Photograph: Ben Gilbert/The Guardian
Recently, in a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust in London, the dance theatre company Fevered Sleep opened their doors for the public to engage in their creative research studio production of Sheep Pig Goat - a performance by musicians and dancers for an audience of animals in a warehouse in South London. The aim of the project was to explore inter-species communication and empathy, deliberately using farmed animals - sheep, pigs and goats - to unsettle habitual perceptions of them as meat providers. An invited series of evening speakers from the worlds of literature, science, philosophy and sociology attempted to contextualise the central question of the project: “How well do we see animals as they really are, rather than what we tell ourselves they are?”
This question has long exercised theorists in human-animal studies, because engagement with nonhuman entities raises fundamental questions about what constitutes ‘nature’ or ‘culture’; the stability of species boundaries, and the nature of knowledge. I went along. For the purpose of the performance, three sheep, about seven goats, and two pigs were both materially and discursively relocated; from a farm in North Wales to a bare warehouse space in Peckham; from ‘livestock’ to artistes with a part to play in the avant-garde art scene. Thus the opportunity was given to them - indeed, all that was asked of them - was that they reveal something of themselves. Ostensibly, the animals were the ‘audience’ for the performers – we, it was stressed, were not audience members to be entertained, but co-researchers allowed observational access. However, as one of the dancers said, it was hard to get away from a results-based mindset; and despite the extremely careful way that the artistic directors managed expectations and stressed they were just as interested in finding out what was not possible, or not transparent, or not interesting to the animals, it was hard not to read everything which the performers did as designed to elicit a response, an acknowledgement, no matter how small. So what was revealed? What was undeniable was the animals’ quiet charisma in contrast to us over-eager humans. There was panting, staring, skittishness, patience, climbing, furniture nibbling, head-butting and eating. Most of us had probably never been so alert and attentive to the next moves of a sheep. Attention was definitely being paid –cross-species interaction was what was hungered for.
Sometimes this was successful; goats stopped their play and gathered with wide-eyed attention at one side of the stage as their hay was churned dramatically into the air on the other; a sheep positioned herself for several minutes directly in front of an improvising clarinetist; a strong breath trail by a dancer had a goat momentarily following. At other times the animals seemed almost comically disinterested in the whirling, attention-seeking human spinning on their hands or the vibrating double bass attempting to start a porcine conversation. What did seem to have meaning for them in the two performances I watched were those activities that they presumably would have been used to on the farm. The movement of objects around the space held great fascination and opportunity for investigation; as did the gates opening; the normal tone of talk between performers and director caused them to lift their heads. “I’ve had to let go of my performer’s ego and stop trying to impress the human audience,” said one of the dancers. “It’s a constant play of advance and retreat with them – it often seems it’s better to do less” “Sometimes it feels like two steps forward in our understanding and then two steps back” said one of the artistic directors.
I was reading Bruno Latour around the same time as the show. Latour believes that animals (and indeed all phenomena) are only as interesting as the questions you ask about them; which should as far as possible allow them to be interesting, articulate, active, say more things. He draws on the primatologist Thelma Rowell’s work with sheep. Rowell says she treats her sheep like ‘intelligent chimps’, thereby giving them a chance to act differently; to act smartly. This struck me as exactly what Fevered Sleep were trying to do: ask sheep the different questions than the ones they would normally be asked on the farm in North Wales. But as well as the moments of interaction and engagement, I was also really struck by those moments where the movement of furniture around the space seemed to elicit far more interest than the efforts of the performers to engage them. Indeed, the animals seemed pre-orientated towards different answers than we were seeking. A human singing was fleetingly interesting, deserving of a sniff or a stare. But the movement of objects around the space - gates, buckets, chairs – an activity of piling up furniture that one dancer asked to be allowed to do - seemed compelling articulations of meaning. All activity would stop and investigations of the new surroundings begin. Faced with a man bouncing lithely off the walls, however, they seemed conceptually unmoored. Perhaps the activities were too nebulous and confusing to really consider; in the same way, perhaps, as we habitually discount the significance of smell or sound in our own environments. Was this a result of a Latour-ian failure on our part to ask the right questions?
Whether the original question was satisfactorily answered or not, I admired Fevered Sleep’s attempt, and the bravery they had as a company in actually turning those questions into a live, collaborative, creative research event with the sensitivity and commitment that they did. The questions of what we can know about other animals in their alterity from us seems so overlooked. Even the academic world of human-animal relations is saturated with questions about what they tell us about ourselves; or what they can do for us and our wellbeing. It’s time we stopped assuming that bodies of livestock animals are a completely transparent, manageable part of the industrialised food production line and started asking more searching questions about the elements of their lives and selves which habitually escape us.