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  • Writer's pictureT Lines

Lurking in the Boundaries, Animals Encroaching on the Human Subject

Updated: Mar 18, 2023

Below is my Fine Art BA Dissertation, completed in Spring 2018. It is hard to believe that it has been five years. I was pleasantly surprised with how much interesting research went into this project. Enjoy.

“Animals have long been used in films as metaphors, symbols or as screens on which to project all kinds of things. Such depictions of animals are based on the idea of a hierarchy of living creatures, with superior active human subjects forcing inferior passive animals, as objects, into their representations.” – Jessica Ullrich, on the work of Nobuhira Narumi. [1]

The question of the animal is arguably seen as marginal in the humanist discourses that have emerged and solidified through the history of Western society. John Berger may have encapsulated the condition of animals in post-industrial societies in the clearest terms, positing that when one sees an animal at a zoo, or any other institution existing for observation of animals, one will find oneself “looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal[2] (His italics). In contemporary Western society, with most people living in cities, massive habitats designed for and only for human life, one’s interactions with animals are limited to “the family and the spectacle;[3] the ‘family animal’ referring to the domesticated animal, usually a cat or a dog, and the ‘spectacle animal’ to the animal represented in wildlife photography and zoos.

Giorgio Agamben, like many other posthumanist theorists, explores throughout “The Open[AJ1] ” the political and philosophical apparatuses by which a “caesura” operates between the human and the non-human animal.[4] Focusing on fundamental strategies through which the human is elevated above the animal in humanist discourses from Aristotle to Heidegger exposes the diverse and unsteady foundation for what could be called human exceptionalism, as well as the wide-reaching consequences that these foundational caesurae have on human subject-hood, science, and politics.

Artists are increasingly interested in the animal, not in the sense in which they are usually presented in Western art and literature. Jessica Ullrich points out that the animal is usually presented instrumentally to talk about humanity; it is rare to see an animal presented as an animal in and of itself.[5] The artists whose work I will explore in this essay disrupt the anthropocentric discourses around the animal. They present the human as a dominating and insecure type of being, defining the world in relation and opposition to themselves, anxious that their self-given privileges are fading away. Pierre Huyghe presents a commodified macaque in Untitled (Human Mask), disrupting anthropocentrism through an ambiguous presentation of a ‘humanised’ animal. Nobuhira Narumi and Sam Easterson let the nonhuman animal handle the camera, and thus present a view of the world that disrupts the human perspective, rendering it disruptively subjective. Finally, Patricia Piccinini presents a monstrous family of bio-engineered creatures which explore with compassion the ambiguous area of bio-technology. Each of the artists could be said to present some form of monstrosity. Georges Canguilhem writes in his essay “Monstrosity and the Monstrous” that the monstrous is a subjective and organic term which is only meaningful from the human perspective.[6] Monstrosities challenge the humanist ordering of nature, breaching the limits of taxonomies and categorisation – “[they are] disquieting: life is less sure of itself than we thought.”[7] Each of these pieces breaches the human boundary, sitting ambiguously on the limits between the animal and the human.


Tackling the “animal problem” in humanist thought is far from a simple exercise in giving animals more respect and thought than they have tended to be given. It becomes evident that deconstructing the human subject by exploring the boundaries put up against the animal results in a holistic challenge to assumptions which have been made in philosophy, legislature, epistemology; and questions around the nature of experience, medicine, and much more. Even animal rights activists struggle with anthropocentric and anthropomorphic perspectives they project onto the animals they wish to liberate. Cary Wolfe outlines the shortcomings of what Pooja Rangan calls ‘humane-itarians’[8] – “[the] philosophical and theoretical frameworks used by humanism to try and make good on… commitments [to ending animal cruelty and discrimination against people with disabilities] reproduce the very kind of subjectivity – a specific concept of the human – that grounds discrimination against nonhuman animals and the disabled in the first place.”[9]

The posthumanist aim, therefore, is to attempt to break from this specific form of humanist subjectivity and recognise and respect the perspectives of nonhuman animals, as well as marginalised humans who do not fall under the traditional conception of the subject. The artists I am to explore in this essay all subvert this human subject-hood, proposing either a hybrid subjectivity or a disintegration of the subject, appreciating existences which do not self-define as distinct and complete autonomous existences.

Jacques Derrida, alongside Agamben, Baker, and other theorists of the posthumanist discourse, often ground their exploration of the animal on and against the Heidegger’s de/reconstruction of the human subject. Whereas classically the world is seen as split between dualisms, one of which is the dualism of subject/object, Heidegger presented a concept of existence that broke with the humanist subject. Instead of a distinct subject that is free to interact with and manipulate distinct but inanimate objects, Heidegger posits the Dasein, a word denoting, in simplest terms, an existing being, as inhabiting a ‘mood,’ which lies neither within an acting subject nor an object, but in a being-in-the-world.[10] This theory is useful for subverting the humanist subject and giving due respect to beings which inhabit different worldings, such as nonhuman animals.

However, as Derrida points out, the Heideggerian subject is always a human (and often presented in male terms) – “The possibility for the indeterminate “who” to become subject, or, more originarily, to become Dasein and Dasein thrown into the world, is reserved for man alone.”[11] Although many modern philosophers have disrupted humanism, he argues, they remain humanist philosophers,[12] as they deny animals subject-hood or to be Dasein, and thus access to ethics, law, freedom, truth, responsibility, etc.

At a fundamental level, those who are deemed non-human are freely subjected to “a noncriminal putting to death”.[13] These could be those beings which fall out of the taxonomic category Homo Sapiens, or humans who are deemed to have relinquished or lost their humanity.[14] As Berger writes, whereas once animals have been regarded as distinct equals in the world to humans, “in the first stage of the industrial revolution, animals were used as machines [and later], in the so-called post-industrial societies, they are treated as raw material.” Derrida’s concept of “carnophallogocentrism” describes how the contemporary human subject confirms their authority through the masculine consumption of the animal body.

The “noncriminal putting to death” and then consumption (in a broadened sense) of the animal other acts as an attempt to control nature through what Derrida calls the “executions of ingestion, incorporation, or introjection of the corpse”[15]. This theory resonates with Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, with which she argues that the subject forms itself by what it chooses to reject. The Kristevan subject rejects things which destabilise its ‘order of things’ – “it is thus not a lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”[16] The works that Huyghe, Easterson, Narumi, and Piccinini have made present a hybrid tool for understanding the subject that they subvert. This subject defines itself by regulating what it consumes, after Derrida, and by rejecting that which disgusts it, that which inhabits the borderland between taxonomies, after Kristeva. By undermining the human subject’s comfortable ground, posthumanist thought and artwork can create considerable anxiety, or even horror in the reader or viewer.

A Monkey’s Claim on Humanity: Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled (Human Mask)

Pierre Huyghe’s film “Human mask” (2014) [1] depicts a strange and isolated figure inhabiting an empty restaurant. At first sight one would assume they were seeing a girl – the figure has a smooth human face, upright posture, wears a dress and has long human-like hair. This “girl’s” arms and legs are also covered in hair and possesses a lithe sinewy body. Soon, the viewer recognises the figure to be some type of monkey wearing a mask. The monkey in question is a macaque known as “Fuku-chan”, trained from infancy to work as a waiter at a restaurant in Tokyo. Ana Teixera describes this process – “To strengthen their hind legs they are often hung by the neck with both hands tied up for weeks on end, until they finally acquire a human-like posture, learning to handle props and perform human chores.”[17] The viewer finds themselves in front of a monkey that has been trained to be partially human, adopting a human face, human posture, and a human social role as waiter; albeit the human role that the monkey takes on is no more than that of unpaid servitude, which signals the monkey’s lack of mobility into the human ranks. The diminutive honorary “-chan” is another clue to the monkey’s symbolic inferiority to the humans who enslaved it, as it is an addition usually only reserved for small children and other cute-yet-inferior people and beings.

The introduction of the film sets the monkey’s location in an abandoned restaurant in Fukushima, after the nuclear meltdown which led to the evacuation of its residents.[18] We see a creature doubly removed from its function, “a false person in a fake environment” as Jennifer Higgie puts it, but also a servant to human want, suffering the absence of her customers. She routinely sets up the tables, running back and forth between kitchen and dining room, performing actions without consequence.

Fuku-chan is presented with the key visual characteristics to recognise a human by, most importantly in its face, posture, and clothing. The mask she wears is the type worn in Japanese Noh theatre, positioning Fuku-chan as the hero of the story, while also hiding her capacity for facial expression, something key to macaque communication.[19] Higgie points out that “only the main actor in Noh wears a mask, which is meant to show the character in his true light – his essential traits having been distilled into a single expression.” She sees the human mask placed over Fuku-chan’s expressive face as a “mockery of the monkey’s innate characteristics… [an] embodiment of anthropomorphism at its most seductive and cruel, creating a literal barrier between the monkey’s world and ours.”[20] The monkey’s facial expressions are overwritten with blank human features.

Exploring the capital that macaques possess as cultural commodities, Agustin Fuentes argues that the place of the macaque in Japanese society is partly expressed by the common usage of macaques in “theatrical performances… where the monkeys mimic specific types of human cultural behaviour… often clothed in specific garb that denotes the human social roles they are playing.”[21] Referencing the impact of the Chinese novel “Journey to the West” on East Asian cultures, he posits that the “role of the monkey as assistant to humanity [as presented in “Journey to the West”]… allows a symbolic and mytho-historical context for the interaction patterns between humans and nonhuman primates (especially macaques) in much of Asia.”[22]The macaque therefore is presented in Human Mask as a fluctuating figure, standing in for a human Noh hero and a monkey assistant, while suffering the concealment of her own nature, anthropomorphised by her empty human signifiers. Fuku-chan’s humanised visage expresses that quality which Pooja Rangan argues is celebrated by the anthropocentric majority who present “proximity to the human as an evolutionary ideal.”[23]

Anselm Franke argues convincingly that to look closely at apes and monkeys draws us into “a play between similarity and difference that lies at the core of mimetic processes and signification. Yet [also,] we are drawn into a web of narratives and imaginaries around the origins of humanity and society, and its relations to ‘nature.’”[24] The activity of the primate, by their proximity to the human, cannot help but disrupt clear dualisms between humanity and nature. In Ape Theatre, Berger interprets apes at Basel Zoo to be performers, observing that they act disarmingly similarly to humans. In this essay he asks – “Is theatre possible without an awareness of re-enactment…?”[25] To Berger, awareness of re-enactment seems to be contingent on an awareness of self. Similarly, the early taxonomist Linnaeus, unable to find a clear distinction between humans and other primates, defined Man as “the animal that must recognise itself as human to be human.” [26]

The argument that self-awareness is an ontological attribute is strangely similar to Lacan’s theory of the formation of the subject. To Lacan, the human subject forms when the young child begins to distinguish themselves from the environment around them, a point in time which he termed the ‘mirror stage,’ since it is at this point that the child can recognise themselves in a mirror.[27] Within animal cognition sciences, the mirror test has been used to argue that certain primates have an “‘own-body’ concept.”[28] Clive D.L. Wynne describes how “chimpanzees, after an initial period of reacting to their reflection as if it were another chimpanzee, quickly learn that the mirror shows them themselves and they then go to use it to inspect areas of their bodies that are not normally visible.”[29] If we are to accept the Lacanian theory of subject formation, then one must include certain primates amongst us self-aware subjects. Huyghe’s macaque could be read as a performer: with mask, she re-enacts roles which she appears to understand are in vain (since there are no customers present), and her responses of frustration reach a peak when she pushes over a bottle she had carefully placed on a table.

Inverting the logic that Fuku-chan would not be able to perform because she is not human, one might infer humanity from her apparent performativity. As Ana Teixeira Pinto writes – “[w]hat emerges out of Huyghe’s video… is the performative dimension of the human; as much as ‘female’ and ‘woman’ do not necessarily overlap, ‘humanity’ can be seen as the effect of reiterated acting, which can be either coupled or decoupled from the concept of Homo Sapiens.”[30] Colleen Glenney Boggs argues convincingly against any essentiality based on species, stating that “animal studies has recognised the fact that animality (just like humanity) is first and foremost a figurative relation to the symbolic order.”[31]

The humanity of the monkey lies not only in her human visage, but also the space in which she resides and the implications of her presence within that space as a lone actor. She seems familiar with the environment, so one might get the impression that she belongs in that setting. Yet the environment is artificial, built for the pleasure of human customers. The macaque is far from the home environment to which her species had adapted for hundreds of millennia. In “Why Look at Animals?” Berger explores the transformation of animal behaviour within the synthetic environments of the zoo – “the animals, isolated from each other and without interaction between species, have become utterly dependent upon their keepers. Consequently, most of their responses have been changed. What was central to their interest has been replaced by a passive waiting for a series of arbitrary outside interventions.”[32] For nonhuman animals, in a zoo or in a restaurant, the “environment is illusory. Nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity… Lastly, their dependence and isolation have so conditioned their responses that they treat any event which takes place around them… as marginal (Hence their assumption of an otherwise exclusively human attitude – indifference).”[33] The description here of zoo animals chimes with the animal boredom that Huyghe presents to us. Fuku-chan seems simultaneously restless and lethargic, sitting and staring out of a window, or running back and forth without any clear impetus.

This animal boredom disrupts some of Heidegger’s most humanist theory. To repeat, despite his subversion of humanist thought, Heidegger still privileges the human over the animal, defining the human as ‘world-forming,’ a definition that seems to imply a mastery over his environment (I use the masculine pronoun consciously), while branding the animal as ‘poor-in-the-world.’[34] To Heidegger, the nonhuman animal does not experience Life, but only exists as a ‘mere-aliveness.’[35] His justification for such statements lies in the claim that the distinction between human and animal is that the human can experience profound boredom, a state which reveals his captivation to himself – “Dasein is simply an animal that has learned to become bored; it has awakened from its own captivation to its own captivation… This awakening of the living to its own being captivated… is the human.”[36] Such is that which Heidegger claims separates humanity from mere ‘instinctive behaving.’[37] However, in Human Mask we are presented with that profoundly bored nonhuman animal that Berger talks of and Heidegger denies. If Fuku-chan is indeed aware of her own captivation in her bored attitude, then she yet again stakes a claim on a humanity of sorts.

Yet because it is obvious Fuku-chan is not homo sapiens we are subjected to a truly unnerving image: a nonhuman animal that is so human and yet so not. Fuku-chan occupies the monstrous valley between the animal and the human. Her monstrosity generates the ominous feeling in a viewer that their humanity at risk; watching a creature that occupies that uncomfortable caesura in between. As Canguilhem writes, “[zoomorphic] monstrosity… has to be considered the result of a deliberate attempt at infraction of the order of things… it has to be considered the result of abandoning oneself to the dizzy fascination of the undefined, of chaos…”[38] Humanity’s place at the top of a scala naturae, as first posited by Aristotle, is encroached upon. Mitchell Akiyama writes that Aristotle, as the first biologist, “defined the human by what is proper to it as a distinct species, but also by decisively clearing away what is not.”[39] The word ‘distinct’ is especially important, as Aristotle, and most thinkers up until Darwin, saw biological species to be distinct from one another, and eternally unchanging.[40] The almost infinite variations and mutations of possible lifeforms, in tandem with the taxonomical continuum between species as conceived by Nietzsche,[41] and later Deleuze and Guattari,[42] has not been properly accommodated in mainstream humanisms, and the monster, which steps between classifications, disrupts and disgusts.

As Cristoph Cox points out; although we are undeniably a form of animal, “we are also repulsed by the thought that we might be merely animals, and have spent an enormous amount of time and intellectual energy convincing ourselves that we are something different.”[43] The wall that humanist thought has put up between humanity and the nonhuman animal, despite the regular re-definitions of the human in response to animal challenges, is a leaky one. Monstrous and hybrid beings, such as Fuku-chan, permeate this wall and bridge the taxonomic caesura. Donna Haraway sums it up – “The last beachheads of uniqueness have been polluted if not turned into amusement parks – language, tool use, social behaviour, mental events, nothing really convincingly settles the separation of human and animal.”[44]

The classical view regarding the animal is usually to see them as automata, the chief representation of which is Descartes, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty points out.[45] Merleau-Ponty describes that to the classical thinker, the animal had to fit in one of two categories, both of which anthropocentric: “either the being that stands before us may be likened to a human being… Alternatively, it is not more than a blind mechanism…”[46] In an ironic twist on the Cartesian conception of animals, Huyghe presents Fuku-chan as a hybrid of these two classical positions: a humanised automaton, her most human actions being perhaps those of the waiter’s routine (setting the tables, rushing to the kitchen, etc.). On the other hand, Fuku-chan is spontaneous and alien; the film suggests a lack of comprehension, both in Fuku-chan, and the viewer. The actions of the human world are seen to be just as automatic as those of the animal world, and when Fuku-chan seems to act spontaneously, as when she spins in circles as if to make herself dizzy, she seems simultaneously human-like, childish; yet, covered in thick fur, ancient and alien. Fuku-chan’s hybrid animality emerges in this ‘innocent’ spontaneity and strange timelessness. Towards the end of the film, Fuku-chan looks upwards as a storm rages outside. The natural forces on the other side of the walls seem to be beyond her; similarly, the viewer is separated from her by the face of their own humanity: the concealing human mask. Her liminal position between human and animal, in this case, leaves her stranded between two inaccessibilities - “The natural world is as out of her reach as our ability to understand her.”[47]

Rangan points out that the humanised conception of the “self” is something which is denied of the animal; something reserved for the human (white, male) subject.[48] This subject is defined in opposition to the animal, which is both abject and non-subject: a consumable commodity, as Fuentes and Berger have shown, and a host for abject projections, a potentially horrifying being which is ejected in order to form the subject.[49] Fuku-chan’s role as waitress positions her within the symbolic order that Derrida presents. Her role denotes a servitude to the meat-eating subjects that enter her space. Yet Huyghe’s presentation of this carnophallogocentric order is of one which is disintegrating. A shot late into the film shows the packets of meat swarming with maggots, their meat consumption both mirroring Derrida’s meat-eating subject and, through the abject horror of the swarming, exponentially reproducing animal, disrupting this subject. These creatures re-enact the foundational act of abject separation. With the humans absent, the abject horrors that the human defines itself against takes over, appropriating the human’s role as meat eater. This detail adds to the disruptive character of Huyghe’s film, mirroring Fuku-chan. Both the macaque and the maggots trigger the subject’s border generating response, as outlined by Janet Grace Sayers – “introduction to the foreign may lead to a ‘vomiting to the inside,’ a boundary response of disgust to incorporation.”[50] Neither can be truly incorporated, yet Huyghe does not let us ignore them, leaving them to sit, undigested, crawling over our borders.

Complex Embodiments within Animals: Sam Easterson’s and Nobuhira Narumi’s Animal Directors

Humans have justified their exclusionary conceptions of subject-hood, including the legal and ethical frameworks that follow on from the subject, on the assumption that humans possess something beyond the animal. As Coleen Glenney Boggs puts it, “Representational subjectivity sets human beings apart from all other living creatures – it lies at the core of our secular notion that human beings are special, that there is such a thing as human exceptionalism.”[51] This notion “enables abuses because it sets up a dichotomy between human beings who have representational subjectivity and animals who lack it.”[52] We have already explored how Heidegger conceives the animal as “poor in the world,”[53] while, to him, the human subject, or Dasein, has world-making capabilities. In the first chapter, I have explored how a primate might encroach across the animal-human divide. In this chapter I shall look at the work of artists who display that both humans and animals generate distinct and valuable worlds, in that they inhabit separate worlds which are the result of their subjective perception. These artists also show that, to quote Alice Kuzniar, “[to invert] Heidegger’s formulation… the human-animal commonality is their both being poor in the world.”[54]

Nobuhira Narumi and Sam Easterson create point-of-view films from the perspective of animals. One could perhaps more accurately say that they collaborate with animals, regardless of how aware the animal may be of this, to create films shot from the view of a non-human animal: a dog, in Narumi’s Dog Cam series (1995-1999) [2]; or a wolf, armadillo, or even insect, amongst many other creatures, in the case of Easterson’s Animal Cams (1998-) [3,4]. Both works involve the artist attaching a camera to the body, usually the head, of the animal in question and recording their movements as they go about their activities. What the animal looks at is what the camera shows.

While both pieces are practically identical in technical terms, a fundamental difference between Narumi’s Dog Cam and Easterson’s Animal Cams lies in the place of the human in the film. Human figures do not tend to feature in Easterson’s films, with only an implied presence by way of fences and troughs in his Farm-Cams or metal bird-feeders that feature in his Bird-Cams. His aim is to “give voice” to ignored perspectives of nature.[55] He sees his work as a humorous democratising activity, representing smaller and less respected animals on the same plane as glorified, larger animals – “I think it is especially funny to give sentience to objects and animals that are often overlooked… Yes, I outfit sharks, alligators, wolves, etc. with helmet-mounted video cameras, but that footage is no more important to me than the slugs, mice, and crickets that I work with.”[56]The perspective of ‘overlooked’ animals he presents through video brings the viewer closer to understanding the complex worlding of the animal-other.

In “The Open”, Agamben presents the writing of Jacob von Uexküll, an early 20th century zoologist who theorised a concept of animal worlds:

Where classical science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered from the most elementary forms up to the higher organisms, Uexküll instead supposed an infinite variety of perceptual worlds that, though they are uncommunicating and reciprocally exclusive, are all equally perfect and linked together as if in a gigantic musical score, at the centre of which lie familiar and, at the same time, remote little beings.[57]

According to Uexküll, the lives of other animals were “excursions into unknowable worlds,”[58] worlds which are inaccessible to the human due to profound perceptual differences. The problem inherent in this perceptual block between species is the negotiation between subjective experience, what Uexküll names “environment-world” (Umwelt), and objective truth, or Umgebung.

In “What is It Like to be a Bat?”, Thomas Nagel sketches out humanity’s current inability to properly examine the subjective experience that other conscious beings have. He recognises that the fundamental unsolved problem with a materialist view of the world is that of consciousness: he cannot envisage “[developing] a reductive analysis, explanatory system, or empirical tool to measure or detect consciousness”,[59] and, due to the subjective nature of human experience, one cannot give “phenomenological features… a physical account.” He strongly argues against any argument that one could deny the “significance of claims about [a subjective experience which is fundamentally different to our own],”[60] saying that, if that was the case, a man blind from birth could discount the significance of any experience of sight. Nagel’s example of the bat as a “fundamentally alien form of life”[61] (in that its perceptual world is non-visual, but based on sonar, and that it possesses an embodiment of a very different scale and shape to our own), resonates with the videos of Easterson and Narumi.

Narumi’s focus on the dog, unlike Easterson’s videos, places the camera deep into the urban environment. In Tokyo, for example, he follows a dog who inhabits a red-light district. Watching from the dog’s point-of-view, the viewer finds themselves looking up at sex workers standing on the curb side, bursting into a pornographic shop, or sniffing explicit posters hanging on the walls outside. While both pieces present the animal’s distinct worlding which lies beyond the reach of the human, Easterson’s films tend to present the alien animal world in more “natural” or “wild” spaces, while Narumi presents the perspective of an animal that shares the same spaces as the human. In fact, Narumi claims that his work is not fundamentally about animals – “My work is really about people, because the dog of today is an almost completely artificial animal.”[62]

Miwon Kwon writes that “integrating [animals] into our own systems of social regulations and exchanges… has been at the irreparable cost of the fading away of a wisdom that they uniquely provide.”[63] Indeed, Haraway argues that the most useful way to think of companion animals such as dogs is to recognise that their existence is contingent on their “relatings”[64] with other species (such as humans), a ‘relating’ that is implicit in Kwon’s “systems of social regulations.” Dogs are, in Haraway’s words, “human-animal assemblages.”[65]However, Haraway would contest any suggestion, that this means that the dog has no wisdom to give. Moreover, Narumi’s statement that the Dog Cams are not about animals presents a simplified interpretation of the interconnectivity of humans and the animals which surround them. As Haraway writes in the “Companion Species Manifesto,” the history of humans and dogs has been as story of ‘co-evolution.’ The dog is an early chapter in the history of bio-engineering,[66] but the domestication of the dogs is also an “epoch changing tool,”[67] transforming the human as well as the dog. The co-evolution of the two species is not exceptionally human; “co-constitutive companion species are the rule, not the exception.”[68] A better understanding of the dog’s perspective reveals truths about the human, but also presents a vision of urban spaces which a human cameraperson would never give. An exploration of this companion species also points to a more generalised exploration of species interconnectivity within every ecosystem.

The dogs in Narumi’s Dog Cams perform a different function to Easterson’s Animal Cams. They challenge the exceptional status of the human perspective by their proximity to us, while Easterson’s films challenge this same status by distance. Narumi’s and Eastersons’s work imply an understanding that since the non-human animal’s embodiment is so fundamentally different in the main, their subjective character is practically incomprehensible. Their works are a step toward an understanding of another animal’s subjectivity, “excursions into unknowable worlds,” which aim to challenge the human world with alien experience. When Narumi goes as far as to suggest that through his films he has found “a way to objectively observe the human species,”[69] he appears to miss the point of his own work. These pieces cannot show us an objective view of any existence, and nor can they bring us to experience what exactly it is to be one of these animals whose bodies are remarkably alien to our own. They act more as vectors towards a better appreciation of the different embodiments that animals possess.

One could not argue that a video shot by a person is equivalent to human experience itself, so any claims that one could truly live animal experience through these films are false. Nagel argues that, even if he did imagine he had a bat’s body and interpreted the world using the high-pitched squeaks, his attempts would not be adequate, as he would simply be imagining what it would be like for him, as a human being, with all the memories and mental capacities of a human, to be a bat. One cannot make “additions,” “subtractions,” “modifications,” or a mixture of all three to one’s “present experience” and arrive at an understanding of a bat’s experience.[70] Similarly, one cannot relinquish one’s human experience and perspective when watching the Dog Cams or Animal Cams and become fully submerged in the animals’ worlding, nor an objective viewpoint.

The films instead act as indexes and approximations of the animal’s perception. The animal is not negotiating the camera with human intent, an intention that would focus around the binocular vision of the human subject. This type of vision is implicit in the human subject’s self-definition. After all, as Rangan has pointed out, one can only qualify for Lacan’s mirror stage/mirror test if one possesses a certain level of binocular vision, giving a higher value to sight-possessing and sight-focused creatures over others.[71] This “ocularcentrism… excludes consideration of other ways of being, feeling, and knowing (affective, tactile, or aural, for instance) that can open onto alternative understandings of selfhood and intersubjective relations.”[72] Traditional theories of the subject places “the emergence of the ‘normal’ human subject [in spatial identification with one’s image], that is, as a process that hinges on abstracting the borders that separate inside from outside or self from milieu.” (116)

The animals chosen by Easterson and Narumi tend to manoeuvre the camera in different ways, due to their lack of focus on the ocular, or because they do not inhabit a bounded existence as the human subject does. Referring to the Dog Cams, David Williams writes that “[one] might also propose a ‘becoming nose’ of the camera here, for the primacy of the olfactory in canine behaviour… generates rather different, haptic modalities of ‘seeing’ in the complex assemblage of DOG and HUMAN and CITY.”[73] The dog has utilised the camera in such a way as a human never could. Ullrich writes that “[Narumi’s] work is entirely different from any image construction via random procedures (as some critiques suggest) because the dogs have agency: they make decisions and fulfil actions according to their social roles and individual interests and desires”[74] Writing about Easterson, Rangan points to the “expressive interactions of animals with their medial environments [which suggest] new and unfamiliar engagements with the media forms that surround us,” instead presenting a ‘visceral’ and ‘embodied’ perspective that, “often chaotic and illegible,” disrupts the narratives an anthropomorphic perspective might project onto his creatures.[75]

Since different animals inhabit different perceptual worlds, the objects of the Uexküll’s Umgebung could be said to hold multiple different truths. Objective matter cannot be held to be truly universal, as it represents different functions and truths to different bodies. Agamben gives the example:

“There does not exist a forest as an objectively fixed environment: there exists a forest-for-the-park-ranger, a forest-for-the-hunter, [a forest for each different animal that lives there, etc.]”[76]

For Narumi’s dogs in Tokyo, the red-light district is truly revealed to be a subjective environment; the dog obviously fails to recognise the many human activities, signs and symbols that surround it.[77] However, the dog also appreciates many spots which would seem otherwise inert to a human spectator, sites that we can gain awareness of via the secondary source of the film.

Cary Wolfe, as we have seen, posits that both animal and disabled embodiment are not properly respected but excluded from the definition of the humanist subject. In fact, the writing of Tobin Siebers on the complex embodiment engendered by disability resonates in accord with our current discussion on animal embodiment. He writes that “the diversity of bodies [produce] specific knowledge about the ways that environment and embodiment mutually transform one another.”[78] Easterson’s and Narumi’s films present how the different environments and embodiments influence one another to create a specific being-in-the-world beyond the human.

The bat’s inaccessible experiences led Nagel to the conclusion that “there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in the human language.”[79] Different bodies have access to different truths, and Siebers’s argument that one should “understand disability as a body of knowledge”[80] chimes nicely with Nagel’s statement that “[t]he subjective character of deaf and blind people from birth is not accessible to me, for example, nor presumably mine to them.”[81] Some knowledge, at least to Siebers, can be shared between bodies which inhabit different perceptual worlds. The hope that these camera projects present is that, through collaborative knowledge between humans and nonhuman animals, one might, to quote Nato Thompson, “[leave] behind traditional categories for understanding the ‘other,’ [leading the viewer into] a radical space of empathy.”[82]

Caring for the Bio-Monster: Patricia Piccinini’s The Young Family

At this point, I would like to restate the strategic hierarchy that has dominated, and even invented, discourse around the animal for the last few millennia of Western thought, beginning with Aristotle. As Cristoph Cox writes, to Aristotle “nature reaches its perfection in human males, and the rest of the animal kingdom forms a downward ladder from women to sea urchins.”[83] Aristotle’s conception of the scala naturae, with (male) humans standing at the top of the hierarchy held fast until the mid-19th century, when evolutionary theory began to unravel another of Aristotle’s theories: that organisms self-replicate themselves through reproduction, producing eternal and undifferentiating species.[84] Cox has helpfully mapped how the Aristotelean concept of species has developed with Christianity and the Enlightenment, only to be broken down by Darwin’s insistence “that there is a basic continuity in nature… among all living things… [and] there are no essential types in nature”.[85] While Darwin has triggered the dissolution of human exceptionalism through evolutionary theory, bio-technology has the potential to further bridge the gap between human and non-human.

Many of Patricia Piccinini’s pieces, including The Young Family, which I will focus on, present beings which lie in a grey area between animal and human. While Narumi’s dogs may concern an early form of bio-engineering, a humanised wolf so to speak, Piccinini’s work concerns the laboratory-based bio-technology of the present day. The Young Family (2002) [5] depicts a group of monstrous hybrids, of the fictional species ‘SO3,’ which display features of humans, monkeys, and pigs. The group is formed of a reclining mother who looks remarkably aged, mostly hairless and humanoid, but with the elongated snout, long muscular neck and the floppy ears of a dog or pig; and the broad chest, long arms, and thumb-bearing feet of a primate. Around her lie her four offspring, three of which suckle her six teats, while one lies apart, looking up towards the audience with the wide eyes of a human baby. To look at the hybrid mother of Piccinini’s sculpture is to encounter a bio-engineered being (only a few steps beyond the recently successful creation of human-pig and human-sheep hybrid embryos),[86] [87] a liminal figure between the animal and the human, breaching and dissolving the bounded human subject. Piccinini presents the monster as Canguilhem defines it, an ‘infraction of the order of things.’[88]

One cannot place the original genome that the creatures in The Young Family derive from. Is the mother born from the adapted DNA of a human? Or a “lesser”-animal with human genes transplanted into it? The ambiguity over the origin of the monster’s genetics illustrates Darwin’s argument (here expressed by Cox), that “a species is a statistical abstraction, a bell curve that, at the extremities, shades of into other species.”[89] Sitting between human and non-human, with no clear vector towards either, SO3 flattens the scala naturae.

As Nato Thompson points out, humans are uncomfortable having the boundary between them and the rest of nature breeched, because “[if] we actually are becoming animal, whither our ethical, moral, sacred, and legal systems, let alone our dinner?”[90] She points out that the role of horror has often been to “draw upon fears of cross-species hybridity,”[91] a hybridity explored throughout Piccinini’s work. Again, Kristeva’s theory of abjection is pertinent to fears we have of nature creeping in too close to the human. It is important to note that Kristeva originally formulated her theory to develop and expand Lacanian theory regarding the formation of the subject. As Bert Olivier explains – “Lacan may have explained the genesis of the subject in affirmative terms… but for Kristeva this is only one side of the coin, because it shows ‘towards what’ the subject develops. But what about that which the subject wants to free her- or himself from?”[92] The strategic use of the “abject” is to distance oneself from the things which challenge one’s subject-hood as a “self-with-borders” by “[banishing the abject] to the periphery of consciousness.”[93] Thusly Kristeva explains the feeling of aversion that humans have towards certain things (shit, snot, spit, and other ejects), as well as injection (in the medical sense, but also the sense of being consumed by something else).

The rejection of the abject in order to define one’s borders resonates with our fear of hybrid creatures, especially those human-animal hybrids. The animal is an abject element which the subject is defined against, elements of which are pushed to the back on one’s mind, in what could be called a ‘defensive splitting.’[94] An example would be the increasing disappearance of the slaughterhouse and the butchered animal from the public eye, Nato Thompson positing that “[as] the production of meat increases, its visibility conversely decreases, making only brief plastic-wrapped appearances at the market.”[95] Unable to read the animal as a simple automaton, or a soulless thing given to Mankind by God to rule over, it is less challenging to the human subject not to read the animal at all. To face a chimerical monster is to face something that makes-real the proximity of the animal to the human; to see a liminal being that is simultaneously not-quite and too-much oneself.

Piccinini’s chimera family could perhaps be placed within a matrilineage of artists probing the boundaries of subject. One pertinent example of a forerunner of Piccinini’s would be Cindy Sherman, specifically her Untitled images of the mid-80’s, where she explored the mythological hybrid through self-portraiture, the intermediate step in what Laura Mulvey charts as a “‘narrative trajectory’ [tracing] a gradual collapse of surface.”[96] One particular image of Sherman’s mirrors Piccinini’s The Young Family: Untitled #140 (1985) [6]: a portrait of a dejected (or abjected) pig woman. While Sherman’s work comes from a very different perspective to Piccinini’s, one which pre-dates the bio-technological discourse of the early-00’s (and produced ten years before the birth of Dolly the Sheep), the ‘deformation’ of the human figure in Sherman’s portrait is present in much of Piccinini’s work. Sherman’s monster lies between human and animal, the metamorphosis of her visage suggesting a potential disintegration of her skin’s surface.

Since the subject defines himself through regulatory measures, rejecting the abject and the other, any loss of control over the forces that the subject defines himself against is aggressively minimised using various mechanisms, including “objective” scientific practices. Bert Olivier posits that ‘nature’ threatens the subject because it “threatens to engulf humanity,” posing, in opposition to the hygienic Western monoculture, a horrifying “inaccessible, uncontrollable, amorphous, teeming proliferation of menacing ‘things’ – ranging from hurricanes, viruses, bacteria, insects, reptiles, and sharks to other predatory or ‘lethal’ embodiments of nature’s intractable, intransigent, and unmitigated hostility to human civilisation.”[97] Olivier convincingly goes on to quote Heidegger’s “critique of technology:” in which Heidegger argues that “’essence’ of technology [is to ‘enframe’]” nature. Science essentially functions to create and maintain a “‘hygienic’ space of measurement, calculation, and control’.”[98]

The bodies presented in The Young Family simultaneously show the limits of our own body and the absence of the limits we believe, or convince ourselves, to be there. The creature’s body might be a human body with its boundaries broken; the biology we assume to be stable and unchanging has been left to grow, mutate, and replicate, spilling out of science’s ‘enframement’. Sherman’s Untitled #140 shows one body with boundaries broken: her pig-woman lies in the undergrowth, apparently lifeless. The corpse, after Kristeva, is the subject made abject by the disintegration of its borders; a thing that if properly encountered by a subject, “[deprives them] of world.”[99] The Young Family, in opposition, depicts a breaching of the subject via the process of birth. Outside the discourses of bio-technology, reproduction is an arguably abject process by which the subject produces and ejects other subject-beings, a process which implies a porosity and potential collapse of bodily boundaries. The reproduction of the monster-mother by way of multiples – she produces a “litter” of four, rather than the usually singular human birth – implies the “teeming proliferation” that bio-science hopes to control. The same fear that nature might uncontrollably engulf humanity applies to the bio-engineered monster.

The Young Family presents the SO3’s first expansion beyond the controlled space of the laboratory, into the controlled domestic space, holding within herself the possibility for almost limitless expansion, by way of numbers, bodily form, and location. The monster, though threatening to the conception of human, remains manageable, in theory, via the tools of science and legislature so long as its population remains small. Each potential expansion of this monstrous mother presents a threat to the human subject. Linda Michaels writes – “If we see her as monstrous, is it because she threatens the continuity of our species? Does she signal the untrammelled potentiality of creation unleashes by transgenics?”[100] The fear of transgenics is of the same origin of the fear of nature itself: that something non-human may challenge the status of, or even destroy, the human, or at least the definition of the human as being which stands above all others. Hence where SO3’s true horror lies, but also the potential for Piccinini’s monsters to introduce humans to new forms of embodiment and connection beyond species.

The aged visage and weary expression the monstrous mother possesses underlines the shared fate that humans have with most other anima: that of aging, and then death. Our shared ability to suffer, and the ethical implications of which, have been expressed by Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer, and Jacques Derrida, who writes – “the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing the possibility of this non-power, the possibility of this impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability and the vulnerability of this anguish”[101] – The unity that humans and other animals, even monsters, possess through their suffering and mortality can be the gateway to compassion, and even solidarity, a sharing of ‘non-power.’ Ultimately, the monsters presented in The Young Family matter because they suffer. Considering suffering however, leads us to consider the background to the ‘young family’ presented before us. In relation to Eduardo Kac’s GMF Rabbit, a piece in which he hired a laboratory to produce a “glow-in-the-dark” rabbit through genetic engineering which he would take into his home and family, Carol Gigliotti pointedly asks: how many failed Albas (dead and suffering animals), were created before one successful Alba?[102] Compared to SO3, Alba the rabbit is a minor operation in transgenics. How many hypothetical failed experiments and unforeseen complications would there have been before the mother of the scene Piccinini has made? One might even wonder at the strangely old face the creature possesses for a new mother. Perhaps she is subject to premature aging, like the first clone Dolly.

While Olivier has argued that the role of science as a controller of nature can be traced to colonial attitudes,[103] Vandana Shiva explores such bio-technological practices in more detail, arguing that they risk creating a “new era of bio-imperialism, built on the impoverishment of the Third World and the bio-sphere.”[104] She explains the root causes for these “compulsions”: first, aligned with the colonial view of the “new world”, is the assumption that “ecosystems are empty if not taken over by Western industrial man or his clones;” second is what she calls the “monoculture of the mind,” the concept that diversity in the world, nature included, “is either disease or deficiency, and monocultures are necessary for the production of more food or economic benefits.”[105] Donna Haraway argues that Piccinini’s work could be read as an exploration of colonial attitudes within nature-cultures. Pointing out that Piccinini is, as a white Australian woman, the descendent of “white settler colonies,”[106] Haraway suggests that Piccinini’s sculptures are conscious attempts to propose “a decolonising ethic indebted to Australian Aboriginal practices…”[107] For Haraway, Piccinini presents an ethic of care, which, through empathetically looking after the creatures in the frontier lands of bio-technology, might avoid the types of atrocity performed by previous colonisers along different frontiers.

Piccinini’s sculptures present the monsters with such pathos that appeals to the viewer through human and non-human characteristics that the question of whether the creatures can speak or reason seems irrelevant. Instead, her work instils a radical empathy, implying that the viewer has some idea of what it would be like to be that monstrous creature. Piccinini has almost broken up the task of humans empathising with other species into bite-sized chunks. To empathise with the mother SO3 is half of the way to empathising with a mother sow. Importantly, the form in which the empathy is generated in The Young Family still emphasises difference and other-ness. Sophie Oliver explains that a simple conception of empathy has its problems: it can easily be manipulated, and often one empathises much more with someone they are attracted to or who occupies a similar position to oneself.[108] Referencing Michael Bakhtin, she outlines a more productive form of empathy, that of ‘exotopy’, which Piccinini’s, as well as Easterson’s and Narumi’s, work encourages in the viewer. “[‘Exotopy’] emphasises the importance of retaining and returning to one’s unique place ‘outside’ the other.”[109] Piccinini’s work displays radical empathy, but importantly, she does not allow the viewer to only imagine what her creatures might be feeling. Talking to Nato Thompson, Piccinini describes gaze of The Young Familyas “introspective” – “mostly because I wanted the works to have a sense of independence and self-possession… They are, in the end, less interested in us than we are in them. This empowers them to a certain degree, as they are complete within themselves.”[110] The self-possession of these figures grants them autonomy beyond the controlling scientific hand, but also allows the viewer to take the necessary step back from empathy, and towards care.

The colonial compulsions towards nature are far from detached from the compulsions based on abjection I have talked of. The dark alternative to Piccinini’s ‘duty to care’ is shown by Glenney Boggs, who relates the colonialist animalisation inflicted on the tortured Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib to the formation of the valid human subject as non-animal.[111] The humanised-human subject can assure his legal and moral status in opposition to the animalised other, be those the average animal that is not classified as homo sapiens, the animalised human detainee deprived of subject-hood by nationality, or the monstrous hybrids which may emerge in the years to come. Piccinini’s work, therefore, forms a testing ground, asking whether, when we come across such hybrids, we will be willing to relinquish some of our human privilege and offer care to them; or whether we will reject them with fear and violence.


At the end of “The Open,” Agamben states that, to “render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will… mean no longer to seek new – more effective or more authentic – articulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus that – within- man – separates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness”[112] The pieces which I have looked at throughout this essay are invaluable guides for how one might approach navigating this emptiness. They each present a deconstruction of the human by presenting the alien otherness of certain animal’s subjectivities, a tactic which leads the viewer beyond their bounded self to a greater appreciation of the different embodiments through which animals might perceive the world. They have displayed the fault-lines and leaks running across the boundaries of the human subject, disrupting ethical and epistemological assumptions that rest of the foundation of the ‘exceptional’ human being.

The hybrids within these pieces, be they genetic, technological, or figurative, generate liminal beings and liminal experiences dotted along the length of the human subject, acting as waypoints towards a new existence. As Canguilhem points out, once one recognises the monstrous, “who can forbid [them] to suppose that life is still more lively – that is, capable of an even greater exercise of liberty, capable not only of provoked exception, but of spontaneous transgressions beyond its own custom.”[113] The freedom, therefore, lies across and beyond the human border.

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