Marcus Coates and Other Animals
by Max Andrews
21st September 2009
Originally published in InProfile: Marcus Coates, Max Andrews looks at Marcus Coates' attempts to become animal.
The art of Marcus Coates allows us to imagine life from an inhuman perspective. He is often his own laboratory rat, using his body to test the boundaries between man and animal. Yet the lot of such unfortunate rodents is certainly not the best analogy as Coates' endeavours are not scientific projects - though they may use science - but are artistic enterprises. His works have no specific theory to prove or disprove, and most importantly are concerned with exploring what humans can learn from animals as much as the other way around. Venturing into the moor or heath, estuary or woodland - or domestic human habitats as we shall see - the artist's videos and photographs tackle the vicissitudes of consciousness and philosophical formulations of ‘the wild' with the stout boots of conviction.
Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's notion of ‘becoming-animal' is a means of escape, a way of unthinking identity and subjectivity where the human and the animal enter into a functional alliance. The reality of becoming lies not in the transformation of fixed points but in an alliance itself. How better to understand the perspective of a small mammal of the family Mustelidae found throughout the northern temperate, subarctic and arctic regions than to walk a mile in its boots? Accordingly in the video Stoat, Mustela erminea (1999) we see the artist in peculiar home made stoat stilts stumbling and bungling in his attempt to walk, approximating the gait of the weasley animal. Coates act is absurd though earnest in its self-mocking hazard at leaving the confines of human locomotion. By operating from an inhuman point of view, Coates does not assume a fixed and unchanging role.
There is no reason why Coates's filmed performances cannot be read as an addendum to both this renegade anti-metaphysical streak in continental thought and a tradition of absurdist British TV comedy sketch shows such as The Goodies (1970-82). It is the presence of apparently cohabiting opposites in Coates's practice - the philosophical and the ludicrous, slowness and speed, the real and the mystical, and not least the animal and the human - which give it its sense and nonsensical energy.
Coates knows just as well as Deleuze and Guattari - or a Red Deer stag - that ‘it is actually through voice and through sound and through a style that one becomes an animal' (1). In his video Indigenous British Mammals (2000), for example, a repertoire of guttural groaning, bellowing, snorting and choking vocalisations are heard apparently emitting from a patch of moss in a rolling landscape. Deleuze and Guattari characterise this state almost too perfectly:
"The animal does not speak ‘like' a man but pulls from the language tonalities lacking signification; the words themselves are not ‘like' the animals but in their own way climb about, bark and roam around, being properly linguistic ... in short, an asignifying intensive utilization of language ... a circuit of states that forms a mutual becoming, in the heart of a necessarily multiple or collective assemblage (2)."
Coates' work studiously avoids metaphorical allusions by focussing instead on behaviour, most conspicuously its explorations of birdsong. The birds that become persons - are impersonated - throughout Coates' work, from the pottering Coot, to the nevertheless formidable Short-eared Owl, seem in any case far too phlegmatic to be symbolic champions. Of course the subject of Coates' 1998 self portrait photograph Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, in which the artist appears in the distance on all fours in a red boiler suit, is more used to being ascribed human values. The wily and cunning fox is a staple of anthropomorphic children's literature, for example, from the tales of Thornton Burgess to Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970). Yet Coates's image escapes this reading of nature by referring to a genre of photography, and a peculiarly British brew of tabloid sensationalism and folklore, concerning cryptic animals. The grainy, blurred photograph of an indistinct shape is the prototypical evidence of everything from the Loch Ness monster to the so-called Beast of Bodmin.
In the series of works in which the artist makes a transition into shaman, Coates' ‘becoming' skills are applied towards a specific social purpose, testing the power of animal becoming and the role of the artist within the public arena. Coates modifies this ancient tradition of communication with animal spirits into an artistic and functional consultancy tool.
"All over the world learning the language of animals, especially of birds, is equivalent to knowing the secrets of nature and hence to being able to prophesy. Learning their language, imitating their voice, is equivalent to ability to communicate with the beyond and the heavens (3)."
We could contrast Coates' approach with the work of Joseph Beuys, a somewhat unavoidable figure in this context, particularly given the artists recent works exploring the role of the shaman. Throughout his practice Beuys cultivated a shaman-like persona through works such as Coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). For this action, Beuys spent the duration of the exhibition caged in a gallery in New York with a coyote, that was made to function as a mystical conduit in a ritual of realignment and reconciliation with native Americans. In works such as Journey to the Lower World (2005) and Radio Shaman (2006) Coates takes on the job of talking to animal spirits on behalf of the residents of a Liverpool tower block with contrastingly modest expectations and a knowingly dubious quasi-Yakut ritual. The appearance authenticity is replaced with bathos and domestic modification. The stipulated sweeping of the ritual area is done with a vacuum cleaner, the shamanic drum takes the form of a stereo with a ‘plastic shaman' CD, and car keys stand in for bells. What Coates' performance lacks in seriously earnest self-indulgence it makes up for in charm and disarming humour. Both Beuys' and Coates' acts of native-peoples cultural appropriation might be somewhat ethically problematic - yet, the latter seems to say, let's at least not pretend to be going about it in the ‘right' way.
Coates' knowing fakery taps into the desire to be seduced by the essential strangeness of the non-human, and, however irrational, to entertain the possibility of the unknown. In the video Finfolk (2003) he acts out this abandonment of apparently ‘common sense' viewpoints with a hearty dose of slapstick. Merging himself with the liberally imagined faculties of a finman or a selkie - the shapeshifting amphibious seal-human creatures of Orkney Islands' legends - the artist emerges from a stormy sea and blunders around on a jetty in his ‘selkie skin' track suit. Walking and occasionally dancing in the gale, this creature's incoherent ramblings create a kind of fusion between foul-mouthed Scandinavian drunk-speak and saline linguistics, before it spots an approaching family and descends into the sea once more.
Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), the celebrated story of one Captain Ahab's obsession with a huge white whale, seems pertinent here. Just as Ahab's becoming-whale occurs as he begins to think as if he were the whale, entering into an animal relationship with the animal, Coates ceases to become himself and enters into a comedic process of composition with the seal-ness of the selkie. He assumes he is a seal and as such is impersonating a human. Instead of a classical humanistic search for sense, or what is somehow hidden, these slippery marine creatures offer up the pursuit of the incomprehensible and of inhuman perceptions. The bathos of Finfolk's perfectly lame rendition of a mythical beast reveals not a grand symbolism of life or rebirth, but presents itself as a modest proposal to transform oneself by perceiving difference through particular properties, the thick rubber hide wet suit for instance, and most obviously through voice and sound.
Metamorphosis through voice and sound is a state that Coates has long been exploring through his series of works that exploit the possibility for compressing and expanding time with video. Coates's interest in this technique reaches its apogee with the multiscreen video and sound work Dawn Chorus (2005-7). The artist worked alongside wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample to make a series of, simultaneous recordings within a woodland in Northumberland. Working early in the morning in the spring - the most active time for avian songsters - the songs translate into fourteen screens, as each species of the chorus is given over to an accelerated human interpreter. Men and women in apparently sedate everyday settings suddenly sing like birds - it seems for a few seconds that there is a Swallow in a car park, a Wren in an office, a Pheasant in a sitting room, or a Blackbird in a shed, for example. Each participant, filmed in their own houses or going about there daily lives, sat with an earpiece that played a tape of each bird's song or call that had been slowed down many times, to which they mimicked. The resultant video footage was then in turn speeded up by the same number of times, returning the bird mimicry into its ‘real' register and each participant into a twitching and alert avian apparition.
Birds often sing to mark territory (and Deleuze and Guattari make much use of this concept of the ritournelle or refrain) and so do humans. In a number of works the animal is a collection of possibilities, functions or actions: for communication, for movement. The birds are not asked to ‘mean' anything. Local Birds (2001), A Guide to the British Non Passerines (2002) are both precursors to Dawn Chorus. In A Guide ... we see the artist undergoing an accelerated process as he sits and renders all 86 species of commonly occurring British non-perching birds, announcing each in turn in deadpan fieldguide systematic order before lurching into speeded-up sections of squawks and cries. In Coates' Out of Season (2000) we note the lone male Chelsea football supporter chanting his repetitive songs, threatening curses and bragging in an idyllic woodland brimming with summer birdsong. The incongruity is superficial, his territorial behaviour is akin to the functionality of the male bird's song, their tuneful calls disguising a declaration of their species, virility and territorial claim. The ethological loop has come full circle. Art, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, is not a question of imitation, but of becoming:
Suppose a painter ‘represents' a bird, this is in fact a becoming-bird that can occur only to the extent that the bird itself is in the process of becoming something else, a pure line and pure colour. ... The painter and musician do not imitate the animal, they become-animal at the same time as the animal becomes what they willed, at the deepest level of their concord with Nature (4).
Coates' art of ethology entails an evaluation of the means by which the human and the non-human interact and might behave in parallel. It does not apply universalising abstractions, sentimentalising generalisations or attempt to be straighforwardly authentic. Instead it operates at the level of local ecologies, whether in the community of birds on a moorland or a community of humans (in a tower block perhaps). On an aesthetic scale art renders visible and renders sonorous, and Coates himself summons through his ‘becoming-animal', the hope of avoiding metaphors and prompting an understanding that we do not need to account for the natural world by postulating fundamentals that explain it. What Coates offers is a capacity for symbiotic interconnection without the need for such human/non-human dualism, and a connection with natural reality.
(1) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1975), trans. Dana Polan, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 7
(2) ibid., p. 22
(3) Mircea Eliade: Shamanism - Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (1951) 2004, Princeton University Press, p. 98
(4) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateueaus (1980), trans. Brian Massumi, The Athlone Press, 1987, p. 304-305
Max Andrews is a writer, curator and co-founder of Latitudes, Barcelona