The question that John Berger posed in his essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’ (1980) was eagerly taken up by the discipline of Animal Studies, and more widely in the Humanities, to point out the theoretical, ethical and social importance of studying human-animal relations and what we mean when we distinguish between humans and animals. In When Species Meet (2008), Donna Haraway further explores various interspecies encounters and their potential to create new worlds of experience.
Artistic practices in which the artist co-inhabits a space with an animal or explores aspects of performing what is animal include Joseph Beuys’ famous performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). Contemporary case-studies include Marcus Coates’ work Journey to the Lower World (2004) in which, dressed in a deer skin, he confronts the residents of a Liverpool tower block facing demolition.
Do these and other artistic practices present the process of ‘becoming animal’ as a utopian performative? Can these practices, as Haraway implies, be considered as interactions with social communities that promote the possibility of seeing the world from a different, ‘interspecieal’ perspective? What is the meaning and value of this perspective?
These questions were developed in an experimental research group I directed at the Rietveld, the visual arts academy of Amsterdam. This resulted in a one-day symposium entitled Becoming Animal in March 2010. In this paper I relate the outcome of this proces to contemporary artistic practices that challenge clear-cut distinctions between what is ‘human’ and what is ‘animal’.