Aria Dean’s exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago consists of one work: Abattoir, USA!, a 10-minute film engineered using 3D graphics that’s set in an imagined slaughterhouse. With an unnerving score from electronic musician Evan Zierk, the film moves viewers through an industrial landscape that’s shown from the perspective of an animal being herded to the killing floor.
To see the video, viewers must enter through cold storage doors and walk across rubber matted floors, in effect extending this slaughter house into the real world. In an interview, Dean, who is based in New York, said the piece extends from ideas she explored in a catalogue essay titled “Channel Zero” for the current Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Signals: How Video Transformed the World.” For that essay, she examined videos capturing police brutality, charting how they repeat gruesome cycles of life and death, and “reifying anti-Blackness,” as she told ARTnews.In a Zoom interview, speaking alongside the Renaissance Society show’s curator, Myriam Ben Salah, Dean was careful to note that she treated the animation in Abattoir, USA! with similar scrutiny and for this reason, it does not include representations of bodies.
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Although the video surveys the path that cattle would be forced to proceed through, it mostly features textures: shots of stone walls, shining metal grip hooks, and flits of light that mimic the loss of consciousness.
There are quite literally few signs of life present. “I knew I didn’t want to include viscera,” Dean said.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ARTnews: What early conversations did you have about how this work would be displayed at Renaissance Society?
Myriam Ben Salah: We were introduced in 2017. At the time, I was working with Kaleidoscope magazine. I asked Aria to be part of a roundtable around what was considered radical in art today. I think that’s how we got in touch initially, and that sort of started a lot of conversations and commissions that had to do both with Aria’s work as a writer as well as an artist. We worked on a project for “Made in L.A. 2020” at the Hammer Museum. And I feel like there were themes or conceptual threads from the works of that show that appear in this work at the Renaissance Society. It felt natural when I joined [in 2020] to ask Aria to be in conversation about an exhibition. I also was eager to see her experiment at a larger scale.
ARTnews: The work draws from texts by philosopher Georges Bataille and American critic Frank B. Wilderson, who are associated with Surrealism and Afropessimism, respectively. How did the references to slaughterhouses in their writings inform the making of Abattoir, USA!?
Aria Dean: There was this crossover moment where Wilderson references a slaughterhouse and uses that as a metaphor, and then Bataille has his writing about the slaughterhouse as well. I think it’s this thing that I do often, seeing where disparate theoretical sources share some sort of interest in a topic. I got interested in writing about an overlap between Afropessimist-leaning theory and Bataille. I wanted to try to figure out what that overlap was—this question of the inside and outside of civil society. It became the generator for a lot of the research and this question of death’s relationship to modernity—that modernity is not life-affirming, but possibly death-affirming or requiring something to be killed continuously for it to live. The texts are the generator of the piece. But the work itself is not really investigating, or even mobilizing, any of the stuff [Wilderson and Bataille] say. The work is just in the same space as those starting points.
Ben Salah: At the Hammer especially, the work that was made for the entrance hall [Les Simulachres, 2020, which featured abstracted renderings of skeletons on the museum’s walls]it really had to do with this “Danse Macabre” digital reconfiguration that she was working on, and I guess the idea of death was extremely present. Somehow, this sort of abstracting of death through the digital was starting to build up and become materialized in a bigger, more consistent way with this video.
ARTnews: It’s not natural death—it’s premature. How did you each work through that specific idea?
Dean: That was central to my interest in the slaughterhouse overall. The killing of animals and the consumption of animals isn’t necessarily something that’s, in a totalizing sense, necessary for the function of society. It’s sort of, like, a necessity of convenience. And it’s an industry. Especially in Chicago and other places, it takes on more and more importance economically. But it’s a part of what we presuppose as a function of how societies work. Architecturally, and urban design–wise, it’s made marginal, and yet, it’s part of the engine. Part of it is this fact that the slaughterhouse is one of the American industrial typologies that was influential in the development of modernist architecture and international style, but it’s doesn’t get as much airtime.
ARTnews: Talk more about what role architecture plays in Abattoir, USA!. How did you work through the idea of the slaughterhouse as a particularly modern site?
Dean: In writing from that period of architectural theory, and even prior to that, there’s a lot of discussion about the slaughterhouse. The reason I was interested in that idea is exactly what you’re saying: this sort of “sanctioning” of death, but also cordoning it off. It’s as if the slaughterhouse is this major conceptual pin in the development of modernity as we understand it. Especially aesthetically, it really shifts our understanding of what modernism is, if we put killing as a centerpiece.
ARTnews: How did this come up in your research?
Dean: There’s a clear place that it holds in architectural aesthetics in Europe. The first architectural prize Le Corbusier won was for the design of an abattoir that never got built, but he used the design as the base some of his housing projects. These weird things were kind of baked in the pinnacles of modernist architecture that were supposed to be life-affirming.
ARTnews: How does that play out in the piece?
Dean: We’re still unpacking the allegorical or non-allegorical nature of it: what are all the slaughterhouses, conceptually, that are required to keep all of this going in a much larger sense? In different eras, it’s different things: everything from plantation-based slavery to share-cropping to [manufacturing] in the contemporary global.
Ben Salah: I think what’s interesting in this idea of death in this work, it’s an anti-representational character. You don’t see death. There is no narrative and barely any signifier in the work. The blood is the only thing. Aria, you were hesitant even to have it, to maintain this abstraction.
ARTnews: How is what we’re seeing unfold visually related to this idea?
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Dean: The animal in theory—you, as the viewer—goes through the quote-unquote death moment with this flicker in the film. But then on the other side, nothing is different. You’re still in the same architecture. There’s no transcendent moment. The whole point was never to image death or allegorize it, or to create an experience of death for a viewer in some sort of first-person way. It’s much more focused on the architecture of the killing.
Ben Salah: You identify more with the building than with anything else. I think what you’re saying, Aria, is also interesting in terms of the film being interested more in structures, rather than in experiences. I think that’s one of the most powerful things about it, that it allows [you to] move away from feelings of empathy, which, ultimately, we’ve seen again through the reaction to representations of death or killings or suffering: maintain the status quo rather than provoke any tangible action.
ARTnews: The press release describes the work as dealing with the “boundary between human, animal, and machine.” How is the potential for multiple points of view present here?
Dean: Formally—let’s say, beyond the interest in slaughterhouses—the work originated almost as a mechanism: the slaughterhouse [as] the perfect location to try to test the mechanism of identification in film. There is this idea that runs throughout most of film theory and popular cinema that the camera’s point of view dictates where your identification or empathetic feelings lie. In the absence of a particular physical point of view, in certain moments, does that then leave the viewer to experience it from my point of view as the known creator of it? A lot of the time, I make work to try to understand how people interact with certain kinds of objects, film, sculpture, etc… It’s kind of testing how to produce a certain kind of subject within the cinematic space.
ARTnews: And how is it speaking to other ways that artists have treated moving images?
Dean: We were talking a lot about even just the sheen of it and how it has that aesthetic that you know is related to digital renderings, if you are someone from our time period. There’s not really a word for things that have game logic or feel like a game. It’s not really a film. It’s not VR, because it is interested in cinema as the mode that you’re experiencing it through. Whatever this mode of subjectivity is, it relates to things I’ve tried to write about in the past. I think that what’s different: it’s not a deconstructive exercise. It’s not deconstructing you as a subject. It’s kind of willing to play ball with the things in film that make you a subject.
ARTnews:You’ve said initially you wanted to film inside a real slaughterhouse. How did that limitation come to shape the decisions that you and your collaborators made in visualizing the setting for this work?
Dean: I was thinking a lot about structuralist film when it started. I wanted to do it in a real slaughterhouse because I wanted it to be like what I understood to a real structural film, so putting a camera in there, Chantal Akerman–style, and going around in a circle essentially. But then I realized that slaughterhouses are designed linearly, because they’re assembly lines, and I also couldn’t get access to one. There was a lot of red tape to get into any of them. The only way to do it was to make a kind of generic slaughterhouse that came out of composite of images from YouTube, history books, etc.
ARTnews: Who are some of the influences underpinning the work?
Dean: The main influences on the project are structural filmmakers like Michael Snow and Chantal Akerman, Paul Sharits, ’60s and ’70s experimental film. People like Arthur Jafa and Jordan Wolfson—thinking through their work, alongside conversations with them, was really influential in terms of like putting me on to this sort of path of inquiry.
ARTnews: How did you discuss with making the score with Evan Zierk, the composer of the score?
Dean: Initially, we wanted to make an instrument that was going to combine human and animal breathing with whirring of a machine into one sound. That could then be a synthesizer that could then be played. We started to talk about Romanticism as something that hit around the same time historically as something we could draw on. Literature of that time was interested in how machines were coming into everyday life. Then I pulled from things I liked. I have this ongoing interest in melodrama as a structure in cinema and the way that we’ve inherited that genre as the totality of how we think films should work. It tells you how to feel. We used those sorts of cues.
ARTnews: The sound does a lot for the ending. Especially as the video comes to a close, the audio starts to phase out to a rustling noise that’s very unsettling.
Dean: There’s not a clear sense of what you’re supposed to feel in each section. At the last minute, this cellist, Nicky Wetherell, played the section for the ending. He sent these recordings, and the end is him turning off the recording. The texture that it provided, it felt like it came from our world. Alongside this super cold visual, you are kind of brought back to a body. The “I Think We’re Alone Now” part at the end, the pop song, is supposed to be a capstone of that.
Ben Salah: Especially coupled with the movement of the metallic structures, there’s a lot of humor there. All of a sudden, there’s this sense of emotional narrative. It creates these ties to pop culture, which runs through the rest of your practice.
Dean: You have this weirdly humorous, melancholic pop song playing. The ending song came in at the last minute, in the final few weeks before the show. That kind of warm and texture is where I’m coming from aesthetically.