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A Conversation Between Janis Rafa and Filipa Ramos on Animals in Art

The work of artist and filmmaker Janis Rafa (1984, Greece) explores the relationship between humans and animals. Through films and installations, she researches how this relationship has been troubled by a long history of human domination and anthropocentrism. Rafa enters into dialogue with Filipa Ramos, a curator and writer whose work has largely focused on animals and moving images. They discuss Rafa’s interests, her work process, and what happens when animals become the moving drive on a film set.

By Janis Rafa & Filipa Ramos02 January 2024

Janis Rafa opening Eye Filmmuseum (© Maarten Nauw)

© Maarten Nauw

Filipa Ramos:

"Visiting your exhibition this afternoon, I was struck by a matter of scale: by the relation between the details of your work and the big questions it raises: What does it mean to be a human and yet to accept that we are an animal amongst others? How do we choose the way in which we relate to the world and to those we share it with? What is our relationship to those humans got used to considering ‘others’, individuals who are different from ourselves for the most arbitrary reasons? With these questions in mind, and also prompted by the times we are living in, I went through your exhibition overcome by waves of pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort. It made me think about art’s potential to create the conditions for complicated matters to be addressed, where they can be thought, debated, and felt. Starting from the beginning, where did your interest in animals come from?"

A neon sign saying 'Thank you for liking my body but keep it out of your mouth.'

Janis Rafa – Feed me. Cheat me. Eat me. Photo © Hans Wilschut

Janis Rafa:

"I grew up in a family of many animals. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, but there were many dogs and cats in our house. The dogs usually came from the streets, and in Greece in the 1990s, most of them had Kala Azar*. They would only live for a few more years before we would bury them in our garden. With this as the backdrop of my childhood, I learned to be attentive to bodies different to ours, bodies that are, at the same time, very familiar. I spent a lot of time in places where verbal language was not the leading force, so I had to communicate in other ways to understand the animals’ behaviour and needs, to give and take love and affection. This non-verbal communication is still present in every film I make, in every experiment I do. Because shooting a film is an experiment for me in letting animals take a dominant place in the filming process, and letting them mess with the space and perspective."

*Kala Azar or leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease caused by infection with Leishmania parasites, which are spread by the bite of infected female sand flies. It affects humans and other mammals, and dogs are one of the most susceptible species. Unless promptly treated, canine leishmaniasis is a multi-organ fatal disease. Kala Azar is also the title of Janis Rafa’s first feature film, released in 2020.

Filipa Ramos:

"It’s interesting that you mention the word “shooting” when you talk about the filming process. Shooting means filming, but it also means firing a gun, which is a gesture of hunting. There is a continuity between these two meanings: in a way, filming is also an act of violence. You capture the bodies of others, of animals in this case, and transfer them onto a screen. Yet you only started working with animals at a later stage in your practice. You were already making films for some time before you decided that the experiences from your childhood and the relationships you had with animals should become a part of your work…"

Janis Rafa:

"That’s true. My practice started with an interest in peripheral spaces. I have been trying to understand these spaces and their often-invisible inhabitants. In my earlier work, I focussed on human inhabitants and invisible communities that performed at the outskirt of the city, such as refuge life, migrant workers and illegal hunters. Eventually, I started shifting my attention to the non-human life inhabiting these derelict landscapes."

Filipa Ramos:

"Some of the things you film are challenging to watch, like dog kennels and animal husbandry farms. There is little visual access to these places, they have been gradually moved out of cities towards peripheral areas, for reasons of hygiene, which also means people’s mental hygiene. If you don’t see, you don’t suffer, right? Yet, you intentionally make these places visible. I wonder how this affects you, portraying these animals in bad conditions, whose lives you cannot change?"

still from Kala azar (Janis Rafa, NL/GR 2020)
still from Kala azar (Janis Rafa, NL/GR 2020)

Janis Rafa:

"There’s a dual process that brings my personal interest in conjunction to my field work and activist interests. This can often be an unresolvable place to figure out when it comes to my response toward the welfare of the individual lives of animals. Through the years, my personal interest repetitively led my research towards inaccessible places, male dominated communities, stray life, animal use and captivity that stays well hidden from the public eye. It was not because of curiosity that I penetrated within these places and communities. It was a matter of acknowledging, seeing and reconfirming that such a reality exists out there but stays invisible, unimportant and unfamiliar to most. For example, in one of my projects I had to gain access and work with hunting communities and their dogs on set, even though I am against any form of animal hunting. This process, for me, was a way to question certainhierarchical structures, to document human behaviours and acknowledge the conditions within which these animals live, get trained to be predators and pets at the same time."

Filipa Ramos:

"During the first time that we spoke, you told me about your interest in negative space, a concept that is used in dance to refer to the empty space between two bodies. In animal husbandry, however, negative space is an area to fill in, as facilities often try to fit as many animals as possible in a single space. You address this concept in the exhibition by including series of metallic sculptures that punctuate the space. I would dare to call them a ready-made, since they are borrowed from industrial manufacturers here in the Netherlands, as they were originally designed for the containment and control of animals. Can you tell us more about them and their presence in the show?"

Janis Rafa – Feed me. Cheat me. Eat me. Photo © Hans Wilschut

Janis Rafa – Feed me. Cheat me. Eat me. Photo © Hans Wilschut

Janis Rafa – Feed me. Cheat me. Eat me. Photo © Hans Wilschut

Janis Rafa – Feed me. Cheat me. Eat me. Photo © Hans Wilschut

Janis Rafa:

"Yes, the installation is made from cow stall dividers. Usually, they are placed about a metre apart from each other, designed to save as much space as possible while, as claimed by the manufacturer, still providing comfort for the animals. I wanted to reshape these artefacts into something new, repositioning them from a horizontal to a vertical structure; creating a metastructure, so to say. It rethinks how negative space, as the empty space around the body (i.e., the air between you and me), also represents the animal body itself – the space for the ‘other’. In my turn, I would dare to call them the ‘guilty architectures’ of our times that see the animal as a mass body of efficiency and productivity."

Filipa Ramos:

"Most of the animals we see in your films, like horses, dogs, and poultry, are associated with domestic life. These animals have a long history of closeness to humans. At the same time, you choose to film in locations close to your homeland, in Greece, in places that are familiar to you. This makes your body of work an ongoing investigation about different traditions of closeness and familiarity, not just between people and animals, but also between people and landscapes…"

Janis Rafa, Landscape Depressions, 2023. Film still, single-channel video with sound, 25 min. Courtesy the artist © Janis Rafa
Janis Rafa, Landscape Depressions, 2023. Film still, single-channel video with sound, 25 min. Courtesy the artist © Janis Rafa
still from Lacerate (Janis Rafa, NL/IT 2020)

still Lacerate (Janis Rafa, NL/IT 2020)

Janis Rafa:

"Familiarity is the right word for how I feel within these landscapes. They are places where I feel comfortable exploring and trying to understand their politics and hierarchy. Similarly, being familiar with dogs and horses, I know what to expect when I bring a group of dogs into a space. I want to be familiar with both the locations and the animals, to comfortably explore and set up the scene, and ultimately, allow the animals to be free. I am not necessarily interested in creating a choreography for the animals; I just want to let them be in the space and see what happens."

Filipa Ramos:

"This makes me think of artist and choreographer Simone Forti, whose work is largely based on improvisation. She argues that you can only improvise when you train a lot. You train, and train, and train… and only then are you able to improvise; your improvisation emerges out of practice. In your case, the animals you are working with have been domesticated for millennia, but even so, you set them free and let them do whatever they want. You cannot script how they are going to behave. How do you manage to respond to processes that are largely beyond your control?"

Janis Rafa:

"I have never been let down by animals on set. It’s strange, because I have often been let down by humans, but by animals, never. There is something about the instinctive movement of animals, their unexpected responses, that make us humans feel uneasy. This is what I hope for when we let the camera run and sometimes we have to wait a long time before this happens. For my first feature film, Kala Azar, we were working with a big crew and a strict schedule, but it was important for me to reserve space and time for improvisation and unexpectedness, for the openness that an animal can bring into space. It's the same with weather. I don't fear the weather when we're shooting; it’s another unexpected factor that forces the crew to be flexible and see what can emerge."

Filipa Ramos:

"Thankfully, there will never be an app that will tell you, 'This dog will be in a very bad mood tomorrow; maybe it's not a good day to film.'"

Janis Rafa:

"There is a growing reputation that the sets of my films are very dirty and smelly. There is pee and shit everywhere. Most from the crew cannot stand it, but I can certainly say, without shame, that I grew up within it! I like to change the hierarchies on set, like pushing the entire crew into a very confined area and allowing the animals to take over and spread in space. I want to include the presence of the animal in all its anger, messiness, instinctive behaviour and unexpectedness."

In an overgrown field, the head of a white horse pops up from behind lush, overgrown greenery. In the background there is the facade of wooden houses that have seen better days.
Janis Rafa, Landscape Depressions, 2023. Film still, single-channel video with sound, 25 min. Courtesy the artist © Janis Rafa

Janis Rafa – Feed me. Cheat me. Eat me.

Visit the exhibition in Eye Filmmuseum until 7 January 2024.

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