Georgie Brinkman reflects on human/non-human collaboration through the making of her recent video installation.
I have never been jealous of a pig
Recently I saw a video of a pig vigorously painting a portrait of Boris Johnson. With few strokes administered with the energy of a caffeinated toddler she captured the essence of his trademark unruly hair. I was impressed to learn, yet had to talk my ego out of a small existential crisis, that Pigcasso (this is her dubious, human-appointed name) had a significantly higher wage and larger fan base than I do as an artist. Previously, she had her work exhibited in a pop-up gallery in Amsterdam and in 2022 will participate in Amsterdam International Art Fair, making her (apparently) the first other-than-human contributor in the art fair circuit. As an artist also attempting to build a sustainable career in the Netherlands I have to admit a hint of simmering jealousy. I have never been jealous of a pig before. In fact I have never been jealous of anyone who is not a human, not truly. Reflecting on having entered this new territory I asked myself why is this the case? Do I always assume myself to, in the long-run, be better off that my animal cousins? Happier? More intelligent? And, is Pigcasso the one that I should really be jealous of?
Of course, to become a player in the human art market our painting pig had to have been assisted by a non-porcine accomplice. Her name is Joanne Lefson. According to their collaborative website Pigcasso was saved from slaughter by Lefson in 2016 and brought to live at Farm Sanctuary SA in South Africa. Details of the origins of their collaboration are given as follows:
When Joanne noticed that Pigcasso ate or destroyed everything except some old paint brushes that were laying in her stall, she decided to nurture the pig’s potential talent. It didn’t take long before Pigcasso began to paint – and over time, the painting process developed into an extraordinary collaboration between human and pig. Lefson selects the colours while Pigcasso takes the brush into her mouth and creates her magic across the canvas. Lefson watches from afar, able to stop Pigcasso if she observes an interesting form developing that is relatable to the human eye.1
Initially, I found this account to induce an eye roll, reading it as evidence that the pig in this arrangement had been coerced into a collaboration designed to benefit the human. However, it is later revealed that the proceeds of Pigcasso sales entirely go to fund the sanctuary. Although it surely can be argued that Lefson leverages this situation to serve her needs, gradually I began to question if this kind of interspecies collaboration could in fact be one of the more equal and radical I had come across. If Pigcasso truly enjoys the act of painting, as is claimed, and the financial gains directly improve the quality of her life and her other animal co-habitants, then perhaps this is a model of other-than-human collaboration to be followed?
A watery collaborator and slippery questions
In 2021 I made a film in collaboration with someone not human. At least that’s what I claimed. Perhaps it could be argued that I made a film about someone not human: the North Sea. To describe the ocean as a ‘someone’ can feel a stretch for many people, but challenging Western perceptions of natural objects as being unable to possess personhood was one of my objectives in making the film. All was Ocean! All was Joy! (Or, How the Humans Broke the Ocean’s Heart) was credited, by me, as having two directors: myself and the North Sea. I was trying to make painstakingly clear that this film was not simply about representation but that I had actively tried to work with the ocean throughout the making. Not only that, but I was also attempting to think with the ocean, and feel with the ocean too (more on that later). However, I have been left with a niggling after-thought that this claim is unsubstantiated. After all The North Sea gave no indication that she wanted to make a film with me, nor did she have a choice when I embarked on filming. Pigcasso in comparison has markedly more agency in her collaborative endeavours, additionally benefitting from the rewards. Perhaps it is not jealousy that I am experiencing, but guilt for not having offered my collaborator something concrete in return? Sorry North Sea 😦
My pondering over this situation has instigated some other rather broad questions surrounding the fundamental ethics of art-making with other-than-human worlds. Questions that I believe I am obligated to answer, or attempt to answer, through my practice. At least, I’ve got to ask them. So, the voice in my head has been asking itself:
Is it ever possible to collaborate with a being that you cannot talk to?
Does a human and other-than-human collaboration always have a power hierarchy?
Is the other-than-human inevitably coerced into it? Can they ever initiate it?
What can be learned from interspecies collaboration?
What does it mean to imprint my own imaginative perception onto another being?
Did I stop them from telling their own story?
Amongst other things.
I apologise that if by laying out these questions I insinuated that they will all be neatly addressed and answered in this text. Instead I’m going to float around them (and perhaps answer them implicitly) by deep diving into the process in which I made All was Ocean!. So, I encourage you to keep an echo of these questions in your minds as we move on.
A deep dive into a world of sea slugs and ancient goddesses
All was Ocean! is a fairytale that imagines a Dutch storm surge barrier, the Oosterscheldekering, as not only a physical barrier but a metaphorical one. In this tale humans discover that the ocean is the container of all Stories.1 Subsequently they construct the sea barrier as a means to separate Fact from Fiction, naming it The Fact Checker. Sucking in the ocean’s body of water this enormous structure processes the Stories within, separating the quantifiable and the calculable as Facts and spitting them out the other side as solid stones. In the process salt water and fresh water also become divided, forming a new kind of marine ecosystem for the animals living there, particularly a community of colourful sea slugs. One day, the story of Nehalennia, ancient goddess of the North Sea, gets sucked through The Fact Checker causing a violent reaction. In these stormy waters some of the little sea slugs get sucked through The Fact Checker and entangled with the story of Nehalennia. The Fact Checker spits out a solid, stone Fact that is like no other: a Fact that is in its heart of hearts a Story. The stone breaks in two to reveal a watery centre. In the centre floats a poem. It reminds humans that the goddess of the North Sea should never have taken a human form, but instead the spirit of the ocean is found in the sea slugs. Along with this revelatory message The Fact Checker spat out the little sea slugs who had been caught up in the chaos. Soon, the humans realised that it was only the smallest and youngest who had slipped through the gaps of reality: the infant slugs. In the newly formed fresh water the slugs were unable to grow up. Their soft, gelatinous bodies slowly solidified on the ocean shore. In a desperate attempt to bring them back to life the humans cried their salty tears into the fresh water. They worshipped the sea slugs, making effigies and painting their frozen bodies to bring them back to life. They tried to eat the sea slugs in hope that their Stories and their lives would materialise on their skin. But after a little digestion they would still shit them out as solid Facts. Without their infants in the ocean, the parents of the sea slugs would take off their heads and try to grow a new heart, so it would not hurt so much. But they could not regrow their hearts like before as this time they were empty. The North Sea feels every heart stop in her body, as they are her heart too. And so, this is the story of how the humans broke the ocean’s heart.
A place where Fact and Fiction slosh together
The narrative of the film is rooted in the traditions of ancient mythology, using meandering storytelling as a way to rationalise the environment you find yourself in and the other creatures you find yourself amongst. This was also my method of making the film itself. I travelled on a solo journey to the Oosterscheldekering with no plan, no script and open to letting the environment influence me. What I did take with me was a body of research, both in a scientific sense, and in an artistic form. I had read much about the area and came armed with many ‘facts’ in my head. These included that in the 1970s, just before the construction of the Oosterscheldekering, some fisherman accidentally dredged up a crumbled, ancient temple to a North Sea goddess called Nehalennia.3 I brought an archive of photographs of various species of sea slug that reside in the waters around the Oosterscheldekering.4
I carried with me notes on scientific reports about sea slugs, in particular one that documented the formation of a new kind of slug in a fjord in Scandinavia.5 This slug was the first to live in low-salinity water, becoming an entirely new species in response to its habitat. Scientists had previously assumed it to be an infant form of a previously known sea slug, however upon closer inspection realised that it was in fact a new species who maintained infantile features throughout adulthood due to the lack of salt. It was a child that couldn’t grow up. More notes reminded me that some species of sea slug could take off their heads and regrow their entire bodies anew, including their heart.6 And so I brought this knowledge with me and thought about it as I filmed.
In my studio I had made props and material explorations in response to this research. I brought these with me too. They included a flag-cum-costume designed to be animated by the wind, and modelled on Edmundsella pedata, a particularly attractive purple and pink sea slug resident of the surrounding waters of the Oosterscheldekering. I made magic wands to resemble the rhinophores on sea slugs’ heads. I made weird musical instruments in the shape of sea slug egg deposits. Also in my bag were some candy sea slug models made from coconut water and agar agar. Knowing that sea slugs had gelatinous bodies I attempted to resemble this with a non-toxic material, one that I imagined could dissolve in the sea. It turned out that this dissolving was not such a success, but it did help to drive part of the narrative of the film: allowing the slugs to be consumed.
Thinking-feeling with the North Sea and her resident sea slugs
Spending three days alone with The North Sea also influenced the formation of the narrative. Notably, it brought me to the point of considering the ocean as a collaborator. I found myself timing my day around her tides. My recording abilities were determined by the strength of the sea breeze, the crashing of the waves, and the wetness of the ground around me. I took an underwater camera with me so that I could enter into the sea myself, and film from her perspective, not only from the view of the human onlooker firmly on land. Other animal beings took part in the film too. I filmed birds, jellyfish and crayfish and made a conscious effort to allow them to move in and out of shot. The camera became a passive onlooker to the world around, as well as framing it into shots. In this way I hope that the incidental other-than-humans became characters too, but characters of their own making.
Filming in this manner was my way of trying to ‘think-feel’ with the ocean. This concept was something I wrote about in a recent publication, TOTO TO TOTORO; Can talking animals save the world?, about the connection of anthropomorphism and animal conservation. Thinking-feeling is a term put forward by philosophers Brian Massumi and Erin Manning to describe a kind of multifaceted, multi-sensorial way of experiencing the world. To them, thinking-feeling is about semblance, perception and intuitiveness. To think-feel something is to understand it more deeply, to perceive something elusive between the gaps, and fill in its negative space. We think-feel things that we cannot touch, but know are there, like the weight of an object. Or things that may happen in the future. We think-feel something’s potential: “a thing felt is fringed by an expanding thought-pool of potential that shades off in all directions.”7
By making props that responded to characteristics of sea slugs and the marine environment I was also trying to engage in ways of thinking-feeling; to think-feel my relationship to them. To think about the sea slugs, and translate this into a kind of embodied, felt thought through making. By trying to think-feel along with the slugs, I was trying to put into practice working on a horizontal, non-hierarchal plane. To spend hours moulding them, painting them and trying to do their beauty justice. With this in mind I kept visible the handmade and crafted nature of my models. They were not attempting to be hyperrealistic representations but something birthed from the (human) imagination. I attempted to ‘stretch towards’ the ocean in an act of empathy. Stretching towards another being is also a term that I recently encountered through my writing. It comes via Aaron Moe and his philosophy about zoopoetics. He suggests that zoopoetics – a space where poetry is considered a multispecies event – forges new ground where species can “stretch toward” one another.8 This turns on its head our human predisposition to vertical hierarchy. Whilst we assume it kind to uplift animals into our perceived higher status of intelligence, it may be time to flatten our perspective and s t r e t c h towards them, horizontally. In other words, more equally.
I attempted to do this with language in the film too. The first words I wrote down after filming were onomatopoeic noises of ocean-like sounds. “SSSSsssssSSSSSsssccchchchchCHHHHH…splish, splash” read the opening lines. I tried to imagine how I would replicate the ocean’s voice with my own. Then I reversed this and thought about how she would try to speak to me, as well as what she would tell me. Following this train of thought I asked a vocalist and sound artist, Nina Guo, to try and ‘speak as the ocean’. You can hear her attempts to speak in an oceanic language embedded throughout the film, sometimes so convincing that they are hard to distinguish from the real ocean sounds which were recorded through the camera and a hydrophone. Although I encountered this text after the film was made, through my act of ocean transcription it could be said that I am putting into practice an ethnopoetic approach to other-than-human collaboration outlined by Leanne Rae Darnbrough in her essay ‘On the Empathic Possibilities of a Multispecies Ethnopoetics’. My practice sits with the idea that empathy for other-than-humans is fostered through storytelling, that fiction offers its audience a trial run to think the impossible and transgress species lines. Darnbrough goes one step further to say that the writer is the one to fully exercise empathy, to try and think through the gaps of interspecies communication: “The act of writing forces the writer to think in ways that might ostensibly seem unthinkable – for example, trying to accurately write animal experientiality which, due to our anthropocentrically delimited cognition, is by definition inconceivable”9.
Stretching towards the impossible
As a writer of this story I may have had practice in thinking through the gaps and exercising empathy, but I am still left with questions in how this translates to the ‘real world’. Just as Pigcasso benefits from her creative endeavours by having more and better quality food, can making fictions about other-than-human worlds lead to a real world improvement in their quality of life? In other words, does my fairytale have an impact on how we perceive the real world conditions of the area? Do people consider the negative impact of the storm surge barriers on marine ecosystems after watching my film? And is this how I could mark the success of the collaboration between myself and The North Sea?
My intention is that diving into this fantasy world encourages the viewer to reflect on their immediate, physical surroundings when they resurface again. The Fact Checker was portrayed in a somewhat negative light to make the viewer more deeply consider the environmental impact of the Oosterscheldekering. I was informed about this through the work of The Embassy of the North Sea, a group of artists, theorists, scientists and policy makers with the following mission: “The embassy listens to and acts on behalf of the sea to create a new, fully-fledged political player representing the sea in all its diversity. The North Sea owns itself, and we are investigating if it could be seen an independent legal entity.”10 Through the resources on their website I encountered an interview with Frank Zanderink, an expert in marine ecology of cetaceans, who claimed that the Oosterscheldekering had reeked substantial damage on the ecosystem of the area by filtering out the salt and turning it into brackish water. He described the environment as “turned upside down”11; an image that I kept with me throughout my filming. When trying to transmit knowledge about climate catastrophe and environmental destruction, then I am forever asking myself: have I translated this knowledge well enough? I question whether matters with a state of urgency convey more successfully as a documentary project. Although I tussle with these questions, I believe that translation of information into aesthetic emotion is the important role of an artist. I fundamentally believe that we as humans are more inclined to instigate action if we are made to feel something. Art-making, and storytelling, offers the opportunity to feel knowledge, as well as think about it.
But what would The North Sea feel about this? I hope it is evident by now that my intentions throughout making this film were to exercise a kind of empathy with The North Sea. However, the fact cannot be escaped that The North Sea was not able to agree to be my collaborator. I remain doubtful whether consent can be truly given by any other-than-human being (even ones with a corporeal body), as we do not have a mutual language through which they can express it. Yet this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to collaborate. Ethically, if there is no harm done unto the other party, I believe it is still valuable to try and stretch towards one another in an act of collaboration. In fact, vital. In a time of climate catastrophe there is necessity to look beyond the human and reconfigure our perceptions of the more-than-human worlds that we are systematically destroying. This can come in myriad forms. Like attempting to make a film in collaboration with the ocean. Or, revealing the potential of a pig to become the British Prime Minister’s next official portrait artist.
1 – “About.” Pigcasso, https://pigcasso.org/about.html
2 – I borrowed (and credited) this concept from 1990 children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, who in turn lifted it from the Sea of the Rivers of Story, the English equivalent of Kathāsaritsāgara, the title of an 11th-century collection of Indian legends.
3 – Bruin, Jasper de. “Topstukkenlezing: Nehalennia / Masterpieces Lecture: Nehalennia” (16 May 2021), Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
4 – Martijn Kos, et al. “Nederlands Soortenregister.” Home | Nederlands Soortenregister, https://www.nederlandsesoorten.nl/
5 – Korshunova, Tatiana, et al. “First True Brackish-Water Nudibranch Mollusc Provides New Insights for Phylogeny and Biogeography and Reveals Paedomorphosis-Driven Evolution.” PLOS ONE, vol. 13, no. 3, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192177
6 – Mitoh, Sayaka, and Yoichi Yusa. “Extreme Autotomy and Whole-Body Regeneration in Photosynthetic Sea Slugs.” Current Biology, vol. 31, no. 5, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.01.014
7 – Massumi, Brian. “The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens.” Inflexions 1, no. 1 (2008), p. 51, http://www.inflexions.org/n1_massumihtml.html
8 – Moe, Aaron M. Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014, p. 140
9 – Darnbrough, Leanne Rae. “On the Empathic Possibilities of a Multispecies Ethnopoetic.” Pulse: the Journal of Science and Culture, no. 7 (2020), p.17, https://www.pulse-journal.org/_files/ugd/b096b2_a28e225b7325401dbee78fb6752ae724.pdf
10 – Ambassade van de Noordzee. “About.” www.embassyofthenorthsea.com
11 – Lagunas, Darko, director. Voice of the Harbour Porpoise, https://vimeo.com/480785941
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