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Joan Jonas. Still from To Touch Sound. 2024. Courtesy the artist

Many of Joan Jonas’s recent performances, installations, and video works have been inspired by her passion for nature and animal life—from strange deep-sea creatures to her beloved dog, Ozu. Jonas’s latest work, the three-channel video To Touch Sound (2024), was inspired by her friendship with the scientist David Gruber, who is currently leading a groundbreaking project to understand the complex linguistic capacities of sperm whales. Though engaged in disparate disciplinary pursuits, Gruber and Jonas bonded over their shared interests in technology, perception, and—above all—the exquisite wonder of earth’s ecology. On the occasion of the exhibition Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning, Gruber spoke to me about his work bridging the realms of art and science.
—Mitchell Herrmann, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, Media and Performance

Mitchell Herrmann: How would you describe your field of research to someone who isn’t an expert in science?

David Gruber: I describe myself as a marine biologist. Marine biology encompasses life in the ocean, but it also integrates geology, physics, and chemistry, all coming together. I’ve studied life from several avenues, venturing for a short while into tropical forestry, then back to marine biology. I’ve looked at microbe interactions in the ocean and their role in carbon cycling, the evolution of life, various forms of symbiosis in the ocean, and then into how marine creatures visualize their world—looking through the eyes or light-sensitive pigments of many different types of animals. I love all life forms and their interconnections, and the story of life starting from the very beginning, billions of years ago.

Could you give a summary of your current research into whale communication and what you hope to achieve?

Currently I’m leading Project CETI, the Cetacean Translation Initiative, which is an interdisciplinary, nonprofit organization with the aim of listening to and translating sperm whale communication using best-in-class artificial intelligence and minimally invasive robotics. We founded it in 2020, with catalytic funding from the Audacious Project. We’re working in the Eastern Caribbean on the island of Dominica, where there are families of matrilineal sperm whales that are there year-round that communicate via codas and other sounds.

So, your project is using technology similar to that found in AI chat bots, which have learned human language by processing vast collections of texts on the Internet. With new technology like machine learning, there’s a popular tendency to think of it in either a totally utopian or dystopian manner. With most technology, however, there turns out to be a complicated mixture of good and bad effects. Joan Jonas has always been interested in technology, and she is attentive to these complexities in her work. She shows us how the video camera, for example, both opens up new possibilities and imposes new difficulties upon us.

Do you feel like your work is offering a different way to think about the impact of new technologies, which could paradoxically bring us closer to nature rather than pulling us further away from it?

That’s a great question. The underlying discourse and hypothesis of CETI: Can technology bring us closer to nature? And now, in the middle of the project, it’s still a question. Underlying all of this technology is humans. It’s hard to separate the humans from the technology. I see them as intertwined. I see this new technology as a tool, as a paintbrush to be used. With underwater listening technology, much of it has been developed by the military, to track submarines. Our current research aims to subvert that knowledge into a project of connectivity, into listening, care and gentleness. Joan and I connected on this idea of seeing from the perspective of the animal that we’re looking at.

Joan Jonas. Still from To Touch Sound. 2024

Joan Jonas. Still from To Touch Sound. 2024