Myriagon (Tuomas A. Laitinen & Jenni Nurmenniemi)
Through experimental merging of hydrophilic future fiction, research on more-than-human underwater communication, and hydrofeminist thought on watery embodiment, we ask questions about knowledge formation in relation to varied aquatic bodies. Within Myriagon, our shared practice, we have been looking into how languages evolve and mutate and how words create worlds. We have been playing with the materiality of language and language has been the material of this play.
For instance, in a performance at SeMa Seoul Museum of Art last year, we tried to compress our current research into edible words. We collaborated with artist-cook Ara Ahn to make transparent isomalt plates and used them as small sheets to scribe the words on using a chocolate-based ink. During the performance, we projected the isomalt tablets on old-school overhead projectors while writing on them. In the end we melted the sheets by soaking them in hot water. We then proceeded to drink these letters. We were eating our own words in what was a material-discursive action in a very literal sense. The written language – our interests and incentives – was now part of our bodies, at least for a short moment. That particular code ended up evaporating through the pores of our skin and joining our bodies’ hydrological cycles.
Wetness and hydration, in the sense of the changing characteristics, movements, and rhythms of water (in its liquid state) are something that engage our thoughts and imaginations. Drawing from feminist philosopher Astrida Neimanis’s thought on the watery embodiment, we are thinking about how our bodies are partaking in ‘hydrocommons of wet relations’. How “the flow and flush of waters sustain our human bodies, but also connect them to other bodies, to other worlds beyond our human selves.” We have also been deeply influenced by writers like Tracey Warr and Emmi Itäranta, whose words on water continue to move us.
For us, it feels necessary to think beyond human-specific language systems and to rehearse perceiving the more-than-human world as capable of communication. Here, we follow philosopher David Abram’s proposition that human languages have developed from sensory experiences stemming from embeddedness in the more-than-human environment, up until the development and spread of purely abstract alphabetic systems that detached language from its former source.
“Iconic writing systems – those that employ pictographic, ideographic, and/or rebuslike characters – necessarily rely, to some extent, upon our original sensory participation with the enveloping natural field. Only with the emergence of phonetic alphabet, and its appropriation by ancient Greeks, did the written images lose all evident ties to the larger field of expressive beings”.
The abstracted language forms have perhaps amplified the development of human-specific ways of perceiving the world, based on physical features and sensorial capacities often-occurring with humans (a vertebrate, a two-sided brain, two lower limbs, two arms and a pair of hands, two eyes, two ears…). The technologies common in human societies have also been shaped along this logic of twos, further amplifying the separation from other ways of experiencing the world.
A character in Jamaican author Marlon James’ novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, set in an imaginary ancient African continent states that “Everything in the world cooks down to two. Either-or, if-then, yes-no, night-day, good-bad. You all believe in twos so much I wonder if any of you can count to three.” This shapeshifting and feverish novel is full of subtle critiques of rigid binaries, combining usual fantasy tropes with African folklore. It evokes oral traditions that allow beings to change their shape and appearance at will. In many ways, it is operating in the realm of language as a spell.
What we would like to spell and nurture into being are something like symbiotic languages. Here, we will look into languages that have evolved underwater and speculate on the possibility of developing a symbiont language between humans and cephalopods (soft-bodied shapeshifters par excellence). Subaquatic environments draw us to them for various reasons, especially the diversity of developed aquatic communication systems combined with their immense unknowability as humans struggle to see or hear very well in the water.
In recent years, there have been many headlines in newspapers and magazines referring to octopuses as ‘intelligent aliens’. The radical difference of their bodies and their extraordinary capabilities are constantly stirring and perhaps bloating this narrative. We have been reading about cephalopods becoming affectionate on MDMA (whereas they normally engage in fierce fights very easily with their kin), opening screw top jars, or acting as oracles by predicting sports results. But perhaps the most sensational aspect of their intriguing lives is how they divert from the instructions coded in their DNA. Instead, they adapt by diversifying their proteins through RNA editing so outgoing signals can be changed very rapidly if needed. In 2018, an article in the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology revoked the theory of panspermia, which fuelled these headlines even further by suggesting that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs might have arrived on Earth via icy bolides several hundred million years ago.
We want to highlight some of these attempts toward knowledge formation, since they emphasize a long lineage of interpretations and mythologies (octopuses as sea monsters) entangled with accumulated scientific knowledge about these radically different beings. Tentatively, through language, we are trying to grasp at what can be said with the words of lifeforms that have thinking limbs and are ever-morphing? We are also aware that the information produced about other-than-human lifeforms almost always comes with violence. Observation is never a neutral process.
But how, then, could we form any kind of communication with a life form that is radically different? Our most recent common ancestor with the octopus is a worm-like creature, so our evolutionary histories diverted quite some time ago. In his book Other Minds, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith writes that “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over.” Can we imagine a situation where our two hands could communicate to each other without the brain being aware of those signals? This is just one of the ways that the octopus can navigate the world. It is obvious that our perspective here is purely speculative, and we are not making any claims about these smart eight-armed beings. We are perhaps engaging in some sort of rehearsal on diffractive readings and developing sensorial empathies.
Here is an excerpt of Tentacle Tongue, glyphs emulating the intricate movement patterns of octopus arms. This font was developed as part of an artistic research about cephalopod ways of living, something Tuomas started 4 years ago, upon literally shaking arms with a giant pacific octopus at the New England Aquarium in Boston.
These glyphs are based on careful observations of octopus arm movements as well as their interactions with various objects. The process has been about trying to translate their movements into a fictional wet code. It is a speculative tongue; a sign system that attempts a world-building process similar to sci-fi and fantasy writers creating imaginary maps of the places where their stories take place. First you draw the place and space, and then stories can emerge from that setting. A system of signs can also act as a platform for the world(building) to “happen” as a tool to think about lifeforms living in their environment. The body translates language, with very specific amorphous more-than-human beings as its starting point.
Even though octopuses do not have tentacles—they have arms—“tentacular” is a word that describes some of their movements quite accurately. As Donna Haraway has noted, the word tentacular comes from latin word tentare and tentaculum; to feel, to try, feeler. The mind is extending into the environment to “feel” and meet it halfway. The suckers are tasting and grabbing, trying out different calculations while the central brain can potentially be happily unaware of these advances and probings.
Whether the octopus has extraterrestrial origins or not, it is obvious that human and cephalopod evolutionary histories have been shaped quite differently. The human senses (in all their variety) have firstly influenced the way humans can conceptualise life. And the abstracted ways of conceptualising life has allowed a large portion of humans to feel a sense of separation from their environment.
But as Abram describes in detail in the 1996 title The Spell of the Sensuous, our senses have developed for participation, not detached cognition. According to Abram, it is as if ‘modernized’ humanity suffers from a strange inability to clearly perceive other animals. An attempt to awaken and practice sensorial empathies could perhaps form the basis for an emerging environmental ethics. In Tentacle Tongue and our exploration of symbiotic language forms more broadly, we are curious to try to re-awake our perceptive sensitivities and sensorial empathies, by redirecting our attention to the web of relations that constitute our lives.
Jamming the Communications
In the water, the primary sense is hearing. This is not commonly known, primarily due to the rather limited opportunities for people to listen to underwater ecosystems. Despite the very wide range of sounds that humans can potentially hear on land, our ears pick up sounds differently when submerged. Actually, there are ongoing debates on the mechanism that allows humans to hear underwater. In any case, for a long time the underwater worlds were thought to be silent, void of sounds and other signals that could be perceived as communication by land-dwelling earthlings.
However, the aquatic world is full of biophonic sounds and highly developed communication systems that form a rich soundscape of cries, rumbles, bubbles, grunts and clicks. A wide range of species use acoustic signals to communicate with each other. Marine fishes, for instance, make chirps, pops, knocks and grunts using their teeth, swim bladders or fins. The fish also partake in an underwater chorus, to welcome dawn and dusk much like birds – a phenomena that was recorded for the first time quite recently. Cephalopods, too, hear underwater (their sweet spot being 600 Hz).
The subaquatic sounds are produced by the motion of the atmosphere, water and seafloor, by animals and, increasingly, by machines created by humans. The underwater soundscape also includes the roar of motors, the ping of military SONAR and the bangs and blasts from offshore development. Since the early 20th century, many technologies have been developed based on underwater acoustics. These intrusive technologies are not only interfering with the fine-tuned communication systems of aquatic critters but causing a direct physical threat to their lives. Underwater sound pollution is severely harming aquatic ecosystems around the world and this has not been taken seriously enough.
One deadly consequence of human made noise is the masking effect. When the noise is close to a fish or other critter, it reduces that individual’s ability to hear the sounds of others, and this can make it impossible to find mates or alerts about predators. Noise also interferes with the sounds this individual produces, jamming their communication.
This, to us, is an apparent example of human alienation from the more-than-human world, mediated by technologies that are mostly catering to the gaining of revenues from human insecurities. The segmentation of thinking needed for these extractivist techno-scientific capitalist systems to work is to drown out what the planet is signaling.
The so called data is out there, in this case in the dense bioacoustic matrix of water, but the co-dependencies of mutual existence are blurred by the human-typical dismissal of the bigger picture. We need to carefully listen to and preserve the complex entanglements of planetary intraspecies coevolution. To engage with aquatic and other life forms in a more respectful manner calls for developing far more sensitive subaquatic communication skills; a wet code of conduct.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
 Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water, 2017, pp. 2–3.
 Tracey Warr, The Water Age and Other Fictions, 2018. Meanda Books. Emmi Itäranta, The Memory of Water, 2014. Harper Voyager.
 David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996. New York, Vintage Books.
 David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996. New York, Vintage Books.
 Even though they might be typical, these features by no means define any universal or desired human form! Quite the opposite, we would like to pay attention to the differences and debunk the idea of anything assumedly ‘normal’. Different bodies experience the world in different ways, and this is immensely important.
 E.J. Steele et al., Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, Vol. 136 (2018), pp. 3–23.
 Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
 In a recent study, behavioral neuroscientist Dominic Sivitilli and David Gire of the University of Washington have discovered that octopus arms have a neural ring that allows them to bypass the central brain: https://news.agu.org/press-release/researchers-model-how-octopus-arms-make-decisions
 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2016. Duke University Press. (31).
JENNI NURMENNIEMI (b. 1983, Finland) is a Helsinki–based curator and writer focussing on ecological thinking and practices in and beyond contemporary art. Nurmenniemi is interested in the art’s potential to foster symbiotic world views and ways of being. The most recent curatorial projects include the contemporary art section of the 1st Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale, ‘Beings with’; Marjolijn Dijkman and Toril Johannessen’s ‘Reclaiming Vision’ shown as part of Helsinki Festival 2019; and the group exhibition ‘Fictional Frictions’ at Gwangju Biennale 2018. In 2012–2018, Nurmenniemi worked at HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme and curated the international, multidisciplinary collaboration project ‘Frontiers in Retreat’ (2013–2018). Currently, Nurmenniemi is rehearsing ecologically sensible art practices within the Post-fossil Transition Project, which is being run by HIAP and the Mustarinda Association. Nurmenniemi has completed Master’s degrees in Curating (CuMMA / Aalto University, Helsinki, 2013) and Sociology (University of Tampere, 2010) with an emphasis on Gender Studies, Media Culture/Journalism, and Art History.
TUOMAS A. LAITINEN works with moving image, sound, light, glass, chemical and microbial processes, as well as artificial intelligences to explore the entanglements of human and more-than-human coexistence. Laitinen composes situations and installations that explore into the porous interconnectedness of language, body, and matter within morphing ecosystems. Laitinen’s work has appeared in the 21st Biennale of Sydney (AU), Amado Art Space Seoul (KR), ASJC Art Sonje Center (KR), the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma (FI), the 7th Bucharest Biennale (RO), Helsinki Contemporary (FI), SADE LA (US), Galleria Sinne Helsinki (FI), Moving Image New York (US), EMMA Espoo Museum of Modern Art (FI), MOCA Shanghai (CN), and Cinemateca do MAM Rio de Janeiro (BR), among others. He lives and works in Helsinki.