Artist statement to “Say my name”: A time of innocence
By Beate Liepert
The Tacoma window art installation “Say my name” reinterprets a scientific experiment that took place in the United States of the 1960s. Dr. Jonathan Lilly believed in the superior intelligence of dolphins and thought he could teach a dolphin to speak. Lilly transported a dolphin into a flooded mid-century apartment and hired Margaret to record and teach Peter to “say my name”.
For a scientist working in 2015 the innocence of this experiment seems intriguing. Around the same time NASA sent astronauts to the Moon, a scientific and financial endeavor the society of today would not approve. This “because we can” mentality reflects the human-centric approach and scientific hubris of that time. The lack of boundaries in general and between humans and nature, specifically in Jonathan Lilly’s research is astonishing from today’s perspective. Lilly’s research exhibits a lack of responsibility and accountability towards the subject of research and towards societal needs that is unthinkable today.
As a climate scientist in 2015, I work on technical questions of energy flow in the Earth system. Global warming and climate change are part of this equation. For this kind of science, humans are the threat to the system under study. Humans are also the victims, and the boundaries between humans and nature are already broached. Today when scientists write research proposals to the National Science Foundation, they are required to include a chapter on broader impact of basic research, and scientists need to explain the overall benefits to society that the outcome of the research may have. One might ask: what was Jonathan Lilly thinking of the benefits to society? The scientist today signs on to numerous protocols of research conduct with animals, research ethics and transparency. Would scientists of 2015 be interested in Dr. Lilly’s experiment? They would certainly question the ethical appropriateness.
Do I want this time of innocence back? Yes and no. I am glad that in 2015 we are made aware of the consequences of science and technology and share our work with the public more. But sometimes I also wished we could be more playful and exuberant. For example, I would like to see NASA sending men and women to Mars, and I dream of doing outrageous science myself, while knowing that I would never get it funded.
Marisa and I recreated this 1960s scientific experiment of Peter and Margaret not exclusively but also to commemorate simpler science times. The installation depicts simple cutouts of the two figures in an ink-splashed room. One of my goals is to show more innocent times in science and a playfulness and sometimes uselessness of research that may be lost today.