The Elegance of the Octopus: Tom Jeffreys reviews Strange Foreign Bodies

March 2019
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The killer blow in Strange Foreign Bodies is Sarah Browne’s ‘Report to an Academy’ (2016). Like Warnell’s, this strange film also includes footage of an octopus, this time housed inside an aquarium and inside a fiction. The film inverts Kafka’s story of the same title (in which an ape must become human in order to escape from captivity); here, the narrator, a university lecturer, becomes an octopus in order to squirm free from the bureaucratic strictures of institutional academia. Close-ups of the human body—threads of greying hair; a writhing tongue leaving flecks of spittle on the camera lens—give way to the elegance of the octopus.

‘Report to an Academy’ roots the exhibition in its institutional locale. There is a sense in Browne’s film that the students and staff are treated as parasites within the body of the university. “Speech itself can cause harm and the academy always wants to limit damage to itself,” says the narrator in the gently uncanny Scottish accent of Apple’s ‘Fiona’ voice simulator. A colleague diagnosed with cancer is viewed as “a challenge”. Like Bill Readings’ book University in Ruins (1996), Browne’s university is a corporatised, market-driven non-place of press releases and spreadsheets, debt and jargon. It is a generalised institution in which students are charged to visit the doctor, in which cleaners suddenly lose their jobs, and lecturers are told to report students “vulnerable to radicalisation”. Just around the corner from the Hunterian, the University of Glasgow is spending £1 billion on capital projects that are already transforming the fabric of the city in which the institution exists. This is why the ethics of hospitality are so complex and so important. The university may like to think of itself as generous host but it is also, at the same time, a guest—and not always one that is universally welcome. Oak and ivy. So too, in the end, is every body.

Read the full exhibition review in MAP magazine online here

Issue #49, March 2019