Animal Drag

Animal Drag is a proposition for art and design that consciously and critically engages with or performs aspects of nonhuman animals. For example, when the feminist artists and activists, the Guerrilla Girls, adorn their gorilla masks in order to retain their anonymity in public, they also engage in trans-species drag that potentially cuts through problematic gender binaries, but this also raises issues of race, visibility and whether the nonhuman animal is truly ‘neutral’ and deserving of more attention in the humanities than as metaphors and symbology. 

This session welcomed proposals from inter-disciplinary scholars researching the conscious and critical use of nonhuman animal drag, adornment, costume or embodied performance, in real time or as depicted, but which seek to uncover the agency and politics of doing so. Animal Drag, as a concept and/or practice, might be used to explore and illuminate intersections with feminism, posthumanism, critical animal studies, new materialism, disability studies, issues of gender, race, drag and trans*. While this session uses Euro-American language, international case studies across any historical period were welcome.  

Session Convenor: 

Nicola McCartney,  Central Saint Martins, UAL 


Andrija Filipović, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Art & Media Theory at the Singidunum University, Faculty of Media and Communications in Belgrade, Serbia. 

We all share a hobby: Animalesque politics of Serbian postsocialist drag 

 In 2019 two drag queens were interviewed for the TV show The Scene on N1 channel. Neither Dekadenca nor Karma Geddonia connects drag with sexual orientation or being/becoming transgender. For Dekadenca, drag is an alternative type of performance art that is available to everyone and that is for everyone. Dekadenca claims that drag is not fundamentally connected to “biological men,” especially since we “move toward a post-gender society”. Karma Geddonia adds that drag does not have to have any relation to gender at all, and that contemporary forms of drag are also inspired by animals, insects, and even alien life forms. Dekadenca went as far as to claim that there is no drag community in Belgrade. Rather, they all share a hobby. Following Massumi’s insights about the continuum between animals and humans, especially on animal play as the potentiality for natural politics, I will show the ways in which Serbian drag is animalesque –  activity which plays with the humanimal continuum by virtue of shared playfulness across the spectrum of becoming. Play, and hobby as a form of play, becomes the zone of indiscernibility between human and animal, as it suspends any kind of instrumental activity. Thus drag, and especially drag that works with animal, insect and alien forms, suspends the instrumental use of difference between human and animal, man and woman, worker and owner of means in the midst of postsocialist gentrified parts of the city and creative industries hubs where drag shows usually take place. 

Elizabeth A. Hodson, The Glasgow School of Art  

Symbiosis through the Skin 

 Nature has since time immemorial been harnessed as a means of providing a template for constructions of the self in which we reign supreme over the land. In recent decades new materialist and posthuman thinking, specifically a feminist materialism, offer a critique to the social constructivist model that takes our sovereignty as pregiven. Within art, techniques of impersonation and mimesis are used as a platform for activism to support such a reconsideration of our relationship to the environment and the animal. Specifically, artists are using the skin of animals as a means of materially aligning themselves with the non-human and in so doing purposefully rupturing the dichotomy between the human and non. But more than this, the skin of another is used as a means of activating queer, postcolonial and feminist ecologies.  

Here the concept of the wild and its association with heteronormative masculinity is thrown open, as the work of Scottish-based artist Hanna Tuulikki points to (Mortimer 2010). This tradition of using animal hides in art, from the work of Joseph Beuys to Nandipha Mntambo, as a form of readdress is well documented. The figure of the animal then has always functioned as other, one that both repulses and also fascinates. In the era of the Anthropocene these tropes are aligned with the climate crisis, such that the sensibility of the animal becomes a means through which the human can be renaturalised. In this paper I explore these presentations of animal skin as a coat for the artist and ask whether contemporary practice is now moving towards a symbiosis through the skin.  

Nina Kane, University of Huddersfield Research Affiliate  

The gallery’s best-kept secret’: Wolves in the Gallery  - Trans* Activism; Clowning; Animal Drag 

Transgender individuals are frequently referenced in the mainstream Western media with inferences of subterfuge, deception and danger; associations which lend themselves culturally to the parable of ‘The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.’ In a career of gallery-based performance spanning 25 years, clown activist, life-model and gay trans* man Dr Nina Kane has promiscuously used her naked female body to problematise notions of gender, and interrogated the dynamics of ‘the feral’ within gallery and life-drawing studios through the figure of the ‘wolf’. Her relationship with commissioning curators has been one of ambivalence; Kane’s work is frequently positioned as ‘being under the radar’ or in one instance, as being ‘the gallery’s best-kept secret’; the radicalism of performative challenge regarded as ‘too much’ for the sheep-pen (white, patriarchal, heteronormative, cisnormative, middle class) securities of the venue. In this paper, Kane sinks her teeth into this ambivalent and clowning relationship with fine arts spaces, and chews over how animal drag can enable expression of transgender lives, art, politics and agency. 

Jiaqi Kang, DPhil candidate in History of Art, Oxford University  

Fish out of water: lesbian desire, disability, and impossibility in Xu Tan’s Allegory of Love II (1993) 

 On 24 November 1993, Xu Tan executed a two-part artwork, Allegory of Love, in the streets of Guangzhou as part of a broader art ‘exhibition’ by four-man collective Big-Tail Elephant. Allegory I featured a nude female mannequin wearing a Peacekeeper helmet, standing on the back of a military truck. For Allegory II, Xu similarly placed two mannequins with mermaid tails and military paraphernalia outside an open-air bar. After initial indifference, onlookers began pelting the mannequins with food waste.  

While critics and scholars have commentated on the way Big-Tail Elephant, and this action in particular, used site-specific actions to probe at Guangzhou’s increasing entanglement with global networks of capitalism, no study has yet considered the most striking aspect of Allegory II: that the central feature of the work, the embracing female mermaids, is a depiction of lesbianism.  

This paper furthers our understanding of Xu and Big-Tail Elephant’s self-conscious avant-gardism in this period by considering the political network of desires dragged out by Allegory II’s lesbian imagery –– desires that are complicated and compounded by the additional fact that the lesbians in question are also disabled: as mermaids on land, they cannot walk, their monstrosity inextricable from their immobility. I argue that Xu, without necessarily being queer or disabled himself, sought to harness the impossibilities associated with queer disabled existence on the margins of ‘healthy’ society to intervene in early 1990s Chinese art discourse and articulate new relationships between art and society.  

Elisabetta Garletti, PhD Candidate in the Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge  

“Tail Envy” – Rethinking Psychoanalytic Models of Desire through Marianna Simnett’s The Severed Tail  

This paper takes Marianna Simnett’s three-channel video installation The Severed Tail (2022) as a case study to consider how animal drag and roleplay can provide strategic standpoints from which to reformulate linguistic and visual representations of desire and sexuality, challenging predominant binary and heteronormative frameworks. Taking evolutionary tail loss in humans and the violent practice of tail docking as points of departure – and working with actors that come from role play and fetish communities – Simnett’s fable-like narrative explores the empowering journey of acceptance of a piglet who has to reconcile with the loss of its tail. Through animal drag, Simnett’s narrative proposes an alternative epistemological framework to represent sexual desire, while simultaneously dissolving boundaries across species and advocating for hybrid and contingent modes of being.  

This paper first considers how The Severed Tail enacts an ironic subversion of binary and heteronormative approaches to sexuality, reframing the phallocentric focus of Freudian theory, centred around castration anxiety and penis envy, by framing instead the loss of animality as the motor of desire. Moreover, by presenting the repossession of repressed animality as its end goal, Simnett’s tale also challenges a hegemonic narrative tradition that places heterosexual love as its desired outcome. Secondly, I examine the reclamation of animality through roleplay in relation to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘becoming animal,’ highlighting roleplay as a process that does not simply involve the replacement of an identity with another, but rather the radical transgression of boundaries across species. By virtue of such an ability to defy categorical distinctions, I finally argue that animal drag offers a privileged perspective to rethink hegemonic epistemological and ontological models, decentring them from an anthropocentric bias, and providing alternative frameworks that are built on the examples and knowledge provided by non-human actors.  

Anisha Palat, PhD Candidate in History of Art, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh  

Embodied Performance in Sajan Mani’s ‘Art will never die, but COW?’ 

Artist Sajan Mani’s performance titled ‘Art will never die, but COW?’ was first performed at the India Art Fair in 2019. He subsequently rendered a video installation of the same performance for Verge Gallery, Sydney in 2022. Donning cow headgear and a red cow’s tail, Mani’s 2019 performance started in the streets of New Delhi, India, and ended inside the India Art Fair’s private institutional space reserved for its eminent annual art event. Mani’s decision to become the cow through emulation in the form of physical appearance as well as behaviour (Mani walked on four legs and moved around resembling the cow) shows an examination of the nature of animality, especially the nature of the cow which is considered the holiest animal on Indian soil. In ‘becoming’ the cow, Mani’s human body takes on the role of an other-than-human animal, bringing into question the idea of embodied performance in relation to human agents ‘becoming’ other-than-human subjects. While Mani’s intention with this performative piece was to highlight Brahmanical (upper-caste) knowledge production using the cow head as representative of Brahmin knowledge, my analysis of his performance will instead argue that Mani’s embodiment as the cow designates the cow as animal rather than holy object in India. Through an examination of the intersections between caste and animal studies, this paper will then link ideas of ecology and the animal to embodied performance in India, especially to that of the cow which usually takes on a unique role as being divine subject and object rather than animal.  

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