The exhibition “Who Speaks for the Oceans?” stemmed from an extensive collaboration between the disciplines of art and science. [1]1
“Who Speaks for the Oceans?,” curated by Alaina Feldman and David Gruber, Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College, City University of New York, September 1–December 9, 2022, .
It involved over three years of conversations between artists, faculty, staff, and students, as well as many conversations about “conversations” between the nonhuman entities and humans who share a habitat. Beginning with research on Roger Payne’s seminal album Songs of the Humpback Whale (originally recorded in the early 1950s but released in the 1970s), disrupted by a global pandemic, and culminating with the formation of an interdisciplinary working group of students from Baruch College (CUNY), this exhibition attempted to understand how artists and art can shift public sentiment toward progressive action when it comes to the health of our oceans. It also attempted to understand how scientific and empirical data can both be taken seriously as contributions of collected information on environmental issues and be challenged through a deeper understanding of the origins of classification of the natural world.

At the heart of this exhibition is the whale “song,” or rather, the vocalizations of that charismatic megafauna that evoke a great deal of emotion and inspire empathy. How do nonhuman selves address their worlds and how might that address differ from our own human articulations? How can we become better listeners to such calls? Artists in this exhibition generously spoke with us at length about their intentions and concerns regarding interspecies care and the consequences of human entanglements with nonhuman selves. The ways in which humans represent animals and other nonhumans matter, which is why artists are particularly adept to share enigmatic, unconventional, and speculative representations of how different species engage with each other. According to anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, “Although we humans certainly represent nonhuman animals in a variety of culturally, historically, and linguistically distinct ways, and this surely has its effects, both for us and for those animals we represent, we also live in worlds in which how other selves represent us can come to matter vitally.” [2]2
Eduardo Kohn, “How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagement,” American Ethnologist 34 (2007): 5, .
The work in this exhibition rethought the types of knowledge and selves that can constitute a transspecies ecology but did not sidestep the historical, human-engendered consequences of capitalism and colonialism on our shared world.

What does it mean to speak on behalf of another? Oceans are hosts of great biodiversity and encompass nearly two-thirds of the planet. They also regulate the global climate through cycles of heat, water, and other elements. According to the 2022 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fundamental shifts in the “physical and chemical characteristics of the ocean acting individually and together are changing the timing of seasonal activities, distribution, and abundance of oceanic and coastal organisms, from microbes to mammals and from individuals to ecosystems, in every region.” [3]3
H.O. Pörtner. et al., “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” .
New and frequent ocean disturbances like heatwaves and pollution are longer-lasting and exposing species and ecosystems to environmental conditions beyond their tolerance and acclimation limits. These ecosystems are central to many cultures while providing food, minerals, and energy to humans and nonhumans alike.

If we understand the oceans as a shared entity on which all life depends, then their health is also a concern for all living beings. Tuning in to the nonhuman helps to reconceptualize the asymmetrical ways in which the livelihoods of these entities are currently diminishing. For example, motors from shipping boats or underwater mining activities pollute the ocean soundscape and disrupt the many ways ocean lives navigate, mate, and prey in their environment. Listening to and measuring the changes of their vocalizations allows us to develop cause–effect rubrics of human-produced noise pollution and thus identify those accountable.

Decentering human positionalities (of which there are many) helps to reduce anthropocentricism and acknowledges that nonhumans are also selves and world-makers. In 1934, Jakob von Uexküll asked his readers to imagine world-making through nonhuman experiences. He described these conceptualized surroundings as private self-worlds, or umwelt, which are closed units that represent the entire environment of that organism and all that they can perceive. The umwelt purports that all living organisms can be considered living subjects in their worlds, more than just machines or objects. Thinking of new ways of inhabiting the planet requires a profound change in how we conceptualize, perform, design, and reflect on our understanding of whose world this is. Every day we make thousands of choices that involve nonhuman animals and each one of those choices has both an impact and a particular economic, geographic, and cultural history.

Who has the authority to speak on behalf of such a vast common? Is any single entity equipped to speak on the ocean in its entirety? Roger Payne’s Songs of the Humpback Whale had wide consequences and became incredibly popular. It allowed humans to hear whales in ways they never had before and helped promote whale conservation policies around the world. When we say that whales sing, we humanize their vocalizations while equating them to something familiar—but is this an ethical claim? There is, to date, no scientific consensus on whether whales have language as humans do. Nor is there even consensus on what nonhuman language is. Stating that animals sing and have language can be an effective tool for garnering empathy, but it also forecloses possibilities of the nonverbal. Do whales speak for the oceans? Who speaks for the whales?

In the 1980s, Michel Callon helped develop the conceptually useful actor-network theory to better understand how knowledge and power is generated through personal associations between different actors (including human and nonhuman) in a network. Analyzing a scientific marine research study of a declining scallop population in the Saint Brieuc Bay, off Brittany, France, he argued that:

To speak for others is to first silence those in whose name we speak. It is certainly very difficult to silence human beings in a definitive manner but it is more difficult to speak in the name of entities that do not possess an articulate language: this supposes the need for continuous adjustments and devices of interessement that are infinitely more sophisticated. [4]4
Michel Callon, “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay,” The Sociological Review, 32 (1984): 216, .

There is always something lost when we translate because to translate is to displace meaning through language. One possibility is to go beyond language, or what Eva Hayward calls the transsensual—an interplay of sensations that can affectively move us. [5]5
Eva Hayward, “Sounding out the Light: Beginnings,” in Undisciplined Animals: Invitations to Animal Studies, ed. Pär Segerdahl (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001), 164.
We rarely ever experience the world through just one sense, so why would we experience the world through one voice? The artists in “Who Speaks for the Oceans?” employed an array of media—film, sound, performance, painting, tapestry, music—that expanded traditional forms of communication, particularly those that have been disapproved by masculinist “hard” science. For example, Myrlande Constant’s drapo Vodoun tapestries were created in a media previously dominated by male artisans; Dominique Knowles’s film Tahlequah highlighted the work of Jane Goodall, a self-taught scientist who named the animals she was observing to account for their sentience and individual personalities; and the images on view by Else Botselmann, also a self-taught artist and scientist, were inspired by secondhand knowledge, because as a woman, she was not allowed on the expeditions where she could have encounter sea-life.

The urgent need to address the planet’s current condition trumps the limitations one may fear having when confronting an enormous and existential topic. This fear of legitimacy or of the impossibility of ever fully inhabiting the topic should be taken seriously, and it corresponds with larger questions of positionality. The undertaking then is not necessarily to speak in lieu of but to speak about, to understand the planet from an analytical frame that is not exclusively language-based nor even human. Media scholar Lori Emerson suggests doing so without projecting onto the nonhuman and to instead try to understand their own umwelt. [6]6
Lori Emerson, “Blasphemy, Not Apostasy/(Human)” from the online conference “Reconsidering John C. Lilly,” April 2, 2022, .
To whom belong our oceans, mountains, air? Several specialists are adept at answering this: the whales, the humans, the coral—beings who produce a cacophony of calls that sound the alarm on the current state of our shared environments.

“Who Speaks for the Oceans?” rethought the pedagogical by restructuring the fields of art and science within the context of an academic art gallery: scientists became curators, students became artists, artists became teachers. Challenging existing interpretations of scientific data, of the history of natural history, and of the divisions of disciplines created an opportunity to question to what extent knowing and not knowing has enabled the ecological collapse we now face.

—Alaina Claire Feldman

Alaina Claire Feldman is director and curator of the Mishkin Gallery and professor in fine and performing arts at Baruch College, City University of New York.

Dr. David Gruber is distinguished professor and Presidential Professor of Biology and Environmental Sciences at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is also the founder of Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative).

Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY) presents exhibitions and public programs dedicated to education and advancing the understanding of modern and contemporary art, interdisciplinary cultural activity, and innovative artistic practice from around the world. Extending Baruch College beyond its campus, the Mishkin Gallery promotes projects by artists and intellectuals who demonstrate how and why creative practice is a crucial force in nurturing diversity, tolerance and shaping culture.

Preview image: Ant Farm, DOLON EMB 1, 1974–75. Drawing by Curtis Schreier. Hand-colored brownline, 18 × 22”. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Thank you!

An email with a confirmation link has been sent to the email address you entered. To complete your subscription, click this link.