Barbara Engelbach: On Images and Thoughts
It makes for a strong image: A sweet little calf with big eyes and long ears rests on a white sofa. The piece of furniture has been stripped, so that only a white fleece now hides its insides, and its original leather covering was re-used for the skin of the calf. In this sculptural work, which visitors encounter at the entrance to the exhibition, the show’s entire theme is condensed: Hörner/Antlfinger have turned a mass-produced article with an abstract dimension (back) into a concrete object, which represents the real animal whose skin provided its covering. What’s more: The visitor is invited to emulate the artists by transforming his or her own leather sofa or leather coat into a similar calf. The corresponding sewing pattern is hung up as if it were a conventional manual for self-assembling a piece of furniture. In furniture sales, “do it yourself” is a clever marketing strategy, delegating production steps to the buyer in order to be able to sell the furniture more cheaply. With Hörner/Antlfinger, “do it yourself” becomes a political challenge to move from the abstraction of social compacts towards the concrete, in order to grasp the real significance of such compacts.
In the context of a grant from the Edith-Russ-Haus, Hörner/Antlfinger were invited to spend a month in Oldenburg, where they began to focus on the regional food industry. The fact that today not only slaughterhouses are located in large, sealed-off complexes outside city centres but also any places in which animals are mass-bred for eventual slaughter caused the artistic duo to address the question of nutrition from the “animal” point of view1: What exactly goes on in these huge barns? What is the inner life of these “black boxes”? Three videos, titled “Rabbits—Getting an Idea of Something and Thinking Things Through to the End” (2011–12), accompany the visitors through the first room to the “Factory≠Farm” section. In them, soft rabbit toys are used as hand puppets to reflect on questions of art and politics related to the topic and on their possible aesthetic solutions. These are obviously the conversations of Hörner/Antlfinger, which took place over three and a half months and were then transcribed, edited and newly recorded as a “puppet show”. In the opening credits, the first video shows an outdoor scene of a fattening complex, which comprises several buildings and power-supplying wind turbines. The accompanying conversation in the car is connected to the tangible and shocking experience of having witnessed what goes on inside a duck-fattening farm: How can this impression be conveyed? What possibilities does television journalism have in doing so compared to literature – for example, to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals? What sort of artistic means do the artists have at their disposal, when their works are to be fed by the belief that the social compact of distinguishing “non-human animals” from “human animals” must be overcome – a separation that is supported by the differentiation between domestic and farm animals? Can art be connected to activism? Is it about conversion, even if art cannot be put in the service of a cause without losing its autonomy?
The videos themselves already provide an artistic response to these questions. The sociopolitical demand is conveyed aesthetically, because rabbits in the form of soft hand puppets perform as surrogates for the artists. In the animal hierarchy created by humans, the rabbit has the privilege of potentially belonging to a “cute creatures” category, along with cats, guinea pigs and bunnies 2. Rabbit motifs are chosen for many children’s books and cuddly toys. In reality, however, the video rabbits are eerily oversized. In the exhibition itself, this uncanny effect is stronger because the soft toy rabbits are presented in showcases, as if they were sleeping – or lying lifeless – in Snow White-like coffins.
In the video, the solution that Hörner/Antlfinger chose for how to move the soft rabbits without dominating the image displays a doubly ironic twist, referring equally to politics and to art: Hörner/Antlfinger wear black clothing and baclavas – a type of dress that is similar to the self-presentation of animal liberators3, except that in the video, the rabbits are able to speak and thus have changed from the object of the situation to its subject. In an artistic context, the constellation of artists and their rabbits must be understood as a reference to the action How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare by Joseph Beuys. Without prior notice, Beuys had performed the action at the opening of his exhibition in the Galerie Schmela in 1965. The visitors could only watch it from the street through the gallery window. Beuys had also masked his face, using layers of honey and gold leaf. On his arm, he wore a dead rabbit, “which through the gentle movements of Beuys’s arms first appeared to be alive” 4 – in other words, the dead rabbit was like a puppet being animated by the movements of a third party. The mysterious image of an inaudible dialogue between human and rabbit was meant to speak to the viewer intuitively. Beuys used the animal as a metaphor for an understanding beyond rational analysis, which is rooted in the imagination, inspiration and intuition. For Beuys, this non-rational understanding had the potential to change society: “Back then, Leftists actually believed that art was not necessary, that it was the superstructure for more important social issues. This was one of the reasons that I did the action – namely, to justify art and the imagination specific to it.” 5 By invoking this artistic tradition, Hörner/Antlfinger remind us of Beuys’s aspiration to facilitate abstract social developments through sensual reification, which he sought to implement with his actions and installations.
At the same time, there is a clear difference, since the works of Hörner/Antlfinger are not based on an esoteric dialogue with animals as better (because more primal and authentic) “people” but on dialogue as discourse. The rabbit dolls are not meant to fit the conception of an idealised person; instead, they act as proxies for the artists that make the conversation possible.
Already in their work “Monokroms, EitherOr”, from 1997, Hörner/Antlfinger have chosen this solution. Presented with a table with embedded panels, which they can activate using a magnet, visitors are invited to make their own selection of video clips. These show naturalcoloured cotton-moleton hand puppets that embody four different types – the worker, the girl, a dog and Mrs Spock. They debate such questions as: Is art less good when it is popular? Should art put itself in the service of social truths, or is it enough in and of itself? In Brechtian fashion, the puppet characters take on different roles: the intellectual, conceptual Mrs Spock; the cynical, defeatist dog; or the worker with political demands. The visitor not only can steer the conversation but also can hear stories and case studies on nearly 30 different topics. Hörner/Antlfinger translate their discursive aspirations into an interactive work, which incorporates visitors in a playful manner and stimulates them to reflect about the art system. If the puppets already appeared in 1997 to be explicitly hand-made, the magnet-activated text panels are clearly different from the touch screens that are everpresent today. Their simple technology imparts a transparency that remains an important aspect of Hörner/Antlfinger’s works, which combine art, technology and science. As the title makes clear, the dialogues in Monokroms, EitherOr are split into four pro-and con positions.
The model-like character of the conversation also comes across in the computer animation “L’aprés-midi d’un avatar”, from 2001 – in this case, through the computer-generated voices of the avatar pair, who walk along a paved road through a dead, futuristic landscape. Their meandering conversation touches on a wide variety of topics: parrots as house pets, essential computers, the educational character of the TV series Star Trek, and communities in human or animal reality as well as in the algorithmic simulation of the computer. The dialogue leads the avatars into ever-new realms of association, which nevertheless remain related to the contents. The immediacy of the spoken language is altered, since the dialogue has already gone through a transcription and editing process and is conveyed using computer voices. This is what makes the computer animation of the videos comparable to the conversations of the rabbit dolls. In both works, the openness of the thoughts is preserved in the spoken language, which draws the visitors in and from which lasting ideas emerge. In this way, for example, the handling of similarities and differences between human, parrot and avatar makes clear that the dichotomous notions of human and animal as well as human and machine are constructions that can be questioned and hence set into motion. Ultimately, the same consideration underlies the complex of works titled “Factory≠Farm”, for when the societal debate over animal rights is placed in an artistic context, it is put in a new interpretational framework, in which the “focus of attention” also is readjusted.6
One basic question of the complex “Factory≠Farm”, which is also raised and discussed in the second and third video from the series “Rabbits—Getting an Idea of Something and Thinking Things Through to the End”, is how one can convey an ethical attitude aesthetically. What is striking is that Hörner/Antlfinger do not take an informative position here, one that only spreads data and facts. They could have taken the objective approach featured in the collection of materials from author Sigfried Giedion’s chapter “Mechanisation and Death: Meat” and join him in posing the question: “What happens when mechanisation meets organic substance?”7 But Hörner/Antlfinger also do not proselytize. They decide not to use shocking images that would document the inner workings of a meat factory. Instead, they choose a third, artistic path between education and conversion. This artistic path leads in two directions. Firstly, the artists allow the visitors to participate in their process of discovery. In the three videos, the artists’ thoughts are revealed, and their insights and the new questions that arise from them are conveyed in edited dialogues.
Since all this takes place through the medium of soft rabbit puppets that speak with the voices of the artists, the rabbits represent both the subject of the artists’ authorship and the subject of the question. This creates an alienation effect, which keeps the viewers of the video at a reflective distance.
Secondly, Hörner/Antlfinger condense their insights into images, which are usually translated into objects. The above-described work Kramfors is one of these – the calf sculpture made of cow leather lying on a formerly leather sofa. It is a metaphorical condensation, in which the mass-produced product is connected to the diversely exploited cow. At the same time, Hörner/Antlfinger make the metonymic aspect visible by projecting a video documentary from the back of the sofa, which demonstrates the gradual partial transformation of the sofa into a calf. A computer simulation conveys other strong images of a fully automated chicken farm or a farmhouse cupboard that is lovingly painted with icons from computer systems in meat-producing plants. Both works belong to the installation “Farmer Kyber’s Opsroom”, from 2012. With their videos, installations and objects, Hörner/Antlfinger create discursive pictures – thought images.
One last question remains, which is posed by the title of the video work “Rabbits— Getting an Idea of Something and Thinking Things Through to the End”: How is it possible to think something through to the end? Does that constitute a promise or a threat? The last video seems to address this question. It takes place in Taiwan, where Hörner/Antlfinger learn about meatless cuisine. The solution – that is, the answer to the question and thus the end of the thought process – is clear: give up meat. But this solution has (strange) consequences, because, in the meantime, a new market niche for meat substitutes has developed, where so-called “mock meat” will imitate the taste, the look and the consistency of meat. Hence, according to the two rabbits, if meat is going to be coming from the factory anyway, then at least it could always been made of plant ingredients. Why not invent a cutlet machine that produces a 3D-impression of a cutlet using virtual material? The process of thinking through to the end contains within it the beginning of new reflections, whose grotesque twists trigger laughter. Thus, at the end of the thought images’ aesthetic strategy, something new is added – liberating laughter.
- In human-animal studies, the attempt is made to visualise and alter the current constructions of the human-animal relationship by using new words or formulations. In German, “tierlich” (translatable as the dispassionate adjective “animal” or “animal-like”) is one of those word inventions, which is meant to be a neutral version of the negative word “tierisch” (“animal-like” in the sense of “beastly”). These formulations are highlighted with the use of quotation marks. See Chimaira – Arbeitskreis für Human-Animal Studies (ed.): Human-Animal Studies. Über die gesellschaftliche Natur von Mensch-Tier-Verhältnissen, Bielefeld 2011, pp. 413–419.
- Such familiar creatures as dogs and monkeys also fall into this appealing category, unlike exotic animals or vermin. See Mieke Roscher, Gesichter der Befreiung – Eine bildgeschichtliche Analyse der visuellen Repräsentation der Tierrechtsbewegung, in: see source for footnote 1, p. 366 f.
- See Mieke Roscher, loc. cit. and in this catalogue.
- Ute Klophaus, cited by Uwe M. Schneede, Joseph Beuys. Die Aktionen. Kommentiertes Werkverzeichnis mit fotografischer Dokumentation, Ostfildern-Ruit 1994, p. 103.
- Loc. cit., p. 306.
- Hans Ulrich Obrist – Hörner/Antlfinger, E-mail Interview, in: Exhibition Catalogue, Hörner/Antlfinger. Figures, Galerie der Stadt Backnang, 2004, p. 59. See also Aiyana Rosen, Vom moralischen Aufschrei gegen Tierversuche zur radikalen Gesellschaftskritik – Zur Bedeutung von Framing-Prozessen in der entstehenden Tierrechtsbewegung der BRD 1980–1995, in: see source for footnote 1, p. 281.
- Sigfried Giedion, Die Herrschaft der Mechanisierung. Ein Beitrag zur anonymen Geschichte, Hamburg 1994, p. 23. Giedion notes further: “Our contact with the organic forces both outside of us and inside of us is disturbed. It is in a helpless,confused and chaotic state.”