Hospitality and the Rat: Irina Aristarkhova on the Art of Kathy High
Writing about web page http://www.personal.psu.edu/ixa10/
Warning: If you have a rat phobia, you might not want to read this entry!
This week, I went to see Irina Aristarkhova (Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Visual Arts at Penn State) giving a talk about “Hosting the Animal: the Aesthetics of Hospitality.” Aristarkhova was discussing the artist Kathy High and the artwork Embracing Animal (you can see her website here ). High created an installation using transgenic rats created for drug experimentation. High explains on her website:
Transgenic rats are different than wild type rats. Transgenic rats are rats that have foreign DNA inserted into their genome. This means one or more genes from a non-rat organism (i.e. human, fish, plant or jellyfish) has been added, through some tricks of modern molecular biology, to every one of a trangenic rat’s cells. Transgenic rats are walking around with non-rat expressible molecules in their bodies, minds and even in the cells that go on to make their children. Sometimes referred to as hybrids, cyborgs or chimeras, transgenic organisms are an interspecies mix of DNA, a targeted collage of two or more organisms. The most important thing to remember is that their alteration is permanent and inheritable. This means that their kids and their grandkids with have the same difference that they do.
To create her installation, High bought a number of transgenic rats and took them into her home. She looked after these rats with painstaking care, as she explains (again on her website):
I bought them to try and make them live as long as possible and to see if they could become healthy given their prior genetic conditioning. I will treat them holistically with alternative medicines such as homeopathy, environmental enrichment, also good food and play! Stress is one of the triggers for their conditions. I know because I, too, have autoimmune problems (in the form of Crohn’s disease and Sarcoidosis). Thus, I identify with the rats and feel as though we are mirroring each other. I feel a great kinship with them. When I see them feeling tired I recognize that kind of exhaustion. I know they need rest in a way that is total. If they ache when being touched, I understand this is from fevers. I also know they do not know how to behave as pets. They are not pets. They are extensions, transformers, transitional combined beings that resonate with us in ways that other animals cannot.
Aristarkhova finds High’s project interesting in relation to the ethics of hospitality espoused by Derrida et al. High does not see the rats as pets but ‘injured guests’ in need of care and she has an affinity with them because of their shared autoimmune problems. Aristarkhova compares High’s installation with The Temple of Rats, Karni Mata and with Jainist beliefs about respecting the life of nature . What seems to be most significant about Kathy High’s work is that in hosting the rat, an animal that has such an intense stigma about it, she pushes the boundaries of how we define hospitality and reformulates what it should include.
Aristarkhova, Irina and Faith Wilding (2009) ‘“My Personal Is Not Political?”: A Dialogue on Art, Feminism and Pedagogy’, Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 5.2. Access available online (accessed 19 March 2010).
High, Kathy (2009) Embracing Animal website. Access available online (accessed 19 March 2009).