May The Horse Live In Me


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Ars Electronica, Miha Fras
02 Sunday 02nd October 2011

So it should come as no surprise to those following her work that she’s roused plenty of controversy with her latest project, Que Le Cheval Vive En Moi (May The Horse Live In Me). Essentially the piece entailed Mangin injecting Laval-Jeantet with horse immunoglobulins over the period of a few months, culminating in her trying to communicate directly with a horse while donning some custom-made horse stilts.

It was weird, and yes, it was pretty dangerous: "It all started when I was discussing the place of animals in human society, with other bio-artists and scientists", she begins. "I was saying that there seems to be less space for animals in our life beyond their role as commodities for our survival. Fewer wild animals are just allowed to 'be', and it shocks me that they can only survive if we decide we ought to take care of them. It's pathetic".

Mangin injecting Laval-Jeantet with one of her rounds of horse immunoglobulins

Lavel-Jeantet’s interest in bioart has been over twenty years in the making, I learn. "Benoît and I were very interested in econology, which is really all the concepts, meaning and narration found in art. It should be about telling stories", she explains, as opposed to most French art at the time in the early 1990s which centred on form. While understated sentences flit back and forth between French and English, Laval-Jeantet expands on the role that her type of art plays in society. She believes art can be for the masses and not just "for collectors to hang up on their walls" as a stagnant symbol of wealth or affluence.

With a quiet confidence she tells me that art is really a tool for communication: "Having just decorative art is becoming less and less important in the digital information age. As society moves faster, we are increasingly informed by all this data but I think people have less time to really digest it, emotionally. I feel our art tries to reconcile the facts with people's ability to understand them".

And so May The Horse Live In Me started as a journey to uncover emotional empathy for the animal existences we so often ignore. Initially, Laval-Jeantet wanted to illustrate her point with panda blood. The endangered giant panda seemed like the perfect animal to demonstrate the human egoism that surrounds conservation efforts. Pretty quickly the idea was squashed by the zoos she approached, and instead she moved towards that of animal compatibility, which mixes foreign blood components with those of the human subject.

A few research laboratories were engaging in experiments on the topic, and she figured they'd respond with less shock than the zoos: "At first I lied and didn't say I was an artist: I told them [the lab heads] I was a researcher in neuropsychal endocrinology [Laval-Jeantet has MSc qualifications under her belt too] and they started me on the study with a few components". She wanted more variants of the injections though, so had to branch out with an independent researcher who wasn't as worried as the lab about her tainting their name if she'd died in the process or something. "There was a strong reaction, and definitely the threat of anaphylactic shock at any point" she remembers.

When I ask Laval-Jeantet about what it felt like to try and experience something beyond our primate existence, she switches back into French to express the strangeness of it all. "I see my body more as something I'm not a part of", she begins, "so I had even more motivation to do this project and assess each feeling separately. At first, I thought I didn't notice any change. Then, when we introduced the immunoglobulins that messed with my thyroid gland, I started to have trouble sleeping and felt sort of over-excited and nervous a lot of the time".

"When I had all forty families of the components injected, it was like an anarchic reaction in my body," she laughs. "Even when performing I was feverish, and we learned that my blood was coagulating really fast: my blood cells were swelling as a reaction to the experiment. It was probably quite dangerous, but I have to say the biggest reaction happened two days later. By that point my whole internal system was transformed, and I couldn't really sleep. I was both agitated and frightened by everything; it made me laugh a lot that whenever anyone touched my body I would jump with shock! Then I'd just find it really funny.

A specialist in horse immunity explained that all the sensations I was feeling weren't human at all, but were those of a horse. My body was reacting in a way that was no longer human, which explained how I was sleeping for about an hour at time in interrupted bursts. That’s the way horses sleep. To my insides, I was becoming non-human”.

She speaks frankly of the shocked reactions she provoked, and how the YouTube comments beneath the short version of the performance video particularly tickle her, as we wrap up. They won't be stopping her pursuit of the bizarre any time soon, though, as she concludes “the fear is necessary for people to think about the issues I’m pointing out. I’m okay with it”.


Laval-Jeantet and Mangin continue to work on bio-art, and you can see more of their projects here

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