Animal Trials

How should one approach the conditions of the present through examining the past? How many different narratives of one history exist next to each other? Is it possible to tell the history of humanity from non-human perspectives and what does it say about us?

When we met Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell – who collaborate as Bambitchell (a convincing hybrid of their last names) – in their Solitude Studio, they were just about to finish the preparations for their desktop performance The People v The Cock of Basel. This performance is part of a broader research project investigating the history of the animal trials in medieval Europe and was shown at the Solitude Sommerfest in June 2016. It combines the absurdities of medieval world order with popcultural fragments from a drag queen competition. That might sound like a funny and highly entertaining combination of genres and it certainly is, but it also involves a serious attempt at questioning contemporary structures of society.

Although historical references are an important part of Bambitchell’s practice, it is not about »producing another grand narrative« as the Toronto-based artists say, but »instead the interest in provocations that might lead to imagining new ways of being in the world, that gesture to the very ›queer‹ moments that emerge in unsuspecting spaces and places.«

A conversation about Bambitchell’s relation to historical narratives and their love for non-human characters, concerning their work that goes along with a strong dislike for animals in reality and the enriching potential of working together.

Judith Engel: How did your collaboration start?

Sharlene Bamboat: We met in grad school in Toronto in 2008. We immediately were drawn to each other because of similar interests and ideas that we wanted to explore, and decided to create a project together through one of our classes. We came up with this very raw 5-channel installation called Inextricable exploring diaspora and home and queerness, and our various attachments…

Alexis Mitchell: or repulsions!

SB: …to those things. Now that I think back on it, all those themes continue in our work, just in a more complex manner. At least i hope so! I also never thought of myself as an »artist« – whatever that means, until i met Alexis. I always wanted to make experimental films/videos, and i did, but i would never have thought about the gallery space as a potential venue to experiment and exhibit in.

AM: We actually met on the picket line – as romantic as that sounds. Our union at the university went on strike and we walked around this bleak circle for hours with each other talking about queer and feminist video art and our various attachments to the spaces/places we call home. We also complained about how the courses in our department weren’t super interesting to either of us so we decided that when we eventually went back to school (it was 3 months later), that we’d make a course for ourselves. We never planned on making work out of that course but after all of the reading we did, the ideas for a project just came quite organically. I was doing a MFA in film & video and Sharlene was doing a Masters in media studies and so wasn’t necessarily in the practice of making work within an educational environment, but was making a bunch of stuff on her own, and I think much more interesting work than what I was making at the time!
I think her not being in art school allowed her to dream much bigger about the kind of work she wanted to make, and that was incredibly inspiring to me at the time because I was so used to just making work within the confines of art school and was limited by my own artistic and technological knowledge. For this first project, we didn’t know how to achieve what we wanted to do technologically, but we knew what we wanted, and then made it work somehow. I think this was actually revolutionary for me and really made me see the value of collaboration – because I really do think that anything we make together is way more interesting, experimental and technically difficult than anything I would ever make on my own.

SB: I definitely agree with that statement on collaboration because there is something nice for me to not know everything, not having all the skills to do something, and working with Alexis because she’s definitely more technically savvy than I am, and it allows me to just present ideas to her and then she makes them happen. Magic!

»I really do think that anything we make together is way more interesting, experimental and technically difficult than anything I would ever make on my own.«Alexis Mitchell

AM: I mean, I don’t make them happen myself! But somehow we find a way. Usually through roping in the technical expertise of people like Heather Kirby (someone we collaborate with often), who we think can literally make anything possible.

SB: It’s lovely bouncing ideas off each other and really makes you feel more confident in your practice. Having worked together for 8 years now we do push each other to think and create in different ways, which perhaps we normally wouldn’t do on our own. This is not to say that we don’t have our own patterns and our »collective comfort zones«, but for me, working together really pushes me and it’s great!

JE: Currently, you have a fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude in the field of time-based media. Your works seem to also include installations, lecture performances and interactive sound pieces.
Do you consider your artistic work as belonging to the category of film and video art?

SB: Not really. We are attracted to film and video art, but it’s not necessarily what we do. The idea, or concept for the project often comes first, and then we think about what the best form is. Since we usually start by doing a lot of research often the form is shaped by, and reflective of the content.

AM: At the same time, we’re both kind of obsessed with video and continue to come back to it. We often have these moments when we’re looking at other work, or in the middle of projects where we have chosen to work in video where we’re like, »oh, video is just better than all other mediums« – I mean, we don’t really believe that, but we kind of do!

SB: Ya we totally do think video is better!

AM: We’re always trying to say so much in our work (there are likely too many layers!), and somehow the nature of video allows for all of these layers to exist simultaneously, in a way we haven’t yet been able to figure out in other mediums.

SB: Maybe that’s why we change and shift mediums so much with each different project. It’s nice though, because we learn to do so many different types of things, however we are masters of none. Except maybe video – well Alexis is!

JE: How would you describe your artistic approach in general, if there is an »in general«?

AM: We work in a variety of ways – depending on how the project comes about. If we’re just working on our own without a commission or an upcoming show, we always start with text – often times academic texts or news articles… actually the first project we ever did was inspired by a book by Dionne Brand A Map to the Door of No Return, perhaps that set the stage for our practice.

SB: It totally set the stage for our practice, and it’s interesting to see its development over the years. Brand’s book speaks about the impossibility of the »return home« and while she speaks about it within the context of slavery, and the black diaspora, her writing resonated with both of us, and our very different, yet complicated connections to the idea of »home« and belonging.

AM: Our interests are varied but tend to always come back to similar themes – questioning ideas of diaspora/home/nation, mining the histories of the places we’re physically in for unique and often obscure narratives about the lasting effects of militarism or colonialism. We tend to get inspired by one text and then go down a long and winding rabbit hole of research – exploring the various connections to whatever the text is we’re looking at.

So for instance, we recently made a video/installation called Empire Symbol, Or a Man and His Mule. The project was inspired by a Canadian war veteran’s diary during WWII. He was a veterinarian (we referred to him as »The Vet«) whose job it was to ship mules from New York to Karachi, India (now Pakistan, and coincidently also the city that Sharlene grew up in). We became obsessed with this object – his weird and poetic diary, but the project couldn’t just be about this man’s diary, we had to also understand the history of the use of mules in the military, the anatomy and physiology of the mule, the specific routes this man travelled with these mules, the significance of these routes in our contemporary moment, etc. We basically find these kernels we’re interested in, and these things are often seemingly unimportant in the grand scheme of »History« (like this man and his shipload of mules) and then through a long and circuitous research process we find ways of aestheticizing how these seemingly mundane objects or occurrences are related to many other crucial and often violent historical processes.

Empire Symbol or a Man and His Mule

JE: History is a recurring theme in your projects. Many of your works refer to historical events for example by citing historical text sources in The Atomic Ark. Or by collaging a medieval animal trial and YouTube video fragments from a Drag Queen competition in the video performance The People vs. The Cock of Basel. These historical events often seem to be told by fictional non human characters or seen from another perspective than the usual one. What is your interest in history?

SB: We tend to focus on history because it’s a really good way of being able to examine our contemporary moment. The histories we work with are often so absurd to begin with, that we don’t really need to do that much to bring out the absurdity. They often speak for themselves!

AM: It sounds super simple in a way, and we do of course take the content of our work quite seriously, as we’re often invested in unpacking quite violent histories that have their lasting effects on the present. But we’re also so inundated with images and discourses of violence that sometimes it feels like rehashing certain histories doesn’t seem to have many effects. Therefore rather than re-writing or re-narrating dominant histories, we tend to focus on parts of the past that haven’t gotten so much attention…like our mules! Because these are not characters/objects that are part of any grand narrative about Canadian militarism, it becomes absurd to focus on something so seemingly banal. But it’s actually in focusing on these animals that we’re able to unpack much broader ideas that surround these mules – like the way capitalism and trade is inextricably connected to these histories of militarism, and the mules are one really good example of this.

»The histories we work with are often so absurd to begin with, that we don’t really need to do that much to bring out the absurdity.«Sharlene Bamboat

SB: Yeah, with this project Empire Symbol, we’re talking about World War II and historical items of trade, however the objects present in the video are all contemporary objects we bought at the dollar shop, and so it brings the viewer into the present, and this is a way for us to assert that we’re not just talking about the past that is »fixed«, these things are always changing and moving and continue to live on in different ways. And yes, we have, as of late employed non-human characters in our work to present a different view of historical events. This seems to be a strategy that for us is paired with absurdity, but also as a way to think about how war effects more than just humans. How plants and animals, and landscapes etc. bear the weight of such devastations. It’s a useful tool to employ to be able to tell stories in a »different« way.

AM: This use of animals, and other non-human forms was never something we were conscious of. We had an idea for a project a few years ago about the Medieval Animal Trials (which we’ll explain soon!) and then we made this project about the mules, and really the animals only became interesting to us because of this man’s diary. But then we thought, oh weird, are we somehow becoming animal people?! I mean because Sharlene literally hates animals, and I, well, I like really tiny dogs.

SB: I wouldn’t say hate… a strong dislike perhaps…

AM: But we’ve definitely found a home with these animals (and plants as is the case with our project The Atomic Ark). It feels like we’ve finally found a form that suits some of the bizarre thinking we do – so perhaps alongside video, the non-human is now our form of choice?!

SB: There is, of course a long history of anthropomorphism that is often times employed as a storytelling technique. Fables, for example, use animals, and other non-human forms to make a point. We do the same, except a fable is often associated with a »moral« which we are really not interested in presenting, and actually work quite hard to »debunk« any sort of lesson, or singular narrative.

AM: In looking back at our last few years of working (almost solely on plants, animals and other non-human forms), we are able to see the ways we’ve both employed animals almost as metaphors, but also for their quite literal and material uses as well. In the project we started at our residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico (The Atomic Ark), we are looking at two animals that survived multiple rounds of nuclear testing by the U.S military in the 1940s & 50s and were then housed in the Smithsonian Zoo until their final death.

»Fables use animals, and other non-human forms to make a point. We do the same, except a fable is often associated with a moral which we are really not interested in presenting, and actually work quite hard to debunk any sort of lesson, or singular narrative.«Sharlene Bamboat

SB: »Final death« is an apt phrase to use here, because with this project we are exploring the effects of nuclear weapons/energy/waste on living beings, which in this case allowed us to explore the seemingly opposing aspects of life and death. This concept of the two existing simultaneously is not a novel one by any means, but it allowed us to think about what that actually means when something that is meant is kill you, actually keeps you alive and makes you stronger. I suppose this is the premise of X-men!
So with these two animals, (called Pig 311 and Goat 315) the thing that was meant to kill them, kept them alive for years, and this became fascinating for us to think about what it means to live in a world that is rife with nuclear energy and waste. Perhaps allowing us to somehow rethink what it means to be alive.

AM: These animals were actually employed as symbols by the military in that they were »exhibited« as zoo animals, but we’re actually interested in the materiality of these animals and the questions that are raised through looking at them closely – you know, like the meaning of life! But this is also a project about resilience, because both the plants and the animals we look at in this project not only survive but actually flourish in the face of nuclear destruction, which really re-writes the entire narrative we have in our minds about what nuclear devastation actually is.

SB: To a degree…

Atomic Ark

AM: We haven’t yet settled on the right form for the Atomic Ark project we started in Santa Fe, but are also happy with it being completely open-ended and something that we continue to rework and reform in different ways – somehow a project about the nuclear really lends itself to this type of shapeshifting.

SB: This »shapeshifting« is something that we embraced during our time at the Schloss. To have these projects that are perhaps never finished, always evolving, and take on different forms over time. It’s quite a nice way to work!

JE: At a first glance history and fiction seem to be two opposite disciplines. In your projects the border between truth and invention becomes blurred by fictionalizing historical events. For me, this was most evident in the work Empire Symbol, Or A Man and his Mule, that traces the journey of this Canadian veterinarian who was responsible for transporting mules from New York to Karachi, India during WWII. It became impossible to differentiate between sequences from the Canadian veterinarian’s diary and invented, fictional fragments of Bambitchell.
How would you describe your relation to fiction, history and the blur in-between?

AM: We are always playing with fact and fiction in our work – this idea of poking holes in historical narratives, rather than creating new ones. In doing research, we often find ourselves attached to some of the most bizarre details of the world we live in – the mules of course, but also the fact that the animals in The Atomic Ark were housed in the Smithsonian Zoo, and that they became so famous that people would write them letters! Also, in the project we’re working on now, about these Medieval Animal Trials (which we’ll speak about below), we keep coming up against the fact that literally all original research done about these trials came from the same American scholar (which at this point is more bizarre to us than the fact that animals were put on trial in a court of law for so long!). Each of these aspects of history have made us question their validity immensely – we often think, there’s no way some of the stuff we’re reading about actually happened! But then it brings up a whole set of questions about what makes history, and why some stories are more believable than others, and those are really productive questions for us.

»We are always playing with fact and fiction in our work – this idea of poking holes in historical narratives, rather than creating new ones.«Alexis Mitchell

Coming from Canada, there’s this immensely strong historical narrative about Canada as a peacekeeping nation, and of course we know from our very recent history that this is absolutely not the case! But rather than pointing to some of the more obvious examples of this, and creating a new historical narrative, we find it more interesting to tease apart some of the stories that have allowed for this image to be constructed in the first place. The mules were a way for us to do this – because they are so seemingly harmless, but when you look at the system they are a part of, they become a tool of warfare just like any other. By creating these worlds where you must suspend disbelief, we allow ourselves to breakdown and question the seemingly mundane things we take for granted or pass off as make-believe.

JE: What are your different influences?

SB: Our influences vary over time. However, lately we have been looking at many artists who bridge the gap between Cinema and the gallery space for example Amie Siegel’s work has been really influential for a current project that we are working on. Akram Zataari’s work has always been inspiring to us, because of the different ways he interacts with the archives and aestheticizes them. We’re also inspired by writers such as Dionne brand and jean genet, and for The Atomic Ark we were very influenced by Jorge Luis Borges…

AM: We are also incredibly influenced by the spaces we are in. This is why we’re often asked to make site-specific work I think. Even if we’re not being commissioned to make something for a specific site, we often find ourselves really digging into the space we’re in at the moment, or the neighborhood where the show will be exhibited, or even the types of materials being used around us. During our residency at the Santa fe art institute in New Mexico we started working with clay, which is something neither of us had ever done, or even thought of before!
We got there and immediately became intrigued with the landscape and the histories of the spaces we were in, and delved deep into the nuclear/military histories of New Mexico, and made tiny, horrible looking plants out of clay!

SB: For Empire Symbol, we were channeling the artist Oliver Husain, whose work is quite beautiful and absurd, but really when you dig into it, has so many complex layers of meaning. He also filmed part of this video for us at the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada which is in a town called Guelph, outside of Toronto.

JE: What are you working on at the moment?

AM: We’re working on a big project about the Medieval animal trials (where animals were put on trial in a court of law for you know, like 600 years or so!). We became fascinated by this bizarre history a few years ago and since then have just been adding all of the resources we could find to this shared google document, which by the time we started our residency at Solitude in April, was completely unruly. So we really have spent the last 3 months working through these resources and brainstorming ideas.

SB: It is currently being written as a long-form essay film project, however we are thinking about different forms as well, to highlight all of the complex issues the material presents. We did a short performance called The People vs. The Cock of Basel for the Solitude Sommerfest in June, and this was our first attempt at tackling one of these trials. We imagine this project will house a series of smaller projects like this one. It is a huge undertaking though and we will probably continue to work on this for many more years.

The People vs. The Cock of Basel

AM: The performance we did for Sommerfest (video above) was really just a way for us to actually have a bit of output from all the work we’ve been doing. Right now we’re thinking about this film as being structured around the different animal trials we’ve been researching. So in this case it was the trial was of a Cock (rooster) in Basel, Switzerland who was tried in 1474 for laying an egg. For us, this trial is so much about these long legacies of the punishment and repression of queerness… and it’s about the history of sodomy laws and the construction of gender and sexuality, and in the case of this performance, it’s about drag queens and the culture and popularity of the American reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. We have this running joke between us at this point because every day we say to each other, »this project is about the history of the penal system!«, »it’s about capitalism!«, »it’s about the history of the world!«… and so yeah, we think we’ll be working on these animal trials for a while!

SB: That is one of the things that has evolved in our collaboration since coming to the Schloss – thinking about our projects as long-term. Often, we get specific commissions, or we have a deadline to meet for an installation and everything has to be done by then. For this project on the Animal Trials, we see it going on for years, and there’s something so great about that, because it allows our ideas to evolve, and for us to develop the project in a way we see fit.

AM: Or continue developing the project forever.