All of Us Others
by Liza Ryan, 2022
All of Us Others is a series of work examining interspecies relationships and eco-social engagement. This project confronts the detrimental impact of human exceptionalism and its relationship to our habitual abuse of the Earth. This project encourages viewers to reconsider their intrinsic fear of beings unlike themselves as a step towards fostering ecological connectivity and compassion.
During my research on intelligence and nonhuman animals, I read a description of an octopus as an “intelligent alien”.
My aggravation over the common yet divisive label of “alien” motivated an interrogation of the moral quandary inherent to systems of categorization. Octopuses, incredibly dissimilar to humans and extremely intelligent, became a fitting envoy for challenging western hierarchy.
Although octopuses have advanced cognitive capabilities and feel pain, the National Institute of Health excludes them from the protected category of “Animal” because they are invertebrates. This assigned lesser status permits cruelty facilitated by the desensitizing practice of “othering”. The constant use and abuse of the Earth can be linked to our designation of the planet as a lesser object, rather than a vulnerable living entity. All of Us Others catalyzes a discussion about fear, ingrained biases, and “othering,” all of which distance humans from each other and from the rest of the natural world. The intended ethical, social and environmental impact of the project involves a deep questioning, if not a rejection of the existing hierarchy.
By marking my octopus photographs with gold, I allude to art historical references for the divine. As an additional act of reverence, I layer my photographic imagery with printed and painted silk organza to accentuate the octopus’s grace and shifting form. For other works, I print and paint on floor-to-ceiling silk panels that, when fluttering, mimic the sensuous flow of swimming octopuses. The process of making my work is a collaboration with my subjects—their form, movement, and astonishing complexity guide my decisions in the studio.
I champion octopuses because they’re extraordinarily unlike us, evolving on a radically separate trajectory than mammals. Recently scientists discovered that octopuses have many valued traits: complex cognition, a sense of humor, comprehension of time, and the ability to feel pain. Partially due to their complexity, octopuses have become a popular research subject. They are an equally popular menu item.
All of Us Others has been in development for over two years. The research component included extensive reading of interdisciplinary texts by authors such as Donna Haraway, Melanie Challenger, Sy Montgomery, Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, and poet Brenda Shaughnessy among others. For the empirical component, I met with and interviewed scientists and aquarists in Long Beach and San Francisco. Most importantly during this phase, I interacted with, studied, and photographed two octopuses, Poppy and Darwin, on multiple occasions.
Currently, the United States has no mandated protections extended to cephalopods and is on the verge of legalizing octopus farms. As a direct call to action, I hope to contribute awareness of the need for the National Institute of Health to amend its current definition of “Animal” to include cephalopods*. Exclusion from this category leaves octopuses unprotected by the Public Health Services Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals and subject to “significant pain, distress, and suffering.” This work brings to light the arbitrariness of the “line drawing” commonly used to delineate between who does and doesn’t deserve protection in America.