May the Horse Live in Me

 Marion Laval-Jeantet

On the 22nd of February 2011, at the Kapelica gallery in Ljubljana, I was injected with horse-blood plasma that contained forty families of horse immunoglobulins (antibodies).

Usually, this statement is met with incredulous silence followed by a flood of questions, more concerned with the effects of such an action than how it all really took place.  It is only afterward that I am questioned more precisely on my reasoning, or perhaps should I say unreasoning, and the scientific particulars of my experiment.  I shall attempt to give a clear explanation here of this project that has led me to a fundamental realization not only of my physical limitations, but also of the emotional impact of my corporeal encounter with a foreign organism.

The idea first emerged during Jens Hauser’s Art Biotech exhibit at Lieu Unique in 2004.  It included the questioning of the usage of animals in laboratory research, of animals as consumables, and of laboratory produced animal tissues used as a protein replacement for meat that, nonetheless, required the harvesting of proteins from slaughtered animals.  All of these practices are based on the concept of objectification and instrumentalization of animals to serve humanity’s extravagant meat consumption.

It was also around this time that I was travelling occasionally to Angola whose government had launched a desperate search for traces of the palanca negra, a large black antelope that serves as a national symbol.  Its actual existence was widely held in doubt, as it was believed that 27 years of ravaging civil war had led to its extinction.  Could the palanca negra be seriously still considered a symbol of a surviving nation when it had not itself survived?  The same question seemed appropriate for the similar use in China of the panda whose numbers were estimated to be no more than 1500 individuals as counted in June of 2004.  Naturally, I had the idea to turn the tables and offer myself as an instrument of profit for the panda.  So during the post-exhibit conference I proposed “that the panda live inside of me.”  In other words, to inject myself with panda blood and, as a result, carry it in my own body as protein traces for the rest of my life.  I was not too clear at that time on the feasibility of this project, nor did I have a notion of its possible consequences.

 Initially, I contacted various zoos explaining that I needed panda blood for a scientific/artistic experiment that required it to be rendered compatible in order for it to be injected into me.  After two years of trying, I had no positive responses from any zoo.  The people in charge, usually veterinarians, were absolutely incredulous when faced with my request and, possibly, doubted my sanity.  Although I was beginning to lose my resolve, I was encouraged by Laure Noualhat, a journalist who was fascinated by the idea and who published a long article on it. So I found myself not giving up totally on this utopic vision and I began research on the compatibility of animal blood for human usage.  I was already familiar with the fact that a large number of animals, rabbits mostly, were kept alive in laboratories as permanent blood donors to obtain plasma for use in surgery and vaccine production.  But plasma is carefully filtered and contains very few or no active elements.  What, I wondered, are the acceptable ingredients of animal blood that, when injected into humans, would produce some kind of effects, and what exactly would those effects be?

 I found few scientists in a position to answer these questions.  This type of research was first conducted in the early 20th century.  Emil von Behring received a Nobel Prize for his work on it.  But it fell out of favor as human immunology made progress, as committees on scientific ethics became universally established, and as the precautionary principle and a ban on in vivo experiments became the norm.  Anytime I broached the subject of hybridization with scientists, I had to handle the issue with utmost delicacy and in strictly hypothetical terms.  ‘If’ was the operative word.  Just introducing the subject was to enter a realm of improbable imagery squarely within the purview of art and bordering on the mythological.  Benoît had begun to speak of the project in the vein of a Lawrence Wiener: a work whose verbal evocation was in itself sufficient.  I, on the other hand, was persuaded that only a real experience of it would make sense.  So after speaking to many immunologists, after attending conferences at Cancéropôle, and after listening to testimonials of sufferers of autoimmune disorders; I ended up finding some very discrete research centers outside of the European Union that were still interested in the idea of using animal blood in a curative context.  Naturally, I did not approach them as an artist; I used the argument of innovative research in neuropsychology to persuade them to allow me to test the effects of animal blood on the neuroendocrine system.  As it happened, they themselves were all investigating various immunological effects without, however, considering the mental and emotional ramifications.

 On a therapeutic level, what interested the biologists with whom I collaborated were the immunoglobulins.  This is because these protein vectors of information have a stimulating effect that specifically targets each organ and also because they have nanometric dimensions that allow us to distinguishing them from each other. They are relatively easy to isolate for usage in correcting particular weaknesses of the immune system.  For example, thyroid-type immunoglobulins from animals could be injected into a human subject with thyroid cancer in order to compensate for an insufficient immunological response of that organ.  It goes without saying that these are experimental protocols that are far from accepted by the scientific community as a whole and are only available to severely ill patients as a last resort.

 After several months of being immersed in this research, several questions still remained unanswered.  What is the difference between human and animal immunoglobulins?  What would happen if we injected in one dose simultaneously all the families of immunoglobulins?

The Center I was in contact with could not render panda blood compatible and besides, it was impossible to obtain.  But they offered me a range of animals they worked with including cows, pigs, sheep, and horses.  Among them, the horse’s grand stature made it more attractively foreign to me and it meshed with mythological fantasies of hybridization, transporting me to the Balinese Sanghyang Djaran man-horse fire walking dances, the Siberian epic of the horses that spoke to humans and related their genealogy in their own language, and naturally, to the centaurs of Greek mythology who were wild and more animal than human. And besides, I was not particularly familiar with horses; I actually feared them.  No one could have said that my choice of the horse was motivated by any kind of “convergent empathy” to use the term set forth by Aldo Léopold in A Sand County Almanac, who would have modified the experimental parameters.

During a study visit at the Biopole Institute of the Poitiers University we learned more.  Flow cytometry readings revealed that most horse blood cells were larger by a third than human blood cells.  Yet this fact did not tell us what path they would take in the human body nor did it indicate their possible effects.  Under the microscope, we observed that in vitro mixing of horse and human blood resulted in a cellular battle with no survivors on either side, but this was using unprocessed blood with all its ingredients left intact.

Before any animal blood can be used in research on human physiology, it must be rendered safe removing the elements that are fatal to humans.  These include bulky cells such as red blood cells, white blood cells, macrophages, etc.  After this removal, what remains is the plasma, which contains hormones, lipids, and several kinds of proteins (immunoglobulins, cytokines, etc.) among other things.  To begin with, I tested my reaction to an exposure of basic immunoglobulins in minimal quantities that would compare to the method of exposure used in homeopathy.  When that went well, I decided to pursue the rest of the experiment.  Every week thereafter and for three months, I was injected with various families of immunoglobulins so that, on the day of the performance in Ljubljana, I would be able to receive an injection of about forty families of immunoglobulins at once.  The idea was that my body would already have a memory of its initial reaction to the foreign immunoglobulins and would not, therefore, go into anaphylactic shock during the performance.  The antibodies my blood would have produced during the initial exposure, would eliminate as many of the immunoglobulins during the performance as it could, allowing the extra to interact with the targeted organs, producing the hoped for effects.

 This experiment has a great number of unknown variables.  How much can we inject without risking anaphylactic shock?  What types of animal immunoglobulins might be dangerous for my immune system?  All types?  What risks do I run of precipitating an autoimmune illness by confusing this complex system?  These are some of the numerous uncertainties that have created a permanent obstacle for research laboratories to design such experimental protocols.

The laboratory was very interested in the idea of finding out how animal neuroendocrine immunoglobulins influence the human mind, but they considered the injection of a massive dose of several families of these molecules too risky. So I was on my own in taking that initiative and risk.  From an external perspective, imagining this seems like madness.  Yet from my own perspective, finding ways of understanding human biology is legitimate.  Life, after all, is full of risks that, for various reasons, we take all the time: we drive cars, we ride horses, we bungee jump, we eat excessively, we drink, etc.  The aim of the risk I took was to examine the human body’s reactions, the limits of its adaptation, and most importantly, the extent that physiology affects the mental state.  The more research I do, the more I am convinced that we use our brains in limited and standard ways and that other options exist.

 There is also the enduring desire for some kind of connection to animals that Dominique Lestel writes about in his book Les amis de mes amis: “The extraordinary curiosity that certain humans have always expressed towards living things in general and animals in particular.”  For me, this desire is mostly limited to respectful observation, but it can sometimes push me to transgress the species barrier.  This desire began so early for me that I cannot even tell where it came from.  My childhood myths as much as my family myths from the Jura and Corsica, and even those I later encountered in my work as an anthropologist, do not distinguish between the human and the animal realms.  Philippe Jacquin in Si les lions pouvaient parler emphasized to what extent this is the norm with those who are faced with nature’s omnipresence.  For example, North American Indians believe that warriors were able to marry female animals who taught them “love and tolerance.”  The hybrid female teacher figure is also frequent, such as the grand-mother-spider who taught the Navajos how to weave, or the bison-mother who taught the Sioux.  This may seem distant to our Judeo-Christian culture, but it should not be forgotten that the figure of Christ sacrificed is associated to the fish and the lamb.

In his book Psychanalyse païenne, Tobie Nathan questions our capacity to accumulate cultural identities.  He writes about Georges Devereux, his teacher who was born in Transylvania, taught in France, and buried in California with the Mohave Indians with whom he had lived.  He also writes about his own experience as a Sephardi exiled from his native Egypt and living as a university academic in France.  The question he raises is that of duality of life as well as of discourse.  From such duality often arises a dysfunction in the core of our internal representations (psychological) and our external structures (cultural) that have proliferated.  It’s the type of dysfunction that would lead the exiled individual to become the patient of an ethnopsychiatrist.  What would happen then if this duality, which I myself planned to inflict upon myself, would have the additional capacity of an animal element?  I am deeply convinced that only a corporeal experience could allow for the integration of this notion without causing a mental dissociation.  It is similar to the integration of the totem, the protective double, that occurs in shamanic cultures with the ingestion of psychotropic plants.

 It is the 22nd of February, the day of the performance.  I am preparing to receive the injection.  Without a doubt this is the worst time of the year to attempt this experience.  My body is weakened by the winter, but it is out of the question that I postpone for later: there is little room to maneuver in such a complex setup.  The injection itself is scheduled for the very beginning of an hour-and-a-half long performance.  The audience is distracting me from thinking clearly–I must perform.  I am siting on a hospital bed.  Benoît fills the syringe with the contents of three phials of plasma and injects me in my right arm.  I lie down.  In a corner, the members of the first aid team rise to their feet ready to help in case I show signs of trouble.  The audience, around sixty silent observers, is tense.  We have put a film on for them showing my reclined nude body upon which is superimposed a schematic representation of the Poitiers University immunoglobulins as they move on a simplified version of the path the horse blood cells are taking through my organism at the same time.  I feel heat rising up in me.  I channel my emotions into monitoring the technical details of the performance.  I’m hoping to feel horse effects as they manifest in me, but all I have is fever.  I sit.  About ten minutes have passed.  The horse that is part of the performance enters the space and I must go over to greet it.  Over the period of ten days, my friend Sabine Rouas, who is an animal behaviorist, has familiarized us with each other.  The task wasn’t an easy one.  The simple fact that the horse was available for the project meant that it was of a character too difficult to be of use as a workhorse.  I have never been on it, which he does not understand.  He seems to always be saying “What does this woman who walks by my side want from me?”  Establishing a connection was slow and seemed improbable.  I would offer my hand and he would shy away.  Here I stretch out my arm toward him and yet again he backs off.  I kneel, he comes back.  I want him to already smell something familiar in me, something not related to our ten days of mutual habituation.  But I myself do not yet feel anything but waves of fever and the chill of my cold sweat.  Benoît fits me with the horse stilt-boots. Viny approaches and sniffs the boots, I am now at his height.  He’s not familiar with me at this height, but doesn’t seem surprised.  It seems more comfortable for him than having me walk below and to the side.  He allows me to cup my hand over his closed eye.  It’s the first time this seems so effortless; he usually dislikes it.  The newness of my acquired height makes things between us easier.  We walk around the space twice with my hand resting on his back.  With my stilts I match his gait.  Ensemble (Together), I learn how to move on these prostheses.  Then I get down and sit back on the bed.  An artist/nurse who is assisting me, approaches me to take a blood sample.  It has been twenty minutes since the injection and it is the moment when the equine cells are most biologically present in my body.  He fills fifteen tubes of Centaur Blood that Benoît takes away immediately to begin lyophilization, which will help preserve it.  I lie back down.  I’m dizzy and the sinus wave of my temperature chart continues to give me very uncomfortable swings between hot and cold.  Benoît keeps a worried eye on both me and the lyophilizator.  With difficulty I get up and join him to see the results.  In the tubes that are not yet processed, the blood has solidified into thin red cylinders.  It is a flash-coagulation that reveals how strong the inflammatory response that is giving me my fever is.  The performance is over.  The first-aid doctor takes my blood pressure.  He questions me surrounded by other curious people.  He leaves me his number.  The evening drags on out on the freezing streets as we go from café to café.  I am febrile.  I know I will sleep little or not at all.  I have observed this effect already with endocrine immunoglobulins.  I need an hour of lying down to find some peace.  One short cycle of sleep, then awake.  Very highly strung.  I fall asleep later for another cycle of two hours.  In total, a horse’s night of sleep doesn’t seem to exceed four hours.  This effect will not recede until eight days later.

During this long week my life is very disrupted.  I only sleep occasionally; I’m constantly hungry yet unable to digest anything.  I feel powerful yet a simple tap on my shoulder gives me a fright.  I am startled by small noises, afraid of everything, but it’s a fear without awareness, somewhat instinctive and non-existential.  It’s a simple fear without anxiety.  A fear that is ridiculous, nervous.  Of the kind you feel when you jump startled before you even realize what has startled you.  I find the situation funny.  A powerful primate has no such fear.  Powerfulness and fear together like that is not a primate characteristic.  For sure it is a horse thing.  We’re back home.  My understanding of time is different from that of the others around me.  I get up at night every two hours; I eat even though my intestines seem to have stopped functioning.  I feel powerful yet nothing seems to go right.  My period doesn’t come.  The children look at me funny, I seem lost to them.  I answer everyone too quickly; I’m sped up, elsewhere.  I hear strange noises.  I need to walk constantly.  I find it difficult to take notes.  I pace my office at night recording my impressions into my telephone.  I refuse to see any patients the whole week.  When giving a lecture at the University I am, no doubt, incoherent.  The look in my students’ eyes betrays incomprehension.  This makes me laugh openly as there was nothing I could do about it.  I have fear of movements, not thoughts.  I cannot take the Paris metro–too many people.  I drive emotionally and can only take routine routes.  Benoît seems to be observing me like an entomologist.

Then one evening, after eight days, I was seized by the impression that I had spent a week on the run, without sleep, eating bread…  That night I slept for eighteen hours after which I awoke feeling completely wiped out.  The reaction must have run its course by then.  The contrast between the preceding hysteria and the crash was violent.  This low lasted for a good month at the end of which I met up with Miranda Grounds, who is a biology professor at the University of Western Australia.  Without concealing her surprise, she told me about a biologist friend of hers who tried to inoculate himself with porcine immunoglobulins when he was a young researcher.  He ended up in a weeklong coma resulting from a brutal anaphylactic shock.  She was pleasantly surprised that I had withstood the experience.  I explained to her about the mithridatism, the (barely sufficient) anti-inflammatory treatment, the extremely basic food intake, the avoidance of alcohol over several months, the yogic breathing, the Afghan walking, etc.  In short, I outlined the training regime I had designed and followed for the experiment that was a veritable performance.  Interested in her scientific point of view, I asked her if my impressions were genuinely equine or just the result of the inflammatory response.  Her assessment was that it was both.  However, she assured me, as did Professor Jean-Claude Lecron, that immunoglobulins are proteins that are highly specific in the way they match the receptors they target, but they are also specifically produced for each organism.  An equine immunoglobulin clearly provokes a specific equine response that, in a way, is disproportionate within the context of a human body.  Very possibly, my appetite, my extreme jitteriness, my fitful sleep, and my fear combined with a feeling of powerfulness, were specifically the experiences of a horse.  I came away from the experience with a special respect for an organism that survived by developing its power and its fear in a conjoined way.  In this new perspective, fear was no longer a harmful process from which a patient needs to be cured, but a real evolutionary process through which it is necessary to pass in order to integrate a fuller understanding of the world.  It is a therapeutic process.

 Today, what is certain for me is that the sensitivity of my consciousness has expanded as a result of a modification of my sense of perception by an animal that I am not.  I have enriched the complexity of myself with the integration of an additional equine personality aggravating, no doubt, my natural tendency toward multiple personalities.  But, as Alfred North Whitehead suggests in Process and Reality, it is not the multiple personalities themselves that create a problem, but the understanding of what he calls “central control” which allows them to process a conscience of a unified experience.  For an artist “central control” is to a large extent connected to bodily awareness.  It’s an embodiment of meaning.  And, possibly, the understanding in my case has been expanded by the experience of otherness.  The other, the animal, is no longer through this experience the incarnation of a faceless anxiety, an unknown dread.  Not the opposing element in a dialectic that can lead to the end of humanity as the historian Lucian Boia writes in his book La fin du monde: “The Other: the human dehumanized […] the dog, the rat, the salamander does not matter.  The Other represents the end of our world, of our civilization.” Rather, here the Other is the maieutic tool that will reveal the specificity of its incarnated consciousness to the artist.  In the May the Horse Live in me experiment the Other is Hubris, excessiveness, without which Dikè, human justice personified, would not have been conceived of.   Through artistic action, the Other comes into itself as the figure that human consciousness would need to visualize its future.