Volume 4. No. 1. Summer 2011
ISSN 1752-6388

Fostering Pidgins:
A conference report on Pidgin Language:
Animals, Birds and Us

Helen Bullard

Fostering Pidgins

As a curious person I find myself intrigued by the relationships between disciplines, particularly art and science, and by the pidgin language that can emerge from the gaps and overlaps left between these conversations. As with any hybrid, the results can uncover unusual and intriguing possibilities, opportunities for discovery and contemplation. However, problems occur in the actual mechanisms of trying to achieve interdisciplinary discussion, much as we might desire these conversations and strive to set up the facilities for debate. The absence of a common language creates problems; the common currency appears to be missing. So, in this discussion I am more concerned with talking about the form (the what, how and why) of interdisciplinary conversation, rather than about the specifics of its content.

My background is in fine art but my real background is in a lifelong appreciation of animals, both wild and domestic. Geography, geology, sociology — the practical and social sciences — have always fascinated me, and in my own practice fostering relationships with professionals and enthusiasts from many disciplines is one of the most rewarding, exciting, invaluable and humbling aspects of my work. In my studio and at home I gather around me a hoard of objects and opinions, my own and those offered by others, to which I add more notes, drawings and thoughts. The collecting and exchange of objects and ideas functions like a cat leaving door-step offerings. I return frequently, turn them over, rearrange them, and new conversations emerge. It seems to me that interdisciplinary discussion shares this ritual.

Fig.1. Loon leg (detail for 1 Fathom Deep created for SWLA) resin, latex, © Helen Bullard 2008

First, it might be useful to define language and pidgins for the purposes of this discussion. Language is often taken for granted; it seems instinctive and basic. But it is also our most powerful and effective tool without which much exchange of feelings, business and art could not occur. It is my privilege as an artist and not an academic to choose to make this conversation quite organic, so for our purposes here, I’d like to suggest that language is the method for generating communication, either written, spoken or expressed in some other visual or sensory way, composed with the use of symbols and tools to help us think. Amongst communities that do not share a common language, pidgins emerge as new tools of communication. Often considered ‘protolanguages’, pidgins are less extensive than full or ‘true’ languages, simplified, and often not recorded because of their low social status. But despite this, it is probable that ‘true’ languages are the result of evolved pidgins, and as a result they share many similarities — as we shall see.

Discussions around definitions of languages could be endless, with such wide ranging possibilities for debate over natural and artificial or constructed language, verbal and non-verbal, conscious and involuntary, public language, inward thoughts and much more. As Chomsky suggests, the study of psychology reveals that human language conveys meaning through the manifestation of its own internal grammar; the noun phrase and the verb phrase – giving infinite possibility for sentence structure and meaning.2 But, perhaps these mechanisms for meaning are best left for a more extensive discussion — at the moment meaning itself is enough.

For now, I am particularly interested in the interdisciplinary pidgin language that can occur between science and art during conversations that concern animals. At Pidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us (Kings Lynn, 2009)

Fig.2. Pidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us, symposium 2009 (Giovanni Aloi, Rikke Hansen, Helen Bullard, Andrea Roe, Rosemarie McGoldrick, Steve Baker) © Greg Lattimore

I expressly set out to draw speakers and participants together from a range of disciplines to discuss animals in art, culture and science. Appropriating the quote ‘Pidgin Language occurs when worlds collide’,3I hoped delegates and panellists would consider the benefits and difficulties of discussing animal subjects in an interdisciplinary fashion. As Lévi-Strauss says, ‘Animals are good to think with.’4 But what if we can’t communicate those thoughts to each other in a satisfactory way?

It seems the issue of interdisciplinary discourse when it comes to animals (as with other fields) is both a practical and an academic problem. For some artists observing animals in the field, it can cause frustration when trying to relay their notes to scientists ‘because I am not a proper scientist, and yet I probably spend much more time watching the creature!’ complained a friend of mine who devotes much of his time to observing and drawing butterflies and other invertebrates. Similarly, academic discussion can feel removed from accessible primary field observations or art. While conversations with scientists may be highly valuable, they can also feel highly inaccessible and somewhat problematic as Latour and Woolgar point out: ‘A description of science cast entirely in terms used by scientists would be incomprehensible to outsiders. The adoption of scientific versions of science would teach us little that is new about science in the making; the observer would simply reiterate those accounts...’5 The real problem and pleasure, however, is perhaps that there are so many more than two sides to this tale. The general banners of ‘science’ and ‘art’ divide further into many sub groups; physical science, social science, conservation, animal behaviour, wildlife art, conceptual art, poetry, dance … and misunderstandings or misgivings between these groups only compound difficulties.

A good example of a hybrid community is the animal-concerned artist community. Even within this seemingly focused group there are wide gulfs that could benefit from bridging, particularly between wildlife artists and those working from a more conceptual or theoretical animal studies grounding. One such discussion raised between these groups at Pidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us was the value of observational drawing as a mechanism for understanding animals in art. This topic sliced a sharp divide between both panel and delegates at the Symposium. While some were very openly critical of the ‘bad art’ that can exist under the banner of wildlife art, Chairman of the Society of Wildlife Artists, Harriet Mead, defended the Society, saying that it is their expressed intention to seek new ways forward and to nurture emerging artists who are inspired by wild animals and who are handling the subject in new and engaging ways. I myself have been supported and funded by the Society to develop a body of work that culminated in a large-scale interactive audio installation, alongside drawing. While some may feel that such groups could benefit from an updated image, it is an incredibly difficult social shift to achieve where audiences are concerned. It is all too easy to alienate, and a change in Society philosophy (if it is necessary at all) may not translate into actual work submitted. Observational drawing is, of course, a founding block upon which much subsequent science and art has evolved. I suspect this is not disputed, but, there are fundamental differences in purpose and approach between these groups that tend to miss each other in translation.While ‘wildlife art’ tends towards the representational, in whatever form, animal studies-based artists more often tend to focus their work around theoretical, conceptual, and philosophical debates. The results of the latter may concern domestic and the human animal as well as wild animals, and may also consider the absence of the physical animal representation, incorporating such mediums as performance art, and the written or spoken word. While such differences between the sub-genres raise questions, such as that about the place and value of representational drawing, it is unclear how we can ever expect an understanding to flourish between disciplines, while such internal conflicts persist.

Perhaps, with such stumbling blocks in mind, it might be more helpful to consider this pidgin language as a separate entity linked to, but not wholly determined by our respective disciplines. When Jacques Rancière was asked if his work was interdisciplinary or a-disciplinary he answered “Neither. It is ‘indisciplinary’.”6Of course, this is a constructed term; a semantic that assists in explaining anomalies. But perhaps these semantic labels might be necessary if we hope to find a place for these conversations to stand separately in the world; if we hope to whittle the necessary tools to order our minds and help us to think - because they help us to describe something that was not described before.

But how do we make these tools? Despite Lenneberg’s argument that some species including humans have set critical periods for developing or acquiring language, Dennett (in light of Köhler’s experiments with problem-solving apes) suggests that our physical mechanisms for ordering and controlling our thoughts, just like those notes, drawings and objects I re-arrange endlessly in my studio, are the answer. He proposes things like scrabble tiles, slips of paper and doodles: ‘These concrete activities are crutches for thinking.’7Of course, we as animals exhibit behavioural techniques that help us to deal with our problems, but we should not assume we have the same motives as other species. It is far too easy to anthropomorphize (and to assume that, because an animal makes its home near human civilization it has chosen to do so, all the time overlooking the fact that it is we who have encroached upon their habitat). So, unless we are animal behaviourists, this should remain a very human problem.But how do we make the leap from manipulanda to thought, from material shifting to mental shifting? We all use objects and tangible subjects to inform our thoughts — an unidentified bird in spring makes us ponder migration — so it seems no great stretch to suggest that within disciplines thought processes are primed by their fields; there is no doubt that our written approaches vary vastly. Our thoughts, on the other hand, are far more elusive butterflies to pin down. In 1930 Elsie Fogerty wrote in Speech Craft:

Can you, or can you not, think without words? This is a very difficult question to decide. Some people think almost entirely without words, in pictures and sensations like animals. When your dog gets up and demands to be let out and disappears down the garden, returning presently with muddy paws and perhaps with a most objectionable bone, you know that he did not say to himself, ‘Let me see, I buried that mutton bone down by the sixth laurel bush last Wednesday, four days ago, it ought to be about ready now. I’ll go and see’.8

I consider this animal thought, this ‘thinking without words’ – instinct and intuition –an absolutely necessary prerequisite for the existence of both science and art. My hybrid installationAnimusflux(2009) employed a range of wordless, written, audio and visual tools to think with.

Fig.3. Animus flux ©Helen Bullard 2009

Fig.4. You are here (detail, work in progress for Animus flux) © Helen Bullard 2009

Its interspecies brain fought to reconcile and digest its many languages as it strived to reason with itself and the many conflicted needs of Animus’s creatures. For Animus flux the ending was unresolved, not viable. It spat out a death-throw (film), panicked and urgent in its effort to calculate - but failed. Sometimes, the calculation is too great. But research, such as that of the Great Ape Trust of Iowa in creating a wordless lexicon to aid communication between humans and other great apes, and art works such as Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) and laterAngela Bartram’s FurKiss (2004), show that such enquiries have not only been seminal and wordless, but also foundational in terms of presenting a concept and creating building blocks for thought during these sorts of conversations.

The Comedy of Change (2009), was a collaborative, wordless but deeply thought provoking work between scientists and artists to create a contemporary dance piece in celebration of Darwinian theory, performed by the Rambert Dance Company.Renowned Choreographer and Artistic Director of Rambert, Mark Baldwin, artist Kader Attia, composer Julian Anderson and Cambridge Professor of Comparative Cognition Nicola S. Clayton FRS teamed up to discuss science and art, with the intention of using Darwin’s ideas about natural and sexual selection to inspire a fluid piece of contemporary dance. Clayton, also a dancer and choreographer herself, was able to suggest ways in which the dances and performances of birds and other animals such as octopus might be transferred into human movement – based on loose, expressive movements centred around the spine.

Fig.5. Nicky Clayton teaching dancers from Rambert Dance Company for The Comedy of Change

The results were stunning. From beginning to end a palpable sense of psychological interaction and bemusement hung over the audience and during the two intermissions at Norwich Theatre Royal,November 2009, the audience buzzed between the hall and bar, and a special exhibit about Darwin and crop cereal evolution set up by the John Innes Centre (a good opportunity to pull a captive audience!). The dancers had to develop an intuitive feel for each other’s timing just as the birds and other emulated creatures would; there was a tangible sense that something remarkable and wordless was being achieved. It felt natural and seamless — effortless. (In fact several patrons that I spoke to expressed regret that they couldn’t get up and join in!) The performance I attended was also signed. It wasn’t immediately evident to me why this was necessary, but I soon realised it was music that was being expressed; that I could see the music flowing out before my eyes – a truly incredible bridge between science and art.

Fig.6-7. The Comedy of Change, Rambert Dance Company © Hugo Glendinning

The examples referred to thus far could be seen as instances where artists have appropriated or considered science and its cultural influence to the benefit of their language. But, it is perhaps less clear how science might utilize artistic expression as a successful form of communication. In December 2009 when I spoke with Max Whitby,9 he felt that much could be achieved by his teaching of science through visual art. His recent periodic table installations, described on the website www.element-collection.com as the most beautiful periodic table displays in the world, are intended to function both as pieces of art and scientific narrative. Highly crafted wooden and glass cabinets house examples of products made from each element, and large scale interactive software programmes allow fascinated visitors to engage with science first hand, offering a contemporary, exciting antidote to those black and white school text books.

Fig.8. Interactive periodic table created by Max Whitby and Theodore Gray © Max Whitby

The work caused a sensation in the 2010 February edition of Chemistry and Industry, which ran the subtitle: ‘Table talk: new formats create a stir’. Whitby claims: ‘What Theodore and I are trying to do is to make people enjoy and appreciate the elements aesthetically. We like to think that we create works of art as well as science.’10

There are many other scientific bodies that also use art and artists as a way to broaden the appeal of their scientific language – including the Wellcome Trusts Collection which has included works such as Rob Kesseler’s 2002 piece Bud, John Isaacs’ 2003 I Can Not Help the Way I Feel, and Susie Freeman and Dr Liz Lee’s collaborative 2007 commission Veil of Tears.

At the end of a talk about my 2007 installation Migration

Fig.9. Flyway map (detail), Migration © Helen Bullard 2007

I was pleased to be approached by Zev Labinger, ornithologist and researcher working at the Migration Field Centre in Hula Valley Israel.My research was nothing new to him of course but, despite that, he found the piece fresh and engaging. Such enthusiasm is testament, perhaps, not to the quality of my work, but to the benefit of this boarder language or, at least, to the transformative nature art and science can have upon each other. Perhaps in these instances it is unhelpful to make distinctions between disciplines; it is both, and neither, something new, and something that already exists.

However, words are necessary, or at least highly useful, in achieving the sorts of interdisciplinary exchanges that we expect or hope for during conversations. Much is written, meetings are sadly few and, as Sarah G. Thomason observes ‘language contact... does not require fluent bilingualism or multilingualism but some communication between speakers of different languages is necessary’, and she goes on to say‘… learning to write a language does not necessarily lead to an ability to speak it’.11

Even on those occasions when meetings occur, because there are more than two disciplinary languages involved, and many strata in between, bridging between fields can be incredibly difficult; there is no adequate translator fluent enough in all disciplines. At Pidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us, Rosemary McGoldrick spoke of the crossed purposes between herself as an artist and the Chiltern Sculpture Trust over her Techniques of the Bird Observer mutoscope installation. The 2006 piece installed in Cowleaze Wood, Oxfordshire, shows a looped animation of Red Kite in flight; a common sight over the Chilterns since the RSPB’s reintroduction programme. Much of McGoldrick’s work responds to the absence of the animal (particularly the absence of bird), and as she explained ‘it is deliberately out of its own comfort zone ... there is a peering down and in, as opposed to the regular up and out’ more usually associated with bird watching. McGoldrick went on to say ‘despite its solid intentionality, the environment still conspired against it ... [although the rain was kept out, moisture still built up behind the lens and the images moulded] ... It was fine in the summer, but they asked me to mend it; all my professional practice as an artist was in vain – the commissioners were in fact asking me to put right a design fault that I couldn’t solve in the middle of a forest at the top of a hill with no electricity!’12 It seems then that there was, to some extent, a misunderstanding; this was a work of art and not a piece of functional engineering.

But despite these potential problems, it still seems to me much more likely that knowledge and growth will be achieved by actively pursuing conversations first hand, whether between two people in a forest on top of a hill, or between many more in a room with microphones.

So what happens when there is an attempt to forge something new in the gaps and in-betweens of existing languages? It seems to me that there are many parallels between the formulation of an interdisciplinary pidgin, and pidgins between foreign languages. Although words will not allow a full discussion here, I feel some understanding of the characteristics of pidgins between foreign languages might start to suggest a model for our closer contemplation of the development of an interdisciplinary pidgin or language at a later date.

Thomason points out Grosjean’s observation that ‘a person who uses two languages regularly but is not fully fluent in both could hardly be labelled monolingual, but … s/he would not [necessarily] qualify as bilingual either’.13

At Pidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us bilingualism—or attempted bilingualism—caused friction between artists and scientists over ethics; ethics that were based on conflicted beliefs over the scientific and historical facts. During a discussion that followed Andrea Roe’s presentation of her paperAttempting Bird Intimacy through Art and Taxidermy an artist delegate stated: ‘I have some ambivalence around the taxidermy issue because quite a number of those animals, and birds specifically, became extinct as a result of the amateur naturalists and taxidermists in the Victorian era.To which Roe, after a little thought, replied,: ‘I suppose you are talking about... amateur naturalists who would shoot a bird to identify it? ... The taxidermists that I’ve been privileged to work with have all been very keen naturalists and very much interested in the conservationist issues. So while I am aware of the way that Victorians had a very different approach to nature itself ... I think that the current position of British taxidermists is about gaining more knowledge to conserve -so I don’t have any problems in setting myself amongst them.’14This conversation turned a new corner when an ornithologist noted that he could not think of any single bird species that had been hunted to extinction through hunting for collecting purposes, and that these extinctions had actually occurred through hunting the birds for food. Perhaps such attempts to speak as a pseudo expert of a discipline, in this case an attempt to be bilingual in both science and art, can be the root of much misunderstanding and many misgivings; that ultimately the assumption of knowledge can sometimes create a debilitating friction between disciplines.

This might start to explain our problem. While learning a foreign language is possible because there are set rules, a vocabulary and grammatical structure, interdisciplinary language has a far more unstable, subtle and shifting base derived from many different vocabularies—vocabularies that are often specific to particular disciplines. Conversation may be followed loosely by others, but may not be properly understood. Perhaps in this way these vocabularies are more like a variety of dialects of the same language than a variety of separate languages; we might use the same words, but the words might mean different things and be structured in different ways.

I encountered one such example recently. I was pleased to encounter excitement from an author of natural history about my research and thoughts on my recent Symposium Pidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us until he issued an enthusiastic invitation to remain in touch regarding a possible new title on pigeon fancying. We had, by then, been talking for some time and I had no intention of correcting the misunderstanding, reasoning, instead, that I was about to leave anyway. And so I am as guilty as any in failing to adopt new contact strategies, especially as this may have been a good opportunity to learn from each other something very beneficial regarding both human and pigeon language (and by the way I enjoyed that discussion!).And it is similar to a fragment of conversation I overheard while looking at that exhibit on Darwin and the evolution of cereal crops, ‘interesting yes, but it doesn’t really tell us anything about the dance, does it.’15

Perhaps we can say this interdisciplinarity is a social, rather than a regional dialect when it comes to animals; caused by social isolation to some extent. It certainly seems evident to me that, while this new hybrid field is burgeoning, it is still some way from the social mainstream. Despite a rise in social awareness of the environment and conservation-related issues, few outside of art and science will be aware of many of the artists and collaborators mentioned here. But distinguishing between dialects and language is, in this case, very difficult and may become a semantic argument. As Thomason argues:

The problem ... is that the boundary between two dialects of a single language and two different languages is fuzzy. Given enough time and the right social circumstances, dialects will turn into separate languages, and during the transition process there is no sharp dividing line between ‘possible to understand’ and ‘impossible to understand’.16

This may explain our misunderstandings somewhat; while the arguably separate languages of science and art (and further divisions) start to form a dialect between themselves, and develop that into a separate language, we must be patient. As Ron Broglio suggests: ‘Animality is the fur that jams the gears of the well oiled social machine.’17 Perhaps this jamming is perpetuated by the shift in gears from dialect to language. But I also think this charged friction might sometimes provide the most persuasive, intriguing and conducive motivation for discussion.

A major parting of the ways as far as the parallels between global pidgin languages and this more specific interdisciplinary language is, in my opinion, to be found in the latter’s tendency to form outward views that can at times appear elitist. While it is often the case that minority groups (in so far as a common language is concerned) are more likely to learn the predominant language of the country in which they live than the native speakers are to learn theirs (asymmetrical bilingualism), it seems to me that relatively small subgroups within any discipline are less likely to learn the languages of their surrounding disciplines, but rather to turn inward still further in a quest to uncover the minutiae of their own subjects.This is a hugely valuable pursuit, but it also creates an unfortunate Catch-22 situation; while an individual is attempting to better contribute to their own field, they are also inevitably immersed completely in its language which can leave them somewhat removed from other discussion. A conversation at my Symposium between Rikke Hansen and an ornithologist delegate after her paper Finding the Animal Voice illustrates this point. During the presentation Hansen stated ‘… unlike parody that is about standing out, mimicry is about falling back into….’ This was taken up by the delegate who pointed out that mimicry in the animal kingdom is often about the winning of territories; which is very much about standing out. Of course, they were both right, and Hansen made very clear her desire to engage in this discussion admitting: ‘Yes. I suppose I just come from a slightly different perspective, but that’s a good point because it shows it’s not just one thing.’

But these crossed purposes can create unfortunate separations between fields, even if the exact opposite is desired. Later, Hansen hinted at the difficulties that she feels in engaging in these interdisciplinary conversations, saying, ‘I would love to! But …’.18

But why do we attempt this pidgin language at all? Why is it not enough to know our own disciplines, and why are these conversations beneficial? Perhaps because ‘no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them,’19 and certainly I am with Martin Wells, zoologist and painter,when he says he is ‘yet to meet a person that engages with or studies animals who is bored’.20Perhaps, this is a starting point.

1Pidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us took place 10 October 2009, Kings Lynn Art Centre, Norfolk. Speakers were Steve Baker, Andrea Roe, Rikke Hansen, Rosemarie McGoldrick and Professor Nicola S. Clayton FRS. Chaired by Giovanni Aloi. Organized and coordinated by Helen Bullard.http://www.helenbullard.co.uk/pidgin-language-symposium

2 Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (The Hague/Paris: Mouton, 1957)

3 Ron Broglio, ‘A Left-handed Primer for Approaching Animal Art’ in The Animal Gaze: contemporary art & animal/human studies, London Metropolitan University.Symposium 20-21 November 2008.

4 Claude Lévi-Strauss,The Savage Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).

5 Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 44.

6 ‘Jacques Rancière and IndisciplinarityJacques Rancière interviewed by Marie-Aude Baronian and Mireille Rosello,Art & Research: a Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods,Vol. 2 No. 1 Summer 2008. [http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/jrinterview.html] In the same journal issue see also Ross Birrell’s ‘Jacques Rancière and The (Re)Distribution of the Sensible: Five Lessons in Artistic Research’, [http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/v2n1editorial.html]. For more on indisciplinarity see also Rancière’s, ‘Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetic of knowledge’, Parrhesia, Number 1, 2006, p. 1-12.

7 Daniel Dennett, ‘Reflections on language and mind’, in P. Carruthers and J. Boucher (eds), Language and thought; Interdisciplinary themes, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 289.

8 Elsie Fogerty, ‘Words’ in Speech Craft: a manual of practice in English speech (Letchworth: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1930), p. 14.

9 Collaborative creator with Theodore Gray of interactive science-based projects for the National Gallery of Art, Washington, now Founding Director of RGB Research responsible for BirdGuides and nanotechnology research.

10 Cath O’Driscoll, ‘The Elements’, in Chemistry and Industry, Issue 3, Feb, 2010, p.22.

11 Sarah Thomason, ‘What is language contact?’, in Language Contact; an introduction, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), p. 1, 3.

12 Rosemarie McGoldrick, ‘Interviews with Cranes’, atPidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us, Symposium, 2009.

13 Francois Grosjean, ‘Individual bilingualism’ in The Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics (Oxford: Pergamon Press,2004).

14 Andrea Roe, in chaired discussion atPidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us, Symposium, 2009.

15Comedy of Change was a collaborative project between dancers, artists and scientists to create an organic contemporary dance piece about evolution in celebration of the bicentenary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Rambert Dance Company, 2009.

16 Thomason, p. 2.

17 Broglio, ‘A Left-handed Primer’.

18 Rikke Hansen, in chaired discussion atPidgin Language: Animals, Birds and Us, Symposium, 2009.

19 Aldo Leopold, ‘April: Sky Dance’ in A Sand County Almanac: and sketches here and there (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 32.

20 Martin Wells, Civilization and the Limpet (New York: Perseus, 1998).