Cuttlefish Revolution by Filipa Ramos

“Soon the cinema will die. Its grandchildren will use an electromagnetic tape instead of film, colour television screens with cathode — ray tubes instead of projector bulbs... In short, they will be beautiful grandchildren. Let’s just hope they will continue to provide what the best of cinema does: a synthesis of art, science, and poetry.”

Jean Painlevé, in “La place des français dans le cinéma."

This is an account about a vision of the transformation of cinema which begun on board of the Dardanella — a boat, space and container that functions like a movie theatre, a relatively enclosed environment shared by a small group of individuals with a common goal, that of fully immerging themselves onto a journey across outlandish scenarios and unexpected visions. Triggered by the experiences and encounters at the sea, this vision continued to haunt me outside of the boat. It’s not a vision of cinema in its deathbed (as in Painlevé’s testimony) but of an elderly cinema who is transforming itself by passing its legacy to its grandchildren, to its “beautiful granddaughters and grandsons” who will carry it on, grandchildren of a cinema that, echoing Painlevé, is an animalistic cinema and a cinema of the deep waters, whose inheritors are humans and other sea creatures alike.

I’d like to start by returning to this synthesis between art, science, and poetry mentioned by Painlevé, which is taking place through and beyond film, to observe how these modes of engagement with the world meet at the sea, and to think how the notions of encounter, testimony and evidence shape so much of the cinematic rendering of marine environments. In other words, it appears to me that much of underwater cinematic renderings are a means to allow others to see what happens under water and this has an enormous potential in pushing forward the role of documentary-making towards the constitution of a dispersed community of viewers who become witnesses.

Yet, when considering some of the most significant encounters of the sea in the history of film (from the renown experiments of individuals like Jean Painlevé and Jacques Cousteau who consistently attempted to create the material culture that allowed for the underwater world to be recorded; to the contribution of researchers such as Eva Hayward’s work on jellyfish display on aquaria; to some of fundamental contributes which stand in-between documentary-making, ethnographic research and artistic practice as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, Ben Rivers’ Slow Action or Phillip Warnell’s Outlandish—Strange Foreign Bodies; to considering also classical mainstream films as Cocoon, Abyss, Deep Blue or Jaws), I often have the impression that the gaze tends to be more drawn towards the films than to the sea itself. This interest that comprises the devices for the making of the films (including cameras, diving equipment, but also production and circulation modes, from the movie theatre to the television and more recently the Internet); the status of these films as exemplars of particular exceptional achievements; their genres (horror, documentary, sci-fi, adventure); or the activities and lives of the filmmakers themselves (Painlevé’s involvement with the Surrealists, Cousteau’s constitution of an undersea world, Spielberg’s declarations on the impact of Jaws on the imaginary of sharks as vicious creatures…).


This may also be because, when portrayed by cinema, the sea becomes a symbolic figure that produces interest and fascination but whose field of attraction remains largely confined to the screen, that aquarium-like membrane which frames nature, bringing it closer in an aseptic, edited and safe manner. Indeed, the optics of fish tanks and aquaria, alongside those of the cinema screen, are configured unto a background that confounds aesthetics, techniques, and science, both systems of vision (the tank and the cinema) being developed in an epoch which assisted to the parallel development of ocean exploration and laboratory experimentation, going deeper and going microscopic as two modes of conquering and appropriating.

Also, the approximation of film to the sea is initiated by humans, mostly terrestrial beings who constituted their history by gradually moving away from the water, learning to breathe, move, feed themselves and largely exist in proximity but outside and above it. Hence this human approach to the sea via cinema remains a one-sided, largely external and vertical (looking, traversing, dominating from above) version of a world whose incapacity to talk for itself and to represent itself—to give evidence of its mode of existence—is often taken for granted. After all, sea creatures don’t talk and don’t make films. Or do they? Certainly Painlevè, with his interest in sea life, was also envisaging that the “beautiful granddaughters and grandsons” of cinema, the inheritors of its apparatus, could be sea creatures, not only humans.

It was with these considerations in mind that I found myself underwater months after having left the Dardanella, facing the discharge of ink of a Mediterranean cuttlefish—a sepia fluid that was diluting itself in the water in the same manner as the smoke of a cigarette dissolves in the air—while thinking about agency, making films, leaving visual traces that become events, and on how different beings, humans comprised, make things that appear and then disappear again, as if nothing had happened. A cuttlefish inkblot like a film, the ultimate underwater cinematic event.

Cuttlefish are dotted with an embodied projection device—their brain is equipped with an image-generating lobe that is capable of producing animated images on their skin—which allows them to conjure an image by simply thinking about it, an image that will immediately appear on the surface of their body. These thought-images are destined not so much for themselves but are first and foremost a means to communicate with those who are around them: other cuttlefish, sharks, rays, plankton, crabs and humans. With this dermal-cinema, these animals are capable of a cinematic agency that is at the same time far more sophisticated and far less complicated than the current human cinematic apparatus, their bodies possessing a camera, a moviola, and movie theatre all at once.

These sea creatures are thus willingly engaging in complex cinematic processes that concern not only themselves but also their audience, for whom they provide signs, send messages and create evidences. I wonder how to take into account these gestures and to unite the human cinematic efforts and attempts with theirs to generate a communal basin where art/film/poetics, science and politics compliment and support one another in bringing messages and testimonies of what is happening down there in the sea, visions that are not so much about the processes nor the means but that move a leap closer to giving a voice to the sea itself.

Curiously, current technological developments—namely the way in which information and data are no longer transmitted through mechanic, cumbersome instruments and devices, alongside the modes of transmission and processing of data and information, relying on artificial intelligences (not by chance called soft-wares, a softness close to the malleability of the cuttlefish’s skin, a haptic mode of dealing with the circulation of contents, also considering how the ‘digital’ term originally relates to digitus, the fingers)—are leading humans to become more similar to cephalopods, the respective liquid surfaces of the original and prosthetic limbs (skin for the cuttlefish, screen for the human) transmitting and projecting our emotions, impressions, and declarations to our respective surrounding worlds.

Filipa Ramos, Alonissos / Lopud, Summer 2016

Jean Painlevé, in “La place des français dans le cinéma,” Cinquantenaire du cinéma (28 December 1945).