In the beginning there was the worm: Animal voices beyond the verbal

Cecilia Vicuña, Why Listen to Animals?, 7 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, West Space, Melbourne. Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture.
Cecilia Vicuña, Why Listen to Animals?, 7 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, West Space, Melbourne. Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture

Four humanimals[1] creep, crawl, sniff and moan their way through a seated audience, towards an empty performance area which awaits their presence. Snorting and snuffling is audible as the liminal creatures rub themselves against giggling audience members, rolling across laps and crawling under chairs. Their faces are painted with dark bands across the eyes—like a species of bird, bandit, or warrior. When they reach the performance area, they crouch in a circle, continuing their muffled cries as one of them stands.

She is the eldest—diminutive, but powerful and fiery. She is Cecilia Vicuña, a senior Chilean artist and poet whose important ecofeminist and decolonial practices have only recently begun to achieve the recognition they always deserved.[2] Vicuña’s very name is animal—vicuñas are the smaller, wilder ancestors of the llama. As she stands before the audience, brandishing pages of poetry, her fellow Chilean humanimals, Sarita Gálvez, Camilla Marambio and Bryan Phillips rock and mutter in loose unison. This is just one of many performances that made up Liquid Architecture’s Why Listen to Animals? series in Melbourne in late 2016. Tweaking the title of John Berger’s famous essay “Why Look at Animals?”, these events foregrounded sound as a way to move beyond anthropocentric ocular modes, to prick up our ears and attune to non‑human, non‑verbal voices.

Vicuña took the provocation of the series title literally, listing ten reasons why we should listen to animals, the first being that “they have been around for far longer than we have, and by not listening to them, we are not listening to the part in us that may know how to survive.” Clearly, there are practical reasons why we should listen to animals. But there are also more fanciful ones, such as they fact that “they are the masters of the imPOSSIBLE, they learnt how to fly, swim and breathe under water when needed.”[3] 

Cecilia Vicuña, Why Listen to Animals?, 7 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, West Space, Melbourne. Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture.
Cecilia Vicuña, Why Listen to Animals?, 7 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, West Space, Melbourne. Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture
 Cecilia Vicuña, Why Listen to Animals?, 7 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, West Space, Melbourne. Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture.
 Cecilia Vicuña, Why Listen to Animals?, 7 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, West Space, Melbourne. Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture

To read Vicuña’s transcript after the event cannot possibly capture the immersive becoming–animal of the text as she voiced it that night—her stutterings and susurrations interrupting logical flow. Language broke down into patterns echoed by the three ground-dwelling humanimals in a call-and-response which occasionally erupted into chattering and howling, because animals “are the masters of dissonant sound, they know how to listen and enter into different states of consciousness, with the entire group becoming one school, or one flock, as in bird murmuration, in order to survive and play.”[4] Brian Massumi posits play as one of the central motifs of his 2014 book, What Animals Teach Us About Politics, and his ideas on animals and literature are also relevant to Vicuña and the other practices I will be discussing.

In contrast to anthropocentric scientific, philosophical, and religious worldviews that portray animals as lacking language, where this “lack” is precisely the key point of difference between humans and animals, Vicuña proposes that “we learnt language from the animals, and by not listening to them and the way they speak, we are not listening to language itself …”[5] By listening to the supposedly unlanguaged, we are in fact listening to language with a keener ear, an ear for sound, for meaning beyond the symbolic. Such language is embodied, felt, and enacted, rather than verbally and scripturally abstracted.

In his essay “The animal that therefore I am,” Jacques Derrida sketches a malingering Judeo‑Christian worldview in which man names the animals, before woman has even arrived on the scene. Thus the world is codified by Adam, whose sovereignty is nonetheless tinged with loneliness as the only animal with language. Derrida suggests we move beyond this ingrained anthropocentrism, not by “giving speech back” to animals, but by acknowledging their absence of speech need not imply a lack.[6] Indeed, non-human animals seem to possess a certain vitality that languaged humans have lost, and so he proposes a strange hybrid form of animal and text, which he calls l’animot, or the textual animal.

These chimeras have the potential to introduce wildness back into language, what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari famously theorised as becoming–animal, or as the stutterings of a “minor literature” (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis being one of their favourite examples). Vicuña and her pack of humanimals thoroughly unravelled and revelled in a transpecies language. Appropriately, Deleuze and Guattari say that any becoming–animal “always involves a pack, a band, a population, a peopling, in short, a multiplicity,” going on to cryptically announce “We sorcerers have always known that.”[7] Vicuña is nothing if not a sorcerer; her words are incantations—not to cast a spell—but to break the spell of inattention and alienation.

Stephen Loo and Udine Sellbach, The Grasshopper Cabaret, 20 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, Why Listen to Animals? Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture.
Stephen Loo and Udine Sellbach, The Grasshopper Cabaret, 20 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, Why Listen to Animals? Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture

A less liminal, more choreographed, but equally intriguing entanglement of animals with text was presented on another night of Why Listen to Animals? The Grasshopper Cabaret by Stephen Loo and Undine Sellbach is a performative presentation of Jakob von Uexküll’s groundbreaking theories of ethology or animal behaviour. Von Uexküll invented the term Umwelt to describe the unique worldview of every living creature, yet his illustrated writings about these lived environments are, according to Sellbach, more like fairytales than hard science.[8] Von Uexküll described his A Foray into the World of Animals and Humans as “a picture book of invisible worlds” and Sellbach and Loo take this productive mélange of biology and aesthetics further by introducing performative elements, enabling audiences to embody the Umwelt of von Uexküll’s cast of insectoid characters.

In The Grasshopper Cabaret, each audience member is handed a booklet, like an opera score in miniature, two plastic haircombs of differing thicknesses, and a plastic chopstick. The two performers stand in front of a PowerPoint display of von Uexküll’s drawings, both mimicking and subverting an academic presentation. They tell the story of an experiment where a male grasshopper under a glass dome is in full view of female grasshoppers, but they ignore him. Not being able to hear his song, they move instead towards a speaker projecting the song of another grasshopper elsewhere. It is an experiment designed to demonstrate the importance of sound over sight in grasshoppers, but comes to be a parable of thwarted love, which Sellbach and Loo, following a slippage between the sexes introduced by von Uexküll’s first English translator Claire Schiller, transform into a nightclub act in which a female grasshopper croons her loneliness.

The lighting drops, music begins and the audience is invited to sing along. The show ends with both Sellbach and Loo forming an uber-insect made of their combined bodies in front of the screen, while the audience strokes their combs with their chopsticks, performing a crescendo of insectoid desire. As Deleuze and Guattari propose, in the world of music, the vocal “reign of birds” has been replaced by the instrumental “age of insects” with their “chirring, rustling, buzzing, clicking, scratching, and scraping.” Insects orchestrate the bridge between becoming–animal and a further stage of (dis)integration: becoming molecular.[9]

Stephen Loo and Udine Sellbach, The Grasshopper Cabaret, 20 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, Why Listen to Animals? Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture.
Stephen Loo and Udine Sellbach, The Grasshopper Cabaret, 20 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture, Why Listen to Animals? Photo: Keelan O’Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture

Sellbach and Loo have more tricks up their sleeve. At Speculative Ethologies, a conference in Perth at Curtin University in December 2016, the duo presented The Blind and Deaf Highway Woman, another performative lecture based on the work of von Uexküll. This time their subject was the tick, reimagined by von Uexküll as a blind and deaf female bandit, waiting to jump on its prey, but only being able to sense light and to smell butyric acid, which is common to the skin glands of all mammals. Once the tick lands, she burrows her way into the skin to get her fill of warm blood. Deleuze was famous for saying he preferred the tick, with its restricted but intensive Umwelt, to cats and dogs and indeed some humans.[10]

In order to recreate the Umwelt of the tick, Sellbach and Loo gave each audience member an eye mask, a pack of coconut water at room temperature, and instructions on how to react. First we were to sit masked in a state of suspended animation until we felt light on our skin (Sellbach patrolled the audience with a large lamp). Then, we were to rear up as though ready to pounce, but to stay frozen until we smelled buttered popcorn (standing in for butyric acid). Once the odour entered our nostrils we were to pounce on our packs of warm coconut water (which can be used as a substitute for blood plasma) and guzzle them heartily. Amid the hilarity that ensued there was a far more visceral understanding of the Umwelt of the tick than could be achieved by words alone.

Similarly, wedding the informative with the performative, Melbourne-based writer Mattie Sempert’s “Becoming Nar” is a spoken essay which hybridises biology, philosophy, and writing as form. This work, featuring Gali Weiss on cello, formed the crux of Sempert’s mid-candidature review for her PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT. Open to a small but interested public audience, the work was later performed in a shed for injured kangaroo recuperation in Cottles Bridge, a fitting location for ruminations on human‑animal relations.

Mattie Sempert, Gali and Wuuru warming up for a performance of “Becoming Nar” in a roo shed in Cottles Bridge. Photo courtesy the artist.
Mattie Sempert, Gali and Wuuru warming up for a performance of “Becoming Nar” in a roo shed in Cottles Bridge. Photo courtesy the artist.
Wuuru relaxing before a performance of Mattie Sempert’s “Becoming Nar”, in a “roo shed” in Cottles Bridge. Photo courtesy the artist.
Wuuru relaxing before a performance of Mattie Sempert’s “Becoming Nar”, in a “roo shed” in Cottles Bridge. Photo courtesy the artist

As a practising acupuncturist for over twenty-five years, Sempert is particularly attuned to networks within bodies and the networks between bodies. She sees a resonant sympathy between her twirling acupuncture needles and the narwhal’s twirling tusk (actually a tooth), which it uses like a sensor. Sempert folds into her story the folds of origami and folds of the brain; there is connective tissue between neurology, tactility, fingernails, claws and teeth. The loops of connection are embodied by the repeated lowing and swooping of the cello, like a whale breaching and diving. There’s a sense of the playful here, as Sempert refers to Brian Massumi’s writing on animals, in which he foregrounds ludic behaviour over the programmatic.

Indeed, it turns out that narwhals rub each other’s tusks—not with aggressive intent, but for pleasure. Sempert and Weiss, in playful counterpoint of verbal and non-verbal speech, dip, and rear, like narwhals crossing tusks in the water. Massumi notes that it is precisely in literary language, “with its artificings of abstraction, that the human can breach its own nature,”[11] perhaps like a whale breaching the surface of the ocean, to breathe vivifying oxygen and also simply to play. Massumi asks whether, paradoxically, it is via language itself, “the ability most often cited as what draws the dividing line between the human and the animal” that we could find “a privileged portal to the becoming animal of the human?”.[12]

If Massumi posits literary language as a “privileged portal” to becoming–animal, he also notes it is not the only way. The poetic and essayistic artworks I have examined so far have used verbal language and even the formal restraints of the public lecture to explore animality. The final work I will discuss, by the Melbourne‑based collaborative duo Out-of-Sync (Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark) is primarily non-verbal. They have a history of practice concerned with sound and the environment. Their latest projects involve worms, including channeling their non-verbal, in fact, non-vocal, sounds. Out-of-Sync have fed their worms shredded paper documents, recycling unnecessary verbiage into rich loam (no worms were harmed in the making of this artwork, the artists are quick to point out).

The most recent incarnation of this wormy production was the installation Waiting, part of the MoreArt Festival on the Upfield Line bike path. Out-of-Sync took over the Moreland Train Station waiting room, filling it with plants and some of their worms’ castings, and screening videos and playing sound pieces at different times of day. The artists made an effort to be present during peak hour, to have discussions with commuters about the integral role of worms in our world. While Derrida’s interest is in silkworms rather than earthworms, he can’t resist punning on Genesis, “In the beginning there was the worm.”[13]Interestingly enough, Charles Darwin came to the same conclusion at the end of his career, writing a book which eulogised the role of worms in world‑making and terraforming.

Out-of-Sync (Maria Miranda and NorieNeumark), Waiting, 2017, still from a digital video. Photo courtesy and © the artists.
Out-of-Sync (Maria Miranda and NorieNeumark), Waiting, 2017, still from a digital video. Photo courtesy and © the artists

In Out-of-Sync’s video made for Waiting, the artists, one at a time, clutch headphones to their ears. It’s a gesture made familiar by famous pop stars reciting “Feed the World” and a host of other clichés—performing a rhapsodic immersion in the audible world. Only here asinine lyrics are replaced with strange sucking and slurping noises as the artists respond to the sounds of worms digesting compost—vermicular eating and excreting which does, in fact, feed the world.

The strange facial tics and contortions of Out-of-Sync as they become–worm are almost alien in their embrace of other-worldliness (one of the commuters exclaimed to the duo, “You speak worm!”). Miranda clucks and tuts, pouts and puckers, while Neumark unselfconsciously squishes and squelches, at one point even foaming at the mouth. She later explained she felt her speech was “infected” by the worms,[14] and it’s worth noting that Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter on becoming–animal lauds contagion for its insistence on mutability. 

Out-of-Sync argue that they are not “imitating” worms but that their bodies are acting as transmitters which amplify “wormness”—in all its delightfully slippery wriggliness. They are co-composing, or even co-composting, as Donna Haraway would have us do in her spectacular tentacular Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Haraway is all for muddy interspecies entanglements rather than the fallacy of “clear‑sighted” rationality. Not only do worms lack vocal chords, but that other sign of evolutionary hierarchy, the eye. This is partly why Out‑of‑Sync consistently focus on the audible, indeed, Neumark has recently published a book about the intricacies of audible affect called Voicetracks. Attuning to the voices of animals, she writes, allows for a “foregrounding of otherness and relationality and, with them, of ethics and politics.”[15]

Maria Miranda, one half of Out-of-Sync from her video Waiting, 2017, still from a digital video. Photo courtesy and © the artists.
Maria Miranda, one half of Out-of-Sync from her video Waiting, 2017, still from a digital video. Photo courtesy and © the artists.

For Neumark, there is no need to worry about “giving speech back” to animals, since “animals already have a lot to say.” She enumerates many artworks featuring the “nonlinguistic voices of animals—gasping, gulping, squawking, barking, humming” and asks what aesthetics, affects, and ethics these voices provoke in their listeners. The hope is that, via sympathetic attunement, we will lead more harmonious, and less anthropocentric, lives. This cannot be achieved by mimesis. As Neumark notes, becoming animal is about experiencing common capacities with animals, rather than imitating their forms, and this could equally be applied to the orchestration of the becoming–tick via popcorn and coconut water in the work of Sellbach and Loos.

The second part of Out-of-Sync’s video focuses on the worms themselves, wriggling through compost, to a soundtrack of free saxophone and the artists’ intoning of words like “waiting,” “wriggling,” “wormy” and “squirming.” Like Sempert’s use of the cello, instrumentation here provides a non-verbal language, of squeaks and pips beyond the vocal range of the human, while the breaking down of words into their sonic components, like Vicuña’s murmurations, allows language to find its pre-verbal origins.

Whether verbal or non-verbal, the languages harnessed in the performative works of the various artists entangled in this essay are all engaged in a becoming–animal, the better to create a sympathetic resonance with animal worlds. In pushing language beyond anthropocentric boundaries, we can attune, as Neumark would have it, to the aesthetic, affectual, and ethical potentials of animal voices in the work of art and beyond.

Footnotes

  1. ^ This is a promiscuous neologism with a life of its own. Its strongest association for me is the New Zealand punk-poet performance duo The Humanimals, who were active in the 1980s.
  2. ^ For example, Vicuña was curated into Documenta 14, and was the subject of a major survey show, and monograph, About to Happen, 2017.
  3. ^ Cecilia Vicuña, “Why Listen to Animals? Decalogue (first draft)”. Transcript supplied by Liquid Architecture.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 2, Winter, 2002, p. 416.
  7. ^ Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 239.
  8. ^ “Sex, Flies and Fairy Tales—An Interview on the Philosopher’s Zone”: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/sex2c-flies2c-and-fairytales/5519320.
  9. ^ Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 308.
  10. ^ Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, “A is for Animal”, 1989: https://vimeo.com/108004617.
  11. ^ Brian Massumi, “Becoming Animal in the Literary Field”, in the forthcoming Animals, Animality and Literature, ed. Bruce Boehrer, Molly Hand, and Brian Massumi, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  12. ^ Ibid, p. 8.
  13. ^ Derrida, “The animal that therefore I am”, p. 404.
  14. ^ Derrida, “The animal that therefore I am”, p. 404.
  15. ^ Norie Neumark, Voicetracks: Attuning to Voice in Media and the Arts, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017, p. 28.

Tessa Laird is an artist and writer who lectures in Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Her book on bats as part of Reaktion’s Animal series is due for release in May 2018.

Card image: Cecilia Vicuña, Why Listen to Animals?, 7 October 2016, performance for Liquid Architecture. Photo: Keelan O'Hehir, courtesy of Liquid Architecture

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.