Octopi Constructions
By Hannah Vainstein, Nathan Hayden and Octopus(s)

Started on: 05/18/09 23:32:38
Medium: Visual

After visiting Reef I was struck by the depressed octopus. I decided that I would like to collaborate with the octopus to make work since they are very playful and this little octopus may need some stimulation.

Forest suggested that octopi like games and puzzles such as putting its food in a jar and letting the octopus figure out how to open the jar. When I looked on youtube I found many examples of this. He also suggested that octopi liked to play with Lego pieces.

Nathan and I have decided that it would be interesting to bring some of these pieces to the octopus, some constructed and some loose and see if he is interested to playing and assembling these pieces together. If he does feel compelled to play with these pieces I am wondering if he will like to work on constructions that I have started or make his own. I wonder if I could start one that then he would add on to and then I could continue from there. I will be interested if he would be willing to have me work over his creation.

My main concern at the moment however is that he is so depressed that I wonder if he will even be interested in the lego pieces at all. I have contacted Scott Simon and told him about our project and I will see if it will be plausible to work with this little creature. I would like in the end to exhibit a collaborative construction that has been developed by the octopus, Nathan and myself.

A few facts about Octopi:

They are very intelligent.

They are invertebrates and the only hard part of their body is a “beak” in the center of their body that they use to eat their food.

They are playful creatures that can learn how to do mazes. They like to problem solve and they have demonstrated that they have both short and long term memory. And have been reported to have observational learning.

I am hoping to use attributes to work with the little octopus.

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Project Updates
05/27/09 20:18:36 - Working with the Octopus

After a frustrating start I finally got a hold of Scott Simon and I made a date to come down and get to know the octopus. I had to bring with me a form/permet from California fish and game. Scott finds that it is important to know the process that one must go through in order to work with the animals. When I got to REEF I discovered that the octopus I had intended to work with was unavailable. It turned out that she was a female and had laid eggs. Once an octopus lays eggs it spends the rest of its life over the eggs protecting them and pumping water over them. Scott then fetched me an octopus from another researcher to work with. We believe that this octopus is a male because it doesn't have any eggs. The only way to tell if an octopus is a male or female is to cut off one of its tentacles. This would be the "special tentacle" which in a male also has sperm.

Scott made it very clear to me his point of view on the dangers of anthropomorphizing the octopus. When I said that the octopus liked mazes he asked me to describe how we know an octopus "likes" and what research has been done to proved that it liked.

This first day with the octopus.

The octopus came in a small plastic jar with holes in it. As soon as I saw him I wished he was not the octopus we were to work with because he was bigger than the other octopuses and his tentacles reminded me of a snake.

We took him out of his jar and put him into a small tank where we were to work with him. Scott asked Nathan and I if we were allergic to bees because the octopus could bit us with his small beak in the center of his body which would cause a reaction similar to a bee sting. This information added to my fear of him. And in addition I became paranoid thinking that my interaction with the octopus would now be tainted by my fear.

For most of the two hours we were with him he stayed in one corner of his tank. Nathan spent most of the time with his hands in the tank allowing them to brush against the octopus tentacles so that the octopus would become familiar with him. I spent a good part of our visit construction out of lego and trying to send visual images to the octopus on how to construct. Finally I too felt relaxed enough to allow my fingers to brush up against the octopus. I found that sometimes he would hold on to my fingers. His pulsed as he held on to us.

I had agonized for quite a while earlier in the day as to whether I should buy the large lego or the small lego and which would be easier for the octopus to manipulate. I ended up buying several containers up able to decide. But once I was with the octopus the small ones seemed appropriate.

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05/27/09 20:36:05 - Day 2

Second day with the Octopus.

First of all Octopus is one of my favorite words.

Today was a lot different than yesterday. Nathan and I arrived at REEF and got the octopus from his jar. It felt very official to do this on our own without Scott there. We filled the tank and slid the octopus inside the tank. Octopi can live for about 10 min outside of water depending on the humidity and temperature.

Nothing has been done to the lego.

Today his was much more feisty. We spent a good deal of our time again with our fingers in the water so that he would know that it was us who had come for him again. At first I thought that maybe he was upset that Nathan and I were coming during the day to play with him since octopi are nocturnal. I wish we had access to him during the night. I feel like we had disturbed him. His temper a bit erratic as twice he attempted to escape from the tank. The second time Nathan slinkied him for a while and once he went back in the tank he got very upset. he turned very white and contracted his skin so that it looked like sand. He sank to the very bottom of the tank and when Nathan put his hand in he shrank back. He must have stayed in that position for at least ten minutes.

Finally he started to return to his normal color and started to float to the top of the tank. I got nervous that he was going to try to escape again. Nathan was in the bathroom and I was going to have to take care of him all by myself. I felt comfortable enough to have him graze and hold my finger but I'm still a bit scared to hold him.

However he did not try to escape. Nathan finally returned and we decided to dance and sing to the octopus. He seemed to respond very positively to this behavior. He started to move back and forth in his tank with us as we started to dance.

I have been building with the lego in front of him and I have observed him watching us intently today. I feel as though we are developing a relationship with him.

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05/27/09 20:51:06 - Day 3

Today was marvelous.

Firstly all the lego pieces were deconstructed. I put two pieces in there for him to play with and two in there that were connected so that he could use it as a model. Even if he is not building with the pieces I am pleased that he might be taking them apart. I still have not seen him build or take them apart though so I cannot yet come to any conclusions.

Today Nathan and I spent the majority of our time with our hands in the tank with him. I now feel much more comfortable with him. Today my hands were in one part of the tank and he reached over and grasped me. The octopus displayed no form of shyness towards us today which leads us to believe that he recognized us. In fact he has developed a new way of relating to us. He started doing it yesterday but I still was thinking that he may have been wanting to escape, today though it has become clear that his is just interested in looking at us because he never tried to leave the tank. What he does is swim to the top of the tank and then he brings his head just out of the water so that his eyes can peer at us. He has been doing this often. Nathan and I both agree that it would be fabulous to be in a tank with him so that we could all be in the same environment. Being in different environments makes it a little difficult to physically connect. Also when we are dancing with him our movements have been taking on a fluid motion that would come naturally if we were in water.

It has become very clear to us that the way that we have been interacting with the octopus is like a dance. Our fingers have been moving in response to the octopus and visa versa. It is much like our tango with the cows in that me move allowing the octopus to lead. Also the fact that the octopus responds most positively when we dance has encouraged us to interact with him in this manner.

We are conceiving of a dance/performance that will be informed by the movements and reactions of the octopus. This will be the best way to demonstrate what we have learned from the octopus.

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06/03/09 17:01:22 - Dance of the Octopus

Nathan was unable to attend the opening so I went ahead as planned in the performance. I put three outfits together that would represent the dominant moods of the octopus. One outfit was white to represent the depressed/rejected mood. Anther ensemble was red to express the agitated/excited mood and the final outfit was a a brown to represent the comfortable mood. We also set up a set of actions that were to be taken depending upon who entered the space. This actions were also dependent on my mood but the general rules were:

If some one was to enter the space who I did not know I would put on the white uniform and retreat to the corner where I could feel protected. If At some point I felt comfortable with them then I may change into my comfortable outfit. I might ever reach out to this person and make contact with them. At this point I would pulse their are much like the octopus did when he was feeling Nathan and I.

If some one entered who I was familiar and comfortable with then I would reach out to this person and squeeze their arm as the octopus had. I might even intertwine my arms with theirs.

If a group of people entered my space who I knew I might then put on the red outfit to show excitement. If the change is instigated by a positive experience I may approach the group.

I might also put on the red outfit if someone had angered or upset me. in one case during the performance I decided to leave the space because someone agitating had entered the gallery. I figured if an octopus was really upset he or she might leave her grotto for refuge somewhere else.

Through out the performance I refrained from speaking but did not hesitate from laughing. I tried to communicate with people in other ways besides spoken language but I felt that sounds, laughing ect. were acceptable.

Although this was a performance I am not "acting" octopus. Instead I am using the behavior of the octopus as a model for my own behavior. This is why the piece is Dance of the Octopus.

Side note. This piece is also in dialogue with Deleuze's notion of becoming animal. I am very pleased to have done this performance/dance as it very much relates to other works especially drawing that I have been doing. I feel the experience of working with the octopus and having done the performance has helped deepen my art practice and is helping to me form some new projects.

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