Human Animal

Tactical Biopolitics: a review.

“How can we know for sure these days that the truck driver repairing his exhaust at the crossroads in your neighborhood is not a silent conceptual artist engaging you in a thought-through performative experience? ” asks Jens Houser in “Observations on an Art of Growing Interest,” part of the collection of essays in Tactical Biopolitics. An engaging overview of scientists as artists, artists as ethnographers, activists as sociologists, and women who do agility trials with their dogs as philosophers, Tactical Biopolitics presents the words and works of people who profoundly engage their ethics with their craft.

Largely centered around issues of biology and bioethics, the book often wades deep into the waters of scientific jargon and academic word-whirlpools. When it emerges into common reality, however, it does so resonantly. While artist Kathy High gives a factual breakdown of her reasons for working with a group of former lab rats (they were predisposed to have her same health issues), we get caught up in the story of the rodents, their namings and personalities. Donna J. Haraway manages to make us forget agility trials as a means to make dogs literally jump through hoops and see them instead as an exercise in human-animal communication.

The book emerged from a conference on BioArt and the Public Sphere at UC Irvine in 2005. It is, write editors Beatriz de Costa and Kavita Philip, “a hybrid, made possible by two recent histories: the enormously creative practices at the intersection of technoscience, activism, and art; and the explosion of cross-disciplinary conversations following Michel Foucault’s articulation of biopolitics.

We see artists confronted with the ethics of working with living tissue, witness the affect racism has on modern scientific research, and learn of the evolution of activist’s tactics for getting AIDS medicine to patients who need it. We hear artists talking about life in labs, and scientist talking about the craft of ethical living. It’s a smorgasboard of modern ethical thought, of challenges to the definitions of professional fields. It’s fantastic reading for anyone interested in cross-disciplinary work. But largely, it is the story of people using the tools they have at their disposal to positively engage with an increasingly complicated and manipulated world. So while the authors featured in Tactical Biopolitics might not be the truck driver in your neighborhood, they are, like him, attempting to fix what’s broken.

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Earth Matters On Stage: Rachel Rosenthal

“One of the first things people ask me, is, did I know Arteaud?”

This is how Rachel Rosenthal begins her keynote.  Here at EMOS, it’s perfect. Artistic Director Theresa May has just given her a fantastic introduction. She is in a room full of full-out EcoDrama nerds, folks who don’t need an explanation of the guttaral relationship between earth and body, who know her and her work, or who at the very least don’t need a speech about earth-saving. They know Arteaud wrote “The Theatre and its Double,” and chuckle. She knows her audience.

Rosenthal junkies at EMOS got a major fix: a presentation which included her first performance in almost 10 years, an opportunity to buy Moira Roth’s Rosenthal anthology and have it signed by the artist, and the next morning, an analysis of her work by a panel of her former students and devoted independent scholars. Heady.

Rosenthal did not, in fact, know Arteaud, but he did “save her life:” his writing gave her a logical basis to begin creating her own unique brand of performance: eco-feminist, deeply personal, and dramatically sharp. Clips shown over the weekend included L.O.W. in Gaia, in which she writes her age on her bald head in lipstick and drags bags of trash behind her on the stage, and The Others, which included 42 “non-human animal” performers.

In a presentation days later given by Deke Weaver, an interesting conversation arose. What is the line between sharpened meduim and effective message? How do you articulate an important issue without pandering, how do you push the form without driving away your audience? Rosenthal is famous for creating a body of work that is made of her own body, stories and trembling articulations. Whether or not watching Gaia rise from a pile of garbage is your idea of an endurance test, it is deeply rooted in a sobbing, grappling love for the earth. Rosenthal was saddend to learn that Arteaud never saw his idea of theater realized onstage. But of her own methods, she decries: “I will not die without having seen it, because it’s MINE.”

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Earth Matters On Stage: Blood and Bodies

That’s a shark signing his chummy painting above, proving once and for all that eco-art is not for the faint of heart.

It’s an image used by Una Chaudhuri in her keynote address  “Animal (and) Planet: Zooesis and Ecological Extremity”  at this year’s EMOS. Chaudhuri is responsible for major contributions to the written EcoDrama field, and so wields terms like “gynesis,” and “anthropological machine” expertly (even while folks like Mike Lawler and I are squinting to catch up).

It was a look at performance and animals– or performance and non-human animals, if you prefer.  The bookends of the speech were a piece called “Helena”, in which artist Marco Evaristti  gave the public the option of pulverizing live goldfish in blenders–  and the work of Olly and Suzi, who go out into the wilderness and make collaborative paintings with animals ( not just your alley cat or field mouse: see above).

So here I am, at a conference intended to examine the relationship between our planet and our performance art, and I have to confess that I feel silly using the term “non-human animal.” But that’s the essence of what Una Chaudhuri is addressing: at what point do we stop looking at “the others” as something we manipulate and use, and start acknowledging them as collaborators in our community– ecologically, and in this case, artistically?

These same themes come up again and powerfully in EMOS during a panel on Rachel Rosenthal’s work, and in the context of the artist’s own flesh and blood. There’s also much more: green theater practices, Boal, space, giraffes, rituals and rollings on the grass– I’ll be posting more frequently in the next week as the eco-nerddery swells my brain . . .

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