Fall 2001

Where the Wild Things Are: An Interview with Steve Baker

Thinking and making with animals

Gregory Williams and Steve Baker

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.­

Cabinet: In The Postmodern Animal, what are some of the basic distinctions you draw between modern and postmodern animals?

Steve Baker: 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 [1997], 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 [link defunct—Eds.] 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.

The Blessing of the Animals, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York. Courtesy the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

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 with sentiment.

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 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.

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 [link defunct—Eds.] 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 monitored.

Britta Jaschinski, Beluga.

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 work.

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 environment?

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 seeing.

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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