Every Word Was Once an Animal

Digital print wallpaper, video, robots, scents, sound, glass, ceramic, neon, ink on paper, digital print on aluminum, interactive dance, 2020

Inspired by research on the gestural and olfactory language of Western fence lizards, Every Word was Once an Animal explores the overlapping forces of nature and culture between humans, animals, and language. The exhibition blends lead artist Carla Bengtson’s investigations into the lifeworlds of nonhuman animals with choreographer Darion Smith’s interest in embodied language, composer Juliet Palmer’s investigations into the material possibilities and constraints of human and nonhuman utterance, and artist Jessie Rose Vala’s evocations of the intimate relationship between sculptural form and the mythic mind.
In collaboration with lizard researcher Dr. Emilia Martins.

Darion Smith dances in the gallery, sound by Juliet Palmer, video by Jessie Rose Vala, video, 2:23, 2020

The exhibition included site-responsive interventions in the landscape, a multi-sensory museum installation, dance and vocal performances, and scent sampling and tasting events (canceled due to coronavirus).

Magic-eye stereogram wallpaper, ink on paper, mirrored glass, ceramic, neon, scent, sound, 2020

A perfume based on lizard pheromones is offered for sampling, lizard-related scent compounds are offered for tasting, hand robots programmed with lizard head bob patterns speak to one another across the gallery, mirrored glass rocks invite lizard interactions in the landscape, a magic-eye stereogram wallpaper spells WORD, a wall sighs and scents, an ASL drawing signs ANIMAL, and a ceramic sculpture flashes its blue neon throat. Camouflage wallpaper and costumes are used for interactive dance and vocal performances (canceled due to coronavirus).a

Headbob lizard interaction, site document, Joshua Tree National Park, 2019

Hand robot programmed with Sceloporus occidentalis head bob patterns, mirrored glass, silicone, arduino, 2020

Fence lizards use head-bob and push-up displays to communicate across distances. Like human language, their species-specific movements are socially learned, make use of syntax, and exhibit regional dialects. Lizards respond to anything that mimics their movement patterns, including bobbing fingers. Dr. Martins use videos, mirrors, lizard robots, and her own bobbing finger to decode the fence lizard’s gestural language.

For Every Word Was Once an Animal, hand blown mirrored glass “rocks” and silicone robotic hands programmed with lizard movement patterns were distributed in the landscape to evoke lizard displays. In the museum gallery space, robotic hands “spoke” to one another across the gallery.

Lizard Semiotics
Lizard head-bob decoder bandana, silkscreen on cotton, 24” x 24”, 2020

A hiker’s bandana for learning lizard head-bob language pairs the gestural language of lizards with that of a human gestural language, American Sign Language (ASL). On one end is a graph showing a Sceloporus occidentalis species-identification head bob pattern, on the other, a hand spells out LIZARD in ASL.

Instructions for interspecies communication: Lizards respond to finger bobs that correctly imitate their movement patterns. First, find a fence lizard. Bob your finger in a rapid up and down motion, following the graph. The horizontal axis = duration, the vertical axis = height of the head at the top of the movement.

Sceloporus sp.

Handblown glass bottle containing a perfume based on fence lizard pheromones. Glass, scents, fabric, metal, 5 3/4” x 20 1/2” x 3 3/8”, 2018/2020

Fence lizards use scent, along with gesture, to claim territory, express their individual identity, and attract a mate. The perfume Sceloporus sp., based on the lizard’s primary scent compounds, is a fresh, green, floral perfume that blends with the wearer’s own skin chemistry to create a soft, sheer, more-than-human presence.

Fragrance Notes
Ceramic, scents, audio components, Magic-eye stereogram, dimensions variable, 2020

Video: Composer Juliet Palmer discusses the creation of Fragrance Notes

Ceramic cones emitted the lizard perfume on a sound activated wall while five vocalists responded to the perfume’s fragrance notes—top, middle, and base notes.

Surprisingly, Sceloporus lizard's primary scent compounds include floral jasmonates and pyrizines, which give white wine it's distinctive grassy notes, and are found in found in citrus, coffee, and chocolate.

A ceramic platter held jasmine, coffee, and grapefruit flavored chocolate truffles, while a chalice (not pictured) held sauvignon-blanc used for public dance performances and scent sampling and scent tasting events. The sensory components merged to create a scent/sound/taste/space and time synesthesia where scent is heard, sound is tasted, and movement is smelled.
Composer Juliet Palmer, vocalists: Olivia Shortt, Andrea Kuzmich, Michelangleo Iaffaldano, Jackson Welchner, Tova Kardonne.

Every Animal
Ink, pen, flocking; archival digital print on Phototex, dimensions variable, 2020

The drawing signs “ANIMAL” in American Sign Language, while the magic-eye stereogram wallpaper reveals the hidden word “EVERY.”

Language surrounds us, we only need the correct sensory apparatus and the cultural keys to access it. Stereograms require that the viewer have binocular vision and have the correct technique.

Handmade camouflage jacket: cloth, fur, snakeskin, on archival digital print wallpaper on Phototex, dimensions variable, 2020

Dancers periodically entered the gallery, donned camo-based costumes hung on the wall, and initiated a non-verbal dialogue with museum visitors, segueing into a fully choreographed dance performance (cancelled due to the coronavirus).

The camo-themed wallpaper references the origins of camouflage strategies in the animal world and suggests that our current fetish with camouflage is symptomatic of our political moment, which employs tactics of the purposeful misdirection of truth, dazzlement, countershading, and the sowing of active confusion.

Lizard Lady
Video projection, 2:22, looped, 2020

Lizards respond to videos. A video projection of a lizard-sized woman performing lizard push-up displays projected onto a rock attempted interspecies communication with lizards in the field and with humans in the gallery.

Stoneware, neon, glass, 5'10". 2020

Sceloporus lizards flash their blue throats to attract a mate.

The Heat of the Rock for the Lizard
Digital print on aluminum, (2) 16" x 22", 2020

Philosopher Martin Heidegger famously used the lizard’s relationship to the rock on which it suns and cools itself as an example of the basic difference between humans and animals. For Heidegger, the lizard has a relation to the rock via sensation: it seeks out its warmth and establishes it as its territory, but the rock is never experienced AS rock, that is, as something apart from itself that can be named.

Although human ways of knowing through language may exceed that of lizards, these photographs suggest how the lizard’s knowledge of the rock through sensation exceeds that of humans.