Art for Animal Audiences, by Prof. Jessica Ulrich
Krõõt Juurak and Alex Bailey have been performing for pets over 90 times in different European cities since 2014. They invite pet owners to book performances that last about 20 minutes and usually take place in the pets home. This artwork is primarily but not exclusively aimed at an animal audience. I say not exclusively because otherwise we couldn’t talk about the work at such an event. Although Performances for Pets are created solely for appreciation by pets, their human companions are invited to join and view the performance. So Performances for Pets offer opportunities for bodily as well as cognitive experiences for at least two different species. There is something to learn from Performances for Pets for humans, too. Cats, dogs, and if they wish their human companions sense the dancelike as well as animal like movements of the two human performers, their attitudes, the unusual bodily positions, the interaction between the performers, the sounds, the smells. Each performance is adapted to the interests of the pet based on preliminary briefings of their owners. But as cats and dogs experience the performances with all their senses there are probably experiencing them in many ways that are inaccessible for humans.
The artists explicitly address pets, not wild animals, not farm animals or zoo animals. In indeed there is a special bond between humans and the animals we call pets. Humans and dogs but also cats share a millennia-old co-evolution and co-habitation. The history of domestication can no longer be regarded as a one-way development but as a mutual taming. Just as much as early humans made dogs, early dogs made homo sapiens. Co-evolution altered not only behavior and brains of both partners but also their genes.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of pet is: 'An animal (typically one which is domestic or tame) kept for pleasure or companionship.” Krõõt Juurak and Alex Bailey feel that the work done by pets at home is often not recognized as actual work. Nowadays cats and dogs are no longer used as beasts of burden or as guards of granaries but they still work, for example they provide emotional support and entertainement. In the attempt to repay at least some of this servitude or of this favor, Krõõt and Alex developed their project.
In his seminal book “Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets“ geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has shown how domestication and the emergence of the concept of the pet highlight a distinct power relationship between the nonhuman and the human. Although less commonly used today, the term “master” evokes dominance and subservience. The more commonly used word “owner”, however, cannot help but denote property, as in inanimate things over which humans claim ownership. Even more unsettling is an echoed reference to slavery; the property in this case is one sentient being owned by another. Drawing a comparison between slavery and contemporary pet keeping may seem extreme, but the existence of an unbalanced power dynamic is unavoidable. Human attitudes toward nonhuman animals, as benevolent as they often are, harbor ontological bias. While a hierarchy of species constantly shifts, humans continue to define that hierarchy. (Cats and dogs who defy the hierarchy often have to leave their home and the human-animal relationship altogether and they are oftentimes killed or put in shelters.)
I got to know Krõõt Juurak and Alex Bailey and their project during the exhibition #catcontent at Kunstpalais in Erlangen and I was lucky to witness one of their performances for my dogs Laika and Kitty. So actually it should be Laika and Kitty who should have been invited here as the more qualified experts on the work. I don’t want to be a patronizing mouthpiece of my dogs and tell you what they experienced during the show. Such a paternalism would just entrench the hierarchy between human and non-human once more. In my talk today I will try to situate the project in recent art history and animal studies rather than try to analyze the work itself. On the one hand I’m not a dance specialist –we have people in this room who have far more expertise than I do – and on the other hand I would find it somewhat awkward to talk about the artists and their intention and aspirations while they are present. After my talk we will have time to hear them explain their work in detail. I have prepared some questions that hopefully link my talk to their work.
Traditionally the art scene is a closed system that doesn’t allow animals in or if it does those animals are material, motives, models, they are objects to be observed, studied, represented, used but only rarely are they perceived as beings with intrinsic value and agency. In the last 20 years with the animal turn in the humanities and in the arts this is changing, though, and we experience more and more interspecies artworks, so works with animals, works by animals or works for animals. If one takes art for animals seriously, then humans have to hand over their interpretational sovereignty to allegedly inferior beings.
When it comes to performances for humans we already know that an audience is far from passive but that it has a big influence on the performances as such. The same of course holds true for performances for pets. The non-human audience is performing as well and it contributes to the outcome of the performance. Donna Haraway asserts that human-animal relationships constitute new identities. Speaking of dogs she says: 'Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships--co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exists the relating.' An identity of togetherness supersedes the individual non-human and the individual human.
One could interpret the activities of performers and pets as an always unfinished „active process of attunement“ - and exactly this is the definition of agency by Vinciane Despret.
In the last years the agency of non-human animals has been the focus of much scholarly work in the field of animal studies and it almost seems as if Performances for Pets are an artistic counterpart of this academic work. Animals are no longer passive objects but active partners in relational performative networks. They influence not only their surroundings and their humans but are also co-constituting a shared world. Art historian Matthew Fuller appropriately said that “Art using animals is trivial and abusive when it locks animals into devices that deplete its involvement in and creation of the world rather than supplementing it.“ And I see Performances for Pets as an exquisite example of mutual world building in the arts.
Now my humble attempt of an art historical contextualization of the project.
In 1965 Joseph Beuys lectured to a dead hare in his performance How to explain pictures to a dead hare in a gallery where he slowly walked from picture to picture gently carrying a dead hare in his arms. Occasionally he performed movements with the paws of the hare that made him look almost alive. The human audience had to stay outside the gallery and watched through a window while Beuys whispered into the hare’s ears and explained his enigmatic images to him. So it seems that the only being Beuys trusted to be worthy of knowing the secret meaning of his artwork was an animal. There are many different interpretations of this event. Most critics agree that Beuys alluded to the traditional iconographic meaning of the hare as a symbol for resurrection and reincarnation.
Beuys’ performances have been regarded as examples for an esteeming, respectful dealing with animals, mostly because of his own statements. But Beuys does not really address the individual hare whose body he manipulated. This specific animal is dead and gains his agency as initiator of mental processes solely because of the private mythology of Beuys who gave all the elements he interacted with very specific meanings.
There have been quite a few artworks that claim to address non-human animals in the years after Beuys’ initial and iconic performance. But most of them don’t take this claim seriously. One example would be the exhibition for dogs that was realized by Dieter Roth and Richard Hamilton in 1976. They painted images of sausages and shoes and installed them in a gallery in Barcelona in the eye level of dogs.
As purely visual objects the paintings could not raise the interest of dogs. The asserted exclusion of the human audience – an exclusion that was other than in Beuys’ performance not really enforced - could be read as a satirical attack of the saturated art scene. The sensual sensorium of the addressees is not taken into consideration whatsoever.
But other artists at the same time do not only assume that animals have aesthetic experiences they additionally take into account their aesthetics preferences and try to design artworks that really have meaning for animals – no matter if humans can relate to them or not. Works that address the different sensorial and perceptual worlds of animals could for example refrain from focusing the visual and the cognitive and go for example for movement and sound like in Performances for Pets, or even for olfaction.
Only one year after the exhibition for dogs by Roth and Hamilton, the German artist Wolf Kahlen has designed a more persuasive installation for dogs. In 1977 in Warsaw Kahlen created with Dog Territory an art exhibition for dogs that stayed completely enigmatic to human visitors. He prepared a gallery room closed to the human audience with a small hole where dogs could enter and leave. Inside he installed eight different scent-marks as “smell sculptures”. By means of a surveillance camera (and a monitor) fitted under a table, the dogs’ owners could kneel down and observe how their dogs were entirely absorbed in exploring the room and its exciting sensory qualities, while themselves remaining excluded from their experience. The work thus enacted the division between the world of humans and the world of animals more intensively than the gallery window in Beuys’ performance with the dead hare. The exclusion of humans is characteristic for many artworks that want to appeal an animal audience. That might be because they provide sensory experiences that are only relevant for animals but it also serves to show the exclusiveness of the global art world that usually not only excludes animals but also many humans.
In his detachment from the visual representational Kahlen orientates himself by the senses that are the most important for dogs. Scents are doubtless more interesting to dogs than paintings. But this means in this case that an amateur creates for an expert audience, almost as if a deaf person composes music. But a least Kahlen signalizes that he is ready to address animals in a way that is meaningful to them. Artworks like Dog Territory - and also Performances for Pets - might offer the chance for a new view of animals in art altogether. The display of dogs’ otherness and the implicit acceptance that animals’ experience is of value, even while remaining “other”, may show the way towards a new understanding and appreciation of animals. The true creators of this work by Wolf Kahlen are the dogs. Without them there is nothing to see and nothing to experience. Performanes for Pets are different not only because they work with movement rather than with scents but also because they invite the human companions to join the audience and share the same space with the performers as well as with the animals. It is more inclusive but if we want to describe the animals’ experiences during the performance we have the same problems. Both works thus bring into view the limits of human understanding and influence.
In order to clarify if there really can be artworks that are meaningful for animals one could start by asking if non-human animals are able to perceive objects as art at all. The question is of course an improper generalization. It would be necessary to specify in each individual case which animals we are looking at, what kind of artwork we are talking about and what concept of art we are taking for granted.
The innocent Eye test by Mark Tansey. In his 1992 essay Animals as art historians, the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto uses this painting of a cow in front of a painting of a bull to reason about image perception in general. His point is to clarify what it is that separates an artwork from reality. He concentrates on two-dimensional images only with some occasional mentioning of music as art form.
Danto states that a simple aesthetic reaction to images, music or other objects is possible even if the recipient does not have any prior knowledge of art. He draws from findings of experimental psychology to make the point that artistic representation has to be more than convention and he comes to the conclusion that animals are indeed responsive to pictorial content and that “perceptual competence is something of which the theoretically and culturally innocent eye is capable.“ But it needs more to recognize an image as an artwork, he claims. It requires skills that only humans have. He claims that it is not a simple pictorial competence or perceptual skill to tell art from other kinds of images and to value art, rather it is an exclusively human property that requires an abstract idea of art. According to Danto animals can be connoisseurs of art but they can never be art critics.
Danto’s sharp distinction between potential animal art connoisseurs and essentially human art critics raises once more the bar for human exceptionalism. As we know, most formerly secured attributes of anthropological difference have been dismissed one by one. Today most scientists do not doubt the existence of non-human intelligence, non-human empathy, non-human consciousness or even non-human culture anymore.
With Danto the skill to perceive art as art becomes one of the last distinctive features of humans.
Even though he draws from various scientific studies on animal pictorial competence to make his point, he ignores the many existing theories on the importance of aesthetic experiences of animals.
In the natural sciences there have been many studies on the species-specific aesthetic experiences of non-human animals. Charles Darwin - to name just one historic position - made the aesthetic taste of the peacock hen responsible for the evolution of a more beautiful peacock feathering – a theory that is taken up again more recently by scholars of evolutionary aesthetics. And Theodosius Dobzhansky defined the pleasure that the female bowerbird experiences when it gazes at the bowers built and decorated by their mates and at their mates dancing as aesthetic pleasure. I do not want to go into this any further but only mention the observations of primatologists like Jane Goodall and Adrian Koortlandt who witnessed apes contemplating the beauty of impressive natural spectacles and explained this as a display of the aesthetic experiences of those animals. Wild animals encounter aesthetic phenomena like waterfalls, sunsets or beautiful mates all the time but animals and human artworks usually do not share the same umwelt. They have to be brought together. One way of doing this is for example bringing art into their homes – like Performances for Pets does.
Evolutionary aesthetics suggest that there are evolutionary roots not only for the perception of natural objects but also for the perception of their representations in art – and that is is true for all animals, human and non-human.
Zoosemiotician Dario Martinelli suggests that everything in nature is meaningful and that there is a biological function for anything, also for art reception, „What marks the difference between "eating" and "listening to von Karajan's version of Le sacre du printemps" is mainly a matter of levels. The act of "eating" certainly satisfies a more direct and urgent biological compulsion (hunger), whereas the urge to listen to the von Karajan performance is less obvious in its biological function.“
Martinelli claims that aesthetic activities produce intrinsic pleasure. But this pleasure has also a biological function and even if it only serves the preservation of the emotional and intellectual welfare of an individual. Without going deeper into natural sciences I just want to add that there are many studies that seem to prove that there are aesthetic categories that are preferred by many human and non-human animals alike. For example humans as well as monkeys and crows show preferences for shiny colors, primary colors, rhythmic repetition, symmetries, steady curves, balanced compositions with equal emphasis in two halves of a picture etc.
Whereas some artworks for animals stay enigmatic to human recipients, others are also attractive for humans. That is especially true for musical works. It has been shown in several studies that many animals have a very qualified perception of auditory phenomenon in human culture. Several species have been shown to be able to discriminate different human music styles and to develop individual preferences for a particular kind of music. Music for animals, especially for birds is not a new thing. But human music making was always considered as superior to any animal music. In the 18th century for example people played so-called bird organs to caged birds in order to instruct them and to make their songs more pleasant to human ears.
A recent video work by Annika Kahrs may allude to this practice: Playing to the Birds of 2013 also addresses winged recipients. A masterly performed piano piece by Franz Liszt “Legend Number 1. Sermon to the birds by Saint Francis of Assisi’ is played to an audience of caged birds in a festive concert hall. The composition is inspired by the legends about the moral instructions to the birds by Saint Francis. Because they are arranged in their cages, the birds are other than the ones Saint Francis encountered, forced to listen. Art that confronts animals with human paintings or plays human music to animals stays deeply anthropocentric and clings to a value system animals usually cannot relate to. If animals can be trained to discriminate between human systems and structures like for example art styles, it does not necessarily mean that they have learned to enjoy human art but rather that they possess impressive cognitive, sensory and perceptual capacities.
The whole setting of “Playing to the Birds” reveals the violence that is done to the birds: Even though we usually acknowledge birds as the best musicians in the animal kingdom, they are here not only controlled physically but also mentally to adapt to the musical preaching of an all too human convention of music. The birds are staged as an expert audience to classical music so that the artwork exposes the abusive paternalism of our relations to other animals even when it comes to aesthetic experiences. Even though they are performing for indoor cats –and one could argue that this a captive environment as well, Kroot Juurak and Alex Bailey let the animals decide if they want to stay or leave the scene.
The prerequisite for a piece of art to work for animals is that animals have access to the piece. And Performances for Pets even comes to the home of the animals.
The same is true for Rachel Mayeri’s films for apes that she plays to them in the place where they have to spent their lives.
In one of her projects she first researches the cinematic preferences of chimpanzees in Edinburgh zoo with the help of a primatologist. She showed different film clips to the chimpanzees, different narratives, different genres, among them documentaries, cartoons, abstract films, and observed the reactions of the apes. Based on her research, Mayeri created the 11-minute film Primate Cinema: Apes as Family especially for the chimps in Edinburgh Zoo. This indoor wildlife documentary played by human actors in chimpanzee costumes tells the story of a young female chimp who becomes friends with a group of wild strangers. The story is all about food, sex, territorial behavior and status within the group.
The movie premiered in an outdoor enclosure in a chimp proof box and it was then conceived as a split screen for the human audience so that you could simultaneously see the reactions of the chimpanzees who were watching the film and were filmed at the same time.
Chimpanzees are very interested in social relations. It is vital to them that they observe each individual in their group carefully in order to recognize their status or mood and then adapt their own behavior accordingly. Rachel Mayeri supposes that this is why primates like to watch relationship dramas.
Rachel Mayeri, Primate Cinema: Apes as Family, (still) 2011 cindy kitchen
And to confront her human recipients with the reactions of the apes not only makes the artificial conditions of the whole set up transparent but it also presents the apes as active agents of their own perceptions. Maybe artworks like this not only widen the discussion of aesthetic capabilities of animals but they make people identify with animals. Watching chimps watch TV might display another level of closeness of different primate species. So people may come to think that chimps do not only deserve ethical consideration because they are sentient, conscious or intelligent but simply because they enjoy watching films just like humans do. The same could be true for Performances for Pets. Another correspondence to Performances for Pets is that the project was initiated to set something against the boredom of those beings whose sole purpose is to entertain us. Boredom is of course not only a problem for captive animals in zoos or laboratories but also for our pets, Kroot Juurak and Alex Bailey were probably well aware of this fact when they developed Performance for Pets.
A more traditional way of distracting or entertaining pets could be sports. Especially dog sports is also a theme in recent art. In 2012 during documenta 13, Brian Jungen built Dog Run a fenced in agility course in a park in Kassel. It functioned as a kind of adventure playground for dogs and their humans. Tellingly Donna Haraway has described agility as performance art. However, the meeting of human and dogs is often asymmetrical, also in dog sports. Like human beings dogs are team players, but rarely they are seen as equal partners.
Jungen subverts the idea of a conventional agility course. Regular agility courses are to be found in dog sports clubs and dogs are supposed to use them under the guidance of trainers. Obstacles have to be completed in a given order or time. But this course can be used however the dog wants to. Dog Run shall be fun not training or work. To just play around in the construction is ok.
What interests me most is that Dog Run also draws much of its appeal from the analogy of art and play. Many philosophers have highlighted the close relationship of the two concepts.
Dog Run, dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany, 2012
Zoosemiotician Thomas Seboek regards play as the precursor of art and in more recent times Dario Martinelli stresses the close relationship of lying (pretending/to make believe), playing and aesthetics.
Art and play follow their own rules that do not remain valid in real life. Despite of the openness of play processes, each play has its clear limits that close it up from the sphere of everyday life. That is also true for performance art, at least in a traditional sense. The space of art and the space of play are both undetermined places of freedom that give room for ideas and provide opportunities for the development of possibilities and potentialities. A play can offer experiences just as an artwork and both have the power to transform the involved beings. A player has to be prepared to lose a game just like an art recipient has to be prepared to fail the meaning of an artwork.
Ethologist Marc Bekoff demonstrates that animals know how to play fair and that they are perfectly capable of conforming to the rules of the game and also that animals can pretend while playing. Animals take into account the skills of their playmates and know how to switch roles and apply self-handicapping in order to create and maintain an equal base for playing. One could assume that animals understand that Kroot Juurak and Alex Bailey perform for them, that their unusual movements are not functional but are some form of aesthetic display and that they also know that they are now the audience of this display. One could even ask if they are playing along, immersing in the role of attentive observes in order not to spoil the game. It is always difficult to find criteria for a good artwork. And it is especially messy to measure the quality of an artwork that addresses animals. A work of art can maybe already be considered successful if an animal reacts to it in a positive way and if an animal shows interest in it.
The aesthetic preferences of animals are not the same as human tastes and delights. A scent that gives deep pleasure to a dog might be no more than bad smell for people. Many colors that insects and birds fancy cannot even be perceived by human beings. The fact that aesthetic opinions and sensibilities vary from species to species does not mean that one species possess such a sensibility while the other does not. We cannot know how dogs see images and we do not know what apes like about movies. But we can certainly say that animals react to performative artworks that relate to their own reality.
Performers who try to back away from a solely human canon of forms are probably most likely to produce art that can be meaningful for animals. Nevertheless they inevitably stay stuck in their own umwelt and they can only experiment with the material and the techniques provided to them by human culture. Thereby they require from their animal audience an adaption to a human canon of values. But still, their performances can become relevant and interesting to animals just as much as humans can admire the beauty of animal productions like the sculptures of bowerbirds or the songs of whales.
If there is such a thing as a ‘development’ of art for animals from Joseph Beuys’ performance How to explain pictures to the dead hare to Performances for Pets then it might be that the animals who are addressed are no longer allegorical, symbolic or metaphorical beings but real living individuals. They are taken seriously as living and experiencing recipients with their own view of the world and a certain inner life. The attempt to establish performances for animals –and even if it turns out to be art for humans in the end – discharges animals from their traditional status as consumable exhibition objects for the human gaze.