Our Common Problem: People

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Three live animals—a donkey, a turkey and a rabbit—are each endowed with a voice that enables them to talk with visitors.

Commissioned by the Linz09 Cultural Capital of Europe Project „The Ill Rabbit“, Kunstraum Goethestraße xtd

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Our Common Problem: People

Sharing time with creatures outside our own species makes life richer and teaches us to see the world from another viewpoint. It is a great loss that in industrial society different species are only organized to produce profit for humans, instead of living up to their capabilities and to share the experience of being in this world.

Traditionally, in philosophy and religion, a dramatic difference between human beings and other animals was considered self-evident. Animals were seen as machines without feelings and thoughts, but human beings were thought to be of divine origin, with a connection to some sort of higher existence and higher way of thinking. Therefore (outside of people's daily experience and mythological stories) people did not feel the much need or interest to communicate with other species.

Since the 1960's, scientists have tried to communicate with our nearest relatives, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, first by trying to teach them to speak English (which is not physically possible for them), then by creating computer sign language, where the subject animal could create sentences that are translatable to spoken human language.

Only very recently the most devoted animal caretakers and researchers have begun to observe what kind of sounds and signs animals are using naturally. In the Stuttgart zoo, for example, the caretaker noticed that when he brings the chimpanzee group bread instead of fruit they pronounce a different word, which for a less-practiced human ear might sound like just a noise. It has also been remarked that among each other chimpanzees use hand signs similar to ours: an outstretched hand means to ask, to share or to give something.

Anyone who shares his or her home with a pet or has spent a lot of time with animals is able to intuitively read these signs and communicate with the animal. They come to easily recognize the mood, desires and personality of the animal. In this communication process, only the time and interest of the human partner sets the limits of understanding. For a devoted animal caretaker or pet owner, it is possible to totally forget that the animal does not speak a human language because the communication is seamless and each individual learns to acknowledge the expectations of the other.

In this artwork, three species of animals were brought into the urban environment. They represent different tasks that animals assume in human society: the donkey as a servant and companion, the turkey for meat production and the rabbit as a pet. The animals were (through the use of actors and technical means) able to speak the language of their audience, in this case German.

The animals reflected on their position in society, as well as their individual life stories and experiences. They communicated with the people passing by about whatever came to mind for either conversation partner. Even if the scenario is unlikely, true discussions and communication happened, and people were very happy to communicate with the animals. These particular animals handled the task of creating an interspecies discussion platform very professionally. Some people returned each day during the hours when the animals were (re)present, even if the animals were not only cute and entertaining, but also critical about their destinies under the human order.

Speak to the Animals!
Tea Mäkipää, Our Common Problem: People

In 2009, the Austrian city of Linz was European Capital of Culture. On that occasion, Tea Mäkipää invited five animals – two donkeys, two turkeys and a rabbit – to spend their days for a couple of weeks in a well-equipped stable on Pfarrplatz, a small square in the city centre. The animals were given voice by actors and spoke in a very open way to the by-passers. Hardly ever have I seen art working out in such way, addressing so many people that directly, openly and outspokenly. Nobody could ignore the five animals: business people, who breathlessly hurried across the square in their lunch breaks, pensioners looking for a chat, punks resting in the trees’ shades, children – they were the ones to respond most openly to their questions and comments. Some people came back every day to spend time with the animals.

Quickly, the different characters of the animals became clear. They conveyed not only their individual life stories but also their positions in society. The donkeys, since early history companions of humans, who let people ride on their backs, giving them the opportunity to rest and to be entertained in an almost therapeutic way: they were relaxed, patient and well-tempered. Rabbits take over a very different role: most of them are pets and live like kings. They have no worries - everything is being taken care of for them. The turkeys in the piece were nervous and hectic, very much aware of their role in the meat industry; it came up in many conversations about their common problem, people. The turkeys who participated in the project came from an organic farm where they were taken good care of, but still they suffered from industrial diseases like swollen legs. The improved quality of life during the time of the piece let them recover from these symptoms. The donkeys and the turkeys acted in a very social way, whereas the rabbit did not interact very much with his environment.

During April and May while the project was on, when approaching Pfarrplatz, each time one was curious what to expect. The actors, who put themselves in the animals’ shoes, did a wonderful, inspiring, clever and very entertaining job. Mäkipää had provided them with manuscripts and possible scenes, but improvisation was the most important feature of their work. The magic was only possible with their committed engagement in situations and their authentic responses. Sometimes their comments were obvious, sometimes cheeky and often surprising. And time and again, people and animals engaged in long conversations.

It was an interesting experience to see how fast people accepted that the animals could talk. After a moment of initial surprise they became interested in what they were saying and the fact that they actually spoke our language soon became a matter of fact. Humans would easily be capable of communicating with other species, as people who live with pets demonstrate. It has just been forgotten and people living in urban environments have few possibilities to get in contact with animals. The situation on Pfarrplatz was reminiscent of a zoo, but the roles were reversed. As soon as the animals started to talk, people on the other side of the fence where those being studied.

Some time ago, in the museum of natural history in Shiras, Iran, Mäkipää came across a surprising image: a tree of life with many varieties of animals, explaining evolution from an astonishingly Western point of view in a Muslim environment. Above the tree there was a second layer: A human being on a big cloud floating in the sky, illustrating a way of thinking which is still strongly present in society. Humans dwell on the idea that their origins are different from that of creatures, although science tells a different story. According to evolution, all beings share similar thoughts and emotions. Although the prevalent idea is that humans are more special than other beings.

Mäkipää shows no fear of humanizing animals, as they have been treated like “robots” for centuries. According to her, animals cannot be humanized enough because people are too stupid and ignorant to understand their ways of communication. The work mocks humans and shows how far animals have to go in order to make themselves understood.

Tea Mäkipää had been wanting to do this piece for a long time before the Linz-based arts centre Kunstraum Goethestrasse invited her to participate in their Linz09-project The Ill Rabbit. “How much craziness can one province take?“ was the core question asked by the rabbit in Kunstraum Goethestrasse’s umbrella project and Mäkipää’s animals involved the people of Linz in a most wonderful, close and intense way. To engage with beings, human and non-human, with different thoughts, backgrounds and ideas is not only enormously life enriching and thought provoking, but also our responsibility.

Empathy and communication with animals has been a recurring topic in the arts, one of the most prominent examples being Joseph Beuys’ coyote piece “I like America and America likes Me” from 1974. In 2009, multispecies communication and conviviality were not yet as well represented in the art world, as they seem to be today, five years later. In 2012, Our Common Problem: People was included in the Worldly House project for dOCUMENTA (13), an archive of artists' materials, texts, books, and videos presenting multispecies co-evolution in recognition of the work and ideas of Donna Haraway and her writings on animal-human interactions.

Our Common Problem: People is a wonderful example of the power and – in the best of senses – arrogation of the arts to cross borders, bringing the unimaginable closer. With its fairy-tale and down-to-earth approach, its humour and irony, the subversiveness of the piece touched people in a fabulous way.

Julia Stoff