Reviewed by Jill
Everything about The Multispecies Salon is unusual, arresting, and thought-provoking. It starts with the cover image – fairy skeletons on a fox’s muzzle. Next comes the frontispiece image of a Patricia Piccinini sculpture, followed by an introduction commencing with the words ‘A swarm of creative agents … ’(2). Then we scan the chapters – assmilk soap, human cheese, microbiopolitics, the lifecycle of a weed. The book has its origins in a travelling art exhibition. This exhibition stimulated a wave of creative and collaborative research and writing projects. A new form of interdisciplinary enquiry, ‘multispecies ethnography’, emerged. This book’s sixteen contributors address diverse topics with constant reference to the exhibition. The text is extended by the works of sound, visual and performance artists, and some art forms which defy our usual designations.
The introduction is a must. It provides an historical and current overview in this area of thought and is also a simple, very useful literature review. The travelling exhibition was where some of the ideas were tested. The Introduction team provides a succinct account of the Salon’s elements, making it easier for the reader to connect with participants, and perhaps understand the points they wish to make. The editorial team have done a wonderful job – the diversity of thinking, writing and artistic output is formidable.
Let me state at the outset – this is the first time I have encountered the concept of multispecies ethnography. Artist Patricia Piccinini, the Northern Hairy-nosed wombat, Wistar rats and PETA were probably the few known quantities within this book. I might achieve a superficial description of projects and ideas, and a personal response, but not learned critiques on philosophies, theories, practices and ethics.
The Salon’s ‘call for papers’ was unusual – it was designated a ‘call for poachers’. Participants brought along texts they had borrowed from others. These were ‘”poached’ with fresh theory’  in the sense of poaching fruit. Multispecies ethnography might be a conceptual challenge. Some practitioners speak for members of other species – animal advocacy is not new. Others speak to them. There are propositions to bring ‘democracy to nonhumans by drawing them into parliamentary assemblies, where they will be represented by human “spokespeople”.’ Some of this might be a bit hard for the general reader to swallow, but consider these ideas. Can an anthropologist truly represent other peoples? Are people becoming post human – ‘dependent on complex entanglements with animals, ecosystems, and technology’? Closer to home, isn’t it reasonable to allow people to speak on behalf of Yakka skinks when mining projects threaten their habitats?
The chapters are grouped in three major divisions: Blasted landscapes, Edible companions, and Life and biotechnology. To some extent this is not representative of the Salon. Art objects, participations and discussions crossed paths, and so merged, diverged, and metamorphosed.
The reader is constantly directed to the appropriate segment of the companion website http://www.multispecies-salon.org/. There is a symbiosis between paper and electronic, the physical acting rather like an exhibition catalogue of the digital. The website is a revelation – it expands the reader’s experience. Very few of the book’s images are in colour, and these are placed in a section of the book away from their text. Other images are reproduced within the text, and some of these can only be regarded as a teaser – an enticement to visit the website for a better appreciation of ingenious techniques and seemingly endless inspiration.
For this reason, the reader must take time to absorb and consult. It is not a book for reading from start to finish. It is immaculately organised, and copious notes appear, rather as a nice surprise, at the end of each essay.
Blasted landscapes presents three chapters. None even remotely resembles another in conception and delivery. It is a fascinating offering of philosophy and practice. Hope in Blasted Landscapes is wide ranging. Who was there to speak for the crustacea and plankton affected by BP’s Deepwater Horizon contamination of the Gulf of Mexico? A Facebook campaign and a New Orleans jazz-style funeral procession drew attention to these concerns. Pretty Doe Dairy’s goats consumed unloved plants on unloved land. This brought communities together. Karen Bolender’s R.A.W. Assmilk Soap (Rural Alchemy Workshop) initiative followed a long journey with her asses, where she encountered badly-treated land along the way. People worked cooperatively to produce soap, symbolically adding elements significant to them. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s beautifully lucid chapter Blasted landscapes (and the Gentle Arts of Mushroom Picking) depicts gardens as disturbed sites, the giving of life and its and taking. She contrasts philosophies and practices in forest management, using the matsutake (pine mushroom) as the indicator of a place in a commodification continuum. Causes and effects result in a cascade of consequences, intended or otherwise. The mushroom is a marker of radioactivity’s world travels.
Edible companions presents six writings, of which four are designated as ‘recipes – ‘. Paxson’s analysis of post-Pasteurian practices is intriguing. Raw milk cheese can be considered a biohazard to some consumers. Current interventions take the lowest common denominator approach – dangerous to some so prohibit all from enjoying it. Kelley writes on the possible imposition of patented products as a component of food aid, sparked by the provision of a nut-based product to Niger and Malawi. Local sources of vegetable protein are ignored. She goes further, detailing a gentle account of the collection and use of pine nuts in Colorado and New Mexico.
Simun gives a simple and clear explanation of the chemistry of cheesemaking. Human milk is a possible additive. People who were offered the chance to taste this responded in different ways. There is a brisk trade in human milk for whatever purpose. Kirksey addresses a range of concepts. An imaginative one consists in creating felted wool objects, and sowing them in damaged land systems as habitats for plants and animals. This section is rounded out with a soliloquy on acorn mush and its cultural associations. Berrigan’s Life Cycle of a Common Weed is a little bizarre. Blood of any type is a useful high-nitrogen food for plants. She organised and event where people donated a drop of their blood which was then watered onto dandelions. She explains her philosophy simply. Especially interesting is the red-tape that had to be negotiated.
Life and Biotechnology addresses some occasionally unsettling ideas or situations: social inequities in biomedicine, transgenic fish developed as novelties for the aquarium pet trade, or people learning gene engineering so they can apply these skills in their arts practice. This last one generated such concern within government agencies that an elaborate conference was held, invitees coming from enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world. They role-played a specific threat. The experience was deeply unsettling for one artist who had been transparent and honest in her study of genetic engineering. In the end, we have an obligation to the transgenic life forms created for our own purposes. I’m just not sure that releasing artificially fluorescent fish, or non-native mice is sensible, however much people might want them to run free. Invertebrate Visions: Diffractions of the Brittlestar is an excellent in-depth examination of an echinoderm whose skeletal system contains crystals that seem to act as a visual system. The significance of this was not lost on communications technologists. Donna Haraway’s Speculative Fabulations is thoughtful writing, with an Australian focus, considering different species, Patricia Piccinini’s art, and the observations of an anthropologist. There are however some avoidable factual errors. My own February 2016 internet search yielded reliable and current information (and spelling) from the Queensland Government department responsible for the Northern Hairy-nosed wombat – information superior to that available from non-updated and sometimes fluffy sites listed in her notes.
The Salon was an amazing concept. The artists, through meeting thinkers and other arts practitioners, gleaned new departure points for their own practice. The thinkers and practitioners refined their ideas, or went off in new directions.
The reader? It may be a steep learning curve. There will be a challenge to ideas and a refreshing of some attitudes. The concepts (reported but not necessarily espoused) may be too abstract. At times they may be unsettling … the practice of creating life forms simply so they can develop painful conditions, creating transgenic fish for the novelty trade, humans receiving protection against toxic plants through consuming the milk of goats who have eaten the toxic plant, or the stay-at-home husband inducing his own lactation. Perhaps there is a serious divide here.
The language and the writing varies widely – straightforward accounts, abstruse confabulation, and sublime essays. Tsing’s is the star of this book. It is one of several readable essays. Others verge on the bizarre or inaccessible. This is a cornucopia of ideas and concepts, all argued cogently, but just how far can the generalist reader go before their belief suspends itself, and they realise a parallel universe exists?
Edited by Eben Kirksey
Duke University Press