I ROAM

In the video I Roam, we (the viewers) encounter a whale that tells us a story of its habits, its mode of living, while we can see from the perspective of its back as it moves through the ocean. The story is only told via subtitles, the moving images, and accompanied by the rippling sounds of being immersed in water. [...]

 

As the whale tells us this story, we are immersed in the murky water with it. We see how it ventures up and down: from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the water where 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. As seen in 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. At first, we are invited to imagine a story coming directly from the whale, and as such, the narrative appears confident as though the story is almost coming from a place of equilibrium. However, this is not exactly the case.

The work is dense with encounters between whales, humans, and things, both historically and in the present. For example, as we watch the video, we see through something. Our experience is mediated from start to finish and the camera we see through is a bio-logging device used by marine biologists to “collect data on the animal’s behaviour” (Levy n.d.). For some time, Levy has been collaborating with the Húsavík Research Center on Marine Mammals in Iceland and the device was created so that “[d]ata-loggers can provide [access to an] animal’s world we have never seen before” (UTBLS: Bio-Logging Science, The University of Tokyo n.d.). With the rather banal realisation that our encounter is technologically mediated our experience is displaced twice. (1) We see through a camera attached to the back of a whale, highlighting that what we see comes as much from humans as it is does from the whale. (2) And the footage is created to record its movements for the mode human knowledge-production par excellence; scientific data collection. In I Roam, the first-‘person’ story coming from the whale would almost have us believe that we are swimming alongside it—even holding on to it—while it is narrating 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.

 

But the experience is displaced once again. The wording of the story, as the whale slowly recounts it, seems eerie and Levy’s text on the work confirms this experience: the whale is being ‘ventriloquized’ through the script of Charles Melville Scammon. 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 (Scammon 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, a whale hunter, the ‘voice’ and story is significantly different.

Scammon's book is considered a pioneering piece in terms of knowledge of north-western marine mammals and it is comprised of detailed accounts of 24 whale species, seven species of seal, as well as six chapters on the early American whale-fishery industry. In the profession of whaling, Scammon is regarded as one of the most successful captains of the period, the man who pioneered the hunt for California grey whales—a practice that would drive them close to extinction. In the book, he himself connects these two accomplishments (famous naturalist and successful whaler) and suggests that owing to his capacity as a whaling captain, he is particularly well suited to describe marine mammals. Those “practically engaged in the business of whaling” simply had better opportunities for studying the habits of the animals than their land-bound counterparts (Scammon 1874: 11).

 

As such, for every careful description of whales in Scammon’s 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: 47, 231). The only difference in the text coming from Scammon and the whale in I Roam, is that Scammon does not write in the first person of ‘I’ and ‘my’ but in the third person of ‘it’ and ‘the humpback whale’. And whereas the descriptions of the whales’ movements seemed free and uninhibited coming from the whale, they appear damning and troublesome coming from Scammon. As such, the two modes of experience overlap in I Roam, and the viewer is forced to ask when and what kinds of knowledge(s) come from the world of scientific humans and when and what kinds of knowledge(s) comes from the world humpback whales?

 

Scammon’s descriptions, drawings and measurements might well be the cetological predecessors of the bio-logging devices marine biologists now use to get closer to an understanding of the worlds of whales. This haunting history is subtly hinted at in Levy’s artwork. Once we unfold these layers of the work, a certain vibration among diverse ways of knowing the whale as a non-human other start to come into play. 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 multivalent encounters, and Levy’s simple but thick work, gently slides between the entangled worlds of whales, whalers, naturalists, scientists, artist, the aquatic environment itself and most likely many other actors. All are, like the camera, attached to our humpback whale frolicking off the coast of Iceland.

 

 

 

Extract of text by Line Marie Thorsen, Aesthetics of more-than-human worlds in the art of Sonia Levy: Multispecies Entanglements and Implications for Ecology.