Introduction: Who are the other animals?

In art, as in philosophy, the distinction between humans and other animals marks a very clear dividing line within our normal ways of seeing things, polarising the distinctions between human and non-human, imaginary and real, form and matter. The concept of the other animal acts as a theoretical red line that protects an obsolete and unhealthy hierarchical distinction between the realm of the human and the realms of the animal, vegetable, and mineral. Those who persist in characterising other animals as non-human, as living beings that are defined by not being humans (seen to be endowed with reason, consciousness, thought, society, emotion, and feeling) are maintaining an archaic, politically dangerous, and unacceptable distinction. Although theoretically superseded by the posthumanist perspective, this distinction persists, causing exclusion and conferring a supposedly pure, unalloyed, colonialist, and imperialist identity on the dominant element.

The distinction between humans and animals threatens the boundaries of humanist concepts of the human, and so, in the light of the rigorous critique of these concepts, stands in opposition to a resilient theoretical machinery that is exploding traditional concepts about the pre-eminence of the (male) human animal over all other animals, including lower beings and women. Our intolerance is highlighted by very existence of other animals: we prefer them similar to us, anthropomorphised at our whim, on our scale of perception, and, if possible, individual. This is a kind of blindness produced by age-old anthropocentric prejudice.

It is understandable that it hurts to give up our anthropocentrism, to renounce our belief that the human animal is the centre of the universe, but science shows that the human is just another animal among all the species on the planet. Genomic sequencing shows that we share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees, 90% with rats, 50% with the vinegar fly and 20% with most plants. Scientific evidence shows that human animals are all too similar to all other animals, and highlights the organic continuity of species.

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The personhood of other animals. Cecilia is a chimpanzee that was born in captivity and spent 20 years knowing only the inside of “her” cage. In 2016, an Argentinian judge declared that Cecilia had non-human person rights. Thanks to this ground-breaking ruling, Cecilia was able to leave the Mendoza Zoo in Argentina, and since April 2018, she has lived in semi-freedom at the Great Apes Sanctuary in Sorocaba in Brazil. Cecilia’s story is important because it is the first time that a non-human animal has been recognised as having rights. This complex situation involves the interplay of three spheres: law, science and philosophy.

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In colloquial language, the terms “person” and “human” are used as synonyms, although they do not mean exactly the same thing. The meaning of “person” has been debated for centuries, but, as Peter Singer explains in Animal Liberation, it was Locke who defined the term in more recent times, describing persons as intelligent, reasoning beings with a sense of identity, who are aware of themselves, their past and their future.

Through the concept of “personhood”, human animals are given moral relevance and rights are conferred on them. This is problematic because not all humans fulfil the precise characteristics (intelligence, reasoning, sense of identity, self-awareness, etc.). In this respect, it is not clear, for example, that foetuses or those in irreversible comas are persons. Singer affirms that it is possible to determine who is human with a genetic test, but the questions of whether or not they are a person and what rights they have as such are not resolved by scientific analysis but by philosophical argumentation.

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Non-human animals continue to be considered to be things, “personal property”, in the civil codes of many countries, such that property laws are applied to them that totally disregard their interests as sentient beings. The aim of the Great Ape Project, a pioneer in the fight for the recognition of nonhuman beings as persons, is to extend the rights that protect humans to include the four species of great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans.

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Animal kinship. Kinship has always been important for humans, but when these relationships include animals, the situation takes on particularly significant connotations because of the unique nature of kinship relations for humans. Haraway (2016) comments that she was taught by Marilyn Strathern (1992) that the term relations, in English originally meant logical relations, but came to mean family members in the 17th century. Thus logical, kinship relationships, may be established with other animals with whom one shares life and experience.

Haraway (2016) asserts that it is necessary to work together with the biotic (other animals, human or not, and with plants), the abiotic (things that are not products of living beings such as climatic, geological, geographical factors that are in the environment and affect ecosystems), and from a perspective of collaborative (making-with) rather than individualistic (self-making) work. This is what Haraway calls the Chthulucene, which enmeshes human and other animals in tentacular practices (Haraway, 2016).

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The redefinition of the term relation enables us to reformulate its content: all human beings are our relations, in a deep sense, and have been since our remote origins. And our ancestors set precedents by creating inseparable links with other animals, so it should not be so strange to establish kinship relations with other animals. New terminology has even been developed to name the connections that derive from these new relationships, terms such as kinnovator, which refers to a person who creates an unconventional type of family, and kinnovation, which means kinship innovation, notes Haraway (2016), citing Lizzie Skurnick (2015), who, from a posthuman perspective, has suggested these new terms to rename the world in order to meet the needs of new social forms. These are terms that extend the range of those commonly used to frame the Western family as we know and interpret it today. The new terminology opens up new horizons, and allows kinship to include other animals and to create unsuspected, lasting, stable, exemplary and joyful relationships based on affinity. This is what is innovative: recognition and inclusion.

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Bio-art and contemporary art. There are several reasons for the gradual disappearance of anthropocentric speciesism, including new directions in what art considers to be an object of interest, above all, with regard to the way other animals are interpreted and treated. An indispensable component of art should be the ethical respect for sentient beings owed to all animals, to all living beings. One type of art that complies with some of the requisites mentioned above is bio-art, a term coined by Eduardo Kac in 1997, to name the emergence of contemporary artistic practices that use both life and living beings both as a medium and a subject matter (Zurr and Catts, 2003: 1), linking art, biology and technology.

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The role of nature in the link between contemporary art and life can be seen in bio-art, which explores behaviours related to the use of natural materials in creating the artwork and displays the relationship between art and nature from the perspective of ecology, which encompasses not only biology but also the political and the social environment.

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The difference between transhumanism and posthumanism is reflected in artwork that explores how advances in science and technology might modify the nature of biology. One could say that transhuman art relates to artistic practices that transgress biological limits, while posthuman art is to do with investigating biopolitical links. What is known as bio-art concerns and links both approaches. The difference between transhuman and posthuman art is that the former focuses on fostering debate around the value of disrupting biological continuity through technology and science, while the latter (posthuman art) is concerned with manifesting the socio-political effects and connections of these changes.

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Apart from bio-art, live animals have also been used in contemporary art, an artistic practice that is closely associated with the trends of the mid-twentieth century, such as arte povere, performance art, happenings, ecological art, Viennese actionism, and land art (López del Rincón, 2015). These artistic currents sought to include other animals in their work. The result was that the animal’s lives and behaviour were manipulated to suit the interaction decided by the human who had created the performance or the work itself and forced the animal to participate, while ignoring its nature as a sentient being. The artists argued that their work was a denunciation of a range of different situations, many of which were related to the way in which animals were (mis)treated and interpreted by society. This created a paradox , however, that is difficult to accept.

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The persistent view of animals as objects available for use, and an unquestioning acceptance of utilitarian ethical and moral parameters, includes paradigmatic models that merge the concepts of art, aesthetics and utility and considers animals to be manufactured for a single purpose: to serve as meat for human animals. Legislation does not view other animals as having any value in their own right and they are therefore subjected to the most improbable and arbitrary uses generated by the human mind, such as experimentation, vivisection, and use in artistic practices.

  • Haraway, Donna, “Antropoceno, Capitaloceno, Plantacionoceno, Chthuluceno: generando relaciones de parentesco”, Revista Latonoamericana de Estudios Críticos Animales 3/1, 2016, pp. 15-26
  • Skurnick, L., That Should Be a Word, New York: Workman Publishing, 2015
  • Lopez del Rincon, D., Bioarte: arte y vida en la era de la biotecnologia, Madrid: Akal, 2015
  • Strathern, M., After Nature: English Kinship in the late twentieth centur, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992
  • Zurr, I., & O. Catts, O., “The Ethical Claims of Bio-Art: Killing The Other Or Self-Cannibalism”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 5/1, 2004, pp. 167–188