Sound installation and performance. Cachalot. 5ch composition .Wearables, PVC, shells, seaweed, grass, soy and cocoa wax, shea butter.SoundSAbout. UdK Berlin. 2022
Cachalot is ongoing artistic research on self-ethnography, poetics, economics, mythology, ecologies, and colonialism around whale-based imaginaries, specifically cachalots or so-called sperm whales: their complex system of communication and echolocation, their relation with humans and their story/history. Cachalot embodies these stories/complexities in a cyborg figure of a cetacean deity. A deity that references mythological giant creatures, known for carrying worlds on their backs. To wear a landscape, a soundscape, a territory.
Sound Art Lab Residency , Struer Denmark October 2023. Images by Eric Maltz.
This project included the development of the wearable piece, the writing of the paper “Ambergris: On cachalots, a-bjection and queer decolonial ecologies.”, the creation of a performance and 5ch installation presented at SoundSAbout on November 2022. The wearables and sculptures for the installation were a made of pvc, sea materials found during my 2 weeks residency at the SoundArt Lab in Struer, Denmark.
The wearables consisted in a spine made of shells, seaweed, sea grass and pvc operated by a Mugic sensor, and also a jaw-head piece made of the rest seashells, glue an pvc, operated by a wave ring.
KW: Cachalot – Sperm whale – To wear a territory – landscape – environmental issues – self-ethnography – ethics/aesthetics – art/science – fetishism of commodities- abyection – deorientation – becoming – queer desire
The following paragraphs are modified extracts of my research paper “Ambergris. On cachalots, a-bjection and queer decolonial ecologies” (2022).
I have a memory.
I have always been a curious creature. When I was a child, my mother used to take me to museums quite a lot. I could spend hours in them.
I remember being in the National History Museum of Santiago on a sunny day.
And then I saw it. The biggest creature that I saw in my life. Or part of it.
A giant whale skeleton. Giant, massive, ancient.
According to my mother, I run under it and I said: “I want to live here forever”
Mythologically giant creatures are known for carrying worlds on their backs. To wear a landscape, a soundscape, a territory.
Cachalots and communication
Cachalots or Sperm whales are the largest predators of the sea. They are part of the Odontocetir whale group due to the presence of teeth and can be found in different oceans around the world living in pods -whale communities. Also, they are the loudest animal on the planet, producing clicking sounds that go until 203dB.
The Cachalot complex vocalization system works for communication, echolocation and navigation. Cachalots’ particular heads are filled with wax that works as an amplifier for their clicking noises. This wax, named spermaceti, allows them to create a 3D sonic image through feedback, wavelength and reflections, allowing cachalots to recognise objects’ size, shape, movement, materiality and density. While foraging, cachalots clickings vary from intervals between 0.5-2s until quick creaks that go between an interval of 0.2 – 0.02s. Other Cachalots’ complex rhythmic patterns are called codas and they are meant for the identification within pods and their activities.
In this sense, cachalots are complex living sound-based ecologies. It is the cachalot and their phonetic system, the ocean, the squids, the wax in their heads, the sounds travelling through extended kilometres, the ambergris floating into an unknown destiny. Cetacean performativities. What could be our role in this embodied ecology?
Illustration © 2021 Alex Boersma
Mammalian deep dive reflexions
We could think about cetacean listening or cetacean performativities. Regarding embodied practices, it is very interesting that one of the closest ways of approaching cachalots is through free diving. They recognize humans as other mammals due to mammalian dive reflexes. These reflexes include bradycardia or low heartbeat, peripheral vasoconstriction and blood shift among others. Free divers develop their capacity for diving thanks mostly to breathing exercises and diaphragm control. One of these exercises is the 2-2-10 breathing which allows the body to lower the heart rate and expand the lungs; two seconds of inhalation, two seconds holding the breath and a longer release.
In other words, the body transforms its normative stance in the world. It is literally a change from the frontal subject/object sight-based ontology into an inverted water body-affected ecology. In this sense, recognition/identification relations happen in an embodied way: when we change our body structure, we are recognised through unfamiliarity. It is an experience of disorientation.
This disorientation and unfamiliarity could be associated then with the unheimlich or the uncanny which is basically the menace of the return of the real and the dissolution of the subject (Freud, 2003). In other words, the destruction of the relation subject/object and the apparition of the abject as a turmoil of the imaginary-symbolic order. I believe in the power of abjection (Kristeva, 1982) as a radical transfeminist emergency of the threat of the real as a performative artistic gesture against the established patriarchal order of the symbolic and the fetishist distribution of commodities. At this point, the need for a deep movement of desire is necessary to rewrite the imaginary dimension in relation to affection. Is not about creating immediate meaning, it is about creating a disruption in the imaginary-symbolic order, a turmoil, a near-to-death experience (NDE). Maybe the experience of mammalian dive reflexes is exactly that: a queer cetacean embodiment beyond the standing human position. To dive into the belly of the beast, of the whale, of the hero’s journey but actually embrace and immerse ourselves into its raw beauty instead of killing it. in Deleuzean concept, to build an alliance with the demon, anomal, becoming-whale.
In addition, this destabilization of the imaginary, symbolic, real, affection and performativity could be the queer phenomenological approach proposed by Sarah Ahmed through disorientation and familiarity/unfamiliarity. In general, the phenomenological approach attempt to break the classical western subject-object ontology. That would be to disobey the natural attitude, things as given or a pre-conditioned relation that we have with objects as objects. A phenomenological attitude would aim to question the orientation towards the world, bringing awareness through sensations before the immediate emotions or rationality, aesthesis before pathos or logos. We are affected, in a Deleuzean way. Being aware of this mediation will allow up to suspend prejudgment or doxa, opinion, and rewire natural attitude into an embodied, queer maybe, relation with things instead of perceiving them as immediate objects. Could this awareness also create some kind of subversion of neoliberal productivity? In other words, how do we start to question the symbolic consumer order that shapes the matter commodities whereas the emotions are flattened?
It is commonly said that whales are semimythological creatures—titans of the sea. The cultural construction towards whales’ imaginaries transforms them into sublimes creatures. Nevertheless, their material and imaginary relations with humanity are complicated even brutal. Since the beginning of the whaling industry, the population of whales has decreased by 2/3 parts. Regarding sperm whales, their most know subproducts are their wax called spermaceti and ambergris, a precious residual formation. Both are perfect examples of Marx’s concept of fetishized commodities.
Ambergris has been always an object of speculation. The fascinating dense rock formed in the physeter whale interior has become from a mysterious element in mystical practices to a very highly demanded product in the perfume industry. Nowadays, scientific research shows how ambergris composition could help us to reveal information about sea history, cachalots, and climate change. Ambrein, one of the main components of ambergris, due to its hydrophobic qualities, contains data and DNA of one millennium in some samples. This could give us information about how whales produced ambergris as a process of metabolism adaptation to different environmental changes.
Then, ambergris is an object of deep conservation. Deep memory. Water fossil. Travelling fossil. Ambergris holds all the memories and travels of the whales. Ancient movement. All the traces and experiences accumulated in a single rock. Intertwined into memory/speculation/good. I would like to consider ambergris as an abject, thinking about Kristeva’s formulation of abjection. What a beautiful gesture it is that cachalots are able to process and release these faecal hard materials across the sea to transmit the message for thousands of years. I wonder if they will be able to process plastic or if we would find the rest of the plastic in ambergris. How this would change its properties? Which kind of perfumes or rituals would we make out of this? What kind of message would be sent through the oceans?
The whaling industry and whale exploitation are deeply rooted in colonialism. Whale products such as oil were used for different purposes such as oil for machinery. Spermaceti, cachalot head-wax, was deeply exploited after the whaling in the 18th century: was literally the light of the industrial revolution until the later exploitation of fossil-based resources.
Generally speaking, Marx’s concept of the fetishism of commodities refers to goods whose chain of production is hidden or whose presence in the world is normalized. Thus, the relations that we develop with things are assumed. What would be then the mysterious origin of the whale subproducts? What would be its fetishism, in economic terms but also imaginary-symbolic relations with it? And how could scientific data and arts reshape these relations?
What is behind this mysterious origin of whale-based products is whale exploitation and objectivization of life into the western compulsory division of matter and culture. Thus, the idea of progress and consumption of natural resources. This objectivization of matter into neoliberal commodities flattens any imaginary and symbolic relation -that could include ethical, religious, ritual and so on- into a neutral value currency.
Regarding exploitation, I would like to consider the colonial perspective in relation to human responsibility and the environment. When it comes to environmental issues and the Anthropocene, humanity is a concept that seems too wide -and white. We cannot define humanity without understanding the power relations that come with territories, norms and performativities, where the colonial distribution of resources and commodities respond to the hegemonic construction of global economics, divided into macro and micro scales between north and south, but also ethics/aesthetics on the distribution of the affections, materialities and senses.
Arts, science and symbolic relations
The imaginary dimensions, broadly, are the imaginary relations that we establish with sensorial input before signification into the symbolic. To rewire and repair the relations with the imaginary means to hack our relation with affection (or the matrix of things) and consequently rewrite the symbolic. In other words, to relate to the world beyond objectification will change the narratives that we build upon them and the inhabitants in it: non-human, beyond binary divisions. Thinking on cetacean ecologies, how can we relate to the whales’ ecologies in an aesthetic/scientific/ethic way, beyond their placement in the symbolic world as an object of study, a consumption commodity or this unreachable, sublime mythological, distant, creature? How can we resignify this relation of production of commodities beyond neoliberal fetishism? Could we articulate imaginaries of queer aesthetic ecological resistance? Cetacean sci-fi?
I believe that science and arts could really make a change in ecological ethics/aesthetic methodologies, through a queer way of engaging with the world: repairing imaginaries from embodied transfeminist perspectives, allowing the emergency of scientific data in an aesthetic way. The emergency of data beyond sight-centrism and rationality, positioning ourselves beyond the subject/object traditional ontology. In other words media such as sound, film, images, and performance in order to create a sensitive bridge between science, ecology and people.
To rebuild our narrative means to carry and relate to them in a non-normative way, beyond the binary relation true/false, original/fake. Mythos, tales, fantasies, and art cannot be read through the imperative of truth but through narratives of affection, clusters of sensation-emotion-thought in an aesthetic event. An event is the emergency of a series of different modalities-virtualities of reality like reading, seeing, listening or all at once. Every modality of reality has its own situated knowledge, it will carry its own specificity. In other words, is not the same affection or sensory experience of something through sight as listening; the imaginary configuration, the relation real-symbolic, would be different and it would produce different performativity. Maybe it is necessary to rewire our position into queer disorientation, our system of desire into equanimity of the senses. Equanimity in re-arranging the hierarchy of senses dominated by sight as a way of orienting. Sound as disorientation could be a possibility, a sonic becoming.
Saying this, I would like to propose an embodied ecological post-human decolonial sonic approach to developing artistic research and a sound piece. Sound art is a territory that could build a sensorial bridge between information and embodiments beyond the saturated eye culture. As an artist, I would like to create instances of amplifying awareness toward ecologies, gestures of cetacean noise, and calls of attention, to expose information in a de-sensorial way, where poetics allows the emergency of multiple sensitivities, imaginaries, stories, history, sci-fi embodied fictions. The destination of these gestures and the extension of these echoes are unknown. The aim is to reclaim the power of telling, showing, and producing sensorial-aesthetic events in order to rebuild imaginaries beyond the patriarchal narratives towards the world. To reimagine the future we create our own fictions, our own connections. How can we present scientific information that connects with imaginaries and other narratives? Why science has isolated and abstracted itself from the wonders of aesthetic sensitivity? Do we all read things the same way or share the same values? Artistic embodiment methodologies could bring so much to the development of the scientific future, especially for sea imaginaries and cetacean ecologies.
I imagine a future where whales will tell us old stories, stories with the logic of dreams, sonic dreams. Sonic dreams not only as a fetishized version of edipical perspectives and interpretation of our primitive terrors, but a transfeminist journey of creatures sensing the world through deep materiality, where non of the senses will be more important than others, or maybe the Aristotelic distribution of the senses will not have a sense at all. Maybe where our bodies will be undefined and defined through movement and collaboration, beyond binary definitions and abject alliances. Maybe our senses will form intersections of sensitive cloisters, temporal sensorial ecologies, and aesthetic fields of matter in resonance.
Becoming-whale. The sound-piece.
According to everything exposed before, the sound piece that I compose is based on this transfeminist post-human perspective on abjection and becoming the beast or whale, in this case, a cetacean trance. I used synthesized tritones with modified times delay to create disorientation. Tritone historically has been considered the devil’s tone. For me symbolises the encounter with the anomal and the abject forces. The idea of creating disorientation through delay control is inspired also by the embodied shift of the deep divers and the becoming whale. Delve into the raw nature of the beast instead of dominating it. Regarding my wearable project, I control this affect through sensors and the body. I use field recording of the northern sea where I did several pilgrimage or walkings of transformation where I collected diverse materials for my wearables too. For these sound walkings, I used YX stereo microphones and hydrophones. Pilgrimages are processes of transformation, grief and death. Inspired by the free divers I also recorded some breathing exercises on the shore of Venø Denmark. Breathing exercises aims also to this disorientation. The clicking sounds are produced by FM synthesis and granular synthesis. They reference the hunting cycle of sperm whales but also their communication codas.