HD video, 14 minutes
Introduced by Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca
The world population of captive axolotl has had enough of the aggressive electric lights of their aquariums. Communicating via wireless waves and watching anime telepathically, they decide to develop eyelids to shut their eyes, reclaim the agency of their bodies and encourage empathic communication. Alice dos Reis’ Mood Keep imagines this collective moment of rebellion and resistance of the endangered salamanders.
Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca: It seems like axolotl are ‘model organisms’ for a kind of science fiction. They enable human fantasies of bodily regeneration and perpetual youth. Your film invites us to foresee some dark fates for future axolotls who—having become extinct in the wild, perhaps—are bred for a life in laboratories, used for genetic engineering. That is, Mood Keep seems to touch on many of the ways in which humans continue to use axolotl for their own purposes—as cute possessions, entertainment, as ‘model organisms’ for scientific research and so on.Do you also see your work as picturing ways in which humans might relate to nonhuman animals like axolotl in less self-interested ways too? I don’t mean so much in terms of video enabling some kind of empathy by analogy or false identification, but maybe more like a means to evoke how and in what ways our world already overlaps with the ones axolotls inhabit. Do you think that’s possible? Is that something you’re interested in?
Alice dos Reis: Absolutely. In the film, axolotl develop eyelids as part of their biology and it remains unclear whether that mutation is intentional or not. However, that does generate some sort effect, a relational space that I like to think that calls out for empathy among the human realms and structures axolotl intersect and are forced to inhabit. Three women occasionally appear in the film—myself and two of my best friends, who accompanied me throughout its writing and making. It was a very instinctive decision to feature the three of us in the film, even if I also struggled to justify it. Retrospectively thinking, I realise I was looking to share a glimpse of a personal experience of empathy and kinship that I hoped could suggest, as you say, a less self-interested way of relating to axolotls too.
LCM: That's interesting—and invites me to consider what it might mean or involve to offer friendship to an axolotl. It’s also interesting as a brief insight into your process, insofar as you still feel under a certain kind of pressure (it seems) to “justify” preferences that emerge from instinct. I remember that feeling from my own history as an artist. I wonder if we still lack the adequate vocabulary to talk about the plurality of ways in which artistic practices think (or thinking happens in and as artistic practices) beyond false binaries between logic and intuition. It remains hard to know which modes of thought to “trust”, as it were. Your response also shows how these different modes of thought can have their own temporalities or evolution— when the ‘sense’ of decision emerges in retrospect. All of which is just to say: it reminds me of the way that art-making often seems to require giving a certain benefit of the doubt to a felt not-knowing. I’m interested in this becoming more a part of academic practices too—where the demand to “justify” (in advance, and according to standard measures of proof) is even stronger perhaps.
Axolotl’s way of being in time seems to prompt us, as human observers, to rethink the categorisation of bodies as animate and inanimate, alive and dead, waking and sleeping. What can humans learn from how axolotl inhabit and relate to the world?
AdR: Axolotl do challenge such human categories. For one, they are famous for being neotenic, which means their bodies never grow into maturity. They live, biologically speaking, in perpetual adolescence until death. This also means that, unlike their genetic sister, the salamander, axolotl never leave watery environments. Yet one is left with the feeling (and here I’m projecting) that they could almost leave these fluid habitats, if they wanted to. To me, a human observer, axolotl seem to inhabit spaces of in-between that may prompt us to question certain binary categorisations and rethink our performance of such binaries. Young and old, sick and healthy, passive and active, numb and observant. From the moment they reached the brink of extinction in their natural environments, western science has deemed axolotl useful for scientific research on human tissue regeneration. I wonder if there’s something to be learned from the axolotl’s seemingly fluid inhabiting of the world.
LCM: Perpetual adolescence—sounds awful! Can you imagine being stuck being yourself at 13 for your entire life? Having recently turned 40, I am particularly preoccupied with ideas of ageing and an awareness of the difference between my way of being in time, now vs. the relationship to time I had as a teenager. My son— who is 5—is also very concerned with ideas of growth and ageing. He frequently tells me that he doesn’t want me to get old: he doesn’t want my face to change, my hair to go grey and my body to get weaker. He asks: “why do we have to get old?” So maybe I should talk to him about axolotl, who somehow allow us to disaggregate the idea of ageing and the maturation of a body, or of an ageing body and the process of maturation as it belongs to any temporal existence.
There’s something very intriguing about neoteny. Etymologically, if I remember rightly, it means the extending or stretching of youth. I wonder if the alternative mode of relation to nonhumans that you (we) are reaching toward is linked to a retention (or recovery) of youthful traits somehow. I have already seen with my own children how standard education teaches them to reject their instinctive senses of their continuity with nonhuman animals. I can’t help thinking that if we encouraged children to retain more of this youthful sense of affinity, we wouldn’t have to do so much unlearning later on.
Are mobile phones making humans more like axolotl? Is there a kind of becoming-axolotl happening through our evolutionary relationship to our phones?
AdR: Perhaps something similar is happening to the ways our bodies behave when we are looking at/in our phones while at the same time, actively participating in the situation. In the film, there’s something akin to how axolotl appear to be still while being connected to one another (like slime molds) and to the platforms where their image is shared and circulated. In their apparent captive numbness, axolotl continue processing and producing knowledge.
There’s also a similarity in how looking at our phones might be a little like observing an axolotl inside an aquarium, and being of course, looked back. We come across nonhuman forms of intelligence when surfing our devices—bots, algorithms… The exciting question to me is, like with axolotl, what alternative ways of knowing can be generated and learned from such exchanges?
LCM: It’s good to be constantly reminded of the reciprocity of this gaze, about nonhuman animals as subjects of a gaze, not just objects of ours. Or better—I like how Vinciane Despret’s work emphasises how it’s not that animal perception is simply a different point of view or way of seeing an objective world, but that each animal’s point of view is a world. Drawing from Jakob von Uexküll’s well-known notion of the Umwelt, Despret suggests that it is not that animals perceive “this” world differently, but performatively produce and inhabit a different (albeit to varying degrees parallel, overlapping, or “associated”) world on the grounds of their particular powers of perception and affection. For me, this move from thinking in terms of perspective on a world to a kind of affective worlding indicates an important role for embodied empathy as a mode of felt knowledge (and unknowing) in relation to nonhuman animals. Speaking of which, have you read Argentinian writer, Julio Cortázar’s short story, "Axolotl" (1952)? It’s about a man who spends so much time watching axolotl in an aquarium that he turns into one.
How do you see the relationship between colonialism and the practice of keeping aquariums? Is an aquarium a form of (neo)colonial practice?
AdR: Aquariums are simultaneously a container and a display. The same logic is at play in zoos and botanical gardens, both colonial inventions. Aquarium keeping and displaying as we know it today was launched in the Victorian era, with the creation and stocking of the first public aquarium at the London Zoo in 1853. Exactly 10 years later, a shipment of 34 axolotl arrived at the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris from Mexico City. The majority of domestic axolotl in the world today—those living in aquariums—owe their ancestry to this first shipment. From the draining of Lake Xochimilco by the Spanish in the 1500s to the first public aquarium in Imperial Britain, the modern history of axolotl with all its present repercussions is one heavily tied to colonial history. The film’s title, Mood Keep, is a wordplay with the name Mudkip—an axolotl-inspired Pokemon—and the aquarium, a keeper of moods, bodies and worlds.
LCM: It’s chilling to think of those first 34. I wonder how long they lived. There are some horrific stories about the suffering of the animals captured as P.T. Barnum was experimenting with setting up the aquarium or “oceanarium” at the American Museum in New York in the 1860s. For instance, Barnum had 2 beluga whales captured in Quebec. They were then transported 700 miles by train to New York, with just enough salt water to occasionally sponge their blowholes and mouths, before being put in a 40 x 18 foot tank made of brick and cement. They died 2 days later, having been kept in non-circulating water, at the wrong temperature and breathing air full of the fumes from the gas lamps. After that first experiment, Barnum tried again with more whales—this time having paid off city councilmen to ensure he could get salt water from New York harbour pumped into the aquarium. But a fire broke out at the museum in 1865 and the saltwater in the beluga whales tank began boiling. Newspaper reports from the time say that someone broke the glass on the tank hoping that the water in the aquarium might put out the fire. But instead, the belugas just fell onto a scorching hot floor before eventually falling down onto the street below as the whole building of the American Museum started to collapse. Apparently, the beluga carcasses lay rotting on the street for several days afterwards.
What kind of role—if any—can art play in avoiding the extinction of axolotl as a species in the wild? Is there a specific role for fictioning relative to the more conventional approaches to documentary in shifting human-animal relations?
AdR: The reality of the axolotl as a species in the present—facing extinction and the long-term destruction of their natural habitat while surviving as circulating jpegs from inside living room aquariums—constitutes a narrative so desolate that it perhaps should be fictionalised. Fictioning, without attempting at distracting or working as an scapegoat from reality, has the empowering potential of allowing one to speculate on alternative ways of conceiving and resisting narratives that may seem unstoppable, too hegemonic or stagnated. I believe fictions involving interspecies relations might have the potential to encourage a shared sense of futurity that implicates human and nonhuman animals as active partakers in the same weave of speculated realities. In this sense, fictionings may play a role in avoiding further extinction by imagining spaces of radical conviviality.
LCM: I turn my laptop slightly to be able to see the screen better. But watching Mood Keep, there is still a confusion: a fusion and layering of what is reflected in the glass, and what is seen through it, the uncertainty of who is looking at who or what—when one of us is a creature who (for now at least) is without eyelids, when at least one of us can be asleep with our eyes open.
What future is the film imagining for axolotl where they might spontaneously grow eyelids—to evade a life of being perpetually looked at perhaps, these solitary creatures? Does this film—through its merging of science fictioning with fact—restore the axolotl some of its magical powers?
AdR: In the film, there’s a tentative back-and-forth between the mirroring effects of the camera lens, the phone screen and the aquarium glass. It becomes less about looking and more about the human-made materials and devices that mediate these observing moments. The fiction elaborated in Mood Keep, where axolotls collectively decide to grow eyelids, was inspired by a video I came across on youtube while researching axolotl biology. A perplexed Dutch-speaking man shares shaky footage of his axolotl blinking, still and indifferent, seemingly having developed eyelids as a result of (as speculated in the comments section) hormone excess in the water the man was using in the aquarium. A mutation that manages to strike unease, occurring in such a climatised and measured environment—in quarantine—is a powerful event. In fact it didn’t seem unlikely: axolotls are capable of regenerating full body parts including, in some cases, damaged sections of their brains. To me, a projecting human observer, that image seemed plausible. And it felt resistant. The film is set in a near future where almost all living axolotl inhabit laboratory tanks, home aquariums and the internet, the ability to shut their eyes (only capable of discerning forms of light in deep, muddy waters) is as much a form of adaptation as it is of resistance. While disarming a logic of looking and being looked at in return, it appears to encourage contact with others, human and nonhuman alike.
Directed and Edited by: Alice dos Reis
With: Alice dos Reis, Bin Koh, Danae Io
Text and Voice: Alice dos Reis
Sound: Emile Frankel
Camera: Alice dos Reis, Wyatt Niehaus