The Shape of a Circle in the Dream of a Fish: London ecology and art festival in Porto

The Shape of a Circle in the Dream of a Fish organized by Galeria Municipal do Porto in collaboration with the Serpentine Galleries’ General Ecology programme, took place between November 26 and 27, 2022 at Galeria da Biodiversidade – Centro Ciência Viva/MHNC-UP (Porto). There were talks, debates, performances, concerts and film screenings, bringing together figures from various areas to reflect on the role of dreams in our lives. The festival took place for the first time outside London and marked the fifth initiative, celebrating the intersection between science, magic and spirituality, curated by Lucia Pietroiusti, founder of the London galleries’ research project, and Filipa Ramos, Artistic Director of Galeria Municipal do Porto and Departmento de Arte Contemporânea da Ágora.

The name comes from the blowfish that, during mating, draws circles on the sandy seabed, generating a hypothetical image for humans, as well as a trace of a possible dance. This allows us to question the communication, creativity and intelligence in different living beings, allowing a deeper ecological understanding of our lives.

In the initiative’s statement, the curators take it as their goal to instigate notions of centrality and exceptionality of humanity. When we claim that other living beings do not love, think or create, we are basing ourselves on ideas made in our own image. They also stress that they want to tap into the realm of dreams, into the continuum between science, ancestral knowledge, magic and spirituality, speculating, imagining and debating the interdependence, the deep and ancient relationship that binds systems of discovery, understanding and healing of body and mind, across time, past and future. The Shape of a Circle in the Dream of a Fish allowed a reflection on how dreams manifest in all beings, through historical, scientific, artistic and spiritual accounts. These are experiences that occur during sleep, helping to think beyond conventions, harmoniously extrapolating the boundary between conscious and unconscious, allowing a fruitful dialogue with other living beings and the environment. This shows that the human being is not the only one capable of dreaming.

On the first day, under the skeleton of a blue whale in the main hall of Centro Ciência Viva, with pink, violet and blue lights, we entered a warm, surreal and oneiric environment. The beginning was Yussef Agbo-Ola’s performance, 12 Dreams as Coral Hair. Next, Alex Jordan, head of the research group on Behavioural Evolution at Munich’s Max Planck Institute, presented A Fish’s Sense of Self. This is a study on the evolution of social behaviour in animals, with tangible results from exposing bluestreak cleaner wrasse to the mirror test to understand their social and individual life through a visual self-recognition technique, questioning the way humans try to understand other animals. On the other hand, the Italian philosopher and writer Federico Campagna, in How to Dream Better, talked about the thesis that from the very beginning of mythology there is the intuition that the world is a dream and living beings the characters in it. Arguing that philosophers, theologians and scientists have investigated this mystery, he concluded that, because there is consciousness in the dream, we create a world, we set a narrative to maximise the characters’ joy for ethical reasons, similar to the world we live in. However, the historian and professor of patristics Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, in Restless Souls and Porous Bodies: Dreaming between Animals, Demons and Humans in Antiquity, stated that the idea of reincarnation has been intrinsic since classical antiquity, considering dream accounts where memories of previous incarnate lives emerged. Even Christians resistant to these notions reported dreams in which demons possessed their souls, forcing them to behave like animals. Speculative fiction writer and designer Onome Ekeh presented an excerpt from her still-in-progress graphic novel, Untitled Kingdom, a magical realist tale that explores power and geopolitics through the spectral lens of shamanism along a whirlwind of alternate timelines. Artist and architect Rain Wu showed the film-essay As Above, So Below (2020) in partnership with Mariana Sanchez Salvador, showing that we have an intimate relationship with food, as it allows us to establish connections with our ancestors, history, culture and myths from the perspective of the cosmos, the terrestrial and even the microscopic. This allows for new perspectives on the world we live in. Finally, we saw the concert by the Japanese vocal performer Hatis Noit, Aura, where we immersed ourselves in ancestral, mystical and contemporary sounds, with influences from Gregorian chant and Japanese gagaku. All this in the setting of Galeria da Biodiversidade, formerly Casa Andersen. A very powerful experience.

The next day, the atrium of the 19th-century palace featured a different layout. The chairs were set out in a semi-circle, creating more space for the huge cushions in front. This made for a more relaxed, intimate atmosphere devoted to sharing knowledge, where the lighting took us into the realm of dreams. We reflected on how film, performance, music and poetry relate to magical thinking, dreaming and reality, but also how the dreamlike, spiritual and occult side exist in art. We initially saw Stories From Home, where artist and musician Nahum Mantra, after a brief hypnosis session, performed a musical reading of stories written by artificial intelligence, based on satellite data. It was moving poetry and accounts of environmental disasters, fires and the harmful human impact on the planet. Then, researcher and professor of Comparative Cognition Nicola S. Clayton shared her experiences with jays, based on methodologies from magic, to understand their cognitive abilities. And then we saw the film session All is Leaf, where we highlight A Journey to Avebury (1973) by Derek Jarman, Paliomacia (2022) by Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela and ljen / London (2022) by Ben Rivers, for its plasticity, hypnagogic experience and imaginative, oneiric and magical immersion. Finally, Cru Encarnação presented the performance The Back of Five, where the audience exercised between artistic practice and magic, known and unknown, fears and anxieties, control and uncontrol of the body, scientific practices and incomprehensible and occult experiences.

During the two days, Hatis Noit’s video installation, Aura, was exhibited, with the same title as the concert. It is a music video, where the artist uses images from the British Film Institute (BFI) archive and artificial intelligence to cross-reference recently restored films from early 20th century Japan and moving images from the country in the 1990s to the present day. She used the image recognition system to identify humans by highlighting their imagery features in the programming language. Establishing a comparison between past and present, in constructive and natural elements, in cultural and artistic characteristics, but also in different rhythms and times.

Ultimately, the festival provided an intense experience, where we reflected on the constitution and manifestation of dreams in all living beings through various perspectives. Above all, on how artistic and scientific practices integrate, beyond a logic of positivist and Eurocentric thinking, oneiric, spiritual, occult and magical manifestations, allowing a better understanding of cosmos, world and ecology.

The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish began with a two-day meeting in Porto and will continue in London and online, in podcasts, videos and other releases until early 2023.

Ana Martins (Porto, 1990) currently working as a researcher at i2ADS – Instituto de Investigação em Arte, Design e Sociedade, with a fellowship granted by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (2022.12105.BD) to atende the PhD in Fine Arts at Faculdade de Belas Artes da Universidade do Porto. Already holding a MA in Art Studies – Museological and Curatorial Studies from the same institution. With a BA in Cinema from ESTC-IPL and in Heritage Management by ESE-IPP. Also collaborated as a researcher at CHIC Project – Cooperative Holistic view on Internet Content, supporting the incorporation of artist films into the portuguese National Cinema Plan and the creation of content for the Online Catalog of Films and Videos by Portuguese Artists from FBAUP. Currently developing her research project: Cinematic Art: Installation and Moving Images in Portugal (1990-2010), following the work she started with Exhibiting Cinema – Between the Gallery and the Museum: Exhibitions by Portuguese Filmmakers (2001-2020), with the aim to contribute to the study of installations with moving images in Portugal, envisioning the transfer and specific incorporation of structural elements of cinema in the visual arts.

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