A discussion on the relationship between the human idea of riding horse, dressage, control and internalized oppression.
Humans have historically domesticated 14 large cloven-hoofed animals: sheep, goat, cow, pig, horse, Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, llama and alpaca, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, Bali cattle, and Mithan (gayal, domesticated Gaur). Out of these the horse emerges as one of the most important and successful domestication projects humans have ever embarked on. Successful in that the horse started out as raw material (food, skin, tendons, hair etc) and developed into a “technology” essential for human expansion (transporting goods and material, riding for travel, hunt, war, etc. as well as a tool in agriculture). It is easy for us, living in a high-tech culture, not seeing what a technological revolution the horse was. We can perhaps liken it with a more science fiction idea of an augmented human or an exoskeleton giving an individual human superpower.
The traditional narrative we live with today is that the human species, through their superior cognitive ability, forged their future by taming and harnessing nature and animals. Another, newer version is that the human animal entered a series of relationships and collaborations with several different animals to support one another’s survival. According to this new narrative the collaboration with the horse became so “successful” because the horse and the human had an affinity for each other and could collaborate very well. Every time an important technology emerges it changes the course of history and it is justified to ask: where would humans be today if it was not for the horses’ collaboration with us?
Although the horse has been replaced by other technologies it has continued to, in many cultures, hold its position as a key symbolic animal. We have a multitude of show formats where the horse is the main performative subject or object such as parades, pageants, sports, circus, as well as being a strong symbol in narratives about cowboys, wars and kings. And stands for freedom, strength, independence, and so on.
As a main signifier and “entrance” to Animalarium, the riding horse resembles and embodies beauty, efficiency, fitness, strength, speed, and grace. For us it seems the perfect example for what we as humans (in western capitalist neoliberal society) long for ourselves somehow. The idea of fitness, achievement and performance, we propose, is something that we, at the zenith of our human lives, strive for.
THE MAIN SHOW: DRESSAGE
Building on the riding horse as a signifier Animalariums two first works, Animalarium and Animalarium – a pop-up Zoo have focused on exploring dressage as our main horse show.
Dressage (French term, most commonly translated to mean “training”) is a highly skilled form of riding performed in exhibition and competition, as well as an “art” sometimes pursued solely for the sake of mastery. Dressage is described as the highest expression of horse training and uses “a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a riding horse”. Furthermore, the horse should respond smoothly to a skilled rider’s minimal aids. The rider is relaxed and appears effort-free while the horse willingly performs the requested movement.
How is the human ideal of Riding Horse articulated through the training and performance of dressage? What aspects of Riding Horse are highlighted and what is removed here? And in contrast to in dressage, what is the horse when it does not have a human gaze upon it?
THE RIDER AND THE HORSE
In the dressage we morph our presence and embodiment as humans and trained dancers with that of the riding horse. This becomes very visible in our physicality, behaviour, patterns, relationality, and choice-making. Part of this is to behave as if we are unaware of the show, as if we were tamed / domesticated / directed from the outside. This morphing practice creates a paradoxical presence and language that we build upon: in Animalarium we are simultaneously the creators of the Zoo and the animal on display, we are masters and the puppets, we are the rider and the horse. And by that we constantly create the ambiguity of who is actually creating and performing what and when.
FROM BRAV TO DRESSAGE, RAPTURE AND DISSOBEDIANCE
Brav is German and can be translated to: polite, obedient, compliant, docile, playable, civil, lamb-like, kind, manoeuvrable, tame, upright, orderly, honest, trustworthy, efficient, steady, pious, enchanting, unimaginative, harmless, home-baked.
Brav is what you ask a child to be, it is what a “good” dog, horse and dancer is supposed and conditioned to become, it is what a woman should have internalized. The child, dog and horse get punished if they do not live up to brav, while the dancer woman might punish herself when not being brav enough.
Through the dressage we dive into the perversity of the pleasure of doing these things well (brav!). Exploring the dancers’ perverse relationship to control. We feel pleasure when we are “good” i.e. achieving the objects of what a dancer woman should be. But we also recognise that we have convoluted our own sense of achievement and pleasure that of a woman’s plight. In our process we have defined the opposite to this as creating some kind of tear. A tear, tearing us away from the expected behaviour, making us feel exhilarated and filling us with rapture. In Animalarium we both commit to the pleasure of the (internalization, being, feeling of) brav and the search and pleasure of the rapture. We look for where the satisfaction in the obedience and the disobedience lies. Doing well to what is considered good or expected and exploring what forms of disobedience can be in a certain context – not engaging at all or over-engaging, ignoring the camera, running off, overdoing it, stop performing or selfishly occupying the screen… How do we rapture, resist, explore the disobedient? What are ways to resist in the doing / on screen / performing live? If it is not an acted disobedience, but really coming from feeling it?