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Asta Gröting
Berlin Facades
Sternberg Press, KINDL, 2017 
(Ed) Andreas Friedler 
ISBN: 978-3-956793-56-1 

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Asta Gröting
Die Geschichte der Werkzeuge ist das aufgeschlagene Buch der menschlichen Psychologie/ The History of Tools is the open Book of Human Psychology
VfmK, 2017
(Ed) Kunstraum Dornbirn, Thomas Häusle 
ISBN: 978-3-903153-88-2

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Asta Gröting
Asta Gröting
Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010 
(Ed) Brigitta Kuster 
ISBN: 978-3-86560-786-7

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i) A small dog bounds energetically across the screen through a meadow of tall grass. Captured in slow motion, we take in every loll of the dog’s tongue, every swoosh of its tail, every ruffle of its mottled white and grey-brown fur. Cut to a close-up of a wolf: dark coated, still and observant, surveying the activity with fixed brown eyes. A soundtrack of a breathy wind instrument accompanies the moving images: a span of higher notes for the dog and a narrower, lower range for the wolf. The little dog — pale blue eyes, all reckless commotion — springs towards an outstretched hand. Saliva drips from its tongue as it laps up the dog food the hand is offering. The wolf remains still. It turns slowly, brown eyes locking onto the small grey dog. The dog approaches, incautious. It jumps up, reaching its paws up towards the wolf’s head. Patient, expressionlewss, the wolf doesn’t react. Their noses touch and the wolf nudges the dog back. A stand-off ensues, nose to nose: a staged encounter between two creatures. Both belong to the same root species, but their differing modes of behaviour are evidence of a divergent evolutionary path. The element that marks their split destinies is the hand that appears onscreen, from which the little dog eats. Human intervention marks the boundary between wary observance and the foolish, unimpeded trust that goes with a life of dependency. 

In the dramatic narrative trajectory of Wolf and Dog, a 10 minute film by artist Asta Gröting, the climax revolves around food. In the next scene, a different wolf, tawney this time with amber eyes, catches chunks of raw meat in its mouth. When one piece drops from its jaws, in a slow-motion tumble to the ground, the little dog moves in without a moment’s hesitation. For an instant of terrible tension, the animals’ eyes meet on the piece of meat now lying in the grass. The little dog, transfixed by this morsel, leaps forward, jaws open to attack. The bass clarinet trembles, its accelerated notation anticipating conflict. Will the wolf — at least twice the dog’s size — retaliate? Will it attack this silly creature? Will there be blood? But no, the wolf simply noses him back, paws padding, asserting its size advantage but remaining majestic and patient as the little dog nips at its cheeks. In a reversal of expectations, the domesticat- ed animal is the aggressor here while the wolf, calmly aware of its superiority, maintains its cool. Finally it retreats, a chunk of meat clasped firmly in its jaws, to the dark forest on the edge the meadow. 

ii) »Animals are always the observed,« writes John Berger in his seminal essay Why Look at Animals. »The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance.« In the past we took our children to zoos or safari parks to look at the animals but, as Berger writes, these occasions are very often disappointing. 

»The animals seldom live up to the adult’s memories, whilst to the children they appear, for the most part, unexpectedly lethargic and dull. (As frequent as the calls of animals in a zoo are the cries of children demanding: Where is he? Why doesn’t he move?
Is he dead?)« 

The zoo is in fact »a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.« The double-bind of the human-animal relation- ship is that any of our close observations of animals are predicated on the modifying effects that human presence has on their behaviour. As Jane Goodall’s pioneering research into chimpanzees showed, for any such observations to be salient, the animals must be observed within their natural habitat and unthreatened by human presence. It is also a fact, for instance, that female Black Widow spiders do not generally devour their mates, as their reputation has it, unless that mating has occurred in captivity. 

So it is with wolves: their bad reputation is due to behaviour seen through the small end of a relational telescope. The wolf, or canis lupus, has existed as a species for three million years. They were the first animals to be domesticated. Wherever humans settled there were wolves, or later dogs. The exact beginnings of its domestication are contested, but some studies suggest that the relation between humans and wolves began during the Ice Age in Siberia around 23,000 years ago. In the interim, over 400 separate breeds of dogs developed, but the wolf still exists too, alongside its domesticated cousins. This species is unusual in that one fork of development did not overwrite or eradicate the other, as homo sapiens did with the hominin. 

The wolf’s bad reputation is rooted in farmers and fairy tales. Its perceived aggression is the result of man-made changes in the wolf’s natural habitat. As its natural prey declined, it was forced to survive by preying on livestock. Many bad wolves appear in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, gobbling up animals and humans alike. »The wolf is carnivore incarnate,« writes Angela Carter in her revisionist fable The Company of Wolves. »He’s as cunning as he is ferocious; once he’s had a taste of flesh then nothing else will do.« Wolves in Europe were systematically eradicated in the 19 and 20 centuries and became an endangered species in 1979. 

iii) The dramatic scene of narrowly averted conflict presented in Asta Gröting’s short film owes its heightened tension, which crescendos to an almost unbearable pitch, to two material factors. The first is technological: Gröting shot the encounter on a high-speed camera capable of taking one thousand images per second, whereas the human eye takes in only fifty images per second. As such, the scenario unfolds in a super slow-motion which offers hyper-realistic attention to detail. We take in every ruffle of the animals’ luxurious fur, each slight breeze that ripples the grass, the lascivious loll of the dog’s pink tongue, or the threads of saliva dripping from the moist, mealy interior of the wolf’s mouth. This incredible richness of detail immerses us in the moment and keeps our attention cleaved to the screen as the action unfolds. The tremendously slow pace performs an almost forensic dissec- tion of the two animals’ movements. We follow their actions millisecond by millisecond without knowing how they will resolve. The camera’s technology enables this hyper-analytic attention, but it is the canny editing that carves a narrative out of the speculative encounter between two animals. 

The second element that adds to the film’s tense atmosphere is the analogue, improvised soundtrack which marries the extenuated image with a deep, breathy baritone sound. Composed and performed by Juliana Perdigão on the contra- bass clarinet, the natural sound amplifies the natural aspects of the pictured scenario: you can hear the musician’s breath as well as the occasional clicking of fingers on airholes. But the soundtrack also has cultural resonances, most acutely in recalling that other musical encounter with a wolf: Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf from 1936. In this cautionary tale set to music, each character is represented by a different musical instrument: the duck is a clarinet, the bird a flute, Peter is an uplifting carefree passage of strings, his grandfa- ther’s warnings a deep bassoon and the Wolf is a stealthy chorus of French horns. In Gröting’s film, both dog and wolf are represented by the same instrument, but the dog is the higher range of notes, while the wolf is represented by deeper, slower tones. Gröting’s film also reverses the standard wolf narrative. The wolf in Prokofiev’s tale is malevolent: an aggressive predator which threatens both humans and animals, only outwitted by the boy Peter who rallies the other animals’ help, sending the wolf to a bitter end at the mercy of the hunters’ guns. In Gröting’s film, the wolf is still, cautious and stealthily intelligent. The dog, on the other hand, reliant on her human keepers, is beautiful but foolhardy. 

iv) In this and all her works, Gröting draws us into her way of seeing. Her films and sculptures are interested in looking intently with a microscopic focus at surfaces, appearances and effects in order to ascertain what lies beneath them. Each piece seems to be seeded in the question, what is the nature of x? With a forensic attention to detail, she searches for aspects not visible to the naked eye, asking what can surfaces tell us that we don’t know that we know? How can we look again at what is right before us? 

›What is the nature of the city?‹ she asks in her series Berlin Fassaden (2016/2017), silicone casts of building facades. ›What is the past on which our present is built?‹ ›What are relation- ships?‹ asks her sculpture Space Between Lovers (2014), which casts the space between two people engaged in the act of having sex. ›What is consciousness?‹ asks The Inner Voice (1993–2015) her series of filmic collaborations with ventrilo- quists. Gröting is not interested in conjecture however, but rather the close analysis of evidence; of what is there. What happens if we take the time to interrogate this material? If we find the right tools to allow it to speak? What will it tell us of itself? The inquiry itself often lodges in an in-between space, in the chink between past and present, between one person and another, or between two conflicting inner voices. It is precisely within this space of difference, and in its interroga- tion, that elusive meanings may be found, she suggests. 

Each of Gröting’s works sets up a situation through which to demonstrate something. In Wolf and Dog, the demonstration asks us to look at these two creatures that represent opposite poles of experience within one species. One is close to what we call wildness; the other is utterly dependent on humans and their societies. In bringing the dog and wolf together for a day and filming their responses to each other, Gröting sets in motion a series of questions; not in order to provide fixed answers, but rather to suggest a model for speculation. As Berger writes, sketching out the relations between humans and animals, »The parallelism of their similar/dissimilar lives allowed animals to provoke some of the first questions and offer answers. The first subject matter for painting was animal. Probably the first paint was animal blood.« But over the course of the last two centuries at least, the degradation to which animals have been subject has severed these similarities. 

Animals have gone from being used as machines to being treated as raw material, »processed like manufacturing commodities.« Those that cannot be commodified are treated as enemies. Wolves disappeared in Germany around 150 years ago with the approach of industrialization but returned in 2000. Now their populations are growing. Is this welcome? Is it a threat? What is our relation to these creatures who live alongside us in this land? 

At the time of writing his essay in 1977, Berger estimates that there are at least forty million dogs in the United States. The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness is a »modern invention,« he writes, representative of the social tendency to withdraw into the private small family unit, away from the outside world. The dog is part of this enclosed universe, entirely dependent on its human »family« for its sustenance and existence: »The small family living unit lacks space, earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures, and so on.« They are physically and culturally marginalized. The wild animal, on the other hand, occupies an imaginative space apart from the strictures of social, commodified development. »It can be understood as that aspect of human inwardness which has remained natural, or at least tends or longs to become natural once more.« 

v) In Gröting’s film, the wolf and dog will never come together, despite belonging to the same species. They are both present but separate and that which separates them is the human, represented in the film by the hand that intervenes to offer a handful of processed dog food. This hand represents the fork in the evolutionary path, and this is Gröting’s interest. What exists beyond the human’s predatory, commercial and self-inclined instincts — »Mensch als Raubtier« is how Gröting puts it — as represented by the little dog’s selfish and rash behaviour? Is it the still watchfulness and skillful social intelligence of the wolf? Is there a chance to return to the fork in the path, to choose actions rooted in quiet observation, shared intelligence and pack governance, rather than top- down patriarchal hierarchies that privilege those at the peak and incentivize self-interest? 

»Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion,« writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her leftfield 1990s classic Women Who Run With the Wolves. Inquir- ing, intuitive, stalwart and brave, both wolves and women have also »been targets of those who would clean up the wilds as well as the wildish environs of the psyche, extincting the instinctual, and leaving no trace of it behind.« At this moment of precarity and change, on social, political and environmental levels, are wolves perhaps the companion species we need to relearn resilience, adaptability, and the vital model of shared knowledge? »Recuperation is still possible,« writes Donna Haraway, »but only in multispecies alliance, across the killing divisions of nature, culture and technology and of organism, language and machine.« In order to achieve this kind of alliance we need to change the way we see, no longer the one-way looking at animals that Berger writes of but accepting and learning the significance of the fact that they can observe us too. 

(this text was translated from German)

Sources 

John Berger, »Why Look at Animals«, in Geoff Dyer, ed., JOHN BERGER. SELECTED ESSAYS (New York: Vintage, 2003) 

Angela Carter, »The Company of Wolves« in THE BLOODY CHAMBER (London: Penguin Books, 2015) 

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992) 

Donna Haraway, STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE. MAKING KIN IN THE CHTHULUCENE (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016)