Roughly ten years ago Andy Clark, in Being There, noted how tempting it was for common sense to consider the brain as an “alien” (a stranger) enveloped in flesh. However, he then followed it up with an example that completely contradicted the idea: that of the swimming behaviour of dolphins and tuna. Their swimming demonstrates that these mammals’ brains operate a chain network that directly runs the secondary nervous system. This enables them to propel themselves, depending on the environment, faster than it would seem possible to do with their muscle mass. In other words, if these mammals can move so quickly, it's because they have integrated the immediate environment around them, through what might be called a perimeter network which delivers just one synthetic information summary to the central brain.
To a certain extent this is probably also the case with humans and it demonstrates that the traditional, chronological divisions that have been ascribed to perception, cognition and action, are nowadays being completely revised. I cite this as a significant example because, since the early 90s, the major breakthrough in neuroscience research gave birth to a movement of thought that has chosen the terminology embodiment of the meaning (incorporation du sens). This is used to define hypotheses in which the exercise of thought comes primarily through its incorporation.
Being both an artist and an anthropology and psychology researcher, this philosophical reference is very close to my concerns and helps me to understand the somewhat borderline character of artistic experiments that I undertake with my partner Benoît Mangin, in which the living and the human body in particular are always at play. The perennial question that torments me is "what are the limits of my embodied consciousness?". My belief is that the non-verbal language of art is a tool for active introspection in this experimental field.
Necessarily seeking the limits of one’s own understanding may lead one to represent a state considered to be extreme to another, and as such unacceptable. Clinical psychology knows how much the notion unacceptable often comes from the mind's inability to visualise an evocation, therefore it qualifies it as such. It is the well-known phenomena of Marguerite Duras evoking Hiroshima, where the unacceptable merges with the illusion, "I had an illusion before Hiroshima that I will never forget.” And yet, artistic shaping allows the presentation of the unacceptable, which does not necessarily mean "unworldy". In doing so it allows us to expand the understanding that we can have of our environment.
It was in 1985 that I did my first skin biopsies in my mother’s laboratory at the University hospital of Lariboisière in Paris. Carefully I deposed these samples of myself in some little cavities on the surface of wax cubes. I was then a young student and already I considered these objects like an artistic hybrid. I was the only one to think like that. Others saw an artefact that was a little disgusting. Of course they were aesthetically white, translucent, almost pure. For them it was just a biological residue.
For me it had already taken the form of a live experiment, allowing me to observe a morsel of myself at a distance. In a certain way it was an experiment of an extra corporeal experience. An experience which ultimately is very familiar in our Christian culture which contains a plethora of mystic images of fractured bodies that intrigue believers: Saint Lucy of Syracuse with her eyes on a plate, Saint Agatha with her severed breasts, decapitated Saint Denis, carrying his head in his hands. Serge Tisseron told us “ It is only because there exists a first repression of our experiences of the world that we can begin to think about them.” and certainly I interpreted the disgust felt in front of these artefacts, as an expression of a fundamental repression of a new corporeal consciousness. The fact that my fragile child’s body was a perpetual object of medical study was not that foreign to this adolescent project.
This work was just the beginning of research that resulted, in 1996, after numerous other artistic experiences in the field of biology and the environment, in our Cultures of artists’ skins. It's made of the cultures of our epithelial cells deposited, after their growth, onto a pig’s dermis and tattooed with animal representations. The tattoos came from the 1996 American ‘best of’ collection of animal tattoos. When this work was made it generated only incomprehension and surprise. It was so singular it went by almost unnoticed. It wasn't at all surprising, as this work gives a view of the unthinkable thought process already present in the super-human fantasy of the previously cited saints. The unthinkable becomes, however, present in the scientific domain and it also has numerous echoes in the fantasies of cloning: that of the body “outside of the body”.
Cultures of artist’s skins tackled several taboos, from evisceration to integration of an alternate corporeality. One of these samples, First skin, is even a virtual child of Benoît and myself, as it was grown from our combined carnal envelopes. In fact this work is a radical interpretation of human evolution, a subject dear to Leroi-Gourhan, according to whom human beings have a tendency to extend their bodies in objects. Far from being a simple apology of the scientific process, it has something to show and be made.
In order that individual consciousness can imagine extra-corporeality, it gives it a materiality for, or against which, its own corporeal consciousness can position itself. It is a work of "awareness."
This is neither innocent nor apologetic, but could actually seem borderline, since our initial thoughts were to give our very selves, in the form of biological samples, to those who would like to use them for grafts. This ultimate step may be on the point of being achieved thanks to the collector Geert Verbeke, who is open to this fundamental proposition that a collector of biotechnology art should have the work implicated in his/ her own flesh. While we wait for this we have, according to his wishes, grafted all the 1996 samples onto the skin of a dead pig. This has produced something even more unthinkable: a biological inter-species hybrid.
With the question of posthuman art it is often the image of the man-machine that stands out, accompanied by reflection on artificial intelligence and heightened reality. At recent conferences that I have been able to attend, questions abounded about disturbing images, in which a world of cyborgs take over human beings. A type of catastrophic image constantly relayed by today’s media, if this is judged by the amount of apocalyptic documentaries we see on our screens that oppose man and technology. And, in these documentaries, we see a shift; from a terror of the atomic bomb to a terror of cyborgs.
This has been, in particular, since the invention of the first self-replicating robot, created by researchers from Cornell University in the United States. In the worst case scenarios, the world is devoured by self-replicating robots, which would need just the tiniest organic particle to produce silicone, and combine with the smallest organic mineral particle to reproduce infinitely, to the point at which all terrestrial forms of life disappear.
From an anthropological perspective, this fear is easily explained. Indeed the machine is essentially an object, or an object born in the consciousness of the subject, of a fundamental ontological distinction: the subject is itself, the human: the object is the other, the non-self, the non-human. The mental representation of our identity is constructed from this dichotomy and anything which transgresses this provokes a trauma. Thus, clinical psychology teaches us that anxiety results from the impossibility of being able to manage antagonism. Often it is about a founding cultural antagonism - “I dreamed about doing something with my life”, “My life does not resemble this dream”. In some ways the first proposition could be replaced by “ I have an idea about what a human being is” and the second proposition could be replaced by “Machines cannot be that human”.
When one observes the great difficulty that transplant patients already have regarding the grafts as anything other than a foreign object, one can imagine what it would be like with machines! Serge Tisseron, the psychoanalyst, goes so far as to think that a machine’s essence is irreconcilable with ours and, in this sense, that man, who desires to be active and free, conceives machines as passive and dependant. “The more objects become autonomous through feedback systems and more and more complex learning models, the more it seems important to repeat that they are prisoners of their programme. Man, then, would be free. Which remains to be seen, because the characteristic feature of human freedom also incorporates the possibility of choosing slavery.” To summarise, the posthuman robotic body is no doubt a long way from becoming pschologically integrated which is why it is a vehicle for such powerful fantasies. This is not the same for nature. Nature, as evoked by Leibniz in his La Mondalogie, is never perceived by man as a non-self. We alternatively objectify it, when it comes to consuming it, and humanize it, when we worship it or regard it empathetically. Nature benefits from an ambivalence which carries with it an evocative richness similar to that of human thought, which by turn objectifies and subjectifies it.
That's why as an artist, I cannot avoid environmental issues, and, in particular, animal issues. Moreover, the position of the animal (the non-human) remains, in my eyes, an example that speaks volumes about the essential paradox in which, as humans, we find ourselves. Man alternatively places the animal in a subject position, to receive their affection, and then as an object that makes man forget that they are cannibals by consuming them. Also, all relationship with the animal places us in a position to go beyond the subject/object dichotomy on which our our mental comfort relies, forcing us towards super-humanity. In the words of Gilles Deleuze: “people who love animals have a relationship with animals that is not human”. This relationship for me is the germ of a reflection on post-humanity.
There are many ways to consider the relationship between species. Generally, the first that comes to mind, is the study of lifestyles shared by man and animals, where both are present. Dominque Lestel calls this “the hybrid man/animal community”.
In L’animal singulier, he highlights how researchers have hitherto concentrated as ethnologists or sociologists on man, or ethologists on animals, and how much it is necessary today to develop an etho-ethnology, that would study how animals and human could live together. That is what is advocated by the oh so contemporary abolition of inter-disciplinary barriers of academic knowledge. But beyond these intellectual issues, one can read there an invitation to abolish the concept of inter-species barriers which would, well beyond the current social evolution of ethics, the emotional expression and political correctness mark a new capacity for the understanding of the living by overcoming the self/non-self divide.
That’s what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari aspired to in Mille Plateaux. That too is what I aspire to, because it appears to me, that it is in the alteration of the sense of the Other, to play on these words, that there resides the possibility of enlarging humanism, beyond the field of the self, the territory of the object and of technological singularity. This position is far from a comfortable one, as the the weakening of a dichotomic construction of thought necessarily means that the management of its repercussions will be perilous.
In the field of a possible etho-ethnology, it’s the world of animal communication that researchers have hitherto concentrated on. Strangely, this is not the case for visual artists. At the Beasts and Men exhibition at the Grande Halle, La Villette, artists, scientists and philosophers were brought together around this animal theme. However, the organisers could only find the two of us to artistically study this question. We made two proposals, one was judged too disturbing (you will see why) and the other was accepted even though it was considered too experimental. It didn't actually involve teaching a single word of human language animals, which is usual scientific practice with monkeys, although this is perfectly against nature (the example of Washoe is the most famous), but instead to find a means of possible negotiation with them.
To enter into their world independently of a sound or symbolic language. Simply, to become a little bit one of them ... Basically the project was to artistically adapt Jacob Von Uexküll's Umwelt theory, which argues that the meaning of an environment differs from one animal to another in relation to its sensorial system. Of course, for us, no result could be guaranteed, which is what worried the exhibition organisers as they saw their deadline for the exhibition approaching.
Naturally it was the cats we live with which provided our first medium of observation. Already in 1993, for our Sonsbeek exhibition, we had made a video film about an ethological experience with our Siamese kitten, Hadji.
Hadji was like a stallion, who spent several hours each day pacing up and down our studio, like a wild beast in a cage, following a path defined by himself. We then made a kind of Kim game, in which we would add an obstacle to each of his circular trajectories. The changes were imperceptible and the viewer, who could not see what we were doing on the video, didn’t realise that each of the cat’s episodic hesitations resulted in him being forced to change his itinerary.
So it is the Umwelt of the cat that revealed the Umwelt of the artist. But the idea now was to modify more radically the perception of our cats. Over the years we made many ethological experiments with them, but it seemed that we were stuck in the same place in their hierachy. That’s when the idea occurred to me to become digitigrade. A kind of fantasy where I would be able to jump onto the table in a single leap with paws that were too long... I drew the “cat shoes”, which a prosthetist then made. As soon as I put them on and got used to this strange way of walking, the cats came up to me, sniffed and jumped on me, playing with me in the same way as they played between themselves. The artistic object worked, it had moved my role in the feline, domestic hierachy. This first experiment was logically titled Félinanthropie (2007).
There followed an experiment with giraffes from the Doué la Fontaine zoo, Necking (2007). We had learnt that captive giraffes demonstrated strong aggression against their keepers, even though captivity was all they had known. Vets attributed this attitude to the giraffes’ supposed nervous character. From the nervous giraffes that we had seen in Angola, this seemed to us a pragmatic explanation.
When we observed the giraffes at the zoo, we noticed how they spent their time swinging their heads, turning towards each other while moving their ears and crossing their necks at each meeting. In short giraffes communicate with their necks and their ears. Humans have neither this neck nor these mobile ears. So we began to make a very large articulated neck, at the top of which was a giraffe’s head, with directional ears, that Benoît put on while perched on a high chair. We had based the model on one of the older female giraffes of the group.
However, the neck was visibly interpreted as a male neck by the females of the group who joyfully approached it, while, much to the surprise of the vets, the male tapped his hoof at the end of the enclosure. In addition to this successful scientific demonstration of the importance of visual illusion, what excited us most was Benoît’s rapture that he could get close to animals which fascinated him, in an absurd communion. The principle of the following performance, Jeter les bois, Throwing the horns (2007) was the same. We had to attract a group of wild stags and change their understanding of the other by wearing a confusing ‘stag’s helmet’. This experiment, conducted by Benoît, was not simple, because the stags hesitated for a long time before circling around him, approaching and then attacking.
However, once again it showed us the force of visual illusion which, irrespective of olfactory signs, was capable of transforming man into, if not exactly a deer, into a type of hybrid man-animal that was more acceptable to them. Once again it was because I wanted to change the environment that I slept in a cramped cage in the middle of a macaque pen at the Inuyama’s Institute of Primatology in Japan (Inversion: sleeping among them, 2008). This amused the sceptical researchers but won me the good will of the macaques who, after a few hours, were staggered by the inversion of roles that I proposed to them. So man too may be confined.
The longer the adventure lasted, the longer they considered me one of them, thereby revealing that the first definition they had of themselves was that of "prisoner" before being that of "monkeys". Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa also allowed us to pursue our artistic research through teaching the art of Gutaï tearing to his chimpanzees (Professeur d’art pour chimpanzés,(Art teachers for Chimpanzees), 2008). We also directly confronted their “laboratory” environment in which, each day, they were expected to do complex accounting exercises on touch screens. However, it it's not these studies of comparative cognitive science, so beloved by philosophers, that I find touching.
I am much more affected for instance by Robert Seyfath’s “Baboon metaphysics”, in which there is a psychological study of primates' emotional relationships. As an artist I fully assume contamination by the subject of my research. Especially since, let’s not forget, these experiments have no other purpose for me than to arrive at an alteration of the Other, and provide an incarnated reality to the fragility of the notion of inter-species barriers. Let us look at the project that was refused by the exhibition committee of the grande halle of La Villette. We had wanted to create no less than a machine to record human/animal telepathy.
Since 2004 we had worked on electro-magnetic body auras to investigate the nature of that which emanates from our mortal coil. This technique, based on recordings of Kirlian effects, is not new, however, the use we wanted to make of it was. Some American oncology services use these electo-magnetic aura recordings to check the progression or stabilisation of therapeutic processes, when biochemical data are no longer significant. The evolution of the electro-magnetic aura is in fact very sensitive, to such a point that with some people, with a little bit of training, it can change from one minute to the next.
For the majority of animals this change is easy to record, testimony to what we would call “extremely thin skin” in popular parlance. We then contacted the Lausanne Polytechnic Institute, to develop the interface that would record in real-time the modifications of electro-magnetic auras of the body. Different calibration software had to be designed for humans and for animals. For humans, the photographic recording software had already been developed in California. It combines in parallel the amplitude of the emitted wavelengths (transcribed by the width of radiation on the photograph) and their frequency (recorded by a colour spectrum following the colours of the rainbow). A short frequency is red and is interpreted as a state of restlessness. A long frequency is blue and is interpreted as a state of calm. Our idea was to design a calibrated machine that was simultaneously able to compare the electro-magnetic aura of both a man and an animal.
In Jens Hauser's exhibition Sk-Interfaces, we presented the first results of this reseach with a stop-frame on an image of my electro-magnetic aura when in a state of meditation, then me in a state of anger three minutes later. This was followed by a stop-frame of the aura of my calm cat and then it feeling annoyed three minutes later. If one can suppose with this experiment that the nervous state can be recorded, as much for man as for animal, their concomitant fluctuations in the machine can reveal telapathic elements. Of course one needs to be an artist to do such investigations, as artists are able to completely avoid the the stastical criteria of traditional scientific experiments. But, what is sure is that it was the ethical position of the presupposed experiment that troubled most of the organisers of the Bêtes et Hommes/ Beasts and Man exhibition.
Apart from inter-species communication, research on “the alteration of the Other’ led us several times to question ourselves on the notion of “becoming mutant”. Before even knowing about Gilles Deleuze, we proclaimed the need to experiment during our lives with animal life, not only by sharing the Umwelt of an animal but also by fusing with its personality. That could seem very utopian, however, many Shaman traditions are built on this hypotheses. As a child I was immersed in the Corsican culture of my grandmother, who told me how the Mazzeri “took on” dead animals in order to have their power. I read about the question in ethnographic research, where this tradition was interpreted in a very different fashion to that of my family stories.
According to Dorothy Carrington or Roccu Multedo, the Mazzera left at night to hunt and kill animals in which they recognised men, who they had condemned to death. The stories that I had been told were much more nuanced: the Mazzera (or sometimes the Mazzeru) is recognized since childhood for her ability to get in touch with the spirits of the dead, and, in particular dead animals.
If she accepts this duty of obedience to the invisible world she is supposed to retain this ability all her life. If she doesn’t accept this, her gift can turn against her and her life becomes a battle field. When she finds an animal, who has been victim of a violent death, she has the power to enter into contact with its spirit and to host it, “to take it on”. She does this in order to appropriate the aptitudes peculiar to this species and she can even, through such an intervention, obtain information about the afterlife. One understands then that she can announce who is going to die in the village ... If the Mazzera is led to wilfully kill an animal that she could symbolically have charged with the essence of a man, then one understands that it is about a witch-like justice of a whole different order. In most cases, the Mazzera is the one sought to prevent the supposed actions of the kingdom of spirits, in particular curses.
It is understandable that such traditions have been pushing me to pursue research in ethno-psychiatry on shamanism ... What better way to abolish the barrier between species? The Coat of Squashed Animals, Le Manteau d’animaux écrasés, which was made in 2000, is the direct result of these reflections. It resumes a double ritual: that of an almost scientific collection, indexed, naturalist, of squashed animals on the road side: and that of “taking on" this road kill in the tradition of the Mazzeri Corsicans. This is also found in other shaman cultures (the Inuits, Yakut, Huni Kuni). The work suggest the intersection of politics, of the natural, of man, of animal and of the esoteric shamanic world. It is a reference to a tangible reality that is modern, hybrid and complex. However, it is almost invisible to the eyes of those not intitiated in the natural sciences, the endangering of endemic species caused by human activity.
In this same field of ethnography, we later tested interspecies hybridisation in the context of a Bwiti initiation of the Gabon pygmies. In this ritual, the body is artificially put into a coma by an active psychotrope, the iboga, which allows the witch doctors to decorporate the spirit, which is then supposed to merge with the spirits of nature. The term Bwiti comes from the Mitsogho language: “bo-hête” to extract the kernel of the matrix. Indeed, under the influence of the sacred wood, the iboga, an individual can get to a stage where he is possesed by the spirits of forest animals. The inititiation group carefully memorises the animal entities that appear during the ritual, that are somehow “hosted” in the individual.
One, or several of these entities, then naturally become his totem/s, the name by which he will then be recognised by others who share this same tradition. We see the same type of experience with ayahuasca in Peru, where there is frequent contact with the spirit of the jaguar. In an artistic and written form, in The Iboga Voyage, Le Voyage en Iboga (2003-2004), we re-transcribed this extraordinary experience, during which animals appeared to us. In fact one cannot speak of mutation because, if these animals present themselves, it is not to merge with the novice but more to reveal the fundamental character of the novice to the shamanic group. These animals are not supposed to randomly appear. The novice is assumed to have the same nature as them, to belong to them. They are guardian animals who reveal to us our profound animal nature.
This experience made us look at the continuum that exists between us and the forces of nature, a continuum of which Leibniz has already defended the existence. In this case, it is interesting to note that it is a fundamental animal essence that defines the nature of many novices (although not for everyone).
Today, as globalization allows us more and more cultural encounters that were improbable just a few decades ago, more and more Westerners have tried experimenting at shamanic inititiations in Africa or South America. It is certain that the cultural and physiological hybridisation of which they become the fruit, through the plant, is in itself a new way of conceiving the posthuman. This is how we experienced it, as a way of enlarging our human consciousness, through a different use of the brain. While this is not new it still remains marginalised and poorly studied or understood.
To conclude this essay, I am going to tackle our most recent research on biotechnology, in which we aimed to change my human nature and produce a hybrid man/animal existence, through an added incorporation. When it comes to the pyschology of the body, the best known processes are those of exteriorisation, in particular through the skin. The Hungarian psychologist, Imre Hermann, was one of the first to question the role played by skin in psychic construction. He highlighted the fact that scarring and cutting one's epidermis represents an attempt to liberate psychic suffering, qualified as something internal by patients, by visibly exteriorizing it. This is the beginning of a relfection on somatization, including psychic constructions in which suffering is not projected in an organ, but in an imaginary construction responsible for making this suffering peripheral.
Only what happens when consciousness is confronted with an inverse process, a process of interiorisation? This process is already what's in question when taking iboga.
Without ingesting this sacred plant there is no expansion of consciousness. One must first accept this intrusion to reach a dimension outside of conventional humanism. We are here confronted with a definition of the internalised posthuman, it's no longer about enhancing the body through technological extensions, it's not about extra-corporeality, it is about a body whose functions will evolve through a modification of the internal physiology.
In 2004, an artistic action rose within me as a symbolic necessity. A militant ecologist, perpetually confronted by the depressing fact of the disappearance of bio-diversity, I had the vision of an extreme world, where the few animals allowed to survive would only be those still be useful for man. Only those that could satisfy our needs and our fantasies would survive. And so if the panda, an animal highly symptomatic of this situation, were to survive, why shouldn't it be thanks to me! So announced my desire to innoculate myself with a panda's blood, in an action called May the panda live in me!
A slightly mad action that was testimony of my inevitable empathy and regard for the animal world, through the condemnation of this absurd situation which meant that the only animals to survive should be those that had been symbolic. If the pandas weren't to be included, then at least they would survive through me. Of course, this idea did not come from nowhere. In 1999, while Benoît and I we were researching at the Pasteur Institute, they showed us how much animal serum is used for human medicine. Yet for two years we could not convince anyone to help us do this performance. Researchers we knew from the institutional milieu considered it as unnecessary and dangerous. Zoos refused to give us blood from an animal that was so rare and precious.
It was only in 2006 that I managed to convince a Swiss laboratory to help us, by showing them our credentials as researchers in psychology on the psychological consequences of immune diseases. This laboratory specialised in making serum for major cancer therapy and their research on the compatibility of animal blood was very advanced. The idea that I wanted to understand how animal immunoglobulins could change the human mind was not that extravagant. However, the artistic dimension of the experiment was more difficult to explain and I had to be discreet.
Of course could no longer work with pandas. The animals with which the laboratory was working were pigs, cows, sheep and horses. I quickly chose the horse. Of couse the animal is fiercely symbolic, already the object of all sorts of hybrid fantasies such as the centaur, but it was also the impressive distance that existed between the equine physiology and the human physiology that interested us as researchers. The idea of an endangered animal was no longer present, but it was more about looking at the question of an unlikely hybridisation and our relationship to the Other animal in general.
From the outset I'd like to reject the general dismissal that I've been confronted with by the most sceptical. It was not, of course, a direct blood transfusion from horse to man. The question that arose with the biologists was to know which components of horse blood should be conserved. Quickly we decided to retain the plasma and a large part of the immunoglobulins. The immunoglobulins are vectors of the reactivity of the organism. They target specific organs or muscles in particular, triggering a biochemical chain reaction.
So, after I tested my body with the neuroendocrine immunoglobulins it was practically impossible for me to sleep for a week and I had extreme and slightly aggressive reactions to stimuli; a slammed door, a tap on the shoulder. As such, I was experiencing the hyper-reactivity of the horse in my flesh. The main aim of the performance to come is to take in a large number of immunoglobulins all together, so that I can feel another way of living rather than just the human. If one goes back to the terminology of the posthuman, to be human outside of the human is, perhaps, to undergo this type of experience, where a man that becomes a human/animal hybrid is finally extra-human.
This performance might seem too radical. However, the risks are calculated. While it is of scientific interest, it also represents for me an extremely profound, sensitive experiment that allows me to change my artistic conceptions. And who knows? Perhaps its symbolic and empiric force will enable my (our?) consciousness to open up to an Other sufficiently "other" - to no longer be purely anthropocentric. Perhaps it's a sensitive step towards posthumanity capable of achieving the thought of a mountain, to use the image dear to Arne Naess, by starting with that of a horse ...
Marion Laval-Jeantet is an artist. She and Benoît Mangin form the duo Art Orienté Objet: they hold conferences at the Paris 1 University, Panthéon-Sorbonne, are researchers in arts at the CERAP ( Paris 1) laboratory and in anthropology and clinical psychology at LASI (Paris X University, Nanterre).