Published  20/09/2017

Ross Birrell: ‘I saw a possible way to draw a relationship between art and emancipatory politics’

Ross Birrell: ‘I saw a possible way to draw a relationship between art and emancipatory politics’

Ross Birrell talks horses, endurance and taking risks in relation to two works for Documenta, his film Criollo and The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes, a procession of horses and riders on a 1,850-mile journey, which he describes as a ‘mobile human-equine ensemble’


Every five years when Documenta takes place in Kassel, one animal species appears to stand at its centre. In 1997, it was the pigs in Rosemarie Trockel’s and Carsten Höller’s work A House for Pigs and People; five years later, it was Pierre Huyghe’s Spanish podenco dogs Human and Senor, each with one pink leg; and, this year, it is the horses in two of Ross Birrell’s works. On the occasion of his participation in Documenta 14, which took place in Athens and Kassel, the Scottish artist orchestrated a 100-day ride from Athens to Kassel performed by four experienced long-distance riders and a team of five horses. The other work is his seven-minute film Criollo, focused on a South American horse standing at a gateway to Central Park in New York, exhibited at the Neue Neue Galerie in Kassel.

Ross Birrell. Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes, documenta 14, 2017. Image credit: Samuel Devereux. Courtesy the artist and Ellen de Bruijne Projects.

Birrell’s horse projects started to develop about six years ago, when he discovered the book Tschiffely’s Ride. It is an account of a 10,000-mile ride that a Swiss teacher, Aimé Félix Tschiffely, undertook from 1925 to 1928, travelling from Buenos Aires, first to Washington DC and then to New York, on two Argentinian criollo horses, Mancha and Gato. His book was first published in 1933, and has since become an inspiration for many long-distance riders and now also for an artist.

Drawn to the stamina and endurance of the criollo and Tschiffely’s epic story of horse and human companionship across borders, the Scottish artist travelled to Argentina in 2014 to research the possibility of a film project for Documenta 14. In the end, his research not only worked through South American and North American history, but also brought to light new findings regarding a Greek breed of horse and the sociopolitical place of horses now.

Lisa Moravec: How did the ride from Athens to Kassel on the occasion of Documenta 14, and your film Criollo (2017) come about?

Ross Birrell: In early 2014, I did an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel with David Harding. After the closing event for that exhibition, I had a conversation with Adam Szymczyk, the then director of Kunsthalle Basel, whom I had known for several years. We talked again about the film idea I had of an Argentine criollo horse in New York, and that it was integral to the project that the horse should have come from Argentina. Adam had recently been announced as the new artistic director of Documenta 14 and mentioned that it would take place in two separate cities, Athens and Kassel, and that a project between Buenos Aires and New York would make an interesting parallel.

Ross Birrell. Criollo, Argentine Criollo, Ahi Veremos Resero, General José de San Martín Memorial, Plaza San Martin, Buenos Aires, 29 January 2017. Image Credit: Alejandro Reynoso. Courtesy the artist and Ellen de Bruijne Projects.

So Tschiffely’s Ride, staged between Buenos Aires and New York, presented itself as an idea for a new, larger project. I had the idea for the film and destination with Documenta 14, but I still had to find a horse. All I knew was that the horse had to travel from Argentina and that it had to be an Argentine criollo, like Mancha and Gato, the horses Tschiffely rode. I knew that Mancha and Gato had been gifted to Tschiffely by Emilio Solanet, owner of the Estancia El Cardal in Ayacucho, Buenos Aires. So I contacted the ranch and spoke to his son, Oscar Solanet, who still lives and works there. I outlined my basic idea: I wanted to transport a criollo to New York and make a film. To my amazement, he offered to help by gifting me a horse. This turned out to be a five-year-old Argentine criollo gelding named Ahi Veremeos Resero.

Then, consideration of the bi-locational structure of Documenta 14 suggested a companion work to Criollo in the form of a long ride across Europe between the two cities, and so The Athens-Kassel Ride was born. I had no real knowledge of, or experience with, horses, so I knew I had to collaborate with an experienced equestrian in order to realise both Criollo and The Athens-Kassel Ride. The necessary link between the two projects was the Swiss long rider Peter van der Gugten, the founder of the Tschiffely Memorial Ride – who, as it happened, also knew Oscar Solanet.

LM: Tell me more about the location in the photographs and the film Criollo,exhibited at the Neue Neue Galerie at Kassel (a former postal distribution centre).

RB: The idea of using the Artists’ Gate entrance to Central Park, at the end of the Avenue of the Americas, as a site or location emerged in 2009. After completing the filming of Guantanamera [a work made in collaboration with David Harding], I visited the statue of [Cuban patriot] José Martí located at the end of the Avenue of the Americas and the gateway to Central Park. Martí is depicted being shot from his horse during the emancipation and liberation of Cuba. When I visited the statue, I saw that there were two further equestrian statues to Latin American revolutionary leaders at the same location: Simón Bolívar, liberator of Venezuela, and José de San Martín, the liberator of Argentina and Chile. And that this entrance to Central Park was known as the Artists’ Gate struck me as a possible way to draw a relationship between art and emancipatory politics. I then discovered that the statue of San Martín in New York was a copy of a memorial statue in Plaza San Martín in Buenos Aires and that there was a further copy of the San Martín memorial in Washington DC. As Tschiffely had departed from Buenos Aires and passed through Washington DC before arriving in New York, a mapping of the journey through these three identical statues provided a structure for the film.

In the exhibition in the Neue Neue Galerie, there are only two photographs of the horse, one in Plaza San Martín in Buenos Aires and one in Washington DC. These face each other across the space and frame the film at Central Park. I like the resonance of the work with the space, as both the film Criollo and The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes are forms of sending, of gifting.

LM: Adam Szymczyk said that The Athens-Kassel Ride was not meant to be a metaphor, but a bodily act. However, the way you approached the project of the ride – you found the book and you are not a horseman yourself – was primarily intellectual. In that sense, The Athens-Kassel Ride did not come about as a bodily act: it turned into one only after you had intellectually engaged with the criollo horse breed, with long-distance riding, with the horse as a means to conduct and reinforce a political act, and once you had started a collaboration with some experienced riders. You yourself did not ride with them, but joined them for parts along the way. In this regard, to what extent can we consider the ride a bodily act?

RB: Yes, the inspiration came from a book, but nonetheless Tschiffely’s account resonated with the physical act and experience of making films over the past decade across various locations, such as in Mexico, Cuba and Miami – projects that took two or three years to develop and make. It was this kind of endurance that you have to keep going over several years and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles that first attracted me. So, Tschiffely’s Ride resonated with my film-making experience, but it is also a very different project for me in that previous works had either explicit political contexts or foregrounded musical forms. The ride was very different, on the surface at least, as it was neither musical nor political. However, the year in which the book was published, 1933, has an immense historical and political significance because it is the year in which Hitler seized power in Germany and implemented a biopolitics of racial purity. Although Tschiffely eschews any overt political reading of his ride, his dedication to the book clearly rejects any biopolitics founded on nationalism and racism. For example, he wrote [in the book’s dedication]: “To all lovers of the horse and the wide open spaces; and to many friends – of whatever race, nationality or creed – who did their utmost to make rough places smooth.” Tschiffely’s dedication resonates strongly today as we witness the resurgence of a biopolitics of intolerance of the other and the strengthening of national borders. The approach to The Athens-Kassel Ride was collaborative and open from the beginning. As an artwork, I describe it as a mobile human-equine ensemble. In terms of politics, it perhaps foregrounds notions of border crossing and “companion species”.

LM: It is also interesting to look more closely at the aspect of endurance in your work, as bodies can often do so much more than we think they can. What I found striking about the ride is how it was perceived when it happened from April to July, over the course of 100 days. Was it a performance or an event?

RB: The duration of the ride mirrored the duration of Documenta itself. So you could say it was performed over 100 days, but I would not say it was a performance so much as an event. Performance perhaps implies staged theatricality. I have nothing against performances, as I have worked in performance for many years, but I would not necessarily call the ride a performance. The riders are real riders undertaking an actual ride. Of course, the public act of staging the departure and the arrival of the horses is a performance; but you have to control the safety of the horses and that of the public. In that sense, the whole project was orchestrated, including the participants and the animals; but then there is no constant audience that watched them over the 100 days. Even I did not witness the entire ride, since I had to return to Scotland to complete the editing of Criollo and oversee the installation in the Neue Neue Galerie in Kassel. I could not also be with the riders throughout their ride. But we knew that from the start.

With Criollo, we are also not watching a performance as such. Ahi is not an animal trained to perform before an audience or the camera. That was not the intention. I wanted the film to be imagistic, like an apparition, to be unsettling. Viewing the film is a physical, bodily act. But it is not that you are a simple human audience for the animal-other: this implies an unchallenged human perspective. I did not want the camera to have a human relationship with the animal so much as “an animal relationship with the animal”, to borrow Gilles Deleuze’s terms. And sound plays a vital role in this respect, fusing the breath of the animal and its hooves – its noise – with the noise of the city. 

LM: So, you could not, and did not intend to, participate in the ride. Your physical participation in the ride was not the focus of your work.

RB: No, some heroic artist doing the journey was not the idea. The riders were like a semi-autonomous unit, engaged in the ride from their own perspective.

LM: So it was clear from the beginning that it had to come about through a triangular relationship between you, the riders, the curators and, of course, many more people working on other ends. What I also found distancing about your work is that the riders are not engaged in the art world and that some of them are not even that fond of art. That is paradoxical, as the active participation of the professional rides contributes to bridging the art and the horse world. Art objects are in the centre of the art world, and living and moving horses are the focal point of the horse world. When we deal with horses, many people instantly start thinking about ethical issues, and these can even overtake the way they approach and engage with horses, or artworks that include horses. Today, we still make horses do the physical work for us that we don’t want to, or cannot, do ourselves – why do we do that?

That’s the question that lies at the core when I think critically about the staging of a ride in which you, the initiator, conducting the project, did not participate. Perhaps I am pushing the ethical point quite far here, but as it is a project that took so many years of preparation to make it a feasible project, your Athens-Kassel Ride work is a rare example for discussing how far inspiration starting from engaging with Tschiffely’s book can go in the art world.

RB: The ethical questions and the wellbeing of the horses and riders were of paramount concern throughout the two or so years of development of both projects. This was why the project was developed in close collaboration with experienced long riders and compliant with international guidelines on animal transportation. The ride was developed under the ethical guidance of Germany’s second largest equestrian organisation, and the long riders ride according to the Charter of Reken, which promotes working with horses as partners, as companions. In this regard, ethical issues were foregrounded in both projects. The riders know how much they and their horses can do on a daily basis and that distance and pace was really set by the horses. We also had two cars with horse trailers to accompany the ride, carrying equipment and medical supplies. If we lost days, as when the riders and horses spent six days on the border of Serbia and Croatia trying to negotiate re-entry into the EU, the distance lost was recovered by trailering the horses.

But to come to your question of distance between the world of art and the world of equestrianism, leaving aside the fact that I don’t consider art to be a leisure activity, I don’t feel the distance is actually so pronounced. When I first met Peter van der Gugten, during our first conversations I recognised a kindred spirit. It is true that he is not an art lover, you might say, but here was someone who was equally determined, committed, single-minded and maybe a little wayward. And equally, when I met David Wewetzer, with whom the ride project was also co-developed, he described to me his Iron Curtain Trail project, which involved delivering a stone from one end of the Iron Curtain to the other – and which would be completed on The Athens-Kassel Ride. I told him I thought that his project was a work of conceptual art. I also found similar layers of overlap in the worlds of perception and aesthetic experience in the conversations and responses to the ride with the other long riders, Tina Boche and Zsolt Szabo. So, even though they may not have considered themselves to be artists, I learned what the “artwork” of the ride was from the riders themselves. Likewise, my understanding has grown of horses and equestrianism in terms of its art history and its sociopolitical-economic history and, of course, its precarious present.

LM: I see. How does the Athens-Kassel Ride operate on an aesthetic level?

RB: As you know, with my not being an equestrian, this was a completely new territory for me as an artist. So I had very little control over the aesthetics as such and I did not even know if or how it would work. I knew also that, for the large part of the project, I would not be present and thereby would have no control over the work on a day-to-day basis. But this was not important to me. I did orchestrate the launch event and the overarching aspects of the project and, beyond that, the riders and horses did what riders and horses do. Whatever happened was part of the work. This created a balance between the orchestrated and the improvised. However, art and aesthetics are not necessarily the same thing; nonetheless, it is an increasingly important aspect of the work I make. During the Athens-Kassel Ride, there were certain guiding principles. For example, I did not want any kind of uniformity in what the riders wore – that had to remain open.

LM: I thought that Zsolt Szabo, one of the riders, was dressed up on purpose?

RB: Zsolt was wearing his traditional Hungarian cloak. This was his initiative. It looked great and even made the front cover of the German magazine of Die Zeit, which was doing a large article on the project. It also brought a completely new aesthetics of riding into the public discourse, because our ride operates in between art and traditional distance-riding. Whatever the riders did themselves became part of the project. This created a balance between the orchestrated and the improvised.

LM: Szabo’s self-performative aspect added several more layers to your work.

RB: For sure, but he only wore his traditional dress on the day of the arrival and the departure.

LM: Tell me about Hermes, the horse without a rider. To me, the way you chose to present the horse resembles more an equine symbol in motion.

RB: Hermes is a Greek arravani horse, and was the packhorse for the ride. Peter informed me early on that, when undertaking a long ride, they normally use local horses. He made contact with a Greek veterinarian, Konstantinos Kourmpelis, in Prastos in the Peloponnese, who advised that the horse to use would be an arravani, which is an elegant, but robust gaited horse. It is a working farm horse that is similar to the South American criollo.

In March 2016, Peter, Zsolt and I travelled to Prastos to meet Konstantinos and to find an arravani that could join our ride. We found a five-year-old stallion. When Konstantinos was talking about the arravani, he described the robustness of the horse using the word “baroque”. Now, I thought, we are talking about aesthetics. And a further parallel emerged. When Tschiffely was planning his ride, he was gifted Mancha and Gato by Solanet who was a veterinarian and criollo breeder who was trying to establish the criollo and have it recognised as breed as it had no studbook at the time. Interestingly, the arravani does not have a studbook today. So, as a breed, the arravani is effectively sans papière.

I named our Arravani “Hermes” after the Greek messenger god, who is also the god of border crossings. From the outset, I knew that Hermes would have a special ambiguous status. On a practical level, he was the unridden packhorse for the riders, but on a poetic level, he was this mythic animal, “a symbolic messenger”, as you said. There is also the notion of the “gift horse” and Hermes is also a gift to the city of Kassel from Athens. Hermes gave rise to a further artwork – an artwork within an artwork, so to speak – of The Transit of Hermes. So, Hermes plays a very important role in the ride. On the eve of the horse’s departure for the ride, Konstantinos hosted a festival in Prastos, a small village in the mountains of Arcadia. It was announced as the inaugural Arravani Festival of Arcadia and more than 500 people attended the send-off. The Transit of Hermes grew in importance as the project developed. It is both an event inside the ride and a film slightly outside the documentation of the ride itself.

LM: That refers back the full title of ride – The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes. How is the ride then connected to your film work?

RB: The documentation and filming of the ride was assisted by a two-man camera crew, Mark Wallis and Samuel Devereux, who remained with the riders for the duration of the ride. In addition to its day-to-day documentation, I was making another film: The Transit of Hermes. Working in this way, I had more control over the form and the framing. This dual structure is similar to that of Criollo, the short film I shot in New York and which is on display at Kassel, but there will also be a separate longer film, which documents the entire journey of the transportation of the horse from Buenos Aires to New York.

LM: So you have two forthcoming films. Maybe you want to give us a brief idea of the story that happened behind and besides the film, without telling us too much about the films? The transportation of the Criollo horse from Buenos Aires into New York sounds interesting, especially in light of it happening straight after the new US president was elected.

RB: Due to a number of factors outwith our control, I arrived in New York for a meeting with the film crew and to make some location test shots on the day of the inauguration of Donald Trump. So when we transported the horse from Buenos Aires to New York it was within the first fortnight of Trump’s presidency, during the time when he passed the travel ban. We were not simply transporting the horse, we were importing him. So Ahi, this farm horse from the South, was technically one of the first migrants to arrive in the US under the restrictions of Trump’s travel ban. Although the ban was targeted at predominantly Muslim countries, there was even, a few weeks later, the case of the gallerist Juan Garcia Mosqueda, originally from Argentina but now a legal US resident, who could not get back into New York where he lived, after taking a short business trip to Buenos Aires. So an Argentine animal was permitted, but not a human being? Then, of course, there is also the fact that the real estate immediately opposite the statue of San Martín and the Artists’ Gate entrance to Central Park is owned by Trump. So the film became increasingly political – and biopolitical – in its context as it developed.

The same thing happened during the development of The Athens-Kassel Ride and The Transit of Hermes. During the two years of its development, Europe was undergoing a serious transformation with the migrant and refugee crisis: borders that were once open began to close along the Balkan route, and then Britain voted for Brexit. Article 50 was signed the week before the launch of the ride.

But the two projects move through these boundaries of politics without being didactic in any way. Criollo, for example, is not a campaigning film; the film also does not tell you that Trump owns the building in the background, and I don’t even show you the equestrian statue in any detail. It’s more of a question – Why is this horse here? Is it lost or abandoned? Is it a gift? But the horse then also returns and deflects our gaze – and along with it deflects our projections on the animal. This is what I mean when I say that our encounters with the horse cannot remain at the level of the human and that it must become an animal encounter with the animal, or rather with the film. So the film is political in its context, for sure, but it’s more nuanced, I hope in its political affect.

LM: Were there regulations you confronted while trying to realise Criollo?

RB: Countless. There were several permits required, numerous regulations, restrictions and multiple layers of bureaucracy to overcome – this was a project in itself. One of the most significant restrictions that we encountered was in Buenos Aires, right at the offset, during the application process, with the production company for the permit for location filming of the Criollo at the Memorial of San Martín in Plaza San Martín. It transpired that it is illegal to have a horse anywhere in a public space in Buenos Aires. This is a country that loves horses, but you cannot have them in the city. You can have horses in polo grounds or stables, and you can transport horses between them, but you cannot have them in the street or in public parks. And, true enough, you see people pulling large carts in the street where this would once have been the role of horses.

This news threatened to scupper the entire project before the horse had even left the estancia. So we appealed to all the parties involved, to say that this was a celebration of Argentine culture and history. But it seemed that there was nothing we could do: they just told us we were crazy. But, miraculously, two days later, we received a phone call to say that we had been granted a permit to enable the horse to be present in Plaza San Martín. It was amazing. They had effectively suspended the law.

In the US, we faced similar obstacles to filming in Washington DC, where I had to write appeals to the National Parks authorities. And in both Washington DC and New York, our initial permit applications were refused and we had to negotiate like crazy to be granted the permission. In each case, the horse – which has been essential to the development of cities and nations – seemed to be being increasingly excluded from the public realm. So the experience very much echoed the condition of erasure lamented by John Berger in his essay Why look at animals?, from 1977. The project also resonates with more recent writing on the biopolitical and juridical “enframing” of the animal by thinkers such as Cary Wolfe. The only stable residues of horses in cities today are the equestrian statues, which populate parks and civic squares, and commemorate a particularly militaristic phase of their contribution to culture.

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