Another Mode of Relation to Nonhuman Species
Draft of an Interview by Yvonne Volkart with Matthew Fuller, Graham Harwood
YV: In 2010, you realised an action called "Requiem for Cod" in the estuary of the River Thames, of which we showed the video documentation in our exhibition project “Lands End. Landscape as Image and as Space. The event basically consisted of sound recordings of the mating sounds of cod being played by a simple underwater speaker to cod hatchlings in the thames estuary. We see the boat and hear a strange, never heard “singing” of fish. Furthermore, we see the estuary, the sea, the scintillating horizon, in short, the surface called “landscape”, well-known to us all. We do not know what’s happening under water or whether anything is taking place at all. But what we feel is a certain strangeness and emptiness. Can you tell me something about the basic ideas of this project?
GH: The 'singing' was a set of a few sound files from the National Sound Archive who have 1971 recordings of the mating signals of cod. Like many such calls, that need to be audible in water, they consist of a deep repeated thumping noise, a throb that travels well through water.
The mp3 files were played through an 8ohm speaker wrapped in a self-sealing bag at a depth of 3 metres into the water of the Thames estuary. This is where the codling enter to stay over winter. Clearly there are several transformations occurring here, that of the original recordings, their conversion into MP3, and from there to this rather weak way of offering these up into the water. If one imagines the movement of cod around the oceans, the thousands of individuals that would have been in the shoals at mating time making such a call, the action is rather unlikely to succeed in inspiring hot cod action, but it may remind them of better times.
YV: Matthew, in 2007, you wrote a text in which you draw upon the idea of Art for Animals, that meant art projects which addressed not an art audience, but animals. Does "Requiem for Cod" have to do with this idea and if so, could you explain it?
MF: The idea of art for animals is to expand the sense of art as a mode of attention to perception. Art is a form of life in which attention to experience, process, object and inter-relation is particularly heightened. A first principle of art, and what distinguishes it as an ethical activity, is that one never operates with a priori boundaries on meaning and on the unfolding of the world in relation to the elements that make up its dynamic composition. Of course, such boundaries, and play with them, as in the case of the frame or the pedestal, or the institution, have been part of art's histories. As the late potter and writer Emmanuel Cooper suggests in his book, 'The Peoples Art' there have been limits placed on this unfolding in relation to different forms of human social composition, such as class. Art for animals operates with the proposition that we may find out some interesting things if we attend to the aesthetic acuity and unfolding of non-human species.
GH At present there is a debate around the question of the representational or non-representational in aesthetics. This project makes a non-representational action that cannot be received by the species it is intended for, and that cannot be directly experienced in the terms it might be known by cod and by the humans who experience it as art. In this sense it works to abolish the categorical distinction between the representational and non-representational. We can also think of this as an attempt to show how, given the operation and disjunction of multiple kinds of sensorium in ecology, that are simultaneously operative, and also failing around us.
If you remember back to Tantalum Memorial where the Congolese could not be directly represented but were represented by the switching of a telephone network. Or you can see it again in Coal Fired Computers where the English database's of miner lung disease are used to explore the lack of of Data on Chinese miners. As 91% of mines being unregulated it would be impossible to represent them so we look at why we have English data but not Chinese.
YV: Hearing and seeing the video, I feel something unreachable, something beyond my perception, but I feel also loneliness, sadness and melancholia. The project makes clear, as you stressed once, that cod won't survive in our environment. How important was this emotional or aesthetic aspect of "Requiem for Cod" – an aesthetics which tries, in a certain way, to "re-interpretate" the ecological loss. And with which means did you try to underscore it?
MF: Cod are being intensively over-fished. As one of the species that yield an almost flavourless flesh when cooked they slot very well into the degraded sensorium of the contemporary western homo sapiens. A 'governmental' approach to this crisis is to say that all fishing of this species should be suspended until 'populations' are replenished to the point of being sustainable, rather than being on the path to extinction on which they are currently set. The main debate about cod and fishing in general is held in these terms, one that inspires, at least, a melancholia about the forms of politics at large in the world and their meagre capacity to act, or even to compose thought, in relation to ecological crises. Our proposition here is that another mode of relation to nonhuman species is possible, indeed essential, if equally nonsensical.
GH:The fisherman who took us out laughed long and hard about the project. They have retold the story again and again in the local pub about the mad man playing the sound of fish breeding off their boats. Ridicule can be the flip side of loneliness, sadness and melancholia and is a useful strategy with which to enquire into the insanity of our approach to fish and the lifestyles of those who would depend on them.
YV: Matthew, in our email conversation of 2011, in which I told you about the idea of thinking about melancholy as a precondition of the awareness of loss and therefore a potential means for a subversive, aesthetic strategy, you wrote: "Yes, I think you are right about melancholy. It is a far more appropriate mode than the sublime for the current era, especially if we are to think through the question of landscape." This idea is really interesting, can you go further on it?
MF: Sadness is quite flat in its tonality and in a sense it's a rather cerebral mode of emotion. Melancholia has, of course, a profound literature, but also an interesting sense in which it is also a form of intellectual emotional state that is also physiological, connected to the theory of the humours at certain points in history, but also to the function of the organs, and thus operates within a wider cosmology of experience and intellection in relation to context and ecology as a mode of understanding it is already ecological, arranging the brain in relation to other organs and physiological processes, but also operating with a recognition of a dislocation of certainty. Melancholia in art is classically invoked by, for instance the still life, in which rot, decay, pestilence, the figuration of death is incorporated into perception. One is lively when one perceives, but one is also a momentary phenomena. To work in relation to other species is also to recognise not only one's temporal singularity but also to experience it in terms of forms of perception – in terms that are physiological, sensorial and ecological.
Of course, having said this, the idea that we can make something meaningful to cod, at entirely different stages in their life-cycles, in different spaces, with the rather meagre equipment at our disposal, is itself rather melancholy.
YV: Preparing your contribution for the show “Lands End”, and talking about the term landscape, Matthew wrote me the following:
“Landscape is an aesthetic category that arises after the split between the organic or holistic relation to the land has been abolished for most humans in europe. We are now in the process of making this the case for many more species, cod being one of the primary species which are on the verge of extinction due to over-fishing.”
What do you mean with “the split between the organic or holistic relation to the land has been abolished?”
MF: Landscape as a genre of painting arose with the idea of ownership of land and was related to the generation of the visual pleasure in comprehending, in encompassing in a single gaze all that was the property of the landowner. The genre has a genealogically close relation to the map. The invention of property relations in land is a significant current in ecological terms and is interwoven with many other scales of problem, offering, in capitalism a broken but unified framework for understanding and failing to resolve ecological crises. Humans were separated from the land via property, and specifically by the different waves of enclosure – something we see being reiterated across the globe in different forms, for instance in the removal of grazing lands from nomadic herders in the Sahel contemporarily. An immense number of species are being separated from their ecological context in an even more fundamental way, via extinction. The aesthetic of landscape as a genre of painting is deeply implicated in the problem of property but may perhaps offer some means of recognising current ecological predicaments.
GH: English landscape painting, beyond the idea of ownership, seems to have been invented to record or imagine the land as it disappeared into the smoke of the industrial revolution. The nonhuman space of sea, tide, wind, planetary motion is a relief from a wired world in which we have to respond to complex ecologies differently. It reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe and that maybe the wired version we have of ourselves is mistaken.