Signs, Marks, Gestures: “New Art Examiner”

The field of contemporary art has witnessed a striking growth in inter-species creative production over the past few decades. A number of artists have developed projects in relation to animal agency, language and culture. The range of methods used by artists spans the framing and interpretation of works produced autonomously by animals to works created by (human) artists in conjunction with animals.

In contemporary art the emphasis is currently on production; there is less discourse at this point on how animals read or respond to cultural works. In order to take up the potential for art criticism in an expanded field, I will examine, in this paper, instances and methods of animal responses and interpretations to artworks produced by humans.

My central focus will be a video work (titled “New Art Examiner”) I created documenting the response by a domestic feline to a reproduction of a drawing by artist Raymond Pettibon. The cat’s extraordinary and embodied response to the work leads me to hypothesize not only about some productive ambiguities between feline and human perception (the image itself, though relatively abstract, was composed using extreme value contrasts, and oscillates rapidly between figure and ground), but also about the nature and limits, from human perspectives, of forms of art criticism.

My interpretation of both the cat’s response and the video work will consider Elizabeth Grosz’s theories in Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth, about art’s ontological status as a singular category of activity involving the relation of the body (whether animal or human) to the earth. Within this singular field of creation and interpretation, sensation and ambiguity are considered in relation to semiotic meaning.

Questions I will address include: How can the ‘misrecognition’ of an artwork by an animal open space for new understandings of the role of art and the creative language of animals? How can the field of contemporary art be considered as a singular but rich space for understanding nuances of animal communication? How might the idea of ‘animal-as-art-critic’ de-territorialize the field, generating new critical gestures or choreographies?

Joanne Bristol trained as an artist and has an MFA from NSCAD (Halifax, Canada). She has presented installations, performances and electronic media works both in Canada and internationally for the past fifteen years. For the past decade, she has taught intermedia, sculpture and performance art at universities and art colleges in western Canada. Her work investigates relationships between nature and culture, and between the body and language. She is pursuing a PhD at the Bartlett School of Architecture (London, UK), using performance and writing to understand inter-species spatial relationships in urban contexts.

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