More selected projects

Interventions for a Multispecies worlding
By Duncan Paterson

There is the same difference between a pain that someone tells me about and a pain that I feel as there is between the red that I see and the being red of this red letter box. Being red is for it what hurting is for me. Just as there is an I-John Doe, there is also an I-red, an I-water, and an I-star. Everything, from a point of view within itself, is an I.” Jose Ortega y Gasset, An Essay in Esthetics by way of a Preface, 1914.


“How shall we make common cause with other living beings? Listening is no longer enough; other forms of awareness will have to kick in. And what great differences yawn!”
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015.

Here is a story (or, to be accurate, a prologue) of how we might take a step on from listening and explore another form of awareness. A tentative, tentacular reaching out across this yawning inter-species gap. 

I aim to outline the pre-history of a multispecies encounter, currently speculative (as all future plans are), but with a good chance of emerging into life if we stick with the work and the world does not end.

~~“Alignment in tentacular worlding must be a seriously tangled affair!” [1]~~

Using a material-semiotic method, I will trace the shapes of nine clusters of entanglement: things, ideas and people that are coming together to map out the territory of a potential new way of “becoming-with.” [2]

Why nine? Because I want to dedicate these words to an otherness; namely the sheer alien wonder of an intelligence that has nine brains; sometimes acting independently, occasionally thinking in groups. Sometimes, at crucial times (to hunt, to hide, to flee, to murder, to play) co-ordinating as one. A unique and precious form of sentience and intellect that has evolved entirely separately to ours. In celebration, we will abandon the restrictions of a linear article and introduce something more flexible, shapeless, formless, amorphous, something more cephalopod. 

Also, rather than the overtly-anthropomorphic footnote, I have instead opted for a fluid, flowing informal non-system of tentacular ~~thought-strands~~

The Encounter
Let us suppose that this is the meta-, organising brain that (only sometimes) co-ordinates the others, and introduce the multispecies story in question, our Encounter. Artist collective 0rphan Drift and ethical technology agency Etic Lab are coming together in a unique research project: to use an Artificial Intelligence as an intermediary in an effort to better understand the alien mind that is an octopus.

The AI, octopus, researchers and artists will be hosted at the Marine Biology department at Aberystwyth University for a period of several months. The objectives and methods are exploratory and discursive. It will be, perhaps, as Haraway describes, a “trackless territory… a cacophony of interacting and interrelated parts” [3] with no predetermined rules or codes of behaviour. It’s an approach that, for Elizabeth Johnson “fosters a capacity to respond, to be affected, to develop a sensitivity toward the world and the conditions that constitute it.” [4 ]

In her Political Ecologies, Jane Bennett writes on the same subject, agreeing that “we need to devise new procedures, new technologies”, so that future multispecies contacts might “enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions.” [5]

One of the artists driving the project, Maggie Roberts of collective 0rphan Drift, elaborates: “We are asking (the octopus) to learn - what, we don't know. We aim to catalyse the AI to learn too. What, we don't know, but hopefully it will mean communication between two entities, both consciousnesses alien to human, both from evolutionary paths totally separate from ours.” [6]

This is a consciously open approach with shared aspirations. “A multispecies and multi-thing becoming-with – becoming-world or worlding – renders us open to ethical, perhaps grace-full encounters with more-than-human assemblages.”[7] It is my intent to look more closely at how we can strive to ensure that the Encounter we are planning can fulfil Haraway’s vision of being both ethical and full of grace.

~~”To learn about an assemblage, one unravels its knots” [8]~~

2. CEPHALOPOD VISIONS  (a highly subjective Contextual review to help situate the Encounter)

A contextual review (however subjective) can help highlight the unique features, potentials and hazards of our proposed Encounter. We will consider three previous assemblages - two that happened and one speculative (but no less illustrative of the brutal collision of humans/creatures/laboratories), and finally consider an alternative methodology to the trackless territory we seek, a more thoughtful way of becoming-together.

In Primate Visions[9], Haraway investigates a mid-twentieth century experiment conducted by celebrated (by some) Psychologist Harry Harlow at the Primate Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin. His research focused on the effects of maternal-separation and social isolation. His methods were astonishingly cruel (which provoked accusations of sadism from Haraway), depriving infants of all but the most rudimentary care and creating depressive states in the monkeys by immersing them into ‘pits of despair’ often for many months.

Haraway interrogated the experiment. Why this encounter? Why at that time? She found in the experiment a brutal expression of prevailing masculinities. As human society was changing, the anxieties of the patriarchal establishment were played out in a cruel theatre of simian experiments. As Jane Bennett[10 ]points out, for Haraway this experiment, and primatology in general, is ‘a contemporary cultural tale’.

If we were to ask similar questions of our Encounter the ‘why now?’ seems quite clear, in the face of so many eco-crises. To answer ‘why this encounter?’ with ‘because we need allies to re-think an unthinkable future’, perhaps, with cautious optimism ‘we need to try some modest terran recuperation…’ Or maybe a simpler cry: ‘we don’t want to be alone when the sky falls’.

A Lobster in the system
A further, equally dystopic example but illustrative of a more general approach in human/animal lab experiments is recounted by Elizabeth Johnson in ‘Of lobsters, laboratories, and war: animal studies and the temporality of more-than-human encounters.’ [11] Her nightmarish experience of a lobster’s vivisection in a neuroscience lab (rendered in a deeply disturbing journal entry with accompanying photographs) shows us the very worst acts of violence that have all too often characterised encounters between non-human animal subjects, technology and human animals.

The point she makes is that there is a system at work here, the creature and the technician are involved in a much broader entanglement than the immediate environs of the laboratory; the sources of funding, the pressure to get results, the precedent of previous scientific methods to name just some of the other influences. The cruelty here is not the sadism that Haraway saw in Dr Harlow’s experiment (the pleasure in the individual experimenter as he inflicts suffering), but rather a systemic cruelty born from the alienating effects of intersecting processes and ideas driving the inputs and outputs of the encounter. (This figuration is explored further in section 4).

Unrecognised alien dance culture 
Ursula Le Guin’s Mazes[12] provides us with a compelling and concise imagining of just how thought-limiting anthropocentrism can be. The narrator of the story is a hapless, captive alien of great intelligence with a rich culture. But the human laboratory worker can’t recognise this, as their terms of reference do not allow for the possibility. It is unthinkable, in as much as it simply isn’t available to thought. The creature, increasingly frustrated at the human’s inability to perceive its intelligence, culture or even its need for nourishment, dies in a state of frustration and fury.
The creature, is, as Stephanie Moran points out, “like Olaf Stapledon’s bacterial/microbial alien intelligence in his sci-fi Last and First Men, we may not even recognise another intelligence’s arrival.” [13]

With these examples of sadism, co-opting systems and our own inability to imagine other minds and cultures, it’s clear our lively encounter will be conceived and created in a different mode.

Feeling a way forward with FINGERYEYES
An altogether more sensuous approach is outlined by Hayward in her paper ‘FINGERYEYES’ of 2010, her name for a material‐semiotic apparatus she uses to describe her interactions with cup corals in a research project at the Long Marine Laboratory, Santa Cruz, California. Hayward developed an extremely tactile relationship with her research subjects: “These cup corals simultaneously taught me that being and sensing are inextricably enfolded.” She wanted to feel properly situated in the knot of the study, so together “We constitute a sensorial ensemble, becoming more than ourselves.”[14]

We can directly translate the synaesthesia of Hayward’s ‘FINGERYEYES’ to cephalopods with tentacles that touch/taste and skin that sees/talks. I was moved by the stories of loving relationships between octopus and keepers as described by Sy Montgomery in ‘Soul of an Octopus’15. These creatures were forever reaching out in a mostly playful, occasionally hostile, series of interactions with their human keepers. The octopuses ‘knew’ these people by attaching suckers and sensing the chemical signals in the humans’ skin.

~~Just before submitting, I searched the latest available UK Home Office statistics[16]  on animal experiments, there were no studies at all involving cephalopods. This prompted two thoughts: how completely instrumental is our use of animals (there are many experiments on mice and monkeys listed). But also, lucky for the cephalopods who evaded captivity and perhaps torture~~

THE ACTORS (and some of their networks).

3. THE OCTOPUS (hereafter referred to as the Person, see below)

“Be formless, shapeless..., be like water, my friend”
Bruce Lee[17]

Why an octopus? As philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith explains in Other Minds[18] the octopus is “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” That’s because, our nearest common ancestor being a worm-like creature, over 700 million years ago, cephalopod and human intelligence evolved in entirely different ways. Whereas we have a highly centralised nervous system, that of an octopus is distributed throughout it’s protean body. Their intelligence and other-worldliness has been a subject of human mythology for thousands of years, yet our understanding of them remains sparse.

They’ve evolved eyes entirely separately too, that are remarkably similar to ours. But scientists think they also see with photo-receptors in their skin.[19] Their formless shape, so differently structured to us, is at one with its watery substrate, sensing chemicals and currents, becoming its surroundings and dazzling with its mysterious displays.

The appeal of these creatures is manifold and endless: suffice to say all involved in the project are infatuated. Our Person is the Common Octopus, octopus vulgaris, and is being hatched at Brighton Aquarium before joining the encounter at Aberystwyth. We are very much looking forward to meeting them.

~~I must stress here that I do not use ‘Person’ in any way that is anthropocentric, granting our critter the spurious pseudo-privilege of honorary human-ness. Rather, to expand the nature of personhood itself, liberating humankind from the prison of a species-exclusionary history that has led to so much trouble; to look beyond the monomaniacal thought-world we have built. To pause and think maybe, just maybe, other beings matter as much as we do. Because that precious thing we call consciousness, that quality we have so jealously guarded for ourselves and used to legitimate the worst excesses of habitat and species destruction, is in fact more generously shared among our kin creatures than we previously dreamt of~~

A cephalopod, but a cyborg one. The Person is already cyborg - hatched into a synthetic environment of artificial lighting, temperature control, water filtration, chemical-dosed water and frozen food, all which would surely qualify under (one of) Haraway’s definition(s). The Person emerges as one of her “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.” [20]

So are we imagining a multispecies cyborg? I would say yes, because for a certain time, the encounter will be a living entanglement of AI/cephalopod/human - with the caution that we won’t have a teleological approach, but rather a coming together - and exploration of what we hope will be a common territory of experience. We are, to use another idea from Haraway, proposing to create a holobiont, not an individual being, but one made of “polytemporal, polyspatial knottings, holobionts hold together contingently and dynamically” [21], we’re imagining a symbiotic assemblage acting as a complex living system.

4. THE AI (an intervention of technology)
So let us now take a brief look at the machine intervention in our encounter: the Artificial Intelligence being built by Etic Labs ~~Necessarily brief, because there are certain limits to what and how I describe the technology involved, due to matters of Intellectual Property, the project being under development and the precarious situation of just about everything at the moment~~

In regards to the system being planned, Dr Kevin Hogan of Etic Lab gives this summary “sensing capabilities are localised within the tank, combining eye tracking, detecting changes in skin colour and quantifying movement interactions with an intelligent object/display. Then a further software stack learns and uses these data to drive a new input for the octopus.” [22]

In a landscape dominated by the technology of total surveillance, Etic are unique because theirs is a deeply considered approach to the ethics of the research, ideas and technology they create and deploy. 

It needs to be stated that such an ethical approach to this research project is unusual. Firstly, it is expensive: teams of expert coders are needed, in addition to an octopus handler, aquarium staff and all the other experts needed to conduct such a study. That’s why, the dominant mode of figuration for such comparable projects that exist has been ethically questionable to say the least. This is dealt with in compelling fashion by Elizabeth Johnson in her paper ‘Lying Like a Cuttlefish’: “our understandings of cephalopods’ phenomenal capacity to disguise themselves in their own skin have long been driven by national security interests. These interests can be measured in millions of dollars doled out over the past decade to laboratories at institutions of higher education including Harvard, Rice, Duke, Texas, and the Universities of Bath and Bristol in the UK.” [23]

So the driving force for most existing research into cephalopod behaviour is a chromatophore-driven arms race - it seems that we too must evade predation in order to survive, but unlike the octopus we’re seeking to hide from our own kind.

This, according to Johnson, is part of a much wider picture of researchers “seeking to appropriate life, to redirect it—by attempting, for example, to copy the antibiotic micro-geometry of sharkskin or the nanostructures that allow gecko feet to adhere to glass. Scientists and engineers collaborate in the field to create innovative technologies that make “nature work for us.” [24] Johnson reminds us that, the ‘us’ in this sentence is invariably the military. 

So with our Encounter, there is a significant difference of intent in terms of the teleology of the project’s objectives and technology. Yet perhaps (for us at least), still more radical on Etic’s part is the partnership with 0rphan Drift, an open-mindedness to the vital role for artists in the success of such a project.

5 THE ARTISTS (an intervention of aesthetic practice)

The octopus is an otherness so strange and mesmerising, it’s a challenge to imagine into its sentience at all.” [25]

The idea for the Encounter originated with long-established artists’ collective 0rphan Drift, who presented the project at Kraken? a symposium organised by Goldsmiths Visual Cultures in October 2019. 

This project was the result of two years’ intense, cross disciplinary research by 0rphan Drift founding members Maggie Roberts and Ranu Mukherjee, in response to two urgent issues: “the ecological crisis highlighting the urgency of engaging with otherness… and the co-option of algorithmic systems to surveillance and marketing agendas.”[26] It has resulted in an innovative partnership with a technology agency and a huge ambition: to ask questions about what it means to have a consciousness alien to ours - but also, to ask if there is an alternative mode of AI; could it be less hierarchical and goal driven, might it not be more fluid, more playful, more cephalopod?

~~I had previously made work using video footage of the patterns on the skin of a squid I filmed dying on the ice-display in a fishmongers, so was entranced by this presentation. I approached Maggie a few weeks later; we were standing outside an empty lecture theatre, unaware that the event had been cancelled because of a strike~~  

“Porous, Non-linear and Dreamy”
I have attached a soundfile of conversations with Maggie from 0rphan Drift, where she talks about some of the aspects and background to the ideation of the project. Please forgive the sound quality, I recorded the remote conversations from Skype

~~Like all things that take up a lot of time and generate no money, there’s an irresistible compulsive obsession that drives this project: a love we share for the most alien intelligence we know, and somehow strangely love, the octopus~~

Moving forward, we are planning two spheres of activity: firstly creating visual environments to be part of the Encounter, we’re experimenting with forms/textures/patterns/colours/velocity of change - with the aim of generating reactions within the Encounter, to which we can then respond. Secondly, we are thinking about work that will ‘amplify’ the Encounter, bringing it to (and involving) a wider audience. Other sections here explore in more detail how we anticipate our journey into the cephalopod/human assemblage.

~~Of all my research into cephalopod behaviour, the factoid that gives me most hope of visual engagement is the anecdotal evidence that octopuses really like to watch television~~

6 HYPOCRISY (Facing up to the ethical issues with the project)


~~“Cross‐species sensations are always mediated by power that leaves impressions, which leaves bodies imprinted and furrowed with consequences.” [27]~~

We must be upfront: there are serious ethical issues at play here. A fraught tension in the string figure of this particular multispecies positioning. We’re supposing that we’re dealing with a profoundly sentient creature with a high level of consciousness, that would by most definitions qualify for the status of a person. 

But in acknowledging this personhood, we’re also admitting that we’re fully aware that we’re depriving this Person of things we would consider vital to individual agency, namely freedom.

Overall, it’s difficult to not feel guilty of Haraway’s charge of “the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture” [28], because that’s exactly what we’re doing, appropriating a sentient being for purposes of research. But here we also have to consider the nature of our cultural production. 

~~“species of all kinds, living and not, are consequent on a subject‐ and object‐shaping dance of encounters” [29]~~.

Octopuses are mainly solitary creatures, avoiding social contact with others of its kind other than to mate. Even this sometimes ends with the female devouring the male. True, there is some evidence of social species, [30]  but octopuses of our Person’s species (octopus vulgaris), are not one of these, so the deprivation of social contact is not as grievous a violence as one may first think.

The Person will be hatched in captivity. This then, could be our answer to anxieties about the alienation we’re creating by removing a creature from, as Tsing would have it, its “life-world.”[31] For good or bad, our Person’s life-world is that of aquariums and the cocooned safety of captivity.

The other issue, following the assumption of high intelligence, is that our Person becomes plain bored. There are ways of ensuring its mental wellbeing, satisfying curiosity. In fact there’s a comprehensive guide.[32]

Another factor (although one which, in turn, would be hard to defend from a charge of anthropocentric expediency), is that worse fates await octopuses. Heavily predated upon - and with a short lifespan, their life-world experience is often a Hobbesian state of nature inasmuch as it’s nasty, brutish and short.

They are being captured, killed and eaten in ever-greater numbers by humans (they have been awarded the curse of being considered ‘sustainable’ in terms of population[33] - often butchered or boiled while still alive. This is the ultimate alienation-as-capitalist-resource[34] - to be judged as little more than a bag of protein to be harvested at will. 

Furthermore, acts of brutality in the name of research have been all too common in the past. They have been blinded, poisoned and had limbs amputated. In the grisly canon of cephalopod laboratory studies, our Encounter will be of a different category.

7 What’s it like to be anything? (how can art help us feel towards an answer)

At first I thought that at least the objectives of the Encounter were straightforward, and much like Nagel famously asked "what’s it like to be a bat?" [35] building on themes from the early biosemiotician Jakob von Uexkull[36] who himself asked (and here I paraphrase) “what's it like to be a tick?”. Uexkull’s biosemiotic investigatIons were innovative, but ultimately reductive, overly-reliant on simplified stimulus and response analysis, ultimately an extremely unsatisfying way of describing non-human being.

Reacting against this, and In answer to his own question, Nagel seems to say "we’ll never know" as his view of consciousness is the opposite of the sensorial reductionism of Uexkull. Instead, for him, it’s simply ungraspable - so overwhelmingly subjective in nature that one can’t be sure of any consciousness apart from one's own. Perhaps he is right, but that’s no reason to declare an end to curiosity and stop asking the questions. 

So we’re asking, of course, "what’s it like to be (one particular) octopus?". But it’s not such a straightforward question And it’s not so self-contained either. In the small corner of the world that we’re making, the question "what’s it like to be an octopus?" is inseparable from questions of "what is it like to be a human?", and even "what’s it like to be an Artificial Intelligence?". For example, when imagining how it would feel to have a neurologically distributed intelligence, in a body without rigid structural form, it’s impossible not to become more aware than previously of how skeletally structured we are, with mechanical movements enforced by our hard calcium bones, and a highly centralised, hierarchical nervous system. Likewise, it prompts thoughts about how we’re embodying human tropes of thought and behaviour in the technology we’re building - linear, centrally-controlled thought, driven by purely teleological purpose.

The Artists’ intervention
What can we (as creative practitioners) bring to the genesis of this holobiont Encounter? How can we begin to become-with our Person and the AI? My reading took me down the wormhole of phenomenology. Husserl, a pioneer in the field, first developed the thought that rather than an object being a bundle of sensations made up of humans' conscious sense-experiences, there is an essential reality to other, non-human, objects (including other living creatures).[37] At the time, and indeed now, for many, this compelling insight was directly opposed to so much of western philosophy’s correlationist[38], anthropocentric structure of thinking. That reality isn’t composed exclusively of the sum of human consciousness, but there is an external, indeed alien (to humans) reality.

Bogost (drawing on Harman[39], who in turn acknowledges his debt to the work of Ortega) suggests that metaphor is a potential (if not the only) route to intuiting what it’s like to be a (non-human) thing[40]. It is straightforward to see how metaphor leads to poetry, then just a short further step to see how art could build across the yawning species gap - to uncover some aspects of an object’s (in this case both our Person’s and that of the AI) otherwise unknowable inwardness. We might almost, over-idealistically maybe, imagine a mutual co-creation, to stake out a possible territory where multispecies stories could flourish.  

~~ Ortega’s (not-so-enlightened) description of the “vulgar” proletarian masses as “chaotic, amorphous, without an anatomical structure or governing discipline” has a distinct cephalopod affinity[41]~~

Maggie encouraged me to take thinking about metaphor further - and referred me to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, specifically their exploration of "virtual worlds". Theirs is an all-immersive approach to the “smoothing out of differences between seemingly incompatible domains such as science, superstition, fantasy and fact by searching out symbioses and novel alliances between them.” [42] It’s a world where shamanic visualisations depict the “great outside, where encounters between the world of humans, animals and assorted others (such as machines, insects, atoms and spirits) occur.” [43]

Deleuze and Guattari suggest, along with Bogost, a flattening of ontology, “a type of non-linear thinking where all cultural differences (and even differences of scale, such as the macro and the macroscopic, the instantaneous and the eternal) are flattened out onto a single plane.” [44 ]

Such immersive techniques also lead us in turn to Harman’s thoughts on Theatrical Metaphor[45] and can include the thinking of Konstantin Stanislavski’s, ‘An Actor’s Work’ [46] - that one must strive in some way to become the object one is studying/portraying. 

~~Being highly visual communicators, octopuses and cuttlefish are understandably popular on Youtube, I find that watching octopuses before sleeping helps them slide into your subconscious, where they often emerge in dreams~~

So how is this helping prepare for the Encounter? Subsequent stages will involve producing visual stimuli, using video and code, to introduce into the environment and measure the response, which will, in turn allow us to modify and develop our work. But the first task is establishing a visual landscape to frame the Encounter. We will do this by taking the idea of immersive, shamanic exploration as an invitation to a much more active engagement with the interface elements of the Encounter. An engagement that will rely on a profound participation "both imaginary and real, experiences of molecular, machinic, vegetative and animal becoming’s.” [47] 

~~Shamanic navigation tools are labyrinthine, synaesthetic, immersive, mimetic and uncanny [48]~~

8 Queering the Encounter

Queering has the job of undoing ‘normal’ categories, and none is more critical than the human/nonhuman sorting operation.” Companion Species, Mis-recognition, and Queer Worlding Donna J. Haraway, 2008.

When I started to think about what sort of artefacts I could produce directly resulting from my research, I started to write code in C++ that would allow us a flexible (very basic) visual representation of an octopus skin to show to the Person in our Encounter. Stephanie Moran from Etic sent me Turing’s paper on Morphogenesis[49] which investigates the mathematics of a certain sort of pattern formation, one which appeared remarkably similar to the production of certain patterns on cephalopod skin. This unexpected encounter with Turing, a profoundly queer intelligence, alien to the culture in which he lived, resonated with the subject of the Encounter, and prompted me explore this entanglement with queer thought further - and I quickly found Haraway’s ‘Foreward to Companion Species, Mis-recognition, and Queer Worlding’. [50]
~~“But perhaps companion species can remind us that terran critters have never been one – or two. Tubes, membranes, orifices, organs, extensions, probes, docking sites: these are the stuff of being in material semiotic intra-action. There is no ontological starting or stopping point, neither order nor disorder, boundaries nor boundary violations.” [51] This description seems uniquely crafted to represent our Person, with its three hearts, nine brains, propulsive syphon tube and eight arms in constant, explorative motion~~

Queer theory can show us how to break down the traditional, normative notions of the self-contained, unitary, enlightenment-constructed human body and mind. We are not the individual monoliths born in the enlightenment, but rather colonies of creatures, internally and externally, in turn existing in entangled ways with others like and unlike us, animal, plant, microorganism, machine. Even the virus has played its role in this ever-present process, as Tsing explains “The cell, once an emblem of replicable units, turns out to be the historical product of symbiosis among free-living bacteria. Human DNA is part virus; viral encounters mark historical moments in making us human.” [52]

Traditional hierarchies manifest in multispecies stories; normative assumptions of intellect and estimations of consciousness are almost always correlated to the human. For success in our Encounter (however we gauge it), we need to be much more open to difference, our Person may not merely have different ways of thinking but different ways to think.

This is another route into Haraway’s guiding mantra that the way thoughts are thought matters[53]. I am reminded again of Le Guin’s captured creature[54], expressing its culture through dancing in the maze - communication that wasn’t just unrecognised but entirely misunderstood by its human observer, because the idea of fundamental difference was simply not recognised. This is where speculative fiction such as Le Guin’s has a unique mind-changing power, it’s not easy to consider what real, actual otherness feels like, but sometimes all we need is to be guided by an extraordinary teller of stories.

9 Covid 19. Another Multispecies Story crashes the party
“What do you do when your world starts to fall apart?” [55]

Half-way through, the research was side-swiped by a global pandemic, and the actual project (the arrival of the Person at Aberystwyth University) was delayed for an unforeseeable time.

This is another multispecies story, although there are some qualifications. The widespread perception is that it started when the virus transferred to humans from a bat via a ‘third-party’ carrier, (the most likely carrier being a pangolin or a pig), in a market in the city of Wuhan. However, at the time of writing, the evidence for this particular story is not complete, the first cases date back to November 2019, several weeks before the outbreak was traced to 40 people who attended the Wuhan market. According to Peter Forster, a geneticist at Cambridge University, “the early genome frequencies until 17 January do not favour Wuhan as an origin.” [56]

We must be careful to avoid unsubstantiated short-term conclusions. Ancestral histories of viruses are unravelled by genomic analysis that takes time, although significant work has already been carried out.[57] Irrational fears and hatreds are stoked by ignorance. Sinophobia (or let’s just call it racism), is now alarmingly widespread. ~~Here I venture into anecdote, but I want to reflect the situation we find ourselves immersed in. Even in London, where I’ve lived my entire life and which I have always thought of as tolerant and welcoming, some of my fellow students and friends have been singled out and attacked for their ethnicity in the most disturbing of ways~~

The likelihood is that yes, this is a multi-species story of some kind, much like previous pandemics such as SARS, where subsequent genomic analysis tracing has identified the source as H1N1, MERS (camels to humans) and HIV/AIDS (chimpanzee to human).

So it’s an all too familiar story animal to animal to human animal - then distributed with the ruthless globe-spanning efficiency of the international, (fossil-based, of course, so the remains of countless other species, countless other stories) air travel industry. Multiplying via the nodes of all-too-human behaviours of business conferences in Singapore and Italian ski holidays, swiftly arriving in intensive care units the planet over (if, in fact, ICUs exist in that part of the world).

It’s a brutal reminder of Tsing’s articulations of the precarious nature of the global capitalist infrastructure.[58]

It’s also interesting that much moral outrage on social media has focused on the consumption of so-called ‘wild’ animals as opposed to the more familiar, domesticated species - as if the categorisation by humans imparts greater (or lesser) rights to life, treatment and death.

So as the pandemic (and the reactions it incited) tore through every aspect of life, our project was put on hold. The Person has yet to travel from Brighton Aquarium to Aberystwyth. But the project is not dormant - in fact, the delay may even prove a boon in that Maggie and I have a LOT of preparatory work to complete before the Person’s eventual arrival.

To return to Tsing’s non-rhetorical question: “What do you do when your world starts to fall apart?” [59]. One answer is that you Stay with the Trouble, keep failing, trying, failing, reaching touching-tasting-grasping tentacles ever-closer towards another mind.

1.     Haraway, 2016
2.     Haraway, 2016
3.     Haraway, 2016
4.     Johnson, 2015b 
5.     Bennett, 1993
6.     Goldsmiths, 2020
7.     Haraway, 2016
8.     Tsing, 2015
9.     Haraway, 1989
10.  Bennett, 1993
11.  Johnson, 2015b  
12.  Le Guin, 1975
13.  Goldsmiths, 2020
14.  Hayward, 2010 
15.  Montgomery, 2015
16.  Home Office, 2018
17.  Little, 2016
18.  Godfrey-Smith, 2017
19.  Mather, Darmaillacq, Dickel, 2014 
20.  Haraway, 1985
21.  Haraway, 1985
22.  Goldsmiths, 2020
23.  Johnson, 2015b 
24.  Johnson, 2015b 
25.  Goldsmiths, 2020
26.  Goldsmiths, 2020
27.  Hayward, 2010
28.  Haraway, 2008a
29.  Haraway, 2008a
30.  Godfrey-Smith, 2017
31.  Tsing, 2015
32.  Montgomery, 2015
33.  Hundborg Koss, 2018
34.  Tsing, 2015
35.  Nagel, 1974
36.  Uexkull, 2010
37.  Husserl, 2001
38.  Harman, 2018b
39.  Harman, 2018a
40.  Bogost, 2012
41.  Ortega Y Gasset, 1925
42.  Roberts, 2020 
43.  Roberts, 2020 
44.  Roberts, 2020 
45.  Harman, 2018a
46.  Stanislavski, 2008
47.  Roberts, 2020 
48.  Roberts, 2020 
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Some thoughts on an artefact to accompany the research.

I’m developing two projects for other modules in the course, but unfortunately due to covid-19-based-circumstances they either aren’t ready to submit with this essay or were simply not possible to execute because of the University closure. One, which I hoped to submit with this essay, was to use the embroidery machine in the Hatchlab to produce woven representations of modes of expression of an octopus through its skin, that I had created in openFrameworks. I thought it was resonant to my work as it could be seen as symbolic of a material-semiotic weave. Unfortunately, I haven’t had access to the lab, but plan on making these embroideries as soon as Goldsmiths re-opens.