Invertebrate Art: Ecologies, Practices, Ethics

Sarah Wade, University of East Anglia,

Pandora Syperek, Loughborough University London,

Invertebrates comprise 97% of Earth’s animal species, eliciting affects that range from wonder to disgust. As nonhuman animals pervade the art of ecologically troubled times, artists and researchers increasingly look to these ubiquitous but marginalised creatures. This session examines how invertebrates, including various ocean wildlife, insects, arachnids, molluscs and worms, have featured in modern and contemporary art as materials, metaphors, protagonists and collaborators. How have artist-invertebrate relationships developed as the Sixth Mass Extinction unfolds?

From the influence of aquarium culture on the flowing forms of Art Nouveau to the Surrealist fascination with metamorphosis and the praying mantis and contemporary artists’ engagement with spiders, squids, slugs and sponges, invertebrates have inspired creative practitioners in manifold ways. They retain a capacity for anthropomorphism, despite morphologies and behaviours that appear alien to human life, including radically other reproductive processes and life cycles which explode gender binarism and heteronormative and individualist social structures. Coral symbiosis, for example, presents alternative lifeworlds for imagining human relationships to ecology and ecological crisis. Some artists’ use of live animals raises ethical questions and points to invertebrates’ traditionally lowly status within hierarchical models of life and evolution. And still, the drastic decline of insects, the demise of the Great Barrier Reef and (debated) jellyfish blooms are treated instrumentally, rather than with regards to invertebrates’ intrinsic value.

In this session researchers and practitioners will speak about making, curating, thinking and living with invertebrates, to explore human-invertebrate entanglements in art and visual culture across a broad historical and geographical remit.

Speakers & Abstracts

Rivane Neuenschwander’s Socio-Ecology of Invertebrate Life: Beyond Dangerous Analogies

Arnaud Gerspacher (CUNY, City College)

The Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander has often collaborated with invertebrates in her work, including rice paper eating snails in Carta faminta, 2000 and confetti carrying ants in Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue, 2006 (with Cao Guimarães). I analyze these works against the historical backdrop of western human-animal analogies, especially those employing insects and other invertebrates. Therio-political analogies have tended towards bipolarity—either as positive identification (e.g. Rudolf Steiner’s cooperative beehive, which influenced Joseph Beuys) or as negative identification (e.g. military drone operators using the term “bug splat” for targeted killings). I argue both positive and negative analogies are dangerous. An important aspect of Neuenschwander’s practice is its critique of analogical thinking. In its stead, her works involving invertebrates point towards a socio-ecological politics of homology—not of likeness, but of sameness, in multiplying superimpositions found at different scales of atmospheric, terranean, and subterranean complicities. While I do not call for an end to strategic analogies altogether, homological thinking is far more potent in bridging the ontological and epistemic divides so ingrained in western thought. I show how analogical thinking is dependent on separation, on subject-object relations, and on binary patterns that belie a tight relationship between western Humanism and (neo)colonialism. Homological thinking is more informe, material, felt, and often not fully visualizable. Nevertheless, the ecological homologies uncovered by Neuenschwander’s work implicate social, political, and environmental urgencies that reveal shared processes connecting our bodies with that of the planet’s biomass, notably the Brazilian Amazon and its invertebrate majorities.

Moth Kota: Imagining the Lives of Lepidoptera and Forging Multispecies Connections

Hannah Imlach (University of Edinburgh)

Predominantly, moths are nocturnal creatures and so their presence evades our human attention. Their lifeworlds are dramatically different from our own, characterized by shapeshifting metamorphosis, reciprocal relationships with botanical species, attraction to pheromones, and orientation by astral phenomena. Yet humans are deeply implicated in the lives of moths, increasingly we disrupt by way of habitat destruction, rising global temperatures and light pollution. This vibrant and diverse community of creatures is at significant risk, with implications for the plants they pollinate, the birds and other animals that predate them, and the biodiversity of the places they inhabit. This paper introduces an artwork conceived in response to moth lifeworlds, and designed to forge interspecies connections. It is a practice research account of the process of realising Moth Kota, an experimental shelter-sculpture created by visual artist-researcher Hannah Imlach for the Loch Lomond nature reserve; one outcome of her collaborative doctoral research with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The paper reflects on the process of designing Moth Kota and its development through simultaneous practices of fieldwork, creative experimentation and art-conservation collaboration. It also explores the ethical considerations and care-full labour of sculpture installation and maintenance. Moth Kota will be contextualised by other artwork, such as Stan Brakhage’s experimental film Mothlight (1963) which depicted moths as contingent to complex ecologies, splicing collected moth wings and petals directly into film media, viewed as a blur of colour: animal, plant and light. This lineage of artwork is a means to forge multispecies ethics alongside practices of observation and care in order to explore radical forms of interspecies relationality.

Spider Physiotherapy: Waltzing with My Mother

Eleanor Morgan (Loughborough University)

This talk will focus on a video called Battleships (02:10, 2020) which I made in the winter of 2020 while living and caring for my quadriplegic mother. In the video, I put a spider in my mum’s hospital bed. To the sound of the Blue Danube waltz, we dance the spider between our hands and arms until the camera collapses. Full of glitches and awkward movements, the video also shows moments of slowness and care between humans and invertebrates.

Following the screening of the short video, I will discuss how working with invertebrates helps me to consider new ways of telling cross-species tales and explore the processes of care. Instead of being simply an attitude of kindness, the requirement to care for others (human and nonhuman) can be disgusting, difficult and complex. I will argue that ethical practices can sit within this awkwardness, rather than aim to resolve them, and by doing so we can begin to tell different stories of living on a shared planet that are less reliant on human modes of communication.

I will end by discussing the possibility of ‘spider physiotherapy’. During the recording of the video, my mum realised that she had some sensation in her hands thanks to the touch of the spider – a sensitivity that she did not achieve from the touch of other humans.

God, Labour and Earthworms: Tracing Toil through the Sounds of the Subterranean

Lauren Ruiz (Suffolk County Community College, Brentwood, NY)

Invaders can be quiet, unmeasured and unassuming, transforming a landscape through the spread of invasive disease, religious beliefs, or beneath the grass, in the dark. The most commonly known earthworms in North America, Eisenia fetida and Lumbricus terrestris, also known as red wigglers and nightcrawlers respectively, arrived with the first wave of European settlers burrowed inside potted plants and sacks of spoiled crops. These annelids, unaware of their ability to engineer ecologies as they travelled alongside their human counterparts as resources of free labour, now play a vital role in the complex systems of soil health and water treatment as humans confront the effects of micro- and nanoplastics and the resulting toxicants that cycle through soil, water, and animal bodies. As a method for understanding the complex relationships between humans and earthworms, I have conducted research-based multimedia projects to discover the connections between animal labor, eco-colonialism and the rapid invasion of nanoplastics into the ecosystem. This paper will unpack my ongoing developments as well as my partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County which unearthed intimate inquiries into soil health, the role of earthworms in local ecology, and the connections between historical farming and theological practices that create the groundwork for industrial agriculture both locally and on a national scale. In addition to this research, I will discuss my recent digital works Worms on the Green that confronts ‘greening’ in environmental discourse through the lens of post naturalism, and multimedia installation, Zone of Loss, which combines audio recordings of earthworm movements with sculptural elements immersing a viewer in audible marks of labour and constant transformations of the subterranean. This work will be examined amongst my investigations in the theologically influenced histories of animal and human agricultural labour in the American landscape through the lens of critical and postcolonial theory.

Alimentary Fantasy, Coprophagic Communism, and Queer Reproduction

Willa Smart (University of California Davis)

Taking as a starting point a phrase—'coprophagic communism’—from Maurice Maeterlink's 1939 popular science text on termite society, The Life of the White Ant, this paper works to track the term's resonance across a range of media and genres, from Samuel Delany's 2012 novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of the Spiders, John Waters's 1972 film Pink Flamingos, to mid-century American painter Manny Farber's concept of termite art. Maeterlinck coins the phrase coprophagic communism to describe the social organization of the termite mound, which in his understanding (mediated by the colonial sources of his knowledge of termites), is a society founded on the principle of the full utilization of all waste products, including excrement. Social formation here adheres in the act of eating—and even more, in the sharing of what has already been eating. Coprophagia serves here then as an image in which is compacted (or rather, mounded) queerness, coloniality, nonnormative practices of consumption, and the entomological. Intervening in discussions in the field of ‘queer ecology’, this paper offers a reading of the termitary as an image of queer reproduction outside the circuit of individualized production and representation. Far from claiming termites as ‘queer’, this paper works to situate and historicize the colonial fantasies through which such an identification adheres. By attending to the burrows and chambers through which fantasies travel, this paper ultimately offers a reading of the entomological underground of a range of visual and literary materials that are constituted alike by cohorts of queer eaters.

Tentacular Aesthetics. What Is It Like To Be An Octopus

Jessica Ullrich (University of Fine Arts Münster)

Much like their soft form, the meaning assigned to octopuses has been malleable. For Donna Haraway the octopus stands for tentacular thinking and decentralized perception in the Chthulucene, Timothy Morton explains his concept of an hyperobject via an octopus and Chus Martínez has called art itself ‘the octopus in love’. Such philosophical approaches are accompanied with a new attentiveness for the living animals as individuals: Recent movies like Oh Brother Octopus (2017) or My Octopus Teacher (2020) tell of human-octopus kinship and books like The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (2016) and Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith (2018) stress the intelligence and sentience of these invertebrates who formerly have been regarded as the absolute other.

In art, octopuses have been depicted for their aesthetic, ornamental, decorative, and symbolic value. But a new generation of artists takes interest in octopus agency, octopus creativity, and octopus ethics. Artists like Pascal Dreier, Hörner/Antflinger, Madison Bycroft, Shimabuku, Nitta/Burton and others don’t make universal claims about the octopus as an abstract species but rather focus on individual animals and their specific situation trying to give access to alternate worldviews in imaginary and experimental ways. I want to show how artworks can raise empathy for octopuses by means of storytelling, perspective taking, documentation, satire, and mimesis. In doing so, I will reflect on art’s power to advocate for the intrinsic value of octopuses.



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