Friday, May 6, 2011

Class: Cephalopoda

My fascination with squid and octopus and all the members of the illustrious Class of Cephalopoda (Phylum: Mollusca, Kingdom: Animalia) began almost ten years ago as I worked on what I referred to as my 9/11 play. It remains unfinished and is likely unfinishable. I called it Tricks With Make-Up and it is set in a barroom in which all surfaces are obscured by a dull gray ash. Whether it is purgatory or some kind of post-apocalyptic liminal neverland, remains unclear. In it, a Bird, a Killer, a Spy, a Victim, The Last Leopard and The Second To Last Leopard (Felidae Panthera Pardus) enact various power plays. Bird, in particular, is a monstrous, Stalin-like figure (in her home forrest, she sports the title "Chairmistress of Freedom, Animality and Discipline").

But it was a mess. A Frankensteinian creature created from pieces of other projects, ruminations on Jack the Ripper, reading I'd done on animal behavior and the deep, strange nihilism I felt after the fall of the towers which engendered a certainty in me that the human species was a complete failure in evolutionary terms. And I had an equally crazy design concept. I thought there should be a giant, animatronic squid suspended from the ceiling with enormous tentacles that wrapped around the audience. During the play, the tentacles would move with a barely perceptible slowness, the audience unaware of what was happening until the tentacles were everywhere, trapping them in their seats.

Now, I realized that the the chances of this design concept coming to fruition were, to say the least, low. But in preparation for the momentous day when my most extravagant dreams could become perfectly realized, I started researching squid and the other members of the family cephalopoda and became, in a word, obsessed. Giant Squid seemed more like creatures from the imagination of a 19th century fantasist, rather than something that could actually, you know, exist. Where we have water in our bodies, they have ammonia. Their espophogus bisects their brains. They possess a starting and uncanny intelligence. They use tools. Octopuses are prone to nervous upset and have been known to start eating their own arms. They are beautiful and other-worldly. They are nearly all venemous to one degree or another. They are beaked. There may be even larger, completely undiscovered squid that live in the deepest, most unknown parts of the ocean (some electrical pings indicate that this is not fantasy).

I joined all the squid list serves, I read all the latest scientific findings. They are amazing. I think one of my fascinations with these remarkable creatures is that they are nothing like us. They are completely, to their core, other-worldly and unknowable. Chimps and Bonobos are near relatives; dogs and humans have co-existed for millions of years and likely evolved symbiotically (for example, humans exhibit dog-like pack behavior that doesn't occur in other primates); dolphins, if fish shaped, are fellow mammals, and seem at least somewhat willing to interact with us. But with the clever cephalopod, we have no common language of any kind. Any attempts to get through have been met with a blank wall of nothing.

In our depictions of the residents of other planets, we most often have dreamed up humanoid creatures. Even if they were hostile, we could still interact. And if they were utterly unhuman (like Aunt Beast in a Wrinkle in Time) we could still breach the difference through touch or sound or something. Thus far, there has been no cephalopodean Rosetta Stone of any sort. To be honest, I don't know if I want one.

But I'm an artist, not a scientist.

My BFF sent this to me yesterday, a gorgeous film of a Dumbo Octopus. You can watch it here, as Blogger is being all fiddly and will not upload it.

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