The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living

A Menagerie of Creatures
‘You’re not aware of your body, how it’s reflecting outside.’
From The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living.

A black screen and the ambient, immersive sound of cicadas are suddenly cut into a close up of the mottled, wrinkled flesh and coarse gray hair of an unknown animal. Then, another cut to a tank of tropical deep green of water, the darkness of marine vegetation hinted at in the brief moment of the shot. This is followed by a close up that tracks the coils of a snake, followed briefly by what could be the sand and stone of desert, marked by the lines of either human tools or unknown claws. This image is echoed by the following close up of the contours of lizard skin in a visual correspondence between creature and environment. Slowly, the camera pans down the lizard to the tactility of paw like feet and sharp claws clutching the sand. Then, the most unlikely cut, a disruption of this sequence of animality as the screen depicts well scraped and cleansed human domesticity. A potted plant, clean and rumpled white bed sheets, a man and woman subjected to the proximity of the part-object gaze of the camera, neither of them fully in view, both obviously fully separate, alienated, bored. This unhappy domesticity is a sharply juxtaposed and all too human world to the menagerie of creatures that precedes it. But then a torso shot of the woman cuts to the previously glimpsed lizard and there is the suggestion of a more indistinct quality to this seemingly sharp duality of animal life and human life.

Dependent upon which screen of Maria Ångerman’s The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living a visitor first fixates upon the installation seems to invite immersion in parallel but distinct worlds. The three screens depict, in no particular order: the closely observed accumulation of the details of human/animal life just described; the more languorous details of two chimpanzees grooming one another and themselves; and the combination of oblique, accidental poetic voice over in an apparent disjunction with close up images of human/animal world details in another. The territories marked out by the installation are delineated by what appear to be distinct markers and pathways; binary divisions that become intertwined opposites. Primary amongst these is the human/animal binary but the installation also brings into play related antinomies. These include those between language and silence, much of the installation being subsumed in natural sound until the outbreak of disjointed, involuntarily poetic language on one screen. Then there is the antinomy between boredom and absorption, played out between the tension stricken humans on one screen and the contented, grooming chimpanzees on another. Another is that between the experience of tactility and intimacy with the world and a more mediated or alienated distance and separation. Additionally, there is the most awful binary division: death and life. Or what might be dead or alive, what might be the status of life in The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living? Before attempting to answer this question it is worth returning to the relation between humanity and animality, second nature and first nature sketched out above.

The Human/Animal Machine
‘It is possible to oppose man to other living things, and at the same time to organize the complex-and not always edifying-economy of relations between men and animals, only because something like an animal life has been separated within man, only because his distance and proximity to the animal have been measured and recognized first of all in the closest and most intimate place’.
Giorgio Agamben, The Open.

In The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living the disjointed intimacy of the human/animal binary is glimpsed in the domestic sphere, the home, as well as the analogies drawn between human body and animal body. For instance, in the screen described above the camera lingers over the juxtaposition of human traces and animal traces. Animal marks on sand and ground and the body shape of a human body upon the bed. There are hints of a correspondence between the slightly quivering legs of an animal and the similarly depicted human body; the scaled stasis of lizard skin is placed proximate with the smooth vulnerability of domesticated human skin. In the correspondences drawn in this screen between animal and human bodies there are more than purely visual analogies at stake. Through the juxtaposition of humanity and animality the screen inscribes a much more mobile border between the two. The human and animal are no longer sharply distinguished in the reiteration of close up shots of human/animal bodies and environments.

What emerges from this in the installation is the way that humanity and animality rest upon one another, and while defined against one another can also become entwined to the point of indistinguishability. The man and woman are reduced on the screen to bodies caught within an oppressively domestic environment, unable to act except within the constraints of that milieu. The capacity to speak and act has broken down and both man and woman are enmeshed in a kind of animal silence. They have momentarily slipped out of the human comfort zone by virtue of their silence and through their boredom, an affective state that the philosopher Giorgio Agamben views as being a threshold between humanity and animality.

Agamben has argued that this is the moment when the animal component of humanity is most apparent in that, for him, humanity is defined through language and active creation. Both intimate and extrinsic, animality is included through exclusion in the discursive, institutional and very material ‘anthropological machine’ that reproduces the human. By virtue of this inclusive exclusion it becomes possible to separate life as such from the form it takes, thus opening up the bio-political governance of life through political, medical and social apparatuses. The shifting borders between human, animal, and that bare residue of life subject to sovereign violence are constantly redrawn according to political and economic dictates. Viewed in this way, this relatively innocuous domestic scene becomes a commentary upon how porous the boundaries between human, animal and ultimately bare life are in actuality. If, as Agamben claims, the sovereign violence of the state rests upon such shifting boundaries then the political stakes of the human/animal dichotomy become all too plain.

There is also a suggestion in this screen of a mutual entrapment, human and animal both caught in the throes of environmental constraints and relations that they both unwittingly reproduce and rediscover every day as an imposition. It is not necessary to know that much of the animal footage was shot in Antwerp zoo to see the apartment as something like a human zoo, domestic claustrophobia instilled in furniture and walls. And it is worth noting – given that the space is the epitome of what is constructed in contemporary capitalism as the domestic sphere – that this claustrophobia includes the gender relations depicted, an irreducibly private space marked by the tension between a man and a woman. Rather than an abode of domestic tranquillity the space is signalled as a conflictual one, fraught within a silent power struggle. Within the bio-political paradigm life as such becomes a problematic category in The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living. For instance, a shot of a bird of prey abruptly emerges on the screen but it is dead, frozen into domesticity by the skill of a taxidermist, a fatal meld of human skill and animal body. The dead not only walk parallel to the living but each is immanent to the other, shifting and turning according to the exigencies of how the human/animal dichotomy is constructed in the ‘anthropological machine’. Additionally, what might be termed the spectacle of unmediated nature is problematised by the attention The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living pays to questions of tactility and immediacy.

Chimpanzee Reflections
‘… [A]n optical machine constructed of a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape.’
Giorgio Agamben, The Open.

In contrast to the human/animal sequence the screen that features two chimpanzees grooming one another appears as relatively restful, the camera concentrating upon the gestures, faces and bodies of the primates. The decision by Ångerman to concentrate upon chimpanzees is pertinent in terms of the human/animal sequence, given their proximity to humanity. The depiction of the chimpanzees’ problematises the relation between animality and humanity by throwing into question notions of nature, immediacy and tactility often unproblematically associated with animals. Think of the classic nature documentary that attempts to capture for the image animals in the wild and then re-present them to the spectator as examples of a more natural form of life. This is despite the presence of a film crew and the way that so called natural environments have always already been produced in conjunction with humanity, or more specifically economic relations and political structures. Such documentaries often offer to the viewer the myth of wildness for easy consumption. Ångerman throws such a construction into doubt by filming chimpanzees in captivity, in the zoo. The spectacle of nature is thus inverted and the form of the nature documentary reflected and mirrored while being thrown into question. The juxtaposition of the conflictual domesticity of the human couple and the chimpanzees across the screens of the installation also carries a certain parodic charge. The dream of domestic happiness can only be realised in a zoo – albeit the human one of the capitalist mythos-and even then life as such is governed and assimilated through bio-political apparatuses.

One of the key concerns of The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living is with notions of tactility and touch, the possibility of attaining proximity and intimacy with the world. The chimpanzees are almost a tactile parody of the broken separation of the human couple on the adjacent screen, a mirror image of affective animality. It is tempting to view this as a simple polar opposite and an affirmation of the animal over the human. However, this is problematised by the fact that this tactility and immediacy is of necessity viewed through the prism of the screen and hence the camera. The camera deliberately slows to catch the rhythm of the immersive, tactile life of the chimpanzees. This mediation places tactility at a distance but also emphasises that it is often only through such that something like the truth of tactile intimacy can be glimpsed. What this suggests is not so much the impossibility of a tactile relation to the world as the inherent difficulty of it, to the point when it might be better grasped through mediation.

The gaze of the camera recovers a tactile relation with the world through absorbing itself in the mutual absorption of the chimpanzees in one another and their environment. Such an absolute, distraction free absorption in what disinhibits behaviour, the weft and weave of materiality and milieu, is one of the essential modalities of the animal according to Agamben. Animals are like ‘water in water’ (Bataille) when caught in such behaviour, without the essential subject/object dichotomy that is more proper to the human. In utilising the camera to reflect this Ångerman does not so much reclaim some lost purity of relation as recast it and grasp it through the technology of mediation. The ability to do this through the prism of art suggests a trace of the uninhibited potentiality of the human in contrast to the animal. Such a potentiality would be a set of protean capacities that can grasp the ‘open’, the possibility of a relation to the world not overdetermined by an essence or predetermined quality.

Perceptive Opacity
‘Like a big sculpture maybe, you walk in small pathways… stairs… metal pieces and … and places where you can fall out of the track… so in a way its like a maze… you have to kind of… sense your way around.’
From The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living.

Much of The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living unfolds in relative silence, the soundtrack being gently subsumed in the noise of cicadas, very occasional chimes and the hint of natural elements. There is one screen that breaks into human speech, albeit very obliquely. The screen opens with black that fades and merges into the opacity of black, glistening water that seems to have the capacity to swallow light. Then images on this screen slowly flit by in close ups of seemingly random detritus such as scraps of wire, the worn surfaces of concrete and rough edges of rock, steel fence railings and the blurred shapes of wet leaves. The overall impression becomes one of a post-industrial pastoral, though the footage is of compounds in the Berlin zoo. The voices interrupt and obliquely interact with this landscape constructed out of concrete and vegetation for the efficient management of animality. Relatively prosaic statements such as ‘it becomes so normal that it’s completely natural’ and ‘you just put your body differently… more… softly…but responsively’ acquire the quality of found poetry. The relation of this screen to the others is encapsulated within the way that this language is used to suggest both a tactile and non-instrumental relation to the world, a relation not subsumed in the assumption of a task. Language as a tool would ordinarily negate the object by over determining it through the signifier or word. For instance, to say ‘an ape’ is to never grasp the singularity of the ape. However to undo language from within-as Ångerman does through this disjointed juxtaposition of word and text-is to use it in order to discover a more intimate relation to the world.

The dialogue is mainly from a ‘blind urban walk’ that Ångerman organized wherein people were guided through the city when blindfolded and asked to describe sensations. In this deliberate perceptive opacity the installation continues the investigation of notions of tactility that come to the fore with the footage of the chimpanzees. The incorporation of this in The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living illuminates how much the installation is concerned with the way bio-political spaces such as the city modulate behaviour. That is, in a quietly subversive way there is a sketch here of how space is constructed in order to encourage and discourage certain behaviours, reproduce certain subjects. More than this, the way the recurrent images of the zoo are juxtaposed against the human in a constant investigation of the limits and formation of the human/animal. The reiteration of images of the zoo serves as a parodic mirror of the way urban and domestic spaces are organized for the reproduction of the ‘human’.

Ultimately, The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living forms a particular kind of optical machine that investigates the human/animal by reflecting one back into the other, interrogating the mutual reproduction of both. The management of life within biopolitical capitalism is approached relatively obliquely through this optical machine and life as such is reflected back as problematic, traversed by conflict. The unspoken ghost in the optical machine of The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living is that the shifting boundaries of human and animal can lead to an animalization of the human that justifies the worst forms of political control and violence, the reproduction of ‘bare life’ wholly subject to sovereign control. Perhaps, it is within this particular paradigm that the ‘dead’-refugees but also those caught in the disciplinary apparatuses of bio-political capitalism-in actuality do brush past the living.

John Cunningham
Writer and researcher

All Agamben quotes and references from:
Giorgio Agamben (Trans: Kevin Attell), The Open, Stanford University Press: Stanford, USA, 2004.