Beyond Zoocentrism: An Interview with Giovanni Aloi

Beyond Zoocentrism: An Interview with Giovanni Aloi
By Ariane De Blois

Actively involved in the academic field of human-animal studies for the past fifteen years, Giovanni Aloi has challenged the representational tropes that relentlessly objectify animals in art. His thought-provoking first book, Art & Animals, considers the moral and ethical implications of using animals, dead or alive, in contemporary art practices. Aloi is a lecturer in visual culture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the subject of nature in contemporary art.

ARIANE DE BLOIS: Art has historically been conceived as a highly cultural activity that distinguishes human beings from other living creatures — a conception that reinforces the notion of human exceptionalism. Similarly, visual representations have traditionally tried to emphasize the dichotomies between the natural and the human-made. Your journal, Antennae, specifically seeks contributions that go beyond the natureculture opposition and debunk those old assertions. Can you explain how contemporary theories and artworks critically challenge the “great divide” between humans and non-humans?

GIOVANNI ALOI: The field of animal studies has contributed to the emergence of new aesthetic paradigms and practices aimed at substantially challenging anthropocentrism and animal objectification in art. The first ten years of speculation, which took place roughly between 1995 and 2005, focused largely on the deconstruction of metanarratives, the identification of objectifying tropes, and the representational friction between abstraction and figuration. Both theory and practice engaged predominantly in what I have called the “dismantling of the symbolic animal.” At that stage, Steve Baker’s book The Postmodern Animal (2000) was the main inspiration for the representational strategies employed by the new wave of artists who placed animals at the centre of their work. Today, however, most artists’ work is influenced by the theories of new materialism, object-oriented ontology, vibrant materialism, agential realism, and speculative realism.

In my essay “Deconstructing the Animal in Search of the Real,” I argued that following the dismantling of the “symbolic animal,” a new path of inquiry may involve “tracking animals” through networks of environmental relationships. The idea is not so much to understand them as new subjects, creating an animalcentric system in place of the anthropocentric one that has been dismantled, but to produce a rhizomatic network of interconnectedness of which we and animals are both part and that, most importantly, includes plants — the blissfully ignored living beings on which all life on this planet depends. (1)

Today, I am glad to see that contemporary theories and practices involving the non-human are indeed attempting to bypass zoocentrism in favour of a new holistic model that has exceeded my predictions by far. Karen Barad’s agential realism and Jane Bennett’s vibrant materialism have both, in different ways, reconfigured our gaze to consider the atomic order and the invisible levels of interconnectedness that we are all enmeshed in, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This leaves the discipline of animal studies in an odd position with regard to art. I am not entirely sure if this new shift represents a move away from the values of the first revisionist wave of animals in art, or if there will be space for an expanded scope that considers animals on the same ontological level as plants and bacteria.

Sadly, the art-historical establishment largely continues to ignore the theoretical contributions emerging from the field of animal studies. For instance, in 2010 Westview Press published the second edition of Laurie Schneider Adams’s book The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction, which, since 1996, has become a classic of its kind in introducing undergraduate students to the main discipline-specific tools of inquiry. In the first chapter, ambitiously titled “What Is Art?,” the author initiates a discussion of “the artistic impulse” in which she implicitly endorses the Cartesian case for human superiority and deliberately attempts to reduce animal abilities for the purpose of elevating art to a human prerogative. Adams’s animals are repeatedly described as unaware of their surroundings, lacking the self-reflexivity necessary to produce art, and are therefore irrevocably diminished to machinic beings. This account confirms the persistence of humanist, anthropocentric views in current times and certainly constitutes a problem due to its dominant influence in shaping the views of undergraduate students on the subject of art.

A. DE B.: In the last two decades, non-human animals, dead or alive, have “invaded” the art world. Numerous artists, opposed to a strictly reifying use of animals as exemplified by Damien Hirst , are engaged in critical and ethical challenges to human interactions with other forms of life. In your book Art & Animals, (2) focusing specifically on the “insistent presence of animals in contemporary art,” you pay particular attention to the necessity of unlearning our “old habits revolving around our relational mode with the animal.” Can you talk about some of the practices that you believe are productively inviting us to rethink our relationship with non-human lives?

G. A.: My views on this subject are still very similar to those that informed the writing of my first book. In truth, I believe that our anthropocentric miseducation begins in kindergarten or primary school. The traditional education system is based on affirmation: children are trained to develop confidence through a “This is/I am” approach that promotes an identity formation necessary to the functioning of society. At this stage, nature is introduced as a series of objects to possess and exploit. Everything is thus reduced to cliché through the pre-coded work of symbolism. Children are taught that lions are brave, bears are ferocious, leopards are fast, butterflies are beautiful, spiders are scary, snakes are disgusting. Thereafter, as Berger famously argued in his essay “Why Look at Animals?,” we grow up to become constantly disappointed in the lack of the promised sublimity of animals, who should somehow perform for us or engage in emotional exchanges that they have no interest in. Beyond dogs, the animal world is understood as dumb or as food. Thereafter, not being interested in animals becomes a demarcated moment in the rite of passage to adulthood. Adults should be concerned with other matters; animals become the object of hunting or entertainment, and nature is the backdrop for holidays.

This is where the idea of unlearning comes from in Art & Animals: you have to undo that very normative process that you grew up with. It becomes necessary to pick up the pieces and configure yourself all over again in order to allow for a different conception of non-human beings to arise. This conception is one in which representation is at a point of crisis, however, for you cannot rely upon the tropes of anthropocentrism to rebuild what has been dismantled. The process is long and laborious, and it involves the making of new and difficult ethical choices — choices that you might have to define for yourself in relation to your specific geographical situation, cultural makeup, and personal sense of urgency. These choices might not be in line with animal rights or pre-existing vegan agendas. What I envision is a place of total reconfiguration of the self, a radical unlearning based on careful mediation of one’s own material situation in the world.

The epistemic space that art and philosophy can open is surely one of the most productive in relation to this process. For as much as arguments against this or that aspect of new materialism and speculative realism attempt to diminish their importance, the opportunity to rethink anthropocentrism that they provide is extremely valuable to the possibility of developing systems of thought that are constructed around a cohabitative and self-reflexive relationship with otherness. In 2015, we dedicated two issues of Antennae to the importance of agential realism in contemporary art, especially in the work of artists who are interested in reconfiguring the boundaries of nature within networks of inter and intra actions. Artists such as Janet Laurence have produced eco-artworks in which “care and caution” enable the abandonment of a human-centred view for a broader multi-species awareness. Patricia Adams has explored the challenges and productivities involved in transgressing the scientific protocol to tap into the potential to modify the human body through biotechnology. Claire Pentecost has turned her attention to the soil and to how what we take for granted from our anthropocentric conception is perhaps one of the most important sites of interconnectedness that we urgently need to reconsider. Decentring the human lies at the core of the emergence of new aesthetics in contemporary art.

A. DE B.: Based on Christian/Cartesian dualism, the Western belief that human beings are ontologically distinct from and superior to other living creatures has been used to justify patriarchal and racist ideologies throughout time. In your view, how do contemporary art practices involving non-human animals contest hierarchies based upon biodeterminism and other forms of essentialism, and how do they participate in recasting our collective imagination in terms of our perception of multiple forms of life and of difference?

G. A.: The two next issues of Antennae will be dedicated to art and environmental art. Both issues raise key questions about intentionality in artistic production, the emergence of new aesthetics challenging traditional object-subject relationships, environmental rhetorics and the engagement with irreducible materialities, and the potentiality that art bears in the development of these new discursive formations. These issues are part of a year-long publishing project designed to move beyond the zoocentrism of animal studies for the purpose of considering the productivities imbedded in new theories and practices. Among others, multispecies ethnography has outlined a range of possibilities through which human - non-human relationships can be mapped via the recovery of networks enmeshed in agential dynamics. Jane Bennett has contrasted the mechanistic and lifeless essence of modernity, in which the subject exploits inert materials, to a model of agency that transcends the biological definition of organism, thus detecting agency and interconnectedness on multiple registers, scales, and materialities. The emergence of these networks, and thus the possibility of becoming aware of the importance that each ecosystem, being, and agency bears is made to emerge through multidisciplinary approaches, capitalizing on the synergic work of science, art, and philosophy.

And although the sciences have, until recently, dominated our perception of the biosphere, the arts are now making increasingly important contributions to the expansion of our views and to the sense of awareness that the micro is closely interconnected with the macro. We are now becoming more and more confident about the importance of our individual micro-agency and how this can indeed make a difference on the macro-scale of corporations, exploitative practices, destructive procedures, and general short-sightedness regarding environments and resources.

I think that contemporary artists involved in a critical appraisal of our relationship with nature are mobilizing their efforts on two fronts: the conceptual and the methodological. Conceptually, a substantial urgency to solicit awareness in the viewer has become paramount. Artists seem to think more carefully about their local reality and the connections between their specific situation and ones that are broader and further afield. They aim to push their thinking, and the viewer’s, toward under-scrutinized areas of discourse and practice in order to create new connections between polarities. Sometimes these configurations reveal the absurdity of naturalized systems of knowledge, discourses, and practices; at other times they propose new alternatives.

The new attention to materiality and experiencing materiality is also gaining currency as an opportunity through which viewers can be engaged in interpretation that involves more than the symbolic. Methodologically, artists such as Jenny Kendler, Alyce Santoro, Suzanne Anker, Claire Pentecost, and Pierre Huyghe, among others, are committed to rethinking our relationship with the non-human and are not interested in shock tactics or unnecessary theatricalities. Attention to their medium of choice is paramount and solidifies a relationship that is developed over time, slowly and meditatively. Thus the process becomes an intrinsic part of the artwork — sometimes this is visible in the works; at other times, it is imbedded deeper in the layers of complexities that characterize them. The general tendency, however, seems to revolve around time and slow consumption and production. This methodological choice implies that the speed at which our lives are consumed nowadays is one of the main factors leading to the current climatic situation. Contemporary art thus becomes a place to experience a different rhythm in the hope of transposing that model to at least part of our chaotic everyday existence.

A. DE B.: You were one of the organizers of the Human-Non-Human Networks Symposium, held at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago on March 12, 2016. Considering the interest in “moving beyond the growing zoocentrism that characterizes current animal studies,” the event focused “on the possibilities of reconceiving ethicalities, methodologies, and aesthetic strategies as inscribed in the biotechnological, biocapitalist, and ‘deep time’ frameworks of the proposed Anthropocene.” Can you summarize for us some of the ideas that you brought up in your presentation, “Registering Interconnectedness,” regarding those issues?

G. A.: The symposium posed key questions, such as “What is at stake in the re-imagining of disciplinary boundaries through the parsing of new epistemic strategies involving multispecies networks? What may the aesthetic repercussions of such new directions be? How can art produced within these new parameters impact on everyday life?”

My contribution opened the symposium for the purpose of discussing animal studies, its contributions and its blind spots. I focused on a paper titled “Animal Studies and Art: Elephants in the Room,” which was published as a stand-alone editorial to introduce Antennae’s new editorial direction in 2015. The text essentially proposed a provocation. As you pointed out in a previous question, Damien Hirst has devised a sensationalist aesthetic model in which animal bodies are reified through altered modalities of natural-history displays. In animal studies, his work is almost rejected outright as something that adds absolutely no value to the discussion. Although I do not wish to suggest for a second that Hirst has an animal studies agenda in mind, my argument is that his work can still be productively used in animal studies discourses for the purpose of showing all that is indeed wrong in human - animal relations. But moving beyond a basic, negative reading, which is where animal studies usually stops in his case, I also proposed that the materiality of his animal bodies be considered beyond the shock factor and that this materiality be followed as a key semantic element of the work of art itself.

Looking at Hirst’s butterfly-wing paintings from this perspective revealed a complex network involving humans, environments, markets, animals, and art. Following the materiality of the butterfly wings in the paintings led me to learn that in 2003, Hirst became the largest importer of tropical butterflies in the UK. I researched the origins of the butterfly farms from which the insects came and managed to uncover a network in which locals living in the tropics were given legal work opportunities from the establishment of butterfly farms devised to conserve the wild specimens that were being poached and sold on the black market. The butterfly farms simultaneously provide legal work for the locals and establish tourism, which brings more money into the area. The question becomes then one of interpretation and intention. Hirst does not intend us to go down this interpretive path — his works are about beauty, horror, religion, and death — yet I argue that nothing prevents us from saying more than can usually be said in art-historical analysis and crafting a path of analysis that reveals human - non-human interconnectedness in works of art. Up to now, the hermeneutic approach to artworks has been implicitly defined by an anthropocentric approach that has limited the scope of inquiry by setting parameters for what is and isn’t important to say. These parameters are subliminally incorporated into our thinking through the reading of other art historians’ work and through the decisions that publishers make in the selection of suitable book topics and series. Taking the ontological turn seriously and embracing a non-anthropocentric perspective also involves the devising of new parameters through which we can discuss what could not be previously uttered.

NOTES
1. Giovanni Aloi, "Deconstructing the Animal in Search of the Real,", Anthrozoos 25 (2012), p. 329-346.
2. Giovanni Aloi, Art & Animals, (London & New York, I. B. Tauris, 2012)

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