The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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JUNE 2021 Issue
Art Books

Interspecies Futures, Veiled Taxonomies, and Lights, Tunnels, Passages, and Shadows
at Center for Book Arts

All three exhibitions manifest theorist Donna Haraway’s concept of sympoiesis and use the forms of the book to enlarge what constitutes knowledge and being together.

Kristoffer Ørum, <em>Signal Crayfish</em> (2021). Photographed by Sean Davidson.
Kristoffer Ørum, Signal Crayfish (2021). Photographed by Sean Davidson.

On View
Center For Book Arts
April 16 – June 26, 2021
New York

We are now, feminist theorist Donna Haraway tells us, in the Chthulucene, the era in which entanglements among species determines our collective future. Think, for example, of COVID-19, the virus that initially moved between bat and human and now circulates from humans to other mammals including otters, minks, cats, dogs, deer, and pigs. Haraway’s suggestion, what she calls sympoiesis, is to work with this reality—stay with the trouble—and actively co-create the present and future. All three current exhibitions at Center for Book Arts—Interspecies Futures, Veiled Taxonomies, and Lights, Tunnels, Passages and Shadows—manifest this concept and use the forms of the book to enlarge what constitutes knowledge and being together.

Though the projects in the central gallery exhibition, Interspecies Futures, curated by Oscar Salguero, are mostly speculative, they are also anchored in a recently realized moment of possibility—Thomas Thwaites’s project of living as a goat in the Alps, which Salguero presents through several multilingual editions of GoatMan, a book about “how I took a holiday from being human” on view in a vitrine on the edge of the exhibit. Though the interior of the books are inaccessible, the cover images show different photographs of Thwaites as a goat—replete with stilts and exoskeleton—on a mountain among the animals. These images testify to the possibility of realizing this fantasy of living both with and as another species, and highlight its wide appeal.

The remainder of the exhibit, which features books that one can touch, however, is less interested in this type of infiltration and more concerned with investigating the kind of worlds human and animal might co-create. Ege Kökel’s self-published book Dodo in the Room (2019) imagines a future with dodos as pets, bringing attention to the work of desire in productions of speculation. The book is organized like a catalogue of several differently sized dodo prototypes with traits such as socialness, loyalty, and exercise needs. Not only are these domesticated dodos reliant on humans for their existence, pushing Haraway’s concept of companion species and co-evolution to its limit, they are also presented as designer objects for consumption. In a similar vein, Kuang-Yi Ku’s Tiger Penis Project (2018) asks viewers to see artificial flesh as a mechanism to stop the hunting of tigers. On display are three-dimensional renderings of a tiger penis and its laboratory substitute alongside two books: one explaining the science underpinning tiger penis as cure in Chinese Traditional Medicine for erectile dysfunction and the other describing how bioengineering can grow alternatives. Presented as a quartet, these objects make visible a future of exchange between biochemical science and Chinese Traditional Medicine in which “wild” animal and “captive” specimen become interchangeable. Both projects especially make visible how human desire has determined the fate of these species—pushing them to the brink of (if not actually into) extinction. Here, interspecies entanglement focuses on hierarchies of dependence and vectors of power related to “use value.”

Betsy Stirratt, <em>The Zoologist </em>(2017). Photographed by the artist.
Betsy Stirratt, The Zoologist (2017). Photographed by the artist.

In conversation with this indictment of humanity, Salguero also assembles a set of books that grapple with human vulnerability and the reality that humans have little control over their own extinction. Commissioned during the early days of the pandemic, these books not only ask us to dwell on viral intimacies, but also on what happens when humanity is not the central organizing principle. Becoming A Bat, Embodying COVID-19 (2021) by designer/artist Noam Youngrak Son features black ink printed on black paper in a deliberate effort to be unreadable. However, the raised surface of the cover is meant to be inviting to bats who have low vision, but sense shapes through echolocation. The maligned bat of the pandemic is re-valued so that its non-human sensory orientations offer instruction for survival, while also highlighting its own set of minor intimacies, including and especially those with viruses. Kristoffer Ørum’s spectacular Signal_Crayfish (2021) examines this invasive species with a knack for survival whose ability to communicate chemically across distance offers further insight into interspecies entanglement. In addition to fabricating the animal as a 3D-printed sculpture on the book’s cover, Ørum also catalogues its communicative abilities as compared to technologies like Wi-Fi. Humans suffer in this comparison, rendering the displayed crustacean even more majestic in its unassuming opacity. By removing human privilege, these projects invite viewers to ponder the multiple sensory orientations through which knowledge circulates. Moreover, it is not incidental that human attempts at decipherment hit a limit at what is encoded in the book-objects, making felt that which humans cannot perceive.

The two smaller solo shows surrounding the main gallery exhibition also work through the central tenets of sympoiesis—co-creation and narrative, albeit with less explicit focus on animals. In the entryway side gallery, Betsy Stirratt’s exhibition Veiled Taxonomies focuses on the field notebook, zoological net, and scientific illustration to examine what escapes perception. Most compelling are the deconstructed books: The Zoologist (2017), Pathos (2016), and Word Collapse (2017) in which labels—one side of which might feature an image or letter, and the other side a short phrase—are entangled in various nets. The tightness with which these nets are bundled and their degree of containment varies, providing a looseness that implicitly critiques the rigor of scientific methods of classification and codification. While these efforts have defined many parameters of modern life, the unruliness of these books provides viewers with a glimpse of what might evade these methods of knowledge and what has yet to be perceived.

Maureen Catbagan's <em>Lights, Tunnels, Passages and Shadows</em>. Photo courtesy of CBA.
Maureen Catbagan's Lights, Tunnels, Passages and Shadows. Photo courtesy of CBA.

In the exhibition space near the workshop, Maureen Catbagan’s solo presentation Lights, Tunnels, Passages, and Shadows, invites viewers to create their own versions of their displayed book. Though not about human’s relationship to animals and nature, the installation highlights how our perception shapes our creation of narrative. In addition to standalone folded versions, the three books are hung on the gallery wall, each of which unfolds vertically into three panels, hung next to each other, resulting in an interactive grid of images. This complex geometry means that viewers can either see one large image of shadows—The Met Museum Shadow and Guard (2020)—or can fold any of the books vertically to reveal other photographs from Catbagan’s “Dark Matter” series, which include images of lights, the back of museum guards, tunnels, and more shadows. Further grounding the imagery is Abang-guard Work Habits (Aros Museum) (2018), a short film showing Catbagan and collaborator Jevijoe Vitug exercising, meditating, writing, and standing guard inside in the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum. In each of these works, Catbagan emphasizes the multiple ways one can orient oneself through space, especially when one pays attention to what exists alongside the objects on which one is often told to focus—here we arrive at the shadows, architecture of infrastructure, and labor of the guards. This is also where one can dwell in the dark matter that Catbagan summons—it is what structures and yet is unacknowledged.

In these profound (and profoundly different) engagements with sensing, we realize that the book not only contains knowledge but also invites ethics—how can and should one engage? This merging of form and content shows that there are many ways to co-write these stories. And, sympoiesis, in turn, alerts us to the politics and hope in these becomings.


Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

All Issues