ARTWORK + > Other of Pearl

Sperm Whale Instrument (Part I) & (Part II, Click Track)

Sperm Whale Instrument (Part I), 2024
Handblown opaline glass representing the spermaceti organ, junk, blowhole and phonic lips, patinated steel, New York seawater, antique whale oils (originally used in clocks, watches, sewing machines, automobile transmissions, bicycles, typewriters, cosmetics, music boxes, and firearms)

This sculptural instrument is modeled on the internal anatomy of the head of a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). In living whales, these organs enable echolocation and allow sperm whales to speak to each other over long distances, using a complex composition of fats, waxes, and collagen ‘lenses’ to bounce and amplify sound.

A precursor to the fossil fuel industry, the whaling industry brutally hunted sperm whales and sold these body fluids at a premium. The very substances which allowed whales to communicate illuminated the tables of the wealthy and lubricated clocks, firearms, and other machinery at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Here, the artist presents a selection of these antique whale oils within handblown glass lens-vials, symbolically returning them to the whales. This archive aims to bear material witness to the origin story of the climate crisis as it originated in our hunger for material wealth—wealth built on the backs, and from the bodies, of nonhumans.

Sperm Whale Instrument (Part II, Click Track), 2024
Ultrasonic speakers, media player and other audio equipment, sperm whale echolocation and codas used in translation research
Sperm whale recordings provided by David Gruber and Project CETI

The sperm whale is among the world’s most enigmatic and fascinating beings, and simultaneously among those most wronged by humankind. They hold many superlatives: largest toothed predator, loudest vocalizer, and, soon, perhaps, the first non-humans with whom we can converse in their own language.

Intended to evoke the experience of being spoken to by a whale, the sounds you hear emitted from specialized ultrasonic “beam” speakers are the whales’ echolocation as well as their complex vocalizations. The latter are known as codas: patterned sets of clicks that are at the core of cutting-edge research by exhibition contributors Project CETI, which aims to translate them using advanced machine learning.

What care do we owe to these remarkable others on the eve of being able to speak with them? What explanations? What apologies?

Video Credit: Jeremy Gender for Powerhouse Arts