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A Natural Response?

Leah Binns

[1]

And Say the Animal Responded? is an exhibition at Liverpool’s FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), the core component of their Year of the Living Planet programme. Spaced across two floors, the show facilitates a discussion between the natural and digital spheres through animal communication and human sound technologies, suggesting a synchronicity between the two. Giving space to only a few artists, who work mostly with video and installation, the exhibition steps away from the images that permeate digital ecology—wildfires, desolate landscapes, and shocking graphics—and towards the soundscape as a way of providing subtlety and nuance. Each piece functions as a kind of microhabitat, giving gravitas to the underlying feeling of loss that permeates the work. The space itself is abundant with ideas of what it means to inhabit the world and cohabit with nature. As human technology erodes the natural landscape as we know it, the work on display gives ground to voices that are increasingly evasive. It acknowledges the Anthropocene as something that cannot be effectively articulated, but finds form in how it compels us to try. 

Artist duo Amalia Pica and Rafael Ortega contribute three pieces, on our relationship with primates, which open the exhibition: a minute-long looped video clip of a group of chimpanzees in a forest; a video in which a human performer catalogues ape gestures and motions; and, in the space outside the exhibition, a sound piece of human imitating ape calls. In the first work, Pan Troglodytes Ellioti and Cousins (2016), visitors watch the chimpanzees, who in turn hint at a wordless response. The noiseless neutrality of the footage draws attention to the grainy texture of the video itself and its washed-out monochromatic palette, giving the sense that this is more of an encounter with a cryptid. The refined documentation of a nature programme is here loosened to consider the image as more ethereal, mystic, and elusive. The duo’s other two works explore the uncanny comparability between human and primate language and expression. Is It Grunting, Barking, or Panting? (2017) is an immaterial audio installation in which scientists mimic the range of speech patterns that apes produce, eliciting a sense of kinship between human and primate. Catalogue of Great Ape Gestures (2019) operates similarly, but with an encyclopaedic specificity. Pica and Ortega’s work considers the framing of interspecies communication through mutual mimicry, and in this work, how it is catalogued and repackaged for human understanding. 

Working with the sensorial qualities of the sea, musician and designer Ariel Guzik uses installation as an act of preservation. The Neredia Capsule (2007) is an interdisciplinary environment: it synthesises film, diagram, and installation to provide an insight into his invention of instruments which can communicate with whales and perhaps prompt a response. Formatted like a research project that has yet to be pulled together, the spontaneity of the work reflects the ambiguity of the sea, and the fragmentary pieces act as prisms of the sonic mystery that the ocean holds. In a time where speculative utopianism is often regarded as naïve, his work finds charm and sincerity by foregrounding the mythology of the whale.  There is a sentimentality to his approach, driven by the desire to communicate with deep-sea creatures, and the depth of research is apparent in his output. Guzik’s work opens up the possibility of utopian practice at the point where technology and mythology intersect, and indicates what this could look like in the digital era.

Kuai Shen’s Oh!m1gas (2012) is a work of biomedia that exposes ant colonies as social structures. The piece is a collaboration between a group of leafcutter ants and sensor technology: Shen has constructed a synthetic nest in which a group of ants direct the movement of a record player. The vibrations of the human sound technology and of the communicatory impulses of the ants are synchronised. The work is curious in its dichotomy of a clinical tank and crawling ants, rife with eerie tensions between writhing and constructed forms. But really, we are witness to nature’s quiet persistence, as the ants labour assiduously as a collective. There is something striking in the tactility of the work, and in how music is extracted from ant behaviour, movements, and interactions. The artist demonstrates a harmony with the ants, and he revels in the complexity of the social system. Allowing the ants control of the piece and rejecting human input, Shen’s work explores new territory from an unusual perspective. 

Demelza Kooji’s video work Wolves From Above (2018) follows a wolf pack from a drone shot, maintaining a consistent distance. The territory is obscure and almost extra-terrestrial, lingering between a speculative landscape and an animal documentary. The alternative format of the floor projection makes this a particularly compelling work, which stands out from the pack. It is a reflective piece, and the blue tones reflect the sense of calm that underpins the work. There is a feeling of intimacy in our own lingering gaze, but there is also an intense awareness of the technology that mediates this relationship, as the bird’s eye format and the gentle hum of the drone draw attention to the work as a simulated construction. It gives new ground to interspecies spectatorship, and the shortcomings of technologically-mediated observation. It also speaks to the ways in which wolves communicate with each other, how we are distinctly outsiders in our lack of understanding, and how the format of the documentary film can detail this liminality. 

Upstairs, two works by experimental designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg open up discussions about what it means to digitise animal lives while refusing to preserve the lives that exist. Perhaps the dominant piece is her most famous recent work, The Substitute (2019). This work pays homage to the male northern white rhino, declared extinct in 2018, by digitally simulating its behaviours and presence. It is this work, in its foregrounding of extinction and loss, which truly explores the depths of the uncanny territory that lies between organic and simulated life. A constructed, digital visual accompanies real recorded sounds, both breathing new life into the rhino and putting focus on its absence. It is a portrait done retrospectively, a testament to technology as a magic that can conjure what is lost. But Ginsberg shows a deep awareness of human technology as both a tool of destruction and one that can emulate what has been destroyed: the predominant subject of the work is this moral conflict in the use of technology as a resurrective practice. The rhino sporadically disintegrates into a glitched version of itself, reminding us that it is constructed by pixels rather than flesh and bone. It raises the question: what role will animal digitisation play in the future of conservation? And can we ever mimic something entirely without foregrounding the pathos of what is lost? 

Following the arc of a dawn chorus, Ginsberg’s other work in the exhibition overlays real recordings and synthetic productions of birdsong. Functioning similarly to The Substitute, Machine Auguries (2019) is grounded in a transitional place, using deepfake and the unearthly tension that deepfakes elicit to draw attention to the liminal space between what is natural and what is constructed. The work’s intention is to portray the decline of birds in urban space by encouraging the visitor to pause, spend a moment reflecting on how the real and technologically-constructed birdsong disintegrate into one another, and consider how the separation between nature and culture is not as clear as it seems. Accompanying the sounds is an artificial dawn, abstracted into garish lights, through which Ginsberg comments on the real effects of sound and light pollution without depicting them directly. Intersecting design aesthetics with the landscapes of synthetic biology, she alludes to the beauty and ambience of nature, but ultimately denies us the experience promised. 

FACT Liverpool has always explored art as a scientific and technological endeavour, and science as a means of providing new spaces that art can explore. And Say the Animal Responded? embodies this project particularly successfully. It is as grounded as it is speculative, providing pockets of insight into worlds outside of the gallery. The nature documentary is often understood as an apolitical eye which observes animals interacting with their surroundings, without human influence or an external agenda. The works on display succeed in unravelling this idea, attentively outlining animalistic phenomena that are alien to human communication: the consentience of a dawn chorus, or the exceptional isolation of being the last northern white rhino in the world.  As visitors, we are compelled to think more widely about sound as a tool which facilitates a dialogue between constructed technology and animal communication.

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Leah Binns [2] is a recent graduate of Oxford University’s MSt History of Art programme.