In February 2012 a Premier League fixture between Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspurs was halted after ten minutes when a grey and white tabby darted onto the Anfield turf to the consternation of 45,000 live spectators and an estimated 2.5 million television viewers. A camera zoomed in and for a few brief moments the entire stadium fell under the gaze of a monstrous LCD-screened feline. ‘How on earth does a cat get into a football stadium?’ marvelled the commentator. ‘Well it’s not black, so it’s not going to bring [manager Kenny Dalglish] any luck!’
That the Anfield Cat (known variously as The Kop Cat, Shanky and Sam) became an instant celebrity says as much about early 21st-century technophilia as it does about the atavistic beliefs of football commentators. With the ball still in play, tweets about the visitor began to circulate, while the terraces resounded to the chant ‘a cat, a cat, a cat,’ phonetically reversing the Kop’s familiar chorus of ‘attack, attack, attack’. A miraculous genealogy was later claimed when fans noticed that the tabby bore a striking resemblance to Moglet, a cat abandoned outside the stadium in the early 1980s and later adopted for a time as the club’s unofficial mascot.
The cultural apparatus we deploy to mediate our limbic wariness of the creaturely other is a recurrent theme within Serena Korda’s Aping the Beast. As the mythographer Marina Warner writes in her analysis of the monstrous, ‘to court fear and dread, to dwell on their catalysts with greedy intensity, represents a quest for catharsis through sensation, through the rush and high produced by an aesthetics of fear’. Through ‘the telling of tales’ we exchange our trepidation for pleasure in the form of mimicry, spectacle, ritual and, not uncommonly, humour.1
Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the somatic origins of our animal drives has done much to shift attention away from the equally potent human capacity for reasoned self-consciousness. Yet if much of life proceeds from the accomplishments of reason, brute impulses are never far away. Korda choreographs these tensions in The Transmitters 2012, a short film in which five inscrutable dancers and two musicians bearing prosthetic third eyes assemble in a nondescript hall to partake in a cult-like ritual. The film is intercut with close-ups of a bristling tarantula, an inclusion that points to the Tarantella, a southern Italian folk dance dating from the 16th century that evolved as a ‘cure’ for potentially fatal spider bites. The envenomation of Korda’s performers, however, is denoted by bodily gestures taken by the artist from archival footage of young women screaming and convulsing during hysterical fan frenzies. ‘Playing possum’, as one observer of Beatlemania described it, is a common feature of such events, whereby individuals appear to fake their own collapse in the hope that their limp bodies might be dragged by security guards over crowd barriers, perhaps to be deposited closer to the object of their desire. Amongst animals death feigning, or thanatosis, signals either a defense mechanism or an act of aggressive mimicry. In Korda’s film it remains unclear whether her music-stunned ‘transmitters’ recover to devour, or be devoured by, their male receptors.
Mimicry and fakery are taken up elsewhere in The Beast, Korda’s low-rent take on the Jurassic. Dinosaurs are a paradoxically modern achievement, given their ‘invention’ in 1842 by British paleontologist Richard Owen, who first distinguished the taxon Dinosauria (from deinos, meaning ‘fearfully great’ and sauros, meaning ‘lizard’). Iconologist W.J.T. Mitchell has gone so far as to pronounce the dinosaur the totem animal of modern culture, and Korda’s specimen certainly pays homage to modernity’s schlock Jurassic repertoire, which includes the stop-frame animation creations of Ray Harryhausen, the figurine delights of end-of-the-pier souvenir shops and Cold War nuclear paranoia B-movies, such as Eugène Lourié’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
In the first of three performances a troupe of local schoolchildren dressed as small wizened men – known in Lancashire folklore as ‘boggarts’ – will awaken Korda’s towering latex and expanded foam dino-puppet; in the second the bemused tyrannosaurid confronts an unpredictable Boob Meteorite, while the final event features a public procession and a miniature re-enactment of the famous Battle of the River Plate. If such shenanigans seem incongruent when set against the serious politics of our time, then one should not forget that Korda’s invented folk rituals (which figure in her recent Work as Movement Archive) aim in part to strengthen solidarity amongst communities in the face of the destructive consequences of market fundamentalism. To reactivate or redirect latent cultural resources, however, requires that the imaginative and even libidinous desires of people be taken seriously. Activist Stephen Duncombe has described this task using the term ‘dreampolitik’, which proceeds by ‘appropriating, co-opting, and, most important, transforming the techniques of spectacular capitalism into tools for social change’.2 Korda’s Jurassic mystery play could be read in the light of this form of radical dissent, drawing upon and skewing popular vernaculars in order to dramatise real-world power dynamics and social relations through a participatory and often outlandish spectacle.
While the image of a black cat can be linked secularly to radical activism – the snarling ‘sabot-cat’ is a symbol for anarcho-syndicalist wildcat-striking workers – it is, of course, more commonly seen as a portent. Korda’s feline seer in The Prognosticator 2013 was selected following a demanding audition process not dissimilar to Roger Corman’s Hollywood casting for the 1962 film Tales of Terror, where he selected his performer from 46 black cats lined up on a sidewalk. But whereas Corman’s performer was required merely to slink and menace, Korda’s Boo Cat takes centre stage as a majestic familiar alongside his owner, gazing into the future and commanding our belief through huge golden eyes.
Yelped and shrieked perhaps before it was pawed or scrawled, human language abounds with creaturely metaphor. Korda’s disquieting bestiary suggests that while we may ape beasts in order to subdue their power over us, as beastly apes ourselves, our efforts are riven with ambivalent desire. If our pets really could speak, they might tell us that our anthropomorphism offers them likewise eerie comforts.
1 Marina Warner No Go the Bogeyman – Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock London: Chatto and Windus (1998) p. 4
2 Stephen Duncombe Dream – Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy New York: The New Press (2007) p. 16
John Berger Why Look at Animals Penguin Books (2009)
William S. Burroughs The Cat Inside Grenfell Press (1986)
Alejandro Jodorowski (Dir.) Santa Sangre (1989)
Eugene Lourie (Dir.) The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Albert and David Maysles (Dir.) What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964)
Phil Minton’s Feral Choir (www.philminton.co.uk)
Kaneto Shindo (Dir.) Kuroneko (1968)
Carlos Vilardebo (Dir.) La Magie Calder (1961 –74)
H.G. Wells The Time Machine (1895) Penguin Classics (2005, first published 1895)
Elizabeth Wood (Dir.) The Future of Things Past: Dark into Light (1986)
‘If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring: if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in intellect, perhaps, which lags marvelling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.’ Rainer Maria Rilke
Serena Korda (b. 1979, London) lives and works in London. She studied at Middlesex University and completed her MA in Printmaking at Royal College of Art in 2009. She had a solo exhibition There’s a Strange Wind Blowing, Tintype Gallery, London in 2010. Her films and performances have been shown in various exhibitions including: Laid to Rest, Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, Wellcome Collection, London (2011); ‘Spaces for the Imagination’ Turner Contemporary, Margate (2011); and The Library of Secrets, New Art Gallery Walsall and Whitstable Biennale (2008/09). In 2010 she had a residency at Camden Arts Centre for which she produced a performance: ‘Decosa, Tradition Stockholm, keifer pin’.
Jonathan Allen is an artist based in London.
Special thanks to: Mike Andreae, Rupert Goldberg; Charlotte Kaye; Belinda Parsons; Grumbling Fur; Rosie Heafford; Daniel O’Sullivan; Catherine Hughes; Michelle Korda; David C W Briggs; Adam Daniels; Frederic Morris; Christos Fanaras; Jefford Horrigan; Andrew Curtis; Jude Morgan; V22 Studios; Fitzjohn’s Primary School; Hannah Burman; and Camden Council.