Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stepping Outside Yourself || Open Thread

I probably don't have time this morning to do this topic justice, so I'll just attempt to initiate a conversation I assume may require a fair bit of additional research on my part to even begin to grasp its parameters.

In a conversation with Jennifer Dalton last week (whose new exhibition opens our season in September!), we agreed that what still widely passes as the "universal" in fine art contexts in the West is in fact predominantly Euro-centric and paternalistic. Moreover, when folks argue that this or that work isn't "universal" enough for them to really appreciate it, what they most frequently mean is that it strays too far from their own private worldview, not really that the vast majority of the rest of the world can't easily access it. (This remains one of the biggest challenges to a truly global art market, by the way....ideas that seem universal to many of us in the West seem highly alien to collectors in the East and vice versa.)

This notion of our self-centric definition of the "universal" struck me again while reading a review of a few books on a topic that has captured my imagination since the Leslie Thornton exhibition we had last January: the concept of animals as "other." The review, titled "The Question of the Animal" and written by Matthew Calarco, begins:
It is becoming increasingly clear that much of what goes by the name of posthumanist theory is (paradoxically) grounded on a stubborn and dogmatic form of anthropocentrism.
OK, so in the case of viewing animals as "other," I'm not quite sure we could explore that from anything other than an anthropocentric point of view (what's the alternative, attempting to view animals as "other" from a plant-centric point of view?), but I digress. Calarco's complaint centers on one of the assumed goals of posthumanist theory, moving beyond the notion that we humans are the center of the universe:
Yet in the wake of [posthumanism's] disruption and decentering of the human, there does not seem to have been any concerted effort on the part of posthumanist theorists to rethink either the ethico-political status of animals or dominant ideas concerning the various modes of relation that obtain between animals and human beings.
OK, so all of this begins to get a bit heady, but I sincerely think it's fascinating and potentially very important. And when it comes to important issues I don't understand, I generally turn to artists to help me make sense of it. So I was both interested and a bit repulsed to read about a project by French artists Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin. From Regine over at We Make Money Not Art:
The French artistic duo has been exploring trans-species relationships and the questioning of scientific methods and tools for 20 years now. This time their work involved injecting Marion Laval-Jeantet with horse blood plasma. Over the course of several months, the artist prepared her body by allowing to be injected with horse immunoglobulins, the glycoproteins that circulate in the blood serum, and which, for example, can function as antibodies in immune response. The artist called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same.

In February 2011, having progressively built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign immunoglobulins, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.

Horse immunoglobulins by-passed the defensive mechanisms of her own human immune system, entered her blood stream to bond with the proteins of her own body and, as a result of this synthesis, have an effect on all major body functions, impacting even the nervous system, so that the artist, during and in the weeks after the performance, experienced not only alterations in her physiological rhythm but also of her consciousness. "I had the feeling of being extra-human," explained the artist. "I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.'
I appreciate that Marion is aware enough to say she "probably" felt a bit like a horse (although, skeptic that I am, I suspect what she really felt was simply a new sensation as her body more subtlety adjusted to the alien blood). Still, this piece did help me open my mind to what it might really mean to step outside our anthropocentric selves. I'm not sure I like it (the notion, not the piece) mind you, and I'm not sure that what I experience as the "universal" ever really needs to be outside the "human" experience (although I'm utterly fascinated with posthumanist ideas).

Consider this an open thread on the idea of stepping outside yourself with an eye toward a wider understanding of the "universal."

Labels: animals, open thread


Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Though it is a step into seemingly infinite questions, possibilities, opinions, etc.

Shamans would take drugs to become panthers or reindeer or to experience the death of their ego. Stroke victims recount their experience of losing one side of their mind. The stories in myths about oracles also often follow a path to the "other".

Does a plant feel and how is it different from how a human feels? Is a cow in an industrial food processing plant aware of her future?
Are "other" higher-consciousness beings flying UFO's around tinkering with us like research projects?

How did the stinky homeless person on the subway bench get to where she/he is? It's easy to say insanity but considering the steps to such depths leaves a feeling that society failed them as much as they may have failed in society.

Riots in London cause me to ponder- are these "bad kids" or is the distance between the haves and have nots (others) so vast even there that the only recourse is to destroy the world they see around them.

8/10/2011 03:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whoa- that Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin piece sounds intense. It really exemplifies how our viewpoints are so much more narrow than we think they are. It also makes makes me think of all the ways, over time, that our culture has been shaped by our relationship with horses. And then it makes me think about drugs. drug use & mind expansion as a way to step outside yourself...

In terms of universality, art is a lot like language; most of the time you can still manage to communicate with someone, no matter how limited or extensive your ability to speak the same language may be.
Cross-cultural exchanges in art have been taking place since the dawn of time, and the exchange is almost always a two way street-- even if you hear one side of the story louder than the other. But instead of all that back and forth getting to something universal, I think what we get is really more more difference, more diversity.
...And difference, certainly, is universal.

8/10/2011 04:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Diedra Krieger said...

subjectivity. breathing. sleeping. potable water. social relations radicalized by artists. art by Roxana Pérez-Méndez

8/14/2011 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Although the "question of the animal other" is one that preoccupies me, I tend to find the "post-human meme" misguided (if fascinating). I don't believe that we need to "de-particularize" ourselves in order to examine our relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom (or to all other species, for that matter). In short, I'm seconding the anonymous comment above: "instead of all that back and forth getting to something universal, I think what we get is really more more difference, more diversity." It's pluralism versus universality, I suppose.

8/22/2011 04:00:00 PM  

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