The dance Borrowed Prey starts out with Carrie Ahern straddling a butcher block at Melrose Market’s Rainshadow Meats. At moments she’s on the floor, or draped on the block legs splayed, or bent backwards on it. She moves with little spastic gestures, reminiscent of a small creature. She wears a faux fur cap and shrug and a blood-spattered apron. The dance ends with Ahern seated on a chair. Like a Pietà, she cradles a headless, refrigerated lamb in her lap.
The Wisconsin native has been performing and dancing in New York City since 1995. Dancing about sustainable meat, the symbolism of slaughtered animals and the politics of dying is a complicated proposition. What is the dance really doing? I contacted Ahern after a recent performance with a few questions about the unconventional presentation that touches on a variety of….well, touchy subjects.
Can you truly empathize with something that’s about to die?
Yes. The one guarantee in life is that we will all die. Even if part of you is in denial of that, part of you knows that to be true. And all sentient beings suffer. With these two realities comes the possibility for empathy at any moment, especially at the final one.
The imagery of slaughtered lambs, swaddling and pietas is pretty religious. Were you raised Christian and how did referencing this imagery enter into the concept or message?
I was raised Catholic. I grew up going to church every Sunday and attended Catholic school. I left the faith as a teenager, but it never really left me. I am deeply steeped in the beliefs, rituals and practices of Catholicism. I loved Lent, the stations of the cross, Easter, Holy Communion. Even now, I love the miracle that is transubstantiation, that the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ. There was something about that magical transformation that I got even as a young person. And I relate that transformation now to art and art making, and sharing with an audience. And I can also remember the accusation from non-Catholics about communion being an act of cannibalism, which is far too literal of an interpretation.
How does performing in a for-profit butcher shop (where you sell the meat used in your performance) impact the concept?
I apprenticed at Rain Shadow Meats, where the Seattle show takes place. Russ Flint (the owner) first taught me how to butcher. He also showed me how he runs a business and how butchering for retail purposes is very specific. The meat has to be cut and presented a certain way for it to be desirable for a wide customer base. And meat is perishable, so that concern is part of the business. I do not sell the lamb I butcher in the show via Rain Shadow Meats. I own the lamb, and cut it into primals from the whole animal. However, I sell it as close to retail as possible (without actually putting it on the scale) to allow people to connect the whole slaughtered animal to the butcher paper-wrapped retail meat. But I’m not in the meat selling business—and this is an art piece. Selling the meat is not primary, but only a part of the whole. That said, none of the meat I cut goes to waste.
On a larger scale, the setting of the butcher shop helps connect the dots for me and for my audience, as does the smell. As does the heavy white noise from all the refrigeration that’s keeping the meat fresh.
Do you think people would come to see a performance in an abattoir? Your aim is to address over-sensitization and desensitization of modern life, yet Borrowed Prey is highly aesthetisized, as an image, distanced (including the use of frozen meat) from the actual animal.
As far as the abattoir, slaughtering animals is a very protected practice in this country. When I slaughtered chickens on Stokesberry Farm, I had to be vetted by Janelle and Jerry Stokesberry to make sure my intentions were correct, and I promised not to take any photos. They consider ushering in a creature’s death a highly sacred practice, and I agree with them. I don’t know if people would come to a performance in an abattoir, but I certainly would not do a performance in one. And an industrialized slaughterhouse—you’d never get permission.
As for Borrowed Prey, I’m presenting a formalized, rehearsed piece in which I used hands-on research and ran my experience/research through my own body. The work is highly personal and is a manifestation of my own aesthetics. Part of my aesthetic is to employ the sense of touch in my work. There are several parts of the piece in which I employ touch and a kind of invasive intimacy, as long as my audience does not distance themselves from me. There are other moments in which I employ image and others where information is given via spoken or recorded text.
And the lamb isn’t frozen and never has been! It’s refrigerated.
Would you eat human flesh if given the chance? (Weird question I know, but I find responses to this are varied and reveal a lot about a person’s relation to animals, meat and taboo.)
I cannot honestly imagine a situation where I would need or desire to eat human flesh. That said, I’ve never been starving, so I don’t know. Eating human flesh is one of the greatest taboos for a reason; that’s a boundary I cannot see myself choosing to cross. As for animals, one of the things this project has taught me is that the animal kingdom is in a different category than human beings. Animals think and feel, but humans are at a higher level of consciousness. Animals need to be treated with appropriate care and respect, and we share many qualities, but there’s a very distinct boundary between the species.
How does eroticism play into the concept of empathy, consumption and animal death for you? While you were modestly costumed, the dance verged on erotic. Licking the knife, straddling the butcher’s block…
I’ve never been interested in being a vegetarian. When embarking on this project, I questioned why. One of the things I uncovered is that I have a deep drive to kill and eat animals, as I think most people probably do. A primal drive that feels connected to hunger of all sorts, whether it be for food or sex, power….or death and life. The eroticism in the work is an outward manifestation and recognition of those deep drives. These drives have manifested in all my work to date. Losing touch with this basic part of ourselves feels connected to some of the challenges of modernity, and I’m trying to find an authentic way back in.
Carrie Ahern will perform Borrowed Prey at Rain Shadow Meats Jan. 24-27. Tickets are available online.