/nicole rayburn — two propositions
My current studio production explores the terrain of multi-media video and performance installations to examine humananimal- machine relations. Spanning references from Pinocchio and Frankenstein to Tasmanian Tigers and Battlestar Galactica, this series of absurd propositions engages with issues of boundary, transgression, the monstrous ‘other’, and human/non-human relations. Through these inquiries, I examine the hierarchical and exclusionary presuppositions that support particular notions of boundary, and, ultimately, aim to promote non-pejorative understandings of difference.
I enjoy the absurd and subtly perverse. I often wear animal costumes and proffer questionable propositions. I seek to disrupt embedded preconceptions, dissipate hierarchical constructions, and celebrate relations of difference. I am a graduate of the University of Western Ontario Master of Fine Arts program and currently reside in Toronto, Ontario.
/MUTATION, TRANSFORMATION AND POLLINATION: THE FAILURE OF EXCLUSION AND THE POTENTIAL FOR ENTANGLEMENT
/Nicole Rayburn juxtaposes the human, animal and machine in order to examine the past, current, and future consequences of exclusion and entanglement. Pollination Proposition shows an androgynous figure repeatedly nudging an orchid with its Pinocchio-like elongated nose. The persistent action is seductive and futile, an analogy to the failure of human intervention in the decline in bee populations.
Bees are potentially a keystone indicator of the relative health of an environment: mutual dependence between bees and plants requires abundance and diversity. The loss of bee populations has immediate and dire consequences for agricultural crops worldwide. Reasons for the decline are multiple and could include the increased use of pesticides, genetically modified crops, cell phone radiation and monocultures (these latter require a high population of bees when in bloom, but often the area becomes barren and even toxic when the bloom is over).
Progress has often been linked to developments in science and technology, fuelled by curiosity and human ingenuity, but also subject to economic and political interests. Progress can be understood as ‘culture’ improving on the raw material of ‘nature.’ Monocultures are designed to ensure large harvests requiring minimum labour. They are susceptible to disease because they lack diversity. They require more pesticides and the use of genetically modified, disease-resistant crops, which appear to be contributing to the decline of bee population. Science and technology cannot overwrite the natural mechanisms of ecosystems. As Mary Midgley writes, competition is not the basic law of life. No social group is so isolated and independent that it can write off everyone outside of it: we are incurably members of one another.(1)
The persistent poking of Rayburn’s Pinocchio nose suggests an analogy to the stubborn attempts made by technology to reconstruct elements of the natural. But …Proposition also directs us to consider cross-pollination as a site for re-thinking our relations in new ways. The gentle prodding can be read as an attempt at entering a foreign being and ‘becoming with it.’ As Deleuze and Guattari write, “If evolution includes any veritable becomings, it is in the domain of symbioses that bring into play beings of totally different scales and kingdoms, with no possible filiation. There is a block of becoming that snaps up the wasp and the orchid, but from which no wasp-orchid can ever descend.”(2) This form of becoming suggests that being open to difference and otherness offers the possibility of enriched living. As Donna Haraway writes, “I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such … I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many.”(3)
Understood as an attempt to become with, Rayburn’s androgynous figure refuses the distinctions between nature and culture, self and other, human and non-human, and strives towards a form of being and becoming that promises relations instead of rejecting difference. Rayburn’s reference to Pinocchio is specific: Carlo Collodi’s original character was a wooden marionette that dreamed of becoming a human boy, a piece of wood that spoke and encountered speaking animals and insects. Throughout the story, distinctions between the inanimate, technological, human animal and other animals are blurred.
The speaking marionette recalls automatons, and automatons are referenced in the title of Rayburn’s performance, Lambstein, a play on both Frankenstein and the lamb that was cloned and named ‘Dolly.’ Dressed in a lamb suit, the artist lies completely still on a metal examination table. She is both object and subject, specimen and breathing being. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tells the tale of ambition gone awry and the subsequent abdication of responsibility. The reference to Dolly clearly aligns Frankenstein’s experiments with contemporary cloning research.
Cloning both fascinates and repels: the victory of (re)creation through technological means is offset by an uneasy suspicion that we are tampering with life and producing monsters. On the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology (founded in 1924), Haraway writes that the ape lab was the “pilot plant in the service of human engineering”(4) with the chimpanzee acting as the servant of science. The lab animal was raw material that could be shaped intelligently to specification and converted to an ideal subject for biological research(5). The production of the lab animal blurs the boundary between ‘humans’ and ‘animal,’ ‘nature’ and ‘technology,’ by manipulating a living subject and creating a scientific commodity. The persistent presence of Rayburn’s lamb, its human scale, and its stillness focus our attention onto the subject/object of this process of manipulation. Like Frankenstein’s monster and the cloned sheep, Dolly, laboratory animals are living beings. Testing has proven that rats experience empathy, and that their cognitive abilities increase rapidly when they are placed in enriched environments. Considering this might lead us into a richer and more varied understanding of our interrelationships and world. The artificial conditions set up by tests, and the impoverished conditions of animals living in laboratories can only produce limited results. Would it not be more fruitful if we agreed that animals have an equal, albeit different, way of being in the world?
The absence of the bee in Pollination Proposition leaves a barren landscape futilely manned by human mechanization. The absence of life in the subject/object of the lamb calls on us to rethink our relations if we want to survive. The nose’s yearning to pollinate the flower, and the human in a lambskin: both are gestures towards interconnectivity. They suggest that there are alternative ways of living within an environment where ‘nature,’ ‘culture’ and ‘technology’ intersect, and where a multitude of organisms live, becoming, mutating, monstrous and potential.
1. Midgley, Mary. Animals and Why They Matter. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1983. 21.
2. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming Imperceptible.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis and London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1987. 238.
3. Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 3f.
4. Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York and London: Routledge, 1989. 61ff.
5. as above.
/CORINNA GHAZNAVI is an independent critic and curator based in Ontario.