#03: Why do we want animals to like us? by Jan Adriaans

The next few photographic and video works explore the human relationship with the animal. The animals in these works don’t take the usual anthropomorphic role, like for example the wise owl or the sly fox. In the anthropomorphic point of view, we project human features in the presence and behavior of the animal. In ‘Animal Farm’ or ‘Planet of the Apes’ human tragedy is acted out by talking pigs and apes, representing roles in society and playing out human social struggles. Through these stories we mirror ourselves with the animal kingdom, but this mirroring gives us a deformed vision of who we are. It is a human centered perspective.

Instead, these works give a more modest perspective on man, and show how humans are part of a broader network, of the organic and the inorganic, the human and the non-human.

Descartes’ ideas of selfhood – “I think and therefore I am” – were developed in a time when science had not yet incorporated contemporary ideas about neuro-physics. For him, sensations, feelings and emotions were something related to an independent soul, and not traceable to complex cerebral processes. He could not comprehend how physical objects ‘really are’ complex systems of imperceptible particles, like our brains. For example, in the case of conceptual thinking, he couldn’t entertain the idea that it was caused by microscopic objects in motion. In Descartes’ view our subjectivity is singular departing from a solid core, discovering the world. Neuroscience, however, teaches us quite a different idea of who we are. We are part of something materially so much bigger than us, not as separate singularities joining the club, but of porous bodies with the alien already inside. We are a constellation of uncountable living and non-living entities and systems.

In Rachel Mayeri’s artwork “The Life Cycle of Toxoplasma Gondii”, the influence of a parasite on human subjectivity is explored. The works consists of a wall of small video screens exploring our affinity to cats. These creatures, harmless as they seem, are also the carriers and spreaders of the Toxoplasma Gondii parasite, which causes cysts in the muscles, eyes and brains of other animals. Recent research also shows that the Toxoplasma Gondii parasite produces personality changes in the humans who carry it. Studies estimate that 30–50% of the global population has been exposed to and may be chronically infected with it. Women infected with the parasite seem to become more socially engaged. Men however are affected by becoming more agitated and sloppy, eventually causing more accidents in traffic. Mice get excited by the smell of cat urine, because of the parasite and lose their fear of cats, causing a kind of ‘fatal attraction’ in a weird biochemical-caused loop. These cats put mice under a deadly spell. Human affinity with the cat is not proven to be caused by a parasite, but the work does suggest a different look on how feelings, affinities and aversions are developed. The non-human intruder is becoming part of a network of neurotransmitters and a responsive brain, and what you thought of a sense of self, suddenly becomes something much more alien.

Part of the Silueta series by Ana Mendieta
Dog by Ana Mendieta

In Ana Mendieta’s photographic works made in the seventies and eighties we can distinguish the contours of a human body in the soil, or the process of a body merging with its ecological environment. This is a residue of a person, where the subject’s idea of selfhood seems to be dissolving, adapting completely, as a means of depersonalization. As a refugee who came from Cuba to the U.S. at a young age, Mendieta was an outsider in the white-dominated towns of the Mid-West. But instead of a reactionary quest for her bloodline, the artist explores the nature of alienation as an inherent human feature by transforming herself into a mediating device between herself and her environment. She becomes her environment and challenges traditional borders of race, gender, and man versus nature, in witty forms of metamorphosis, in order to understand these divisions as only human-made ideas.

Nacht, Thomas Ruff

The night vision photographs of Thomas Ruff were made during the first Gulf War in 1992, when the world could only get a glimpse of the horror taking place through the clean night vision camera shots taking from the perspective of the bomber. There were no journalists on the ground, which is why Baudrillard called it the war that did not take place. His thesis was that the first Gulf War was only reported from the point of view of the West. Almost nothing was made known about Iraqi deaths.

A night vision shot makes use of special infrared film that detects infrared light, which translates itself into single colored image, a color visible for the human eye. When it is dark in the human world, infrared is still all around. This is the visionary world of cats, who are only really domesticated during the day when they are sleepy. This adorable animal is just taking a nap, getting ready to be active at night. Cats remind us of a world that seems ours but actually doesn’t care about us. (The pictures of Jurgen Perthold’s  cat Mr. Lee carrying a Catcam, show us the social life of these creatures). Night vision technology can imitate cat eyes, which have a different spectrum, revealing that even in our proximity, we only know part of what really takes place.

Mr Lee by Jurgen Perthold

In a car workshop type space, between the pristine surfaces of car parts, archetypes of mass production, a construction of power is unfolding between a Dobermann Pinscher and its owner. A Dobermann is a special breed, it is gracious, loyal, and potentially aggressive to strangers.

The Doberman Pinscher was developed in around 1890 by a German tax-collector, primarily as a guard dog. It has a very mixed ancestry of many different types of dogs, for instance the Rottweiler, Black and Tan Terrier, and German Pinscher. But the complete list of related dogs is impossible to trace back. It is suited for police and military work as it is an energetic and intelligent creature with a very strong bite due to its long muzzle. A docked tail makes the dog more aggressive. It gives the dog a more streamlined appearance, and it is less likely to get injured during a police action.

A Dobermann needs severe training. Both the owner’s and the dog’s consciousness are formed within this relationship. By the obedient appearance of the dog, it seems to concede to the rules it’s been given. But by knowing the rules it starts to gain power itself.

Stay by Jan Adriaans


Jan Adriaans (1972) graduated MA at the Dutch Art Institute and succeeded a course on ‘Posthumanism’ as part of a Master program American Literature at the University Leiden. In his work, Jan Adriaans compares ecological and social systems and patterns, to question the idea of the independent operating entity.

Through video and performance Adriaans’ explores human selfhood in its evolutionary context. By drawing a parallel with the animal, the set of constraints we are subjected to become more apparent, the construction of subjectivity, and emergence of a sense of agency as a property of the self. If we take these constraints into account, how can we redefine human agency, will, and control?