“The Wrong Kind of Excitement”: Vivienne Westbrook on the Shark as Art

Lucy Burnett recently had the opportunity to interview Vivienne Westbrook, a Visiting Research Fellow in the ARC CHE at The University of Western Australia.  Vivienne has published on subjects as diverse as English Reformation Bible translation through to adaptations of Sir Walter Raleigh across the range of expressive media. Her current project explores cultural representations of the shark in Art. She has already presented her early research at SymbioticA and will be presenting her new research findings in Perth on May 27th “Shark in Art: creature vs. culture” in an Institute of Advanced Studies lecture at UWA. She will be lecturing in Sydney on June 13th.

viv westbrook

How did you come to work on sharks?

I wasn’t looking for an endangered species or an endangered subject. I have a lot of students in England who always seem to be hosting dinners to save whales. I asked them, ‘why not save the sharks?’ We’ve all seen the pictures of shark finning; we’ve all seen the documentaries about shark netting. Then the Marine Biology department at my own university put out a call for interdisciplinary courses. I thought right, ‘Fish on Film.’ I didn’t end up teaching it, as I was already teaching eight courses that year, but it made me think that maybe I should do something, more seriously, with this subject. Knowing that Marine Biologists were interested in working with the Arts department inspired me.  I knew that sharks would enable me to do something that was enormously interdisciplinary, as well as internationally collaborative. It just started to take shape very slowly as I began to realize that it had the potential to suck in every discipline, every imagination across the planet.

Then I realized that I hadn’t even met a shark! I remember as a kid being taken to the docks at Looe in Cornwall to see the Blue sharks being brought in, but that was about the extent of my engagement. I realized that was probably the extent of it for most people; most of us will probably never meet a living shark, probably never even study sharks—so why is that that we think that we know so much about sharks? We all have an opinion about sharks, but we actually know so little about them.

I’ve done quite a lot of work on cultural afterlives, on the subsequent appropriation, representation and misappropriation of various texts, figures and issues, mostly from the Renaissance period, which is where I started my academic career.

I thought it would be very interesting to look at the ways in which culture has represented sharks across all of the media according to particular political or religious, entertainment and commercial agendas, and then to look at the way in which these cultural representations of sharks has impacted on the real sharks in the oceans. An opportunity was presented to me through a fellowship offered by the National Science Council of Taiwan. I think Taiwan was looking for interdisciplinary, collaborative projects that were also international, and the shark was just sitting there, waiting for me. I realized this was the prime opportunity for doing some real research on sharks; then it was a case of finding the right site.

Aside from trawling databases for sharks in different art forms, I wanted to talk to scientists who were doing real, close investigatory work with sharks. I knew that there were three major sites for shark attack in the world, where sharks were going to be really key to discussions between fishermen, between governments, government agencies, scientists, conservationists, and the public.  I was looking at Australia, the South East coast of the USA, and South Africa. I’d already been to South Africa and Florida, but Australia I’d only visited very briefly 12 years ago for an ANZAMEMS conference at UWA. The more I looked at Australia, the more I realized that this was the site. There are two oceans, lots of different species of sharks, lots of potential for different types of shark research, and different approaches.

You have a Renaissance grounding, but where do you begin in studying a species over 400 million years old?

(She laughs)

It’s a huge project. The more research I do the bigger it gets. But I’m starting with the Mayan civilization, the old stories, the Ur-myths of sharks in their relationship to nature. Obviously, civilizations that are close to water are going to have relationships with creatures in the water. In Egyptian culture there are Nile crocodiles in art, in ancient Mayan, and to some extent in Australian aboriginal culture, there are sharks in art. Within these stories sharks help to generate a sense of respect for the ocean. These aren’t civilizations that are seeking to destroy sharks; these are civilizations that are representing sharks as gods, as an important part of how they see themselves within an environmental culture.  I think that element has been ripped away from us in modern culture, because of our need to create sensations for ourselves— Jaws is within a tradition of the thrilling toothsome monster, from Godzilla, through to Hannibal Lecter.

So my work begins with the ancient Mayans, and the shark gods, but cuts right through to modern representations. The first recorded usage of the word ‘sharke’ is in a 1569 report of a mackerel fishing trip that went badly wrong when all of the nets were destroyed by a ‘straunge fish’, identified by some of Captain John Hawkins’ sailors as a ‘sharke’. Representations can be found in poetry, in drama, and from the nineteenth century in novels right through to the twentieth century, and from the twentieth century these representations continue into film, advertising and internet sites.

One of the interesting features I’m seeing in the media at the moment is human emotional responses to You-Tube shark attack videos. I don’t think anyone else has done any research on this yet, but modern technology has made this kind of interaction a way of life. The responses to You-Tube videos are by people who are outside of the immediate environment of the attack to which they are responding. In some cases the violence of those responses is so much greater than that being shown on the video, typically of somebody surfing, getting on a board and getting dragged off, or somebody coming out of the water with a limb bleeding. On the whole, the responses captured on video are those of concern, rather than fear, hatred or even panic. The emergency is dealt with, usually, quite calmly. The visceral responses come from the bloggers, and these can be filled with angry expletives, often targeted at the lack of an emotional response within the video to the bleeding body.  In some cases the shark attack video provokes angry responses that have nothing to do with the shark or the attack at all – they become hooks for other sources of aggression – a kind of emotional by-catch.

That’s very interesting for me, to look at that very violent emotional response to an event in which everyone is actually being rather calm. But there are other kinds of emotional response, including humorous responses in which bloggers poke fun at some aspect of sharks – such as their failure to spot the colour of the flag and straying into a no-go zone. This is also fascinating from an emotional studies perspective because in this kind of instance we have someone laughing at somebody who’s just been chewed into. This is a new area of representation and emotional response to shark attack for me. I hadn’t even thought about when I first created the project.

While I’ve enjoyed researching Renaissance texts, figures and issues through subsequent representations, I felt it would be quite wonderful, quite a privilege to do this kind of research with something that was actually living: to look at the way in which representation impacts on the living presence of a subject. This is the first time that my work has tried to impact on the environment in this way, and it is very exciting. Through my research, through the book, through international collaboration across disciplines, and through the film, I hope to reach the broadest audience possible, to really make that clear delineation between real sharks and cultural sharks, and to change the perception of the real shark. We can still enjoy sharks within our culture, but with the understanding that with representation comes responsibility.

I think there is the potential for us all to work together in a truly interdisciplinary way, in a way that has positive outcomes for sharks. What we don’t want to see is the extinction of sharks. Sharks are being culled at a rate at which they can’t possibly reproduce themselves. We really need to stop that and start thinking about sharks more seriously, recognizing the delineation between the real shark and the cultural shark so that we have a much more healthy attitude towards them. Instead of treating them as trophies we should be fostering an excitement born of responsible curiosity. We need to build respect for an animal that has been in the ocean for 400 million years and is so wonderfully diverse.

What is it about the shark that makes it such a rich vehicle or catalyst for human emotions?

Well, I think your answer is in the question, it is representation that is really responsible, rather than the real shark. At the simplest level, if you go to the zoo, you will see a bear, you will see tigers. You may even see a shark in the aquarium. But in the zoo gift shop there will be cute stuffed bears and tigers, without teeth and claws – to make them cuter. You will see the stuffed shark – but with its teeth. So teeth are hugely important to the way that we see sharks, because of the way that they have been represented. There are many ways of understanding the operations of teeth on our psyche. From a purely emotional developmental perspective, we all remember parents reminding us of sharp objects. We all remember learning as we touched something sharp for the first time and bled as a result. If an animal is represented primarily as a set of big sharp pointy objects, and very little else, that gets matched to the category of sharp objects stored as infants, triggering those rooted emotional responses. Most people aren’t actually ever going to be in a situation where a pair of shark jaws are going to snap on them, but we still live in fear because of the way they have been represented.

I’m aware of the problems that governments face in finding ways to accommodate people and sharks in a shared environment.  The Australian Taronga Zoo shark attack files reveal an average of 1 fatality a year over the last 50 years. The government has recently funded a lot of research into shark behavior that will contribute to shark repellants and shark awareness programmes. That’s made the Oceans Institute here extremely busy. Of course the scientists, more than anyone else, realize that when you’re dealing with all these different sharks you aren’t going to get the same responses from different species. A combination of strategies will be required to make it even safer for people to share the oceans with sharks.

I think that most people enjoying a safari would not think of walking up to a pride of lions without expecting the lions to be curious or even threatened and respond accordingly, so it seems unreasonable to expect that you can do that to oceanic creatures and not get a reaction. But there are contexts in which you can exists happily with wildlife, with appropriate training and guidance it is possible to share the planet a bit more generously with other creatures. I think one way forward is to think about the ways in which safaris have managed human and animal interactions to achieve the best outcomes for both.

You talk about hoping for a shift in human emotions toward sharks from fear to respect. When or how can that happen?

If I tell people I’m looking at sharks in the context of emotion, then the obvious response is, ‘is there more than one?’ Is there anything but fear? The answer is ‘yes’. The more I look at cultural representation, the more I realize that there is almost as much representation of sharks in humor as in horror, so why do we only remember the horror of sharks? So that is the first thing I can work with. The second thing is that because so many of us think we know about sharks without thinking about how we know, or that we know about sharks only through cultural representation, that there is a huge amount of misinformation circulated that produces the wrong kind of excitement.

I think that by becoming alert to other forms of representation of sharks it is possible to educate people to respond to sharks with the right kind of excitement, and with positive curiosity. That is where science and art can really come together, to re-work representations of sharks, to frame them in ways that do not tap into our more visceral, primitive responses of disgust and retreat, but rather that tap into responses of admiration and respect, of recognizing something beautiful, and wanting to conserve it.

If we can understand how sharks behave in the water, we can learn how to behave appropriately towards them.  Precautions are always necessary when humans are in any environment that is populated with wild animals. We need to be alert, but we do not need to fear. If sharks were dependent on human beings as a food source they would be extinct by now, and they’ve been around for over 400 million years. They’ve survived all the other extinctions. We need to rethink our whole relationship to the sharks, and that comes through a proper representation based on real science. That’s ultimately much more interesting.

Reminding people of the difference between the real shark and the represented shark will be the main focus of my project. I think we can enjoy sharks without eating them. These are slow-maturing creatures: some of them will not reach sexual maturity till their teens. So if we are ripping over a hundred million out of the ocean every year, we are going to destroy many of the species. Reimagining sharks in positive ways – as a valuable contribution to the eco system, of which we are all important elements, is key. Reconfiguring our global culture so we don’t think of shark fins as prestigious, so we don’t measure ourselves by how big the shark is that we’ve caught, all of that will be enormously challenging.

I also think a simple re-definition is in order. The Oxford English Dictionary, the primary reference point for the English language, still defines “shark”, noun 1 as Carcharodon, Carcharias. This is the Great White Shark, suggesting to everyone that the shark is ‘Jaws’. That is just one species out of nearly five hundred.  I think that’s something we need to be aware of. It isn’t just the sharks that are potentially dangerous that are suffering. Most sharks are completely benign creatures, and no more threatening than the family pet.

‘Shark in Art’ is a wonderful way of bringing together global cultures and a wide range of disciplines to reconfigure our understanding of our relationship to the environment and encouraging responsibility for it, personally and collectively. I want to be a part of that.

Posted by Lucy Burnett

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