May the Horse Live in me (interview with Art Orienté Objet)

 

 

 

Art Orienté Objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin) is a French artistic duo awarded the Golden Nica at this year’s Ars Electronica in the Hybrid Art category for their eccentric and stereotype-breaking perception of limits of experiments on the human body in their work entitled May the Horse Live in me.

The artists, who have been creating since 1991, operate in the interdisciplinary space, linking together different areas of art (mainly body art), scientific research in the field of ethology, immunology, ecology and broadly perceived experimentation. Their works are very often a result of the artists’ protest against the system of standards and management towards the world of animals which had been imposed by men. Such is the case of the award winning work. To become a body for an animal, a “storage” of a selected species, to become a man-horse, a man-panda, is an idea which resulted from a protest against the absurd – according to the artists – principle setting rules for making a list of endangered species which are subject to protection. May the Horse Live in me is an experimental performance which took place in Ljubljana in 2010 and which was about transfusing horse blood to Marion’s body. The artists themselves will tell you what this idea stands for and what consequences an experiment like that may bring about.


Art Orienté Objet, May the Horse Live in me, Galerie Kapelica, Ljubljana, Slovenia
source: from the artists official website

Could you tell us about your last incredible project, May the Horse Live in me, awarded the Golden Nica in Linz? What was this experiment about from the biological and chemical perspective? What was happening to your body? How was the horse blood transfusion possible in the first place, how much blood was it, etc?

 

We need to remember that when we talk about horse blood transfusion it was not transfusion of all its components. For example, we excluded some most cytotoxic red blood cells, as well as lymphocytes and macrophages. We have however saved for transfusion all other cells, including immunoglobulin, which transfers information within the body, between the body’s organs. The transferred information is not only immunological but also about the needs of the body. Preparing for the performance I had to test every immunoglobulin on myself in order to avoid anaphylactic shock during the transfusion. By recognising strange cells my body could get rid of unbearable excess. However, the huge amount of injected cells helped over half of them to bypass the defensive mechanism of my body and forced my organs to response directly.

 

 

Exactly how did your body respond to the transfusion?

 

The first response, within one hour after the injection, was fever, which was going up and down. During the performance you may clearly see that I am very pale and that I can barely walk (a smile). Besides, when my blood was taken for a sample to preserve it as “centaur’s blood” it became completely clotted after only ten minutes, which is a symptom of strong inflammation. This direct response made the strongest impression on me. During the next two days other atypical reactions occurred ; then came a paroxysm which lasted for over a week. During this period, which still seems to me drastically anarchic, I could sleep no longer than one hour at a time, then I woke up for another hour and then fell asleep for another short period of time. My nights were totally fragmented, I had an absurdly strong appetite, and when someone knocked my arm I used to panic. In spite of that I felt incredibly strong … I was talking to immunology doctors about it, and particularly with one immunologist who specialises in horses. To him it was obvious that all my reactions which have not been entirely of psychological nature were very much typical for a horse.


It is known that even in the case of traditional blood transfusion there is always a risk of rejection, of anaphylactic shock and even death. What was the probability of your dying? Did you have any kind of guarantee that the experiment would succeed?

 

Of course anaphylactic shock could have happened, which is why there were emergency physicians present during the performance who examined me directly after the performance had finished. Theoretically with no preparation at all I could have died. However, beside the fact that I am an artist I am quite pragmatic due to my scientific interests and medical family. I studied a lot, during the three months before the performance I have made an exact research to know what dose would be permitted and what consequences I could expect. Nevertheless, there is always an element of the unknown and you can never know for sure how your body will behave and whether it will manage to remove the strange cells for the first time. The performance was thus also about searching for the limits of my own body.


I am wondering about what could make you undertake this kind of project. What is the source of your strong need to experiment with your own body and why your experiment would take the scientific form? It seems to me that you could have expressed your protest against man’s domination and will to decide about the future of other species in a less dangerous and also less scientific form…

 

For the last fifteen years I have been interested in what is the place of animals in human society. At a certain moment, especially after I had worked with primatologists, I felt frustrated because of the inability to put myself in the place of an animal and also I was shocked that this place is systematically set from man’s perspective. In my initial plan the experiment was meant to be even worse (laugh), I planned to have panda’s blood transfused… However, for technical reasons we had to choose a horse. I have made many works concerning animals – works of symbolic, political and poetic nature – but a moment came when I simply had to experience something other than the ever pertaining human perception. It was necessary for me to show that the established concepts concerning barriers between the species are limiting us, and inevitably it required scientific research. Artistic demonstration is nothing else but illustration – I have nothing against illustration but my own work is based on modified experience, which in turn modifies my artistic practice. In a sense it is about your personal ethics deriving from a desire not to betray the Other, and specifically, not to betray an animal.


The type of art you exercise is still something marginal. When we think of “the artist”, we continue to imagine, schematically, someone who uses traditional methods of artistic expression. Do you think this will change? Isn’t your art a signum futurum, an announcement of a new way for artistic thinking?

 

The truth is that art is often about searching for a certain resource of forms. When I started my work with Benoît, we were inspired by the same desire to share sense rather than form. We were excited about Panofsky, the issue of narration, etc. With time I became aware that only an experiment on myself would help me to transform my way of learning and perceiving things and that with this new sensibility I would be able to create a new type of works. At the same time there was always room for experimentation in my work, including all productions which would seem quite classical from your point of view. I don’t believe that such forms will disappear from contemporary art, but I think that experiments and conceptual discoveries constitute a mode of thinking appropriate for our contemporary society and in the future they will become “classical” ones. The fact that artists are not separated from their work is nothing really new and soon it will become common to all artists. Some years ago a German publisher asked me to describe my private life and explained that it would be interesting because of my non-typical family situation. Letters from readers which I received afterwards concerned mainly artistic issues in the text – they saw no difference between art and private life …


How do you imagine the world of art in the future?

 

Today it is very difficult to define the world of art. There is a huge sector designed for wealthy people, focused on linking decoration and strong emotions. It may not disappear also in the future. We also are confused about how to define art as such. I believe that art should never forget that it is basically a testimony of its time and that it should play with our sensitivity, not necessarily entirely on aesthetic sensitivity. The Internet has significantly complicated the world of art. People tend to know each other from nothing else but Google. On the one hand it is interesting, but on the other hand it doesn’t leave too much room for art which is not photogenic (laugh). It also means that art is often perceived from the perspective of information. I think however that there is a clear contradiction between art and information. Anyway, in the future the world of art will need to find new solutions. Various economic and environmental phenomena show that if an artist wants to have his place in the world, he has to value involvement and generosity. In a sense we are now entering a period of wars and adaptation, so it would be worthwhile to look at how art went through similar periods in the past. I worked as a teacher in Angola during their civil war in 1998 – despite all the economic and human difficulties the artists never stopped looking for solutions in the emotional sphere …


You often criticise and unmask the world of science, like in your project called “Rabbits were used to prove” or in the “Museum of Mental Horrors”, but in your art you tend to use scientific tools. How do you see the role of science?


Art Orienté Objet, Rabbits Were Used to Prove, 1999
source: from the artists official website

Excuse me, but the statement that my works like “Rabbits…” or “Museum of Mental Horror” criticised science is a simplification. “Rabbits…” shows the fact and confronts the spectator with an oxymoron or a contradiction which I faced myself as well: science saves life, but also sacrifices it. It is quite symptomatic for our way of life on Earth – our survival is at the cost of others. The work was much more existential than critical … It makes people emotionally define their place and in this way it cuts an ulcer. The “Museum of Mental Horrors” played a similar role. To me, horror is not an expression of criticism of any kind but rather a kind of opening of peoples’ minds which I would define as a step towards a utopian world of higher sensitivity. In this sense I feel close to what Vladimir Makanin has written. Science to me is not an ideological position but an instrument we can’t do without if we want to understand the world. This instrument, however, has many internal contradictions that may be very dangerous for an individual. Whenever you use this tool you start a game with flexible sensitivity limits.


What I find most interesting in your art is how you change or undermine the very basis of human perception of the world, you shift human perspective. Your thinking with art widens the horizon of thought as such, you change the perspective in which we define ourselves and not only our lifes. Do you think that in the future experiments like “May the Horse Live in Me” be available to everybody? I can imagine a door plate of a future laboratory: “Just drop in and change your perception of the world. Try to experience another form of life”…

 

It’s great that you have so wonderfully grasped the very essence of our work. Yes, I have very quickly understood that despite our best ethical intentions we will never escape anthropocentrism. I believe, however, that one of the keys to enhance our awareness is to develop our perception, which is why an ideal situation to me is when we can collectively experience other forms of life and thus change our perception of the world. A movie might work just fine but it would be much better if we could modify our perception at the level of our body. After the Pigmy in Gabon has introduced me to a Bwiti ritual I would wish that all the Western culture would go through it as well!


Are you currently working on any new project? What will it be about?

 

Oh yes. We keep on initiating new and very different projects. I have just got involved in a political project about protection of a lake in Australia where the first forms of life on Earth, the thrombolites, have been preserved. Practically it is the only place they can be found. The idea that we can save our predecessors with an artistic practice is clearly utopian, but in our times of globalisation and chaos we might succeed … Don’t ask me why, but to me the issue is of fundamental importance. To be able to achieve it I have helped the Australian city of Mandurah gain the status of a twin city with my Montreuil. You may also sign my petition “Help list Lake Clifton” on “Care 2”. Besides the “glocal” vision we have been carrying out many other biotechnological studies, mainly existential ones to come up with, hopefully, somehow important products …

 

Thank you for talking to me

Aleksandra Hirszfeld

 

The artists’ website