NOWs: Honorary Vertebrate Club

07. September - 03. November 2019 / Nows

Sarah Browne: Report to an Academy, 2016. HD video, 28 minutes.

Honorary Vertebrate Club

Group Exhibition

A Tale of a Tub
Justus van Effenstraat 44
3027 TK Rotterdam,
the Netherlands

An exhibition—with Bianca Baldi, Sarah Browne, Anne Duk Hee Jordan, Tuomas A. Laitinen, Sophie Mallett, Jean Painlevé & Geneviève Hamon, and Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld—that carries a part of its brain outside of its body.

Reality is an active verb, and the nouns all seem to be gerunds with more appendages than an octopus. Through their reaching into each other, through their “prehensions” or graspings, beings constitute each other and themselves. Beings do not preexist their relations. “Prehensions” have consequences. The world is a knot in motion.1

The exhibition Honorary Vertebrate Club addresses marine life and ecology in a time of unprecedented environmental change, the rapid depletion of life forms and loss of biodiversity. Focussing primarily on the octopus and other molluscan cephalopods, such as the squid, cuttlefish and the nautilus, the exhibition is centered around modes of survival and adaptation in aquatic climates where environmental backdrops have become increasingly unstable and subject to ecological breakdown, or have ceased to exist altogether. Introducing a number of templates and artistic practices concerned with marine life, the exhibition establishes analogies between human and non-human animals—the octopus often deemed as a radical form of otherness—in an aim to underline persistent anthropocentric tendencies and human exceptionalism. Instead of the human figure we follow the octopus as main protagonist: an inventive environmental engineer and expert tool-user with complex social behaviors, thriving together with the jellyfish in oceanic climates increasingly subject to manmade acidification, rising sea temperatures, and underwater colonialism through deep sea mining. What can we learn from the adaptive qualities of the octopus, its shape-changing capacities and internet of brains? Can we develop “tentacular thinking” as a way of learning to “stay with the trouble,” rather than keeping to engage in acts of business as usual?

The exhibition title is derived from an animal cruelty legislation act that was passed in The United Kingdom in 1986, regarding cephalopods as honorary vertebrates—extending to them protections not normally afforded to invertebrates, such as the octopus. This act was implemented more broadly with an EU directive in 2010, treating the octopus as a vertebrate— commonly possessing a more complex nervous systems than invertebrates—for legal protection in animal testing, as based on scientific evidence of their ability to experience pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm. Apart from the well-intentioned aims to protect cephalopods, the overarching discussion of human exceptionalism and our tendency to endow the human figure with the capacity to be at the basis of a judgement or reconstruction remains striking. In other words still, how many times haven’t humans dragged a non-human animal into its court—from the mimicry of the parrot, to the language of dolphins and the jazzsongs of whales—claiming that its being could be deemed intelligent, insofar as we consider ourselves the standard measure of intelligence.

Searching for new relational templates and approaches in inter-agentivity between humans and non-humans, the exhibition advocates a loosening of thought from the constraints of human phenomenality, as structures of being do not necessarily correspond with structures of lived experience.2 This resonates with the octopus’s bodily morphology and intelligence: of the octopus’s half a billion neurons—six times the number in a mouse—it is the only animal that has a segment of its brain located in its eight arms. Without a central nervous system, each arm “thinks” as well as “senses” the surrounding world with total autonomy, and yet, each arm is part of the animal.3 To further consider these decentralized actors forming a congruent whole it is relevant to cite philosopher Donna Haraway’s notion of “tentacular thinking”: The tentacular are not disembodied figures; they are cnidarians, spiders, fingery beings like humans and raccoons, squid, jellyfish, neural extravaganzas, fibrous entities, flagellated beings, myofibril braids, matted and felted microbial and fungal tangles, probing creepers, swelling roots, reaching and climbing tendrilled ones. The tentacular are also nets and networks, it critters, in and out of clouds. Tentacularity is about life lived along lines—and such a wealth of lines—not at points, not in spheres. “The inhabitants of the world, creatures of all kinds, human and non-human, are wayfarers”; generations are like “a series of interlaced trails.”4

For the exhibition Honorary Vertebrate Club we understand “tentacular thinking” as a mode of raising decentralized perception, as an expansive and generative practice of fragmentary knowledge production that unmakes self-organizing units and ties them together as part of collectives seeking for the possibilities of life in capitalist ruins. As cephalopod and jellyfish populations are proliferating in response to a changing climate, we may as well reach out to make kin with the aquatic overlords, engage in acts of learning through empathic nonunderstanding, towards devising ways of living together on a damaged planet.

1 Donna J. Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto – Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 6.
2 Anthropologist Tim Ingold has coined the term “interagentivity,” which he uses to highlight the constitutive quality of the “dwelt-in world” of hunter gatherers. Here, human beings engage intimately with one another as well as with non-human components in the environment. Ingold prefers to speak of “interagentivity” rather than of “intersubjectivity,” as we should not infer that every agent, with practical conscience, is subjectively determined, thoughtful and intellectual, with discursive, narrative awareness, as we commonly believe adult humans to be.
3 Chus Martinez, “The Octopus in Love,” e-flux journal 55 (May 2014): 1.
4 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble – Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 32.

This exhibition is made possible with the support of the City of Rotterdam and the Mondriaan Fund