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Sheep, Pig, Goat…Human

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca and Fevered Sleep are doing something different, they’re looking beyond what performance is and means, not just to us humans but to other animals as well. They’re asking:

How performance might contribute to addressing anthropocentrism, speciesism, and the violence towards animal bodies such perspectives enable.

(Sheep Pig Goat by Fevered Sleep 2017. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Collection.) The venue was a state-of-the-art and sterile building, with white, curved walls, hand sanitizing stations and glass. I was part of a group of students, researchers and friends. We were briefed by Cull and Fevered Sleep’s directors Sam Butler and David Harradine of what to expect and what they’ve found along the way. In a large white room, with its walls plastered in words relating to non-human animals (e.g. leather, companion, meat, vegan, milk, love, slaughter), they gave an air of exhaustion, they seemed defeated. Harradine admitted their reluctance to continue the project half way through the week due to a sadness felt by the team, because of the fate of their non-human collaborators; the definite end the sheep, dairy cows and chickens would meet moments after the research.

(Sheep Pig Goat by Fevered Sleep 2017. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Collection.)

It was emphasized that the experience will not be a show, but an encounter. This highlighted the purpose of spectator, where the non-human animals were very much part of. They were not necessarily the subject - although that was difficult to put in to practice for both artists, researchers and other humans.

The animals in Sheep Pig Goat move well beyond operating as mere vehicles for human expression. The action is not about performing “for” either the human or nonhuman animal audience according to existing ideas of what that act involves, but a sharing of the modes of action that might emerge in and as a more reciprocally transformative encounter. Performance does not precede but is produced by the encounter; dancer and pig co-create each other.

Harradine stated the difficulty in maintaining an equality in the space, between human and non-human - what he put down to the human’s predator status in the world of the docile prey species (farm animals). Whether we are a natural predator or not, it remains that we have asserted dominion over farm and domestic animals for thousands or years. Non-human’s relationship with us cannot begin on a blank slate. Our relationship with non-humans isn’t as easily reset either. We have a tendency to narrate not just our own behaviors, but the world around us, including animals. Cull highlights this as an obstacle in their research.

A key issue raised by Sheep Pig Goat is the barriers or blockages that are presented to encounters, or, more precisely, greater degrees of co-constitutive relation, particularly on the “human” side whether in terms of our tendencies to infantilize, sentimentalize, or anthropomorphize non-humans.

As we moved into the space where the non-humans were housed, and where the encounters with performers was taking place, it was hard not to feel the separation. As I peered through gaps in the fence and then over, I felt unease at my presence. This unease was out of place, as I’ve witness non-human animals in very similar spaces before. Yet I felt I was imposing an extra layer of examination, that didn’t feel comfortable or with justified purpose.

The performers held a distance from the animals, as Harradine briefed at the beginning, the approach of the last few days of the research was to make the animals as comfortable as possible. A singer improvised some long notes in the small space with four sheep. The sheep had positioned themselves the other side of the pen, yet this didn’t translate as threatened or disinterested, as discussed; the minute I begin to interpret, I reach an anthropomorphised conclusion. It was revealed in the debrief that the singer left the pen later on because she felt an unease from the sheep with her in the space. She had been interacting with the non-human animals for a week and had begun to form an understanding of these non-humans in some aspects.

(Sheep Pig Goat by Fevered Sleep 2017. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Collection.)

This unease I felt, and was hinted by the research team, is a nod to ethics. Is this research ethical? What does ethics mean to us? What does ethics mean to the non-human? Cull wrestles with this in one of her research questions.

What constitutes an ethical way of knowing nonhuman animals and how can it be practiced in and as interspecies performance?

Certainly, compared to what I have witnessed in the treatment of non-humans raised for food, etc Sheep Pig Goat held a high standard of ethical consideration. Yet beyond anthropomorphised ethics we reach areas of uncertainty. The sheep, cows and chickens had space to roam to a point; they had a defined space. This echoes a popular abolitionist animal rights activist saying ‘we aren’t campaigning for bigger cages’ in a reference to many animal welfare campaigns (e.g. free-range and grass-fed). The non-human animal’s lives were defined by human animals; born into this world to either die for what they produce, or live controlled for entertainment, experiments, and in this case; research (as well as food afterwards). If this is translated to ethics towards a human, we would most likely conclude that defining a human’s life for other humans’ use in any form is unethical. Yet the confines of current human-centered cultural (and physical) structures, alongside the aim of the research, give an impossibility of a complete 'ethical’ experience for the non-humans.

Furthering my unease was the awareness of my self-importance; my need to connect with the animal, searching for emotions and behaviour that relate to me. I couldn’t resist the desire to create a narrative between me and the non-human. Yet as an activist I felt a disjuncture between me wanting a role in the non-human animal’s life and the desire for them to be able to define their own life, free from human dominion. My presence at Sheep Pig Goat grew my yearning to get out of the way. By involving ourselves in the lives of these non-human animals we limit possibilities of liberty. On the other hand, the desire to connect and understand non-human animals is essential if we are to see change in how non-humans are treated in an inescapable and growing human world. This connection is a primary drive for Cull, inspired by Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret.

Despret outlines, one cannot understand animals “‘unless you put yourself in their place – literally in their place. You have to go where the animal goes, and do what the animal does’ in order to see what it sees and understand what scares it.”

Does Sheep Pig Goat achieve 'putting the human in the non-human place’? I don’t think it does, but it’s efforts speak volumes and are reaching towards this ultimate goal. I agree when Cull emphasises performance’s role in this goal.


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