The Open: Mediating the Human and Non-Human Interface


By Andrea Polli


31 May 2013

Both Heidegger and Agamben referred to 'the Open' in regard to forces unknown, those of art and those of everyday experience.  According to Heidegger, to be open is a strictly human experience.  A nonhuman organism is not opened to the world and its totality or, in other words, exists closed off from anything except the strict everyday routine of sustaining biological life. Unlike non-humans, Heidegger believed humans exist through unbounded play, outside themselves. Agamben disagreed with this view and redefined ‘the Open’ as a reconciliation of the human with animality. To Agamben, this moment of reconciliation is the end of the anthropological machine that produces exclusively human history and that opens the possibility of salvation.

The artists in this section can be identified as addressing essential aspects of this 'Open', though examining the ways in which humans interact with non-human species, through thoughtfully cultivating the ‘other’ and through integrating the bodies or remains of non-humans into their work.  In many cases, human and non-human organisms are or have been mediated.  

While Heidegger and Agamben use the human/nonhuman dichotomy as a way to define what it is to be human, many of the works in this feature tend towards Harroway's notion of the inextricable connection between co-evolved species, man, animal and others.  Like Harroway, most of these artists engage bioethics and biopolitics in their work, whether they are examining the historical mistreatment of apex species like the Mexican Grey Wolf, questioning the economic and ethnical aspects of raising cattle in the desert , or bringing the tools of exclusive biotechnological and agricultural research into the hands of common people.

Questions to consider when viewing the documentation of these projects are:

1. What is contained in the gap that separates animal and man? What is the role of language, cognition and consciousness in this gap?

2. Does technicity play a role in showing what Agamben calls “the central emptiness, the hiatus that separates man and animal” ? (The Open 92)

3. Can an artwork disrupt Agamben's notion of the anthropological machine by inventing ways in which animal life and human life could be reconciled?

The works in this set are a subsection of works featured in The Seventeenth International Symposium for Electronic Art, ISEA2012: Machine Wilderness.  ISEA is a major international symposium exploring art, science and technology that occurs annually around the world that was held in Albuquerque New Mexico and the region in 2012.  The works were featured as a part of the Wildlife: Trans-species Habitats subtheme designed by my University of New Mexico Art and Ecology colleague, artist, architect and professor Catherine Harris. The works in this set were chosen to address a range of issues and were created by artists of various backgrounds, ages and career levels, about half are emerging artists living in the Southwest, the other half are internationally distinguished artists who also hold academic positions in US universities.

While some of the artists in this group worked with collaborators who are professional scientists, 'lived science' or 'science in the wild' plays an important role in many of these projects.  In other words, the science being conducted is often done by self-trained, amateur scientists in the field rather than by people who identify formally as scientists.  Despite their amateur status, these collaborators have many years of experience in the field and bring highly developed, contextual knowledge to the collaboration.

The set begins with Rachel Mayeri’s wonderful ‘Primate Cinema’ project in which she is investigating media in the context of three of the great apes: Humans, Baboons and Chimpanzees.  Mayeri’s featured work in this set, ‘Apes as Family’ is a film created by humans for chimpanzees.  The next two works address the human relationship with a significant endangered apex species in the American Southwest, the Mexican Grey Wolf.  First, Marina Zurkow and Christie Leece’s project, ‘Gila 2.0’,  derived from interviews with scientists, ranchers and other stakeholders in the wolf problem, presents a series of fanciful cattle protection devices and graphic signage.  Second, artist Daniel Richmond explored the history of one particular Mexican Grey Wolf, the animal known as ‘Louie Lobo’ who was a mascot representative paraded on a chain in front of college sports fans in the early days of the University of New Mexico football team.  Although live animals are no longer used, the Louie Lobo mascot persists to this day.