Recent posts by Nina and the Institute regarding H1N1 brought to mind Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel's collaborative work Ein Haus fur Schweine und Menschen (A house for pigs and people) that was presented in 1997 at Documenta X. It is a piece I had not thought about since, well, probably 1997 - and given the resurgent interest in pigs as of late I may have to track down the catalog.
While both artists still fascinate me, it is Höller who continues to hold more of my interest for a number of reasons, not the least of which being his "Laboratory of Doubt" project and the fact that he obtained a PhD in phytopathology with a thesis on olfactory communication between insects (even though he is probably more widely recognized for his slides that were installed at Tate Modern.)
Apparently, "A House for Pigs and People" was the piece at Documenta X. So much so that even the ever-so unlikeable Baudrillard was compelled to comment on it, providing this description:
... we still play-act representation. A good illustration of this modern hoax was provided by the Kassel documenta of 1997 with the ‘Pigsty’ Installation. Reaching up on tiptoe to see over a fence, spectators look down on a pigsty, while a large mirror opposite allows them to see themselves observing pigs. Then they walk round the shelter and park themselves behind the mirror, which turns out to be a two-way mirror through which they can once again see the pigs, but at the same time also see the spectators opposite looking at the pigs – spectators unaware, or at least pretending to be unaware, that they are being observed. This is the contemporary version of Velásquez’s Las Meninas, and Michel Foucault’s analysis of the classical age of representation
Hmm...Yes, well. This work was also, as I think the artists had intended, about the status of the animal in relation to the human - a persistent problematic even well after the ruination of Deleuze within academia. Most especially now given the play that the Badiousian Subject is getting. And for those who would criticise Badiou on this point (that he is 'hard on the animal') even Deleuzeans such as Eric Alliez have a knack for discerning the vitalist in Badiou when it comes to recuperating such elegant descriptions of a Subject as simply 'an upsurge within the enveloping animal'.
Concerning the animal, Daniel Birnbaum has written an article on Holler and Trockel's collaborative work that I think is worth citing:
Holler and Trockel's first collaborative animal project was Muckenbus (Mosquito bus), 1996, in which humans were to encounter mosquitoes inside a Volkswagen van to test whether sheer willpower alone could influence the insects' tendency to bite. Why is it that some people get bitten a lot, while others are completely spared? Does it have anything to do with the mind-set of the person in question? In the end, because of the risk of disease spreading from one visitor to the other, the project had to remain largely hypothetical. When the bus was finally exhibited, no mosquitoes could be seen, heard, or otherwise perceived (for the simple reason that there weren't any). But in later projects, the visual qualities have been much more emphatic, as in A House for Pigs and People, where the pigs and piglets appeared as part of some hyperreal tableau vivant. Actually, the whole setup could be seen as a piece of optical machinery emphasizing the eye of the spectator and the completely objectified animals that are not even allowed the opportunity to meet the gaze of the observer.
In his 1997 catalogue essay "A House Divided," Richard Shusterman gives a political interpretation of Holler and Trockel's Documenta work: "There are also many human pigs in our social world: races and ethnicities that fail to gain our recognition because they are seen through the one-way glass of socio-cultural privilege. Very often such despised ethnicities are denigrated as swine, though Hegel, in denying the African's humanity, compared him not to a pig but a dog." All of this is no doubt true, but there are also millions of real pigs that live short and miserable lives in industrial confinement only to be sent to the slaughterhouse and made into cheap meals for the masses. One needn't see the work as an allegory to see its political dimension. "Can domesticated animals protest against us in any other way than by diseases (swine fever, mad-cow disease, cardiac infarct)?" inquire the artists. These days, when militant vegans in Europe bum down burger joints and sausage factories, when apocalyptic minds declare that mad-cow disease is divine revenge, and less dogmatic souls like myself actively avoid certain meats, Holler and Trockel's houses for humans and animals cannot be seen merely as amusing visual arrangements of various zoological specimens or as works about the incomprehensibility of animal behavior and nothing else. They're also about power. Indeed, the philosophical underpinnings of humanism itself seem to be at stake. Do we humans need constantly to reassure ourselves of our supremacy over other species through the exclusion of that which is not us but looks, smells, and acts a bit like us--i.e., the animal?
In an interview conducted in 1989 by Jean-Luc Nancy for Confrontations ("Eating Well"), a speculative and outspoken Jacques Derrida delineated a theory of the Western subject as an essentially meat-eating creature. Western humanity has defined itself through a violent exclusion, and incorporation, of the animal: "The subject does not want just to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, he accepts sacrifice and eats flesh." The subject of power is essentially male and carnivorous, says Derrida, and he inquires, "I would ask you: In our countries, who would stand any chance of becoming a chef d'Etat (a head of State) ... by publicly, and therefore exemplarily, declaring him- or herself to be a vegetarian? The chef must be an eater of flesh."
Birnbaum would certainly seem to share some common ground with Mike Davis, whose recent article "Capitalism and the Flu" (hat tip to both IT and ICR) describes H1N1 as 'a genetic chimera probably conceived in the fecal mire of an industrial pigsty, suddenly threatening to give the whole world a fever'. So after the media hysteria slows down, when panic is no longer the favored and aimed at response, they would still like for us to waver in the more ambient and subversive atmosphere of doubt - doubt as to the preparedness of countries, states and their hospitals, the economic repercussions of a still uncertain pandemic, or the actual fatality rate of something that was on its "evolutionary fast track" six years ago. There should even be doubt as to what name to give a virus threatening not only millions of people, but the irrational mass extermination of livestock as well...
But what matters more (especially given the continued threat of H5N1) is the larger configuration: the WHO's failed pandemic strategy, the further decline of world public health, the stranglehold of Big Pharma over lifeline medicines, and the planetary catastrophe of industrialized and ecologically unhinged livestock production
- Mike Davis
HUO: What's the political side of doubt?
CH: Doubt becomes political when it is used beyond its usefulness. To further uncertainty and to establish a condition of no decision is a political weapon. Doubt is politically effective precisely because it is not against something, or is proposing "another" way, but instead admits confusingly more.
- Carsten Holler interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist