A speaking being, according to Aristotle, is a political being. What does it mean, then, when we learn that lizards, such small and expansive things, speak?
My curiosity has shifted from what I think, to what thinks me. The flush, ripe, seeking, gasping, fucking, scenting, sounding, saying more-than-human world draws me out, propels me toward the future, and pushes up against the boundaries of what can be thought or said. I make work by, for, and with other species, often in collaboration with scientists, sometimes in collaboration with dancers, composers, perfumers and others. I ask. What might cross-species forms of address look like? Would they “look” at all? Would our political alliances shift if we were to learn the embodied language of another creature?
I’ve learned to speak lizard – to bob my finger in imitation of the complex patterns of pushups and head bobs fence lizards use to communicate across distances. I speak lizard in the field. I make a hiker’s bandana with a lizard decoder so others, too, can speak lizard. I create human perfumes based on lizard pheromones. Surprisingly, they contain jasmonates and pyrazines, the same scent compounds found in human perfumes and in grapefruit, chocolate, cocoa and sauvignon blanc. I invite people to sample the scent of lizard on their skin while sipping sauvignon blanc and sampling grapefruit, coffee, and jasmine scented chocolate truffles. I make reproductions of the perfume blends male orchid bees use to attract mates. I offer men’s cologne to the bees. They prefer Bleu de Chanel to Dior Sauvage. I spend the night in a tree at a research station in the Amazon. I watch the glow of fire on the horizon from illicit oil drills with a group of woolly monkeys. They study me questioningly. What to do? When I return the following year, I teach them to point at snakes – a form of directed social attention for the common good that, according to the snake detection theory, nudged our hominin ancestors towards language. I learn that crows recognize human individuals, form opinions about them, and share their opinions with other crows. I target climate change deniers for scoldings by crow. I wire a building to broadcast the social drumming of Northern flickers drowned out by urban noise. I invite a chameleon to roam a midwinter Brooklyn gallery, making aesthetic choices in response to art works. Will it choose to stand out or to blend in? What does safety look like to the lizard in our alien human world? A dancing man moves like a human, moves like an animal. Rocks tap, a wall laughs, a sculpture flashes its blue neon throat.
The human word scurries away and the body says every word / was once an animal.