"The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish.” —Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Umwelt is the German word for environment, succinctly describing how organisms perceive, interpret, and react to their surroundings, from processing external stimuli to interacting with their own kind. In a word, surviving. Scientists are now deeply immersed in the umwelt of many species, simulating their interactions with the hope of truly understanding non-human behavior from an animal’s perspective.
Duluth artist Ryuta Nakajima is among these researchers, studying the umwelt of cephalopods (the class of marine animals including squid, octopus, and cuttlefish) in the most interactive way possible—getting in the ocean with video cameras. Recently, he and other researchers filmed the schooling patterns of oval squid off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, examining the number of “schoolmates,” the shapes of the schools, and how they morph over time. The short version of their conclusions is that the social structures of the schools remain remarkably intact while their makeup varies considerably, depending on whether they are migrating or defending against predators. (The long version was recently published in the journal Marine Biodiversity Records.)
Nakajima’s scientific fieldwork is reflected in the photographs, sculptures, and videos comprising his MAEP exhibition UMWELT. In his studio, he has created dozens of resin molds of cuttlefish, painting them with various patterns that mimic and stylize cephalopod color-changing properties. Their chromatophores (neurally changed pigmented cells) are able to create numerous complex body patterns of individual responses on the surface of their skin, as well as replicate local colors, that protect them from predators, attract mates, and, it is believed, for communicating with other cuttlefish. He likens his resin copies, formally and conceptually, to the hyper collectible figures such as Kubrick bears and sofubi monsters that come with hundreds of different pattern and color themes then sold in collectible “blind boxes.”
DOCOIKA is just one example, which he meticulously covered with more than 4000 individual Swarovski crystals, then presented on a jeweler’s velvet pillow. It’s an almost excessive blinged-out elegance but Nakajima has stopped just short of that, keeping our attention on the beauty of the form and materials. But the obsessive energy that drives collectors, for rarity as well as quantity, is exactly what Nakajima is interested in presenting. Arranged in their various cases, Nakajima’s cuttlefish installation is meant to recall both a retail showcase as well as a museum collection, and will be familiar to people who purchase Japanese toys, as well as those who visit collections of rare animal species and valuable art objects.
His newest works, the “Forty-Seven Ronin” photographs, which use some of the same data collection techniques as his laboratory research, began as another experiment for studying marine environments and the color-changing physiology of cuttlefish. By removing them from their natural environment and placing them in tanks on top of high-resolution images of objects from the MIA’s collection, Nakajima can observe how the cuttlefish read, interpret, and respond to their colorful surroundings, then express that response using their chromatophores. The photographs, which record these experiments, are also helpful for understanding the cuttlefish umwelt. If each photograph is seen as an individual experiment, Nakajima’s photos buttress his hypothesis that cuttlefish can communicate with each other using species specific multi-layer body patterning. And, further, clarify how these animals not only respond to their environments but internalize, then express, external stimuli.
In 2012, Nakajima conducted a mini expedition to Toyama, Japan to collect underwater footage of bioluminescent deep sea squid which he compiled into a short video called キラ キラ キラル (Kira Kira Chiral). Shot during the day and evening with multiple underwater cameras, some segments of the footage were edited to mimic the mirroring effect that is used by scientists to test whether animals have some self-awareness. For humans, this is an important developmental stage, the ability to recognize yourself and your role in a social environment. The abstract soundtrack begins with an electronic stutter then crackles and shimmers, keeping pace with the on screen movement where schools of fish become effervescent bits of light swimming just below the water’s surface. A plastic squid, outfitted with pulsing lights, is submerged to see how other squid react to it. The only tension in the video comes at the end. When the camera passes through a coral reef valley, everything we have seen and experienced comes to an end as the camera ascends and breaks the surface of the water. An overexposed sky harshly greets us on the other side of this submarine umwelt.
These cleverly composed sequences become a metaphor for Nakajima’s malleable and open process; as an artist, he can literally swim through the science of marine biology unencumbered by the pressure to collect data. In the process, he can reveal methodological blind spots.
So what can our society learn from Nakajima’s artwork and research on cephaolopod society? Perhaps more than you’d think. It appears that squid schooling behavior is similar to how other advanced vertebrates form social groups, suggesting long and strong evolutionary links between land and sea animals. In fact, we don’t have to look beyond the mirror phase of development to understand that the umwelt is a subconscious space contributing to a sense of self. Seeing and responding to what is not “me” makes it easier to discern what is “me”—which is to say, where “I” stop and “you” begin.