Nature’s Nickelodeons: A Multispecies Sensorium

11 June 2018
By Dr Sarah Bezan

The following is a post by Dr Sarah Bezan, who is a Newton International Fellow at Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre (2018-2020). The post was originally published on Sarah’s website.


In her exegesis of the nature documentary, film studies scholar Anat Pick argues that David Attenborough’s “palatial rendering of nature” exemplifies an expansionist ethos. Principles of scale and scope, particularly in feature films produced by the BBC, frequently expand and shrink their subjects: a larval glowworm wriggles inside a translucent casing beneath a magnified lens, migrating flocks of geese are captured in a satellite swoop of the camera that is momentarily shrouded in clouds, and deep-sea fish move languidly through the inky black expanse of ocean. This expansionist ethos endows the human voyeur with the power to carefully view nonhuman life at close contact as well as from a celestial point of view. Through a kind of optic hyperbole, the camera amplifies nature into a spectacle, while the booming voiceover authoritatively imposes a narrative script that explicates nature’s behaviours and proclivities.

Amy Cutler’s Nature’s Nickelodeons is a performance piece that detonates this expansionist ethos. Advancing an incisive critique of the ocularcentrism of the nature broadcast, Nature’s Nickelodeons offers a multispecies sensorium: a performative play of speech, music, and moving images that engage with nonhuman life through layers of sound. Live improvisations from the “feral choir” fill the room with creaks, sighs, and hums, along with buzzing, droning, babbling, popping, yipping, gnawing, and other wild operatics (including an extemporaneous sneeze from a member of the audience), in turn composing a score that breaks from what Cutler describes in her opening statements to the crowd as the “stock voices” of nature documentary forms.

A clarinet, violin, harpsichord, guitar, and electronic recordings similarly guide listeners into an affective landscape quite different from the pedagogical mode that often shapes the nature broadcast. Nature’s Nickelodeons veers away from conventions of the Romantic sublime (which would position the human observer on a pedestal), and instead conveys its audience into an immersive experience that re-thinks nature in and through the act of (re)producing and interpreting its expressive forms.

In the opening performance, beatboxer Jason Singh produces stratigraphical layers of sound that respond to projected images of predation and mating rituals. The guttural sounds reflect the individual personhood of particular animals (like the mudskipper, an amphibious fish), as well as a sense of their collective cacophonies. The “neural network” of the following performance by Amy Cutler and Anna Ridler jumbles the script of the Romantic sublime through AI voice work that cultivates a pastoral collage of concepts. Words and phrases like “flower” and “field of vision” mirror the fairytale haze of the film that captures time-lapsed blossomings, cocooning butterflies, and running streams.

Experimental compositions by Nick Roth and Pavlos Antoniou, which might be described as a bit “noisy,” exhibit the migratory flight patterns of geese through the plucking of violin strings and the reedy gusts of wind instruments. Two moving performances by Àine O-Dwyer and Bridget Hayden create ambient music that models the creativity of silk spinner spiders and deep-sea cephalopods. Generating a web of sound, O’Dwyer’s use of the harp mimics the architectural craft of the spider, while Hayden’s synth compositions produce a mood that is hauntingly and percussively alien, much like the deep-sea. These cinematic soundscapes generate varying speeds and rhythms that slow and accelerate with each passing image. Some of these images inscribe a pastoral visual narrative (like a bee gathering nectar from a flower), while others, like images of birds mired in an oil spill or shot down in flight by hunters, carry with it the subtext of violent human interaction.

These performances lead us to question what it means to “document” nature. How, for instance, does the nature broadcast silence or overwrite nature’s multifaceted iterations? What is the acoustic register of a multispecies sensorium, and what different kinds of interpretations of the cinematic form become possible when we become better attuned to nonhuman forms of expression and representation? Cutler’s production invites us to consider the cultural imaginaries that accompany (and often typecast) our understandings of nonhuman compositions. By moving away from the spectacle of the nature broadcast, Nature’s Nickelodeonsgestures to a kind of “minoritarian” expression of sound. Like Josephine the Singer (the eponymous character of Kafka’s short story, who “whistles” or “sings”), the performers and audience members who participate in the production of sound through nonhuman vocalisations create an alternative approach to the conventional nature documentary. The multispecies sensorium that is engendered in these live performances push us beyond the passive spectacle of nature “out there,” instead creating intimate, reverberative, and interactive responses to the nature documentary form.