Verto Pellis


The “object”—I cannot give it a better name because I am still not certain what I was looking at—was discovered sitting in a dimmed corner of a room filled with a number of other objects one might describe simply as “curiosities.” This object had many visible qualities of an animal but was assuredly not an animal. It had eyes, but no face—which is to say that it had those features one might typically recognize a face by, but they were not organized in such a way. Those features seemed to be more generally distributed—and multiplied. My God, there were so many eyes. Other things were just as unusual. I noticed swaths of deeply lined and hairless hide giving way to thin stone-like ribs framing small bits of colored glass. This object had something like arms and legs as well, but these resembled furniture arms and legs more so than the limbs of an animal. There were areas that appeared to have musculature beneath the tufted fur, yet other areas were wooden—intricately carved and carefully polished. Despite these animal and furniture attributes, the purpose of the object was unclear. It seemed to have no particular use. It appeared useless. I wondered about its meaning. Was it also meaningless? What is the meaning, I asked myself, of any curiosity? I didn’t know this object’s identity nor its provenance. Neither could I discern its use nor its meaning. I decided to take this object with me in order to learn its story; and failing that, to invent one.


Pelt_set a.2 Image: Karel Klein with Ryan Barnette, courtesy of Ruy Klein

From The Postmodern Animal: “A botched taxidermy piece might be defined as referring to the human and the animal, without itself being either human or animal, and without its being a direct representation of either. It is an attempt to think a new thing… to prompt a moment of perplexity and non-recognition, of genuine thinking.”Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 75.

Step 1. Hybridizing the body

First, we must tend to the body. The pelts before you have been stripped from unconventional bodies. The bodies are constructed bodies. They are botched bodies. They are bodies assembled from bits of animal, furniture, and architecture. These bodies might be understood as the outcomes of a kind of AI enabled vivisection, not unlike the modified creatures made by the fictional character Dr. Moreau in H.G. Wells’s novel from 1896, The Island of Dr. Moreau.Herbert George Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau (United Kingdom: Heinemann, 1896).

In this story, the surgeon exacts the limits of biological plasticity in his attempt to make humans from live animal parts. He arranges the various skins in order to imbue wild flesh with human traits and domesticated behaviors. He not only wants to tame, but to enlighten and civilize through the careful, surgical hybridization of different animal parts and features. Wells also wrote a non-fiction essay entitled The Limits of Individual PlasticityHerbert George Wells, "The Limits of Individual Plasticity," in Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction (California: University of California Press,1895). in which he speculates that such vivisection techniques could indeed alter living biological specimens far beyond their inherent forms. In other words, animals could be re-formed and sculpted into entirely new creatures—whether exquisite or monstrous. Perhaps more interesting, however, is the eventual return of the altered fictional creatures to their “bestial ways.” Entropy, here, is the becoming irremediably disorganized, the becoming “wild,” the return of attributes and characteristics intrinsic to the original beasts. The hybrid animal retains its disconcerting form and its uncanny reconfiguration of features, but its behaviors change—it becomes quadrupedal, it loses its prior graceful use of hands, it menacingly remembers the taste of flesh. It becomes savage. And if one can say that the bestial and wild are modalities of the profane, and conversely, that the domesticated beast is sacred, then perhaps this tug-of-war between the desire to tame, the desire to make object or ornament, and the force of entropy (wild-making) is the variable space between the consecration and deconsecration of these two states of being and matter. The consecrating ritual that changes wine into Christ’s blood is the archetypal transmutation of profane to sacred. But, at the end of the ceremony, the blood returns to its original status of wine. In other words, it returns to the realm of the profane. Consecration is a ritual of becoming. It marks the space where the sublunary essence of an object changes. In our case, toward domestication and ornamentation, away from the bestial and savage. And then back again. These AI pelts visibly manifest and freeze the inevitability of the wild. They appear to have been removed from bodies in the midst of their struggle between wildness and enlightenment. They reveal the profane becoming sacred, or the sacred returning to the profane, frozen somewhere in-between.


Pelt_set b.3 Image: Karel Klein with Ryan Barnette, courtesy of Ruy Klein

Step 2. Taxidermy

Next, we must (re)arrange the skin. The history of the practice of taxidermy is rich with numerous examples of the making object of animal, the making furniture of animal, the making ornament of animal. It is the literal fixing of animal skin into something “other,” however carefully maintaining the overall recognizability and identity of the original specimen. Taxidermy, from the Greek words taxis (arrangement) and derma (skin), translates to the “arrangement of skin”—a presentation which most often situates and freezes the wild and savage animal aspects into exaggerated ferocious gestures. Paradoxically, these violent postures are instantly domesticated, or tamed, when disanimated. In other words, animals become objects; they become ornament; they become fashionable décor adorning well-appointed parlors in the late 19th century. In “Skins of the Real: Taxidermy and Photography”, Michelle Henning claims that this “frozen moment” is always linked to the ornamental. She writes of Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz stories, that: “…petrification is almost invariably associated with becoming ornamental… and characters are sometimes magically transformed into sculptural ornaments.”Michelle Henning, “Skins of the real: taxidermy and photography,” in Nanoq: Flat out and Bluesome, A Cultural Life of Polar Bears, ed. Bryndis Snaebjornsdottir and Mark Wilson (London: Blackdog Press, 2006), 142. They become literal statuary. “A worse fate cannot be imagined,”Ibid. 142. Henning concludes.

One of the peculiarities of taxidermy is that the frozen moment inevitably tries to capture and represent animation. The animal-objects are made to look alive, frozen suddenly and magically, at the apex of some emblematic activity. In this way, the surface of the animal (its skin and features) is arranged (taxidermy) in such a way as to pretend to be animal. The animal thus becomes more than an object: it becomes a puppet, improbably impersonating itself. Those unsettling sensations one has in the presence of such a frozen moment are not unlike the sensations that automatons of the late 19th century are said to have produced in their beholders. The automaton—a mechanical mannequin constructed to look and behave like a human being (which might be made to move its arm in order to write a letter of correspondence, for instance)—is also pretending. The doll-like contraptions imitate life with dubious mechanical gestures. Although they are unconvincing as static life-like specimens, their movements were a disturbing kinetic simulacrum of being alive. The taxidermied animal, a “mannequin inhabiting its own skin,”Ibid. 140. will produce those same feelings of “uncanny dread” in its beholders—not because it can move, but because it is formed from the animal itself, it looks like it just might. It is this disquieting ambiguity between the animate and the inanimate, between the living and the dead, that the AI taxidermied bodies and their subsequent pelts, also share.

Step 3. Skinning the body

Finally, we will remove the skin from the (hybridized and taxidermied) body. But first, we must determine where on the body to cut. The boundaries of the pelts before you are figured solely by the trace of the instrument used to slice the membrane of skin. The inflections along its edges are entirely extraneous. They are artificial seams. When one skins a dead animal, there are just two established methods from which to choose: the first in which the skin is peeled off like a sock (case skinning), the second in which the skin is peeled off like a jacket (open skinning). With these methods, the image of the animal, although significantly abstracted, remains largely recognizable. However, there are fewer clues as to how one might re-form these AI pelts. New methods of skinning these unconventional bodies are needed, and new and irregular flat-pattern profiles are drawn. The lack of familiarity with these invented anatomies makes the pelt, and its relationship to the body it was removed from, even more ambiguous and abstract. The images of the undressed skins suggest something simultaneously formed and formless. The bodies’ lumpy masses have been removed, but the skins retain the evidence of what used to lie behind them. These exterior features typically express to the outside that which lay invisible on the inside: eyes can be found that locate prior sight, tufts of fur suggest former muscular contractions, carved and polished wood indicate previous joinery between a table’s leg and its seat, etc. For these AI pelts, it is only the seamless agglomeration of the varied animal and object features that remains. But this is precisely where legibility is at its most vivid. Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Corpus Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).that truth is found in the skin, behind which nothing else is waiting to be discovered. In the chapter entitled “Fifty-Eight Indices on the Body”, number fifty-four states: “The body, the skin: the rest is anatomical, physiological, and medical literature… Truth is in the skin, it makes skin: an authentic extension exposed, entirely turned outside while also enveloping the inside.”Jean-Luc Nancy, “Fifty-eight Indices on the Body,” in Corpus (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 159. In other words, all that there is to know can be understood uniquely and entirely just by encountering and regarding the skin. The mass beyond the skin, kept formed within and by the skin, is meaningless. Nancy asserts that because one only accesses oneself from the outside: “skin touches and lets itself be touched”Ibid. 159., that one, then, is always and only a distinct and manifest outside: “The body is always outside, on the outside.”Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.) 129. In this way, all other bodies encountered must also purely and exclusively be an outside. In contrast to science and religion, which seek to discard the skin as a superficial mask concealing the more significant inner workings of anatomy, or the soul itself, for Nancy, every revelation can be found in the skin. It is outside. It is legible. It is everything.

One outcome of this precise and exhaustive legibility is that the AI pelts might be read as a modern technological correlate to the medieval bestiary—those encyclopedic anthologies filled with stories and illustrations describing real and mythological beasts, always a fantastical mixing of fact and fiction, and sometimes inscribed directly on the prepared skins of animals. Bestiaries are artifacts and sites of pre-enlightenment enchantment. The AI pelts perhaps, are artifacts and sites of contemporary re-enchantment.


Pelt_set c.1 Image: Karel Klein with Ryan Barnette, courtesy of Ruy Klein


These images—produced with artificial intelligence, trained with a menagerie of bestial and ornamental features—are the strange offspring resulting from the coupling of animal and object. They are the garments of skin peeled not from fantastical creatures, but from imagined, already ornamented and taxidermied artifacts—bodies already hybridized with other bodies: animal, furniture, architecture. The same bodies that could only be identified as the “object” upon initial encounter. These skins, ultimately, are presented without their bodies—as hides, fells, pelts—that is, with all of the exterior features (fur, eyes, teeth, etc.) emanating from the underpinning of the intact, remaining skin. They are the skins previously arranged (taxidermy), whose peculiar features are now continuously and deliriously rearranged through artificial intelligence. The skins of the bodies laid flat become an area, a site, a scene for the AI neural network to repeatedly make and remake—not as a Benjaminian work of mechanical reproduction, but as a highly ritualized fabrication. They are the frozen moments of deconsecration, the surrealist games of automatic writing (spontaneous and meaningless, disturbing and enchanting), bestiaries narrating new mythologies, or Hans Bellmer dolls abjectly reconfigured: “the body like a sentence that invites us to rearrange it, so that its real nature becomes clear through a series of anagrams.”Hans Bellmer, interview with Peter Webb, Paris, 15 Jan. 1972, quoted in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, Vol 1 (New York: Phaidon, 2004)106. “Compare Little Anatomy”, 37-8. They are the alchemical transmutations of previously recognizable forms into fields of intensities, areas of pure feature, sites of technological enchantment. And the story I sought from the “object” found in that dimly lit corner is discovered, or invented, right here, in its unfurled skin.

Pelt_a.2 - Pelt_ b.3 - Pelt_c.1 (details) Animation: Karel Klein with Ryan Barnette, courtesy of Ruy Klein
Pelt_Body 1 - Pelt_ Body 2 - Pelt_Body 3 (details) Animation: Karel Klein with Ryan Barnette, courtesy of Ruy Klein