Dr. Grant Vetter
Reprinted from the ARTSBEACON
THINKING ABOUT CIVILIZATION AND ITS CREATURELY DISCONTENTS: New works by Laura Strohacker and Kendra Sollars
“True artists don’t deny or avoid conflict; they struggle with it, energized by contending forces. New works of art bear a mark of the freedom that engendered them. And that mark, made visible or audible to the public through a work of art, multiplies the experience of freedom into a shared or common, sense that supports enlightened politics.”
Doris Sommer (The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities pg. 137)
“Animal Land is timely and important, we’re living in a time of premature human induced extinctions and our project is a type of last stand.” Lauren Strohacker and Kendra Sollars (From the video “What is Animal Land?”)
“The anthroposcene is a brilliantly provocative label for the new epoch... it works on the most basic level as a kind of tactic: the planet has changed so much that many scientists believe we have entered a whole new geological epoch! Or rather, its message seems at first blush to be: humankind has changed the planet so much that it has created a new geologic epoch.”
Jeremy Davies (The Birth of the Anthroposcene, pg. 70)
INTRODUCTION: Welcome to the Animal-Scene.
The latest contribution from Lauren Strohacker and Kendra Sollars to the Animal Land Project made its double venue debut at Rhetorical Galleries on Roosevelt Row and Chartreuse Gallery on Grand Avenue this past June. While Rhetorical Galleries presented a dual channel piece as part of their summer series of solo exhibitions, a second single channel work called “Mule Deer” was shown in the group exhibition “Land Tracings” at Chartreuse. Like all of the other pieces in “Land Tracings”, Strohacker and Sollars work was one of the winning entries for the Artist Research and Development Grants that are given out annually by the Arizona Commission for the Arts.
While the pieces at both venues are similar in style and format, and are somewhat more restrained in scale than other video works from the same series, Strohacker and Sollars latest works present us with two very pressing questions. The first is why has this particular series garnered so much attention in Arizona from being exhibited at the Mesa Arts Center, to being included in In Flux Cycle 5, as well as shows at the Phoenix Art Museum and the 2015 Biennial, not to mention being one of the stand-out pieces that was highlighted at the Iris Nights Lecture Series in the Anneberg Space for Photography. In other words, why has this ongoing project become not only emblematic of concerns here in Arizona, but how does it resonate with issues in the culture at large? Or to put it another way, what does the Animal Land Project have to say to us about everything from new scientific discoveries concerning animal sentience, to our increasing awareness of the hidden cruelties associated with the meat packing industry, to the territorial lines drawn out by gaming organizations concerning rules around local hunting practices, the on and off season, animal population control, etc., etc.?
Of course, answering this first question about larger issues of cultural relevance has a lot to do with understanding a second, somewhat more complicated issue which depends on whether or not one is familiar with the term anthropocene. This is a key term that Strohacker and Sollars use in the opening line of the wall didactic which describes their collaborations as “a visual metaphor for wildlife in the anthropocene era." For those who don’t know, the anthropocene refers to the period in which we are now living, which was most notably described in the best-seller, The Sixth Great Mass Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. While this book isn’t the place where the word was coined, its thesis still reflects many of the broader claims about the anthropocene that are concerned with the pivotal role that human influence has come to play in the biosphere, namely, that human life and the ills of capitalism have finally pushed us to a point of such dramatic ecological change that we are now living in an entirely new geological period.
Above all else, this era is characterized as a time of cascading crises that are now taking place around the world and which have not only been getting worse for some time, but which are actually accelerating with each passing year. From atmospheric pollution to nuclear and petrol disasters; to the clear cutting of forests, the spread of land dumps and the absorption of environmental toxins; to endless drilling and mining projects that are as disruptive as fracking the earth for natural gas... all around us we find that the final result of these collective endeavors is indeed cumulative and critical. This is because they seem to be triggering an extinction event of epic proportions, which, if it isn't addressed soon, may grow to include not only the greater part of the animal kingdom, but humanity as well.
PART ONE: From the Holoscene to the Anthropocene.
Thus, to grasp the true significance of the idea of the anthropocene and the changes that are currently underway, we have to begin by understanding that the anthropocene was preceded by the holocene which began approximately 11,700 years ago. This geological era is generally characterized as a warm and largely hospitable period in the history of our small blue world. For all of the human conflict that erupted during this epoch, the general lack of major ecological disturbances still provided for a sense of relative stability that allowed for the rise of different species, cultures, the written word and even the transition from agrarian to urban living. Sure, the earth suffered its regular tumults, but life was by and large expanding, species were rapidly diversifying, plant and animal life was multiplying and what we think of as the health of the planet seemed all but assured. At the very least, it wasn’t much of a concern. By contrast, the anthropocene is the idea that this period is coming to an end far quicker than we could have ever imagined, with consequences that can’t be thought of as being anything other than catastrophic.
So, the rather obvious question to ask here is how does this relate to the works included in the Animal Land Project? Of course, the kind of public installations that Strohacker and Sollars have been making these past few years take on a greater depth of meaning when we think about the absurdity of hunting animals to extinction in an era of mass extinction. Or, that the way we treat animals is in fact, a sign of our own self-alienation that extends to how we treat each other, our world, our resources, and even ourselves. Movements like intentional communities, re-wilding, and many other efforts to get us back in touch with the natural world, and especially the many forms of life that we share this planet with, are closely related to a kind of critical “re-naturalization thinking” that also circumscribes the Animal Land Project. And, there is the wonderful fact that the artists have linked their efforts with other animal protection agencies in a genuine effort to support the kind of changes in the wild that their artworks promote in suburban and cosmopolitan areas.
PART TWO: Art and Agency in the Era of the Anthropocene.
But having sketched out the contours of their project, which are quite clear to any art patron who visits the site of these works and gives a little bit of attention to the supporting materials, doesn’t mean we’ve understood the works themselves any better, but rather, that we’ve simply grasped the greater context from which they emerge. Having made works about species as diverse as the Mexican Wolf, the Black Vulture, the Jaguar, the Mountain Lion, the Mule Deer, and many other animals, Strohacker and Sollars are not just giving us a living taxonomy of images for future remembrance. And they are not creating the equivalent of the great seed banks of the world, which feel like preparations for some futurial crop failure, or a mass plant disease that makes the earth’s growing seasons fall fallow. And, Strohacker and Sollars documentary gestures are not an apocalyptic warning in the sense of providing a modern day allegory that is somewhat akin to Noah’s Ark, even though they often seem to be adding to their cartography of endangered animals by focusing on one species at a time, while grouping them in moving pictures standing two by two, or even three by three.
And yet, what these videos do happen to share with some of the instances above is the hope of overcoming cognitive dissonance at the dawn of the anthropocene. This is due to the fact that from the point of view of those who study the anthropocene, the flood is already here because it’s on the news nearly every other week; the growing fields in many parts of the world have already gone fallow as desertification spreads across the globe; and animals are indeed going extinct in numbers that we can hardly fathom, not to say anything about the accompanying death of bio-diversity in all of its forms. The problem of course, is that we have yet to notice that the rising tide isn’t showing signs of receding anytime soon. The spreading droughts aren’t getting any more hospitable either. And it goes without saying that any animal hunted to extinction isn’t returning to the ecosystem where it once served a crucial role. Consequently, we are encountering a world that is beset not by a single problem, but which is plagued by interconnected forms of social, political and ecological dissonance that have geological repercussions for life the world over.
As a result, the works in the Animal Land Project attempt to address these contradictions through a number of performative acts that can be thought of as being “intercessional” in nature, or interceding on behalf of nature. First, the works from the Animal Land Project are comprised of moving figures; they are often blown up until they are monumental in size; they inhabit public places as well as the enclosed spaces of galleries and museums; and they are meant to provoke conversations and even to be something of a visual sensation. In the theater of the moving image Strohacker and Sollars works are quite effective in addressing, connecting and informing us about different species that could become missing actors from the world stage... perhaps without so much as anyone really noticing they’re gone. And in this way, the different presentations of the Animal Land Project have been incredibly effective in invoking a psychological space of confrontation, mediation and even a kind of mediation on the mounting contradictions of civilization, co-habitation and creaturely life. But how exactly is this the case?
PART THREE: Reflection, Responsibility and the Politics of Reversibility.
Of course, the kinds of images used by Strohacker and Sollars are what we call negative images. They are like reversed polarities, hinting at an obverse world, an unseen world, or a world turned upside down or inside out by human colonization. Or, one might even say that they evoke an unfelt world that exists far beyond the city limits. In many ways, Strohacker and Sollars’s documentary interventions are an abstraction of so many erasable figures or digital ghosts, and yes, their absence is going to haunt our world if we don’t make concrete efforts to reverse the worst effects of anthropocentric thinking in the new century. Moreover, these glitchy figures of fragility often look directly at us, glance away, and then look back again, implicating us in the kind of gaze that might be characterized as occupying the position of an intruder, or a hunter, or even that of being a passive observer. If anything, we are presented with a space for reflection that could very well amount to being the last witnesses to a virtual crime scene where we, the viewers, are the real suspects under investigation.
Thus, when we watch a piece from the Animal Land cycle we seem to occupy a double position of sorts that feels both removed, and yet, somehow portrays an intimate sense of presence. Not only that but Strohacker and Sollars installations give us the impression that we are meant to bare witness to these simulated phantoms of the living–present as they graze and trot about in our midst. Whether grouped together or apart, superimposed or separated, transfixed or fading in and out of frame, they represent the loss of embodied interactions with creaturely life. They are ephemeral reminders of the problems of sustainability, of reproductive perpetuity and of the possibility of providing for the continuity of the species, or really, of all species for that matter. And their images do this at a time when the odds don’t seem to be in anyone’s favor in particular, even though humans still consider themselves to be at the top of the food chain. Running contrary to this common prejudice is the idea that in this new epoch, we’ve all pulled an incredibly unlucky hand, and we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt because the house rules are Gaia’s and the ecology of exchanges has to be redistributed in favor of creating balanced and sustainable systems, otherwise we will be subject to a green-house effect that has nothing to do with people cashing-in and everything to do with our species cashing-out.
As such, Strohacker and Sollars images are not just a metaphor for a missing species, or the many species that are facing extinction in the animal kingdom, or even the notion of our troubled ‘natural world’ writ large. Instead, their ‘animal capture’ videos consist of subtle looping effects, hints of reversibility, and a touch of the uncanny. As the figures from the Animal Land Project come in and out of existence, paraded before us in a series of unprovoked responses, we are left to confront so many mask-like doppelgängers that can be as haunting as the costumed bunny in the cult classic Donnie Darko. I would even go so far as to say that this recursive aspect of their work, which consists of creating high contrast images of animals from real life that are then transposed into glowing, glaring figures of happenstance, only takes on a somewhat sinister feeling over the course of an extended viewing. Perhaps, this is because we are meant to think backwards and forwards about their acts and our reactions, about their vulnerability and our impenetrability, about their increasingly compromised positions and our obvious advantages in the great chain of being. And these dialectic contrasts are where the virtual image is made to be a bit stickier by Strohacker and Sollars, or at the very least, it is where the digital image is transmuted into something that really sticks with you.
Afterall, these avatars are meant to not only touch the texture of the deep unconscious but they are also stand-ins for the overexposure of civilizing effects that are slowly eroding our natural world and the interdependent relations we all share with one another on this small ‘goldilocks’ planet. In many ways, the true impact of these figural phantasms, with their hesitant poses, dodgy digitation and skittish mimicry, is that they open a window onto the lost ground of Western culture as a sign or a symbol for “progress”. They almost seem to rehearse a slow dance of abandon, like moving memoirs of the noosphere that drift into an imaginary electronic ether that even Teilhard de Chardin could not have imagined would be the destiny of “development” in the West.
CONCLUSION: Instrumental Reason and Its Discontents.
From this new perspective, we can say that if Freud wrote about civilization and its discontents today, then he would have had an occluded population to consider as well, i.e., the animal kingdom. Through the play of re-mediation Strohacker and Sollars have created a pictorial dynamic and a visual dilemma that not only catches our attention, but which also highlights how instrumental reason has finally run aground, or has simply gone mad. When we speak of animals now we also have to speak of infinite repressions, prisonlike conditions, unimaginable horrors, and of the anthropocentric designs that have led to a geological shift that has geo-political consequences, be they regulatory, protectionist, or otherwise. Perhaps that is why in a place like the desert, which is often associated with so many picked over carcasses, we find it easier to begin thinking about the ruins that issue from a larger world-view as we become a picked over civilization of sorts. In this sense, the kind of imagery that Strohacker and Sollars utilize operates like a death’s head for the anthropocene, serving as a memento mori for reflecting on the growing sense of loss and mourning that have come to characterize our global situation as of late. This, more than any other single reason, is why their project has earned so many accolades these past few years.
As such, we can only hope that the Animal Land Project continues to have an influence beyond our borders, and that these virtual spirit-animals continue to act as an interventionist proposition, as a real-time condition and as reminders of the kind of isolation, degradation and disintegration that is associated with anthropocentric drives gone awry. Certainly, our most noteworthy art organizations have given high praise to the Animal Land Project, and rightfully so. But whether or not our world is to remain a land populated by the diverse species that have come before the era of the anthropocene, or if we are unfortunately destined to become a shadow of the former richness associated with the holoscene era, remains a pressing question in our day. Lucky for us, it is the kind of question that Strohacker and Sollars collaboration is meant to confront in any number of registers, be they aesthetic, socio-political, environmental, etc. The Animal Land Project makes Strohacker and Sollars two of our best pictorial historians of animal presence as well as the present contradictions of our mutually shared life-world.
And this is because the Animal Land Project is the kind of project that promotes the hope that every form of bio-diversity will continue to grow and to inhabit the earth for a long time to come. As such, it also goes without saying, that those of us in the art community hope to see the works created by Strohacker and Sollars continue to gain a growing audience in the coming years and decades as consciousness raising isn’t something that went out with the sixties, but is an ethico-aesthetic paradigm that has to be renewed time and time again in order to confront the greatest challenges of each new generation. This, of course, is the real impact that the Animal Land Project has had on communities across the Valley and it is also the mark of contemporaneity that makes Strohacker and Sollars committed contribution to the intersecting discourses of installation art, video art, public art and interventionist politics a rather impressive endeavor in the age of the anthropocene.