"If Man becomes an animal again, his arts, his loves, and his play must also become purely 'natural' again. Hence it would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play as young animals play, and would indulge in love like adult beasts. But one cannot then say that all this 'makes Man happy.' One would have to say that post-historical animals of the species Homo sapiens (which will live amidst abundance and complete security) will be content as a result of their artistic, erotic, and playful behavior, inasmuch as, by definitions, they will be contented with it."
(Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel)
Radical Caring: "Denna’s work relates to her relationships with the animals she chooses to care for, and re-evaluates ideas of self-care and self-actualization through the act of caring for other beings. Denna has at times taken her dedication to her pets to levels that, incidentally, demonstrated by contrast how some friendships can be met with discrimination and even punishment in the eyes of others; her decision to register her rat Baby as an emotional support animal came in part as a result of this. Her work is beginning to investigate the ethics of inter-being dependency as well as friendship, empathy, and understanding human impact relating to animals, now primarily through documentation and choosing to keep her companions with her most of the time, even when others might find it inappropriate (such as class, dates, etc.). By choosing to make this her practice, Denna has freed herself from many of the constraints she felt before when she was trying to make more mainstream, marketable video/fine arts work and conforming to behavior deemed appropriate by greater society, while also embracing the things in life that brings her most joy through her creative making." (Eva Foldy, "The Future of Art is in Your Empty, Open Palm")
How does the act of nurturing become part of one’s identity? What is a nurturer with no object to nurture? Who is taking care of whom?
In her extended exploration of her symbiotic relationship to her pet rat, Baby, Denna has gone through a series of trials in attempting to express this love. She began by designing and constructing a “dream house” as a kind of monument to Baby; a fully functional habitat but simultaneously an act of excess, an indulgence (the key ambiguity being which party is indulged — Baby or Denna). This initial attempt at monument-building made it clear that there was a lot at stake in this seemingly simple pursuit. Since the dream house, the arc of Denna’s project has evolved into more and more self-reflexive forms expression, all of which, like the dream house, may at first glance appear to be simple declarations of sentiment; ultimately, however, Denna’s work poses difficult questions about how to give love form. Studying her own relationship to her pet, Denna simultaneously distances herself from the relationship (as though looking at it through a microscope) and delves deeper into it, exploring what it means to inhabit the role of nurturer.
Thinking about Denna’s confession of “using Baby as a crutch” (a statement which I initially felt underestimated the complexity of the relationship), I think the word “crutch” is really potent. A general definition of a crutch is “anything that serves as a temporary and often inappropriate support, supplement, or substitute; prop”. So in a sense the crutch is a valuable remedy or solution, but at the same it is an “inappropriate support”. It functions as both remedy and weakness; this dual, contradictory function brings to mind the philosophical notion of the “pharmakon”, the concept of something that cures and damages simultaneously. So Denna’s project can be thought of as an a exploration of the pharmakon-like nature of love. It is an extended performance of a type of love which she thrives on but is also burdened by (a cliché which Denna confronts in all its cliché-ness – for instance by employing popular sentimental forms of expression, like having family portraits taken at J.C. Penney).
This love is made ever more complicated by the fact that Denna and Baby exist on completely different planes (in terms of scale, power, relationship to the world, modes of communication, instincts, etc.); the fact of their difference in species prevents them from communicating love in any physically or verbally straightforward way, which has forced Denna to invent ways of nurturing and expressing intimacy, designed specifically for her and Baby. In their collaborative movement exercises, Denna and Baby move together, with no real purpose except for movement, responding to one another spontaneously – a performance they’ve been inadvertently training for constantly over the past year. The movements appear to comfortable, “natural” (a complicated word in the context of this project), but there are also constant signs that their bodies are not biologically designed to nurture one another.
This is the boundary that the Denna’s project pushes against; the struggle to communicate directly with another species, or for that matter, with another person. Issues of translation come into play; what does it mean to be absorbed in a relationship that is communicated entirely without language? How do these human-rat exchanges, rooted in touch and instinctive feeling, reflect back onto our human-to-human relationships? In each of Denna’s trials at expressing love, the fundamental inability to ever truly inhabit the perspective of another being is just under the surface.
The project brings to mind the work of A.L. Steiner, specifically a 2012 exhibition titled “Puppies & Babies,” which consisted of a collection of documentary-type photos of people with their puppies and babies in various intimate and/or humorous (or even somewhat perverse) scenarios. The work resonates with Denna’s not only because of the seemingly-straightforward, essentially documentary approach (as in Denna’s use of old home video footage from her childhood – or her “day-in-the-life”-style video of herself on a walk with a group of animals that she’s caring for), but also because of the ambivalent yet unashamed approach to such saccharine subject matter. Like A.L. Steiner, Denna’s work goes to a precarious place where contemporary art tends not to want to go — by diving into the realm of clichés, banality, and sentiment, the work seems to put the artist in a place of radical vulnerability, while at the same time not insisting on presenting itself as “serious” (or at least not seeming to, by virtue of the subject matter). At times, Denna seems uncertain or hesitant about going further into this emotional/“unserious” territory, but when she does act on her expressive impulses, the risk is worth it. (Eliza Doyle, Open Media 2016 Publication)