Kingyo Kingdom by Cohen Van Balen

Pick of the Week #82

This week’s pick is Cohen Van Balen’s film ‘Kingyo Kingdom‘, a documentary on the selective breeding of Ranchu Fish.

 

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen are London based Designers and Artists that work together under the name Cohen Van Balen. Their experimental approach to art which sits between science, technology and design, leads them to beautiful and thought provoking projects that ”test the ethical parameters of biological design”.(Transformism exhibition)

Ranchu fish, ”King of the goldfish”, are a variety of Goldfish from Japan that are selectively bred for their shape, and are the direct outcome of crossbreeding experiments. Cohen explains, “The purpose of Kingyo Kingdom is to acknowledge these fish as designed consumer objects, biologically created to adhere to strict design constraints,”(Disegno Daily)

While filming the documentary, Cohen and Van Balen visited Ranchu competitions, where the fish are scored by how they look from certain angles. “The breeders have taken an animal and flattened it to just an aerial view when it swims,” says Cohen. “It’s an animal completely created and designed for its aesthetic properties. This is not a fish; it’s a living commodity.”(Disegno Daily)

The breeders judge whether the fish has a nice back and waist, well balanced tail shape, and they keep those with the best shape and “discard” all the rest.

 

 

“This film is a continuation of our interest in the idea of animals as products, a theme we also explored in works such as Life Support and Pigeon d’Or. To us goldfish seem to be the ultimate product-animal since they are completely designed, and serve no purpose but an aesthetic one. Unlike other ‘manufactured’ animals goldfish are not utilitarian, nor do they provide companionship or any social or emotional needs, they exist to be looked at, and this we found intriguing.

We are curious about the animal-products that already exist – from Edo period ornamental fish to more recent genetically depressed rats – and what do these animals mean in the context of perceptions of nature, designer biology and techno-fantasies.”

 

kingyo kingdom 1

 

“Van Balen’s previous project Pigeon D’Or (2011) saw him add bacteria to pigeon feed to make the birds’ guano soapy enough to clean streets, while Cohen’s Life Support (2008) reconfigured animals into life-prolonging technologies such as respirators.

Biology is becoming a material that we manipulate… Both Tuur and I are product designers and we are interested in biology as technology and what that might bring. What is a bio-product? People talk about bio-products as if they’re the future, but they’re already everywhere. The animals around us have been designed. Ranchu is just a very extreme case.”(Disegno Daily)

 

 

When asked whether selectively breeding our pets is a sign that we have forgotten how to situate ourselves within nature, Cohen explained;

“We don’t believe in the paradigm that there is “a nature”. Everything around us has been so heavily mediated by humans over centuries, even what we perceive as areas of uninterrupted nature. Therefore we think the distinction between nature and technology is somewhat artificial. Our situation within a technologically mediated environment is probably as natural to ourselves as the wilderness.”

‘Kingyo Kingdom’ opens up debate about whether we take customising the world around us too far, commodifying nature without thought for any moral implications. In the midst of global warming and overpopulation, can projects like this help us reconsider our attitude to the Pale Blue Dot?

 

Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst, Kingyo Kingdom is featured in the John Hansard Exhibition ‘Transformism‘ until the 9th of March. Cohen Van Balen are also partipants of Resonate Festival 2013.

 

Cohen Van Balen’s website can be found here
Their twitter can be found here

Full interview below

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What inspired this film, and what got you interested in the Ranchu fish?
This film is a continuation of our interest in the idea of animals as products, a theme we also explored in works such as Life Support and Pigeon d’Or. To us goldfish seem to be the ultimate product-animal since they are completely designed, and serve no purpose but an aesthetic one. Unlike other ‘manufactured’ animals goldfish are not utilitarian, nor do they provide companionship or any social or emotional needs, they exist to be looked at, and this we found intriguing.

 

Whose work inspires you?
Many people. At the moment I would say Francis Alys, Sophie Calle, Rem Koolhaas, Simon Starling, David Lynch, Maywa Denki…

 

Do you think the Kingyo Kingdom has a message? What sort of questions do you hope viewers will go away and ask themselves?
Our aim is not to create work with a message, but to open a space where the viewer is inspired to make their own associations, questions and opinions.

 

Have you produced any piece of research in connection with Kingyo Kingdom?
In a way Kingyo Kingdom can be seen in itself as a piece of research, since it is the first step towards a big project we have planned for 2014.

 

In ‘Ready to use models’ you talk about the commodification of animals and compare it to Tamagotchis and ‘Fur Real Friends’ robots.
Do you think we struggle to differentiate between pets and objects?
We think that the idea of the ‘biological product’ is an interesting one in light of new technologies and the possibilities they present. We are curious about the animal-products that already exist – from Edo period ornamental fish to more recent genetically depressed rats – and what do these animals mean in the context of perceptions of nature, designer biology and techno-fantasies.

 

In one of our Pick of the Week posts, we looked at Jihyun Ryou’s “Save Food from the Fridge”, where she wanted to “bring back the connection between different levels of living beings, we as human beings, and food ingredients as other living beings.”
Do you think that in the digital age, we have forgotten how to situate ourselves within nature?
No, because we don’t necessarily believe in the paradigm that there is “a nature”. Everything around us has been so heavily mediated by humans over centuries, even what we perceive as areas of uninterrupted nature. Therefore we think the distinction between nature and technology is somewhat artificial. Our situation within a technologically mediated environment is probably as natural to ourselves as the wilderness.