Report on June Meeting

A summary of our final meeting for the academic year!

Mariel Jana Supka discussed the concept of non-native animals, moving on to consider how such animals have been used in notable examples of performance art and outlining her use of non-native animals in her own performances. Given the previous meeting in which John Lock considered the alignment between the human understanding / treatment of deer in Richmond park and that of human societal minorities, it was interesting to hear Supka’s explanation of ‘invasion biology’ (a term coined by Charles Elton in 1958). The perspective offered by ‘invasion biology’ is that non-native animals are indeed ‘invaders’ – threats to the ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ ecosystem of a region. Such a perspective often acquires a nationalistic or xenophobic attitude, and it is striking how the treatment and description of certain non-native animals is similar to that of humans who are perceived as ‘others’. Responses to invasion biology tend to be that we should remove these foreign invading non-native animals and so maintain the status quo or original state of a region’s ecosystem. Such a response implies an essential divide between human and nature by promoting the idea that nature can remain relatively unaffected by human society, ignoring the fact that historically humans have frequently introduced different species or subspecies to environments (intentionally or otherwise). Arguing that non-native species force us to confront the illusion of the human / nature divide (i.e., force us to recognise that nature is and always has been affected by human society), Supka then considered how the use of animals – especially non-native animals – in performance art can highlight the mutual interactions between human and animal, nature and culture. For instance, Supka discussed the Chinese Mitten crab and the idea of constructing barrels on which performances could take place and within which the crabs could form their own dwelling – sites which are therefore determined by both the human and animal participants. For more info on Supka’s work, see her website: http://www.marieljanasupka.org/#!enter-en/ce18

Susan Richardson performed several of her poems which concern human-animal interactions and metamorphoses, interspersing her performances with explanations as to how she researched and constructed these poems. By performing first one of her earliest poems on metamorphosis and concluding with one of her latest, the chronological structure of Richardson’s presentation highlighted how her use of language changed over time as she gradually altered her perception of physical transformation and attempted to become closer to the nonhuman through language. For example, whilst the earlier poem typically used regular sentence structure, this had broken down by the time Richardson wrote one of her more recent poems in which not only is the distinction between noun and verb sometimes unsettled but the voice of the subject becomes uncertain, shifting from ‘I’ to ‘us’. Richardson drew particularly on various myths and legends, from Welsh stories derived from the Mabinogion to Inuit myths and Norse legends. Richardson’s most recent collection of poetry, Skindancing, is due to be published in March 2015. You can read more about her work here: www.susanrichardsonwriter.co.uk 

In pairing these presenters together, it was interesting to see two different approaches to the concept of becoming or interacting with the animal (through language in poetry or through the body in performance art) and see how both presentations related to time: Richardson frequently draws on ancient myths and in some poems incorporates these past tales into the present day, whilst Supka defines her performance art primarily in contrast to the relatively recent concept of ‘invasion biology’. Both presentations are concerned with bridging or outright querying the existence of a gap between animal nature and human culture. One question that both presentations raised is when this supposed gap was imagined or introduced – is this supposed gap a recent phenomenon or has humanity always struggled between interacting with / transforming into the animal and dissociating themselves from the nonhuman?

In describing the process of physical metamorphosis and this recent approach to performance art, these presentations suggest the moment of suspension between maintaining the binaries ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’ and foregoing these categories altogether. They suggest the connection between the human and nonhuman – the non/human state.

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About beingnonhuman

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers. The group was set up and is run by Sophia Wilson and Lydia Zeldenrust. Our group is funded by the English departments of King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London. View all posts by beingnonhuman

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