Bennett Miller’s Dachshund U.N. is both a large-scale architectural installation and a performance work that examines the role of the United Nations as a risk management organisation. A four level amphitheatre installed on MCA Square this weekend, 2 and 3 June 2012, plays host to a meeting of the U.N.’s
Human Rights Council, wherein all 47 of the national delegates are live dachshunds. Dachshund U.N. is both a joyful and chaotic experiment, and a meditation on the utopian aspirations of the United Nations, and our capacity as humans to imagine and achieve a universal system of justice. Audiences are invited to exclusive live viewings of the operations of the Dachshund U.N. , where the specially recruited dachshunds engage in rigorous debate.
The MCA catches up with Bennett Miller ahead of the event.
Are you first and foremost a performance artist? If so, how long have you been practicing as such?
Not really. I also like gallery / museum settings for artworks and the more formal context that they provide. But there is alot to get excited about in performance and ‘live art’ works, so I just start with the idea and think of the best way to do it. In this instance I was still thinking of the dachshund as a formal and conceptual device, probably less so than as a ‘performer’. Increasingly these worlds are merging and referencing each other anyway, so I look forward to working with both.
Do you own a dachshund?
Yes- I now have a dachshund named Ruth, but initially there were 2 dachshunds, Snagger and Otto, that were a big part of my life without being owned by me. In previous interviews I claimed them but it’s probably time to stop that because I keep getting told off for it.
Do you know where the name Dachshund comes from?
Yes- In German- ‘Dach’ means badger, and ‘hund’ means hound. In Germany I believe dachshunds were used (and thus slowly bred) for hunting purposes to flush out badgers from tight tunnels- hence their narrow shape. I’m pretty sure they weren’t in charge of killing the badgers, just making a big noise when they found one. At this point the hunters presumably started shooting at the noise. It’s unclear how many dachshunds died when that happened, but it’s pretty clear how brutal the breeding/hunting history is.
What five adjectives would you use to describe dachshunds?
Beautiful. Proud. Determined. Restricted. Cruelled.
What five adjectives would you use to describe the United Nations?
Determined. Restricted. Flawed. Important. Underrated.
What made you associate sausage dogs with the U.N.?
The racial diversity within the breed is unique among dog types, excluding all those variations on the word poodle- they are the only breed with 6-7 varieties that are still called a dachshund. They are similar in that way to the racial groups within humanity. So a composition of ‘dachshunds’ has interpretations of race- something that changes across different performances of the work.
The dachshund also has a physical shape that is appropriate for the UN- mainly because they have tiny ‘restricted’ legs and they have suitably proud expressions. Big heart, tiny legs I guess.
They also have strong historical links to nobility, to status and to war, most notably Napoleon, Queen Victoria and the German war general Erwin Rommel, who were all dachshund owners.
Also, on a base level, it’s because they are an animal with a particular relationship to people, which is what all of my recent work looks at in one way or another. Within this, the dachshunds history of breeding, manipulation, status as pets and German lineage, are all interesting if viewed in the historical context of the UN.
What is your mini U.N. amphitheatre made of? Is it an exact replica of the real United Nations amphitheatre?
It’s made out of timber and it’s not an exact replica of the UNHRC office. The UNHRC office was renovated well out of my price range via a huge donation from the Spanish government a few years ago. So it was based on an older image from the Palace of Nations in Geneva, but it’s since been slowly altered to suit what it has to do.
The human/real United Nations has 193 United Nations (UN) member states. Did you randomly choose to have 47 dachshund representatives or is there reasoning behind that figure? And how do you choose the countries represented?
The sculpture is based on the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UNHRC has 47 temporary members at any one time. 47 of the 193 member states of the full General Assembly rotate through 3-year tenures in the HRC at any one time. For this show, we have updated the nameplates based on the current membership of the UNHRC except for including Palestine at the request of a participant.
The perception that the work is stopping short of the UN’s full General Assembly is a common one but I think the UNHRC is actually more appropriate for the idea. Often people are thrown that there’s no Australia in there for example. But I’d encourage people who may not be aware of it to look into the UNHRC as it’s an important sub-division of the organization.
The assigning of dogs to countries within the UNHRC is necessarily random so as not to be offensive to dogs or countries.
Performance Space organised a BBQ session a few weeks back to allow Dachshund owners and their dogs to meet and potentially sign up for this performance. I hear that there were more than 150 registrations. How do you select the final 47 dogs?
Because there are three performances with substitutes I need about 180 so even though that was the most awesome turnout imagineable, if you are reading this, have a dachshund, and would like to participate you can still show up at the meeting point (Dawes Point Reserve, underneath the Harbour Bridge) on Sunday at 10am or 1pm. There will be heaps of dachshunds there so we will be easy to spot, and we’d love to have you and yours involved.
In terms of selection, because the work relies on a diversity of dogs, and because it is largely unpredictable how any given dog will respond to it, they never really get ‘screened’ or selected. Only two dogs have ever been blocked from involvement, and those were some angry little guys.
How long does the performance last?
It lasts for one hour.
Once they are in place, do the dogs naturally start debating/barking amongst themselves? Can you describe the scene for us? Is it loud?
At the beginning it’s usually a bit chaotic but the part I prefer is when the dogs calm down in the middle of the performance. I will never know what they think of being involved, but that part is usually more interesting than if they behave more typically to what people expect of dogs. I know it’s funny if they behave badly, but I prefer it if some of the more obvious gags are less noticeable, and people can really study the dogs to consider the work.
What do you do if the dogs choose to go to the toilet? Are there on-site facilities?
We have prepared for this. Interestingly one of the two things you might expect to occur has never actually happened.
Are the owners nearby should one of the dogs wish to leave the meeting?
The owners are underneath their dogs, under each individual platform. This is crucial, and what makes the project possible. I wouldn’t be willing to tether the dogs to the stage as that would be cruel and dangerous. Each dog is instead represented 1:1 by an owner beneath each platform. The owners judge how their dogs are feeling up there, and encourage them throughout the event. If a dog is uncomfortable we have substitute dogs waiting at the back of the sculpture to rotate in and out of position.
On a final, random note, what music do you listen to?
Depends on the day really, guess I always loved hip hop the most, but when I’m working it tends to be all emotional, folky stuff for encouragement.
Dachshund U.N. runs Saturday 2 June at 2 pm and Sunday 3 June at 11 am and 2 pm. Weather dependent.
Posted by Kelly Stone
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