Who Speaks for the Oceans?
Whales are sentinel species and their voices are like those of canaries in a coal mine: barometers of the health of our oceans. As we approach a crucial moment concerning the condition of our planet, listening to whale vocalizations can bring us closer to understanding their needs and encouraging action towards healthier stewardship of the oceans. Engaging contemporary artworks, cultural artifacts, historical ephemera, and speculative futures, Who Speaks for the Oceans? will consider humanity’s desire to experience and communicate with the non-terrestrial, specifically focusing on an epistemological and historical analysis of what we think we know about life in the ocean. Many of these ideas have been informed by colonial, racialized, gendered, and terra-centric conventions alongside the production of nature, which will be exposed and critiqued through the multiple perspectives of an international group of artists.
Artworks and materials in this exhibition will also consider how technology, assumed to be indexical and scientific, has informed imaginary and fantastical perspectives of non-terrestrial worlds. In order to understand and appreciate an entanglement with animals and the oceanic environment, we need to listen to their calls outside of patterns of consumption in order to develop meaningful relationships with them. Alvin Lucier’s Vespers (1969) invites the audience to listen and echolocate across the room, while Ursula Biemann’s Acoustic Ocean (2018) combines scientific, personal, and phenomenological narratives to consider oceanic depths and interspecies relations above and below the water. Marguerite Humeau creates a new drawing based on her research of the evolution of prehistoric whales, and Ant Farm’s (specifically, Doug Michels’) Dolphin Embassy (1974-2003) will be presented through an archive of works attempting to generate diplomatic cetacean-human communication. Tracing the media’s narratives around whales, a dossier of decades of whale articles published by the New York Times as well as fictional human-whale relationships presented in popular movies and television shows will be on display.
The first recorded “whale songs” were released in 1970 through the LP Songs of the Humpback Whale. These recordings were widely distributed through National Geographic as the largest single record pressing of all time. They heavily influenced the international Save the Whales environmental campaign and introduced the world to empathic perspectives of life in the ocean while helping to ban commercial whaling in the United States. If critical listening to such sounds inspired affective change in the 1970s, what can we learn from this history today? Can art bring forth new and challenging ways to shift our understandings of and relationships to whales and other animals?
This exhibition includes historic works as well as new commissions, live performances, and a number of public programs and conversations with interdisciplinary scholars. A series of student-centered workshops, listening sessions and artist talks will be developed in a seminar running parallel to the exhibition. Our aim is to engage local and international artists and students to revisit our relatively new position as stewards of the planet and to reimagine creative ways in which listening to one another can lead to actionable solutions and equitable futures.
Artists: Ant Farm, Ursula Biemann, Myrlande Constant, Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, Dominique Knowles, Pia Dehne, Miho Hatori, Marguerite Humeau, Will Jackson, Alvin Lucier, Chris Marker, Joséfa Netjam, and Roger Payne.
Who Speaks for the Oceans? is curated by David Gruber and Alaina Claire Feldman and will open in fall 2022. Support for this exhibition has been provided by FACE Foundation and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences.