How do you imagine a creature of the octopus’ ilk? And what does it do to your relationship to the world once you do?
OktoLab is an interdisciplinary research laboratory for confronting us with the otherness of octopuses. Picking up where scientific-rational approaches reach their limits, its aim is to push the boundaries of conventional research approaches. Octopuses serve as both objects and guides in this endeavour. We propose that they afford us a particular opportunity to open up new ways in which we understand and relate to the world. The guiding principle for this is to recognize them as self-willing, sentient others for-themselves.
We assume that art, philosophy, aesthetics and the humanities in general play a crucial role aside the sciences to negotiate this territory. We thus deliberately disrupt and challenge clear demarcations of scientific, scholarly, artistic and cultural approaches to octopuses in an attempt to find ways of engaging and representing octopuses so they might tell their own stories. Thereby we aim to contribute new and better ways of understanding and conceptualizing octopuses, while imagining new ways of doing research through octopuses.
Octopuses – both imagined and in the flesh – thus present a provocational lens and model to reconsider our relationship to the nonhuman and our ways of recognizing the world. Inspired by their long and ambiguous presence in storytelling in the arts and cultural history, we hope that this allows to open up urgently needed new, strange and unexpected perspectives on octopuses and, through them, our environment.
Octopuses exist at a confluence. With more than 300 species that reach into all corners of the oceans, they are ubiquitous. Their complex and intricate biology puts our capacities for understanding and explanation to the test. They have equally intrigued and repulsed people for a long time, as represented in literature, film and science. At the same time, they are familiar in many cultures, commonly as food, but in some also as spirit animals. More recently, they have been receiving increased attention in the context of studies on consciousness due to their intelligence, distinct individual personalities and inquisitive character. Octopuses thus exist simultaneously in a place of utter nearness and distance, familiarity and alienation, fascination and disgust.
It is not just the strangeness of octopuses to us then that let OktoLab choose them as case study – many creatures provide such strangeness – but the specific convergence of a visceral aesthetic existence, resistance to being understood by our familiar ways of explaining the world around us, the consistent spell of intrigue they hold over us, and the specific moment in history when we seem open to afford them their own self-consciousness.
OktoLab originated with conversations in 2016 between Yvette Watt (University of Tasmania, Australia) and André Krebber at the University of Kassel, Germany. Afterwards, Yvette and André received funding from the DAAD and Universities Australia to further develop OktoLab.
The initial project were twin exhibitions, for which the founding project team expanded to include Maike Riedinger (University of Kassel), Toby Juliff (University of Tasmania), and Anne Hölck (independent scenographer and researcher, Berlin, Germany). In addition, OktoLab teamed up with Jane Barlow (Plimsoll Gallery, Hobart, Australia) and Ute Hörner, Mathias Antlfinger and Heike Ander (Academy of Media Arts Cologne, Germany) to host the exhibitions. The development was aided by a range of symposia, workshops and presentations at associated events that the OktoLab team organized and attended in Germany, Australia, the UK and New Zealand (see below for a list).
OktoLab19 opened at the Plimsoll Gallery, University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia in 2019; it was accompanied by the student exhibition The 9th Arm at Entrepot Gallery, Hobart, Australia, curated by …. Octopus Encounters opened at GLASMOOG Gallery at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany in May 2020. The opening of the second iteration coincided with the international virtual conference Other Worlds: Octopuses in Interdisciplinary Perspective on 30-31 October 2020, which was funded by the DFG.
As of 2023, OktoLab’s current team consists of Yvette Watt, André Krebber, Toby Juliff, Ute Hörner, Mathias Antlfinger, Thomas Hawranke (Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design Halle, Germany), and Martin Ullrich (University of Music, Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany) and is working towards publishing a book on octopuses, entitled Octopus Constellations.
Toby Juliff is an artist and writer based in Tasmania. As graduate of the University of Leeds (UK) he was previously lecturer at Leeds Art University (2006-12: UK) and The University of Melbourne (2012-17). He is currently lecturing and researching at the University of Tasmania. He has published widely on the subjects of hauntology, contemporary sculpture, participation, and pedagogy. Recent publications include a book chapter on affect and participation in cultural heritage (Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present, Routledge) and a long journal article on British-Australian sculpture in the 1960s (ANZJA).
Dr. Yvette Watt is a practising artist, an Animal Studies scholar, and curator. Dr Watt curated the exhibition Reconstructing the Animal as part of the 2011 Ten Days on the Island arts festival, which included artists from Iceland/UK, USA, New Zealand and Australia. Other curatorial roles include co-curating Animals, People: A Shared Environment at Queensland College of the Arts and POP galleries, Brisbane, co-curated with Ross Woodrow and Jo Diball (2011) and Animaladies at Interlude Gallery, Sydney, curated with Madeleine Boyd and Melissa Boyde (2016). Her most recent large-scale project as an artist was the acclaimed Duck Lake Project. Dr Watt has written widely on the representation of animals in art, as well as conducting research in the field of Animal Studies more generally.
Dr. André Krebber is an interdisciplinarily trained lecturer in social and cultural history and animal studies scholar at the University of Kassel, Germany. In his work, he explores the relationship between scientific and artistic knowledge productions and their specific qualities in comprehending animals. He has strong expertise in epistemological questions in relation to the animal as object of knowledge from historical as well as philosophical perspectives. He received his PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand after graduating with a Diplom in Environmental Sciences from the University of Lüneburg, Germany. His work has appeared in Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture and Food Ethics, and he currently co-edits the volume Animal Biography: Re-framing Animal Lives for Palgrave.
Anne Hölck is scenographer at theatres in Germany, France and Switzerland since 2002, she lives in Berlin. Besides her theatre work she curates and realizes exhibition projects, workshops and lectures in the field of human-animal studies with an emphasis on spatial and artistic research. She is co-editor of the anthology “Tiere Bilder Ökonomien. Aktuelle Forschungsfragen der Human-Animal Studies.” by Chimaira AK (transcript Verlag: Bielefeld 2013) and her critical essays on zoo architecture were published in the German magazins TIERethik 2014, Tierstudien 2015 and by DOM publishers 2017. Among others he has curated the exhibitions »we, animals « / Meinblau Berlin 2014-15, „ANIMAL LOVERS“/nGbK Berlin 2016, „Fur Agency/BEARLY LEGAL“ 2017 and „SWINGER“ 2018 at Bärenzwinger Berlin.