Symposium: The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 1: Language

ZSL London Zoo, NW1 4RY

28 May 2018 - 6:30 PM

Symposium: The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 1: Language

Click here to view the full event on YouTube

Artists, dancers, writers and scientists gathered at the London Zoo to consider animal, human and artificial consciousness, language, and interspecies communication. Participants included writer Ted Chiang, artist Michela de Mattei; dancer Claire Filmon (performing Simone Forti); artist Rasmus Nielsen; dolphin cognition researcher Diana Reiss, as well as a remote participation by Internet pioneer Vint Cerf and a screening of The Great Silence by Allora & Calzadilla (in collaboration with Ted Chiang). Click 'Read More' for a full programme. Part of the Serpentine's General Ecology project.

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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. What shape does the shape of that circle take before it is made? How to understand the movement that constitutes it as a language and, most importantly, what is at stake when we reconsider language and communication in an interspecies landscape?

Inspired by Ian Cheng’s exhibitions, BOB and Emissaries, and to launch its General Ecology project, Serpentine launches a long, durational symposium and research project in several parts, that will take place over eighteen months. 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, mycellar 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 in tandem with affect, agency and sensibility across species and beings. Click here for the forthcoming Part 2: We have never been one.

The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish series is curated by Lucia Pietroiusti (Curator, General Ecology, Serpentine) and writer and editor Filipa RamosPart 1: Language was programmed in collaboration with Ian Cheng. Advisors to Part 1 included biological systems scientist Phoebe Tickell and Serpentine CTO Ben Vickers.

The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 1: Language is supported by the Embassy of Denmark in the United Kingdom and Belmacz, London.


Monday 28 May, 6:30pm
ZSL London Zoo: Reptile House

Dancer Claire Filmon performs Simone Forti's choreography, Sleep Walkers/Zoo Mantras.
Please note: views may be restricted. The performance, which lasts approximately 10 minutes, begins promptly at 6:35pm.

Monday 28 May, 7pm

ZSL London Zoo: Huxley Auditorium

James Wren (ZSL London Zoo), Lucia Pietroiusti (Serpentine), Filipa Ramos: Introductions

Michela de Mattei, Estée Lauder: Adapting (2016, 4'03''), performed by Lora Juodkaité.
In this short film sequence, artist Michela de Mattei recorded and edited a series of Skype conversations with a talking myna bird, Estée Lauder. The conversations reflect on embodiment and exchange across species, marking a deepening relationship between the artist and her interlocutor. 

Rasmus Nielsen, from collective Superflex, discusses how puffer-fish circles, biomimicry and translation inform the group's current interest in agency and aesthetics beyond the human and the project they are developing in a recently discovered island in the South Pacific. 

Allora & Calzadilla, The Great Silence (2016, 16'53''), in collaboration with Ted Chiang.
The silent, subtitled, inner monologue of a parrot on the brink of extinction, reflecting on voice, silence, extraterrestrial life and human folly. The film is focused around the Arecibo Observatory, which captures and transmits radio waves from and into outer space - and whose site is also home to the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrots. 

Author Ted Chiang discusses the making of The Great Silence as well as other works addressing interspecies communication, including "Story of Your Life", the novella which was adapted into the 2016 feature film, Arrival. 

Michela de Mattei, Estée Lauder: The Fear of Mistakes (2016, 3'57'').

Diana Reiss, Professor of Psychology at Hunter College, New York, is joined by a special guest to present experiences from her research in dolphin communication, the function of technology within this research, as well as the horizon of an 'Interspecies Internet'.

Vint Cerf, recorded message on the Interspecies Internet.

Michela de Mattei, Estée Lauder - Hypnosis session (2018, 8’08”), music & sound design by Emanuele de Raymondi.

Panel, moderated by Filipa Ramos and Lucia Pietroiusti.


Related Events / Exhibitions


Ambika P3, University of Westminster

Symposium: The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish: we have never been one

1 Dec 2018 - 3:00 PM to 10:00 PM

The second instalment of this year-long symposium and research project, presented as part of the General Ecology project, features anthropologists, artists, robotics experts, historians and scientists, to address interior multitude, swarming organisms, symbiosis and entanglement. Click 'Read More' for participants and a full programme.

View Event


Ian Cheng: Emissaries

24 Apr 2018 to 28 May 2018

Ian Cheng's trilogy of simulations Emissaries (2015-17) came to the Serpentine in the second half of his two-part exhibition.

View Exhibition


Ian Cheng: BOB

6 Mar 2018 to 22 Apr 2018

Ian Cheng populated the Serpentine with artificial life in a two-part exhibition, starting with BOB, until 22 April and continuing with Emissaries from 24 April. 

View Exhibition

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Tuesday, 26th June 2018

Puffer Fish Circles

Friday, 18th May 2018

SOAC pt1 3

Peter Gabriel at The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 1: Language, 28 May 2018.
Photo: Plastiques Photography

SOAC pt1 2

Michela de Mattei, ESTÉE LAUDER - Adapting, 2016, at The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 1: Language, 28 May 2018.
Photo: Plastiques Photography
IC Emissaries web 2

IC Emissaries web 2

IC Emissaries web 4

IC Emissaries web 4

IC install 5

IC install 5

Ian Cheng, Installation view, BOB, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (6 March – 22 Aprill 2018)

© 2018 Hugo Glendinning

Michela de Mattei 1

Michela de Mattei

Estée Lauder - The Fear of Mistakes , 2016

Video, 3'57''

Courtesy of the artist and Belmacz, London

© Michela de Mattei

Ian Cheng: BOB

Ian Cheng: BOB

Ian Cheng - Emissary Sunsets The Self

Ian Cheng - Emissary Sunsets The Self

Ian Cheng, Emissary Sunsets The Self live simulation and story, infinite duration, sound 2017

Courtesy of the artist, Pilar Corrias London, Gladstone Gallery, Standard (Oslo)