Below the surface, a pulsating web of possibility
Synthetic skins of liquid camouflage waves
Chemosensory and tactile
The artificial weaves the living and dead
A starting point.
This project began with fascination, weaving in and out of many thinkers. Thematically it is not about one thing; meaning is subjective and shifting. As a paradigm of thought, the octopus defies boundaries—a kaleidoscopic stream of consciousness, surging networks, perpetual processes.
At the heart of my research is a deep concern that we are increasingly disconnected from other life forms. The ramifications of emerging genetic technologies have altered the way we choose to represent and understand life. Science fiction is practically the new fiction. Can humans be wholly trusted to make wise decisions as technology advances, and can this reflect our world’s prismatic diversity?
Since the imperialising 18th century, biological sciences have fermented our views surrounding our earthly companions. Even today, scientists philosophise whether we have entered a new geological epoch- the Anthropocene- to reflect humanity’s substantive impact on our planet.
In human-animal studies, the Anthropocene is analysed with anthropocentrism, a theory that prioritises human beings above all else. Arguably, posthumanism has majorly influenced these relations, rejecting the nature-culture dualism by understanding the human as being entangled with its environment (Haraway,2016). Moreover, increasing scientific evidence challenges humanity’s perceived uniqueness, demonstrating that non-human animals display sentience, intelligence, empathy and altruism.
In addition, many thinkers suggest the Anthropocene timeline begins not with our species but with the advent of modern capitalism, which to a certain extent has directed the destruction of landscape and ecologies (Haraway,2016). By nature, it implies forgetting, ignorance, repudiation, blindness to reality. Is it even possible to live inside this regime of the human and non-human and still exceed the bonds of anthropocentrism?
By extension, the assertion that we have entered a new geological era requires a sustained change of mentality and sensitivity that questions the supremacy of the human species, including the ways we understand and observe entangled nature-culture hybrids. In the face of terrible histories, modern man must find a way to facilitate conditions for multispecies diversity/coexistence and cut bonds with anthropocentrism.
I am interested in this transition from a human-centred worldview to biocentrism (the human as part of an ecosystem). Systems, interconnections, and networks are essential to my practice. In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing suggests precarity-the condition of being vulnerable to others- and how such unpredictable encounters transform us (Tsing, 2015). Thus, the inability of control, not even of self, has also become a characteristic of my artistic process- a shapeshifter in a metaphoric and procedural sense. But how do we embrace our human limitations and gaps in our systems and expand our worldview beyond ourselves?
Predominately my work reflects together with American theorist and scholar Donna Haraway. In Staying with the Trouble, she promotes a kind of urgency not to think in categories, binaries. The octopus resists the conditions of containment in favour of chemosensory contamination.
Tentacular thinking is an epistemology that explores new ways of thinking like an octopus, a metaphor for a nonlinear networked existence similar to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome. Haraway asserts:
The tentacular are not disembodied figures; they are cnidarians, spiders, fingery beings… squid, jellyfish…fibrous entities, flagellated beings, myofibril braids, matted and felted microbial and fungal tangles, probing creepers… reaching and climbing tendrilled ones (Haraway, 2016, p.32).
In essence, we are not sole harbingers. We are made up of billions of bacteria inhabiting our guts, an assemblage of many different life forms, “we are all lichens” (Gilbert, Sapp and Tauber,2012, p. 336). I am interested in these ambivalences, contradictions, multispecies muddles, shapeshifters—tentacles, guts and other tangible beings.
As Haraway (2016, p.31) points out, the word Tentacle derives from the Latin ‘tentaculum’, which translates to ‘feeling’ and ‘tentare’, which means ‘to feel’ and ‘to try’. My work does not attempt to provide answers; it prompts playful reflections. If anything, it is an unstable experience, inhabited by problems…
The development of aquaria and marine stations in the latter 19th century arguably increased the age of cephalopods as experimental animals, hailing them the next “guinea pigs of the sea”, an embodiment of a mechanical model rather than recognised for their unique sense of self (Nakajima et al., 2018, p.2).
However, research in more recent years has presented us with new data on the extraordinary existence of the octopus. In Other Minds, cephalopod expert Peter Godfrey-Smith challenges what it means to think and feel. He describes the octopus as “the closest thing to an intelligent alien”, an unsurprising statement given their unique ability to instantly change colour, texture, and body shape (Godfrey-Smith, 2016, p.9). Their skin is like an antenna, a skin-screen, a seeing skin. So, what would it be like to have a ‘protean’ body or a body that is ‘all possibility’?
Even their nervous system is entirely unlike our own. They lie outside the usual body/brain divide; their arms are partly-self. In their paper on ‘embodied cognition’, Hillel Chiel and Randy Beer assert “the nervous system is one of a group of players engaged in jazz improvisation”, a rather fitting metaphor for the octopus (Godfrey-Smith, 2016, p.105). Moreover, their adaptability, control mechanisms, multifaceted intelligence have captured the attention of bio roboticists, scientists, engineers alike- a boundary subject connecting varying fields.
There is, it seems, a kind of cognitive surplus in the octopus that captures the imagination. A group of artists known as Orphan Drift have created extensive works inspired by the octopus. For example, their mixed media video installation IF AI WERE CEPHALOPOD was all about distributed consciousness and resisting the evolution of AI. Maggie Roberts’s recent project involves developing an AI coded by an octopus in real-time.
Like Orphan Drift, I firmly believe that non-human agencies are vital in developing a new imaginative capacity for looking forward and engaging with a changing world.
In addition, during a time that could be characterised mainly as an age of disembodiment, materiality serves as a way of reconnecting to the present. Whereby aesthetic experience activates through imagination, thoughts, feelings. As a sculptor, I am naturally drawn to visceral materials, which serve as motifs through aesthetic juxtapositions/ dualisms. For example, non-living-living, natural-mechanical to communicate this fragmentation between humans and non-humans.
During the research stage, my interest in the unfamiliar and its bonds with organic matter inevitably led me to SCOBY- a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast- that produce flexible cellulose films with a unique texture and smell. They undoubtedly elicit a psychophysical response. The mother scobies each have rolls, the resonance of human flesh; microorganisms, after all, are essential elements of our bodies and identity. I would even say they appear octopus-like; they are strange but adorable, robust but vulnerable, ephemeral yet enduring. I have found that I have developed a peculiar affection for these gelatinous blobs of life.
There is still so much yet unknown about SCOBY, but it certainly offers opportunities for many applications. For example, the material is currently being investigated as a sustainable alternative to textiles. However, for me, embracing process and experimentation has become a significant fertile testing ground to imagine these other forms of life that we can barely comprehend (like that of the octopus or even SCOBY) and instigate effective, uncanny encounters.
Furthermore, it seems biology subsisted by some technologised other fits the dominant dystopian discourse of the future. AI robots speak to each other in a language they invented; there are now even living robots, ‘xenobots’ that reproduce by themselves. There is something incredibly unnerving about artificial sentience that unconsciously elicits reflection surrounding our relations with the ‘other’.
I find it incredibly ironic how my works concern the natural yet always pervade into the machinic. I deploy robotics purely as an aesthetic engagement device. It is intended as a form of critique. It highlights the desire of humans to assert their control/manipulate the non-human world for their gains.
Moreover, for those speculating about how we may treat synthetically intelligent beings in the future, looking at how we bestowed rights on other non-humans is instructive. Historically, the term ‘Rabota’ means forced labour, a prescient forecast that we may be prone to consider emerging technology as merely a tool to do our biddings and exploit to our advantage (Coleman, 2019). So how do we navigate these relations?
Nelmarie du Preez, in her installation Autonomous Times, imagines a future where humans might need to tame/ domesticate their artificial creations. Like du Preez, I utilise the robotic form to extrapolate and speculate the slippages between technology and human interaction/intervention whereby power shifts constantly. The aesthetics of movement, particularly nervous or compulsive activity, are essential to the viewer’s experience.
On a personal level, engagement in robotics prompts many questions for me. What, for example, would a machine with the essence of an octopus or any non-human look like and be like? Rendering such an abstract idea into something perceptible usually requires the mediation of technical probes, sensors and outside knowledge.
For this reason, my work often requires collaborating participants from varying fields who bring unique sensibilities, research, and textures to the unfolding study. This semester, I worked with Calvin Kielas Jensen (coding) and Azamat Yehsmukhametov (vertebrate design). I am not a scientist or engineer, but I approach artmaking from a more surreal perspective. Collaboration allows linking disciplines and translating between languages accustomed to not being understood.
BioArt, Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering
In continuation, with the advent of DNA research at the turn of the twenty-first century, the focus turned to life and how it could be created, changed, manipulated. During this time, BioArt emerged, intertwining art, science and technology. One of the foremost pioneers of this movement is Eduardo Kac, famous for his controversial genetically modified rabbit ‘Alba’ that glows bright green under ultraviolet light. However, extremes aside, BioArt is best understood as a movement that recognises that both non-human (organic and inorganic life) and inhuman entities (artificial intelligence, technologies etc.) have agency. I am not claiming to be directly associated with this movement, but I recognise that my artistic practice and research expand on these themes; attempting to prompt engagement and discussion is my main intention.
Conjointly, for humankind, this transhumanist idea of undermining evolution or transcending it has inevitably become a desired goal. The temporal reach of modern technologies has allowed us to do things beyond comprehension. For example, in Netflix’s Unnatural Selection, ex-NASA biologist Josiah Zayne, in a kind of art meets biohacking theatrics, utilises gene editing technology (CRISPR) to inject himself with frog DNA. Perhaps the yuk/shock factor surrounding genetic modification is partly anxiety about removing something crucial about being less than human.
Joey Holder is another notable artist attempting to question things yet unknown regarding the future of science, medicine, biology and human-machine interaction. She explores the limit of the human through speculative multimedia environments that construct engaging narratives by mapping/morphing factual and fictional imagery. Her methodology/approach to artmaking is constantly evolving, shifting, merging to question the uncertainties of the future. Similarly to Holder, I am disquieted by this idea of nature as a raw material manipulated by the biologist- constantly trying to categorise and map. For example, The Human Genome Project utilises DNA as something that can now be programmed, cut, pasted. Organic beings are deconstructed, hacked, and rebuilt. I find it problematic to reduce things to their simplest forms when life is much more complex.
Another shocking development that I came across during my research was the announcement by Spanish aquaculture company Nueva Pescanova to fast track the opening of the world’s first octopus farm in 2023. A study by an international group of researchers known as Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) denounces this as a moral and ecological disaster waiting to happen (Jacquet, Franks, Godfrey-Smith and Sanchez-Suarez, 2019). Despite this, many scientists contribute to the tools and technology to make genetic modifications that may accelerate industrial aquaculture by making the octopus passive to stop them from turning on one another.
Although my work is not intended as an ethical provocation, these unnerving dialogues between humans, non-humans and technology are inevitably underlying. This attempt to modify the octopus into a passive autonomous subject is not surprising given how non-humans remain primarily excluded from our intelligence, justice, and rightsthe whole debate is fraught with cultural complexities. Confinement in labs defies their octopodean purposes. It is undoubtedly a problematic proposition given what we know now about cephalopods.
Automation, coding, editing, enmeshing are all recurring elements at the forefront of my practice and processes. This intuitive interaction, whether digitally or materially, constructs a tangible body that allows for conceptual deconstructions that arguably can only come about through working with machines/technology and attempting to think outside of the human.
Over the past few years, I have also been intrigued by speculative hybrid forms. In my conceptualisation, this is an assemblage of disparate fragments/elements (such as living vs non-living materials) removed from the broader context of the body, which meet and merge into new uncanny experiences.
The concept of ‘hybridity’ has a long history tracing back to Homi Bhabha. He describes hybridity as enabling us to express heterogeneity and “elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the other of ourselves” (Bhabha, 1995, p.206). Nonetheless, there is no denying that the transgression of boundaries regarding hybrids is an alarming concept.
However, when I think of the hybrid form, I am drawn to Haraway’s notion of the cyborg as “a creature simultaneously animal and machine, ambiguously natural and crafted” (Haraway, 1991, p.6). In accordance with Haraway, my work is concerned with reframing our relationships and how such speculative bodies/forms offer alternatives to the subjective self.
In my opinion, speculative hybrids embody this notion of breaking fixed boundaries and dualist thinking. It is up to us to craft our technosociety along the contours of our vision. What this could mean for animal-human relations going forwards remains ambiguous.
Troubling the Anthropos?
Ultimately, the human understanding of the fabric of reality is changing. Rather than privileging our worldview, it is not about eradicating human perceptions of the world but the pluralisation of perspectives. We need to make sense of the hybrid new ecologies we now inhabit. Our world is populated by entities on a continuum between human and the non-human, the organic and artificial, the engineered and synthetic, polymorphic, elusive, imitative. The other side of the octopus is futuristic, transformative, a prompt for transversal relations.
Thinking-with is paramount…
Bhabha, H (1995) 'Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences', in Ashcroft, B, Griffiths, G, Tiffin, H. (ed.) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, p.206.
Coleman, F (2019) A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence is Redefining Who We Are. Berkeley: Counterpoint.p.25-47.
Gilbert, S., Sapp, J. and Tauber, A (2012) A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals. The Quarterly Review of Biology, [online] 87(4), p.336. Available at: [Accessed 25 March 2022].
Godfrey-Smith, P (2016) Other Minds. New York: HarperCollins, p.9-105.
Haraway, D (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, p.6.
Haraway, D (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, p.31-32.
Jaquet, J. Franks, B. Godfrey-Smith,P. and Sanchez-Suarez, W. (2019) “The Case Against Octopus Farming.”. Issues in Science and Technology, 35(2), pp.37-44.
Nakajima, R., Shigeno, S., Zullo, L., De Sio, F. and Schmidt, M (2018) Cephalopods Between Science, Art, and Engineering: A Contemporary Synthesis. Frontier in Communication, 3(20), p.2.
Tsing, A (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Oxford: Princeton University Press, p.28
Video accompaniment: Laura Smith (2022) Sympoiesis.