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Animal Performance Studies

Laura Budriesi

(Zoo)antropologia e (zoo)semiotica

Technozoosemiotics. Think and practices of scenography with the horse for a modern aesthetic drama

Charlene Dray

Texte intégral


1In the era of Anthropocene, the life sciences and emerging artistic practices are opening up new knowledge and new practices, inviting us to reconsider the presence of the animal in creation. Between the trained horse and the trainer, dramaturgic forms produced gradually shape an ethic of the man-animal relationship, which Isabelle Stengers calls « the poetic listening of nature». (Prigogine, Stengers 1979). In parallel to equestrian art, other forms of cooperation between humans and animals have been developed for productivity, scientific study or companion animals. We have observed and tested these practices in order to develop a new approach to propose to our horses to be partners. With 152 experiences available online1, this art practice makes live performances with horses. On stage the aesthetic of this new theatrical language is not the result of a learning process, but a relationship in constant evolution.

  • 2 Louis Bec is the founder of technozoosemiotics. Interview on September 27, 2017 about my reserch w (...)

Perhaps there is a poetics.
Perhaps there is a poetics that we have not yet delivered in the poetic sensibility of human beings
towards animality and particularly the horse.
This is a wonderful place for discussion. Because, what turn can it take?
We are not going to persuade people by saying look at this horse as it is beautiful.
That’s not the problem.
The problem is to give it this capacity of strangeness again. (Bec 2017)2.

1. State of the art

2The notion of the Art of Riding introduced in the 16th century by Pignatelli in Italy and Antoine de Pluvinel in France established foundations of the equestrian art as we know it today. Mainly based on tactical movements of attack and defense on horseback, this repertory of figures was designed to highlight the dexterity of the man and the docility of the horse to form a man-horse couple in perfect harmony. By taking the form of theater or equestrian circus, the riders have formulated different aesthetics to show the result of their technique. If the relationship between man and animal has evolved considerably towards a smooth and light approach, ethical questions raised by animal welfare organizations question the living conditions and training methods used for the show. However, it is pertinent to further question the reasons for these abolitionist approaches.

  • 3 Term used by Hodak 2004.

3Since the 19th century in Western countries, contrary to a search for synchronization and harmony with the horse, exotic animals exhibited by the tamers represented domination and control of man over nature. A monkey smoking a cigar, a rider riding a giraffe, these once acclaimed feats no longer find their place in the entertainment of our society, which tends towards the preservation of biodiversity, ecology and sustainable development. Beyond animal rights, it seems that the discomfort felt by the spectators results from the dramaturgical sense induced by the figures of training and their “spectacularization”3. Apart from training and taming of animals, is it possible to show another relationship between man and animal on stage?

4Since the 1960s, we have seen the development of artistic forms that invent devices in which animal is presented as an alive art object. The status given to animal is that of a living sculpture or an animal that plays its own role without using forms of training. The work then consists in the contemplation of their body and their behavior. One can for example remember the emblematic installation of Jannis Kounellis who presented 12 live horses in a gallery in Rome in 1969. Attached to the Arte Povera movement, his insitu exhibition deals with the notion of nature/culture. In field of performings arts, Joseph Beuys experiments communication with a horse on a theater stage. This work named Iphigenia created in 1969, considers the presence of horse as an autonomous entity where the animal plays its own role and define new thinking place for animals in theatrical representation. This approach will be followed by others, like Romeo Castellucci (Inferno 2008) or David Weber- Krebs (Balthazar 2015).

5Today, the contemporary circus reinvents itself and gives way to scenic forms where notion of dramaturgy takes a predominant place. The aesthetic forms that appear are the result of a desire for innovation and a contemporary reflection on circus body and notion of prowess. Initiated by Cirque Plume in 1989 with its show No Animo Mas Anima (No more animals, no more soul), a global movement defends the end of traditional presentations of dressage in order to take a way of thinking about humanity, about living together. If performing arts have always integrated technical innovations such as light, sound or video into their repertoire, in the circus, it is the modification of apparatus in disciplines such as trapeze or juggling that has allowed the exploration of new postures or aesthetic forms. But if one can modify the structure of a trapeze, the horse has not changed and will not change! Its shape, its gestures, its way of thinking have always stayed the same. What can change is the way we consider the link we have with him, in other words: his labor. This notion of work thought as an act in which animal invests its subjectivity and its feelings in a common task to accomplish is similar to the process of creation in art. How to work and create with horses on stage?

2. Renewing the creative process to co-operate

6From horse-decor to horse-actor and horse-object, I began this inter-disciplinary and inter-species exploration as a researcher for whom everything is a horse. Accompanied by my two horses Listan and Luzio, these games of association have allowed us to consider different ways of working together and of considering our exchanges. We do not practice what is traditionally called equestrian art, but as Donna Haraway says, «We train each other to perform acts of communication that we barely master. We are constitutively companion species [...] reciprocal partners in our specific differences» (Haraway 2010, 10). In this collaborative perspective, finding a place for the horse to become an artistic partner asks directly questions about the creative process. How will it influence the research? What tools will it be able to use?

7In order to develop creative potential of my companions and to make them visible, my methodology is based on intuitions, knowledge and hypotheses put into practice. Between performance, cognitive ethology and scientific experimentation, we have given an important place to working with and for animal. Considering the horse as a partner means inviting living and all that it brings in terms of unexpected things and control. Inviting the unexpected and the surprise inscribes our practice in different currents of thought on experimentation in art (Animals Performance Studies) and in particular forms such as the performance (happening) where unique situation appears as essence of the work.

8Listan and Luzio are domesticated trail horses, meaning that we live in a common world that we know. Over time, we have developed our own specific communication systems, which could be called a vocabulary or syntax. This form of language is multiple, it allows us to think and act together. Beyond training, a horse that no longer responds to automatisms acquires a capacity for action that the sociologist Bruno Latour calls “agency”. (Latour 2015). With this approach, the performing animal becomes an acting animal.

9What is the horse’s agency on stage? How can I do to allow my equine partners to participate at performance and keep in there expressivity?

3. Improvisation for horse on stage

  • 4 Definition of the term “improviser”, Pavis 1996, 171.
  • 5 See fig. 1, Improvises!

10From the moment we decide to maximize horse’s agency to act on stage, some complications will appear. The first is that the animal will not be directed, but rather left to its own devices. Using theatrical language, it will have to improvise. This «technique of the actor who plays something unexpected, unprepared in advance and invented in the fire of the action»4 is similar to cognitive activity that consists in developing new behaviors according to the situation. We explored the term improvisation as a creative process without writing in advance in order to define more precisely the horse’s agentivity on stage. This approach requires teaching the horse that performance space is a play space. A space in which each of its proposals is right and there is no right or wrong answer5. Since the first experiments, horses without direct orders have used their agency to “do nothing”. How to transform this “nothing” into “something”?

3.1 The experience of musical horse

11To transform “nothing” into “something”, a first approach was to design on-board sensor systems to transpose the horse’s movements into sounds to produce music. For the first experiments from 2011 to 20156, we used piezoelectric sensors fixed on horse’s feet. HF boxes send sounds emitted by the vibration of the hoof to computer and trigger audio samples at each impact with the ground. This process creates sound patterns corresponding to the rhythm of horse. However, triggering based on the analysis of intensity thresholds operates in a binary way (on-off) and does not account for the complexity of movement such as amplitude and intensity. Since 2016, we have developed an interactive wifi system that transmits data streams to the computer. The challenge of this device is mainly based on the way the program will transform horse’s movements to translate them into sounds. This synesthetic approach reflects ambition, but also «the difficulty of including rich and expressive gestural input in interactive systems». (Dubos et al. 2017, 1).

12The analysis of values allowed us to determine a compositional logic able to translate the energy of horse in a harmonic way. Experiment #497 presents an extract of the performance realized on January 24, 2019 following two weeks of residency.

13Listan and Luzio were left to evolve alone in a projection space at the center of the stage. On the video recording, we can hear ambient sounds emitted by the analog synthesizer. Bird sounds brought a natural effect in this technological space. That day, our two horses used their agency on orchestra to “do nothing”. The non-action of our partners could have produced impression of a technical problem or of a scene without control and substance for spectators. However, the “correspondence” between movement of animal and the sound generated by our device transformed moments of non-activity into musical silence. Each breath, each gesture, each sound became a kind of dialogue without words. Through our device, immobility suddenly takes expression of a gestural intention. In the studio or on stage, the suspension created by our companions immersed us in an active listening.

14A second postulate was to consider that an advanced knowledge in equestrian cognitive ethology would make it possible to predict and then write the living on stage. Knowing the probability of reappearance of a behavioral response would mean anticipating reactions of horses, reducing the random nature of this inter-species partnership.

3.2 The whinny experience

  • 8 Whinnies, Performative Fraction with choreographer Gaétan Morlotti, performed at ESAP, Monaco, Feb (...)

15Studies have shown that horses are able to recognize the whinnies of their own team members. (Lemasson et al., 2009). A sound broadcast of one of these calls would lead the horse which hears them to whinnying in its turn towards the sound source. The extract 56 available on my website8 retraces the moment of a performance entitled Tension/decontraction with our horse Listan. In this video we can observe and hear a first whinnying: that of an unknown horse. Then a second one: that of his companion Luzio recorded before. The scientific experiment had shown that equids placed themselves in direction of the sound emitted. In fact, at the moment when the sound lure is broadcasted in the next room, horse on stage will listen for an “unknow” whinnying. For a signal in which he recognizes his buddy, he looks around, starts moving and responds to the callin direction of sound. The circus ring in which everything is visible, without tricks, becomes a research space similar to an experimental laboratory. It is by studying the sensory world of horse that we developed the following of our tests.

4. From circus training to laboratory training

16Resulting from emergence of cognitive sciences, cognitive ethology is a field of study that develops experimental procedures to question «the nature and functioning of the mental faculties of specific animals, these functions as they have been forged by evolution. » (Leblanc 2015, 20).

17In adopting this scientific knowledge, our creative process does not necessarily attempt to make a discovery, but asks the question: how can we show a horse that thinks? Is it enough to make it an artistic performance for audience? In our research, we have developed experiments capable of producing reactions in the horse in a specific environment and interpreting their meaning. In other words, to consider emotional states of the animals as dramaturgical elements.

18For this purpose, we have started learning phases for our partners following the principles established in the laboratory. In order for them to respond to the problems they are asked to solve, the observed subjects do not learn repetitive patterns, but use of objects allowing them to communicate with humans, such as a red switch for “yes” and a blue one for “no”. This form of learning is called operant conditioning. While circus dressage is different from learning in terms of the results obtained, the ways in which animal is trained are similar. Either the animal is constrained until it responds, or it is rewarded once the act is accomplished. We have conducted several experiences on this principle with Listan and Luzio9.

4.1 The light switch experiment

19In this series of six trials, we used operant conditioning with positive reinforcement (carrots) to teach Listan to use a switch. Experience#21.10 shows the result of this work. On the theater stage, a device consisting of a bicycle wheel on a base activates a mechanism that results in the arrival of a carrot. After only 2 sessions of learning, the horse having understood the principle approaches the device and activates the button to obtain its reward. According to our observations, this way of proceeding leads animal to react to a specific request. However, we have noticed that these conditioned responses suggest their own forms of reflection, but do not really reveal the spontaneously creative potential of horse on stage.

20As soon as our partners are not constrained by stimuli, behaviors they show on stage depend on their feelings. With horses that have agency, it is no longer a matter of suspecting what they could be doing, but observing them doing something. This observation practice was used by some horse passionate people who developed new forms of exchanges with their animals. This is for example the case of Mr von Osten. At the beginning of the 20th century in Germany, this retired school teacher decided to teach his horse Hans to read and count. This man did not have the goal of being popular. His motivation was — surely — to do something with his companion. Following same method as for the children, the horse developed abilities that were said to be “out of the ordinary”. Being able to solve complex arithmetic problems, this horse was the subject of many studies in various fields of research (Despret 2004). The pictures that present calculating horses of this period show them accompanied by devices made for them. In fact, without his counting tools, Hans would be just an ordinary horse.

5. Towards a hybrid method

21If equestrian art became a science, those who practiced it outside the established framework, such as Mr. Von Osten, were called amateurs by the press. At time when ethology was defined as the study of animal behavior, notion of amateurism also made its apparition. In his book The Foundations of Ethology, Konrad Lorenz (2009) describes amateurs as passionate people capable of observing a phenomenon over a period of time that does not correspond to criteria of scientific protocols:

It takes a long period of totally relaxed and objective observation [...] to discern the shape from the substance. Even a Tibetan sage, well versed in the exercises of patience, could not focus on an aquarium or a pond full of ducks without releasing his attention. [...] Only those who are fascinated by beauty of the object they are contemplating can make this sustained effort (ivi, 80).

22It is by studying results obtained by these amateur practices and by putting them to experiment ourselves with Listan and Luzio that we have continued this inter-species collaboration. This led us to multiply our attempts to explore the complexity and forms of these expressions. The condition of our partnership (which now spans fourteen years of research) imposes that scenic experiments we carry out are not considered as scientific discoveries, but as we said before, produce potentialities. If a horse did it, it is possible that it is applicable to the species. This reflexive approach between art and science produces hybrid results and goes beyond frontier between fields of study. It’s a way of rethinking, reinventing and transforming contemporary creation with regard to the new knowledge that continuously modify our relationship with the alive.

6. Thinking of scenography as an ergonomics way of creation process

  • 11 Animal’s lab is a research program attached to the UMR innovation of INRAE, Montpellier. It is dir (...)

23How to work with a horse on stage? How to invite him to participate in the experiments? It is from these questions and after observing the “doing nothing” of our companions that we invited the research of Animal’s Lab11in our practice. This team of researchers develops the idea that when we solicit animals to perform tasks such as herding, warfare or entertainment, these animals are working. That means that they are engaged in their subjectivity and invested in “doing something”.

24If the term “labor” may seem reductive and invite a return to a cartesian vision of the animal, this is not the case if labor is thinking as an emancipating function. Their publications have shown that animals are sometimes capable of disobeying in order to better accomplish their work, going so far as to invent new ways of responding to the demands of the humans around them. This adaptive capacity to doing something led us to ask this question: what would really interest the horse when it works with me on stage?

6.1 From cognition to acting

  • 12 See Fig. 2, Luzio plays (the piano).

25When we asked equestrian artists about this, we got our first answers: what horses are interested in on stage is to eat and be with their companions. With the intention to stop using conditioning with our partner equines, we conducted a series of experiments to encourage and flatter the animal. Listan and Luzio showed that our enthusiasm for them was enough of a signal for them to participate in trials. Several sound bites indicating «that’s nice, my little one, oh, but how beautiful you are, but how nice!» were played when the horse touched a surface with its nose12. In this case, recognition of the work and the exchange produced allowed the horse to remain concentrated on object made for him and by an exploratory behavior without determined objective, to let him propose us shapes scenic we could share.

26This approach is described in the last chapter of Konrad Lorenz’s book entitled Curiosity and Playful Activity, the Search for Art. According to him, the function of play, such as the dance of crows or movements of dolphins in water, corresponds to a functional enjoyment that appeals to sense of beauty and harmony for human being who observes them. Beyond a simple expressivity of animal form, it appears that contemplating an animal playing produces artistic emotions in us.

6.2 Technozoosemiotics, towards an ecology of the horse-man-spectator relationship

27If horse performs in the human environment, it does not necessarily communicate with it. Our first tests with sensors use digital interface as a tool that allows spontaneity for animal but does not engage an interespecific dialogue. This is not the case with Louis Bec’s proposal, which attributes to machines a very particular place that we will now explore.

28Artist-researcher, Louis Bec studied advanced biology before becoming in the 80’s in France, inspector of the Delegation to the Arts at the Ministry of Culture. His action focused on proposing a reform of the art schools in France towards an audiovisual and scientific development. In his artistic practice, Louis Bec decided to go beyond frontiers of what would be art or science by creating a system of experimentation and autonomous publication. He declared himself President of his own Scientific Institute for Paranaturalist Research (ISRP) located on the second floor of his house. Having eliminated institutional constraints, he questions relationship between artistic, scientific and biotechnological fields. His way of thinking about the humanity has led him to question the living, to redefine it in various forms and to search for the connections between living entities, be they human, animal and/or artificial.

29In 1975, Louis Bec combined different domains that we have mentioned in this article to found his discipline, which unfortunately remained at theoretical stage, though it was certainly of interest: Technozoosemiotics.

Technozoosemiotics is situated at the crossroads of semiotics, ethology, cognitive sciences, technologies, computer science and experimental artistic practices. This discipline considers the living as an “expressive” entity in its own and is at the center of experimental artistic disciplines that combine logical and formal languages with kinesic and paralinguistic signals. (Bec 1975).

30During a performance at circus Jules Verne in 2017, we had screened some of sentences from his essay to observe how audience would perceive the horse’s behaviors through the prism of a reading that combines sensors and texts. During the meeting with Louis Bec, we presented him with an extract. He looked at it for a moment and told us that is a declaration of dialogue for the horse. Maybe more, a potential state of dialogue.

31This potential state of the dialogue allowed by multiplicity of our approach and new scenic status that we attribute to our equine partners leads us now to question modalities of play induced by public representation. Is there a dramaturgy of the horse beyond the simple expressivity of animal shape?

32By introducing technozoosemiotics as a tool for translating the specific exchanges of our partnership of species of companies, it would seem that a dramaturgy of human-horse relationship could also appear. The notions of improvisation, creativity and play engage a research around the scenic vocabulary and its dramaturgical tools to transpose this particular relationship into a theatrical modern drama. As Louis Bec told us, the technique is to attribute to an animal the capacity to express itself in a given space, but also and especially that Art is only product of human thought and not others!


33Nowadays, one could say that there are as many ways of making art as there are of making ethology. That each relationship between same and different species is unique. On the border between equestrian art and cognitive ethology, we invite audience to become observers of these inter-species exchanges. On stage, we can see free play of behaviors, without a determined objective, without a predefined deep purpose, the play in which nothing is fixed outside the rules of the game. The indeterminate character of our horse’s behavior formulates enigmas for one who observes them. It is because they are really on stage and able to participate that this attention to simplest movements tends to produce meaning. This meaning is at the same time a new theatrical writing but also a possibility to understand an exchange between horses and humans. Through machines, the triangulation with spectators invites them to become ethologists. It is really an experience that is played here for the alive, that of active observation. The one that brings a knowledge or at least an encounter with alterity.

Self-awareness?, Théâtre La Vignette, Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 during the colloquium cognitive sciences and live performance invited by the RIRRA21 April 26, 2017

Self-awareness?, Théâtre La Vignette, Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 during the colloquium cognitive sciences and live performance invited by the RIRRA21 April 26, 2017

What if we had trained them differently?, video montage of a performance, 2014

What if we had trained them differently?, video montage of a performance, 2014

Luzio plays (the piano), Piano and capacitive sensors test, research and creation residency at the Manège Cascabel of the Pôle National Cirque Jules Verne, August 2020

Luzio plays (the piano), Piano and capacitive sensors test, research and creation residency at the Manège Cascabel of the Pôle National Cirque Jules Verne, August 2020

Self-awareness?, Théâtre La Vignette, Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 during the colloquium cognitive sciences and live performance invited by the RIRRA21, April 26, 2017

Self-awareness?, Théâtre La Vignette, Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 during the colloquium cognitive sciences and live performance invited by the RIRRA21, April 26, 2017

Luzio and the machines. Research residency at CIAM, Aix-en-Provence, 2016.

Luzio and the machines. Research residency at CIAM, Aix-en-Provence, 2016.

Hippo Cosmos Z, X, Y, visual research, 2015

Hippo Cosmos Z, X, Y, visual research, 2015



Bec L. 1975, Petit traité de technozoosémiotique, Institut scientifique de recherche paranaturaliste institut de technozoosémiotique laboratoire de zoologie virtuelle leçons d’epistémologie fabulatoire,:

https:/ › bec_technozoosemiotique (accessed 4/4/2021)

Despret V. 2004, Hans, le cheval qui savait compter, Les Empecheurs de tourner en rond, Paris

Dubos F., Bevilacqua J., Larralde J., Chevrier J., Jego J. 2017, Designing Gestures for Interactive Systems : Towards Multicultural Perspectives , Conference Paper, (accessed 4/4/2021)

Haraway D. 2010, Manifeste des espèces de compagnie. Chiens, humains et autres partenaires, Editions de l’Eclat, Paris 2010, trad. fr. Hansen J. (or. ed. 2003 The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Pricky Paradigm, Cambridge)

Hodak-Druel C. 2004, Du théâtre équestre au cirque: «une entreprise si éminemment nationale» commercialisation des loisirs, diffusion des savoirs et théâtralisation de l’histoire en France et en Angleterre (c.1760-c.1860), Thèse de doctorat en Histoire, sous la direction de D. Roche, Paris, EHESS

Latour B. 2015, Face à Gaïa: Huit conférences sur le Nouveau Régime Climatique, Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, Paris

Leblanc M.A. 2015, Comment pensent les chevaux, Belin, Paris

Lemasson A., Boutin A., Boivin S., Blois-Heulin C., Hausberger M. 2009, Horse (Equus caballus) whinnies: a source of social information, «Animal Cognition», 12, pp. 693-704

Pavis P. 1996, Dictionnaire du Théâtre, Dunod, Paris

Prigogine I., Stengers I. 1979, La nouvelle alliance, Gallimard, Paris


1 All the experiments are available online

2 Louis Bec is the founder of technozoosemiotics. Interview on September 27, 2017 about my reserch work.

3 Term used by Hodak 2004.

4 Definition of the term “improviser”, Pavis 1996, 171.

5 See fig. 1, Improvises!

6 Extracts of the experiments #29 to #40 on

7 Online:

8 Whinnies, Performative Fraction with choreographer Gaétan Morlotti, performed at ESAP, Monaco, February 4, 2014, availabe at:

9 See on this subject the experiments #01 to #28, availabe at:

10 Experience#21 online

11 Animal’s lab is a research program attached to the UMR innovation of INRAE, Montpellier. It is directed and coordinated by Jocelyne Porcher.

12 See Fig. 2, Luzio plays (the piano).

Table des illustrations

Titre Self-awareness?, Théâtre La Vignette, Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 during the colloquium cognitive sciences and live performance invited by the RIRRA21 April 26, 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 164k
Titre What if we had trained them differently?, video montage of a performance, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 212k
Titre Luzio plays (the piano), Piano and capacitive sensors test, research and creation residency at the Manège Cascabel of the Pôle National Cirque Jules Verne, August 2020
Fichier image/jpeg, 325k
Titre Self-awareness?, Théâtre La Vignette, Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 during the colloquium cognitive sciences and live performance invited by the RIRRA21, April 26, 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 130k
Titre Luzio and the machines. Research residency at CIAM, Aix-en-Provence, 2016.
Fichier image/jpeg, 243k
Titre Hippo Cosmos Z, X, Y, visual research, 2015
Fichier image/jpeg, 104k


Artist-researcher. She is lecturer at Paris 8 University, professor in the Department of Theatre for Digital Scenic and Interactive Systems and a researcher at Scènes du Monde (EA1573). To join Performings Arts, Technologies and Animals, she develops her activity between a practice of artistic direction, performer and scenographer at Horsystemes Cie and associate researcher at Animal’s Lab (UMR innovation, INRAE). His publications and stage performances are online at


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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