TheDiscerningBrute.com is excited to welcome guest writer Thomas Mader, a multidisciplinary artist based in Berlin. Mader has shown internationally and written for publications like Dossier Journal, Underscore Magazine, and Curbs & Stoops. For his recent public intervention “Balloon”, he handed out 1000 helium balloon drones in Salzburg/Austria and New York. “Balloon” will be shown in a different format, as a collaboration with video artist Christopher Michael, at ÑEWMERICA’s show “Birth of a nation” at Exit room Gallery NY, opening on the 3rd of April.
In the early 2000’s, when camouflage patterns came back into fashion, some concerned voices could be heard talking about the dangers of introducing military symbols into a civilian context, and thus normalizing the otherwise aggressive connotations these patterns represent.
The people speaking out against this phenomenon were labeled ‘overanxious’, insofar as their arguments being dismissed by the mainstream as irrelevant or conspiracy theory babbling.
The discussion, however, made me recall my first trip to South America and how shocked I was then, not only for seeing armed solders pretty much wherever I went, but also because of how much of a mundane sight they were to the civilians of their respective countries.
I understand that the military is much more present in an everyday context in the US than it is in many European countries, that it has a different status and a different appreciation, but I also think that it is important to not simply ignore the topics that surfaced in this camouflage fashion discussion. Because not only have I seen how literally camouflage had camouflaged itself, but also how quickly these hidden aggressive potentials can snap back into action and cause extensive damage.
…these hidden aggressive potentials can snap back into action and cause extensive damage.
The downplaying of violent symbols and control mechanisms by introducing them into a mainstream context is a very powerful tactic and we can witness its effects every day.
When Street Art was still relatively underground, the image of the surveillance camera was a warning symbol speaking out against the massive introduction of surveillance mechanisms in public spaces. As the medium got more mainstream attention, its symbols gradually lost their meaning.
A stylized stencil of a surveillance camera now no longer functions as a warning, it just means that Street Art, at least in its most widely recognized form, has become an easily consumable product.
The medium’s symbols have become so iconic that they no longer contain any significant meaning. They merely serve as a business card for the medium itself.
This development was not necessarily propagated in a conscious way by the creators of the medium, but rather by those who recognized its potential for mainstream appeal and marketability.
In my opinion, a similar phenomenon can now be observed when it comes to drone technology. Almost every other week various YouTube videos show the advances in miniature drone flight and control capability. Companies like Amazon and DHL use drone parcel delivery as publicity stunts and remote control drones have long found their way into toy stores, allowing people to steer them using their iPhones or PSPs.
The technology seems democratic and there for all to use but how much the powers that be really feel the need to control said technology became clear once again when the whole extent of the NSA surveillance program in Germany was uncovered.
The spying post the NSA had used to spy on top level German politicians, including chancellor Merkel herself, was, and to my knowledge still is, situated right on top of the US embassy in Berlin, smack in the political center of Germany, a mere stones throw away where the chancellor resides and the parliament assembles.
When the Sueddeutsche newspaper and NDR, a regional German TV channel, included drone technology in the research of their joint venture titled “A secret war”, their use of camera drones immediately resulted in police presence where reporters were forbidden to use the drones and had their personal data taken down.
…reporters were forbidden to use the drones and had their personal data taken down.
This discrepancy between seemingly democratic technologies and symbols and their inherent exclusiveness pertaining to a more or less invisible elites works as a sort of Trojan horse.
People are being offered to use and enjoy certain symbols but they always incorporate the potential that an elite will take them away from the general public whenever they deem fit, or use them to ensure their own safety and status.
Of course, the same goes for certain online services and in their case almost always the well-known Internet rule applies: If it is for free, you are the product.
Nature Versus Man is a literary and visual art trope that continues to inspire artists. It is well traversed in written work, paintings, and sculpture, but it’s not always explored in a humane manner. The question is, does this end justify the means? Does the materials used in work ever discount the work and can man-made materials truly replace natural materials in this exploration? Animal byproducts have long been used in the of making art: Tempera paint used egg and most canvases were stretched with rabbit skin glue–not a cute euphemism, it is an adhesive made from the refined collagen of rabbit skin. Both of these materials have largely been replaced by synthetic counterparts, but continue to be used. They have some debatable positive and negative attributes that determine the quality of finish, but my focus is more on the philosophy and ethical use.
I have been vegan for half of my life, but I have been living in a society that defines masculinity by specific standards my entire life. I have been taught and have grown to love aspects of macho-manhood, though it often seems hypocritical to my ethical standards. One of these passions is taxidermy. My love of taxidermy began in art school, where we had an illustration library with bones, hides, and animals to study and reproduce in our scientific illustration studies. It brought up a lot of traumas of facing a failing grade or dissecting a frog in my earlier education, but I also had a strange fascination with these lifeless creatures. So, I stole them: Freeganism before Oprah talked about it, aka the rationalizing out of guilt. Beyond the joy of decorating with dead animals, I later began an interest in the actual study of taxidermy. Though I have never performed it, I have gathered found dead animals and bones to attempt the practice–a process inspired by the sculptures seen at Alexis Bittar stores around New York City. My MOZ loving, vegan baked good enthusiast friend, Alyssa, who worked at the store for a few years, informed me that the taxidermy was all “ethically sourced.” There were blog posts about it and official press releases by Bittar that stated the pieces were all ethically made, but nothing which defined what that meant. So I searched out the taxidermist, Frank J. Zitz & Co., Inc., and asked him directly. He promptly replied in an email, “…a lot of these skins came from animals that died from natural causes in zoos, or they come out of old collections. A lot of it is synthetic and cast.” It does not seem that all of Zitz work is created with these pieces, but many of them are. While I do not believe in the harvesting of skins or furs through murder, nor the industrial system of zoos, it could be debated that the acquisition and use of existing materials may be more environmentally sound than the creation of new materials, man-made or not. I believe it is always best to repurpose the old, rather than manufacture the new.
Many artists use materials as a function of expression, they work in the media that best depicts their conceptual intent. I love it. This allows artists to expand on their philosophy and create work that truly connects with the viewer. The down side is that many artist simply define their work as “mixed media.” While it might be annoying to read a list of materials longer than their artist statement, it does not allow for the archival and ethically conscious individual the information they need. Cai Guo-Qiang is one of the most dynamic artists of today, using explosives, florescent lights, cars, and basically anything he can to create the work he desires. Having only seen his work once in person, my memory is a bit hazy, but in remembering the textures of the fur used in his work is often matted and appears fake. Often they are even stated to be: the artist himself said that they are “realistically made, but they are completely fake.” Which is misleading as they are not real endangered tigers or a pack of taxidermy wolves, but they are made from sheep hide and sometimes real fur, painted and died
to resemble the replicated animal. When a material list is reduced to “Mixed Media” or “Life Size Replica” it creates the assumption that these are all faux furs or man-made materials. David Shrigley is another artist who uses whatever materials best represent his concept. His work is mainly sarcastic and blunt, but he is one of the only artist who work in dead-pan affirmations that are able to evoke a sincere reaction. His 2011 piece, I’m Dead, uses a taxidermic puppy which holds a sign reading, “I’m Dead.” There are earlier versions of the work which feature a taxidermy cat and dog, separately. I do not have information on where this puppy comes from or how the work came to be, but I appreciate the honesty in it’s materials. Would the work be less valuable or important when ethically made? What are the boundaries of ethics in the use of animals in art?
Not all artists rely on natural skins and furs to create their work. I came across the haunting work of Erick Swenson at James Cohan Gallery of New York, which use all man-made materials to provoke empathy and sorrow of watching an animal in its last moments. His work seems to balance the turbulent line of the artist’s own childhood passion for taxidermy and scientific illustrations. Though his work is all man-made materials, it evokes as much, if not more a visceral reaction than any artwork that uses natural pelts. Another artist who uses man-made materials in their art is Lisa Dillin. Where Swenson’s work is often morose, Dillin is playful. Her piece Bear hug Sleeping Unit is made of all faux fur. Her piece is interactive, when inside the bears pouch you can hear the soft breathing a grunting of a docile animal, giving comfort and joy one might get from their own animal friends. These artists may not be using man-made materials to fulfill ethical decisions, but these works are evidence that the materials may not determine the value and response.
These artists may not be using man-made materials to fulfill ethical decisions, but these works are evidence that the materials may not determine the value and response.
In both art and decoration, does the source of the material matter in it being ethical when there are realistic faux-furs and pelts being produced? The look and touch of a piece may severely alter the perception and damage its impact. Skins erode much faster and may prove more difficult to keep archival, yet we also live in a culture that allows leathers, fur, and skins to define luxury. Synthetic materials are inherently cold, they lack the warmth of natural fibers, which creates a distance between the viewer and the work. If there is not a visceral or emotional connection the intent might be lost, but at what cost. In researching the role of taxidermy in art, it became obvious that the materials are secondary to the artists intention and skill, which none of
these artists are lacking. Cai Guo-Qiang uses real hide and furs to create his work, which is no less intense and interesting than the man-made work of Erick Swenson. Lisa Dillin is able to make humorous and thoughtful work just like David Shringley, but without any natural skins. All four artists make wonderful work; the presentation is strong and the intensions are met, but the artists’ materials may alter the perception and value of these works.
There is no easy delineation of ethics in art, it is as complex as the art itself. Either way, we must all justify our choices and attempt to live our lives as humanely as possible… So, as it is in every other aspect of your life, the power is yours.
Created by Greg Singer, Vegtoons is an independent cartoon featuring the characters Hugh Manatee, Harang-Utan, and Rufus Peeve, Jr. III. The first episode, Bean There Done That introduces the main characters of the show, and touches on the idea that being vegetarian is just a passing fad or phase.
“In a light-hearted, respectful way, VEGTOONS explores a variety of issues, concerns and assumptions that people often have regarding a vegetarian lifestyle — ranging from health and nutrition, to ethics and the environment, to relationships with family and loved ones.”
In Giovanni Aloi’s groundbreaking book, Art & Animals, the reader is asked to look critically at the way in which animals – living, dead or in representation, have been and are increasingly used in contemporary art. Dealing with identity, “otherness” and down the roots of civilization itself, the book is insightful, inspiring and yet very worrying for anyone involved in the creative industries, or anyone who is concerned and fascinated by animals and the environment. Aloi’s honed analysis is informed by almost seven years of experience as Founder and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. Giovanni and I spoke via email:
JOSHUA KATCHER: We deal a lot with masculinity on The Discerning Brute, mainly from a critical perspective regarding the illusion that exploiting animals is a reflection of strength and virility. In your book you refer to natural history dioramas as “a violent subjugation of nature, a typically masculine endeavor, manifestation of the deep desire to possess and control nature, arresting life in a three-dimensional photographic capture designed to educate and inspire while also demonstrating human supremacy over nature”. Where else do you see conventions of patriarchy being sought out in the art world regarding our use of animals? In your book, Zang Huan’s muscle/meat suit seems to have avoided a machismo interpretation.
GIOVANNI ALOI: This is a very interesting question. That quote from my book is substantially informed by the writing of Donna Haraway, her famous essay on taxidermy titled ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’, and was needed within the main context in order to reflect the current predominantly negative, cultural approach to taxidermy. I still believe that statement to be very much true when considered with regards to the golden age of taxidermy (late Victorian period) which led to the expansion of natural history collections around the world. The synergic conflation of gun, camera, gaze and the desire to possess involved in taxidermy of the golden age predominantly was the resultant of traditionally masculine perceptions and attitudes towards the wider world, not just animals. As aptly pointed out by Hogart in the famous series of engravings titled The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751), what we do to animals, we are likely to do to other humans…in a literal or metaphorical sense, I would add.
Since the writing of the book I have been further developing my views on taxidermy (a project that will be published next) and most especially on its ambiguous presence in contemporary art. The current revival of taxidermy is a much more complex phenomenon that some claim. In my opinion it has less to do with a sense of guilt for colonialism, a reparational practice, and much more to do with where we are right now, culturally and historically. Continue reading “Art & Animals: An Interview with Giovanni Aloi”