At the bottom of the sea, a small puffer fish performs a labour of love, making elaborate sand circles, precise in their geometry, astounding in their aesthetics. Most animal specialists would think of these sand circles as a way of attracting a mate -- but when we see the puffer fish in action, the action he is doing is also a dance; whereas for us watching it, we may see an artwork by a non-human species.
At the beginning of our research process, we wondered: how does this ‘shape’, this circle, this dance - how do they exist in the fish’s mind? How can we understand the movement that creates it as a kind of language and, most importantly, what is at stake when we reconsider language, communication and imagination in an interspecies landscape - looking across animal, human, vegetal, fungal and even artificial consciousness?
To launch its General Ecology project, and inspired by the 2019-2020 exhibition programme, Serpentine presents a long, durational symposium and research project in several parts, that will take place over several years. Titled The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, the gatherings bring together a wide range of thinkers and practitioners from various disciplinary ambits across art, literature, environment, science and technology to explore the porous boundaries between human, non-human animal, vegetal, mineral, fungal and artificial consciousness and intelligence.
The first symposium took place on Monday 28 May and brought together choreographers, scientists, artists and writers at the ZSL London Zoo to reflect about cognition and language across species and beings.
The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 1: LANGUAGE opened with Simone Forti’s dance performance Sleep Walkers / Zoo Mantras (inspired by the movement of animals in zoos), interpreted by her long-time collaborator, dancer Claire Filmon. It was followed by talks and dialogues featuring writer Ted Chiang (author of “Story of Your Life”, the novella at the origin of the 2016 sci-fi blockbuster, Arrival); psychologist and dolphin cognition researcher Diana Reiss in collaboration with humanitarian and musician Peter Gabriel; artist Rasmus Nielsen from collective Superflex, as well as screenings of films by artists Allora & Calzadilla and Michela de Mattei and a remote contribution by Internet pioneer Vint Cerf.
The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 2: We have never been one, which took place on the 1st December 2018 at Ambika P3, London, addressed interior multitude and swarming organisms: in other words, what we mean when we say ‘I’. For the most part, what we think of as our bodies is a collaboration between microbes, cells, gut bacteria, and many other organisms that we live with. On the other side of the spectrum, many species (ants or bees to name but a few) appear to often behave as though the group itself (the colony, the swarm) is an organism. How to re-configure the notion of ‘being an individual’ in light of these insights? Part 2 was held on the occasion of Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries. Participants included artist and educator Heather Barnett, site-specific practitioners Gruff Theatre, swarm robotics engineer Sabine Hauert, science historian and writer Daisy Hildyard, neuroscientist Leah Kelly, science sociologist Hannah Landecker, anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, anthropologist Germain Meulemans, biological systems scientist and network architect Phoebe Tickell and artist Anaïs Tondeur plus film and sound works by artists Sophia Al-Maria, Jenna Sutela and composer Annea Lockwood.
Following Part 2, a special two-part podcast was released, The Serpentine Podcast: On General Ecology. It brings together documentation from the first two symposia as well as interviews and sound pieces conceived for the occasion. The Serpentine Podcast: On General Ecology regularly draws out themes and ideas explored in the General Ecology project through multiple voices from all disciplines. It was released on iTunes and on Serpentine Radio.
Part 3 in the series, titled The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish with Plants was dedicated to the latest research in the intelligence of plants, and in the ancient and profound knowledges and interactions that humans, plants and other species have had, from medicine, to agriculture, to psychedelia and mysticism as ways of communicating with nature and recognising nature’s rights. It was held on the occasion of the Serpentine’s exhibition of Emma Kunz, whose radical experimentations in both gardening and art were directly related to her practice as a healer. Part 3 took place on Sunday 19 May at EartH Hackney, a grand, former cinema now music and performance venue. Participants included artists Saelia Aparicio, Antoine Bertin and Vivian Caccuri, film theorist Teresa Castro, theologian Amy Hollywood, artist Kapwani Kiwanga, anthropologist Natasha Myers, political philosopher Michael Marder, artist Tabita Rezaire and writer Elvia Wilk. To close the evening, pioneering sound recordist Chris Watson premièred a new piece specially-conceived for the symposium, to be played on the L-ISA 360-degree-sound system in EartH, the only one of its kind in Europe, for a fully-immersive experience.
As a prelude to Part 3, a special gathering at the French Institute on Friday 12th April, titled PLANTSEX, investigated the intersection of botany, myth and erotics through performances, screenings and talks.
Upcoming events planned in the series:
The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish: The Understory of the Understory
Sunday 3 May, EartH Hackney. Tickets available here.
The fourth of the ongoing festival series on consciousness and intelligence across species takes us right into the ground. With The Understory of the Understory we’ll encounter a multispecies universe where fungi, lichens and mycelium networks, as well as invertebrates, bacteria, plant roots and the soil itself come together to collaborate, communicate, constitute one another and jointly edify architectures. Anthropologists, artists, foragers, musicians, mycologists and scientists will tell and share the lessons of this density teeming with life towards a post-anthropocentric worldmaking.
The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish is curated by Lucia Pietroiusti, Curator, General Ecology, Serpentine Galleries and writer and editor Filipa Ramos, with Holly Shuttleworth (Producer, Live Programmes) and Kostas Stasinopoulos (Assistant Curator, Live Programmes).