We asked artistic director Zandile Darko to share with us how it all started with an Elective Module in Speculative Scenarios at ArtEZ University of the Arts in 2021. In the following interview she shares her thoughts on the practice-led research which led her to creating the festival MASTERING PERCEPTION.

How did you come up with the topic?

I have an urge to connect to animals. Therefore, when I was studying at ArtEZ University in 2021, I was looking in my practice-led research at ways of how to embody animals.  I was convinced the embodiment of animals would help me to understand and therefore empathise more with them. I asked myself; How could I, as a human being, embody non-human animals? I wanted to explore a physical approach through studio-practice. In a later stage of the research, I wanted to turn this practice into a method and make it applicable in workshops for other people. Yet, when I started my research I realised how vast the field was which I was entering; which animal was I to embody? From which perspective was I to learn about it? Rather than finding answers, I saw more and more questions araising. The Elective Module “Speculative Scenarios” with Dr Pedro Manuel opened new possibilities; all of a sudden, I was confronted with another vast field, the field of speculation. Ranging from fables and sci-fi to future scenarios to experimental archaeology and speculative biology or speculative philosophy to the stock market… and for the first time I allowed myself to put all areas which I saw connected to my research onto one piece of paper:

Interestingly enough only with the speculative approach, which opened up the horizon of ‘what if’, I allowed myself to think of possible answers for the many questions I had. The idea for MASTERING PERCEPTIONS came in one Speculative Scenarios class in which we were given the assignment to imagine an artwork based on our hypothesis (which became the motto for MASTERING PERCEPTION: “What if we could understand animals”). Besides these possible answers and all the possible scenarios which derived from the creation of the festival, there was also a playfulness in this imagining which I tried to harness throughout my research but had often trouble finding. 

Where do you find inspiration and motivation?

An artist who continuously inspires me on many different levels is the Afro-American fabric sculptor, dancer and performance artist Nick Cave, who is known for his full body Soundsuit. His ‘Soundsuits’, which are life-size sculptures which cover the whole body and are animated through movement, are used in live performances as well as exhibited as sculptures in museums. The element of playfulness, of colours and exuberance is very apparent in his work. Through the speculation of MASTERING PERCEPTION, I allowed myself to imagine all the connected areas to come together to create possibilities for an audience to experience what I was looking for: a connection with animals which is hardly possible in our everyday life. If we would understand animals we would certainly treat them differently and most likely the nonhuman rights organisation would get much more attention. My practice-led research is driven by a desire to connect on a different level with non-human animals. With MASTERING PERCEPTION for the first time, I imagined the artistic possibilities of how this connection I had learned for myself through my practices could be transferrable for an audience. 

Where does your interest in animals come from and how is/was it connected to speculation?

My desire to embody animals came from an urge to connect and understand animals, and ultimately to being able to see the world from a different perspective. But let me rewind. Because the truth is through the elective speculative scenarios I realised that by trying to embody animals, and to find a ways to differentiate between imitation and embodiment, I lost track of the why. Why was I trying to embody animals? The lenses of a speculative approach helped me to redefine, sharpen and questions anew what I was doing, to look at my research from more than one angle. I was too much focussing on a physical approach, as my body and movement seemed to be the ‘easiest’ for me to connect as a trained physical performer. Through developing a speculative framework for my research, I was reminded how fruitful an interdisciplinary approach can be.

In 2018 I started to work closely with a company (Shapes in Motion) in the UK who train physical performers to imitate animal movement for Motion Capture in film. This training went beyond everything I had learned so far in acting school about “animal work”. The animal training I had done until then in physical theatre and acting is used as a technique to build specific animal attributes into a human character. Through the work with movement coach and director Sarah Perry, who specialised in creature performance for animators (e.g. Motion Capture) I learned about the anatomy, different species, their social behaviour which would not necessary lead toward a human character – I was hooked. 

We as humans try to differentiate ourselves from animals in any imageable way. All too often we seem to forget that we ourselves are apes; 99 % of our DNA sequences are identical to the DNA sequences of chimpanzee! The other two primates which are our closest relatives are gorillas and bonobos (Byers, 2013). And yet we know so little about other primates. How can it be that some of the still existing animals, with which we inhabit this world seem so bizarre to us, that we question their very existence? I remember a performance experiment I conducted at ArtEZ [Turtle Stories II, note from the interviewer], in which I referred to the leafy sea dragon. If you don’t know how they look like, google! They are amazing. After the performance I got the feedback from some peers that these animals seemed so out of context and so strange, that they thought it was fictional, whereas some fictional elements in my performance where not even questioned. Reality often is far stranger than anything we imagine.

Speculating fictional scenarios once more made me aware of how limited our imagination is, how constrained by language. The words we use are bound to the language we think in, and vice versa; I can only think within language. Understanding with Judith Butler how reality is constructed by the power of discursive practices and the performative power of language, I understood through the assignments how my imagination, too, is bound to the discourses and language (Butler, 1997). For example, in the making of Augmented Reality Room, I wanted to create a whole new universe, something so far from anything we can imagine, something truly new. Of course, that is impossible! I remember listening to a podcast, learning about Robert Bakker and how his writing and his illustrations have had a huge impact on how we think about and picture prehistoric animals. I thought: YES, that’s it! We need to rethink our past in order to imagine a different future. This is also why I collaborated closely with artists like the choreographer Patricia Apergi. Together with Hikaru Fujii's she enabled archaeologists in their artwork “THE PRIMARY FACT” to understand more about an event which happened 7thcentury BC. Interdisciplinary collaboration can be really profitable not just for the artists.

If we talk about animals we also talk about colonialism. The way we see and treat animals is closely linked to colonialism, our way of being in the world as humans, using every non-human being as resources, is a colonial heritage which therefore is also part of my research. In order to use animals as a resource we must create discourses which allow us to see them as objects not as subjects (Birke, 1995). I am aware that embodying animals with my body, being perceived as a political body, has many connotations. Similarly, to the construction of animals as objects, Black bodies were constructed in the colonial discourse: “At another level, discourse on Africa is almost always deployed in the framework (or on the fringes) of a meta-text about the animal—to be exact, about the beast: its experience, its world, and its spectacle.” (Mbembe, 2001). Therefore, MASTERING PERCEPTION is also a political endeavour. I do believe that a deeper understanding with animals will change how we inhabit this world, how we treat every living being on this planet. 

Could you give us a specific example of how exactly you worked with hypotheses in the speculative scenarios’ module?

Yes, I even brought my notes with me. For example, in exercise we were asked to rephrase our artistic research into ‘what if’ questions. In the following I will give an insight into some  of the realms I discovered connections to. Rather than a linear line of thought, all ‘what if’ aspects can be sequenced in different ways:

What if I could become an animal?

What if I could embody animals?

What if I could pretend to be an animal?

This was definitely a provoking question and interesting strand for my research, and in MASTERING PERCEPTION I found a way to include my interest in mixing technology and art in order to alter and change our perception of the world. In terms of costume, we worked in the direction of the designer and writer Thomas Thwaites, who works at the intersection of speculation, technology and future research and created a costume which allowed him to move like a goat and even eat grass. He pretended to be a goat and lived with a flock of goats for one week in the Alpines. Being asked why he wanted to live like an animal he answered: “I wanted to take a holiday from being human and see the world through animal eyes.”(Pilcher, 2017). Another inspiration for costume which enabled us to go beyond our anatomical possibilities for the movement animation in the Augmented Reality Room is designer Jean-Yves Blondeau, who created a 32-wheel roller suit.

What if I was an animal?

What if I could talk to animals?

What if dead animals could talk to me? 

What if animals where my direct ancestors?

What if I knew what I was doing?

What if I was not knowing what I was doing?

What if animals could embody me?

What if I could behave like an Orang Utan?

What if I could behave like a chimpanzee?

What if I could live like a Macaque?

What if I could talk to a seal?

What if I could shapeshift from one animal to another?

What if I could communicate with animals?

People like Anna Breytenbach and various other ‘animal communicators’ can receive what animals feel and think. I was trying to find research in this field, and yet the scientific approach didnt seem to bring me very far. Interestingly enough, I learned that the question whether and how we can communicate with animals can be a lived experience and therefore rather a fact than a question. For example, once I told my father about my research, he said ‘of course it is possible to communicate with animals, also with plants and nature in general’. The grand questions which appeared so difficult for me to even find words for seemed so simple for him, as he grew up in a very different environment, close to nature and animals. This is when my research shifted from seeking knowledge only in books and through hearing from ‘experts’, to listening to stories within my own family and learn about a very different view upon the world. But this is another strand to be shared another time, and by the way, it is also the seed for our next edition of MASTERING PERCEPTION in which we will be looking at “What if we could communicate with animals”.

For the closure, could you finish this sentence, please:

My practice-led research is like…

is like trying to understand another language without knowing which language it is.

is like understanding my own bodies through other bodies.

is like listening to voices underwater.

is like translating a language with my body.

is like getting a glimpse into all these other worlds which I cannot inhabit.

is like trying to connect with someone who isn’t there.

is like playing an instrument which doesn’t exist.

Thank you Zandile for this thorough account of how it all came into being!

SPECIAL THANKS to Dr Pedro Manuel, who conducted the elective Speculative Scenarios at ArtEY Universtiy of the Arts and without whom MASTERING PERCEPTION would not have come into being. 

References Zandile mentioned during the interview:

Birke, L. (1995) ‘Exploring the Boundaries: Feminism, Animals, and Science’, in Adams, C. J. and Donovan, J. (eds) Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Butler, J. (1997) Excitable speech: a politics of the performative. New York: Routledge.

Byers, J. A. (2013) Animal behaviour: a beginner’s guide. London: Oneworld.

Mbembe, A. (2001) On the postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press (Studies on the history of society and culture, 41).