Ocean, Feeling, Memory

Randi Nygård


Sissel M. Bergh, #Tjaetsie (Water) Knowhowknow (2018). Video still.

“…and even where there is only a rustling of plants, in it there is always a lament. Because she is mute, nature mourns.”[1]

Walter Benjamin


I sit there
I sit there in a wet lightening movement of earth and darkness
which is me in me
I give up, I think
Now it is enough
I give up
I think, and then suddenly it is
not I that see, but an
eye from all which
sees and sees
through me
and sees me
as what I see

And  I see myself smiling and see that my eyes are filled
And I see that I am inside a happiness which I can
never forget.

Excerpt from Jon Fosse’s poem “Alle Ser”[2]


Sissel M. Bergh’s video #Tjaetsie (Water) Knowhowknow (2018) shows a series of different perspectives on the ocean. We observe waves and a boat going out into the water. As we dive underwater we encounter fish and plankton, thriving in their environment. We see an octopus expelling ink, clouding the water as it escapes the camera. We see a mythical female figure entering the sea. Her eyes turn into big fish eyes. We hear scientists talking about “conquering” the ocean as they watch the bottom of the sea through advanced technology. We find swimmers, divers and a shipwreck. We see fishermen, with fish and crabs dying in their nets, and then as food in the supermarket. Sometimes historical black and white photos of houses, boats and people working with fish appear. In addition to the scenery sounds, we hear the composition by Maja Ratkje, emitting long tickling, intense tones––beautiful, powerful, and sometimes scary. We see fish farms.
We hear a scientist saying that we humans can see in three frequencies and that if we could see more wavelengths, as some animals can, we would then suddenly see things we have never seen before.

Today, in our largely urbanized and secular world, most of us are alienated and removed from nature. It is hard to see how our communities are organized and how our use of natural resources functions. In our everyday lives we largely overlook animals and plants in our surroundings and don’t consider them members of our societies. 

Science is often seen as neutral. Ideally, it is deprived of the personal and emotional relationships to that which it studies. A scientist can say, as above, that we are going to “conquer” the ocean. But a scientist can also show us how animals see and hear things we do not see or hear. 

Emotions can not be separated from thinking or sensing, and therefore all expressions are also emotional—including scientific language and knowledge.

Even if our thoughts are connected to the material world, we do not experience meaning and thought as material. Nobody can explain how sentience and consciousness arose and evolved. What our minds are and what life itself is, are still open questions. In the same way, there may be a form of consciousness or an inner life in all material things, as the theory of panpsychism affirms. Wouldn’t everything then have a self-expression? Some think that it is precisely these self-expressions that make us able to sense our environments. The materials present themselves to the world through their interiority.

When it is time to breed, salmon and trout find their way back home to the rivers where they were born. Perhaps they remember the way through the water by smell and sound. Fish sense sound waves in the water with large parts of their bodies, as well as their ears. Maybe we can say that their memory is in the material environment surrounding them. 

Norway has recently given permission for two new landfills, in Førdefjorden and Repparfjorden, both previously protected salmon fjords. Mining companies can now dump tones of partially toxic waste from the mines into these fjords every day. Commercial interests trump environmental concerns, as we also see as more and more fish farms are allowed along the coast.

The mountain by Førdefjorden contains a lot of rutil, a mineral composed primarily of titanium dioxide—an important ingredient in paint production. Titanium dioxide is also used in the production of food and cosmetics. The Repparfjorden area contains copper, silver and gold. Copper is newly valuable in the green economy for its use in electric cars.

In Repparfjorden, in addition to fish, we find killer whales, minke whales, humpback whales, porpoises and dolphins.The fjord is important for the bird population of the region, with wetland areas that provide nesting and resting areas for ducks, terns, gulls and waders. The population of seabirds will be greatly weakened if their feeding areas are reduced.

In Sissel’s video, a crab escapes from the bucket with the day’s catch, falling on his back while sliding down. A human hand picks him up and places him back in the group of crabs. Do these crabs understand that they will soon be killed? We see the crabs’ eyes peeking back. Can we train ourselves to read emotion in the eyes of a crab? Or can we read emotion in other signs, perhaps the foam from the crab’s mouth, for example?
The fish in the trawler’s net are gasping for air. To me, they look really frightened. Why are we treating fish worse than other animals when it comes to our elaborate methods of catching and killing them? As a child I was told that fish don’t feel pain. We now know better.

The Norwegian Animal Welfare Act states that, “Animals have an intrinsic value which is irrespective of the usable value they may have for man.”[3] The law also demands that animals be treated as individuals. But how can we perceive animals as individuals, if we take their lives? We often try to avoid thinking about the masses of lives we take in order to eat or create products we consume, as well as the individuality of these animals. In the video, as the fish gasp for air, they are fearfully silent and don’t seem to look at us or at anything at all. If they looked at something they might only have met the gaze of a camera. Often, technology sees for us—it can be our eye when we are not present to witness the scene. 

In animistic worldviews, everything is alive. We exist in a living field of relation to other beings. We act upon nature and nature acts upon us. Animistic worldviews have been partially forgotten or left behind in our so-called Western culture, as we have isolated ourselves through technology. We have moved to the cities and we have specialized in every side of production, including regulating and outsourcing food production. But even here, in the cities, the “natural” is everywhere. Our children greet trees, insects, animals and naturally perceive them as part of our communities. The Norwegian professor of philosophy Arne Johan Vetlesen has written extensively about panpsychism and animism and how his son experienced other beings.[4] The professor admits that when he grew up, he thought he could not continue to do that, in the same way as children learn that we shouldn’t greet strangers we encounter on the streets. 

When I interviewed Vetlesen for a publication[5] we sat by a window at the University of Oslo. Outside some trees moved in the wind. I asked the professor a question about seeing nature as a language and he then asked me to watch the trees. He said that we normally perceive the wind to be moving the tree. According to our mechanistic worldview inanimate things are moved by outside forces. I too have experienced trees like that, moved “by” the wind—even if we say that the trees are moving “in” the wind. Suddenly, through an experience of observation, I understood what the implications and consequences of a mechanistic worldview are. Vetlesen went on to say that the wind is unlikely to be the only force at play here, since we know trees are alive and able to move—for example they are able to turn towards the sun. But we tend to forget that aspect of their lives; instead, we choose to be blind to their complex ways of being.

Our ways of living have far reaching consequences for other forms of life—even though they are often invisible and/or abstract to us. Would we be able to change our behavior if we directly experienced the consequences that our modes of living have on our common environments? How can we do that, given the fact that many of these consequences are too complex to be grasped directly? Can art and poetry play a role in reconfiguring our worldviews? We strongly need to find new ways of organizing our societies, where the “wild” would not be seen as a conglomerate of resources to be exploited but as an integral part of our common and living environment.

With the objective of improving the legal representation of vegetal and non-human animal life, I see the potential in opening up to poetic approaches. We need to integrate poetic approaches into our modes of thinking, our worldviews and our societies. Our rational and abstract language is most of the time not shared by animals and plants, and it might not be the best tool for representing them either. Derrida writes that thinking about the animal, if there is such a possibility, must derive from poetry. Derrida began to ponder this after he was seen naked by his cat—meeting the mysterious gaze of the cat as an old naked man startled him to the point of writing the book, The Animal That Therefore I Am[6].

The experience of the poetic cannot be grasped or held still. Derrida could not fully know how the cat perceived the meeting between them. Art and poetry attempt precisely this—to approach the ungraspable. Art says that which cannot be said, and in this way it is another form of knowledge about the world. Artists don’t need to make the world poetic, but rather to show that relations in the world are fundamentally poetic. And so is our relation to nature—mystic in its deepest sense. 

Spinoza saw the world as one system. As one large evolving substance where all our thinking and feeling was embodied: God and Nature as one. 

In 1927, after having read Spinoza and eastern mystics, Romain Rolland wrote a letter to Freud where he used the psychological term ‘oceanic feeling’ to describe a religious experience, an existential feeling of the self dissolving into the world—a moment without boundaries. 

Freud, admitting he had never experienced an oceanic state himself, and saw it as a narcissistic feeling possibly rooted in the psychological state of an infant—when babies do not yet comprehend there are other people in the world and perceive the external as a part of themselves. Other analysts have also claimed that it comes from the memory of being a fetus in the water in the womb, lingering in a perfect blissful union with the mother, without any conscious needs or desires. 

What is life? In the book The Biology of Wonder scientist Andreas Weber reframes this fundamental enigma by arguing that all living beings, like humans, are creative agents fueled by meaning and expression, not biological machines. Weber argues that feelings and emotions are the very foundation of life, and therefore they should not be considered superfluous in the biological study of organisms.

I believe that climate change and the environmental crisis forces us to pay more attention to our natural surroundings. There are fundamental changes going on in our perception of nature and our place within it. A much needed awareness is being developed.

What if all life is sentient and guided by feeling, as Weber argues? 

In humans, feelings also function to keep our memories alive. Perhaps memories and feelings keep us alive in the same way as they lead the salmonto its home river to reproduce. 

Maybe nature is not sorrowful because it is mute, as Benjamin wrote, but rather because we have not been able to listen to her.

As a child I marveled at nature. One of my strongest childhood memories is from when I suddenly realized that I would never become somebody else, not my friend nor the mountain in front of me. Now, as an adult, I understand that parts of the air I breath in and out will become a leaf on a tree, through the carbon cycle. I am not the only one taking part in my breathing. What if the air also breathes me, grasping and dragging my lungs mildly in and out?

The more fossil fuels we burn, the more CO2 is absorbed by the oceans from the air. The more carbon the water holds, the more acidic it becomes, and parts of the marine life are in danger of dissolving and disappearing. 

While we change the ocean, water flows through our bodies into tubes and pipes. It runs in rivers, dwells in seas and it is moved by the currents of the ocean. It cleanses us, our homes and streets, and it hydrates our bodies, animals, plants and forests. Water is polluted. It freezes, evaporates, drifts in clouds in the wind, and falls to the ground. It drowns, floods our lands, melts, and becomes part of the oceans again. 



[1]  Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: 1913-1926, edited by Bullock and Jennings, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

[2] Excerpt from “Alle ser” from Nye dikt, Jon Fosse, Samlaget, 1997 (translation mine).

[3] https://www.regjeringen.no/en/dokumenter/animal-welfare-act/id571188/

[4] Arne Johan Vetlesen, The Denial of Nature, Routledge, 2015.

[5] The Wild Living Marine Resources Belong to Society as a Whole, edited by Randi Nygård and Karolin Tampere, published as part of Ensayo#4, 2017.

[6] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, Fordham University Press, 2008.



RANDI NYGÅRD (b. 1977, Bergen) is an artist, curator and writer who lives and works in Oslo. Her practice concerns our basic relations to and view on nature. Aiming to create both wonder and enthusiasm for the natural environment, she highlights how humans have a profound impact on but also deep affiliation with nature. Nygård graduated with an MFA from the Art Academy in Trondheim in 2006. She has exhibited both in Norway and internationally, including solo exhibitions at YYZ Artists Outlet in Toronto, Canada, Kunstverein Springhornhof in Germany, Take Team Studio in Bergen, TOKONOMA at MELK in Oslo, Trøndelag Center for Contemporary Art in Trondheim and NoPlace in Oslo.
She has since 2015 been part of the art project Ensayos, an interdisciplinary, ecofeminist research collective engaged in matters related to the political ecology of Tierra del Fuego and the coast of Norway. As part of the project Nygård edited the interdisciplinary anthology The Wild Living Marine Resources Belong to Society as a Whole with Karolin Tampere (2017/2018), based on a section of the Norwegian Marine Resources Act. Nygård writes about art and, together with Tampere, she has been editor of the art section of Forfattarane’s klimaaksjon (2017–2019).