Why are we doing art at all? An interview with Eiko Honda

August 16, 2016 · Print This Article

Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

What happens to a word when it is introduced to a foreign language? What kind of concepts and realities are engendered? There is something viral and adaptive about the conveyance of ideas. The new word “Anthropocene,” for instance is interesting to track—although it might carry an immediate potency, it doesn’t have the history of other words, vs. “Leviathan,” for instance, or “equality.” A few weeks after the HKW’s 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum, UK-based curator and philosopher, Eiko Honda, and I met to discuss the curious way terms refract through culture. She is the 2013-2016 curatorial fellow of the Overseas Study Programme for Artists, Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan. Recent exhibitions she worked on include Ting-Tong Chang: P’eng’s Journey to the Southern Darkness, Asia House, London (2016); Saya Kubota: Material Witness, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, London (2016); and Missing Post Office UK, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2015).

Caroline Picard: In your talk, “Japanese Nature? Between Language and Landscape,” you describe a linguistic paradigm shift that emerges when when an ideographical language (like Japanese or Chinese) meets a phonetic language (like English or German). As you describe it, the tension of that encounter can eventually yields a shift in thought. Does that shift relate all to the idea of authority?

EH: I think it’s related to the question of who is the authority creating or translating a language. I’m personally very interested in the role of the agent. Let’s say in “Anthropocene,” for instance, there are currently two different ways of articulating that word in Japanese and I’m not entirely sure which one we have settled on. One of the words is written with the sign for “a person” and the sign for “a new age.” The other is written as “mankind” or the age of mankind. The first possibility follows patterns of translations from the previous epochs, matching for instance how “Holocene” was translated. Depending on who actually translates the term and what kind of specialty that person has as far as academic study and political ideology, the implications can be quite different.

CP: How has that interest influenced your research?

EH: I’ve been looking at how the notion of “ecology” was introduced into the Japanese language at the beginning of the 20th century, as it compares to other everyday words which, in regular use now, were introduced by Miyoshi Manabu —a plantologist. Manabu studied in Germany in the late 19th century. He was a government bureaucrat well-known for introducing a policy to protect rare species of trees, and for introducing the term “ecology.” Miyoshi created the term seitaigaku as the Japanese translation of the English term ecology in his book Futsuu shokubutsu seitaigaku/The Ecology of Common Plants in 1908. On the other hand, he had a contemporary Minakata Kumagusu who never really finished school but nevertheless ended up in London working in the British Museums. As an alternate transliteration of “ecology,” Kumagusu gave it a different spelling.[1] The clear difference is that whereas one of the sei conveys the living things themselves and focuses on the life of the creature or plant, the other sei suggests rather a “nest” and “house”—that is, a safe comfortable sphere and space in which all living things can exist. Despite numerous essays and research notes he produced on all topics from the phenomenological study of Shingon Buddhism to science of the time to a reference on 19th Century England’s Commons Preservation Society in his activism against Shirine Amalgamation Act that concurrently caused industrialization nature, which threatened habitat of his focus of research slime molds, he never ended up publishing a comprehensive work on his theory of ecological thoughts as such. However, what is strongly implied is that he urged ecology as an interdependent community of life that supports the production of each others’ habitat. Whereas Miyoshi focused on the preservation of specifically rare trees, Kumagusu saw the importance of not even removing weeds, because weeds are part of an overall ecology sustaining the delicate nature of the primeval forest, and thus produced what the naturalist saw as the wonder of living things. Miyoshi and Kumagusu’s approaches to ecology were comparable, but significantly different.

CP: In a funny way, I feel like you are suggesting that something as small as a single word or idea can have similarly large effects—

EH: I think, in a sense, words and languages we use are one of the most fundamental commons that affects scope of human imagination. Depending on when a term is introduced to certain cultures and by whom can lead to significantly different outcomes. Cultivating the similar line of inquiries, I recently wrote a short paper for the forthcoming publication The Nuclear Culture Source Book (Ele Carpenter ed., Black Dog Publishing) inspired by how the idea of “individual” in the West wasn’t introduced into Japanese language until the end of the 19th century. Before that time, they didn’t have an equivalent word that would articulate such notion. People back then had a different conception of how the world was organized. It’s also important to pay attention to the context in which the notion was transliterated. When the word kojin, or individual, first appeared as it is used today in 1884, it was in a translation of a book Kokka Seiri Gaku or the “Physiology of Nation” written by the German—well Prussian, at that time—diplomat and grossdeutsch thinker Constantin Franz who urged federalism with a monarch, where a selected—not elected—council would advise the sovereign and make decisions. The same word was presented together with a translation of selected chapters from Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 Leviathan.

CP: What brought on the publication?

EH: The book was published right after the coup d’etat of Meiji Year 14 in 1881 at the Japanese parliament, during which the government was trying to form a modern constitution; there was a dispute about whether they should follow a Prussian model or a British one. Political leaders of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement believed in the latter one; they were engaged with Franco-British social theories as reasoning ground. However, they were expelled from the government as a result of the coup, marking a shift in the government’s translation of political theories to Prussian philosophies.[2]

CP: What role did the Leviathan play?

EH: The translated version of Leviathan was introduced in combination with that other, Constantine Franz’s publication entailing the individual as somebody with equal, free and independent existence that would not be violated from the power of the state or any others, regardless of its occupations or social position.[3] When the Leviathan was translated in this context, however, the first chapter wasn’t included, and the second chapter, especially the part that discusses the absolute power of the sovereign state, was meticulously translated. That first chapter includes Hobbes’ theory of human nature, describing how an individual only exists outside the society. It only gains citizenship and enters human society in contract with the authoritarian power of sovereign. So, what is suggested here is that the individual was introduced in a context that makes the very origin of the idea in the constitutional narrative.

CP: Are you suggesting that Hobbes’s writing changed Japanese culture differently?

EH: There is a huge difference between reading an original text and a text that’s been only partially translated with a different structure of argument, or another version of the same text that has been translated differently, for instance one that has been heavily edited, presented without its very important introduction and first chapter. Those omissions can limit readers or human imagination from possibilities of what “individual” might mean.

CP: How have you been thinking about this in terms of the Anthropocene?

EH: Attending the HKW’s Anthropocene Curriculum certainly made me think about that. In fact, I am currently working on a short text for the forthcoming edition of the Japanese-English journal 5: Designing Media Ecology edited by one of our conveners from the AC campus, the artist Andrew Yang, on the theme of the “Anthropocene.”  I look forward to feedbacks from our fellow participants and readers when it is done.

CP: I wonder how the idea of individuality changes in relation to large-scale environmental events. Maybe because I know your essay in The Nuclear Culture Source Book is about “Atomic Subjectivity,” and we’ve talked a little about social practice in Japan, I was wondering if you thought current interests in social practice in Japan might be connected at all to Fukushima?

EH: There’s been so much discussion around that for sure. Not everybody changed their nature of practice, but just as 9/11 completely shocked everyone in the US, there were urgent questions amongst practitioners who had cultural ties to Japan about what art could do and where it stands under the circumstances; in a sense, questions of collective responsibilities were addressed whilst conveying expressions of individual thoughts, interests, and concerns. I can never generalize, but it seems to me that whereas widely canonized older generations of contemporary artists in their late 40s and 50s were more concerned about their place within Western art history and the international market during their youth, increasing numbers of younger artists have started to question the importance of international esteem. Now the question has more to do with, “Why are we doing art at all?” I’m personally interested in the latter concern and trying to find a different idea of art history, or a different way of narrating artworks that might not necessarily fit within the established convention of Art History.

CP: What might that look like?

EH: I would like to think that it would be more to do with historiography of artistic practice that entails a possibility for empowerment of everyday life of everyday human beings—not necessarily just of artistic “genius” and heroes. As we know, grand-narrative histories have been written by certain identities to serve interests of certain race, culture, power, and gender and not of others. Whilst working with living artists to create a space of engagement—such as exhibitions, talk events, and published texts—with living minds of diverse culture, I came to think that these are acts of creating or amplifying narratives of what might be significant and otherwise potentially dismissed; to me, to consciously take part in the narrative making is, in a sense, to take part of the collective responsibility mentioned earlier. Re-evaluation of seemingly mundane languages that created the grand narratives of human history through investigations beyond the disciplinary convention of Art History felt like an important initial step to take. For example, the art historian Kinoshita Naoyuki has discussed how the idea of artwork—which is nowadays recognized with this word, sakuhin, in Japanese—is written in Chinese as a sort of product that’s being made. That word, that term for artwork didn’t really settle in our language until after the 1940s. Before that period, artwork was called sakubutsu. It’s spelled as an object that’s been made, but sakubutsu, if you write it and if you don’t put it in a context or tell anyone what’s it’s about, it can also be read sakumotsu. It’s exactly the same writing. Sakumotsu in our contemporary language today means vegetables or a harvest that have been gathered from your field—rice, or anything that you harvest from your soil. I’m interested in finding these kinds of underlying thought that have been hidden in history. Could we possibly investigate these different terms further and, in doing so, find a potential tool or a method for a new kind of language? One that might narrate practice without falling into a standard idea of art history or art historical narrative?

CP: Subtle shifts like that can have large and lasting consequences, even to the extent that they might destabilize hierarchies, or disrupt ingrained patterns of hierarchical thinking. What you propose is like a form of non-aggressive resistance, because you’re just posing a question that says, “Well, what happens to our configuration,” for instance, “of the art world or of the way we define art if we imagine that an artwork and a vegetable equate to one another?”

EH: Yes, exactly, and it’s also related to the widely discussed issue of modernity. What does it mean to be modern? And can we possibly find a different kind of modernity by narrating our current issues and past events differently? Might that change the future as well? And of whom? How can we try to extend one’s imagination beyond our established conventions? The historiography of language—of one of the most fundamental commons—and of artistic practice that works with the human tool of imagination— might have some answers to the queries.


This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.



[1] The particular difference between these two trajectories of ecology has been discussed by Takeuchi Yoshinobu, the Kumagusu scholar and chief curator of Wakayama City Museum.

[2] Takahashi Shinji, “Kindai Nihon to Hobbs/Modern Japan and Hobbs,” Nishi Nippon Shimbun February 19, 1992, 51.

[3] Sait? Tsuyoshi, Meiji no Konoba, Higashi kara Nishi no Kakebashi (Tokyo: K?dansha, 1997), 229.

Attention Drift: An Interview with Mark Payne

August 15, 2016 · Print This Article


It is difficult to comprehend humanity’s position within our vibrant ecology, particularly when that environment—traditionally seen as such a stable property, is so clearly susceptible to human influence. Mark Payne, author of Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction (2007) and The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (2010) tracks the reciprocal relationship between myths, narrative patterns, and poetry, and the types of awareness that emerge around ecology. Mark Payne is a Classics Professor, teaching at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He also runs an incredible poetry series at U of C’s Gray Center during the school year.

Caroline Picard: In your book, The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010), you begin with how hunting narratives often center around the human realizing that he—usually a he—is seen by the animal he is about to kill. At the risk of starting out with too grand a beginning, I started wondering if perhaps our awareness of the Anthropocene parallels that hunter’s awareness somehow, where the human suddenly sees itself within a larger, collective, and conscious environment? 

Mark Payne: I see the question of time and how to make sense of ourselves in a dislocated narrative. One kind of dislocated narrative is a conversion narrative where two parts of a life lie on either side of a traumatic break. Are we there yet? Are we nearly there yet? Doubtful I think. 

CP: What do you mean by a dislocated narrative? In what way or why is it dislocated?

MP: I mean it like a dislocated joint. The two parts don’t work together any more. Understanding that we were in the Anthropocene ought to feel something like that I imagine.

CP: This makes me think about a later section of the book about metamorphosis, and maybe especially a part in Ovid where you describe humanity’s confused origin story—whether we were “made by God from his own substance, or whether Prometheus scooped some leftovers from the sky that were mingled with the earth,” making us into the image of a god as one might a dumpling (or at least that’s what came to my mind). “This passage speaks of a kind of homelessness in the world on the part of human beings,” you say, “separated from animals by their later birth and stance, but unsure of their kinship with higher beings. Every transformation in the poem underlines the futility of their efforts to close the gap between themselves and the gods by widening the one between themselves and the animals.” (125) On the one hand, I feel like the predicament you describe here—perhaps especially in the context of animal/human hybridity the chapter lays out (almost as a way of illustrating one’s own alien-ness as it appears in one’s self, spouse, a neighbor, or an encounter with a stranger)—seems exactly the same now as it was then; in other words, this same confusion or homelessness  is just as relevant to ancient Roman society as it is in the Anthropocene. On the other hand, I wonder if we might need different narratives, myths, poems, and fairy tales in framing otherness and contextualizing humanity? 

MP: Why is it that we have this capacity for ecstasis? But then maybe the animals are no more captivated by where they are than we are. Once I spent some time with a Gila monster at an oasis in Arizona. We both seemed equally out of sorts with the desert despite our different adaptations. But we do not trust ourselves when we go along with the other animals, as Heidegger puts it. I think it’s more about trusting what we already have than always needing to innovate. I guess I don’t really trust that impulse of always needing to move on from what’s there already. 

CP: That makes sense, though I sometimes feel like humanity has been in this multi-generational conversation with environment, and its tone has recently changed; it’s less predictable, maybe, noisier. More direct. Maybe instead of thinking about needing some new approach, we need to adapt or evolve? I have a hard time understanding how to take on the violence that’s been enacted on our world thus far, especially when the future seems so dark. What would the ancients say about that? How would/do you approach teaching landscape today?

MP: I think the loss of Nature and the loss of the past are the same thing – a loss of shared life. Hölderlin talks about gleaning – going over the ground again for what we didn’t realize was there. Adaptive mutation is an open question I guess, but I doubt that we can will it into being for ourselves. I feel more hopeful about endurance in being possessed. If we could stay with the remains I think it might have more lasting consequences as a possibility of transformation. That’s how I would teach an ancient landscape, as trying to stay with it, now that it has come all this way to be with us.

CP: In an essay you wrote about trees, you spend some time describing how Christopher Stone’s proposition, whereby trees’ rights would be incorporated into our human legal system. I love the way you describe the awkwardness of that endeavor—how we might then have arbitrate between sometimes conflicting desires of a grove of trees, a paper corporation, a beetle infestation, and it’s local rabbit, robin, human, or bee populations. I feel like you set that exercise up in contrast to the lyric poet who seems better equipped, somehow, to bridge human and nonhuman experience. I was wondering if you could say more about the way poetry specifically assists the imagination? What kind of attention can we find there that we may not find in legal computations of equivalence? 

MP: I feel like the poet’s role, or poetry’s role, anyway is to disequilibriate, that is to say, to throw everything out of balance with disharmonious attachments. I think poetry is really good at that. Disequilibriation might be the beginning of liberation. Stone begins with disproportionate attachment as the beginning of ecological concern but then wants expert panels to make the decisions. I would like it if we could linger some more with the kinds of discomforts that poetry provokes. 

CP: At present, I understand you are working on a new book about shared life, or choral life. I got the sense that you were proposing that shared life illustrates how landscape—something we have traditionally relegated to a silent backdrop—is something that steps forward and participates, perhaps the way a Greek chorus does in a play. I’m wondering how you see that chorality, and what narrative it is attuned to? Would rhythm be an important factor here as well? 

MP: It’s the uncanniness of it that I’m trying to get at. That there’s not just this tree here and this tree there as we typically encounter animals as singularities but that these trees have a shared life together that is also part of our shared life together with them. It’s like the way the chorus comes forward and retreats. I think that’s what you mean by rhythm, except that rhythm to me suggests a kind of regularity whereas the coming into awareness of shared life is more aleatory. It has the structure of attention drift even though it is bringing something to us.

Sunday Comics: Animal Bones as Artistic Medium

August 14, 2016 · Print This Article

The following comic was inspired by Inherencies (Nov-Feb 2016): a solo exhibition by Rebecca Beachy, and originally appeared on Hyperallergic. Beachy’s show was also mentioned here, on Bad at Sports’ Edition 44.

Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.22.50-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.23.09-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.23.32-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.23.49-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.23.57-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.24.05-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.24.17-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.24.28-AM

Thanks to Jillian Steinhauer for all of the editorial support.

A Generative Perception of Space: An Interview with Samuel Hertz

August 13, 2016 · Print This Article


Samuel Hertz, Piano Sonata I-III, Danc I--Score.

Samuel Hertz, Piano Sonata I-III, Dance I–Score.

Five days into the HKW’s Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue, I had a chance to meet with Samuel Hertz, a Berlin-based composer interested in the idea of sonic ecology, and how one might build an interactive sound installation using electronic instruments. In the following conversation Hertz and I explore questions of knowledge production, optimistic technologies, and the fullness of space, particularly in relation to Tomás Saraceno and an affiliated seminar led by his studio assistants, Knowing in the Anthropocene. You can listen to some of Hertz’s recent work here.

Samuel Hertz: I think you’re totally right to point out knowledge production as a focal point of this curriculum. But alongside the discussion of knowledge production is also a discussion of what constitutes knowledge and what it means to know in the first place.

CP:  That blows everything open. Like basically how do we know what we know? For instance, someone in my seminar asked “How do you know the snow is white?” You say the snow is white because you know the snow is white. That’s the beginning premise from which we then go on to determine what is not white. The example illustrates a logical bias.

SH: In my first seminar, Axiomatic Earth, there was a similar discussion in terms of the scope. It came into conversation about the relationship between hard science and data versus the knowledge produced by shamanism. The discussion went in two directions. One was the implicit assumption of shamanism as a belief system as opposed to a form of knowledge. Those two options aren’t necessarily the same thing, but to some people, they are. Embedded in that distinction is an implicit position on what knowledge is, and whether or not knowledge is belief. As the conversation continued, it shifted over into thinking about whether shamanism is a type of science or … how to pose the question so that the answer doesn’t also assume a dominant narrative about what knowledge is. Like, if we’re trying to fit the circle of shamanism into the squares to put it crudely but couldn’t it be that science is a form of shamanism or why even bother trying to put the two of them in the same basket?

CP: Like they might have commensurable integrities, somehow, even if they are different. 

SH: Yeah, exactly.

CP: As someone was brought up within a scientific narrative, I think it’s difficult to seriously imagine alternatives…

SH: Yeah. I mean, it’s been interesting to struggle through that. I’ve always been excited to question the way that scientific narratives sit within my own mind—how I make work, for instance, or even how I understand the external world. The interesting part that keeps coming up here at the HKW is when scientists present data in the context of catastrophic elements that are part of the Anthropocene, like global warming for example. There are figures and facts but the way we parse those figures to make an argument remains complicated.

CP: I wonder if we could equate knowledge production to a factory situation. Where something concrete is being made in a systemic way, and the results—the objects of thought—can be disseminated in the world and manipulated thereafter. With her emphasis on intra-action, Karen Barad points out how the frame that you used to circumnavigate or isolate or filter experience is something that’s going to affect the outcome.

SH: The scope of a tool really frames the data it collects. Today Andrew Yang used the phrase, “The ambiguity of the device,” which I particularly liked—especially because I tend to work in mediums mediated by certain technologies with their own specific histories. Where you there this morning? One of the presenters described how her group tracked the metadata for citations that included the phrase “Technosphere” as it had been reported from Peter Haff’s paper. That’s a very concrete way of knowing how a specific type of knowledge is produced.

CP: The map that popped up tracked a high amount of “Technosphere” activity around North America and Europe.

SH: There was one citation in Eastern India and one citation in what I thought was Tanzania. Immediately I thought, “Right, of course.” I mean, this whole conference, is predicated on an idea that comes from a very specific place, with a whole trajectory. It’s not so surprising that it came from an American male.

CP: That map seemed like an interesting way of highlighting the politics embedded in a word.

SH: Which is that’s helpful too I think the idea of the Technosphere is both critiqued and for what it represents and whether people think it is actually applicable. For me, I want to focus on whether the term is helpful or not.

CP: In other words, if we are all plugged into this massive data field that we’re participating in and subject to, what might the word “Technosphere” reveal?

SH: So far, the debate tends to be around whether or not people feel this is a helpful way of articulating our role in these algorithmic networks. It gets complicated. Even the term Anthropocene is still contested.

CP: I shift between feeling hysterically unable to extricate myself from the Technosphere on the one hand, and then on the other feeling like I’m being dramatic. I go back and forth. Is the world really ending? It doesn’t seem like it. And then someone points out that the world has already ended for tons of species and habitats, including humans…

SH: I experience that same impending doom mindset, but it’s been tempered by a seminar I was in called Knowing in the Anthropocene which focused largely on the work of Tomás Saraceno. They’re working with the concept of the Aerocene which isn’t precisely related to the Anthropocene. Saraceno’s studio is more interested in conceptualizing air or aerospace as a tactic for humanity’s next step. Over the past few days, I have literally been in the clouds with those folks.

CP: How do you feel like their Aerocene vision manifests? 

SH: I can only appreciate it from a perspective of how I make work but I think we tend to conceptualize air or everyday space—I mean the physical space that’s between you and I right now—as being empty. The concepts the Aerocene and I share in common is that we prefer to think of space as being quite full. Saraceno is very much about using the air as a medium, it’s almost liberatory.

CP:  He encloses air in bags, is that right? 

SH: Yeah. The basic structure of Tomás’ sculptures are air enclosed in giant plastic bags—they use plastic shopping bags to make huge envelopes. Once the air is trapped inside, the sculptures are left out in the sun and the temperature differential between the outside atmosphere and inside warmth causes the sculpture to float. It’s like a hot air balloon except there isn’t any gas or fuel.

CP: I saw a picture this morning, for instance, where a person was floating in the air, attached to one of the balloon structures. 

SH: It’s a little hard to get the sense of what the trajectory of the Aerocene projects because at least mathematically speaking, Tomás’ studio has done calculations to show the amount of weight these aerosolar sculptures can carry is quite large. Additionally, we don’t have to restrict our thinking and assume that things must be light in order to fly because clouds are actually extremely heavy. I think cumulus can be up to 40 tons in weight. That’s incredibly heavy! Tomás and his team have done a lot of calculations to prove that this theoretically is possible and that they have had the longest … I’m trying to think about how to phrase it… The longest continuous non-fuel powered human flight, I think. Three hours in the desert of one person being carried by one of the aerosolar sculptures, powered solely by the sun.

CP: That’s awesome.

SH: Tomás and his team members like Sasha Engelmann, for example, are sparking interesting conversations about what it might mean to use aerosolar sculptures not only as human carrier devices. Tomás is thinking about the potential to build cloud cities with the Aerocene, or how these aerosolar sculptures can encourage extra human modes of sense perception, helping us understand the way that wind and air operates on a level that’s different from what the type of information we get from satellite imaging, for instance. They’re working on new ways of working with that but the parts that interest me are his strategies to form a new modes of knowledge about the world around you. That can include animal knowledge as they think about it in terms of possibly sensing magnetic data like birds do implicitly and things of that nature, for example.

CP: I’m interested on how that approach has influenced your own work as well. You do sound and performance? 

SH: Yeah…In a lot of my work I would say that perception is one of the generating principles and I approach that in a variety of ways but a lot of it is to do originally with a composer by the name of Maryanne Amacher. She produced amazing work after research at MIT on something called otoacoustic emissions which, basically, are when your ears take in sound, they actually produce sound as well.

Just to explain a bit about these pieces—the way they work is that there are different tones produced by the sound elements in the piece and when listened to at the correct volume which is loud—I don’t find it so loud but I think some people might find it a bit abrasive—external melodies and patterns in the sound create different melodies and patterns in the inside of your ear that would not be audible if you were listening to the piece at a lower volume; and if you’re listening to the piece on headphones, I don’t think it works. Really, it is an acoustic effect that is produced and heard by your ears simultaneously.

CP: The only time that I’ve ever experienced something like that, Peter Brötzmann was playing at Corbett vs. Dempsey and some of the sounds he produced made my inner ear go crazy. I had an amazing moment when I suddenly realized that that was the point. My inner ear vibrations were part of his composition.

SH: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. It pretty much turns your ear into a transducer. Amacher’s studies were my jumping off point to ask how the body extends itself into space in other ways? I did more and more research, always coming back to the idea that perception allows you to enter into a space while also allowing a space to enter you. I started to think more about the body as being porous, and thinking about space as a full medium through which things—things like energetics and signals and impulses and reverberations—are passed and constantly passing through. When you think about that in combination with everything else that’s going on, you would consider space to be quite full. That’s my background and how I’m thinking about a how we exist within a space and how at the same time, we make it as we hear it. This idea of world making through perception I think is really important to me.

CP: When you compose, do you compose primarily using electronic musical equipment?

SH: Recently I’ve been making work for multichannel installations. I approach them from a couple different ways but the most obvious is that each one is immersive. In that sense, a viewer already has an embodied sense of space but what I’m really interested in is how sound starts to move around you when you’re in that environment. Do you consider yourself to be a part of an ecology or an environment when that’s happening? Or are you simply inside of a sound installation? I’m also interested in a type of ecology or logic that runs by itself. It’s an environment that will never do the same thing, while also remaining in the same sound world unless something very drastic has changed in its input.

CP: Is that because the aural sounds are generated in response to their environment?

SH: Yeah. They tend to be a series of feedback loops. I’m using that term here not in the sense of sound feedback, but “feedback” in terms of logic systems. So there are aspects of the system that trigger other things to happen. The overall effect becomes quite circular. Aesthetic decisions made by myself or sometimes the computer are also influence the composition as well. I’m trying to probe the limits of what a given system can do…For instance, what changes can I make to the system that will allow it to act spontaneously but also return to the circular logic systems that I’ve built into it? What are changes that are so great as to change the system entirely? I feel like the aesthetics match the immersive environment where I’m imagining that the body is lending itself to fuse sounds together into some coherent, explorable whole.

This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.

Taxonomy for the Goldish Queen: An Interview with the Institute of Critical Zoologists

August 12, 2016 · Print This Article

This interview was originally published on Bad at Sports on Dec 27, 2013.

Blind Long-tailed Owl, Desert Variant of Little Owl from the series, As Walked on Water, 2011 Installation of vinyl print, 280cm x 194cm (Exhibition view)

“Blind Long-tailed Owl,” Desert Variant of Little Owl from the series, As Walked on Water, Institute of Critical Zoologists, 2011 Installation of vinyl print, 280cm x 194cm (Exhibition view)

Singapore based artist Robert Zhao Renhui is the Institute of Critical Zoologists, an organization that—for any Doctor Who fans out there—would be the environmental analogue to the Torchwood Institute. The fictional Torchwood was founded to protect the Earth from supernatural and extraterrestrial threats; with that mandate in hand its employees must remain open and unperturbed by a myriad of strange and uncanny possibilities within the universe. Shrouded in secrecy, however, it attempts to perpetuate the myth of everyday banality, to keep their fellow human citizens free from fear. Although similarly invested in strange zoological proclivities of our non-human fellows, the ICZ is not a secret society. It delves into the multifarious world around us to expose the strange assumptions humanity takes for granted about its surrounding landscape. Working primarily as a photographer, Renhui blends fact and fiction to emphasize the idiosyncratic relations between animals, their habitats, and the humans that categorize them. While the result is ecologically minded, the dominant effect is uncanny. The ICZ effectively unearths little understood behavioral habits of animals and re-presents them within gallery settings as representational photography, encyclopedic texts, and multimedia installations. Currently ICZ currently has an exhibit, The Last Thing You See, up at 2902 Gallery in Singapore until January 5th that examines the act of sight. By demonstrating the shift in perception that would result from a sensitivity to ultraviolet light, ICZ reveals a world familiar to insects while being totally divorced from human experience. ICZ is going to appear in Ghost Naturea series of shows that I’m curating at Gallery 400 (Chicago, US) and La Box (Bourges, FR).
"A spider web which is a flower," Institute of Critical Zoologists, 2013 150cm x 100cm, Diasec From the series, How to eat bees? Under ultraviolet light, certain parts of a spider web glow, forming a a pattern that looks like a flower - this is visible to bees, which attracts them.

“A spider web which is a flower,” Institute of Critical Zoologists, 2013, 150cm x 100cm, Diasec
From the series, How to eat bees? Under ultraviolet light, certain parts of a spider web glow, forming a pattern that looks like a flower—this is visible to bees, which attracts them.

Caroline Picard: How did the Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ) come about and what does “animal spectatorship” mean?
Robert Zhao Renhui: The ICZ came about mainly because of my interest with photography and animals. A long time ago, I was involved with animal rights activism. At that point of time, I was curious with how photography was used in animal activism. I contributed a lot of photographs to talk about the plight of animals living in captivity in Asia. I got too emotional and personally involved at one point. On the other hand, I was also using photographs to create my own fictional narratives about humans and animals. In college, my tutor asked me to look at my photographic narratives with my concerns of animals rights together, instead of two separate projects. Slowly, the ICZ took shape. Animal spectatorship, in my work, is very much about the conditions of looking and understanding animals.
CP: I feel like you’re interested in the way things are visible and invisible  for instance how a human can all but disappear in a suit of leaves, or what a spider’s web looks like in ultraviolet light, can you talk more about how this series of works came together.
RZR: My interests are very much shaped by my medium, photography. Photography has always been about a way of seeing. In this exhibition, I was interested in how not seeing is as important as seeing. For the longest time, nobody knew why certain spiders weave distinctive markings on their webs. It isn’t logical for spiders to make these markings because then they render an otherwise hard-to-see web visible. Scientists came up with a theory that the markings are made to warn larger animals to not walk into the spider web and destroy it. In other words, the insect trap had a defense mechanism. It was not only recently that we realised that most insects see in the UV spectrum, a visual spectrum invisible to humans. Under UV light, the web mimics the shape of a flower. These markings are also visible on flowers in UV light. A spider web that wants to be a flower. I like that idea. A mimic and an invisible trap. Like a photograph.
Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons 2013, Dimensions variable Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate "Eventually, a wolf will approach the knife and begin to cautiously sniff and lick the frozen blood. After believing it is safe, the wolf will lick more aggressively. Soon, the blade of the knife becomes exposed and it begins to nick the wolf’s tongue. Because its tongue has been numbed by the cold of the frozen blood, the wolf is unaware that he is being cut, and the blood it now tastes is its own. Excited at the prospect of fresh, warm blood, the wolf will hungrily lick the blade all the more. In a short time, the wolf will grow dizzy and disoriented. In a matter of hours, it will die from blood loss, literally drinking itself to death. As horrible as this picture is, it illustrates an important truth."

Institute of Critical Zoologists, “Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons,” 2013, Dimensions variable, Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate.  Eventually, a wolf will approach the knife and begin to cautiously sniff and lick the frozen blood. After believing it is safe, the wolf will lick more aggressively. Soon, the blade of the knife becomes exposed and it begins to nick the wolf’s tongue. Because its tongue has been numbed by the cold of the frozen blood, the wolf is unaware that he is being cut, and the blood it now tastes is its own. Excited at the prospect of fresh, warm blood, the wolf will hungrily lick the blade all the more. In a short time, the wolf will grow dizzy and disoriented. In a matter of hours, it will die from blood loss, literally drinking itself to death. As horrible as this picture is, it illustrates an important truth.

CP: Traps come up in several of your works—I’m thinking of your bee trap for instance, or the wolf trap—in both instances I feel like you’re somehow able to tap into an animal semiotics, almost, using the bee’s attraction to blue to bring them into the gallery, or using the wolf’s appetite for blood to disguise its sense of pain. What draws you to traps?
RZR: Michel Foucault said that visibility is a trap. He meant it in the case of the Panopticon, a prison where the all the inmates were visible to one another, hence creating a system of totalitarian, mutual surveillance. I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement, but with the trap not relating to the observed, but the observer. Visibility is a trap because we imagine we know a lot through empirical evidence. But what is beyond the visible? Even my interest with animal traps is linked to my interest with photography. A photograph can trap us rather than liberate us. Seeing can be dangerous and misleading because we always have an eye out for the truth. It narrows our vision and the price to pay is not really knowing the bigger picture. That’s how animals get trapped—they fail to see beyond what is already presented to them.
"World Goldfish Queen," Institute of Critical Zoologists, from the series A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, 2013

Institute of Critical Zoologists, “World Goldfish Queen,” 2013, from the series A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World.

CP: You have a book that just came out! How long did it take for you to make it? What does it contain?
RZR: A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World is an encyclopedia of man-made nature. It started of with the goldfish. Why doesn’t the goldfish have a scientific name? Why is it not included in any natural history encyclopedia? Today, the goldfish is a very common fish and in China, they recently held a competition for the World Goldfish Queen. I wanted to find out if there was a book that the goldfish can exist in other than a decorative aquarium trade fish. I started looking at other aquarium fishes that were artificial and slowly branched out into other animals and plants affected by aesthetic modification, ecological conservation, pollution, evolution and genetic-modification. It took me about a year to create the volume. Included in the book are my past projects like Acusis and A heartwarming feeling. So you can say the book has almost 3 years of my research. At the end of the book (there are about three books in this book, all housed in a box) there is a book that talks about Tropical Bonsai, specifically the Banana Bonsai Plant. My father keeps a dwarfed banana bonsai plant of 6 years at 15 cm tall. Bonsai is the art of miniaturising trees. It is man controlling nature in a very obvious and aesthetic way. There are rules to create bonsai and there are also rules to view bonsai. There are front views, side views and back views. This is a very important part of the book.  It offers a way to think about the way we have controlled nature. As a species, we have always defined and controlled the way nature existed with us and this is nothing new. Broccolli and Cauliflower are not natural although we have become so familiar with them. Man has always determined what nature should look and feel like. The way we think and look at Bonsai may offer us a way to contemplate our complicated existence with nature.