Captive Cetacean Portrait Series

Installation view at the Gallery at Calit2. San Diego, CA.

The Captive Cetacean Portrait Series:
Six chalk pastel drawings on board
Dimensions per drawing: 32" x 40"

Portrait of Tapeko. Installation view at the Gallery at Calit2. San Diego, CA (2017)

Portrait of Noelani (2017)

Portrait of Spree (2017)

Portrait of Chinook (2017)

The Captive Cetacean Portrait Series: reflections on individuality, drawing, mimesis, and personhood.

Life-size chalk pastel portraits were created in order to capture the semblance and facial likeness of six captive bottlenose dolphins at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, IL. The process of drawing was examined and employed as a means of knowing and an act of care—a method of better coming to understand a subject in a deliberate and tactile way. The portraits are renditions of creatures that I had a detached intimacy with—only ever from a distance—beginning with a brief, undergraduate internship at UC San Diego’s Dolphin Cognition Lab. Given the laboratory context, my first acquaintanceship with the dolphins was only with digitized reductions of themselves—data bodies in the lab’s Excel spreadsheets. These empirical, moment-by-moment data logs served as a tantalizing introduction to the individual dolphins that were the subjects of the lab’s video and audio analyses.

I began to know each of the dolphins from the simplest, color-coded abstractions of their behavioral patterns. There was Allie, notated just as a pink “L” in the data. She was a perpetual loner; the rest of the dolphins largely ignored her, and I had a special fondness for Allie because of her social pariah status. Then there was Spree, a curious adolescent with a penchant for getting into squabbles with the boys in the pool. The cetaceans all had their own rich, unique narratives and relations to one another, but all of this complexity had been reduced to color-coded lettering in a spreadsheet.

I came to feel invested in their respective lives—which was strange, given that they resided in Chicago, and that even the behavioral traces that engrossed me so came from years prior, in 2013. Neither geographic distance nor the dislocated temporality deterred me from diving deeper into their world. These same dolphins became the main actors in the adjacent Speculative Dolphin Theatre project. Editing video around them, as characters, necessitated that I learn how to personally identify each of the dolphins from the lab’s video recordings, so I began learning how to perceptually discriminate markings, coloration, and the unique striped arrangements on each of their respective foreheads and bellies. Color-coded icons came to correspond to specific faces and lives. I came to know the likeness of each individual creature. Each one became more than a subject in the scientific sense. They became a subject in the philosophical sense: an individual, an agent, an autonomous being in a system of complex relations and social dynamics.

Simultaneously, we were talking about imitation in the lab—the subject of the researchers’ ongoing investigation. Dolphin sociality is deeply mimetic. They use imitation as a way to communicate with each other, mimicking their pod mates' movements with perfect, orchestral synchrony, presumably as a signal of something like affection or rapport. In the lab, the researchers were beginning to speculate about imitation being a form of currency—a direct expression of social value between and among the dolphins. As a result, I began to think about mimetic, representational portraiture as an expression of care or value that is an analogue of how dolphins express care or value. I was trying to perfectly copy their likeness, because the act of copying, in and of itself, is something intrinsically Cetacean. If there is such a thing as a delphinid aesthetics, surely, imitation and mimesis are a definitive part of it. As an especially clumsy primate, my own mimetic capabilities are restricted to what I can accomplish through eye-hand coordination. The best I could do was to capture their likeness as closely as possible, which led to representational drawing as a form.

Another vital conceptual kernel came from research in the fledgling field of critical animal studies, and more specifically, the philosophical debate around nonhuman personhood. Traits once believed to be uniquely-human: abstract thought, culture, self-awareness, and even the understanding of linguistic concepts like syntax—have also been demonstrated to exist in dolphins through a vast body of marine mammal science. With so much evidence of human-like intellectual and emotional sophistication in another species, one cannot help but wonder: what, indeed, does define personhood? This question is one that I attempted to reference with the formal decisions of the dolphin portrait series—i.e., classical portraiture tropes such as the three-quarter view of the face, life-size scale, and perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the work: differentiating facial features of each respective dolphin in order to delineate individuality.