Old Bones

Paleontology was crucial to the settlement of the American West

Anna Zett’s videos handle the absurdity of science, technology, and history with a deadpan gravity that can make their subject’s tragicomedy even more striking when you catch it. Zett’s reverence for her objects of inquiry—the afterwords and underworlds of modernity, in her words—extends to treating them playfully. Born in Leipzig in 1983 and trained in philosophy and anthropology, she works across cinema, radio, installation, and dance to investigate the dramaturgy of science. Her latest essay film, This Unwieldy Object,

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traces the relation between early American animated dinosaur films, the colonial frontier they virtualized, the “end of history,” and the Berlin Wall, among other things. It’s a tightly constructed road movie, following the interstates between Rapid City and Los Angeles, with Zett making a wry and inquisitive tour guide to the American West and its monsters and monuments. I met her at her apartment in October to talk about the film.


In your films, dinosaur fossils become a surprisingly useful object for talking about colonialism and the ideological production of American history, as the paleontologists find something in the ground that matches the stories they’ve already told themselves — they discover the proof of their own narratives in the soil, in the dirt, in the rock.

Yes, dinosaurs in a weird way became some form of a replacement history, a replacement for the history that the U.S. destroyed. That’s why I was interested in going to the United States, because in my M.A. thesis and later in DINOSAUR.GIF I could analyze this and make points, and there were references to cowboys and the Wild West and all that, but in the end it’s not the same as going there and trying to find out how people still related to that history. The interesting thing about the dinosaur bone is that it is a combination of mythology and science, a combination which was necessary in the States. Maybe because of the U.S.’s lack of history, they produced it through capitalism, through colonialism, and since there was a need for mythology they found it in science. Which is ironic, of course, because the West always claims that science and mythology are separated—that is one of the main ideas of modern science.

The idea that science abolishes mythology so that it can be a true object of belief?

Yes, that the West has objectivity, that it can access the object as it is, whereas, you know, “primitive cultures” always mix up culture and nature, and so they don’t have access to the object as such. That’s how western science has operated for hundreds of years now. Bruno Latour has written a lot of interesting things about this in We Have Never Been Modern, which was an important book for the research that I did for this film. And so I was also interested in the question of if there is perhaps a difference in how Native American research institutions deal with these scientific questions, and so I visited one.

Did you find a difference?

I did, but in the beginning I was a little bit disappointed as it seemed to be only about money, until I realized that that is exactly what these bones are now used for: some form of reappropriation of science, but also some form of reparations. It is a way of organizing your own reparations by claiming the resources that are on the deserted land that you were sent to against your will, resources that no one knew were there. And a lot of other natural resources are obviously exploited without the tribe making any money from it—they get the pollution and the destruction, and the mining or oil company just extracts the value. It’s very similar with fossils, but there’s this one exception, which is due to the Oglala Lakota College. They are a college that has really fought for establishing its own paleontology, and I think that is a very interesting example of how they manage to reappropriate the power of science, not so much in order to claim some form of specific mythological access to these bones. It’s more about like, “We are claiming a right to also make science.”

It’s an assertion of their contemporaneity, or a rejection of their being relegated to the landscape or the past that can also be mined and extracted from.

Yeah, and a lot of people that we met there are very interested in natural sciences. They have a strong program in geology and paleontology, and for a lot of the kids in the area, because it’s a desert, everyone is collecting stones. It’s an easy thing to get into, fossils, so it is really something that can give the kids there a perspective. And I realized that I also had these weird ideas about how mythology gives Native Americans a different kind of access, until I realized it’s still about dealing with objects and it’s also what western scientists do, collecting an object and making a story out of it and in some sense there is no difference, except the scientists assert that they have found a higher objective truth. I talked to this young paleontologist in Rapid City who said, “What we are doing here is mythology anyway.” In that sense I didn’t have to locate the mythology with the Native Americans at all. That would just be a repetition of that western division. In shooting the film, I already had inklings of this idea: that the scientific institutions and the fossil hunters and all that—they are just making mythology with these objects, while a lot of the people in the reservation are just basically interested in science.

What is the use that the paleontologists put their mythology toward? Are they making mythology now? They’re constantly updating it, like now we know that dinosaurs have feathers or were colored in these patterns…

That’s not really mythology. To me the mythology is this idea that there’s this specific time of the dinosaurs, and that is very much part of the American imaginary of different historical eras. For example, have you seen the Tree of Life by Terrence Malick? In it you have three different eras: You have the era of the creation of the earth, which looks like a mixture of evolutionary and biblical genesis, and then you have the next era, which is the era of the dinosaurs, and then the next era you’re in 1950s suburbia. That is mythology, you know? It has nothing to do with science, it has nothing to do with history. And that is the mythology that has been pushed for more than 100 years in the U.S., that before white America there was not much else, there was the dinosaurs, and before that there was the creation of the earth.

In that sequence I remember the dinosaurs are how the question of evil enters the world. It’s a potential murder scene. I don’t know if you remember the scene—

It’s a crime scene. Yeah, that’s interesting, but to me it’s more like they introduce the moral decision to not kill. One of the dinosaurs decides randomly to not eat the other injured dinosaur. Of course, I mean this is a film, it's not science. But if a film includes dinosaurs, the production usually hires paleontologists. The paleontologist at Black Hills Institute also told us, proudly, that he is now working for a new dinosaur movie, which one he can't tell us unfortunately, until it's finished. Scientists can say “well, that is not proper science, because proper science is done in the lab, and the other stuff is just application.” But I think the application often came before the actual science, and the science follows as a tool for legitimizing all kinds of things. Especially in the history of colonialism, science was a major legitimization agent.

Why do you think it had to be dinosaurs and not, say, Ice Age megafauna, the mammals that humans did actually live with? You could more readily imagine they have some direct relation to human history. Why were dinosaurs the vehicle for this mythologization and not some other animals?

The interest with paleontology in the U.S. started with the “American monster,” the mastodon. Thomas Jefferson was actually a paleontologist, and he installed a bone room in the White House. They realized early on, even before the discovery of the dinosaurs, that the country’s national imaginary needed this, because we don’t have history. But it didn’t really work in the same way with the mammoths, although they were also spectacular.Many people have written about this, that when the dinosaurs were discovered was at the same time that the ideology of progress kicked into full force. Dinosaurs could also be associated directly with technological progress, which happened in the ’30s with the Sinclair exhibition in the World Exposition in 1933 in Chicago. Sinclair decided to link the dinosaur with fossil fuel, and that kind of sparked the 20th century cult of the dinosaur.

The dinosaur stands for progress and extinction, because progress and extinction belong together in this way—that progress will inevitably lead to destruction, progress is similar to evolution and evolution produces extinction. But then modern science and technology can make the extinct object reappear in the future - thereby both telling us about the natural force of extinction, as well as interfering in it, mastering it. It's paradoxical! It is kind of a utopian link, which is why W.J.T. Mitchell said that everywhere the modern world goes, it already finds the dinosaurs waiting for it. That is reflected in the history of the early 20th century film industry: the dinosaurs are on foreign continents and far away planets, they are in the jungle, they are in the bottom of the sea, they are everywhere. Jules Verne goes to the center of the earth and finds dinosaurs on the way!

I think it was probably also their otherness which made them even more suitable to associate with the time of foreign giants that is definitively over—mammoths still look like elephants, so they don’t have this aspect, there’s not this direct break. They’re not as alien and they’re not as extinct as dinosaurs are. You can find their relatives and you obviously see the relationship when you see the elephant. Though now they say, of course, that birds are basically dinosaurs. But they are too small! I think it’s a very nice discovery that came up in the 1990s, after the “end of history,” right—“by the way, dinosaurs are not extinct.” I think it’s very nice that this idea came, so the dinosaur appears everywhere; after history is over, the dinosaur finally appears and it will never leave again, because every bird is a dinosaur according to our new classification.

But then you have the giant dinosaurs as well—they are bigger than anything else, you know? In America you have this obsession with size, and especially when the U.S. became a huge empire in the beginning of the 20th century, size could be appropriated for an ethno-mythology. Dinosaurs are huge and they are completely different, seemingly, to anything that lives now, and in that sense they are the perfect projection surface for all kinds of things you need to put in the past as a way of imagining the future. That’s what’s so interesting with the T. rex, because the T. rex is also an emblem of the U.S. There’s almost an obsession with this monster that can embody so many contradictions at the same time: that it’s a monster that’s going to eat you. The T. rex is kind of perfect for the consumer culture of the U.S. Susan Buck-Morrs once said that the communist bloc was a kind of utopia of production, and the capitalist U.S. empire a utopia of consumption. So the perfect U.S. monster is also a monster that is consuming you or eating you because you are eating everything.

So they’re sympathetic or admirable in a way?

They are not necessarily admirable, they’re evil.Maybe it’s that the aggression that is present in the culture itself is projected onto the other. That is a very normal psychological mechanism: if you don’t want to acknowledge your own aggression you put it onto the other.

I wanted to ask you about this really interesting moment, right in the middle of the movie. You’re standing in front of these two sections of the Berlin Wall that are in a park in South Dakota, and you sort of lose your thread, about the end of history.

Yeah that’s my favorite part.

It’s really incredible. You grew up in East Germany, and your childhood saw this “end of history” happen. Did these dinosaur mythologies have the same kind of circulation in your childhood? Or was it more like a symbol of what the west had and believed?

Even in the west, dinosaurs were a bit forgotten in the ’80s, and they reappeared when Spielberg made Jurassic Park. The dinosaur cult goes in waves. The ’10s, the ’30s—actually the whole time up until the Second World War, there was a big dinosaur cult going on in the U.S. but also in Europe, and then there was another boom in the ’60s and then again in the ’90s. There were not so many dinosaur films being produced in the ’70s and ’80s.

That’s right—there was this children’s film that I remember seeing with dinosaurs in the ’90s; I think it was called We’re Back—it’s all about return.

Exactly, the return. So the ’90s was about the return of the dinosaurs, and there is an obvious connection to the end of history, because dinosaurs are monsters of progress and monsters of extinction, monsters of a radical break in time, and that’s why it makes them so perfect for modern thought, because modernity is this paradox of progress and breaks in time. We can only experience time by a radical break between before and after, and 1989–90 was one of those radical breaks. Maybe it happened again with 9/11 in our own western imaginary, but ’89 was even more radical for many people because they had to completely change their perspective on the world.

And for people in Western Germany, the shift in 1989–90 wasn’t experienced in the way that people in the East experienced it, because in the East it actually meant that history started again. It wasn’t only an end of history, it was also a beginning, a forced beginning for many. Their historical experience was rendered extinct, and suddenly people had to include themselves in another history, a history that used to be the history of the other side. And the unemployment, the structural problems, and the humiliation by West Germans actually led to a long low point and a sense of humiliation and defeat. There is the feeling of being on the losing side, not only in East Germany but many other former Eastern Bloc countries—you are kind of running after history. History has left you behind, you have to jump into it, but you are always going to be late, because what you were taught or what you learned is now completely invalid. That is what I experienced as a kid, and what led to what has been called the “generation of the untaught” or "un-advised," that is, for the young East Germans, many of our teachers or adults in general did not seem much more experienced then us, they were very insecure, busy with finding their own position in this new society.

They also had to become adults?

Yeah, they couldn’t convincingly embody any form of Vorsprung, like, to be ahead. They had to learn along with the children—and sometimes the children were quicker in realizing what was going on. So in a way, they didn’t have so much authority over us children. Of course there’s positions of power that give you authority, but it wasn’t really convincing. And so I saw Jurassic Park in the movie theater, I was a little bit too young for it, I think I was a bit under 12, but I went anyway, and it was a really impressive film.

Why was that piece of the wall there in the middle of South Dakota?

It’s in Rapid City, and I knew it was there. When we prepared the film I knew Rapid City would be the perfect place to stay a long time and try to connect all these different threads together. There’s the exhibit of the Berlin Wall, and then there’s this dinosaur park on a nearby hill that has these concrete dinosaurs that appear a couple of times in the film. They were built by workers in the Great Depression, and they’re these absurd forms, not really based on actual dinosaurs, because the people who built them were not skilled sculptors in any way. They were just built by random people put to work by the New Deal. And then there’s also the Crazy Horse memorial. I wanted to connect these three things together. For me, the Berlin Wall is a symbol for this break in history, this kind of break in this idea of linear time, which the dinosaur also relates to, but how the wall is exhibited in Rapid City it is also a symbol for the victory of the U.S. American empire.

I always bring my own history and my own stories and imaginations to a place where I am shooting a film. So I wanted to make transparent that I bring a personal motivation to this film. My fascination for dinosaurs as "monsters of modernity" partly comes from my personal experience with a very radical break in history. And it made sense to go to the US to find this personal story, because this break is also connected with the arrival of US American culture in my life and in everyone else’s life around me. And I think that influenced me a lot, and I wanted to put it in the film, as I think a personal film is more interesting than someone who speaks only about things and above things.

How did it make you feel that there was this piece of your personal history on display?

I don’t think I’m so personally connected with the Berlin Wall itself in that sense. But I find it absurd—most of the pieces of the Berlin Wall are actually in the U.S. In terms of amount of concrete, there’s probably more in Berlin, but in terms of pieces that were separated and exhibited in different places, most of them are in the U.S.

Like trophies or something.

Yeah, they’re trophies. I didn’t put it in the film, but there’s a little exhibit on the back of the wall in Rapid City. It’s just an image of a big firework, and it says “Victory!” Just like that. Just victory and fireworks, that is what the Berlin Wall stands for in America. I don’t feel hurt by that, but it’s telling about this moment of empire. I think it’s part of this whole other story as well, about how in East and West Germany, cowboys and what they called Indians then were mythological figures used for enacting the East versus West conflict.

How so?

Many of the colonizers and many of the people active in the Wild West as settlers and adventurers came from Germany. Especially in the Northwest, in the Dakotas, there were a lot of Germans. And so there were a lot of stories being sent back, and in Germany for a long time there was a big obsession with Wild West stories. Karl May was a big author at the end of 19th century who wrote all these stories about these slightly homoerotic friendship between Winnetou the Appache and Old Shatterhand, this white German man. These stories were already there and very popular. But then after World War II they kind of split, so in the West they were doing identifying more with the cowboys, and in the East people were identifying with the Native Americans, because they associated the cowboys with U.S. American empire. They wanted to be on the side both of the victims, but also on the side of the solidarity with the colonized. There were a lot of films made by the DEFA called Indianerfilme—I originally thought I’d put some in my film but I didn’t in the end because they’re really mediocre. The Wall kind of split the obsession with American history into two sides, but that’s a thing I didn’t want to explain and get into too much in the film.

But before that you have this really ambitious thesis that you put forth about Frederick Jackson Turner and Eadweard Muybridge and the “virtual afterlife of the frontier” continuing on in cinema right at the moment when it closes geographically—

I’m not so sure that I would ever formulate it as a thesis if I had to defend it, but I like the connection between the running horse as the origin of cinema—the horse as moving animal as the symbol for film as science, technology, magic, entertainment—and at the same time the images of the horse run which represents the final privatization of the land. That’s the great thing with film, you can just put it together. You can associate things with each other and then you can make that link and I don’t have to prove it you know, that there is a link, I just make the link.

I’m very interested in the continuation of the American frontier as a logic, because it has globalized since the 90s, and the ideal of progress is now very much connected to technology. And this is strong with imaging and mapping technology and it’s always this same idea: when we are able to simulate something, when we are able to make a 3-D animation of it, then we have power over it. At least when it comes to medical and neuroscience, there’s this belief that just the diagnosis, just the image production itself will somehow benefit humanity in terms of progress.

I’m very skeptical of that. But it also relates to my interest in understanding the specificities of film as a medium.I’m very much drawn to the early times of cinema, where somehow via animation magic enters science again, or it is one of the times that magic enters science, or is conjoined with it and it becomes this paradoxical mix of creating what never was and somehow also capturing reality. Between photography and animation you have this combination, and I’m really interested also in how it was created in specific political moments.

It’s interesting what you said about the imaging, and the going inside or going deeper, because it’s at the point of closing the frontier that people start really digging, building the extractive industries, but at the same time you get these virtual dimensions for expansion with film and representation and the discovery of the unconscious. In the context where U.S. imperialism is sort of blocked on a geographic scale then they start digging or extracting in a different way to keep moving.

There’s this point in the 19th century, at least according to Turner, at which Americans had to find a new frontier. “Well, we are good at exploring, that’s our identity, that’s what we white American men can do. Our nation is about settling, and about transformation in the experience of being close to nature. By being very intimate with nature, we turn it into civilization.”

That mythology was really powerful, and it was turned into a whole geopolitical strategy: we have to find the wilderness somewhere else. In film it’s a little bit of a joke, too, because the wilderness in animation is obviously a fiction. You animate creatures that you cannot film, and you civilize the dinosaur, even though it’s not even wild: you civilize it by making it wild. The whole wilderness of the dinosaur is a technological product, and I think that interested me in DINOSAUR.GIF most of all. In that work, I was focused on this contradiction that somehow we believe that the dinosaur is natural because we see it realistically animated—it’s moving a lot—but of course for the animators and for the whole movie industry, this is evidence for the power of technology. So in that sense, in the end, the wilder nature is, the stronger technology proves to be. And that is very much a frontier idea.

Anna Zett, This Unwieldy Object, 2015

At one point in the film, you describe a lot of these different processes with a really great phrase, about the way that property relations were trying to wrap themselves around these objects.

Yeah, that’s where the title comes from. It’s actually a quote from Patricia Nelson Limerick, an American historian who called Western history "an array of efforts to wrap the concept of property around unwieldy objects." She tries to deconstruct the myth of the American frontier and Turner’s mythology and says that they weren’t all these wild frontiersmen out in the wilderness; the agents of the frontier were real estate agents! They were salespeople, all these people trying to privatize. All these businesspeople, bankers, accountants, that we don’t talk about being in the Wild West. The bank is one of the first things that gets established. It’s all about private property. The idea of private property is the main system to be established in colonization and still is maybe the only content of capitalism—private property is the only thing to be protected, everything else is kind of negotiable.

I thought it was interesting though because the rest of the movie talks about dinosaurs and fossils and they fit so snugly in whatever the system of private property wants to use them for! They don’t seem that unwieldy actually. They seem ideal or perfect.

Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that, but I think in some sense I like to just connect this quote to the dinosaur because the dinosaur is in one sense an unwieldy object: It’s giant, we can’t really handle it, and so on. But they are made wieldy for history. I think it’s a process. I don’t think the dinosaur itself is perfectly fitting. You have to make it fit, whatever kind of bone you find. First you appropriate it, and then you have to find a way to integrate it into something that makes sense, if it’s just a fossil fragment for example. But then, maybe in some ways, it’s a little bit of a joke. The first part of the film—it ends with the very tiny dinosaur inside the plaster egg, this one here, [she takes the little dinosaur she has on her desk and brings it to where we are sitting] I still have it. So there’s a big dick, this giant object, it represents this giant empire, the giant capitalist power, the dinosaur, and then I’m like, well, you’re so small! So it’s a little bit this joke, and it’s super wieldy, handy, and so in a way the film ends with this object that is not unwieldy at all, because that is the product. That is what comes out of that whole digging and dealing with contradictions and using them and projecting aggression and fear onto this mythological object and trying to cut them together and copy them and put them all over the world and in the end you have this—and it’s a finished product, and it has nothing to do with the animal that once lived.

Except for the fact that it’s made out of plastic, right? At the level of material it totally has something to do with it.

Yeah, exactly—I had this connection very vaguely in my head that I wanted this film to be about fossil fuels and the product of it, which is plastic, but I didn’t focus on it completely. But it stayed in the film, and I found a way to make it a strong point. I read the book Synthetic Worlds by Esther Leslie when I was editing, and it all made sense to me, and I was really happy because she kind of gave me this association—she writes about how from coal tar and then also from oil, from these black, poisonous products create this rainbow of colors of the plastic empire. It’s made of the toxic byproducts of industry in the beginning. So that really made another piece fall into place. I knew already that I wanted plastic things in there but I was actually surprised, because I didn’t know what would be inside the egg, you know? We were filming as I broke it open and then there just happened to be this plastic dinosaur inside, so it wasn’t really my construction.