Posthuman Design: Creatures: When Species Meet at the Contemporary Arts Center

June 30th, 2019  |  Published in *, June/July 2019

Creatures: When Species Meet locates creative processes less in the imagination of singular artists than in the encounter between living things, their negotiation of each other’s habits and desires through media both traditional and emergent. As the show catalogs those processes, it disrupts humanist views of nonhuman animals, defending against their reduction to symbols within anthropocentric stories. The exhibition overview explains that “Fauna and Insecta alike have served as avatars, aesthetics, metaphors, foils, and the fodder for food, clothing, shelter,” although artists and activists have lately generated “a pronounced push back against this hegemony, and a reconsideration of what equality means within the ecosystem.” Western art sustains this hegemony, or cultural common sense, by treating non-human animals and insects as subject matter rather than agents of representation. In a 2008 book also called When Species Meet, Donna J. Haraway pushes back by countering standard ideas of figuration with ones grounded in hybridity and distributed agency. In her estimation, “figures are not representations or didactic illustrations, but rather material-semiotic nodes or knots in which diverse bodies and meanings coshape one another” (4). The Creatures show spreads such figures across three floors of the Contemporary Arts Center, dramatizing the knotting of bodies in ways that reframe not just artistic invention but dominant ideas of authority, communication, being.

The exhibit is the last event under chief curator Steven Matijcio, and it arose in part from his response to Miguel Calderón’s 2006 piece The Steps of the Enemy. That work now resides on the main floor of Creatures, waiting in a pitch-black room just off the threshold. Entering the room brings an immediate vulnerability as a low growl vibrates at the perimeter of the enclosure. The glowing eyes and fangs of a black panther move in the uncertain distance; the growl becomes a roar. Remembering his first experience of the work, Matijcio tells interviewer Morgan Zumbiel that it “just hit me in the chest.” “It was this negotiation of who is the enemy, who is the intruder, who is the aggressor, and trying to find a place of orientation that never quite happens.” The atmosphere of mutual distrust and impending violence establishes the relation that surrounding pieces work to mitigate, with varying degrees of success. Foiling the human desire for mastery by denying the comforts of vision, and by invoking an animal that might devour its audience, The Steps of the Enemy throws norms of dominance and security into disarray.

Not content merely to invert power arrangements, much of the show aims to flatten them by displaying cross-species collaborations. Bees and humans produce exquisite hive towers. Cats leave paw prints, scratches, and urine trails on floors prepared with photosensitive paper. Pigeons become photographers and skywriters. Zebra finches build flamboyant nests from tinsel, artificial moss, and colored paper supplied by people-partners. As the relationships multiply, donkeys become counselors while wolves become dinner guests; foxes browse London’s National Portrait Gallery while deer document nuclear wastelands. As humans provide media and non-humans incorporate those resources into singular, inimitable performances, we witness Haraway’s idea of figuration in action, disparate bodies and modes of expression informing and changing each other.

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Elephant Paintings by Lukkop, Ramona, and Renee, 1995-1999, acrylic on paper / acrylic on canvas
Installation view, Creatures: When Species Meet. Photo: Tony Walsh.
© Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019

Sometimes the figures manifest as paint on canvas, as when Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid outfit elephants with brushes, aprons, and vibrant acrylics before setting them to work. Paintings by Lukkop, Ramona, and Renee deliver an arresting fusion of color and geometry while constituting encouraging indices of interspecies play. The play continues with Brian Jungen’s Plaza 19, in which he reimagines Cincinnati’s Terrace Plaza Hotel as a plywood-and-carpet playground for kittens. A rough homage to mid-century modernism in its own right, the structure becomes a piece of performance art on Saturdays from 1:00-4:00pm when the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) brings cats for a day of fun and exercise. As the kittens explore the model building’s tiers and cubbyholes, organization volunteers assist interested patrons with on-the-spot adoptions. While affirming the human capacity for compassionate building, Creatures: When Species Meet also highlights the wondrous structures non-human creatures build for themselves. Tomás Saraceno, for example, shows gallery-goers how “different spiders from different species weave in the same space, bridging the architecture of each other’s webs.” Describing the web as “an expansion of the spider’s sensorial and cognitive systems,” the artist lauds how “floating galaxies made of different silk and web types collide, challenging gravity and fostering the emergence of new types of vibrational environments.” As the webs extend the range of a spider’s sensorium into the built environment, they parallel Haraway’s critique of subjective autonomy, partaking of a thinking, feeling ecosystem rather than insisting on bounded, independent forms of life. As the galaxies blend with each other, they enact Haraway’s “becoming-with” (19).

Tomás Saraceno. Hybrid Dark Solitary Semi-Social Cluster FKS 273
Built by: A Solo Nephila, 2017, spidersilk, carbon fiber, ink, steel, plexiglass
Installation view, Creatures: When Species Meet. Photo: Tony Walsh.
© Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019

 

Nina Katchadourian, Marketing Tips for Spiders
(from the series “Mended Spiderweb”), 1998, cibachrome print, 29.5 x 19.75 inches
Installation view (Marketing Tips for Spiders on left), Creatures: When Species Meet.
Photo: Tony Walsh. © Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019

Such becoming-with often involves humans, though they need not be the primary players. The show finds them providing other creatures with tools, framing or otherwise spotlighting the works those animals produce, and sometimes wrangling with them over crucial issues of design. Rarely a straightforward exchange, collaboration typically entails disagreement, compromise, and occasionally, outright rejection of a partner’s ideas. The mule becomes bored with the penitent kneeling before him; the snake tires of being nudged by the artist’s stick; the caterpillar refuses to pose as a mustache unless the human performer applies honey to her upper lip. Nina Katchadourian underscores these resistances in Marketing Tips for Spiders, where she searches for damaged spiderwebs and fixes them with “red sewing thread, which was fortified with white glue and placed ever so carefully—one segment at a time—into the beleaguered structures.” After every repair, she arose the next morning to find the red thread discarded and the damaged section mended by a spider. The arachnids even reclaimed deserted webs once Katchadourian tried to alter their design. The creatures thus warded off “the well-intentioned savior complex of humankind,” she contends. Uninvited assistance, the piece suggests, may reflect a colonial mindset, a human inclination to rectify otherness and remake it in our own image. An ethic of becoming-with, on the other hand, requires humility enough to avoid imposition and appropriation.

Firmly as the show cleaves to posthumanist epistemology, however, Fauna and Insecta sometimes serve to dramatize decidedly human problems. After cutting paper to represent the floor of a prison cell, Yukinori Yanagi sets an ant loose on the surface and tracks its journey with a wax crayon. The winding trail from one border to another accentuates the affect of entrapment, the oddness of circumscribed isolation for a creature who typically operates in colonies. The artist describes human prisoners spending sixteen to twenty-three hours a day in the cells of Alcatraz, inventing “rituals of movement to keep their bodies from atrophying.” Similarly focused on the politics of enclosure, Miguel Angel Ríos’s Mulas features video of mules carrying packs that spill white powder across the South American desert. The resulting lines recall colonial mapping practices while the title “references the Spanish slang for young women traffickers convinced to transport drugs across borders, under perilous conditions.” Both Ríos and Yanagi follow nonhuman journeys in ways that produce striking patterns. Both refrain from interfering with the trek once it has begun. There is in Wandering Position and Mulas a great respect for multi-legged beings as agents, and there is sustained interest in collaborating with them. But the over-arching attention to human incarceration and the drug trade suggest that the nonhuman agents have become metaphors, stand-ins for people, which Creatures: When Species Meet generally cautions against. That contradiction lends the works of Rios and Yanagi a particular density by raising the question of whether, in the act of converting Fauna and Insecta into symbols, the artists express a faint distrust of their own techniques.

Yukinori Yanagi, America, 1994
Ants, colored sand, plastic boxes, plastic tubes and plastic pipes, 11.8 x 17.7 inches (x 36 pieces)
Installation view, Creatures: When Species Meet. Photo: Tony Walsh.
© Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019

The same question arises with Yanagi’s America, which undertakes an especially poignant critique of human tendencies toward territorialism. The piece consists of thirty-six clear, wall-hung boxes filled with sand paintings of North and South American flags. Ants move between the boxes through connector tubes, carrying grains of sand and gradually redrawing the banners. The process undermines the flags’ “function as symbols of divisive nationalism” as the “ants are oblivious of the artificial borders” the boxes represent. Although Yanagi first designed the work in 1994, it has a distressing exigency twenty-five years later, as the border between the Americas marks an area of newly intense hostility and pain. As with Wandering Position, the piece defamiliarizes human injustice, thrusts it temporarily beyond the realm of the normal, by introducing ants to a prepared environment. The work hints at trans-species “becoming-with,” as Yanagi constructs the initial framework and her collaborators remake it according to their needs. But the more pronounced significance lies in ants teaching people to become with each other.

If anthropocentrism slips quietly into such works, it does so with the conviction that nonhuman beings offer advanced forms of border critique and much-needed lessons about social obligation. They undoubtedly trouble hierarchies of authority when we enter their lairs or try to repair their designs; they trouble them further by exhibiting a more-than-human sensitivity to their surroundings, treating the material ecology as coextensive with cognition and embodiment. Creatures celebrates such productive trouble with a range of startling figures, which, to return to Haraway, designate not just the places where species meet, but where they alter the ecosystem, if only in small ways, through radical symbiosis.

–Christopher Carter

Works Cited

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Zumbiel, Morgan. “The CAC’s Creatures: When Species Meet Features Animals as Art-Makers, Plus Adoptable House Cats.” CityBeat, 21 May 2019, www.citybeat.com/arts-culture/visual-arts/article/21069763/the-cacs-creatures-when-species-meet-features-animals-as-artmakers-plus-adoptable-house-cats. Accessed 26 June 2019.

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