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Borrowed Prey an Act of Empathy

Written by Christin Call
Carrie Ahern in Borrowed PreyPhoto by Julie Lemberger
Project: Space Available never fails to bring in artists making provocative work while reaching across multiple creative fields of inquiry.  On Janurary 20, 2013, at Rain Shadow Meats in Capitol Hill the current P:SA artist in residency, Carrie Ahern, combined research of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, personal experience of slaughtering of chickens and cows, butchering, and anthropomorphism with her work Borrowed Prey: What is your relationship to the meat you consume. 
A small group behind the meat counter, the audience stood uncertainly around the wood butcher table.  The artist, with a jerky motion, slapped herself down on top and began a jarring kind of study of the space of the table surface and underside.  Like the stop-motion animations of meat cuts in Jan Svankmajer’s film Lunacy, she was a graceless meat slab feeling her way through the scenery.
Ahern’s monologues, sometimes backed by pre-recorded distortions of the same text, elucidated this extended embodiment with vivid descriptions of what it means to be an “animal of prey,” anatomically how this manifests in 360 degree vision in cattle, and, in turn, how this kind of vision leads to being startled by unexpected objects.  A repeated quotation of the evening from Temple Grandin remarked how cattle, far from being frightened by death, are unsettled by “a jiggling piece of chain or a hat left on an alley fence.”
Ahern’s progress through the work tempered scientific analysis with personal empathy.  In one section she identified herself as a “pressure sensitive creature” and went around the audience hugging, nudging, licking bellies, massaging faces, and even gave one surprised woman a slap to the ass.  This became important later when she described personal struggles with anxiety and an experience of requesting to be clamped into a squeezebox (a machine developed by Grandin to provide pressure on the body) which allowed mental release and reduced anxiety.  As a demonstration of the calming effects of pressure against the body, she plucked a volunteer out of the group and swaddled him on the butcher table in a large cloth.
Ahern then directly addressed the subject of anthropomorphism as ethologically taboo and the lamb carcass came out.  She chanted a repeated phrase about this “sin” while cutting what appeared to be a thigh. She continued. but had to grapple with the neck before breaking it and cutting that as well.  She swaddled each cut in butcher paper and then sat with the carcass in her arms.
Carrie Ahern in Borrowed PreyPhoto by Sarah Sterner
The sections of the piece using primarily movement, including a dance with the butcher knife where she mimicked slicing off parts of her body, seemed to contribute only in a small way to what is largely a collection of stories.  As a memoir of a human animal of prey, one whose personal anxiety and defenselessness has led to a particular empathy towards other animals, Borrowed Prey feels like just the tip of the iceberg; there is a wealth of material there. It succeeds in bringing the audience to the same level of empathy, so that when Ahern starts the butchering process it really is devastating.  And gross.  You might have to sit down for a minute, like this reviewer did.
Borrowed Prey is being performed again this weekend Thursday through Sunday at 8pm at Rainshadow Meats.  Tickets can be purchased here.