As with training an AI to think like a human, Bundjulung and Ngāpuhi artist Amrita Hepi uses the 1960s 'dolphin house' experiment to examine the imposed hierarchy of intelligences and the ethics of forcing knowledge onto others. In this experiment, scientists funded by NASA attempted to teach dolphins human language in the hope that it would help them learn how to communicate with extraterrestrial life.
Scripture for a smoke screen: Episode 1 – dolphin house (2022), commissioned by ACMI and SAMSTAG, University of South Australia, collates ephemera connected to NASA’s study with new footage of Hepi dancing and communicating with an inflatable dolphin. Working predominantly as a dancer and choreographer, Hepi investigates what happens when we are constantly under surveillance, and when the images and stories presented to the world about us come from the gaze of someone else. The work asks, who is deemed intelligent and what are the metrics through which intelligence is measured? Western knowledge systems, including science and language, place themselves at the top of the food chain – but there are many complex knowledge systems in societies, human and otherwise, outside of that.
There is a comedic and absurd element to Hepi’s work, just as there is to the original experiment, which was ultimately deemed a failure. Can we trust what we see is real? We must leave room for misinterpretation and mistranslation when we are not getting information directly from the source, when the source is corrupted, and when the systems of value and knowledge come from an outside place.
– Kate ten Buuren
I think that letter writing is incredibly personal. It's as much for the person that's writing it as it is for the person that it's being written to. In this film I'm writing a letter to a dolphin, which seems bizarre.
My name is Amrita Hepi and I am a Bundjulung woman from mid-north of this country and then also a Ngāpuhi woman from northern Aotearoa. I am an artist that works with dance and choreography and I have made Scripture for a smoke screen: Episode 1 – dolphin house. It was commissioned by ACMI and SAMSTAG as part of How I See It: Blak Art and Film.
With this work you actually have to pass through a smoke screen. The outside of the space is this smoking wall. Inside is this small room whereby you're invited to lie down.
On a macro level this work is about language, desire and surveillance. It takes a look at this 1960s NASA-funded dolphin experiment where they were testing the intelligence of dolphins. It looks at the relationship between Margaret Lovett and this dolphin that was kept at this Dolphin House, Peter.
On a micro level or on a personal level I was thinking about kind of metrics of intelligence; how dancers have a kind of bodily intelligence, and thinking about whether it's ever actually possible to be mind smart but not body smart, or body smart but not mind smart. I guess on a personal note, like the metrics of intelligence, or even just the shifting metrics, that have been on Mob for a long time.
There's also a big part of it is you can hear my voice in this film and then you can also hear another voice over the top of mine.
[Film voiceover] Peter, I have grown up thinking in English and symbols due to my lineage. There are multiple languages that have existed in my lineage.
[Amrita] When language fails sometimes it can create like some really beautiful things but a lot of the time it can create a dissonance. A lot of the work that I make is like dead serious but with a wink.