• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Hybrid Family: Interview with Maja Smrekar

Hybrid Family: Interview with Maja Smrekar

Hybrid Family: Interview with Maja Smrekar

Interview with Ljubljana-based artist Maja Smrekar, originally published in Membrana Magazine, no. 6 / 2019

Maja Smrekar is a visual artist addressing current phenomena in contemporary society. Her earlier works often touch upon the mundane permeated by stereotypes of popular culture, the future as understood through fiction, and the ethical aspects of human interventions in nature and natural processes. In 2014, she began performing her continuous work K-9_topology, in which she analyses the causes and consequences of human domination on the planet, and questions the self-evidence of the anthropogenic mentality. During the following four years, this artistic research and extremely interdisciplinary action led her to deeply explore the relationship between a human and a dog. Individual elements of the project were introduced through performance, installation, artist book, and photography. The following interview focuses on this segment of her work; on her reflections on the relationship between a human and an animal; and on certain important social contexts that define her work.

The K-9_topology series (2014–2017) deals with the relationship between a human and an animal, i.e. a dog. In the first part, Ecce Canis, you address the domestication of wolf into dog, which is a key step in establishing human superiority above nature. Why do you find this phenomenon significant?

I usually begin my research by gathering information on a specific topic I am exploring and begin establishing my method of work based on acquired data. My central purpose is generally personal and, in this case, my basic intention was led by my emotional memory from my childhood that was always filled with dogs. In translating the content into the form of an art project, I wished to establish an objective attitude towards the topic; that is why I decided to research when and why the reciprocal need of domestication arose between human and dog. Archaeological proofs testify to the fact that these two species began cohabiting in prehistory. I was interested in the period around 30,000 years ago, when humans and dogs began establishing a continuous mutual relationship.

Maja Smrekar, K-9_topology, 2017 / photo: Borut Peterlin

How do you transpose your findings into a format suitable for an exposition? The K 9_topology: Ecce Canis was presented as a spatial installation joined by an emblematic photograph.

The iconography of photo-performance embodied the cadre of my interest. I believe that nowadays, photography is the right designator of communicating with the audience, much more than words. Carefully chosen visual communication also helps me to establish the methodological framework in addressing the audience. The Ecce Canis project’s photo represents me – a human in a horizontal composition in relation to a wolf that paraphrases a parallel evolution through the consensus of mutual domestication. I say mutual because in a biological sense, a human is also an animal. On the other hand, the ARTE_mis project’s photo, the last project in the series, represents my face blended with my dog’s head. This hybrid image poses the question of who is actually the human defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The chronology of the K-9_topology series goes from domestication (Ecce Canis) to the idea of genetic cohabitation or unification of human and dog (ARTE_mis) which is probably not possible and legal?

True, such unification is not possible, but testing technological potentials was not the central focus of the project. Biotechnology was simply the most appropriate artistic medium with which I was able to formalise the content of the ARTE_mis project. In a symbolic sense, this cohabitation results in a werewolf who is a marker for society’s fears of the Other, the ‘wild’ nature people put into opposition to themselves by establishing culture. I believe that despite our wish to learn about nature, protect, control and colonise it, the planet will outlive the humans, not the other way around. In the process of the K-9_topology: ARTE_mis project, I connected the genetic codes of a human, a dog and a wolf, placing them in an equal relationship; the relationship as it was at the beginning, when all three species were regulating the ecosystem equally, and before we have set up the culture we know today. The purpose was not to breed a new living being.

Maja Smrekar, K-9_topology, ARTE_mis, 2017 / photo: Anže Sekelj, Hana Josić

In the past hundred and more years, rigorous genetic engineering has been performed on dogs. Today, dogs are no longer mostly utility animals but serve as a visual pleasure, status symbol and emotional support.

The first dog exhibitions appeared as early as the 19th century and the World Canine Organisation was established in 1911. Cynology is a term denoting breeding and training domestic dogs as well as informal study of the species. In individual countries, cynology associations set standards of breeding and organising dog exhibitions, where judges, licensed by these associations, evaluate purebred dogs. Based on standards, the associations issue dog breeding licenses for such dogs and oversee the breeding processes. Historically, the phenomenon is partly connected to the industrial revolution, the establishment of the middle class, the emergence of free time, and the concept of lifestyle.

In K-9_topology, you compare those phenomena with the parameters of humanism as we have known it since the Age of Enlightenment. How can an animal be perceived from the perspective of humanism?

In addressing humanism, I basically return to the period of classical antiquity and further back, to the agricultural revolution, when people stopped being hunters and gatherers but settled down to become growers and stock farmers. The paradigmatic turn happened when wolf became a part of the human tribe, settling in our survivalist niche and gradually becoming dog. However, this fact also represented a new evolutionary direction for the human, as well: together with the wolf, the human developed eating habits based on a starch and meat diet. This is when dog and human begin cohabiting consensually. Among others, the dog becomes an indicator of human fear regulation; yet by warning of dangers, it preserves the social organisation of a wolf. The research I did for the project brought me to conclude that the dog is one of the key
indicators in the establishment of human culture. By preserving almost all behavioural and physiological parameters of the wolf, it acquires the status of an ally, a protector and, in many cases, a family member. In the optocentric society of today, our senses, with the exception of hearing and sight, are of completely secondary nature; at the same time, an individual with an inherent need of social contact and physical touch is becoming more and more lonely. In this case, a dog often plays the role of a non-verbal friend and even partner during a certain period of life. In the countries of the Western hemisphere, dogs have some legal rights, which represents a new selective pressure for them.

Maja Smrekar, K-9_topology, Hybrid Family, 2016 / photo: Manuel Vason

In the K-9_topology: Hybrid Family project, you deal with the current state of human-dog cohabitation. What was your approach in this segment of your work?

In establishing the Hybrid Family, I addressed the culture we live in. It is ruled by capital which has succeeded to colonise every aspect of our lives. Although on a declarative level, the individual today always comes first, individuality is completely irrelevant and a person more and more uniform. The so-called freedom of choice is turning into an infinite burden. All of this coincides with the ecological crisis that is affecting all animal species, including humans. As a consequence, I also address the pressing ecological questions, the main reason for which lies in overpopulation. My decision not to reproduce, i.e. not to continue the species, is in a conflict of interest with my animalism. In the course of this project, I therefore established a relationship with a female pup through breastfeeding.

Since the dog was not dependent on your milk, breastfeeding was probably meant symbolically?

The gesture of breastfeeding with its survivalist connotation was symbolical. Despite that, the key thing was to prompt my body to lactate. In this way, the pup and I established culturological emancipation on a symbolic level.

Maja Smrekar, Opus et domus, 2018 / photo: Sandra Odgaard

In your recent project, Opus et Domus (2018), you perform the relationship between human and animal through a gesture of spinning your own hair mixed with dog hair. What do the spinning wheel and the thread symbolize?

For a longer period, I have been collecting dog hair as well as my own, and in the performance, I spun them on the spinning wheel to make what I call social fabric. In the K-9_topology series, the question of “What it means to be human in the world of today?” establishes a substantive framework that would be appropriate to keep as a red thread also in future projects. The project encompasses elements of social populism that is becoming one of the ways of influencing public opinion, which is making society regress even though it is technologically advancing. Through the eyes of populist ideas, the meaning of nation is growing and fertility as a value is consequently becoming more and more important. Via this social regression, female body is again becoming the possession of the state, the law and the ideology. For centuries, the spinning wheel denoted female diligence; as a symbol of control over the female body, it appears in numerous mythologies. By spinning our hair, I propelled a mechanism that pumped drops of serotonin isolated from my own blood and the blood of my dog. With the help of this pump run by the mechanism, these were then transformed into a fragrance and dripped onto a hot plate from which they evaporated. In a gallery setting, the whole iron spinning wheel setup stood inside a glass house. In this way, I addressed the paradox of the practical ideology where the house is disappearing due to work.

© Miha Colner, May 2019; translated by Sonja Benčina