2 August 2021
Ben Clement (b. UK) and Sebastian de la Cour (b. Denmark) have been working together as the duo benandsebastian since 2006, based between Berlin and Copenhagen. With a particular interest in institutions, their work seeks to question how gaps in knowledge shape identity and how particular absences act upon the imagination.
Just prior to their residency at Delfina Foundation at the end of 2019, the pair were awarded a permanent commission by the Court of Aarhus in Denmark. Their proposal was to create a work inspired by historical legal trials involving non-human defendants – the research into which became a central focus of their residency, embarking on a series of conversations with experts in the fields of law, animal rights and cybernetics.
Recently installed, the resulting work, Silent Parties (Tavse Parter), 2021, featuring 54 carved reliefs and text panels engraved with commentaries on the historical legal cases, raises questions around the limitations of our definitions of human and the jurisdiction of the law. In addition to the site-specific installation, the project will include among its outcomes a publication, an audio series in collaboration with the techno producer STERNUM, and a museum exhibition.
Ellen Mara De Wachter: How did Silent Parties come about?
benandsebastian: Silent Parties is a commission we were awarded from the Court of Aarhus in 2019. We were selected by an art advisor and a panel of lawyers from the court itself. The court building dates from 1902 and is in the Skønvirke style, the Danish version of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil. It was originally built as a city library. Later it became an archive and it has only recently been taken over as the new site of the city’s court. Our brief was to create a work for the building that bridged the gap between its design and history and its new occupants and function.
Ellen: How did you arrive at your focus on historic law cases involving non-human participants?
benandsebastian: We always use context as the starting point to our projects because we are generally interested in how institutions shape our way of thinking. But while we wanted to question aspects of the institution, we also wanted to keep in mind that its employees would have to look at this work day in, day out. So, the question was: how do we intrigue these legal professionals about their own field? We started by investigating the field of law, and when we found out about the discipline of legal philosophy we wanted to know everything about it.
Among other things, the court deals with family law so we began by considering the figure of the child in legal cases and the process of being spoken for under the law. In our work there is an ongoing theme of muteness in institutional contexts. Making such gaps in representation tangible has been an aspect of our work from very early on, such as in Phantom Limbs (2011-13), Museum of Nothing (2014) and Department of Voids (2017-18). Working in institutional contexts has also long been at the core of our practice, so the groundwork for this project was there from the start.
The building itself is full of industrial and organic motifs: chandeliers with a web of industrial cables are held up by spiders; ventilation shafts are covered in foliage. This led us to think about non-human entities, and by coincidence we stumbled upon E.P. Evans’ 1906 history of animal trials, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, which collects cases from the 9th to the start of the 20th century. We saw the link between children, who can speak but who do not have a voice of their own within the law, and animals that potentially have a voice, but which within the eyes of the human, cannot speak. This interest later evolved to include cases with robots as well.
Ellen: You were finally awarded the commission just before you began your residency at Delfina Foundation. How did this influence your use of your time there?
benandsebastian: By that point we had already had an outline for how we wanted to think about the project. We arrived at Delfina with the title page of an unwritten book, with eight chapters each relating to a case involving an animal or a robot, ranging from water rats charged with eating crops, to a contemporary case examining whether life-size, singing and dancing robots at an American restaurant chain should be considered live performers. Those chapters initiated the meeting we arranged during our residency, with people from institutions including Serpentine Galleries, Natural History Museum, Alan Turing Institute, and Cambridge Centre for Animal Rights Law. Normally we work on the production and conceptual parts of a project simultaneously, but with this focus on conversations we were trying to do something new in our process.
For each person we spoke to we had in mind a particular legal case we wanted to discuss with them. For example, when we met with the literature professor and legal scholar Laurie Shannon, who we connected with through the Warburg Institute, we thought that the best case to talk to her about was the 14th century case of a sow charged with eating an infant, because Laurie had done research on exactly that case, as well as on Galen’s public vivisections of pigs, in which their vocal cords were silenced and revived on the operating table. This process of pairing a person with a case ended up being a playful way of meeting up because it was both very narrow and broad at the same time. Most of those conversations continued beyond the meeting and they eventually led to the engraved text panels that form part of the final installation.
This collaborative model of working echoed the process we used in Department of Voids (2017-18). Investigating a series of bespoke, shell-like transport cases for objects which had themselves gone missing at some point in the past, we invited twelve museum directors and specialists to each write on a single case; reflecting on their personal experiences of missing materials and muted histories within their respective institutions.
Ellen: How do people encounter the work, now that it is installed in the courthouse?
benandsebastian: The court is a public space, open on weekdays, you just have to go through security before accessing it. Users of the court wait in the central space where our work is installed and then they are called into side rooms for their court sessions. Sometimes they are accompanied by police. All this gives the place a unique atmosphere and we found that people were engaging with the works in quite a different way than happens in other contexts.
Ellen: How did you produce the panels and reliefs?
benandsebastian: The works are made of negative reliefs and woodcarvings. The commission stipulated that the work needed to be integrated with the existing architecture, which was made as a Gesamtkunstwerk. We wanted to see if we could bring this ‘total work of art’ up to date, while still being respectful to the original. We also didn’t want to draw attention to what was old and what was new. We therefore chose to work with Douglas fir wood, which matched the building’s existing interior and we continued the building’s animal and industrial motifs. Our intention was for the work to look like it was carved out of the back panels of the bookcases that lined the hall, a legacy of the site’s former inhabitants. We thought negative reliefs, which are created through an absence of material, were relevant to the project of silent parties. Despite being the defendants these parties were never present at their own trials.
We made the installations using a CNC router we bought around three years ago and had stored underneath our table in the studio. We were a little afraid of this daunting machine and had to get to know and befriend it while also learning to model digitally. We thought it was going to do all the work for us, but it works a bit like a hand tool in that you have to get to get to know it and learn how to craft with it. This was relevant to the project in terms of the relationship between natural and robotic worlds, and where the boundary lies between craft and industrial production. The machine has now become a kind of pet that lives under the table, and it’s hard not to become fascinated by it; it’s mesmerising to watch when it’s being used.
Ellen: How do you proceed when transforming your research into material outcomes?
benandsebastian: We don’t tend to outsource any of our production. We want to move away from a conceptual framework in which the artist is the big brain at the top of the pyramid who asks crafts people to execute their ‘magnificent’ thoughts. It’s difficult to explain what kind of thinking comes out of manual labour but we insist that there is a kind of thinking that happens there and that this can feed back into the more conceptual or intellectual modes of thought.
Ellen: This is borne out by neuroscience research into the integration of the bodymind complex: we learn through our muscles, nerves and body chemistry as much as through out intellect. What you are describing is an integrated process, right?
benandsebastian: Yes, and these things are also relevant within the field of law, in what some people call ‘biolaw’ or ‘neurolaw’. For example, the question around where human free will sits – and the topic of non-human defendants brings such notions to the fore. Is free will solely located in the conscious mind, or are we also influenced by pathogens and bacteria in our gut, or environment, or upbringing? There is evidence that our mental state is influenced by our bacterial flora, so can these bacteria bear some of the responsibility for a crime?
In our conversations with lawyers questions came up around the limits of retributive justice, and how we might think beyond this towards an incentive-driven version of the law that would provide motivations rather than mete out punishments for actions for which the individual might not be solely responsible. When we started diving into the foundations of the legal institution we found that the law depends on the idea that we have free will as humans. Even though legal scholars can argue that we don’t have free will, legal institutions insist that we do because otherwise they would be unable to judge anyone as being guilty of their deeds.
Ellen: From the many ethical questions that Silent Parties raises, is there one you feel is most urgent?
benandsebastian: The question of the boundaries of our capacity to care has been very important. Those boundaries have been defined by how human law delineates what is human and what is non-human, and the cases we looked at challenged those boundaries.
At first this seems like a simple issue: most of us would be able to define humans as homo sapiens. But then, again and again there are glitches in terms of how the human is defined. The first one could be the child: none of us would question whether a child is a homo sapiens, but within the legal institution the child doesn’t really have a voice, as we don’t consider them a fully grown human. This principle may be widely accepted, but the age at which the child becomes adult in law differs around the world: in Denmark it is 15 but in other countries it can be up to 23.
In the case a cock being tried for ‘the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg’ in Basel in the 15th century (which was found guilty of demonic possession and sentenced to be burned at the stake), at first it seems absurd to have a full legal process. However, the process follows the logic of the witch trials of the time, in that the defendant is charged with being a satanic vessel that threatens the security of Christendom, so it is interesting that the cock should have the same legal process as a human. There was a different status granted to animals at that time, and through our research it seems a shift happened around the Enlightenment, when nature was suddenly thought of as being instrumental, there for humans to exploit. We may be moving away from that notion now, because we see that we have abused the human-animal relationship. So instead of seeing all animals as instruments for us to use maybe we have to go back to something where we grant animals more rights or better legal processes, as they did in the 15th century. Such definitions are not constant in the institution of the law, they change again and again, and the umbrella term ‘human’ can widen and narrow.
Ellen: One of the most compelling arguments in the collection of texts is that, rather than being simply absurd, these cases might make us optimistic about conferring rights onto other-than-human beings, because doing so may eventually be mirrored in how we treat humans, and this process can be additive and constructive. Rather than just a series of freak incidents that show the limits of the law, they show that because the law has limits those limits could be expanded.
benandsebastian: Yes, this is not a linear way of thinking. You have to be able to go back and forth in order for it to be successful.
Ellen: How do these themes relate to your collaborative work as a duo?
benandsebastian: Companionship is really important to our ongoing work together – and thanks to Donna Haraway, we have recently been thinking a lot about companion species. Because of our companionship and the fact that we have worked together almost every day for 15 years there is a space between us where things emerge, and this is always through a process of conversation, which could mean a spoken conversation, or a conversation through making or drawing. The thing that emerges between us is extremely important in our practice.
Ellen: Is there a hope the work you have done with Silent Parties might influence the legal institution’s position about non-human defendants?
benandsebastian: We have to be humble about this: all we know is that knowledge of these cases has affected us. It has influenced our way of thinking and our understanding that you can start asking questions about legal issues. We hope to share our experience of something that previously seemed unassailable and intimidating becoming more accessible through its absurdities and contradictions. In this case it is about legal institutions, and going forward we will be working on a new project to suggest amendments to the Danish Constitution. Our confidence to do this has come through the process of making Silent Parties and realising that these institutions don’t have to be locked away and reserved for experts, but we are also able to question them.
Audio teaser for upcoming Silent Parties audio series in collaboration with the techno producer STERNUM. Image credit David Stjernholm.
Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer and yoga teacher based in London.
The duo’s commission Silent Parties (Tavse Parter), 2021, is permanently installed at Court of Aarhus, Vester Allé 12, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark. Open Mon-Fri 08:30-15:00.