Timely is one of those words used excessively to describe new exhibitions, but despite opening almost five months later than planned, it couldn’t be a more appropriate term for And Say the Animal Responded? at FACT in Liverpool. It took a global pandemic to bring home the extent to which human activity has impacted on the natural world. The sudden halt to normal routines saw animals reclaiming lost territory; from shoals of fish returning to the usually clouded canals of Venice, to wild goats descending from the Great Orme to dine on Llandudno’s privet hedges. As we emerge tentatively from lockdown, this exhibition considers the faltering, fragile relationships between humans and the non-humans we share the planet with.
FACT’s darkened main gallery space rustles, buzzes and thrums with the zoological sounds of its video and sound installations. The entrance is dominated by a huge back-projection screen displaying ‘Pan troglodytes ellioti and cousins’ (2016), a film by artist Amalia Pica and cinematographer Rafael Ortega. Here, black and white footage from a camera in the undergrowth of a Nigerian forest captures the movements of a family of chimpanzees. The scale of the installation and the film’s grainy quality lends it the character of suspense in a movie, as the uncannily humanoid cast clambers into and out of shot; carrying infants, exploring the evidently not-so-hidden camera, and simply sitting, calmly surveying. The work plays with how our closest animal relatives might observe us in response; if you don’t immediately feel watched by the oversized great apes on the screen, then you surely will by the time you leave the gallery.
Also exploring themes of technology and mutual observation is Demelza Kooij’s ‘Wolves From Above’ (2018). One of this exhibition’s strengths is that while it is video-heavy, the creativity of the installations make it an experiential show, tempering the fatigue that can accompany watching several video works in a row. A pin-sharp projection on the floor, Kooji’s installation mirrors the perspective of the drone which captured this footage of a wild wolf pack. Gifted a bird’s-eye view of an inaccessible place, the viewer can inspect the animals at close quarters as they slide into view and gather, pale fur standing out moon-like in the dusk. Even more plainly than the chimpanzees, the wolves are acutely alert to the fact they are being watched. As their heads dart up and eyes lock with the drone lingering above, I felt the tingle that comes with being caught.
While the works above maintain a spectator’s distance between human and animal, Ariel Guzik attempts to breach that gap with musical instruments, designed to communicate directly with marine mammals. ‘The Nereida Capsule’ (2007), a giant, sculptural, four-legged spider of an instrument, is spotlit in the centre of the gallery. How it works is happily a mystery. The legs surround a transparent, vertical tube containing intricate electrical components, and the contraption is linked to a control panel with wildly flashing lights and arcane markings, resembling a particularly beautiful astronomical diagram. Nereida’s vibrations mimic the signal structures of whales and dolphins, and remarkably this delicate, unwieldy frame is designed to be submerged into the ocean to elicit cetacean responses. A nearby video, ‘Holoturian’ (2019), documents a successor instrument out in the wild. A steampunk octahedron structure studded with bolts and brass discs, Holoturian’s journey across land, and onto a ship to be lowered into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, is a surreal and wonderful adventure reminiscent of science fiction.
Kuai Shen investigates not only whether humans can communicate with animals, but whether we might manipulate animal transmissions to resemble our own. His installation ‘Oh!m1gas’ (2011) provides an opportunity to get up close to some real creatures. As a child, I found leaf-cutter ants to be one of the most absorbing things to watch in zoos; their constant industry and miniature feats of fortitude quietly outshining flashier neighbours. A colony of ants operates Shen’s work, inhabiting a network of glass chambers and tubes through which we observe them carrying their proportionately huge loads and moving about their nest. The artwork captures the ants’ ‘stridulations’ – their communication system of bodily vibrations, like those of grasshoppers – and transfers these movements to two turntable needles, creating a scratchy soundtrack that illuminates a hidden sonic world for human ears.
Up on the first floor, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg turns her attention to the skies, and the soundscape of birdsong. A dramatic reduction in the noises of traffic and industry during lockdown saw birdsong becoming markedly more perceptible in towns and cities. Ginsberg imagines a future in which that sound not only recedes again, but is threatened with extinction. ‘Machine Auguries’ (2019) blends a dawn chorus, truncated into ten minutes, with computer-generated birdsong. The artificial sounds are tinny and dissonant, created through machine learning to respond to the natural rhythms of the redstarts, robins and thrushes. As a programmed light panel fast-forwards through the colour spectrum of a sunrise, a call-and-response is established in which the synthetic voices become increasingly territorial and assertive.
The artist’s adjacent video installation, ‘The Substitute’ (2019), takes a similarly dystopian view of humanity’s effect on animal life. The northern white rhino formerly roamed throughout central Africa, but was poached mercilessly, and the death of the last male in 2018 rendered it functionally extinct. ‘The Substitute’ resurrects the rhino as a life-size two-dimensional projection. Devoid of context, the creature pixellates and glitches into a brief, hyperreal existence. It explores its limited environment, a rendered white cube, using the simulated behaviours of a real rhino and artificial intelligence; like Elvis, conjured as a hologram to haunt the stages of Vegas, it is a disconcerting shadow of the real thing. This is a sombre note to end the exhibition on, reminding us how easily elements of the natural world can be lost forever.
And Say the Animal Responded? offers only a glimpse of the richness and complexity of the animal kingdom; questioning not only how animals might communicate with humans, but crucially, whether we are able to listen.
And Say the Animal Responded? is at FACT, Liverpool, 12 August – 13 December 2020
Denise Courcoux is a writer based in New Brighton.
This review is supported by FACT.