In Finland, the wolf is both more and less than an animal; it is a symbol. And this November sees a court case in which the very nature of that symbolism will be on trial. Fifteen men have been accused of the 2013 killing of three wolves (three of a population of around 150) in the west of the country. According to contemporary news reports, the killing was meticulously planned. The men subsequently arrested were “all experienced hunters and outdoorsmen” and had used “snowmobiles and high-tech communications equipment” to carry out their attack. The case, and the hunters’ line of defence, cuts right to the heart of the complex status of the wolf in Finland.
At the same time there is to be another trial. As part of Baltic Circle, an international theatre festival taking place across Helsinki in November, artist Terike Haapoja and writer Laura Gustafsson are staging their own version of the court case. Oikeusjuttu (The Trial) is a piece of experimental theatre that seeks to draw attention to the way that animals – in this case, wolves – are conspicuously excluded from decision-making processes. Haapoja and Gustafsson have worked with animal rights activist and chairman of Animalia, Sami Säynevirta, as well as lawyers Suvi Kokkonen and Visa Kurki in order to re-enact the poaching trial using new forms of experimental legislation. At the end of each performance, the audience will give their verdict.
The Trial touches on the long and strange history of animals before the law. This has been extensively documented by Edward Paysen Evans in his 1906 book Animal Trials (recently reprinted by Hesperus Press), which describes all sorts of bizarre cases, from the hanging of pigs for murder (sometimes dressed in human clothing first) to the excommunication and banishment of swarms of insects. What emerges is a portrait of a medieval justice system largely uninterested in motive or context. Where there is crime there must be agency – human, animal or even an inanimate object – and punishment of extreme severity. The division between human and animal is therefore a porous one – in 1408 pigs and humans are imprisoned together, for example – but a strict hierarchy is nonetheless in place: sixteenth-century Belgian jurist Joos de Damhouder is quoted as saying that Jews, Turks and Saracens, “in the eyes of the law and our holy faith, differ in no wise from beasts”.
As we begin to unpick Descartes’ notion of the animal-machine, the relationship between the animal and the law must change.
It is only in the nineteenth century that the issue of free will becomes central to modern jurisprudence. In his 1971-84 lecture series, Abnormal, Michel Foucault traces the emergence of psychology as a direct result of the changing requirements of the law. It is at this point that, because they are not considered conscious agents and cannot therefore be accountable before the law, or before psychology, animals begin to be excluded entirely from the legal process (not that they had ever really been included as animals per se).
Today, as contemporary animal studies begins to unpick the notion of the animal-machine posited by Descartes, the relationship between the animal and the law must change. Gustafsson cites whales, elephants and dolphins in particular as animals that seem to have free will in a manner analogous to ours. “There is no essentialist division between human and animal,” she says, perhaps controversially. Haapoja agrees: “the division has never really been biological,” she argues. “It’s a moral distinction that enables us to treat some groups with different moral standards.” The Trial is therefore also about morality: “we are not trying to apply our concepts of right and wrong to animals – then they would have to play by our moral rules. This is about debating our relationship to animals, not between individual animals and each other.”
The Trial is just one part of The History of Others – an ongoing collaborative art and research project between Haapoja and Gustafsson that aims not only to point out the extent to which animals have been excluded from the writing of history but also to begin to rewrite it from their perspective. An extension of Haapoja The Party of Others (2011) – which sought to examine the possibility of representing animals within the Finnish parliamentary structure – The History of Others has a broader scope, and encompasses publications, performances, exhibitions and even restaurant reviews carried out by animals disguised as humans (!)
Its largest component to date was 2013’s Museum of the History of Cattle, a two-week exhibition at the Cable Factory in Helsinki. “Our original aim,” explains Haapoja, “was to do all the species. But obviously there a quite a few… So we decided to start with cattle. Of course there are a whole lot of issues relating to factory farming and contemporary animal abuse issues, but also an ancient history of domestication.” “Cattle are maybe the most significant species in human evolution,” adds Gustafsson. “We have lived together for 10,000 years. They were probably the first kind of communal property. Thanks to them, we have agriculture, and later what we now think of as culture.”
The Museum of the History of Cattle took a year to put together. “It was important to research the conventions of the natural history museum,” says Haapoja, “how knowledge and credibility are produced.” The result was, in Gustafsson’s words, “a full-scale ethnographic museum”, although of course a temporary one; presented within the context of a contemporary art gallery. I wonder what impact that has: does art like this open up the debate or allow it to be dismissed as “only art” – neither real nor relevant? The project was “conceived as a demonstration,” explains Haapoja, “to show how such a thing could be done. It was absolutely not a parody.” “More like some kind of performance,” adds Gustafsson.
The same approach is being employed for The Trial. The law itself has a long engagement with performance. Young lawyers practice their skills in so-called mock trials, for example, judges wear elaborate uniforms, and there are all those declarations like “Guilty” and “I sentence the defendant to…” whose performativity is guaranteed by the authority of their context. It is precisely this, among other things, that The Trial will seek to examine. The performance takes place in the main building of the University of Helsinki, in an assembly room rarely open to the public. It is, Gustafsson tells me, “lined with paintings of illustrious men – ex-principals, a Russian tsar. There is a bible; the chairs are cushioned in leather.” “If you see critical animal studies as a continuation of radical feminism,” explains Haapoja, “this is taking place in the core of patriarchal humanism.”
The wolf has become a symbol of the control of the centre over the peripheries, of the EU over the individual.
The issues being explored are both universal and unique to Finland. In the course of their research, Haapoja and Gustafsson have noticed that the first animal welfare movement in the country also coincided with the emergence of nationalism. Haapoja talks of “the urge to produce our own identity and move away from Russia in particular”. There has since risen a feeling of moral superiority in contrast to “those brutal Russians”. This seems to be one reason why the wolf – ranging back and forth across the border with Russia – is such a problematic figure here. “Wolves in Finland are considered somehow intruders,” says Gustafsson. “They don’t respect the borders that humans have tried to draw between nature and culture.”
Wolves have also been caught up in political tug of war. On the one hand is what Gustafsson calls the “urban, academic, green, feminist people”; on the other, the people who actually have to live with them, and feel their livelihoods under threat: reindeer herders, for example, and elk hunters. As Finnish musician-turned-politician Mikko Alatalo wrote in a column for the Helsinki Times: “In the city, people in glass-walled offices are drawing up plans on how to turn the countryside into an outdoor museum for wolves to roam.” The wolf, says Haapoja, is “a symbol of the control of the centre over the peripheries, of the EU over the individual”.
And yet, despite (because of?) its potency as a political symbol, the actual wolf itself is now proving conveniently difficult to identify. The hunters’ defence is that the animals that were killed were not actually wolves (and so protected under EU law) but crosses between wild wolves and domesticated dogs, and that therefore the killing was legal. Because the corpses of the three animals (wolfs? dogs?) have subsequently been destroyed, DNA testing is the only technique available to ascertain the victim’s species. This is insufficient, argues the defence, to prove whether or not the animals killed were indeed wolves. Surely few things highlight the absurdity of our relationship to animals quite like this line of defence?
If such a question is above all an ethical one, then it is no longer acceptable for us as individuals to delegate our ethical responsibilities to the structures of law, politics, science etc. Rethinking the law may not be sufficient, but it’s a good place to start. “We’re not trying to make everyone think the same way, but to leave room for people to think for themselves,” says Haapoja. “That is what art can do.”
Oikeusjuttu (The Trial) is from 13th to 15th November 2014.
Image credits: ©Terike Haapoja