Becoming-Animal Debate – Part One


On August 30th, ONCA, in association with the University of Brighton, hosted our first academic debate on the topic of Becoming-Animal, in coordination with our current exhibition “Exile”.

The aim was to create a space in which we could talk about contemporary meanings of animal-becoming – crossing the border, changing the shape and spaces of who we consider ourselves to be, in a forum which itself crossed borders between disciplines and dialogues, to talk, in a space between, about branching out of limited conceptions of ourselves.

We invited scientists, artists, poets, writers, ecologists and philosophers to talk to us about becoming animal and ecological activism; in other words, the relationship between fantastical stories and real change. The response was fantastic; we were thrilled to host a distinguished panel of academics and activists, including Rosemarie McGoldrick, curator and founder of the Animal Gaze Exhibitions, award winning nature writer Eleanor O’ Hanlon, eco-poet Susan Richardson, who is currently poet in residence for the Marine Conservation Society, psychotherapist and expert in Ecopaganism Adrian Harris, and storyteller and conservationist Lisa Schneidau. We were also delighted that Alan Boldon, who heads the school for Research, Economic and Social Engagement here at Brighton, and led the development of Arts and Ecology at Dartington College of Arts, agreed to chair the event.

Reflections on the evening will follow throughout the week, as will creative responses. Think Again Productions was also generous enough to film it for us, so we, eventually, hope to share with you excerpts from the event itself.

Meanwhile, aiming to celebrate the interdisciplinary nature of the event, we also invited a group of creative writing students from Sussex and Brighton to attend both debate and the exhibition, and respond to the debate in their own creative words. We will be posting these responses throughout the week, and would also like the ONCA blog to act for the duration of our “Exile” exhibition as a creative forum on Becoming-Animal, so if you are inspired by the idea, please do us send your own piece of writing, or thoughts about what it means to become animal (to ).

In her response to the idea of becoming animal, Eleanor O’Hanlon told us the story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who, as a boy, tasted the salmon of wisdom, and could, at that moment, understand the conversations of all the wild things. The idea of “knowledge” as being not that which divides us and seals us within ourselves, but that which opens us to the other, was a theme which ran throughout the evening. So, indeed, was the theme of death; the question of whether, in our fantastical imaginings of sharing harmoniously with the other, of fluidly reaching beyond and becoming animal, we really grapple with the fact that a becoming more than ourselves is – will be, must be, the releasing of our own bodies into the food chain of the other world. As David Abram puts it:

“To awaken to the steady gift of this wild sustenance entails that we offer ourselves in return. It entails that we accept the difficult mystery of our own carnal mortality, allowing that we are bodily creatures that must die in order for others to flourish. But it is this that we cannot bear.”

The first story that we’d like to share with you is by Sophie Swithinbank. It is entitled “Salmon’s Gaze,” and I believe responds movingly and powerfully to both Fionn’s story and the universal themes of living, dying, and becoming-animal.

Salmon’s Gaze

The silky surface of the river erupted into a thousand tiny bubbles as the human left her own oxygen-abundant habitat, and dived in. Her body hit the water and she scrunched her face against the cold, sinking low in the river due to the downward momentum of her dive. Salmon had often considered the motives of this action. Why leave your natural environment and swim when you don’t have the necessary equipment to do so? Salmon had gills and fins and a tail for breathability, balance and speed. This human was naked; only her thin limbs would help her survive in the water. For survival the human had to keep her mouth and nose above the surface of the water due to her lack of gills. She could descend below the surface, but only with her eyes closed and only for up to a minute.

‘Come on Josh, it’s lovely,’ she called to a blur on the riverbank. The blur waved a limb in the air and shouted something unintelligible back, but did not budge from the stable, solid surface of the riverbank.

‘I’m going to swim to the other side,’ she called, and there was a muffled monosyllabic reply from the riverbank. The swimming human was new-looking compared to the malevolent weathered men who cast their lines of temptation and death. This human had no weapon, and no purpose for being in the river at all, it seemed. Salmon watched from below as the human floated on her back. Under the water her buttocks and the backs of her legs looked smooth and shimmery like the scales of his fellow friends, but humans – he knew from observing the fishermen in waxy trousers and long rubber shoes – are not themselves waterproof and therefore leisure swimming is illogical, thought Salmon. Swimming in the water-shadow cast by the human, Salmon followed her and watched as the tips of her fingers and toes became wrinkly prunes. The pointless swimming was composed of a repeated pattern of movements, creating two arcs with the arms, pushing the water past and opening and closing the legs to propel the water away, simultaneously propelling the human forwards in a frog-like fashion. Except she wasn’t going forwards, she was going sideways as the current was strong and the river was bloated with rainwater.

The swimmer peered into the water and noticed Salmon. Salmon couldn’t understand the expression on the human’s face, as there was a blurry divide caused by the elements between them. The human could not see Salmon’s fishy form clearly through the distorting water and Salmon couldn’t see through the creased and wobbly air.

‘Hello,’ said the swimmer in a voice that was full of curiosity. Salmon stopped and gazed at the woman’s body through his left-side-of-head eye. Never before had he stopped moving in the water near a human; he usually darted past, never trusting their dangerous and unpredictable movements. They were all so different, which confused him. Amongst salmon there was very little difference in daily activities and movements.

This young, naked, swimming human felt safe; this one he could stop and gaze at, and he was curious to investigate her, like so many humans are when they peer into the river and spot a large salmon or river snake. He was close enough to see the woman’s erect nipples and pubic hair and tried to discern what her facial expression meant. She seemed mesmerised or scared that he was so close to her, and so still. Salmon gazed again at the short, soft pubic hair waving with the movement of the green water, when the woman jolted her leg and startled Salmon out of his reverie. He darted downwards to the cool shade of a rock.

The woman ducked under the water, following Salmon, and poked her legs out of the river to gain downwards momentum, much like a duck. Close to the bottom of the deep, swollen river she opened her eyes but was clearly having trouble seeing through the water and the riverbed grit. The woman started to make her way back to the surface of the water but jerked backwards. Salmon watched her feel down her leg and discover she was entangled in discarded fishing tackle. In slow motion, due to the weight of the water around her, she tugged at the tackle in hope that it would liberate her foot. In desperation she tugged the tackle so hard that blood blossomed out of her hands, spread through the water and became slowly diluted and then became an indiscernible part of the liquid river. She let go of the tackle and tried to swim to the surface; she hopelessly scrambled upwards, her arms outstretched to the river’s surface to no avail. The tackle held her firmly in place, six feet from the river’s glossy, silent and unknowing surface. All that would show of the surface would be the tiny air bubbles escaping from her lungs. Salmon saw the hot desperation on her face give way to glassy, pained emptiness. He saw the moment when the water entered her system like poison. She breathed it in through her mouth and nose and breathed it in and breathed it in, choking. Her lips became faintly green-blue, complementing her wet and reedy surroundings. Once her lungs were full of water with no air pockets left, her long arms slackened and she began to sink slowly down and down down until her body softly landed amongst long reeds, her ruinous leash coiled beneath her.

Salmon diverted his side-long gaze from her folded body and found that this deep part of the river seemed now rather darkened by the human corpse that lay amongst the reeds, so he swam into the current that he knew would carry him downstream.

A few days later Salmon was swimming upstream to feed on some misplaced krill when a dark figure loomed in the river a distance away. He gazed through his left-side-of-head-eye and found that it was the swimmer. Amazed, he swam nearer to her, cautious of this creature of second coming. Her limbs moved gracefully and she floated beneath the surface of the river. His mind was spinning with the notion that through death she had been able to learn to breathe underwater, but as he drew nearer he realised she was not moving her limbs, she was indeed still dead and her lungs impossibly full of water. There was a greedy shoal of fish feeding from her floating corpse, creating the image that her whole body was moving and rippling with life. Alas, she was not, and never would be. She was still attached to the fishing tackle and forever would be. The rising of the corpse from her peaceful riverbed he recognised as due to the gases that death creates in a corpse, once the water had turned to gas and fermented inside it. The risen drowned corpse was a terrible sight to behold, bloated with natural chemicals, rotting and half nibbled round the edges, her body had a look of disintegration. She had become an easy feast and would slowly become part of the body of minerals that make up the riverbed.

Salmon was hungry – having been distracted from his hunt for krill – and joined the other fish in nibbling at the tender prey, all the while thinking how funny it should be that the fisherman had caught one of their own and now she floated on the end of their fishing tackle, like bait.

— Sophie Swithinbank