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Animals on trial, disability discrimination, and what it means to be human

Henry Art Gallery invites academics to think beyond species at final colloquium

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The pandemic has not stopped curators Nina Bozicnik and Mita Mahato from keeping the Henry Art Gallery as lively as ever. 

In late October, the Henry began hosting events for its “Bugs & Beasts Before the Law” colloquium, a set of discussions inspired by the 2019 experimental film of the same name. In the colloquium’s previous two events, UW graduate students, professors, and invited guests tackled questions as to whether “justice is a process or an outcome” and “what documents constrain, narrate, or liberate subjecthood.” For the last event, participants discussed “what it means to be human.” 

At this third and final discussion, I was impressed with the inquisitive energy generated by the review of topics ranging from arts and sciences to discrimination against disabled people, and the subject of animal rights. I was even more surprised that the discussion managed to persevere through the awkward Zoom pauses we're all well accustomed to by now.

After an introduction from Bozicnik, Colin Dayan (an English professor at Vanderbilt University) launched into a conversation on bullfighting and chickens being put on trial. UW professors Phillip Thurtle, Joanne Woiak, and Radhika Govindraajan (calling in all the way from India) followed this with their own unique contributions and perspectives.

The participants dove into the history of animal trials during medieval times, where even a chicken could be tried for crimes. The absurdity of putting animals on trial was much more nuanced than I previously realized — and these nuances are especially prevalent in America's current racial climate. The dichotomy that humans have established between animals and ourselves is one that society has utilized to oppress various groups of people by placing them in a category closer to the thin line separating humans from animals. The origins of chattel slavery in the United States, for example, directly hinged on white people comparing the Black humans they enslaved to cattle, thereby attempting to rationalize their inhumane treatment.

In an interview with Bozicnik, she discussed why she felt so strongly about this third event's discussion question. 

"The way that the human has been categorized has excluded different groups of people from that category, and that legacy is being borne out and continues to reproduce itself in our legal system as well as other systems and structures that shape society,” Bozicnik said. “I think that very question of who gets to count as fully human affects racial difference, but also other differences across our human family, like ability or other forms of difference that get excluded from being fully counted as a full human."

Throughout the event, the professors circled back to the theme Bozicnik articulated. Woiak, of the disability studies department, mentioned how activism in support of disabled persons has needed to justify this group having more rights than animals.

The Henry's associate curator of public and youth programs, Mita Mahato, also discussed her view of the colloquium's final question. 

"I think that one of the conversations that kept coming up as we were doing the planning for this conference was this idea of the animalization of racially marginalized groups and other marginalized groups, and how these metaphors of the 'beast' are directed toward these bodies,” Mahato said. “And so there's some reflection of that as well, and thinking more deeply about our kinship with other animals as well as with each other."

This final portion of the “Bugs & Beasts Before the Law” colloquium offered a new and fascinating perspective on forms of discrimination amongst humans.

According to Bozicnik, the colloquium's microsite will continue to be an ongoing resource for the public. As soon as they’re able, the curators plan to host a showing of the original "Bugs & Beasts Before the Law” movie in-person; but for now, anyone interested can join the discussion and share their own thoughts on the question of what it means to be human.

"A beautiful outcome of not being able to meet in person for this colloquium is that we rethought how we would present some of these ideas and make some of these connections across our scholarly and artists contributors," Bozicnik said. "The microsite came out of that, and it congregates these beautiful, short essays by our contributors and will have all the recordings of the conversations … that'll be ongoing as a site to continually revisit."

Reach contributing writer Abbey McIntire at Twitter: @abbeymcintire

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