And Say the Animal Responded? was the first large-scale show I curated for FACT Liverpool after joining as Director in 2019. Due to open in late March 2020, the opening was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, eventually opening in August 2020. Life and work got a little overwhelming after that, but it was an important show for me and so I wanted to reflect on its themes and content a little, before moving onto more recent concerns.
And Say the Animal Responded? is the title of an essay by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In it, he criticises the idea that humans can be set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom because of their unique intelligence. He disagrees with the argument that human language is special – that it enables us to ‘respond’ to others while animals merely ‘react’ through instinct. Ultimately, he points out, we cannot truly know how an animal thinks or what its communications mean.
I set out to curate an exhibition that could rethink the human-animal distinction and question this hierarchy, exploring human-animal relations from the nonhuman animal’s perspective, and centring this in a wider discussion about the increasing precarity of life on planet Earth. I wanted visitors to wonder what we could learn from the animal if we would only listen. Studies show that animals feel emotions – they have distinct personalities and ways of communicating – yet we rarely consider what the destruction of their habitats, and species extinction means beyond how it affects us. Shouldn’t our focus shift to consider also the nonhuman animal and their right to exist?
The exhibition brought together works by six international artists that incorporated forms of animal communication, particularly sound-based. In researching the exhibition, I encountered many works that anthropomorphised the animal, even putting words into its mouth. I was keen to avoid this and to represent, as far as possible, the animal’s own voice. Of course, this was an unachievable ideal. Our encounters with animals are always mediated, increasingly through technology, and this mediation in itself became a focus of the exhibition. How does the presence of human technology affect the nonhuman animal and alter its behaviour? Is a ‘light touch’ encounter possible?
The works enabled ‘face-to-face’ encounters with the sounds and behaviours of animals from around the planet, creating a space for the animal’s voice and immersing visitors in animals’ sonic lives: from an ocean choir of whales and dolphins recorded by hydrophone, to the quiet interactions between wolves captured by drone camera, to a living colony of leafcutter ants ‘scratching’ music in the gallery. The sounds in the gallery were triggered by presence to the artworks, so that when there were many people presence it was a cacophony, but on a quieter day the exhibition was contemplative and calm.
Representing the Animal’s Voice
In the exhibition, I wanted as much as possible to represent the animal’s voice and the animal’s perspective. Of course, this was impossible. As humans, we filter everything through our own senses, experiences and understandings. When we represent animals in films, art, or even through the gifs which we use to communicate every day, we tend either to consider animals only in relation to humans and what they mean to us, or else we give them humanlike qualities so that we can empathise with them. But we should not care about animals because they are like us or are of value to us, but because they are not like us.
To capture and present the animal (whether as specimen, image or sound) humans have used the technologies of their time, and these are always disturbing for the animal to some degree. Paintings and taxidermy often distorted the animal’s nature and appearance in their presentation. Zoos changed the animal’s behaviour. Universally viral animal memes further humanise our ideas of the ways animals communicate. Today, we use a range of modern technologies to observe and record animals, and assume that these present a truer representation. All the works in the exhibition presented the animal through the use of media technologies. Yet, each did so with the knowledge that this changes the behaviour of the animal observed, and in doing so asks us to question what it is to observe other animals.
The first artist I invited was the Mexican artist Ariel Guzik. Guzik is a musician, researcher, artist, iridologist, herbalist and inventor, who designs and produces mechanisms and instruments to enquire into the various languages of nature. For this exhibition, I commissioned from him a new installation, incorporating sound, drawings and sculptural works from his long-term research project to communicate musically with whales and dolphins in the wild.
Guzik designed his submersible musical instrument, Nereida, to connect with ocean mammals (or ‘cetaceans’). In the deep sea, its subtle sound vibrations invite a chorus of responsive sounds from whales and dolphins. In the gallery, the instrument’s music and the extraordinary recordings that Guzik had made of a cetacean choir responding to Nereida reverberated through the space. Alongside, Guzik premiered a new film, charting the expedition of his latest instrument Holoturian into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. The installation muses on the cetacean’s sonic world and language under the sea, suggesting an undersea planet almost separate to the one we know, populated by very different intelligences and cultures.
Amalia Pica and Rafael Oretega
I met Amalia and Rafael in London, having seen Pica’s show of works about chimpanzee communication using symbols. Whilst I wasn’t interested in these works, in which the animal has to use a form of human language, I discovered that the two had collaborated on a series of works that focused specifically on ape behaviour in the wild and their complex vocalisations and gestures. These three works look at these in-depth modes of communication and pose the question: rather than trying to teach human systems to animals, why don’t we rely on their own long-established methods to communicate with them?
In Pan troglodytes ellioti and cousins (2016), the visitor encounters a life-sized video projection of a family of chimpanzees in a Nigerian forest, caught when they triggered a night-vision camera during the day. The chimps’ gentle and curious acceptance of this device contrasts with the viewer’s uneasy realisation – on leaving the gallery – that they too have triggered a camera and been recorded.
Catalogue of great ape gestures (in alphabetical order) (2018) is a video of a dance choreographed with and performed by Michael Smith, which is revealed to be based on the gestural body language of great apes. The audio work Is it grunting, barking or panting? (2017) which we played in the FACT cafe, appears to be a soundscape of distant cries of monkeys and apes, but turn out to be human primatologists imitating those calls.
As well as their portrayal of ape communication and behaviours, I loved how Pica and Oretega’s works confuse the very act of animal observation and study, confounding our expectations of how humans study and interact with animals, and pushing us to think how this in turn might affect their (and our) behaviour.
For me, Kooij’s beautiful film Wolves from Above is perhaps the clearest example in the exhibition of the impact that observation and documentary technology can have on animals. Her film installation captures the quiet interactions of a wolf pack, filmed through a single drone shot with perfectly clear audio recording.
The film was projected onto the floor, giving the the viewer same vantage point as the drone and an almost visceral sense of how we intruding into the wolves’ world. These elusive animals wander through their tranquil wilderness where the sounds of growling, sniffing and licking feel oddly nearby, heightening the intimacies of communication through human-to-wolf spectatorship. Though they are being filmed, the wolves continue their almost silent communication, but their occasional glances to the sky illustrate their discomfort at the drone humming above them.
invited the Ecuadorian artist and ant scholar Kuai Shen to present his living artwork called Oh!m1gas from 2012, a reactive sound installation within which a colony of leafcutter ants become DJs, controlling the movement of two turntables. The ants communicate with each other through movement, scent, body language (touching or stroking each other) and sound, which they produce by scraping their legs on their body. Within the installation, the growing activity within the nest moves a needle on a vinyl record, creating music in response to the ants’ various behaviours: from nest-building to farming. Exploring the relationship between human technology and the social structures of ants, the work draws analogies between ‘scratching’ as a form of human musical expression and the ant sounds
In his practice, Shen has moved away from showing live ants in his works (although he was kind enough to recreate Oh!m1gas for this exhibition). He also showed one of his more recent works Nomadas, (2019), an audiovisual portrait of Amazonian army ants.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
In the upstairs galleries at FACT, the exhibition took a different, more ominous, tone: representing the decline and loss of species through technology through two installations by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.
The Substitute (2019) explores a paradox: our preoccupation with creating new life forms, while neglecting existing ones. On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros. Ginsberg’s life-size projection presents a digital resurrection of the rhino roaming in a virtual world. Built using artificial intelligence, the rhino becomes more ‘real’ as it is met with the limits of the space. The rhino’s form and sound toggle from pixelation to lifelike, glitching in and out of existence.
In the sound installation Machine Augeries (2019), a natural dawn chorus is infiltrated by artificial birdsong. Light and sound pollution from our 24-hour urban lifestyle affects birds, which are singing earlier, louder, for longer, or at a higher pitch to communicate. Some birdsong, however, is being lost to us, leaving ‘gaps’ in the dawn chorus. In the installation, these gaps are filled by slightly uncanny artificial bird calls, generated using machine learning, trained on those of the natural birds.
The composition follows the arc of a dawn chorus, compressed into 10 minutes from the natural 90 minutes. In the dim silvery light of pre-dawn, the chorus starts with a lone “natural” redstart. In response, an artificial redstart sings back. A “natural” robin joins the chorus, with a call and response set up between natural and artificial birds. As the chorus fades and the room illuminates to a warm yellow, we realise that the artificial birds are dominating.
And Say the Animal Responded in the pandemic
Opening almost five months later than planned due to the Covid pandemic, And Say the Animal Responded? took on new resonance for audiences, as lockdowns – and the likely cause of the pandemic itself – brought home the extent to which human activity has impacted on the natural world. During lockdowns, animals reclaimed lost territory with louder bird song and wild animals returning to urban areas. As we emerged, a little damaged and nervous, from that first lockdown, audiences seemed very ready to consider our fragile relationships with the non-humans with whom we share the planet.