hand you have the notorious exhibition staged in Denmark, I
think early in 2000, by Marco Evaristti, where he had taken ten
ordinary kitchen blenders and put a single goldfish into each of them
and invited the viewers, if they wanted to, to turn these blenders on
and decimate the fish. Peter Singer, to my surprise, was quoted in the New York Times
last year speaking out in support of that exhibition, saying that it
alerted the public to the power that humans do have over animals. At
the same time one has Tom Regan, another animal-rights philosopher,
having apparently spoken out quite strongly against William Wegman's
more recent Polaroid photographs of his dogs where they're typically
dressed up in human clothes because he felt that the images somehow
deny the dogs their "dogness." I think what is genuinely interesting
here is the fact that artists are some of the people who have been
rendering those ethical issues so complex. I don't know whether you've
come across this group of Minnesota-based artists called the Justice
for Animals Arts Guild, who have started lobbying various state arts
organizations and funding agencies to try to limit the ways in which
artists can incorporate living animals in their work.
To actually create a set of protocols?
That's right. I think that they're fully aware of the fact that they
may be open to the criticism that they're trying to engage in some
level of censorship, but they seem to me entirely justified in taking
the stance that the intentions of an artist should not automatically
override the interests of animals that get drawn into that artist's
Within the art world, questions often arise regarding the display of
animals in galleries and museums. For instance, Damien Hirst puts his
animals in vitrines within these so-called neutral white cubes and that
supposedly removes them from the normal spaces in which we would read
meaning into them.
But aren't galleries and museums some of the primary
sites in which we encounter animals, considering how many people in
urban centers rarely interact with animals in any kind of natural
Yes, I quite understand your reservations there. What I would say is
that long before people get into galleries and see what artists have
been doing with animals there, no matter how urban their lifestyles may
be they'll be pretty much familiar with wildlife and nature films on
television. But one of the other areas of shared knowledge which I
think is particularly problematic is the way in which fairly recent
film technology around computer-generated effects, animatronics, and so
on has been used in films like Disney's 102 Dalmatians
and that terrible second Babe film. Animals can suddenly do things like
speak to each other across the species barrier, which is nothing new in
itself, but they now do so with an extraordinary degree of filmic
realism, so that viewers can't easily assess the status of what they're
Even more recently, in Hannibal, the pack of
long-haired, tusked boars used in that film is an entirely real pack of
boars, but apparently it's an animatronic boar that's used in one of
the gorier scenes. But watching the film, there is no way that one
could easily spot where the distinction lies. I mention this not to say
what terrible uses this new technology is being put to, but rather to
make the point that when artists are manipulating their animal imagery
in a gallery it's usually at a level that's much, much more evident.
It's rather ironic that one has such a number of artists who seem in
recent years to have got interested in taxidermy at exactly the point
where taxidermy has come to seem such an outdated technique. In part I
think this is because it offers the scope not for creating a convincing
illusion of life, but something that will have enough cracks in its
surface for people to see that a more critical, thought-provoking point
is being explored. Somebody like Mark Dion is an interesting example in
relation to that sort of work, partly in terms of using what he calls
this "crazy taxidermist" who creates various animals for him, like the
polar bear covered in goat fur, or the bear covered in alpaca.
I guess what bothers me a bit is that artists like Dion
end up setting up fairly traditional dichotomies, such as the idea that
pets are bad because they're acculturated and, on the other hand, the
"real animal" exists in the Amazon. And you get this sense that he's
found unmediated access to animals by entering into the wild as a
visitor. I know he wouldn't put it in those exact terms, but….
No, but he's far from unusual in drawing that distinction. That for me
is one of the extraordinary ironies that I really hadn't expected in
doing this research. To find that that distinction between the wild and
the tame, the wild and the domestic, is still so central for many
contemporary artists—the determination that their work and that they
themselves are associated with notions of the wild, the dangerous, the
predatory and so on. It's a terribly romantic notion.
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.
Steve Baker is senior lecturer in historical and critical studies at the University of Central Lancashire in England.
Gregory Williams is an art critic and writer living in New York. He is also an editor of Cabinet.
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