Aria Dean Guides Us to the Killing Floor in Chicago Exhibition

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, discussed how the project relates to ideas 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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View of a large-scale architectural intervention with a diamond motif in silver, gold, and bronze coloring.

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: Aria is one of the first artists I reached out to when I joined the Renaissance Society in 2020. We had been in conversation for many years and worked together on several projects. Some involved her writing for pieces I commissioned when I was the editor at Kaleidoscope, and some materialized in group exhibitions, the most extensive being Made in L.A. 2020 at the Hammer Museum. The works at the Hammer were dealing with conceptual seeds that she developed further in Abattoir. The work that was made for the entrance hall for example–Les Simulachres, 2020, which featured abstracted renderings of skeletons on the museum’s wall– pulled from the “Danse Macabre” tradition and brought in the idea of death and its abstraction through representation. I was interested in having her experiment on the subject at a larger scale at the Ren. She was already researching slaughterhouses when we had our first conversation. At the time we discussed Chantal Akerman’s 1972 La Chambre as a reference. Over three years the project evolved quite a bit. The pivot to a virtual film was crucial and commended a lot of decisions about the display.

Image still from Abbatoir, U.S.A,!

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: I identified this crossover moment where Wilderson references the 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 mobilize that overlap—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 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 clearly mobilizing, any of the stuff [Wilderson and Bataille] say; it ruminates if anything. The work is just in the same space as those starting points.

ARTnews: It’s not natural death—it’s premature. How did you each work through that specific idea?

Dean: Mechanized or industrialized death was part of 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 took on more and more importance economically. But it’s a part of what we presuppose societies work. And, as for Wilderson, it has some sort of allegorical charge in relation to structural racism and black death, but also to colonialism and fascism, and an array of large-scale killing machines. 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 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: 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 history in Europe. For example, 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 of some of his housing projects. These preoccupations 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. If it is allegorical in some sense, then 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: The anti-representational character of the work or its sort of a-signifying structure, is important here, too. Aria kept pushing against the idea of having any signifiers within the film in order to truly focus on the system itself rather than any individual experience of it.

Image still from Abbatoir, U.S.A.!

ARTnews: How is what we’re seeing unfold visually related to this idea?

Dean: The camera— you as the viewer—or the animal within the actual scenario that we’ve made a model of here 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: The film being interested more in structures, rather than in experiences — I think that’s one of the most powerful things about it. It allows [you to] move away from feelings of empathy, which ultimately, we’ve seen through the reaction to representations of death or killings: maintain the status quo rather than provoke any tangible action. In a way [it] challenges and even rejects the idea of “empathy” as an agent of change.

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 slaughterhouse is the perfect location to try to test the mechanisms 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 an aesthetic or materiality 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 other than “game-like,” which doesn’t feel sufficient. It’s not quite video art. It’s not quite 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’s what is different: it’s not a deconstructive exercise. It’s not totally deconstructing you as a subject. It’s kind of willing to play ball with the things in film that make you a subject.

Image still from Abbatoir, U.S.A.!

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 structural film when it started. I wanted to shoot it in a real slaughterhouse because I wanted it to be what I understood as “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 generally designed linearly– they’re dis-assembly lines–and I also couldn’t get access to one anyway. There was a lot of red tape to get into any of them. The only way to image the space with my resources was to make a kind of generic slaughterhouse 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. Artist friends like Arthur Jafa and Jordan Wolfson who I’ve talked to about film and video a lot over the years, and written on. My time at Rhizome and the work we did on historical net art as well–one of the hanging questions from my time there was this question of cinema and the virtual; which I’m beginning to work through directly with [Abbatoir U.S.A.!]

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 and the 19th Century as the sort of starting point historically for my research on the slaughterhouse. Then we pulled from things we simply 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, though it feels far away from you, reaching you through some sort of transmission. 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 when it is coupled with the movement of the hooks starting their little dance there’s a lot of humor there. The soundtrack is probably the only thing in the film that creates a sense of narrative and some kind of emotional hook. It brings the work within the space of pop culture which is an important part of your practice too.

Dean: Yeah, 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 warmth and texture is where I’m coming from aesthetically.

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