The Multispecies Salon II: Gleanings from a Para-Site

A virtual article by Craig Schuetze, Christopher Newman, and Patricia Alvarez

Visitors to the Multispecies Salon II, at the 2008 meetings of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, could hear the twitter of live cockroaches mingling with recorded sounds of chimpanzees screeching for meat. A video installation juxtaposed images of whooping cranes following ultralight aircraft on annual migrations with footage of humans playing with dolphins in captivity. Experimental organisms, fruit flies, and pictures of transgenic E. coli bacteria shared the space with apparently everyday household artifacts. One installation featured milk cartons and junk mail picturing missing amphibians in the place of missing children—creatures such as the golden toad of Monte Verde, Costa Rica, now presumed extinct. The piece asked, “Have You Seen Me?”

The Multispecies Salon originated here, in Northern California, where intellectuals were exploring human relations with other species.  In 2006 Donna Haraway helped inaugurate the first Multispecies Salon at the UC Santa Cruz campus in association with the AAA Presidential Session: “Speaking With/For Nature: Conversations with Biologists and Their Non-Human Others.” Departing from these discussions, Marnia Johnston (an artist) and Eben Kirksey (an anthropologist) began to collaborate with one another in 2008.  They brought artworks, everyday objects, and living creatures into a gallery called PLAySPACE, at the California College of Arts in San Francisco, to provoke conversations about contact, contagion, and care.

The California College of the Arts building originally served as a Greyhound Bus maintenance facility in the 1950s, but has since been converted: the college’s marketing materials herald sustainability and eco-consciousness. The two rooms of the PLAySPACE Gallery were overflowing with an excess of art about animals, plants, and microbes: a painting of a shark mouth agape, collages of naked human and animal bodies, a photo of a fish head on a human torso, and in the corner, a stack of pick polyps and puffer-fish in a pile of dust and confetti. The Multispecies Salon was a “para-site”—a paraethnographic field site where anthropologists and their interlocutors came together to discuss matters of common concern (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010; Marcus 2000). 

On November 11th, 2010, opening night, the room looked like the iconic art gallery, like the Palais de Tokyo—a tidy, antiseptic, square white box (Bishop 2004: 51).  About fifty people were there—curious students from the California College of Arts, professors, and friends who came for wine and cheese. Others found interesting tastes elsewhere. A child dipped her finger in an orange-hued tank of halophilic microorganisms, bringing the salty taste to her lips.  The cockroaches fed on leftover scraps: orange peels and apple cores. People took in images, smells, and sounds, leaving behind others on cameras, digital voice recorders, plates, and floors. The white floor became scuffed and soiled as the night progressed. The tidy antiseptic space became messy and lived-in—something like a cross between a laboratory and a living room (cf. Bishop 2004: 51).

The Multispecies Salon had a lifecycle of growth and decay that pushed beyond the usual static boundaries of art exhibits. When, two weeks later, in conjunction with the AAA meetings, there was a reopening night, the space had changed: competing curatorial impulses moved organisms, artworks, and household artifacts in and out of the gallery. On reopening night, November 21, many visitors became visibly uneasy as they walked into the Multispecies Salon gallery past pictures of two gatekeepers—a menacing “Bodyguard” and a benevolent “Surrogate”, sculptures by the Australian artist, Patricia Piccinini.

The Multispecies Salon was about the unfolding of encounters.  The exhibit was an attempt to get at something we did not already know rather than a reorganizing of existing knowledge. There was an interweaving of subject and object, ethnographers and informants, culture and nature.  This museum space was “a contact zone where the outcome, where who is in the world, is at stake” (Haraway 2008:244; Clifford 1997).  The Salon took place at a historical moment when predictions of biological catastrophes (disease outbreaks, global warming, and mass extinction) were competing with dreams about salvation through technoscientific intervention (new drugs, carbon sequestration schemes, and captive breeding of endangered species).  “We departed from the strange allure of totalizing visions of salvation and destruction,” said curator Eben Kirksey, “to provoke discussion about modest biocultural hope.” 

Related Reading

Bishop, Claire. 2004 Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. October 110:51-79.

Clifford, James. 1997 Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 2007. When Species Meet (Posthumanities). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kirksey, S. Eben, and Stefan Helmereich. 2010. The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 25(4):545-687.

Marcus, George E. 2000. Para-Sites: A Casebook against Cynical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.