Some cormorants, a damselfly, a heron, an island and an artist walk into the Wetlands Wine Bar.
The cormorants immediately flock the dancefloor and start dancing wildly, while the rest head to the bar. The damselfly orders a Mojito, the heron a Cosmopolitan, the island and the artist order beers. The trout behind the bar strikes up conversation while pouring their drinks: “what’s brought you here tonight?”
The island rustles its trees: “My therapist tells me I should get out more”, it whispers. The heron, eyeing up the trout, cries “an appetite for something new!”, and the damselfly hums “I hear there’s an exhibition opening in the gallery.”
The artist replies intensely, “I wonder if any of you can help me. I’ve been struggling with Kant’s aesthetic theory. Should I make beautiful paintings that celebrate life and nature, or should I make ugly ones that critique humans’ destruction of the Earth?”
“I think the importance of Kant is his Categorical Imperative,” the island remarks, “which very basically is the idea that there is a correct way to act, which we deeply, already (rationally) know. There is a link between moral and aesthetic judgement, the beautiful and the good, and it’s a disinterested, rational one – corresponding to the idea of aesthetic distance.”
“I thought the Imperative was more about altruism – a willingness to do things that bring advantages to others, even if it results in disadvantage for yourself”, shrieks the heron.
“Kant always seemed a bit universal humanist to me”, buzzes the damselfly. “All that stuff about altruism is for you sociable species. Evolutionary scientists suggest the reason altruism has such deep roots in humans is because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. Recent neuroscience studies have shown that when people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward… Like the dopamine hit you get from social media likes.”
“That’s right,” says the island, “there is always something – even if it’s not a material thing – that you humans get out of altruism: an investment in being a future beneficiary of altruistic behavior; tax relief; a dopamine hit, fulfillment of a deep genetic instinct related to long-term survival of the species. It’s not the same thing at all as an imperative.”
“Well, regardless of genuine selflessness or not, Social Network Theory research has shown that what you’re calling altruism can spread by three degrees—from person to person to person to person. And as a result, each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met”, comments the damselfly.
“Trees have networks too”, crackles the island. “They don’t even need to move – they communicate and have access to complex information systems via their roots, branches and leaves. But trees also experience the world in a completely different perception space-time.”
“Well,” gurgles the trout, “us fast-moving fish see at 30 frames-per-second, which would appear like slow motion for humans. It means we can easily track our speedy prey.”
“There’s an exhibition in the gallery upstairs”, squawks one of the cormorants, rudely interrupting. “Come and have a look.”
When they reach the art gallery, the group of wildfowl, human, small landmass and insect see the exhibition text:
Text by Stephanie Moran
“It’s all about me”, says the island, oblivious to the others.
They see that the exhibition text picks up on some of the earlier conversation:
These nine artists’ perceptions of the Walthamstow Wetlands’ series of reservoirs with nine islands depicts a sequence of overlapping, interconnected experience-worlds. But what do these connections mean? What is the significance of other species, and our relationships to them and our shared environments?
What does it mean to be making artworks in response to landscapes at a time when human relationships to their ecosystems are recognized as colonially and terminally destructive? What does it mean to try to reconnect with ‘natural’ environments at a time of anthropogenic diminishing biodiversity and ecosystem breakdown? Does altruism, or multispecies cooperation, matter?
This text uses the rather thin and, frankly, risibly anthropocentric narrative of some of the multispecies inhabitants of the Wetlands here to hang its introduction on, and to introduce its main themes: the idea of imperatives that inform actions; human and other species’ perceptions, relationships to environments, and social networks; and short- and long-term survival; all in relation to the ways in which forms and narratives function, and their role in immanently conveying ideas and experiences.
In their book Connected, Fowler and Christakis argue: “the key to understanding people is to understanding the ties between them” and that our “social influence does not end with the people we know”. (Christakis & Fowler, 2010, p.xv) “Crucial traits and behaviours that lie at the root of – and that nourish – social connections have a genetic basis” and “we have deeply, and genetically, ingrained tendencies and predisposal to act either selfishly or for the greater good” (Christakis & Fowler, 2010, p.232).
They find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “altruism… is a key predicate for the formation and operation of social networks”, that “some degree of altruism and reciprocity… [as well as] positive emotions such as love and happiness, are therefore crucial for the emergence and endurance of social networks. Moreover, once networks are established, altruistic acts… can spread through them.” (Christakis & Fowler, 2010, p.296)
The idea of altruism relates to Kant’s Imperative, but for Kant it seems to be more about duty than joy. Philosopher Alphonso Lingis critiques Kant’s location of the imperative in rationality, and develops his own conception of the imperative, extending it out beyond Kant’s human-centred viewpoint.
“Perception is ordered by the ordinances things realise, and we as perceivers realise what we are through the styles of postural integration they induce in us and in the images they project back on us of the way we look, hear, and feel to them.” (Lingis, 1998, p.63)
“The perception of things… [is] an expropriation of our focus onto them, and ends in enjoyment.” (Lingis, 1998, p.67-68)
Lingis revisits and expands Kant’s Imperative as phenomenological directives – sensual, sensory, affective directives guiding our interactions with the world and other beings; a sense of the ‘right way’ to do or experience things. Tactile and sensual responses to and relationships with environments.
The artists’ subjective responses to their assigned islands vary. The islands were experienced as, variously: lying-down heads, brains, body parts; distant entities at the limit of a perceptual field to be approached via the more immediate surfaces in between; sacrosanct nonhuman spaces (for the birds, for the gods, for the spirits); and other worlds or dream spaces separated by sacred waters that must not be touched or entered. As artist Annabel Dover says, “working outside really made me think about how to process a multi sensory experience into a visual response”.
Lingis’ Imperative relates directly to the breadth of sensory perceptions. These imperatives are responses to sensory elements or phenomena that summon us; in writing and art-making, they are what feels right, the magical path of the artist or writer – a mix of intuitive, learned, and sensory responses to the materials.
Lingis wants to de-anthropocise the imperative, which brings the question, what are our responses and ethical obligations to other organisms and the environment? Do other species have imperatives too? How can we know if they do or not?
For Thomas Nagel, in his famous paper on consciousness, understanding of nonhuman beings can only be approached via phenomenological reimagination based on the available (scientific) information (Nagel, 1974).
If understanding is enabled through imagery and narrative – as a way we make sense of the world, or contextualize our actions, how do nonhuman and environmental images and narratives help generate an expanded imperative, beyond the human world?
Shared sympathy and interest comes not just from imagining other species’ experience worlds: the situatedness of narratives produces sympathetic responses, while mythology enchants landscapes and their inhabitants, gifting them with hidden, historical folkloric or magical meaning.
Annabel Dover finds herself unusually affected by the dreamlikeness of the environment. She translates her perception-responses through transparent layers of watercolour, building up shimmering forms and fantasy elements. Victoria Rance unearths mythologies of the environment: she imagines the insect souls of mayflies, mosquitoes and midges, and their reincarnation, and explores the magical worlds of fishermen and herons. She researches, reimagines and dreams backstories and histories of the landscape’s inhabitants, channeling its myth-forms and connections to Celtic otherworlds. For Rance, the island is an isle of gods, not meant for humans; but for Edgar Racy, it is the water that is sacred. He reflects on the sacrosanct forbidden waters of the reservoirs, whose icy depths could easily mean death on entering but provide life in the form of drinking water for London’s East end.
Most myths and artwork present animals from human perspectives or in a human context, even when the animals are the main protagonists. If animals possess imperatives, do they also possess a theory of mind? What would bats imagine it is like to be us? How might a heron, cormorant, or damselfly mind-model a human? Would they care to? Every organism has a different cognitive modeling, a different set of sensory apparatus and inputs, often with no human equivalent. If we only compare them to human senses, we are missing a huge chunk of their experience.
“Captivation [the relationship the animal has to its world] is a more spellbinding and intense openness than any kind of human knowledge; on the other hand, insofar as it is not capable of disconcealing its own disinhibitor, it is closed in a total opacity.” (Agamben, 2004, p.59)
For Agamben’s concept of The Open, the special ‘openness’ of the human world is what allows us to imagine nonhuman points of view. In Georges Poulet’s Phenomenology of Reading, the openness of the book extends the same affordance or imperative to imagine beyond the self, to escape the boundaries of your own experience: it exists outside itself and the reader exists within it. Reading merges the reader’s and author’s consciousness, to the extent that the reader reads the author’s and characters’ thoughts as if they were their own, or as if taken over by an alien consciousness, not only understanding but also feeling what is read, while at the same time the reader is aware that they are thinking the thoughts of another. He suggests language is an auxiliary, secondary to the reader’s indistinct thought, repetition and mimicry – the repetition and imitation in the imagination of the reader of “sensations, emotions, images and obsessions of preconscious life” – like the imaginative affect often also produced by imagery, colour and abstract form in art (Poulet, 1969, p.54-57).
Like the kinds of relational ontologies we find in Lingis, James Gibson’s Affordances (Gibson, 2008) refer to the relationality of things afforded by environments; different animals inhabit different sensory worlds based on different sensory inputs, but we all relate to our environments. Affordances placed meaning into the relation between animal and environment, and took the idea of the meaningful world away from something constructed in the mind towards worlds relationally experienced and felt, which emerges out of perception – and behaviours based on what is afforded by environments. The idea of an interconnecting and overlapping structure is to echo the interconnectedness and overlapping of experience-worlds, the environments that connect us.
Ruth Calland meditates on selfish colonies of cormorants and swarming insects, the anxiety and guilt overlaying environmental immersion, and the ego in the landscape that we are part of, while it affords the existence of us and its other inhabitants. She overlays and integrates faces and body parts into the landscape in her paintings, imaginatively merging with it or emerging from it?
Your Paradise Island responds to ideas of liminality and inaccessibility, making a comforting and sequestering shelter out of their canvas. Mimei Thompson considers immediate and (humanly) overlooked peripheral spaces, in her attraction via her dog’s attention to the marginal edges of perception: the weeds and brambles often ignored in landscapes, but full of enticing scents and nonhuman territorial markings. She foregrounds these while attempting to capture another liminality, the ever-shifting light.
Jonathan Waller extends the vertical field of perception below the water level, dredging mysterious apparatus and fish worlds. He imaginatively explores the subconsciousnesses of fishermen, the underwater machinations they might just hook on their lines.
Edwin Aitken approaches the island from its closer peripheries, working with the occluding environmental structures and recurrent or mirrored forms, selecting and “extracting invariants from the stimulus flux”, as Ecological Psychologist J.J. Gibson might put it (Gibson, 2008). This repetition of shape is emphasized in Enzo Marra’s work, viewing from a distance, the trees becoming a series of abstracted verticals, or transforming into hands, while the island itself becomes a series of heads peeping out of the water.
“Oo’s she calling risibly anthropocentric?” howls the cormorant, snarkily. “I’m not some human’s cartoon character.”
“Time for another beer!” the artist yells, as they head back down to the Wetlands Wine Bar.
“Mmmm”, agrees the heron, sidling up into a better perching position above the bar.
The trout gulps, moving quickly to serve the damselfly at the other end, “so, what did you make of the show…?”
This text was produced to accompany the exhibition Archipelago: Islands of the Wetlands at Walthamstow Wetlands, London, 1st – 30th June 2019, curated by Ruth Calland.
Agamben, G. (2004) The open : man and animal. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press ; London : Eurospan
Stanford University Press.
Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2010) Connected : the amazing power of social networks and how they shape our lives. London: HarperPress.
Gibson, J. J. (2008) The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, N.J. ; London: Hillsdale, N.J. ; London : Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lingis, A. (1998) The imperative. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.
Nagel, T. (1974) ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’. The Philosophical Review, 83 (4),pp. 435-450.
Poulet, G. (1969) ‘Phenomenology of Reading’. New Literary History, 1 (1),pp. 53-68.
Berkeley University’s Greater Good Magazine: (‘science-based insights for a meaningful life’, ‘What is Altruism?’ 2019: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/altruism/definition