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At the end of Brazilian filmmaker Ana Vaz’s It is Night in America, (2022),1 it is not just the human contributors who are credited. Vaz lists the various filmstocks and cameras used in the production of the film, along with all the animal species who make appearances, including Homo sapiens, making clear that the assemblage of the film is a multispecies co-creation. Not only is the film a collaborative entity, but, just as we humans are collaborations between bacteria, viruses, parasites and multiple micro-organisms, it is always-already “incomplete”.2 All films comprise their various audiences-to-come, as well as the apparatuses required for their viewing including screens, projectors, chairs, lighting and sound conditions, not to mention potentially endless re-runs in the minds of viewers, which might be considered as a form of screening in the expanded, psychic field. The three films I examine here, however – Ana Vaz’s Occidente (2015), Greek-Australian Tina Stefanou’s There is a Dead Rabbit Under the Greek Family Unit (2022), and New Zealand-Balinese Sriwhana Spong’s Interior Castle (a blueprint) (2019) – are particularly, if not radically, incomplete, inviting viewers to participate in the ongoing unfolding of their patternated, perforated anti-narratives. 

Similarly, to be human is also to be “incomplete” without our various “extensions”, say for example “shoes and coats, pens and glasses, keyboards and cats.”3 This is how Jody Berland interprets, and broadens, Marshall McLuhan’s useful (if gender-biased and anthropocentric) concept of media as the “extensions of man”.4 For Berland, acknowledging the “human-machine-animal” hybrids that we are, might lead to a better “ecology of ideas”.5 Vaz’s multispecies credits invite a return to Donna Haraway’s perennially useful “Cyborg Manifesto”, which irrevocably entangles the human with the animal and the machine,6 inviting free speculation on the idea of technologies as performing their own mode of species evolution, and occupying their own ecological niches.7 Vaz worked directly with Bruno Latour, whose concepts include a nascent democracy of the more-than-human in what he calls the “Parliament of Things”, and this is evident in Vaz’s capacious credits as well as her all-inclusive image-making practice.8 But it is Haraway she claims as most influential on her films,9 and Haraway’s idea of composting as figure for collective thought and action is alluded to in Vaz’s comparison of her own use of superimposition “as if I was going to build a kind of soil in the film, and the soil becomes more and more hybrid, more and more mixed.”10 This hybrid compost of humans, animals and machines, is evident throughout the filmic practices I will discuss here, providing fertile ground for new, emergent creatures and ecologies.

Berland suggests that “the evolution of technology follows the same inexorable logic as the evolution of species.”11 I want to be clear, however, that in using evolution as a way of thinking through human-animal-machinic entanglements, I don’t want to fall into the neo-Darwinist trap of “survival of the fittest.” Rather, following Elizabeth Grosz, who does important work in snatching Darwin back from those who would instrumentalise his theories by demonstrating how his most radical provocations resonate with Deleuze-Guattarian philosophies, I am interested in celebrating desire and difference across naturecultures.12 For Grosz, this involves the intensification of sensory experience which places evolution on the same continuum as artistic production. Each of the films I discuss here constitutes a multispecies assemblage, where the filmmaking apparatus is valued as a member of the filmmaking family, and filmmaking itself as a mode of expressing kinship, including its trials and obligations. By continuing to play with the material facticity of the film, through choice of medium, montage, lighting, focus and sound, Spong, Vaz and Stefanou provoke a heightened attention to sensory perception, acknowledging the many perspectives, human and more-than-human, that constitute the multifaceted, crystalline concrescence of a film.13

Building on the concept of multispecies ethnography,14 I propose to put the species back into “medium specificity” by discussing films by these three women artists/ filmmakers, whose practices collectively span film, video, performance, object making and installation. Vaz, Spong and Stefanou treat each medium as another member of the multispecies communities in which they work, enacting what I would like to think of as a form of “multispecies filmography”.15 A filmography is a list of films, not the study of films, so this coinage is a cheeky hybrid, a mongrel term doing double duty, proposing we think and do film differently, while embracing extensive lists, as with Vaz’s multispecies credits, in a continuation of the New Materialist trope of gathering multitudinous and multispecies entities to emphasise their entanglement.16 Following Rebecca Solnit’s argument for a non-linear, non-patriarchal genealogy of art in which “other sources” she affectionally calls “the grandmothers” get to speak,17 Stefanou regularly gives voice to her grandmother in her performances, installations and films, and she even named her 2019 Honours thesis “Grazing on a Grandmaocene.”18 Vaz has included family members in her films directly (her mother stars in Sacris Pulso, 2008) and indirectly (her father’s compositions often furnish her soundtracks).19 But so too non-familial, and non-human kin, including the filmmaking apparatus, are just as integral to the “soil of the film; in Ha! Terra (2016) for example, as young woman narrates her story in voiceover while pictured crouching in dried, wild grasses, we see her speaking into a dictaphone, a detail of production that has been deliberately edited in rather than out. In Olhe Bem as Montanas (Look Closely at the Mountains, 2018) close attention is paid to the setting up of mist nets to catch and monitor bats and small birds. The measuring apparatuses, rulers, callipers, and notebooks form part of this assemblage, as do the car lights which aid the set-up of the nets, and echo the vision enabled by echolocation. One of the tiny bats is held temporary captive in a photo cannister, a true cinemal.20 Spong, too, makes films that feature truly extended concepts of family; in The painter-tailor (2019), a painting by her grandfather is as much a member of the family as her father, various relatives, cameras, tripods, lighting gear, pets, pot plants, and a swarm of bats.21

Interestingly, in each of the films I have chosen to focus on, consideration is given to the way human “extensions” not only include the filmic apparatus, but the animals and plants we consume as food, and the ways in which such consumption can enhance or detract from our multispecies relationships. Vaz’s Occidente (2015) figures the extractive relationship of colonisation to the natural world, here exemplified by the ocean and its bounty, which extends to the bounty of a buffet abord a vessel catering to wealthy families. In Stefanou’s There is a Dead Rabbit Under the Greek Family Unit (2022), bounty is the product of what she calls “peasant surrealism”, a kind of working class, family-oriented feast off the land, still the product of colonisation, but relying less on the subjugated labour of others and enacting loving, if still bloody, rituals in honour of the earth’s abundance. Spong’s feasting in Interior Castle (a blueprint) (2019) is of the metaphoric kind, as prising open exotic fruits exposes the innards of her own mysticism and constant quest for meaning. Each of the filmmaker’s assemblages is familial in one way or another – Vaz and Stefanou both portray feasting families, while Spong’s quest for knowledge about her grandfather is the main subject of The painter-tailor, and in Interior Castle, she searches for Theresa of Avilla, one of her spiritual “grandmothers”.22

The overt consumption depicted in Vaz’s Occidente is nothing short of an evisceration of colonisation, focusing in particular on the port of Lisbon as a site for the “exploration” and subsequent subjugation of major tracts of Abya Yala.23 Vaz’s subject is the sea and the extraction of its resources by humans, and Occidente oscillates between images of waves, boats of all sizes, fishing nets, and colonial statues, particularly The Monument of the Discoveries – featuring Portuguese explorers including Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, and Pedro Álvarez Cabral, the so-called discoverer of Brazil. Vaz begins her meditation on the sea and its attempted domination, however, with the abstract and ambiguous. Out-of-focus images of shimmering blue lines, somewhere between a graph and a Mark Rothko painting; resisting resolution, they perform a kind of affective mapping.24 Here, Vaz enacts the failure of the measuring apparatus – the film camera’s lens with its genealogies in the telescopes of European explorers – by purposefully unfocussing that singular focus, and thus willing an alternative history, in which the navigators never find the Americas. Notes of a deep, bassy brasswind instrument can be heard, the synaesthetic counterpart to the blurred blue lines. The sounds are nautical, like a ship’s horn, with a kind of whooshing, like flares or fireworks, to be read as celebratory or violent, depending on your point of view.

Another “blue” sound rings out: a peacock’s cry (blue as in, mournful, and also redolent of the bird’s shimmering body). The blue blurs never resolve but crossfade to a surfer and a giant breaking wave, as fishing boats and fishermen drag their nets onto the beach. The nets are filled with thousands of flapping fish – their helpless writhing fills the screen. Cut to a woman’s laugh, and the image of a ceramic tureen in the shape of a gaping, gasping fish, as if the fish’s agony in the previous images was an uproarious joke, and the goofy face of the ceramic fish was made by humans to pour salt in the piscine wound. 

While the apparatus is not as visible in Occidente as some of Vaz’s other films, hands which usually stay behind the camera are suddenly in front. These are femme white hands with deep blue nails, in sympathy with Vaz’s aquatic subject matter, perhaps standing in for the artist’s own hands, visualising the act of piecing together the film. But these hands can also be read as the kid gloves of colonisation, making it genteel, by seemingly caressing the sky, the port, and European tableware – blue and white china matching the sky and sea. These hands are in marked contrast to a pair of black, calloused, working hands we briefly see engaged in making jewellery from shells, eking out a living from the ocean but at a subsistence rather than extractive level.

Alimentary rituals in Occidente are clearly sites for the expression of power: a family meal is intercut with indicators of status and wealth such as a chandelier and carefree laughter, while the female waiter has darker skin than everyone eating at the table. Sounds of fireworks accompany the meal, redolent of warfare, as the waiter wheels out a blancmange with red berries and a chocolate mousse. Vaz lingers on these desserts as well as returning to them later, as if their colours encode messages about racial hierarchies that are the reality in Brazil’s supposed “melting pot”. Suddenly the screen fills with clips from standard nature documentaries – a tiger gazing through grass, a fish with a large, gaping mouth. Then, a young man at the table laughing, as if all these animals, all this nature, was just there for human entertainment. But the next image is of a surfer wiping out – of nature reasserting dominance, to the martial sounds of fireworks and the fading, blurred blue of the horizon line, ready to begin this narrative of greed all over again.

In contrast to Vaz’s assemblage of filmed and found footage documenting callous European conquest and exploitation of southern lands and seas with a gluttonous meal at its epicentre, Stefanou’s There is a Dead Rabbit Under the Greek Family Unit stages an al fresco meal as a ritual gesture of thanks. Stefanou works primarily with digital video, assembling multispecies casts including humans, animals, and technology such as tractors and milking machines, all actors in what she calls “agri-poet(h)ics.”25 It so happens that the film of hers that explores human-animal relations at their most visceral is also the one she chose to shoot in 16mm, enhancing the lush colours and giving a timeless aura to the ritualistic action. There is a Dead Rabbit begins with the sound of cicadas and an image of land, full of their insectoid thrumming. These unceded grasslands are part of Wurundjeri Country, sung into being by Woiwurrung voices over millennia. The grass is faded by the sun and the grain of 16mm; flecks and flickers of the film are like fleeting insects indicating the passage of time, during which this land has been settled by Stefanou’s migrant family. These rolling grasslands are no longer shaped by cultural burning, but by European farming practices that have greatly diminished biodiversity, including the introduction of damaging species such as the rabbit, one of whom forms the centrepiece of this film. 

Viewers are enticed by a table laid for a shared meal al fresco, but the chairs are empty, expectant, like a fairy tale where magic is afoot. Puce ribbons flying from the tree above match the tablecloth and faded rose bushes which frame the action. We are witnessing a celebration of some sort – but of what and for whom? The red mist of roll-fogging transitions us from the table to a bench where a dead rabbit has been laid out, on the same puce silk.26 How should I write about this animal? Following the sage advice of animal activist, theorist and writer pattrice jones, I’m going to give her a gender, even though I don’t know for sure I’ve got it right.27 Not because I believe in binary assignation among non-human animals, but because that way, I can avoid referring to this being as “it”, a technique of objectification that is one of the many scourges of my mother tongue. In fact, I’m going to call her Jill.28 A close-up of Jill’s face reveals a dull, filmy eye and bloodied nose attracting flies, as her fur flutters in the breeze; the movement of flies and breezes animates her even in death. A subliminal jump cut to a bowl of beads and jewels precedes a cut to a bowl of cherries, then back to the al fresco table, now peopled. Seven family members are gathered around a meal in the same formation as famous paintings of Christ’s last supper. They are frontally arranged for the camera who (sic), thanks to this positioning, has a seat at the table and becomes an ersatz family member, opposite a woman in white with long white hair occupying the “Jesus” position. 

This is not your average family gathering. Everyone is wearing facemasks, as this was shot during the pandemic, but these are not functional, surgical masks. Rather, they are elaborate affairs covered in pompoms, coins, chains, and even bullet cases, which, Stefanou tells me, were used to shoot rabbits.29 The costumes are based on traditional Pontian Greek folk clothing, but to an untrained eye like mine, they resemble strange medieval accessories: migrated codpieces or misplaced headdresses, echoing the costumes Stefanou laboriously sewed with bells and keys for the horses that she sung to in Horse Power (2019). The fact that she dresses herself and her family similarly to those horses underlines interspecies’ kinship connections, and relationships of care rather than exploitation. As the ribbons flutter in the breeze above family members’ heads, they play improvised music with bells, cutlery, strings of pearls and other jewellery, making similarly delicate clinking and clanking to the horses in Horse Power. In the long traditions of cattle raising across Europe, Asia, and Africa, bells connect and reassure across distance, ringing out “I am here”, “I am alive”.30 The celebration of aliveness in ritual, however, is often mediated by its opposite. The taking of a life, or sacrifice, reinforces and enhances the liveliness of the living and enables their ongoingness. The camera cuts to Jill’s decapitation on a chopping board with a kitchen knife. A pair of elderly, but sturdy, confident hands (Stefanou’s grandmother’s), pierces and hacks at Jill’s still-lithe body, to the sound of the bells and chiming cutlery.

I want to pause here to talk about the way this makes me, and maybe some other viewers, feel. There’s a relaxing, quirky charm to the family gathered around the table, the ribbons gently fluttering in the breeze, the cutlery’s soft chiming. It’s thoughtfully curated, I think, for a viewer like me – a middle-aged anglo art professional. It makes me comfortable and happy. Nothing makes me less comfortable, however, than animal death. I’ve been vegetarian since I was 12, and vegan for the last 8 years. Even before this, I’m of the generation that saw the animated feature Watership Down (1978) in the theatre at a very impressionable age, after which I swore I would never eat rabbit (lucky for me I didn’t live on a farm and it wasn’t a family tradition). It’s not that I hear Art Garfunkel singing “Bright Eyes” when I see Stefanou’s eviscerated rabbit, but I do think of lively beauty that’s been, not just stilled, but stolen. No sooner do I think this, however, than another voice enters, the “voice of reason” that argues that rabbits are a “pest” in Australia, that they outcompete native mammals and that this bunny-beheading is not a horror film but performs a favour to the local ecology. It also forces us to face the reality of meat consumption and celebrates the life taken rather than keeping Jill anonymous and her death out of sight.31

Just as I am having these thoughts, the camera cuts back to the table, focusing on produce from the family farm – berries, blood oranges, olives. Instantly, I relax again, as the female “Jesus” slowly eats a cherry, and an Uncle eats mouthful after mouthful of bloody red fruits; clearly I am more comfortable with metaphoric gore than the real thing. A photo of ancestors is surrounded by cherries as an offering, the red fruit echoing the blood that connects all the humans in this film. But these people are also connected, beyond species boundaries, to plant and animal kin, in ways which can be loving, or violent, or both. Stefanou cuts back to the visceral dismemberment of Jill, the violence palpable and discomforting amid the beauty of the familial ritual. Blood begins to smear the cutting board, and the hands that do the cutting. Jill’s fur is pulled away from her raw, fleshy body, like an old fur coat. I begin to feel that Stefanou is playing with me, rubbing my privileged vegan face in the messy realities of living off the land.32 

Time rewinds and we see a close-up of a less privileged face – Jill’s, before she is skinned. In this alternate past-present, her nose is covered in red glitter, which spills out of her nostrils like blood. Flies landing on the glitter move jerkily, as if they were stop-motion puppets. They kick the glitter which sparkles at their dipteran touch. As it sparkles, bells chime. Then, the most surreal moment of the film – Jill’s entrails are gently pulled out from her slit belly, only they are not intestines, but jewels—strings of beads and pearls, dusted in gold. Then, back to reality: Jill’s flayed carcass is hung like an ornament, turning in the breeze, stray hairs still stuck to her gummy flesh. Here, Stefanou cuts to washing hanging on a clothes’ line, as if animal death was just as prosaic, as much of a dull, daily chore.

Stefanou’s entanglement of death and the decorative recalls sculptural works by UK-born, New Zealand-based artist Angela Singer. Singer is known for what Steve Baker refers to as “botched taxidermy”,33 that is, she takes animals who have already suffered the indignities of murder and mumification for public viewing, and sometimes bloodies them, sometimes bejewels them, and sometimes both, in an act of ritualistic care. Singer’s work, like that of Stefanou’s, remains uncomfortably ambiguous, though she claims to be motivated by reverence and a desire to honour these animals.34 Catch Caught (2006) and Jar (2007) both feature rabbits whose innards have been replaced with red stones and beads which spill out like offal but also, weirdly, in relation to Stefanou’s film, cherries.35 These animal-objects are both cute and horrific, beautiful and disgusting, and Baker suggests that in viewing such works we should hold back from “the rush to judgement.”36 Appropriately to the spilled innards of Stefanou’s film and her own eviscerated bunnies, Singer says “In our gut we know human and animal are interdependent”37 and it is this entanglement that the dangling viscera of her sculptures remind me of, as I feel these creatures’ disembowelment in my gut.

The key difference between Singer’s work and Stefanou’s is one of medium. Like the taxidermy Singer critiques, her works are frozen in time, while Stefanou’s bead-stuffed bunny is almost a hallucination – a temporary manifestation. The difference between ritual and monument is clear: there will be no headstone for Jill, but the memory of this moment may prove livelier, woven as it is through sounds and images of performative gestures that continue to resonate with each screening. Stefanou, along with Spong and Vaz, is keenly aware that the apparatus in its most expanded definition includes camera, projector, viewer, actor, director, producer, light, film, and everything in between, in an assemblage that also possesses creaturely agency. This is made manifest in Stefanou’s Wake for Horses (2021), in which the artist re-screens film of a horse who has recently died of cancer to his horse companions in the paddocks where they roamed together. Filmed at sunset, Wake for Horses is a kind of equine drive-in movie which, when watched by human viewers, creates an interspecies mis-en-abyme: in reality, I am a human watching a horse watching a horse, but for a minute, I imagine I am a horse watching a horse watching a horse. Here, the act of filming the screening is made palpably visible, as horses sniff and jostle the cords, camera, sound equipment, projector and filming humans; all are quite literally entangled. It is not so much that Stefanou breaks the fourth wall, enabling us to see that what is being presented is a construction, as with radical documentary practice. Rather, she posits her work as a multispecies co-production, including species of technology.

There is a Dead Rabbit is more traditional in this sense, without making its making visible. Its multispecies entanglements are in the content, though the medium of 16mm, with its grainy pastel shades, feels more like a home movie than digital video, appropriate to Stefanou’s expansive concepts of home and extended, multispecies family. The film ends with celebration, as the family performs Greek folk dances, with Yia-yia (Grandma) at the end of the human chain waving a handkerchief at the cloudy white sky. There is a Dead Rabbit reiterates ties that bind – ribbons, entrails, beads, dances that thread humans and non-humans together. The sound of cicadas returns, and the camera returns to a long shot of the land, first without people, and then with the dancers, holding each other’s hands to the sky, slowly shuffling off camera. This coming and going, and slow exiting, seems to indicate a relinquishing of the land, an acknowledgement of the temporary presence of this family on Country with a much longer history, just as Jill’s dead body, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t, plays a game of hide-and-seek with the viewer, oscillating between signifiers of violence and actual violence so that, once the film is over, I feel like I have hallucinated the whole affair. Long live peasant surrealism!

Just as Stefanou’s family exit stage right, Spong’s Interior Castle begins with the artist herself as some kind of primordial sea creature crawling into the frame from stage left, her hands and knees negotiating a windswept, rocky beach full of tidal pools and seaweed. She seems naked, though later close-ups reveal a beige bodysuit, the same colour as Spong’s skin, featuring a pattern of scales. She is, then, some fishy, ancestral form, with long, languid limbs, and lanky black hair like seaweed… Suddenly, she falls, splat! on the rocks, and a discussion with her camerawoman ensues, “are you OK?” followed by nodding, gesturing, and another take of the same scene. Why isn’t it edited out? Clearly, Spong isn’t precious, she enjoys the ridiculousness of her own mis-en-scene. She wants her viewers to see the constructed nature of her fabrication.

Spong’s films are richly textured collaborations of environments and species, including media species. Working with film ecologically requires an understanding of the entanglement of the apparatus with weather, light and time. She writes:

“I know that early morning fog absorbs the space, soaking it up like a large grey sponge and flattening it both spatially and sonically, and because of this you’ll need 50 ASA film in the hours before 11am. I know shade darkens the hill until the sun lies directly above, between midday and 2pm, and you’ll now need 250 ASA film, while the clouds passing swiftly overhead will cause your camera’s aperture to shift wildly between f/8 and f/2.4.”38 

Spong also notes that different subjects call for different media, for example, the digital SLR allows her to take multiple shots, such as when she crawls across the beach. Some sequences, however, cry out for chemical colour, such as the one which follows the primordial crawl: South-East Asian fruits being eviscerated by feminine hands on a gridded white tablecloth. Spong shoots this on 16mm for the colour but also because this is a shot that has lived inside her mind like the “interior castle” spoken about by the ostensible subject of this film, Saint Teresa of Avilla. Film too is a spiritual quest, and here Spong/ Teresa sinks her fingers into fruity flesh which, while mimicking the colours of Dutch still lives, is an “anti- still-life” which operates on “a different kind of economy.” This is a “non-conquering, non-territorial, mapping of delight” which is, in contrast to Vaz’s sober portrait of colonial appetites, “(a) map no conquistador would have ever taken to sea.”39 A mangosteen’s hard outer case is torn at by determined fingers; the fruit is dark red and hand-sized, like a human heart. Peeled longans, like cloudy eyeballs, are arranged in a circle around the mangosteen. Rambutans come next, their hairy red shells divulging larger, clearer bulging eyes. A passionfruit’s innards are scooped and sprinkled over the fruity tableau, which, contrasting against the sterile grid, is reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s early stop motions of animal corpses decaying as seen in A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). Like Stefanou’s rabbit, and her family’s devouring of cherries and blood oranges, Spong’s fruits are also analogous to innards. They stand in for the most intimate recesses of a human, but also connect humans to animals and plants, implying that we are all part of the same earthy cycles, despite Spong’s mystical subject matter. Tellingly, when Spong clears the fruit away, their stains cannot be expunged, leaving behind stigmata-like traces, the material residue of the spiritual.

The next segment of the film tells the story of Teresa’s death, including superimposed text of her burial coordinates over prosaic images such as unmown grass in a London park and a red double decker bus sweeping past. A hand makes a fist, then unfurls. Disinterment, dismemberment, and reinterment. Spong outlines all the resting places of Teresa’s body parts, using latitude and longitude instead of placenames — a carving up of the world into compartments that is redolent of the carving up of Teresa’s body. A tadpole in negative swims in circles – like the needle of a compass – as if searching for these locations. The pulsating tadpole has been shot with an iPhone, an example of the kind of spontaneous event that can be captured with a handheld device – butterflies, beetles, and snails often make cameos in Spong’s films this way. So too Spong’s phone records the happy accident of her hand reflected in the window of a London bus as she is riding home at night: disembodied, like that of Saint Teresa, while the bus stop announcements are made by a woman’s disembodied voice – another fragmented female!40 For a moment, the sound of a film projector running is interchangeable with the humming and rattling of the bus, so that, while watching video from Spong’s phone, the sensations are subliminally analogue.

Spong returns to the primordial crawl along the beach, only 16mm has replaced the clarity of SLR, and rainbows of roll-fog engulf the scene, as the electronic soundtrack, always subtly present, begins to build. Cymbals and chants become more clearly Balinese in origin, ghostly presences in the mystic interior spaces of the film. The final shots are of swaying seaweed, resembling Spong’s wet hair, and bubbles floating as Balinese singing gives way to the sound of a heartbeat. I think of the mangosteen as the beating heart of this film, and of fruits and symbolically loaded, sacrificial foods as political signifiers in all three films I have braided together here. In Vaz’s film, food underscores hierarchies, while in the other two, it is offered as a sacrament, but in all of them, food indicates a form of ritual. Not only that, food is considered a stand-in for the human body (desserts in Vaz and fruits in Stefanou and Spong), emphasising, I think, that humanimals are also part of the food chain.41 Reflecting on her film A hook but no fish, about medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen, Spong writes of the film itself as a kind of “flesh”, in this case, made of silver halide crystals.42 Elsewhere, she writes about the “gelatinous-mouthfeel” of film,43 whose material origins include gelatin and are therefore implicated in animal death, a facticity underscored by Vaz’s struggling fish and Stefanou’s skinned rabbit.

The films I have discussed here are examples of multispecies filmography in so far as they lend themselves to lists as with bibliographies and filmographies in their most expanded form. I think about the sequences of images in each film as if I was pulling strings of beads out of Jill’s belly: shoals of fish, feasting humans, wildlife documentaries and disembodied hands in Vaz’s case; a dead rabbit, disembodied hands, fruits, feasting humans and costumes in Stefanou’s; and Spong in costume on the beach, fruits, a tadpole, a snail, (wildlife documentaries?) and disembodied hands. These tropes enact relationships both within the films and between each other. These are kinship relations that include but also exceed familial connection, encompassing humans, animals and even the 16mm substrate shared by each of the films. Following Berland’s acknowledgement of the fact that we are all, including our technologies and cultural productions, human-animal-machine hybrids, the multispecies filmmaking of Spong, Vaz and Stefanou inspires a new ecology of thinking through ecological practice. This is realised through the intensification of sensory experience, emphasising that experimental film is a space for the celebration of, and participation in, multispecies cultural production.

Endnotes

  1. See elsewhere in this journal for more on this film, and in my forthcoming monograph Cinemal: The Becoming-Animal of Experimental Film (University of Minnesota Press).
  2. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s All Incomplete (Minor Compositions, 2021) makes a powerful case for the social necessity of incompleteness, since “It is our incompleteness that inclines us toward one another” (p. 41). Following the multispecies nature of this inquiry, however, I would like to enlarge the social ambit of incompleteness to include the more-than-humans, biological and technological, who completely incomplete us.
  3. Jody Berland, Virtual Menageries: Animals as Mediators in Network Cultures (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2019): p. 6.
  4. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Sphere, 1967).
  5. Berland, Virtual Menageries, op. cit., p. 6. Here, Berland is using Félix Guattari’s ideas around the ecological aspects of creative production, what he calls the “eco-aesthetic paradigm” in The Three Ecologies (London: Althone Press, 2000) and elsewhere. Guattari’s ecologies consist of three interlinked registers of life: the psychic, the social, and the environmental. Such entanglements are abundantly evident in the films under discussion here.
  6. Haraway notes that this relation between organism and machine has been a “border war” but she insists that there is pleasure, rather than fear or pain, to be found in this “confusion of boundaries”, and that by “rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine” we can restructure desire itself. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991): pp.150; 179.
  7. Many media theorists have brought evolutionary concepts to bear on their discipline, some of which include Jody Berland’s chapter “Cultural Technologies and the ‘Evolution’ of Technological Cultures” in her book North of Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009); Lev Manovich’s proposed taxonomies of “media species” in Software Takes Command: extending the language of New Media (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); Carlos Scolari’s development of an “ecology of media” and a “media life cycle” which includes evolution, adaptation and extinction in his article “Media Evolution: Emergence, Dominance, Survival and Extinction in the Media Ecology”, International Journal of Communication (Vol. 7, 2013), unpaginated. Taking my concept “cinemal” for more-than a walk in the park, David Simpkin dreamed up a complex periodic table of filmic tropes and created a taxonomy of memory-storage devices including: primamal for smart phones, vertemal for laptops, amphibimal for VHS tape, and cellulomal for film: A Reflexive Videomatic Memory: Towards a Hoarder Aesthetic, (PhD Thesis, University of Melbourne, 2021).
  8. See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993). Vaz quotes from Latour’s text in an interview, where she says that modernity is suffering from the “disease of history” and that this is what she is trying to undo in her films. Barbara Bergamaschi Novaes, “Colonial Film Landscapes: A Conversation with Ana Vaz,” Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts Vol. 13, No. 3 (2021): pp. 146-147.
  9. Ibid, p. 153.
  10. Ibid, p. 143. Here, she is referring to the film Sacris Pulso (2008).
  11. Berland, Virtual Menageries, p. 11. As lively as the word “menagerie” is, Berland’s careful tracing of the term’s association with rich men’s playthings makes it less attractive in this context, hence I use the term “multispecies”.
  12. This contrasts with neo-Darwinists like Konrad Lorenz, whose emphasis on aggression is abhorred by Deleuze and Guattari. Lorenz turns instances of sexual selection (desire) into case studies of natural selection or what has come to be known as “survival of the fittest” although that was never Darwin’s phrase. See Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008): p. 67.
  13. Here it is worth pointing to Deleuze’s concept of the crystal image, expounded in his book Cinema 2: The Time Image (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). While I struggle to fully grasp Deleuze’s crystal, I have fun playing with it in “Crystal Phallus: The Brutal Truth about Zardoz, Art + Australia, Vol. 55, No. 2 (2019): pp. 120-129. Marrying Deleuze-Guattarian concepts with Amerindian cosmologies, Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro uses the terms perspectivism and multinaturalism to describe worlds made from multispecies perspectives, see Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology (Minneapolis: MN Univocal, 2014).
  14. Widely used but first proposed by Eben Kirksey and Stephan Helmreich in “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 25, Issue 4 (2010): pp. 545-576.
  15. Important work to acknowledge in this field includes Kim Knowles’ “The Cinema of Multi-Species Encounters,” https://www.humanities.uci.edu/events/kim-knowles-cinema-multi-species-encounters-0. In the Australian context, ethnographic researcher and filmmaker Natasha Fijn refers to a practice of “multispecies enthographic filmmaking” among Yolgnu in the Northern Territory in “The Multiple Being: Multispecies Ethnographic Filmmaking in Arnhem Land, Australia”, Visual Anthropology, Issue 32:5 (2019): pp. 383-403.
  16. For example, in a classic text of the so-called New Materialist turn, Jane Bennett describes the electrical grid as “a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood…” Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010): p. 25.
  17. Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Viking, 2005); p.59. This bears some relation to a term I coined during my doctoral studies, “Bibliography in the Expanded Field” (Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, 2009-2012) during which time I produced, among other works, ceramic copies of every book read during my candidature.
  18. A version of Stefanou’s thesis was published at “Music Pours Over the Sense”: https://musicpoursoverthesense.net/choreographic-composition-2. Stefanou is currently my PhD candidate, and although I wasn’t her Honours supervisor, our conversations began in that year, including discussions on how to honour non-bibliographic sources of knowledge in a bibliography. Stefanou was close to listing frogs, reeds, and her Grandmother in her bibliography, but eventually decided against it. Interestingly, the Yolngu and non-Indigenous Bawaka Collective always name Bawaka Country as the lead author of their articles, so that a typical citation looks like this: Bawaka Country, Sarah Wright, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Kate Lloyd, Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, & Jill Sweeney. “Co-becoming Bawaka: Towards a relational understanding of place/space.” Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 40, No. 4 (2016): pp. 455-475.
  19. Vaz frequently works with soundtracks by her father, Brazilian composer Guilherme Vaz. Her recent film A árvore (2023) is her tribute to his life.
  20. Laird, Cinemal, forthcoming, but also see Laird, “Sonic Disturbance and Chromatic Dissolution: The Cantrills Remake Melbourne,” Senses of Cinema, 2017, https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2017/screening-melbourne/cantrills-remake-melbourne/#fn-32062-4
  21. For more on this film see Laird, Cinemal, forthcoming.
  22. Spong has also made a film about Hildegard von Bingen, A hook but no fish (2018), and writes about female medieval mystics in her doctoral thesis Scirinz (A Running Sore): Particular and Ecstatic Scripts of the Body by Mystic Women in the Middle Ages and Early (Auckland: University of Auckland, 2021).
  23. Abya Yala is a word from the Kuna peoples of Colombia and Panama that refers to a flourishing, living land, and has been proposed as an alternative name for Latin America. Arturo Escobar goes further by proposing Abya Yala/ Afro/ Latino América to indicate the plurality of the continent, whose renaming is “the first step toward participating in a politics of the real and of the possible.” Escobar, Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible (Durham; London: Duke University Press): 2020, p. 7.
  24. This blurry horizon line is a signature of Vaz’s repeated in other films, including It Is Night in America and Olhe Bem As Montanas.
  25. Tina Stefanou, Tina, “Rural Utopias Residency: Tina Stefanou in Carnamah #6,” (SPACED; Government of Western Australia: Perth, 2023).
  26. I use the word puce because I think it is the right colour descriptor, but also in homage to Kenneth Anger’s beautiful 1949 film Puce Moment. The colour puce is named after the French for flea, or more specifically, blood stains left behind by squashed fleas, a multispecies mash-up if ever there was one. While parts of There is a Dead Rabbit are redolent of the violence, beauty and high ritual of Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates (1969), it is ultimately softer and more intimate, a true “home movie”, as well as being a kind of dress-up game, making it more akin to Anger’s Puce Moment.
  27. Based on a conversation at the Australasian Animal Studies Association conference “Decolonizing Animals”, Christchurch, 2019.
  28. I was going to call her Peta Rabbit, echoing while feminising Beatrix Potter’s famous character, and of course paying tongue-in-cheek tribute to the notorious PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). I am aware, however, that while PETA may have good intentions, their style of animal activism is not for everyone, and they are frequently mired in controversies that arguably do little to help the cause of the animals they purport to defend. I then thought of Jack Rabbit, but since I had already imagined this rabbit as female, I decided on Jill, the feminine form of Jack. Jill is my mother’s name, which makes the familial entanglement of this rabbit more personal to me.
  29. Personal conversation, 12 January, 2024.
  30. See Alexis Pauline Gumbs on echolocation and presence, in Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (Chico; Edinburgh: AK Press) 2020.
  31. A very different, deeply empathetic response to the death of hundreds of these so-called “pests” from myxomatosis, can be found in the visual and spoken-word poem 12 Days of Myoxma (Andraya Stapp-Gaunt, 2022), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaT9uMciolc.
  32. In the special issue of Antennae journal on “Botched Taxidermy”, the introduction by Steve Baker quotes (sceptically) a member of PETA who states (in opposition to Paris fashion shows that feature furs), “There is nothing creative about skinning an animal”. Baker, “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” Antennae, Issue 7, (Autumn 2008): pp. 4-5.
  33. Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion, 2000): p. 55. This term was subsequently the title of a whole issue of Antennae journal, with Baker writing the introduction (see above).
  34. Steve Baker, “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead,” in The Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies, Garry Marvin and Susan McHugh, eds. (London: Routledge, 2014): p. 294.
  35. Miranda Johnson suspects the bloody innards of Catch Caught may also indicate maternity and underline the fear of rabbits breeding in New Zealand (which can also be applied to Australia). Johnson, “‘The Other Who Precedes and Possesses Me’: Confronting the Maternal/Animal Divide Through the Art of Botched Taxidermy,” Feral Feminisms, Issue 6, (Fall 2016): p. 75.
  36. Baker, “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead,” op. cit., p. 296.
  37. Ibid, p. 291.
  38. Spong, Sriwhana, “strange and irregular practices,” Sriwhana Spong: H (New Plymouth: Govett Brewster Art Gallery, 2018): p. 18.
  39. Spong, Scirinz, op. cit., pp. 63-64.
  40. It strikes me that there is a haptic quality in all the films I am discussing, that is literalised by the trope of feminine hands: with blue painted nails caressing the skyline in Vaz’s Occidente; tough, working woman’s hands eviscerating the dead rabbit in Stefanou’s film; and the artist’s own hands peeling fruit in Spong’s Interior Castle, as well as appearing reflected in the window of a bus. Interestingly, there are no close-ups of faces in these films, which disrupts the gaze, insofar as it makes viewers feel like they are inhabiting the body of the one being filmed, rather than gazing upon them. This focus on hands recalls the femme hands with coloured nails in Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013), which brought life and sensuality back into the archive of the Smithsonian Museum, feminising if not downright sexualising the patriarchal institution. See my discussion of this film in Laird, “From Underdog to Overview: Perspectivism, Symbolism and Taxonomies in the films of Camille Henrot,” Antennae 42 (Winter 2017): pp. 37–54.
  41. For an extended discussion of this fundamental realisation, see Val Plumwood, “Being Prey,” The new earth reader: the best of Terra Nova, David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, eds. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1999). Understanding humans as edible also forms much of the Amerindian cosmology in Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
  42. Relating the “light sensitive medium” of film to the capacity for mystics and mediums to be imprinted by light, Spong notes that what is shared is an “unknown language”. By attuning to such inchoate sensations, we can approach life “not with mastery but with an offering.” Spong, “strange and irregular practices,” op. cit., p. 24.
  43. Spong, Scirinz, op, cit., p. 21.

About The Author

Tessa Laird is an artist, writer and Senior Lecturer in Critical and Theoretical Studies, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. She is the author of A Rainbow Reader (Clouds, 2013) and Bat (Reaktion, 2018) and Cinemal: The Becoming-Animal of Experimental Film (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming).

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