Living Well Together - Project Statement

In Braiding Sweetgrass, biologist and indigenous scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer tells a story about her third-year general ecology students. When asked to think of positive reactions between humans and the earth, the majority do not think any exist, “How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like?”1 Today, the growing interest in human-animal studies and posthumanism is a burgeoning cross-disciplinary endeavour, casting a wide net across the fields of sociology, philosophy, environmental studies, gender studies, art history, performance theory and visual art, among others.2 My particular artistic interests are currently rooted in how we interact, identify and relate to other species, particularly how we might grieve with them in our personal lives, and how we grieve for them with increasing species and habitat loss. The grieving for nature is also a running theme in Braiding Sweetgrass. In her chapter "Collateral Damage," Kimmerer says that humans suffer from species loneliness, a man-made estrangement.3As we inch closer to a potential environmental tipping point, art on the impact of the Anthropocene and its ramifications for all life-forms is key in understanding the complicated and often violent relationship the western world has with non-human species. It is vital to adopt new, non-anthropocentric perspectives to understand as Donna Haraway describes of companion species, the implications of “living well together.”4

Performance scholar and environmental activist Una Chaudhuri identifies “embodiment, presence, process, event [and] force” as common interests between human-animal studies and performance.5 Chaudhuri cites several human-animal collaborative performance projects by artists that she believes cultivates the “enhanced ecological and interspecies consciousness that the Anthroprocene demands.”6 Like Chaudhuri, I see performance and video as excellent places to foster interspecies awareness. In the one-woman performance As the Globe Warms: An American Soap Opera in Twelve Acts,7 Heather Woodbury takes on the dying actions of animals facing extinction. The performance heartbreakingly embodies many threats to animal habitats globally, and succeeds in allowing the audience to feel intertwined with the plight of many critically endangered species. Video and performance can explore associative worlds through intersubjective and embodied forms of knowing and, to use posthumanist scholar Ron Broglio’s term, the non-verbal “surface encounters” we have with other species.8 Through this, video and performance can assist us in extending an understanding of what it means to be environmentally conscious humans who can have a mutually beneficial relationship with other species, respectful of other life-forms, and the natural environment.

Key questions I use to guide my work include: What can studying intensive lived experience with animals contribute to the fields of human-animal studies as well as video and performance art? What can be learned from this in terms of building long-term narrative relational projects in the field of Social Practice? What role can I play as an artist to further develop interdisciplinary platforms that focus on strengthening the relationship between human-animal studies and the arts with a focus on grief? And lastly, how do theories of posthumanism and posthumanist performance contribute to my own practice and the larger field of contemporary art?

In my work, I have employed a collaborative practice-based approach to consider the role of therapeutic storytelling and relationality in art. My proposed project is an extension of the artistic work and accompanying research I began during my Masters in Public Art and New Artistic Strategies at the Bauhaus University. There, I focused on the use of relational therapeutic strategies in contemporary art, specifically in the field of Social Practice. In my long-term project The Fuller Terrace Lecture Series, for example, Bethany-Riordan Butterworth and I developed a community storytelling and lecture series with an accompanying video platform that is currently in its tenth year. To date, we have hosted over sixty speakers in Halifax, Wolfville, Cape Breton, Toronto, Chicago, Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg. Continuing this trend, my work 10 days in Athens used the format of the meeting to highlight the work that social workers were doing in Athens with sex workers who had been arrested in their homes. This project was presented as a series of resources and meeting notes at the Athens Goethe Institute as part of the Austauch/Exchange exhibition. In my current research, I have extended this interest in collaborating with other people and organizations to include human-animal relationships.

I draw on research in performance studies, human-animal studies, posthumanism, naturalist writing, and trauma studies. As human-animal studies is by nature interdisciplinary, I see a practice-based degree as a unique and productive locus for the exploration of these relationships and experiences, and their translation into performance and video projects. My collaboration with documentary filmmaker Molly Willows and Sam Etemadi, a Kazakhstani falconer and naturalist living on the North Mountain is the first of three collaborations for my dissertation. It focusses on immersive learning about the Kazakhstani approach to falconry, from both practical and emotional perspectives. Through performance and documentary, I explored the relationship a falconer has with a bird of prey, and the possibility for over-identification and projection onto the bird. The dialogue was loosely based on Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. In this memoir, she attempts to grieve the death of her father by training a Goshawk. She writes, “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”9I produced a twenty-minute film and accompanying multi-media installation that featured to-scale models of the wings of Birds of Prey in Nova Scotia and steel-welded Falconry stands that acted as teaching tools for the video work. I have also spent the past month (September 2019) on Brier Island with the research division of the Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruise (BIWSC) company and founders of the Fundy East Whale Rescue disentanglement team. Established in 1986, they have played a crucial role in collecting data on marine wildlife in the North Atlantic. With my research on Brier Island, I developed a script and accompanying lecture-performance based on interviews with residents of the Island and my month accompanying BIWSC on their research trips in the Bay of Fundy.

The written component of my dissertation is an ongoing  reflection on my collaborations as an artist with the aforementioned individuals and organizations. The text seeks to address some of the key concepts in human-animal studies from an interdisciplinary perspective, focusing on grief. It was developed using a hybrid-narrative approach that weaves together theoretical texts as well as subjective reflections and auto-theory from my time with the aforementioned organizations. The academic contribution runs parallel to and, at times, script itself into the practice-based component of my research.