Doing It Like They Do(n’t) on the Discovery Channel: Charlie Spies on Post-Human Love

By Jude Jones

Two bodies – not entirely human, not entirely animal – elide in intimate union, orange skin on pink and pursed, plumped lips lingering, waiting for the ecstasy of contact. German artist Charlie Spies (she/they) calls this “Puppy Love – Like a Dog,” one of a series of  illustrations from her cyber-surrealist digital painting series “Discovery Channel,” which asks us to rethink life and love beyond the human domain.

Riffing through the series’s title with themes of discovery and documentary, the works are staged as alien encounters with others we find both appealing and uncanny, intriguing and repellent, thinking with heady philosophical ideas like post-humanism and new materialism, which invite us to think about how animals, plants, microbes, and objects might experience the world with us, and what we, as humans, can learn from this trans-species and trans-matter empathy. “Puppy Love” thus becomes less of a metaphor and more of a mantra, a rallying cry for revolutionary tenderness and empathy in the face of a sexual culture that often privileges dehumanising violence and misogynistic degradation: to make somebody your bitch, to fuck somebody else “Like a Dog.”

Charlie’s portfolio is impressive: they have illustrated for SWARM Magazine, a Prague-based publication spotlighting Eastern European creatives; designed a special edition double-cover issue for Hamburg-based Zeit Magazin; and animated for Burning Blue, a documentary by directors Kim Ly Lam and Cecilia Luna Pohl covering Seoul’s underground LGBTQ+ scene. “Discovery Channel” is her latest (and still on-going) project, expanding her creative interests in new and challenging themes. Talking over email, GAY45 Managing Editor Jude Jones got the chance to speak to Charlie about their art, their philosophy, and what it means to be a “post-human” in our contemporary culturescape.

Jude: Hi Charlie, thank you so much for giving me the chance to pick your brain a little and talk about some of your ideas and artwork, both of which I’ve very quickly become a massive fan of. It has all been a real pleasure. I just wanted to start by inviting you to tell me a little but more about “Discovery Channel,” the project’s title, and how it all came about.

Charlie: Hi Jude, thank you for the invitation! The title really plays on the format of the traditional animal documentary. In these documentaries, we tend to project very human emotions and motivations onto other creatures. Many of these depictions of non-human animals centre moralistic themes like puritan chastity, self-sacrificing motherhood, and binding heteronormative monogamy. Animal agency surrounding expressions of beauty or creativity is mostly depicting as solely a means of attracting sex, and sex in these narratives always equals reproduction. I think most documentaries on the Discovery Channel tend to these unimaginative, sterile forms of anthropomorphisation.  

Don’t get me wrong, I love documentaries a lot. But there is a tension within this genre concerning the relationship between fiction and reality, which is super interesting. My depictions of hyper-anthropomorphised human-animal-objects in no way attempt to convey non-fictionality. It is more about the way we build the boundary between reality and fiction, particularly when discussing socially constructed categories like gender and species.

I’ve noticed that a lot of these ideas seem to come from post-humanist philosophy and other quite theoretical sources that I’ve encountered in my university studies, for example that gender and species are potentially fictive – rather than “natural” – categories. My own interest in post-humanism is in the ethical questions it poses: what does it mean to be “post-human,” and how can this help us to reimagine the divisions between human and non-human, between me and you. Can you tell me more about how the idea of the “post-human” inflects your work and its ethical missions?

I’m very happy that you caught this vibe! My interest is in post-humanist feminism and new materialism, and how these inform how I make art and vice versa. I honestly have a hard time imagining art without any underlying ethics. So yes, I am happy if my work can transfer some of post-humanism’s ethics.

But maybe we should define post-humanism a little bit first. Post-humanism is a response to the human-centric hierarchisation of bodies that devastates our co-existence with the material world. Post-humanist and new materialist philosophers hope that we can challenge this hierarchy by concentrating on the aliveness and agency of non-human bodies and things and cultivating a respect for the things and creatures living with us.

Ideologically, humanism (versus post-humanism) does not only limit our relationship with non-humans, though. It also organises human bodies into certain hierarchies. Its concept of humanness is internally exclusionary and privileges white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and non-disabled men. If you think about it, many mechanisms of oppression and control work through dehumanising language, like ethnic or sexist slurs. Post-humanism considers how we categorise humans in relation to this set patriarchal standard, but also how the human and non-human co-create each other.

Thank you so much for explaining everything so briefly, these ideas can be a real headfuck to deal with! But, bringing this all back to your art and “Discovery Channel,” how did these entire come together in creating this project?

In my art, I am interested in the allyship between dehumanised humans and non-human beings. I’m interested in investigating how the mechanisms of gendering and speciation are intertwined when we anthropomorphise the animal or dehumanise the human. In “Discovery Channel,” I’m trying to find a gender- and species-fluid coalition outside the human category and to foster the connections between subversive femininities and artifacts.

Moving on a bit from all this theory, let’s delve more into the art! What are some of your main visual inspirations? I recently saw the “Cute” exhibition at Somerset House in London and couldn’t help but think that your art draws a lot of similar themes and ideas, particularly thinking about the subversive potential of cuteness. But there’s also something so uncanny valley to your illustrations. Is this cutesy uncanniness intentional?

In terms of inspirations, many post-humanist subcultures today embrace queer or trans animal affinities. Some of my favourite groups to reference are E-girls, furries, and drag-horror artists. These are really exciting practice-based networks forming around what it means to be more-than-human. Or subversive forms of feminine gender expression that outspokenly draw on images of fluffy animals, like the Japanese kawaii subculture and its Hello Kitty avatar. I particularly like the instances in which these kinds of species-play involve chitinous, feathered, tentacular, and monstrous creatures.

Talking about uncanniness, I really like this question! I think this is a very enticing feeling. It’s like being exposed to a form of identity glitch, a mis-repeated humanness that irritates and enchants at the same time. And I like the term “uncanny valley” because it opens the linguistic space between human and non-human. The repelling effect of the uncanny is that it threatens a slide down the human-animal-object hierarchy. It carries the impending loss of one’s human status as the exceptional species.

Like the uncanny, the cute cannot attain full human status. Traditionally those denoted as cute are considered harmless, young, emotional, soft, and small. Cuties are infantilised and commodified. Thereby, the cute can function as a trans-species framework. It spans from our relationships with pets to how certain expressions of femininity are devalued as intellectually and physically non-threatening. I think this is why so many artists today try to give the cute new meaning.

A lot of “cute” artwork, subversive or not, is also rooted in animation and other artistic practices that “Discovery Channel” draws on. Anime and kawaii culture, for example, like you mentioned . What is the appeal of animation for you? How do you think animation can help us rethink the world?

I believe creating a sensibility to the animacy of non-human bodies is at the core of animated art. Animacy being a form of aliveness, being animated. In animated worlds, we openly accept the animacy and aliveness of something non-human. Because animation doesn’t stop at human bodies, it includes animal bodies and all material bodies in its realities.

Animation helps us connect emotionally with characters that are often more-than-human, hybrids, or monsters. I believe that it is an inherent and, in parts, neglected quality of this art to inquire about the vitality of matter. Animation is an artistic medium specialised in forging emotive connections between fragmented, differently gendered, and differently speciated bodies.

I have yet to fully animate some of the characters of “Discovery Channel.” But I think illustration starts to help us animate things in the same way that language does. Because language is a form of animation too: when we say a battery is dead, or the wind is whistling. This is the coolest thing about this form of art, it can transfer these ideas in a very accessible and fun way.

And, to conclude, we’ve spoken a bit about language now, and you told me before this interview about how “Discovery Channel” has sometimes been a collaboration with other forms of cultural production, for example on the posters of and alongside performances by hyper-pop artists in Leipzig. So, if you could give me a mini-playlist of songs that encapsulate and animate your art and yourself, what songs would they be?

Namansenda by ☆ feat. Oklou, Praise the Farm by horsegirrL, Hi, I’m a Slut by Lil Marika, and Party 4 you by Charli XCX.

 

This interview was originally conducted over email, however aspects have been edited, redacted, and reordered to condense the conversation into a readable interview piece. 

Jude Jones (@jude_j0nes2002) is the Managing Editor of GAY45 and is an interdisciplinary student journalist, currently completing an undergraduate degree in History & French at the University of Cambridge. Their writing – covering photography, nightlife, fashion, gallery reviews, interest pieces, and political comments – has also been published by Varsity, The Cambridge Language Collective, DISRUPTION, and the Cambridge Review of Books, among others. They are in their final year of studies and are hoping to move to Paris next year to pursue a postgraduate degree in History & Philosophy of Art.

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