Why do we look at animals?

A small bestiary

Etcetera Sep 2013English

item doc

Contextual note
This essay was first published in Etcetera in Dutch. Translated by Jeroen Peeters with the support of Make-up Productions.

1. Human

Why do we look at animals? Today, our gaze is mediated by the zoo, the dramatized wildlife documentary, Disney, the food industry and other circuses that have contributed to the far-reaching abstraction, cultural marginalisation and instrumentalisation of the animal throughout modernity.(1)Never before did so many children grew up without knowing where meat and milk come from. At the same time, our society has a growing awareness of the role modernity plays in the current ecological crisis. In light of this, art centres and thematic festivals (such as Burning Ice #6 in March 2013 at the Kaaitheater in Brussels) aim to create a space for discussion and reflection concerning our relation to animals. What exactly do the arts add to the debate? What promise does the animal hold for us? Why do we look at animals in the arts?

            Although animals did once have a self-evident place in our living environment, the nostalgia for an authentic relation with animals, and hence for a naive way of inhabiting the world, is in itself a by-product of modernity. Since man and animal don’t share language, there is no understanding of each other’s Umwelt, let alone a mutual understanding. Animals linger on the edge of our language-ridden world, they remind us of that which we don’t understand and thus of art’s very beginning. That is at least the primal scene Georges Bataille describes in Lascaux ou la naissance de l’art (1955) when watching the earliest grotto paintings: by shedding his animalistic nature, man lost “the glory of the beast”, for which he sought compensation in the transgressive practices of art and play. Yet, can the Aristotelian insight that the place of humans is delimited by respectively gods and animals still be maintained today? If the symbolic place of god has been exchanged nowadays for an aesthetics of catastrophe (in which latest since the mad cow disease also animals have a place), then what horizon of meaning can the animal open up for us today? Both the pastoral conception and the use of animals to stir discomfort and incite political debate therefore do not only concern subject matter but also the status of representation.

            Animals remind us of the environment’s vitality for us, human beings: we are entirely part of an ecosystem that envelopes and carries us. The environment equally underpins in its originary expressiveness the oral and embodied sources our current language and culture thrive upon. With this analysis in Becoming Animal (2010), the philosopher David Abram doesn’t want to renounce writing and digital culture, but wonders whether we can embrace this ecological phenomenology in order to arrive at a richer sense of culture: “How, then, to renew our visceral experience of a world that exceeds us – of a world that is wider than ourselves and our own creations? (...) Can we renew in ourselves an implicit sense of the land’s meaning, of its own many-voiced eloquence? Not without renewing the sensory craft of listening, and the sensuous art of storytelling. (...) Can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth.”(2)

            The animal indicates the limits of our understanding and of our sense of superiority, but also its paradoxical promise now appears to be more complex: via the animal that slumbers in us can we unfold our bodies in the imaginary realm and thus become fully human, a becoming that inevitably also means a ‘becoming-with’ and so a ‘becoming-heterogeneous’ or ‘becoming worldly’.(3) How can we begin to understand ourselves as animals? The postmodern shamanism of David Abram points out that ecological awareness cannot be detached from a critical reflection on representation, thus granting a fundamental place to art in this matter. A few recent performances bring real or imaginary animals on stage in order to explore aspects of our self-image. They teach us barely anything about animals, yet they do initiate a critical relation to spectatorship and thereby provoke specific questions. Why do we look at animals in the theatre?


2. Donkey

In Balthazar (1. Stories)(4) by David Weber-Krebs and Maximilian Haas the audience sit on a raised stage at a safe distance of the playing surface where a light grey donkey walks around. The donkey goes her way, yet tends to follow the six performers when they start to walk. A good part of the performance consists of a group of humans and an animal walking patterns together. Together here means that sometimes the donkey walked at the front, sometimes at the back, sometimes it follows the human performers, sometimes not, and sometimes it seems as if they understand each other and are executing a choreography together. Sometimes the donkey is compliant, sometimes it is as ‘stubborn as a mule’. Sometimes it addresses the audience, sometimes it can’t be bothered. Sometimes the donkey is waiting by the door because it would like to leave the theatre as soon as possible. Sometimes it is shitting all across the stage. Actually, nothing much happens and that is wonderful. The stories mentioned in the title are actually taking place in the spectator’s mind.

            After a while even more ‘stories’ and frames are being projected onto the donkey, starting with the animal’s biography. In search of interaction someone carries in a loudspeaker, upon which the donkey brays. Or a life-size cardboard outline of donkey is wheeled in, upon which the donkey comes closer in curiosity – to then smell the representation’s ass and think her own mind. The one moment in which the donkey is truly interested in the situation is when the actors eat carrots. At the end a Poitou donkey joins the company and together they now walk their patterns with a somewhat more motley group. These interventions do provide all too much dramaturgy in order to put impatient spectators at ease, for on closer inspection also these stories are actually already taking place in the spectator’s mind.

            By the way, the donkeys are not mentioned by name in the credits and at the end of the performance they didn’t receive flowers (which did look tasty!). Next to the six drama students they were however the only professional performers on stage, who listen to the names Lily and Charles, spend their days in the company of humans in a petting zoo and also play a role in historical re-enactments once in a while. These animals do have their own biography that carries and shapes their acting capacities. On the work with human actors, Weber-Krebs said in a post-performance talk that they “had to learn to listen to the animal and what it responds to. It’s a matter of anticipation and reflection that takes the habits of the animal as a starting point. Since the animal wants to leave the space and we’re nevertheless in a theatre, the question for me as a director was: how do you deal with this situation?”

            The Balthazar in the title refers to the donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), a milestone in cinema that had a large influence on among others Michael Haneke. In Bresson’s ‘gestural’ poetics, the donkey is the ultimate ‘non-acting’ actor that doesn’t inspire identification with canned ideas, but time and again appears as a virginal projection screen. The donkey doesn’t exactly symbolize a desire for authenticity, but, according to Haneke, functions in a reflexive artistic practice in which there is “no room for ideology or explaining the world, for commentary or comfort.” The hermetic gesture contains more utopia than all of this, precisely because it activates the viewer and takes him seriously.(5)

            As a projection screen, the donkey is vulnerable because it can’t speak back or demand attention for its biography. It seems doubtful to me that Balthazar (1. Stories) makes us speak differently about animals, yet Haneke’s analysis points out a paradox. A festival such as Burning Ice #6 wants to bring up our aggravated instrumentalisation of animals for discussion, yet at the same time it all too easily tends to instrumentalize art in light of societal matters. This is moreover a wider trend today, which often overestimates art’s political impact. Still, taking the spectator au sérieux means also this: how could we at all think about non-instrumental relations to animals, things, other people and the rest of the world if in our relation to art itself there is increasingly less space for stubborn gestures and ambiguous experiences? That is perhaps the lesson in modesty the donkey teaches us.


3. Culebra Island Amazon of Puerto Rico

The animal as metaphor is central in Abecedarium Bestiarium (6), for which Antonia Baehr invited artist friends to take an extinct animal species as inspirational source for portraying their relationship in the form of a score. This procedure reminds one of Baehr’s Lachen/Rire/Laugh (2008), yet this time it doesn’t take off so easily: the work relies too much on the private mythology of Baehr and her clique, which isn’t always interesting for outsiders. The scores are moreover mediocre in quality, making them eventually mainly a vehicle for the virtuosic performer that Baehr is. Dressed in an old-fashioned men’s suit, Antonia Baehr presents each evening a different selection from the collection of scores while guiding the audience around like in an exhibition space, to then flesh out a Dodo, a Yangtze River Dolphin, a Tasmanian Tiger, a Martelli’s Cat, a Forest Tarpan or a Lesser Bilby. The form is diverse qua media but unwaveringly strict in its interpretation, for extreme disciplining is a strategy employed by Baehr as an artist and performer to raise gender issues. A surprising contribution is ‘The Steller’s Sea Cow Sonata for Solo Performer and Endangered Media’ by Sabine Ercklentz, for which Baehr is seated at a table and creates via voice, tape recorder and other analogue media a soundscape that might sound like a far echo of the Steller’s Sea Cow but mainly reminds us of the role media play in our imagination.

In Abecedarium Bestiarium the animal is a somewhat arbitrary theme, yet that also makes something clear: animals speak to us and at the same time don’t speak to us. With numerous stories, fables and fairy tales, we have a veritable cultural history featuring animals, even though that imaginary realm has dwindled with modern life. At the same time, as human beings we will never be able to understand the language and world of animals. The extremes of the common and the alien characterize also Baehr’s insistence on an idiosyncratic art, which claims its autonomy by designing a language on the basis of familiar signs that in their bizarre combination appear as totally foreign. On the level of gender she develops queer identities that derive their intelligibility from the re-enactment and redistribution of existing role templates. In a score by Pauline Boudry, as a figure in drag Baehr pulls a Culebra Island Amazon of Puerto Rico on wheels behind her, a duet in which a moustached ventriloquist on high heels and a parrot perform Gertrude Stein’s ‘Patriarchical Poetry’. Although Baehr’s work often provokes political interpretations, this never happens via clear statements but through a whimsical imagination and a recalcitrant form. Art speaks to us and at the same time it doesn’t speak to us. Other than the aloof donkey, the gesture of the Culebra Island Amazon of Puerto Rico is multi-coloured and brimming with culture. Where we think it speaks our language, the chattering parrot misleads us and turns out to be a red herring.


4. Dog, horse and stage hog

How do animals perceive themselves and their environment? This investigation of the sensory structure of specific animals was the choreographic point of departure of Martin Nachbar’s Animal Dances (7), on which I collaborated as a dramaturge. The dancers do not so much represent animals, but rather evoke imaginary bodies through exploring the fundamentally foreign bodies of the cow, dog, horse, tortoise, praying mantis, pigeon and coral. All these animals are moreover presented walking upright and they wear regular clothing – it’s after all humans who embody them, whereby the different animals also underscore the individual traits of the dancers. The initial responses during the performance were in many cases negative because spectators saw ‘just animals, like child’s play’, and it only gradually dawned on them that it was also ‘dance’. In this process spectators have to face the awareness that they’re mostly busy with their own projections and thus often keep the performance on a leash as if it were a dog. How can the choreographic exploration of alternative human-animal relations grant relief and complexity to the relation between spectator and performer?

            Domestication has traditionally been a foundational process for the meaningful structuring of our world. During the creation process it occurred to me that all the dancers identified strongly with the horse. One of the four Animal Dances shows five dancers galloping rounds for fifteen minutes, sharing the rhythm of their feet on agreed moments to then let it go again in a rumble of stamping legs, or create formations and parade like Lipizzaner while one dancer takes on the role of trainer, and then resume galloping until they’re at the brink of exhaustion. In spite of all postmodern critique, the dancers’ years of physical training are nothing other than a process of self-domestication, and this expresses itself in the dancers’ desire for disciplining and virtuosity.

            Only via relational practices can we unfold ourselves in the realm of the imaginary, a ‘becoming with’ that bears witness to our corporeal, cultural and ecological embeddedness. Our relation to animals is a manifestation of this, whereby an all too narrow approach of domestication in terms of disciplining is limiting. Philosopher Vinciane Despret analyzes for instance the phenomenon of ‘isopraxis’ that comes into being between rider and horse or between scientist and guinea pig. She situates the ‘becoming with’ in the attunement between bodies, in this case interspecies relationships. The horse and the rider ‘read’ each other’s muscles through touch, a mutual sensory disposition which is so refined that the smallest mental impulse of the rider suffices to activate the horse. Partly intentional and partly inadvertent, isopraxis only exists in and through a specific relation and learning process. In a similar way, laboratory rats appear to be able, through empathy, to behave precisely in tune with the expectations of the researchers. From the perspective of ‘becoming with’ also the researchers make themselves available to other experiences, such as the mutual becoming of observers and animals.(8)

            Is not the theatre also a laboratory in which complex affective relations between becoming bodies take place? Beyond the idea of representation, the medium theatre offers a symbolic architecture in which players and spectators discipline, domesticate, or attune each other, etc., and thus open up themselves for experiences foreign to them, experiences that first emerge in this mutual relation. Some of these imaginary animals come only into being in the theatre. What to think of the stage hog ['podiumbeest'in Dutch, literally ‘stage animal’] (‘Rampensau’ in German, and in English in a somewhat different meaning degenerated into a ‘ham’)? And does not the eager-to-read attitude of the spectator all too easily resemble the lethal gaze of the basilisk? What hybrid zoo has the theatre in store for us today?


6. Tasmanian tiger

During the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in May 2013, Jozef Wouters expanded the Natural History Museum with a new wing in the garden. Against the backdrop of the European Parliament, a giant construction of scaffolding with the inscription Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species supports an observation balcony looking out onto an exhibition with objects, photos, and captions. In the eponymous performance Wouters welcomes the audience in the institute and asks everyone to hold on to a sheet of paper with instructions, hastily Xeroxed and added to the official programme notes: “4. Ecology is not about guilt. Nature is not about harmony. The institute avoids apocalyptic doom scenarios, anthropocentric exaggeration or self-absorbed melancholy.” And: “8. We should be angrier than we are.” After the introduction, as you are seated at a desk and browsing through photos and other material for study, the performance unfolds like an audio-play.

With a wink at scientific precision and Linnaeus’s taxonomy, Wouters is mainly occupied with giving not-knowing and doubt a place in his natural history museum: “The question is, which images will be able to evoke the story of a species that continually makes choices without knowing the consequences?” The first exhibit is a replica of the cage in which Benjamin, the last Tasmanian tiger, died in the night from 7 to 8 September 1936. Also the other extinct species whose stories are part of the collection, have a name, a biography and a date of death. In a personal and poetic style, Wouters evokes their history, each time pointing at the role humans played in their domestication or exploitation. All the collected images and anecdotes express paradoxes that occur when humans are asked to think and act on a global and ecological scale. At the same time they also speak of Wouters’ fascination and personal quest for meaning and imagination. When Wouters adopts the insistent style of the instructions and starts to philosophize and moralize at length, he’s mostly irritating, and also that is probably deliberate.

Furthermore it is the bumbling form of the Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species that provokes irritation: isn’t Wouters all too ambitious in wanting to make an installation, an audio play and a performance all at once? While leaving the balcony and descending into the actual collection it becomes clear how much Wouters’ messy approach is his prime artistic strategy. Almost the entire installation consists of Wikipedia printouts and YouTube footage, toying with the current confusion around the status of information and research. As a whole, the installation is something midway between the kitsch of Mini-Europe and the makeshift aesthetics of Thomas Hirschhorn. All the images are monuments for (in)significant moments, with the extinct species operating as a beacon for narrativity. However, do they have the power to create a public sphere? The deliberately poor form of the Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species poignantly addresses the catastrophe of our imagination. Wouters: “Filmmaker Werner Herzog says that an even greater problem than the ecological catastrophes themselves, is our lack of adequate imagery that enables us to represent and imagine our position on this planet.”(9)


7. Albino crocodile

How can we communicate into the future via images? In the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), filmmaker Werner Herzog reflects on the oldest known grotto paintings in Chauvet, about 32,000 years old. He does this in the youngest mass medium, 3D film, which he deliberately uses in a poor way – the invention of technical gadgets doesn’t hold more than an ephemeral medial promise after all, certainly not on a geological time scale. The grotto paintings constitute a memory of the ways in which mankind adapted itself to its environment and related to animals, plants and landscape. In a postscript Herzog suggests in a disconcerting way that within several millennia there will remain animals as a living archive of our civilisation – and possibly also as an ‘innocent’ projection screen. About 30 km from the Chauvet cave live albino crocodiles and other mutants in a tropical glasshouse complex, nurtured with the cooling water of one of France’s many nuclear power plants. “Soon these albinos might reach the Chauvet cave. Looking at the paintings, what will they make of them?”



(1) For an extended analysis, see John Berger, ‘Why look at animals?’ (1977), in Idem, Why Look at Animals?, London 2009, pp. 12-37.

(2) David Abram, Becoming Animal. An Earthly Cosmology, New York, 2010, pp. 288-9

(3) On these different forms of becoming in relation to animals, see Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis, 2008, pp. 3-42, and Vinciane Despret, ‘The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis’, Body & Society, vol. 10 no. 2-3, 2004, pp. 111-134.

(4) Balthazar (1. Stories) was presented in March at De Bottelarij in the framework of Burning Ice #6 of the Kaaitheater.

(5) Cf. Michael Haneke, ‘Schrecken und Utopie der Form. Bressons Au hasard Balthazar’ (1995), in Idem and Thomas Assheuer, Nahaufnahme Michael Haneke. Gespräche mit Thomas Assheuer, Berlin, 2010, pp. 173-191

(6) Abecedarium Bestiarium was presented in Beursschouwburg at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in May 2013.

(7) Animal Dances was presented in March at the Kaaistudio’s in the framework of Burning Ice #6.

(8) See Vinciane Despret, ‘The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis’, Body & Society, vol. 10 nr. 2-3, 2004, pp. 111-134. Note that the Feldenkrais technique in dance is baed on similar principles: the activation of corporeal patterns via a mental process.

(9) Interview with Jozef Wouters by Michaël Bellon, ‘Kijk eens naar het uitgestorven vogeltje. Nieuwe vleugel voor Museum voor Natuurwetenschappen’, Brussel deze week, 2 May 2013, p. 15