Artistic and academic attitudes toward animals are changing, reflecting an ethical evolution and a turn to sustainability in the face of ecological crises. What were normal practices just a decade ago—the confinement of animals in tanks and cages for entertainment, the use of intensive farming technologies to produce inexpensive meats, and so on—are now matters of public debate. One well-known example of today’s evolving attitudes is the public response to Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary film about captive orcas (killer whales) at SeaWorld theme parks, which prompted a public relations crisis for SeaWorld as well as a change in governmental regulations in regard to whales in captivity. My own attitudes toward animals in captivity have also changed, which I noticed as I was sitting in The Living Room at the Gardner Museum for the first time in August 2013, enjoying the welcoming space. One of the elements of Lee Mingwei’s installation was a bird in a cage. Twenty years ago, I would have been excited by the bird’s inclusion, having grown up with pet birds, but this time my reaction was different.
That afternoon, the bird was sleeping. A family with a toddler came in, and the grandfather lifted the child up to the level of the bird’s cage. The bird responded to that gesture by waking up and moving deeper into the cage, away from the people. The child was smiling, animated, making sounds, gesturing, clearly excited to see the bird. As I observed the child’s response, I appreciated his connection to nature. I also thought, “But what is the bird thinking or feeling?”
As I observed this interaction I wondered also why I cared about the bird’s thoughts and feelings. After all, the bird was there as another element intended to create a welcoming environment for me and other visitors. Lee imagined that birdsong would contribute to an aesthetic of relaxation in The Living Room.1 Indeed, I appreciated his gesture of including the bird, together with the flowers, the garden, and the comfortable furniture, in addition to the lack of an admission fee. I thought of the old proverb “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”—I did not want to seem ungrateful by questioning the artist’s gifts and his choices.
I reflect on this proverb, which originated around 400 AD, to acknowledge that for thousands of years humans have expressed hospitality through the gifting of animals, either by offering them as food or by using them for entertainment and hospitality rituals.2 Animals have played a significant role in hospitality relations among humans. But what if we were to treat all living beings with the same level of welcome we typically reserve for our fellow humans? In this chapter, I consider critical issues arising from this question based on the art project Embracing Animal by American artist and filmmaker Kathy High. I will show how serious contemplation of what it means to host animals might lead us, High’s audience, to ponder how to let animals live on their own terms. I will also discuss how High’s work inspired me to consider how Jainism, as a philosophical and ethical tradition that emphasizes human nonviolence toward and noninterference with all living beings, offers an important approach to outlining the limitations of human hospitality toward animals.
Embracing Animal and Bioart
For decades, Kathy High has engaged with the topic of communication with animals of all kinds. Her work has focused on pets such as dogs and cats (Lily Does Derrida: A Dog’s Video Essay, 2010–12), telepathic communication with horses on animal rescue farms (Animal Attraction, 2000), animals used in scientific research, such as laboratory rats (Animal Films, 2002–4), and imaginary animals from our dreams, stories, and images (Cow Film, 1979; Skin-to-Skin Dome, 2009).
High is also one of the leading figures in bioart, the recently developed genre of art making that involves the use of living substances and beings as materials and media. Bioart also encompasses the use of biotechnologies such as cloning, genetic manipulation, and tissue engineering.3 In the language of contemporary bioart and its theory, animals are “nonhuman living beings”; this terminology accentuates the commonality between humans and nonhumans. In this new field, High has often engaged with the latest scientific research to provide her own interpretation of the relationship between human and nonhuman living beings, even as many scientific researchers continue to rely on animal testing for human benefit, prompting further bioethical questions.
High’s work with transgenic rats, which began in 2004, was inspired primarily by two conceptual strands: Donna Haraway’s writing on the OncoMouse (especially in her presentation of the mouse as her “sister”) as well as her later work on “companion species,” and Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of “becoming animal.”4 High began to explore the issue of genetic modification with other bioartists as she began the process of working with transgenic animals. Adam Zaretsky, who has also used genetically modified animals in his art, was one of the artists who encouraged her.5
The transgenic laboratory rats that High chose to work with had the HLA-B27 gene, which had been introduced into the rats because of its association with autoimmune diseases, especially arthritis and autoimmune digestive disorders. The letters HLA stand for human leukocyte antigen, the presence of which indicates inflammation. In bones, for example, such inflammation leads to rheumatoid arthritis. As part of her research, High interviewed Joel Taurog, a leading expert on autoimmune diseases who specializes in arthritis and was instrumental in creating the genetically modified rats. She asked Taurog why rats, rather than mice, had been chosen for this research, and he told her that “rats are more susceptible to arthritis than mice.” Once researchers isolated the HLA-B27 gene associated with a series of autoimmune diseases, they were excited to make a product, an animal that would be “a model of predictably induced arthritis.”6 Rats with this gene modification would be susceptible to developing “desired” diseases, and researchers could then test new treatments on them.
High chose to work with these animals because they shared her own autoimmune digestive condition, and so she felt an empathic connection with them. She had an understanding of their physical symptoms not just in theory but also through her own experience. In addition to the health affliction she and the rats had in common, High enacted other strategies to become experientially connected with and bonded to the rats, including referring to them as her “siblings” and her “sisters” (in the spirit of Haraway): “I identify with the rats and feel as though we are mirroring each other. The rats and I are all retired breeders. I feel some kind of strange kinship with them. If they ache when being touched, I understand this is from fevers.”7
Embracing Animal has been a multiyear project, realized in multimedia forms, including video, installations, performance, everyday life with animals, writing, and photography. Over the course of the project, High has worked with a total of five transgenic rats, in two groups. The first group consisted of two rats from Taconic Biosciences, a biomedical supply company. High purchased them in the winter of 2004 for three hundred dollars apiece. The rats acclimated in her house before they became part of the exhibition Soft Science: Embracing Animal by Kathy High, curated by Sam Smiley at Judi Rotenberg Gallery/Videospace in Boston, which opened in March 2004. The exhibition lasted for one month. High exhibited the rats in their cage, and their movements triggered the playback of a video displayed on a monitor. The installation also included sculpted heads of rats. After the exhibition, the rats lived at High’s home for about another year before they died (below, I describe the impact of their deaths on High).
The second group, consisting of three rats also from Taconic Biosciences, arrived at High’s home in April 2005 before becoming part of the group exhibition Becoming Animal, which ran at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art from May 2005 to February 2006. Several exhibition employees and High took care of the rats at MASS MoCA until the end of the exhibition, at which time two gallery employees took the rats home and cared for them until they died.
Identifying with transgenic rats was not as easy for High as the description of her project above might make it seem. As rats, they were initially repulsive to her, and she had to engage in the affective, emotional labor of hospitality (as defined in chapter 2 in regard to Faith Wilding’s work) before the rats’ arrival. High questioned her decision to take this project on when she saw the rats for the first time:
Why did I decide to work with these rats? I am afraid of them. And I don’t know how to relate to them. They make me nauseous and queasy. They make my skin crawl. I have never touched a rat before except accidentally when they ran over me, when they crawled over me in bed at night, when they ran by my foot in the alley or the subway. They terrify me. Plague-laden animals, low to the earth, crawlers, sneaky, creepy vermin.8
It is readily apparent from these expressions of repulsion that High was aware of the difficulties of claiming an “easy” and seamless identification with transgenic rats; she had to engage in a process of “becoming sisters” rather than simply assuming some “natural” affinity with the rats from the start. It was a “strange,” rather than a “natural,” kinship. High had to go out of her way to identify with the rats to overcome her disgust of their texture, their smell, and the sounds they made; later, she wrote that even the memory of them still “creeps her out.” The artist was mindful that these were animals that she as a human could identify with because of their transgenic constitution with human genetic material: “They are extensions, transformers, transitional combined beings that resonate with me in ways that other animals cannot because of that small addition of human DNA.”9 Keenly aware of the dangers of anthropocentrism, High was also particular about distinguishing between her pets and the transgenic rats: “I . . . know they do not know how to behave as pets. They are not pets.”10 She acknowledged that the rats could not easily be domesticated into the economies of her home because they were not even familiar with the conventions of such behaviors; they “do not know how to behave as pets.” These rats were always already aberrant, unlike her pets at home.
In her work with the rats, High framed her artistic intention with reference to the larger question of the “human–animal encounter.” The artist had used animals in some of her earlier artworks, mostly working with her own cats and dogs and even sometimes involving animal communication/telepathy specialists. High’s work with these rats represented a significant departure from her previous works. In her earlier works with/on animals, she had investigated the anthropomorphic projections of human fantasies and anxieties (Animal Attraction, 2000) and had created a series of video works in which she “collaborated” with animals on specific situations embodying the human–animal encounter (Animal Films, 2002–3). In Embracing Animal, she made the act of living with the laboratory rats the focus of the work; the media and material outcomes that resulted from these encounters were secondary aspects of the project.
High’s work began with her genuine desire to rescue “laboratory animals” by hosting them in her house instead (hosting here includes sheltering, caring for, playing with, and feeding). She conceived of her home as a refuge for these creatures, a space away from the trauma of experimentation. The artist tried to be prepared to be attentive to their smallest needs, whatever they might be. She did not want to impose the already fixed rules of the household on the rats; rather, she approached their arrival as a collaboration: “We will be a closed system, the rats and I, reading and reacting to each other, defining our conditions. We will collaborate and make up our own rules.”11 When asked to clarify the nature/substance of this “collaboration,” High responded: “They [the rats] act; they wanted a lot of attention; they became very friendly and demanding; they would want to play; not eat certain foods; on my end, collaboration was awareness and observation; I do believe in animal telecommunication, there is a kind of communication going in-between; mindfulness in every moment; like in a love relationship; it is not verbal.”12
The artist seemed simultaneously fascinated with the rats because they were like her (with regard to their gene mutation) and aware of how they differed from her and from her pet family (as pests, parasites); she also saw them as a third kind, between the living and the artificial—animal cyborgs, human-made transformers, born of a draconian experimental procedure (only 2–3 percent of transgenic pregnancies are successful). They were her strange “kin,” her “companions,” her guests of a new kind, neither pets nor pests. In addition to reckoning with this “strange kinship” with the rats, initially inspired by ideas of identification with them because they suffered in ways similar to her own suffering, High seemed methodologically and philosophically committed to ensuring that her project would be largely for the benefit of the individual rats.
The Claim to a Strange Kinship
High’s work enables me to ask whether it makes sense to apply human terms of hospitality to animals. What does it mean, exactly, to include animals in—or exclude them from—our ideas of hospitality? High’s work demonstrates how our individual and cultural answers to this question are built into the definitions of human and nonhuman beings. These are the definitions that frame human and animal relationships. In the biological sciences, humans are defined as animals (“heterotrophic, motile, having specialized sensory organs, lacking cell wall, and growing from a blastula during embryonic development”).13 But, unlike humans, nonhuman animals are used for food in most human societies. Animals, like the transgenic rats that High rescued, are also used for scientific and medical research. At the same time, humans share this planet with animals and often find themselves, whether they want to or not, having a kinship with animals, as explored by Donna Haraway.
Jacques Derrida has framed the question of human–animal relations as one of unconditional welcome:
Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.14
Here, Derrida wants us to say “yes” to any animal who “turns up.” This passage has become an important point of departure for those who celebrate “hosting the animal.” Thus, David Clark claims that “radical possibilities . . . can be opened up when the reach of the ethical question who is my neighbor? is widened to include nonhuman acquaintances.”15 Many authors agree with him, that we need to expand the ethics of hospitality to the animal as an extension and extrapolation of Levinas’s and Derrida’s concepts of “excessive” responsibility and “radical” hospitality to the other. What does such hospitality mean, especially in practice? Perhaps High’s Embracing Animal project is one answer.
Two interpretations of Derrida’s works on hospitality and the animal are instructive here. In his thought-provoking book This Is Not Sufficient: An Essay on Animality and Human Nature in Derrida, Leonard Lawlor proposes that we must receive animals unconditionally, even if they remain the “food” of hospitality, both divine and secular. Lawlor argues, after Derrida, that “it is necessary that sacrifice itself be sacrificed. Instead of the substitution that defines sacrifice, there must be a kind of saving by means of replacement or even by means of misplacement. In the space that there is (which is neither the world of forms nor the sensible world), we must receive the animals.”16 Oscillating between hospitality as “not capturing” (the least that we can ask for in acts of hosting the animal) and hospitality as “giving the animal all of one’s home and oneself” (the most that we can ask for), Lawlor calls for a “receptivity” to animals today as a radical departure from the current practice of capturing animals for food, clothing, experimentation, entertainment, and other forms of appropriation.
For Kelly Oliver, Derrida’s concept of hospitality as transposed to animals requires an inquiry into what constitutes “animal ethics.” Oliver argues that we must be able to think of animal ethics through a notion of animal kinship, where the focus is not on what makes animals different from or the same as humans. After all, she stresses, animals and humans are different and not different at the same time. What interests Oliver is the “relationship between the human and the animal, humans and animals.”17 In her strategic articulation of humans and animals in the plural, she seeks to multiply differences and make it impossible for these universal categories to stand in opposition to each other in their singularity. Oliver calls for an ethics of “relationality and responsivity” based on an emerging awareness of the interdependence between animals and humans: “Once we recognize that kinship is an impossible ideal, and a violent bloody ideal at that, we may be open to the possibility of ‘strange kinship’ based not on blood or generation but on a shared embodiment and the gestures of love and friendship among living creatures made possible by bodies coexisting in a world on which we all depend.”18
Oliver sees the recognition of this “strange kinship” with animals as the basis for questioning the “purity” of our conventional ethics toward the animal, enabling us to redefine it not as a question of pure intention but, rather, as a call for unconditional hospitality—a notion related to Derrida’s own call for “unconditional hospitality,” of saying yes even before we know who or what might arrive. Oliver calls for “sustainable ethics,” in which unconditional sharing and generosity are central in our response to the “environmental urgency” of our times.19 But how can one say yes unconditionally in hospitality to the animal without anthropomorphizing or simply restricting the animal to the anthropological dimensions of human welcome?
Among humans, hospitality is already fraught. Fears and anxieties often highlight the unequal distribution of power and resources, which many of the artworks discussed in this book underscore and problematize. Inequalities in power and resources between humans and animals make the human desire to host animals even more suspect. Derrida himself warns against the seemingly “logical” inclusion of animals in human hospitality relations. His warning issues from the recognition that when animals are welcomed, this welcome takes place not only on human terms but also on what we consider to be human property (be it a house, farm, nature reserve, or country), with grave consequences for animals. It cannot be otherwise because the definition of hospitality is based on the question of “place (house, hotel, hospital, hospice, family, city, nation, language, etc.)” and its oikonomia, “the law of the household.”20 To offer unconditional hospitality is to “give the new arrival all of one’s home and oneself, to give him or her one’s own, our own, without asking a name, a compensation, or the fulfillment of even the smallest condition.”21 However, the challenge is in identifying who decides what is “one’s own” and “our own.” Derrida’s intention here is to underline clearly the inherent connection between the very definition of hospitality and the question of right and, therefore, of duty and responsibility. Who has the right and the duty to give? It is especially critical here to note that the “who” is a (human) subject. Derrida notes:
It is a human right, this right to hospitality and for us it already broaches an important question, that of the anthropological dimension of hospitality or the right to hospitality: what can be said of, indeed can one speak of, hospitality toward the non-human, the divine, for example, or the animal or vegetable; does one owe hospitality, and is that the right word when it is a question of welcoming—or being made welcome by—the other or the stranger [l’étranger] as god, animal or plant, to use those conventional categories?22
In considering the question of hosting the animal, Derrida points to the need to reevaluate the very notion of hosting in its “anthropological dimension” in order to accommodate an otherness that is nonhuman. Can we imagine a less anthropomorphic and anthropological concept of hospitality? If so, how? Derrida does not offer an answer—he only points to the question and the need to consider such questions.
My answer to the question of whether we, as humans, can imagine such a concept of hospitality—one that is not from our own (human) perspective only—is it depends. It depends on our ability as humans to reorient our ideas about hospitality to include the animal, and on what we are ready to do for the sake of the animal, including, potentially, letting go of our own lifestyles, habits, tastes—even homes, lands, and property. For me, High’s project provides a positive answer to this question. High rescued the rats from a damaging environment to lessen their suffering and provide them with a good life. She rejected the option of releasing them into the “natural environment” because they were already sick and did not know how to survive on their own; they would have died quickly. High’s work provided a better life for the rats than they would have had in a biomedical facility’s small cages. High acknowledges that her work came about as a result of the rats’ maltreatment as laboratory animals, rather than from a desire on her part to create a happy situation of hospitality between humans and animals.
For others, the choice of using animals for, as, and in “art” is suspect by itself, even when the use is ostensibly for educational, critical, or other “better” purposes that seek to lessen animal suffering. In 2014, after I shared an article about High’s work with a prominent art critic in the world of bioart, he expressed to me his unease with High’s acceptance of the invitation to exhibit the rats at a gallery. From his point of view, presenting animals at an exhibition was worse than hosting them at home, because an exhibition space showcases artists in their professional capacity, which benefits their careers. His logic seemed to be that the animals were being exploited for the professional career of an artist and the entertainment of the artist’s audience, which was similar to how whales had been exploited at SeaWorld. This awareness of the dangers of exploitation is why I was uncomfortable in the Gardner Museum when I became aware that the only reason the bird was in The Living Room was to sing for me and other humans visiting the installation. I did not want to be hosted at the expense of another living being, another creature who was put in a cage.
This critic is not alone in being suspicious about displaying animals in art. High herself was not sure whether to say yes to the curator who wanted to show the rats as part of his exhibition. I share the more general concern regarding artists’ use of animals and other living beings (for me, plants are included in this group for reasons explained below, related to Jain principles) for the sole purpose of making a statement about the human condition or some other grand point about humans’ relations with other, nonhuman living beings. I have seen enough frightened or dead animals and dying plants at various exhibitions of bioart to become suspicious about the artists’ claims to sustainability and human–animal companionship and kinship of the sort that Haraway, Derrida, Oliver, and Lawlor describe. Why should animals suffer for the human desire to be more ethical?
I did not share this particular critic’s concern, however, which he expressed mostly in relation to the exhibition of the rats at MASS MoCA. To understand why I did not, I considered what was different about High’s use of the rats at the exhibition compared to other times when I had seen exhibited animals. The answer came to me when I realized that learning for many years about High’s work, especially its elements of hospitality, had tuned me in to the rats’ point of view. High spent hours with me during my visits to her studio and in interviews describing the rats’ behaviors, their likes and dislikes, what kinds of touch they preferred, how they liked to play with her, what kinds of environments (cage, air temperature) they preferred. High observed the rats’ reactions and health and employed others to assist in their care, such as a veterinarian and exhibition staff.
Over the course of our conversations, the rat’s point of view shifted to become the main point of view. And from that perspective, the concept of a “gallery” did not make much sense. It did not have the connotations of “elitism” and “exploitation” in terms of spectatorship (of people coming to watch animals as in a zoo) that it had for the art historian and critic who raised the issue, and as it also had for High when she initially questioned whether to exhibit the rats outside her home environment. When I imagined life from the perspective of a rat, the difference between the gallery and High’s home meant something else, and it was clear that the rat’s perspective was different from that of an art historian. For a rat, it was more important to have an environment that was as good as or even better than the environment the home provided. I must also emphasize that this discussion happened among we humans. We were the ones who seemed to be concerned with the gallery/home separation—the issue may not have mattered to the rat at all.
From a rat’s or a bird’s point of view, having a “better deal”—in terms of shelter, food, and social interaction, whether with one’s own kind or humans—might be a good reason for being present at an exhibition. Is this an ideal place? No. But is it a bad place to be, if the gallery provides a better environment than home could? Another no. Let me be clear: we humans, not the animals, are the ones who fight over and debate all these ideas. High’s rats are long gone, but with her work the artist reoriented me, one of her audience members, to the sick transgenic rat’s point of view. In the following brief section, I, as a human being, attempt to represent what I imagine one of High’s rats was thinking and feeling throughout the Embracing Animal project. I base my imagining of these thoughts and feelings on High’s documentation of her work in videos and photographs, my interviews with the artist, High’s own writings on the topic of her hosting the rats, and my observations at one of High’s exhibitions of this project.
The thoughts and feelings expressed below are my own. Though my writing here from a rat’s point of view might seem to be tongue-in-cheek, it is not my intention to be funny. I consider this imaginative exercise to be another way in which my writing might expand the impact of High’s Embracing Animal project. Whatever it is worth, I hope that this “diary” will serve as a modest tribute to High’s gesture and desire to host individual, concrete animals in her life, to an extent that most of us—myself included—have not considered before this work, and that brought me to read Jain writings about nonviolence to all living beings and thus engage with them more systematically. I make assumptions here about how rats perceive the world and what is happening around them; hence, what follows is an argument about High’s work. It reflects the lessons I have learned from the artist, one of which led me to consider that imagining how the rats felt at each moment of the human–animal encounter was helpful to High and could be helpful to me, and to my readers as well, as a way to experience her work more fully.
A Diary of Flower
I am a rat. My name is Flower. I was born in a science laboratory. I was genetically modified with human DNA to develop an autoimmune disease so that humans could test their new drugs on me. One day I was taken out of my cage—what scientists call “the animal station unit”—and placed in another cage, together with a second rat, later named Echo, who is now my friend. We were taken outside the building for the first time in my life. The air was cold, and the world was much larger than I ever imagined it. (The small laboratory was all I had known until then.)
I don’t remember much about being transported. Stress was part of my everyday life. Stress makes autoimmune diseases worse, so I ended up shivering the whole time. I also threw up. I wonder how much a lab rat’s stress affects the drug testing results. But who would think of that? Being alone in a cage increases my stress further because we rats are very social animals (as scientists often say to each other). I just wanted to rest. I was so stressed and felt sick; my skin was itching and my eyes were burning.
When we arrived at our destination, a human opened the door and introduced herself to the person who carried me in the cage—the human’s name was Kathy High. She immediately turned her attention to me and my rat companion. She looked directly into our eyes and whispered “Hello . . .” Compared to other humans I have encountered, she looked less sure about herself; her gestures were muted, and she held her body back as if she did not know how to lift the cage. She was not wearing a white laboratory gown, which relaxed me for some reason.
I immediately noticed there were other nonhumans in her space. Later I learned these were her dogs and cats. They were curious. Their noises got my fellow traveler and me really scared and stressed out again.
After observing us for a few days, High named us. When humans include animals in their lives, especially when they welcome us into their homes, they give us names. Giving names to animals makes them feel good because they give names to each other, and hence, this elevates us to their level of uniqueness and identity. This is how I became Flower and my cage companion became Echo.
High then moved us out of our temporary small plastic cage into a larger cage that she called the “penthouse.” It was much bigger than what we were used to (I later learned that in human terms it was 2 feet by 4 feet), just for two of us. Inside the cage I found the best food I had ever had, all kinds of treats like cabbage and sweets. We were there for a long time without being subjected to any testing. No white coats, no drugs, a large cage—what kind of experiment was this? I felt like I was in heaven.
I quickly figured out that High’s dogs and cats were not there as part of any experiment, and High did not allow them to disturb us very much. That calmed me down even more.
The second day, High started talking to me and Echo in a strange, calm voice. I also noticed she could barely glance at us, as if she were disgusted with how we looked. Then why was she trying? I didn’t understand what was happening, but I really appreciated her effort as she tried to look at us without getting nauseated. Unlike the scientists back at the lab, High did not have the habitual skill of “handling” us deftly. She was hesitant in her gestures. This was totally new to me. I felt taken care of rather than “studied” like a lab rat, and I was not sure how to react. I suspected that this, too, was some kind of experiment, but without my lab routine I felt anxious. I trembled and refused to eat or drink for two days, although the food looked fresh and there was plenty of it.
One day the cage door opened and High stuck her hand in, drawing it near to me. Was this the end? I thought. This was how it usually ended: a human hand reaches out to you, into your small space. I had seen it happen many times at my old lab. But this time, for whatever reason, the human just carefully touched my tail. I moved it away, but the feeling of touch was pleasant, and after a few seconds I let her slowly move her fingers along my tail. Wow. So pleasant.
Those who know what kind of treatment rats like will sometimes massage our tails and bodies. After that first time, High massaged our bodies constantly. She also employed a veterinarian to learn our preferences, our likes and dislikes. Usually, the care we animals receive is just enough so that we can serve the humans in whatever way they want us to serve: as pets, as food, as guardians, as hunting “game.”
I finally learned what was going on when I overheard High talking about us on the phone. She said she was hosting us at her home to provide us with a refuge from the lab at the end of our lives. She felt she needed to do this because she has an autoimmune problem similar to the one we have. Science is all we learned about in the lab, and I am familiar with “science-speak.” I understood our genetic research identification, “model HLA-B27.” I am the model HLA-B27, and my creation at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center was funded by Harold Simmons, who himself suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, or AS, a form of arthritis. I find it perplexing that one human with an autoimmune disease enabled my sickness and suffering to help himself, while another human with an autoimmune disease, who potentially benefited from Simmons’s original investment with new drugs, spent several months of her life massaging my tail. Does it mean the times are changing and more humans will welcome us in order to heal from previous injuries inflicted by other humans?
I did not question why humans used us rodents in their research, because I already knew from scientists’ conversations in the experimental lab that we are excluded, together with birds, from the Animal Welfare Act. This allows American researchers using rodents to bypass regulations governing the use of other animals for scientific research; because of this, we are much cheaper and easier to use than other animals, and we now constitute 95 percent of all laboratory animals used for experimentation. Until recently, no one seemed to care about us, but that has been changing (slowly) because of the work of animal rights activists with organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, as well as the advocacy of some scientists who argue against the need for animal testing.
After some time at High’s home, I came to the conclusion that even if Echo and I were going to die a violent death (is there another kind, in a lab or in a cage?), it would be okay for us to enjoy ourselves and not think about it for now. Our new owner provided each of us with our own little house inside our large cage, a custom-built tunnel that humans think we enjoy (it’s good for hiding from them, for sure, to have some privacy), and many toys, such as balls of dry paper.
I like the sound and feel of dry paper, and I crawled all over the paper balls just to make that sound. The best times were when High played with us, tossing those paper balls and then letting us move them around, enjoying the sounds and touch. She certainly spent time with us, entertaining us, making us feel welcomed.
After a while Echo and I stopped guessing why High was doing all of this for us. Life was good. I ate much better. I put on weight. My sleep improved. When we had constant eye infections from the human disease gene, High called our veterinarian and he administered medicine to our eyes—the same medicine that was tested on our sisters and brothers in the lab, but now it made my eyes feel better. I also overheard High on the phone informing her friends that the massages she gave us were to relax us. Remember, stress makes our immune systems falter, and then everything hurts more. She was doing something to address this.
When High traveled out of town she worried we might be lonely, so she paid people to come and play with us. At the same time, as she told her friends on the phone, it was important to her to distinguish between us, the rats, and her pets. I always felt like we were more guests for her, while her pets were her family. Sometimes we could see that High did not feel well. I wished I could help her.
Hosting Matilda, Tara, and Star on Jain Terms
The imagined monologue above demonstrates High’s hospitality as an example of the strange kinship that has grown out of the sad maltreatment of animals for the sake of humans. More people had the opportunity to reflect on the rats’ situation and High’s care of them and formulate their own responses to her work when High exhibited the rats as part of an important show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Becoming Animal. Nato Thompson, the exhibition’s curator, approached High with a proposal to exhibit a new group of rats. Thompson’s idea was to bring together twelve artists to “explore the closing gap between human and animal existence.”23 The exhibition opened on May 29, 2005.
The title of the exhibition, Becoming Animal, and the name that High subsequently adopted for her art project, Embracing Animal, refer to and evoke the title of the section “Becoming Animal” in Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In this book, Guattari and Deleuze use “becoming” to refer to the symbolic enacting of a position by those who are marginalized in a society, with two of their most famous examples being “becoming animal” and “becoming woman.” Thompson’s exhibition questioned this abstract, philosophical becoming by raising questions about concrete animals and concrete humans: those affected by mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and those affected by technology, as in the model HLA-B27 that High exhibited.
After grappling with her doubts about the exploitation of animals for the sake of art, which were similar to those expressed by the critic mentioned above, High purchased three new rats and made new videos and an installation for the exhibition. Collectively, this project and the first project High did with rats in Boston are part of the same multiyear project known as Embracing Animal.
High and the three new rats (Matilda, Tara, and Star) benefited greatly from High’s previous experience with Flower and Echo. From the very beginning, High indicated that her decision to exhibit the rats in the MASS MoCA show would depend on whether the rats’ needs would be met—this outweighed any consideration of her needs as a professional artist. Because the lungs of transgenic rats are already damaged by inflammation at birth, these animals need very clean air to thrive—air that is cleaner than what one would normally find in a building used for public art exhibitions. The air quality in the museum’s gallery was tested, and it was found to be not clean enough to keep the rats well. High requested the installation of a new ventilation system that could meet the rats’ needs, and the museum complied; the new system was paid for by exhibition funds.
Next, the rats’ house inside the gallery needed to be large enough, with both individual and communal spaces where the rats could rest from human contact, if they chose. In response to this request from High, the gallery oversaw the construction of what the artist has called another penthouse, a space “with various environments: providing places to climb, to hide, to be invisible and unthreatened by the public; lots of ‘enrichment’; designed to be easily maintained; also designed to quarantine any rat who became sick from the others.”24
Being social animals, Matilda, Tara, and Star often came out of the depths of their house’s private areas to play with the audience members and the curatorial staff who cared for them during the ten months of the exhibition. High has noted that the gallery’s night watchman, Mike Wilber, developed an especially “close bond with the rats.”25
With her decision to invite other humans into her circle of “rat welcome” by exhibiting the rats, High not only enabled the rats to be better welcomed and better taken care of but also allowed more humans to learn how to host rats by redistributing their care. The rats were less alone than they had been in her house and did not have her dogs and cats disturbing them. The museum gallery was, arguably, a better space than High’s home for welcoming these sick transgenic animals: they had better air, more people to care for them, and less disturbance from other animals.
High admits that she was at first “terrified” of her rat houseguests because they were “ugly vermin.” Transgenic rats are usually “nude,” or hairless, so they look even uglier than ordinary street rats or pet rats when judged by the usual standards of beauty and hierarchies of cuteness. How many “cute rat” videos go viral on the Internet, compared to videos of dogs, cats, and even sloths? Would it be an exaggeration to assert that more people care about the suffering of the captive whales depicted in Blackfish than about the suffering of laboratory rats like Matilda, Tara, and Star? High’s work encouraged audiences to view these sick, “ugly” rodents differently by showing them being hosted in a space for rats similar to what Lee Mingwei envisioned for people in his Living Room project: a comfortable and welcoming space, above and beyond basic.
In the remainder of this chapter I explore the suggestion that hospitality should be extended to all animals, whether they are pets or raised for meat, whether we feel an affinity with them or not. I examine what certain ecologically friendly ideas mean in practice, such as the notion that all nonhuman living beings are either our guests on this earth or hosts who welcome us as part of “nature,” the ecosystem in which we are embedded.
The work High did with rats for her Embracing Animal project—hosting the rats for months and changing human lives for the sake of the rats’ needs as guests—might make very little sense or even feel odd and repulsive as a form of “art.” To better understand why High did what she did, I turned to the ancient tradition known as Jainism.
High believes in offering hospitality to all kinds of animals, a philosophy similar to the Jains’ belief in nonharm to all living beings. Growing up, I heard the expression “They won’t kill a fly,” but I did not know that “they” referred to Jains. Jainism, like Buddhism, arose from ascetic movements in ancient India, and it shares with Buddhism the principle of life without harm, Ahimsa. Jainism goes further than many other traditions and cultures in extending this principle and its corresponding practices of nonharm to all living beings, not just humans.
For Jains, going out of one’s way to heal or care for injured animals is a rather normal occurrence, a practice of everyday life. Jains started the first animal shelters in India. Rather than pitting humans and animals against each other and arguing about which has more value (if humans have more value, then hospitality to them would be more urgent than hospitality to animals), Jains propose that extending the practice of carefulness to animals logically fulfills a principle of compassion and striving toward a life without harm to any living beings. What is carefulness for Jains? According to Jain ethics, every time one embarks on any action, such as moving around one’s environment or choosing one’s profession, one needs to be as careful as possible, so as not to harm other living beings. Thus, “a monk who forms no resolutions and is possessed of carefulness, should wander about, giving no offence to any creature.” A person should strive to give offense “to no living beings, whether they move or not, whether above or below or on earth, by putting a strain upon them by his hands or feet.”26
Humans “made” Echo, Tara, Star, Matilda, and Flower fully dependent on human care, and High in her welcome acknowledged that creation by assuming responsibility for their care, not for her own sake, but for theirs. Jains support such “lessening of harm” to animals, but Jain ethics suggest another possibility of what a human welcome to animals could be as a general principle: leaving animals alone. Leaving animals alone and not interfering in their lives takes the human factor, with its potential for harm, out of the picture. This is the first principle that explains why Jains, especially Jain monks, try to avoid encountering animals as much as possible, such as by not traveling after dark (to avoid hitting them on the road, for example) and by covering their mouths when walking outside (so as not to accidentally ingest any flying insects). The second principle entails the lessening of harm done to animals by other humans, such as by caring for injured animals in shelters or at home, or buying animals’ freedom from butchers and zoos. High’s actions in her art project abided by this principle.
The third principle for Jains (I am simplifying here for brevity) is not to have desiring thoughts about animals, for example, wanting to be with them, because that kind of “love” for them more often than not leads to their confinement in cages or to other forms of human capture and enclosure. That is why Jains do not have pets or farm animals. Domesticated animals, pets or not, serve many purposes for humans. Freeing animals from domestication includes freeing human minds from rationalizing why domestication is good for animals (for example, through the notion of “companion species”). Leave animals alone in your mind, too, say Jains. Attachment to them leads to their suffering.
High’s decision not to make the rats a part of her “family,” like her pets, seems to me to be one such strategy of nonattachment. For almost two years High took care of the rats, hosting them at home and then in the gallery, without capturing them in her mind as “hers.” High’s work led me to discoveries of Jain thinking, as I see many affinities between the two. Reference to Jain principles is still very novel in bioart discussions and contemporary debates regarding animals (Derrida, Haraway, Lawlor, and Oliver do not mention Jainism, for example); that is why I believe comparing High’s work with these principles can be fruitful.
Unlike scholars and artists involved in philosophical and creative explorations of “becoming animal,” animal rights activists have advocated for Jain principles of nonharm to animals for a long time. For them, Ahimsa is not a rare idea; rather, it is one of their founding principles. At the exhibition Becoming Animal, animal rights organizations were represented by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which initially protested against High’s project. But several weeks after the exhibition opened, when PETA representatives had taken the time to learn more about the project and how the rats were taken care of, they agreed that the conditions of the three rats at MASS MoCA were excellent. Exhibition leaders and MASS MoCA enabled this rare conversation between bioartists and PETA. A continuation of this novel dialogue in the bioart community would be encouraged by greater attention to Jain thought.27
At the end of the exhibition, which lasted ten months, the rats were adopted by curatorial staff, who took them home and cared for them until they died, cradled in soothing human hands. Ten months is a long time in transgenic rat years. In laboratories, these animals are usually killed during experiments so that their tissue samples can be examined and documented. The fact that High’s rats lived longer lives with less suffering supports my argument of a connection to the Jain principle of lessening harm to animals in those situations when “leaving them alone” is a more damaging option—for them. This is not some kind of exotic choice. During conversations with many biomedical scientists, I encountered at least one who left the field altogether because she decided she did not want to kill rats anymore at the end of each experiment.28 Is this an excessive response? New developments in bioethical approaches indicate that it is not. For example, in 2008 Switzerland’s Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology released a report suggesting that plants should be treated with dignity in scientific experimentation and not simply exploited for human needs.29 One could say that this movement still acts based on human principles and not for the sake of plants or animals; thus, it is “tainted” by human interest. From my point of view, these arguments go back to Kester’s notion of theoretical purism, discussed in the Introduction. Finding a strategy for ending experimentation on plants and animals has become an ongoing goal of a number of important biomedical research centers; these efforts go beyond theoretical arguments for and against.
High’s work led me to a serious consideration of the Jain ideas that withdrawal from nonhuman living beings is the best way for humans to “host” such beings, and the second best is to help those who have already been injured by humans. In that respect, an ideal of hosting would be “letting go,” weaning humans off their reliance on other living beings for food and attachment. Humans do not need to capture and study animals to “know” what they want. As feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon states, we in fact know what animals want from us: “to be let alone.”30 This knowledge is not based on enacting and sustaining relations with animals, but rather on a foundational commitment to equality of all living beings, so that one does not produce a “veritable hierarchy of life.” MacKinnon’s position on animals, in its feminist questioning, allies well with the Jain notion of animals being of a living soul, or jiva: “But fundamentally: Why is just existing alive not enough? . . . Men as such never had to hurt or to suffer to have their existence validated and harms to them be seen as real. It is because they are seen as valid and real to begin with that their suffering registers and they have rights against its harm.”31
I came to The Living Room in the Gardner Museum after I had been transformed by High’s work, which had led me to read more about the Jain philosophy of nonharm toward all living beings.32 Getting to the rat’s point of view is not easy. It means developing a sensibility beyond the usual sense of what is a “normal” human welcome of an animal. High continued to consider how she could, as an artist, evoke such sensibility in her audience. The results were extreme close-ups of the rats, as if High wanted to enable viewers to experience what she felt when touching them, feeding them, massaging their tails, playing with them; all these multiple gestures of building intimacy were represented (see Plate 5). Is it possible to know how this felt for Flower? No. Could the resulting images be seen as invasive? Yes. But High did not give up imagining how to express her hosting. Her active imagining of the rat’s point of view and artistic intention to form a strange kinship with the rats had the main purpose of lessening the harm done to them. I end this chapter with a few more words from Flower, imagining her looking down on us from a rat’s paradise. In the same spirit as in the earlier monologue, I do not pretend to know what the rat was thinking. My writing is purposefully fictional. This is a modest attempt to follow High’s artwork and to expand human welcoming sensibility.
Flower’s Final Comments
In conclusion, I want to say that as a rat, I could not believe that a human being took such good care of me, took me into her house, and asked for nothing from me in return. I forgot to be terrified of human bodies, their hands reaching out to me in the cage. Would I want this life if I had a choice? Compared to being free, no. Compared to being in the lab, yes.
Do I remember my own death? Certainly, I do. Kathy was there. She held me in her hands, and tears were slowly flowing down her cheeks. Who would guess it was the same Kathy who was initially disgusted with me? Look at her now—she was embracing me. She said, “Goodbye, Flower, sleep and do not worry about anything.” I was two hundred years old in transgenic lab rat years. My death was as good as it could be for a lab rat. Goodbye, Kathy.