This film presents footage recorded by a ‘biologging device‘; a miniature camera attached to the back of a humpback whale in order to collect data of the animal’s behaviour. The footage is combined with an altered (transformed) extract of Charles Melville Scammon’s book The Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America (1874).
Scammon, a contemporary of Herman Melville, and cited in Moby-Dick; or The Whale, was a famous whaling captain that created some of the first naturalistic and very popular accounts of the whales he encountered during his voyages.
The video employs as a narrative device an extract of Scammon’s description of the humpback whale, in which the third-person pronoun is substituted to first-person pronoun ‘I’, so as to play with the whale–eye–view of the footage.
Ghostly More-than-Human Encounters in the work of Sonia Levy or, The Whale
A text by Line Marie Thorsen
Read it here
Ghostly More-than-Human Encounters in the work of Sonia Levy or, The Whale
Line Marie Thorsen
Whether it is the nightly activities of Urban Foxes; a Humpback whale telling the story of how it moves about (I Roam); wolfs attending to their crystal palace (Pole); the whale-human relationships in Iceland explored through the casting, charring and printing with whale bones (Hvalreki and Bone Black); or the formation of other-worldly landscapes from chemical processes, Sonia Levy’s work seem to have speculative encounters between the non-human and the human at its centre. When I write speculative, it is because they are always im- or explicitly imaginative, vibrating between realities – whether scientific ones or fictional ones, – ways of knowing and producing knowledge. They are never ‘just’ meetings or interactions, but encounters drenched in entangled and ghostly histories and genealogies.
Rather than attempting to cover too much on too little space, I will focus on just one of Levy’s artworks in this short text. A work which captures the above-mentioned aspects of her general practice in a particularly poignant way. The video piece I Roam is simple and yet, presents us with a plethora of friction-filled encounters spanning time, space, and not least, entities acting with and against each other. It raises the question of the way we ‘know’ and acquire knowledge across these dimensions and it cultivates a space where we can and do, slide between scales of realities¹.
In I Roam, we (the viewers) encounter a whale that tells us a story of its dealings while we see from its back as it moves through the water:
As the whale tells us this story we are immersed in the murky water with it, so it’s difficult to tell how it actually moves – if its gambols are indeed uncouth and its movements irregular. But we do see how it ventures up and down: from the depth of the ocean to the surface we are treated to a glimpse of the blue sky and clouds floating above, only to quickly return to the ocean and its emerald green hues. Though I cannot tell the particularities of its movements from the viewing position I am granted, I trust the whale and if this is how it moves, who am I to question it? As seen through the video I imagine an elegant and fascinating creature, somewhat carefree and untroubled by the kind of worries that might provoke highly streamlined and directed behaviour. The voice appears confident and even the phrases that would typically connote a negative characteristic seem to come almost from a place of equilibrium. Of course, this is not exactly the case. As mentioned, the work is dense with encounters between whales and humans, in the present and historically; between the whale and technological devices; between technological devices and humans, and most likely many more.
As we see the video, we see through something. Obviously, our experience is mediated and the camera we see through is a bio-logging device used by marine biologist to “collect data of the animals behaviour.”(Levy 2017). The device is a creation by the lab Bio-logging Science, the Unversity of Tokyo (UTBLS), which creates these small contraptions “to assess and explain unknown ecology of life in the oceans” and with them, “Data-loggers can provide animal’s world we had never seen before.” (‘UTBLS’ 2017). Already, what we see and experience in the artwork has shifted twice. We see through a camera attached to the back of a whale (1) in order to record its movements for scientific purposes (2). The first-person story coming from the whale would almost have us believe that we are swimming alongside it, while it narrates the experience. But we are in fact, seeing through a device primarily created for human knowledge production and explanations of animal behaviour, not fanciful whale tales. In the video we are thus presented, not only with the whale knowing and telling, but with constructions of scientific stories and knowledge productions, taking form from prostheses capable of grasping ecologies at places where the human body restricts our movements.
But our experience shifts again. To those of us somewhat familiar with the history of cetology, the story that the whale is telling slowly seems haunted by eerily familiar wording. A quick look at the text on the work on Levy’s website and the suspicion is confirmed: the whale is being ventriloquized by Charles Melville Scammon (1825-1911). Scammon was a famous naturalist and whaling captain in the 19th century, and the author of the book The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America – Together with an Account of the American Whale-Fishery, (1874). The story that the whale is telling us is actually a slight reformulation of the first sentence of chapter III “The Humpback Whale”. But coming from Scammon the voice and story is significantly different.
Scammon has the curious CV of being both a famed naturalist and author of one of the first comprehensive cetological reference books, and an infamous whaling captain who pioneered the hunt for Califonia grey whales – a practice that would drive them close to extinction. For every careful description of the whales in his book, is an equally careful account of how you hunt them. For every detailed drawing of the species’, there is an evenly detailed representation of harpoons and tools for ‘cutting-in’ to the whales (Scammon 1874, e.g. 47, 231). Scammon does not write ‘I’ but ‘it’ and ‘the humpback whale’ and whereas the descriptions of the whales’ movements seem free and uninhibited coming from the whale, they appear both damning and troublesome from Scammon. What does it mean when the knowledge of the way a humpback whale moves comes from someone like Scammon?
Scammon, his descriptions, drawings and measurements might well be seen as the cetological forefathers of the bio-logging devices marine biologists now use to get closer to an understanding of the movements and worlds of the whales. This ghostly entangled genealogy is subtly hinted at in Levy’s artwork, and the story we are hearing, the images we are seeing, slowly start vibrating between ways of knowing. What we are hearing and seeing shifts again. The world and history of the humpback whale, as we are now aware, is not its own but drenched in more-than-human encounters, and Levy’s simple but thick work, gently slide between the entangled worlds and scales of knowing, all attached to our humpback whale frolicking on the coast of Iceland.
¹ I have borrowed the notion of ’sliding scales’ between worlds and ways of knowing, from Casper Bruun Jensen and his text “Wound-up Worlds and The Wind-Up Girl: On the Anthropology of Climate Change and Climate Fiction “ (Bruun Jensen 2017). For an in-depth conceptual analysis of Levy’s work, see my article “Art-science and science-fictions: sliding scales in the work of Sonia Levy and the aesthetics of more-than-human knowledges“ (forthcoming).
Bruun Jensen, Casper. 2017. ‘Wound-up Worlds and The Wind-Up Girl: On the Anthropology of Climate Change and Climate Fiction’. In . Aarhus University, Denmark.
Levy, Sonia. 2015. I Roam. Video.
———. 2017. ‘I Roam’. Accessed August 31. http://sonialevy.net/iroam.html.
Scammon, Charles Melville. 1874. The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America: Together with an Account of the American Whale-Fishery. A California Legacy Book. Dover Publications.
‘UTBLS: Bio-Logging Science, The University of Tokyo’. 2017. UTBLS: Bio-Logging Science, The University of Tokyo. Accessed August 31. http://utbls.aori.u-tokyo.ac.jp/index.html
Line Marie Thorsen is curator and Phd researcher in the AURA project (Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene)
“I roam through every ocean, generally preferring to feed and perform my uncouth gambols near extensive coasts, or about the shores of islands, in all latitudes between the equator and the frozen oceans, both north and south. I am irregular in my movements, seldom going a straight course for any considerable distance ; at one time moving from the mast-head ; at other times singly, seeming as much at home as if I were surrounded by hundreds of my kind ; performing at will the varied actions of “breaching,” “rolling,” “finning,” “lobtailing,” or “scooping ;” or, on a calm, sunny day, perhaps lying motionless on the molten-looking surface, as though life were extinct.” (from I Roam, Levy 2015)
I ROAM, 3:16, 2015