A Respectful Distance: To Better Conversation

On our arrival at Húsey for the filming of the preparation for the 2008 seal hunt, we were introduced to Silli, a young seal pup that had been found abandoned on the seashore. The farmer, Örn Þorleifsson told us that abandoned pups in the wild are subject to a cruel fate; skuas and gulls will attack, typically unravelling and pecking their umbilical cord and plucking out their eyes. The care these pups need to survive without their mothers is substantial, as they must be fed every four hours with a specially made mixture to match the mother’s milk. The feeding was done either by Örn or his wife. The procedure was that approximately 20 cm of soft plastic tube attached to a plastic bottle was pushed down Silli’s throat and the milk mixture pumped into his stomach. Afterwards he would be patted and cuddled to help him burp. During the day Silli would be around the place, often in close proximity to humans, but in the evening he would be lifted into the back of an old Land Rover where he had a bed made out of newspapers. At the time of our visit, Silli was approximately five weeks old and it was expected he would stay at the farm until 12–15 weeks old, or until mid-to-late August, when he would be taken to the seashore close to where he was found and allowed to go free. In the interim between our visit and him being released, there would still be a lot of care involved in looking after him. There is a transitional process necessary to take him from fluids to solid food (herring and/or capelin) and involving his learning to catch fish by himself. All these tasks were overseen by Örn, who even puts on his waders to accompany the seal when he is first introduced to swimming in the local pond. Silli happened to be male, and once free, should he survive the winter, would be likely to come back to this area year after year. Had the pup been female, she would return to give birth to pups that might well be caught in the nets laid by the farmer at Húsey the following year.

 Having been made aware of the curiosity of seals and their apparent preference for bright colors, aperformative video work developed which we titled Three Attempts (2009). This work became a crucial component of our (Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson) installation between you and me. The work shows Bryndís kneeling down at the seashore overlooking an estuary with her back to the camera. Our preliminary research had revealed that it was common for hunters to imitate seal sounds when trying to entice the seal pups away from the cow, suggesting that seals were sensitive to certain types of sound or sound frequencies at least. In the initial video performance, a variety of vocal sounds was used, from singing to the imitation of mobile phone ringtones. Initial attempts prompted little in the way of ‘reciprocation’ on the part of the seals and nothing very much altered at all in their behaviour. The technical reasons why the work came to be remade are not in themselves important for this text, but rather the fact that they necessitated another visit, which resulted in giving us more than the remake we planned, to the extent that it became a completely new work. We are very much aware of the difficulties in attempting to remake works and it is something we generally try to avoid. Nevertheless the location was the same, as was the time of year – the same clothing was worn and we even began at the same time of day. Even the weather was similar. The only thing that seemed beyond our control that day was the behaviour of the non-human animals in the water – and sure enough, their response confounded our expectations. From the moment we arrived on the shore to set up the equipment, the seals made an appearance, popping up from the water, looking, playing, diving and reappearing. The ‘control’ had shifted from us to them – it was their game now.

Our initial reaction was a sense of despair but slowly and convincingly it dawned on us that the only appropriate response was to be ‘with’ the seals in this moment. The performer soon relaxed into the role of the one being looked at, whilst visualizing the image being recorded in the rolling video camera behind – the back of a seated human being on black sand at the shore, the rippling, bright water revealing numerous dark heads popping in and out of view, against a backdrop of distant snow-topped mountains. The process of making this work is described here in order to draw attention to the requisite states of vulnerability and surrender necessary for its execution. This vulnerability is manifest in an image taken in a natural environment, of a lone figure with his/her back to ‘the watching world’. A sense of apprehension experienced by the artist is conveyed in the tentative approach of her performance. The unpredictable behaviour of the participant animals required an acceptance of the relinquishment of human control in this instance, and indeed its desirability.

Three Attempts is the embodiment of a number of principles underpinning our work and its functionality. From one perspective the work seems a novelty – its charm we’ve observed to be infectious and disarming. From another it touches on the absurd – it echoes with pathos and even melancholy. It’s difficult to see the work without acknowledging a degree of sentimentality but in common with absurdity and vulnerability the automatic rejection of sentiment is a cultured, negative response based on the desirability of strength through the application of intellect. At this juncture, we ask what if intellect alone is not enough for us to understand our new and challenged position in the world? Indeed, what if the rationality of our approach obscures or limits the possibilities of wider understanding? All the readings mentioned above are indeed embedded in the work and yet just as crucially, they serve to cohere, fuel and extend another more fundamental reading – that ‘landscape’, if it is to mean anything in the future, must cease to be an objectifying term, which denotes something to be looked at or used whilst simultaneously functioning as a register of our detachment from it. Just as we increasingly understand that other animals are specifically such in relation to the constitution of their dwelling, so we must recognize our own interdependence with habitat and the danger that by sustaining our unfettered and exploitative use of ‘resources’, including land and ‘animal others’, we resolutely keep our backs turned against the illuminating and rewarding conversation we might otherwise have.

Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson

August 2012.