This PhD project explores a transdisciplinary approach to engage with marine fish through the process of co-creating architecture and ecological niches. In addition to the exploration of new modes of perceiving and interacting with the living marine world, this project investigates if we can co-design architectural elements that could be used to build for humans before eventually being engulfed by the rising sea and becoming a habitat for the co-designers, the sea creatures. Fish and Interspecies Architecture are concepts and physical media to communicate and engage with the Mediterranean damselfish Chromis chromis. In collaboration with SUPERFLEX and Chromis chromis over the past two years, we designed ecological structures to offer a space for reproduction and interspecies encounters. With their behaviours and bodies, the fish used and thereby curated the physical structures. Besides the analysis of the fish behaviours, the structures facilitate the creation of a human-fish kinship in which both species shape each other’s (evolutionary) history. As an evolution of Fish Architecture, which focuses on the fish and their ecological needs, I introduce the idea of Interspecies Architecture, which would return the structures curated by the Chromis to the human to understand how both the aquatic and terrestrial species interact with the architectural elements.
Marine biology, Architecture, Interspecies Communication, Art-Science, Transdisciplinarity.
Amid the climate crisis, humanity must reconsider its relevance within the global ecological network. Until today 40 countries worldwide have declared climate emergency, and scientists continue urging governments to commit and follow the climate emergency declaration, which calls for the restoration of nature and the protection of pristine ecosystems (CEDAMIA 2023; Wang et al. 2011). However, pristine nature is a human concept that merely depicts the unrealistic romantic idea of "untouched nature". Restoration and conservation treat symptoms of humanity's damaged relationship with the rest of the living world but do not dismantle the Western narrative of the nature-human dichotomy causing the decline of species and ecosystems. Eventually, Western scholars started to theorise new modes of coexistence with non-human entities, acknowledging their agency and accepting ecological interconnectedness (Bennett 2010; Morton 2019). They even emphasise the sym-poiesis ("making with") of all earthlings, who are never alone but part of a complex and dynamic holobiont (Haraway 2017).
Following those concepts, the question "What would Animals say if we asked the right questions?" (Despret 2016) naturally comes to mind. In her analysis of this question, Despret dissects scientific knowledge and experimentation with animals to depict learnings we can obtain from those other animals. In my doctoral thesis, I attempt a practical approach to this question guided by the interspecies endeavour to co-create with marine fish. The lack of a common human-fish language opens this relationship to new modes of communication, focusing on movement and behaviour as a means of communication - a bodily language. Moreover, working at the nexus of the natural sciences and the arts, disciplines commonly perceived as opposites, allows us to alter the disciplinary frameworks and engage in a transdisciplinary approach to redefine the methods of knowledge production and go beyond the disciplines to reconsider the disciplinary concepts of knowledge (Nicolescu 2014).
Only 1.5 degrees determine the planetary future. Even if states met the target of the Paris Agreement - limiting global warming to well below 2°C—which, according to the latest IPCC report, is not possible if governments do not implement stricter measures immediately—70-90% of the coral reefs would die, and the sea level would inevitably rise (Lee et al. 2023). Such a prospect for the future demands humanity to develop new approaches to co-existing with other survivor species on an altered planet. This project originated from the gloomy future outlook, in which the sea has engulfed the coastal areas, some of the most densely populated areas of the planet. Then our architecture will no longer be inhabited by terrestrial-bound humans, but underwater organisms will dwell on it. They will sleep, reproduce, and feed in what we once designed as human spaces. Based on this idea, we suggest embracing the idea of the underwater future of currently terrestrial areas, imagining how this could alter our approach to human architecture when the ultimate client is a fish, and eventually redefining our relationship with those non-humans.
As a first step of my PhD, I established Fish Architecture as a tool to communicate, create and learn from damselfish (Wegner et al. 2021). Behavioural ecology, the study of animal behaviour and its evolution, offers tools to closely engage with the animals in their habitats. Working with artists and architects extends the framework of rigorous experimental setups and creates new contexts in which observations and experiments can be conducted. Behaviour and movement become the language humans can try to decipher. Physical structures, informed by scientific literature about specific damselfish species, and designed in collaboration with SUPERFLEX studio, began as an architectural conversation between humans and damselfish. Fish Architecture considers the fish the ultimate client, the animal inhabiting human-made architecture once the warming sea has engulfed those structures. Therefore, the central research and artistic question becomes, “What do Fish like?”. However, the concept differs from endeavours such as artificial reefs, which are focused on the flourishing of diverse marine life. Fish Architecture is a medium to co-create with other species, establishing new ways of interaction and making kin (Haraway 2016). The architectural fish-human dialogue can be considered a collaborative niche construction. This evolutionary concept describes the animal as the designer or engineer of its own environment, thereby changing the selective evolutionary pressure it experiences, creating a reciprocal relationship between organism and environment (Odling-Smee 1988). As soon as all involved animals are designers and engineers of their evolution, ecological interspecies creation becomes possible. Once an architectural invitation, a physical structure, is intentionally placed in the ocean and accepted by the fish, who settle and reproduce on it, this Fish Architecture becomes the ground for a conversation between its occupants (the fish) and the initial designer (the human).
Our architectural conversation in the Mediterranean started with the damselfish Chromis chromis, who primarily resides in large aggregates in the water column. Only in the summer months, during the
reproductive period of the fish, males descend to the substrate and search for structures to establish temporary nesting sites. Aligned with the waxing moon the damselfish will start their spawning. Once the males have established the territories around their nests, they will start to perform signal jumps to attract females, who will come down to the nesting site to release their eggs (Abel 1961). Chromis choose a variety of structures to establish their nesting sites on (Guldenschuh 1986), which offers an opportunity to test different human-designed structures.
The ongoing analysis describes the changes in behaviour and the social network structure throughout one spawning bout, which should help to understand the temporal socio-spatial relationship, or in other words - how and why the damselfish use the structure the way they do. The structures and our
knowledge about the chromis have evolved throughout multiple field seasons (Fig. 2). For each design, the focus was on the fish and if or how they use the structures designed for them. First, modular structures, Fish Lego, which could be reassembled by humans, were not used by the fish during their spawning bouts. Informed by observations in the field and the artistic decision to use more organic and fractal patterns evolved into Scutoids, which offered more surface areas. Expanding the concept of the Scutoid, maximising overhangs while offering enough surface for nests, the newest set of structures As Close As We Get evolved as an experiment with three structures representing contrasting architectural ideas, which will be tested during the field season 2023.
Humans involved in the process were limited to a small group of scientists and artists, merging information from observations with creative abstraction to create an architectural catalogue of Fish Architecture. However, the influence on the shape of the structure remains a privilege to this small group of people. To gain a better understanding of what humans like about Fish Architecture or which aspects they prefer, I suggest opening the concept to Interspcies Architecture. Interspecies Architecture would include what we have already learned about the fish on the structure and, in addition, allow humans to interact with those structures "curated" by the fish. Thereby fish and human behaviour and movements around and with the structures would be the first approach to a comparative study of two species interacting with the architecture. Such an otherwise impossible comparative study, not possible in the biological disciplinary framework, becomes possible only in the transdisciplinary space created through the collaboration between art and ecology. Moreover, it is not only a study of the use of architecture but also explores the relationship between two organisms populating different ecosystems and spaces connected through the same structure.
A first visualisation of the territories of Chromis on Stucoid was rendered for humans in Interspecies Intimacy (Fig.3). Thereby, video data were analysed and rendered in a virtual space to depict how fish curated the structure through their behaviours. The shapes and sizes of those territories depict where the fish spends most of the time, changing throughout one spawning bout. The virtual environment should not emulate the underwater experience but rather depict an uncanny scene, representing the strangeness and eeriness that might occur when thinking about the rapidly approaching planetary shift, drastically rising sea levels, and submerged human spaces populated by sea creatures. A first step towards an Interspecies Architecture, which allows the fish-human conversation to transcend time, space, and species. As the development of Interspecies Architecture continues, the initial question evolves from “What do Fish like?” to “What do humans like about what Fish like?”. Like the fish, the human would become the study organism. The cross-disciplinary context of art and ecology would allow such a playful comparative study, simultaneously facilitating the co-creation of space by two species, usually populating drastically different ecological niches.
Humans involved in the design, placement, and observation of Fish Architecture commit to an intimate non-gestational kinship (Hessler 2021) with the Chromis, or, as Isabelle Stengers would phrase it, a reciprocal capture, when both beings become part of each other's (evolutionary) history (Stengers 2010). I refer to those intimate encounters as the Sex Ecology of Chromis chromis, moments of coexistence and cocreation of identities facilitated through Fish Architecture that can happen independent of physical intimacy. Sex Ecology encompasses sexual reproduction and the ecological relationship between humans involved in Chromis's reproduction. The scientist shows appreciation by giving a name and generating more human knowledge about another species to create more attention in the human world for a small fish. Meanwhile, the fish create the scientist's identity by allowing them to be part of their scientific work and who then structure their lives and field seasons according to the rhythm of the fish, the spawning season in the case of the Chromis. What happens if other humans are involved in that process? How do the different species shape each other's evolutionary history? Moreover, how does it change the human perspective on this fish-human relationship?
Scientific analysis is one aspect of Sex Ecology that informs the next stage of the design of Fish Architecture, but through the practice of Sex Ecology, much more happens with the relationship between fish and humans. Although within the scientific discipline, we learn more about the species Chromis chromis, this transdisciplinary approach allows scientists or designers to create a relationship that is not bound nor compromised by the nature/culture duality. As described by De Castro (1998), indigenous cosmologies also delineate concepts of nature and culture, however, the relationship between them is not described from an anthropocentric perspective, creating social distinctions between them, but instead considering the relationship as a social continuity between nature and culture. Indigenous scholars have shared their knowledge and described their kinship with the non-human world, interlaced with Western scientific methods of knowledge production (Kimmerer 2013; Nelson 2008). Informed by such pedagogies, transdisciplinary frameworks facilitate the more-than-human relationships we need to evolve and come out of the mental pitfall we created with the Anthropocene. Nevertheless, Western methods of knowledge production should not be dismissed but need to be revisited, including different perspectives.
Engaging in the Sex Ecology of another animal allows using methodologies from different disciplines to obtain a multitude of knowledges, not bound to the academic and disciplinary boundaries. Fish Architecture, and its extension Interspecies Architecture, are methods developed through a transdisciplinary collaboration and propose such novel methods of interspecies engagement to create a new perspective on the human-fish relationship.
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