Amphibious Trilogies


It’s probably no surprise that given the project title Amphibious Trilogies that we have repeatedly talked about the ability to live on land and in water and to move between the two. As a species, amphibians are terrestrial hoppers  and aquatic jumpers. They propel themselves through the air, and move in jumps and starts, and kick and pull themselves through the water and shoot out back onto land.

According to Merriam-Webster an amphibious organism is ‘any of a class (Amphibia) of cold-blooded vertebrates (such as frogs, toads, or salamanders) intermediate in many characters between fish and reptiles and having gilled aquatic larvae and air-breathing adults’. 

It is this intermediateness that has interested us in the project. Plants may also be amphibious, living literally between land and water, whether littoral or by virtue of changing water levels. 

Today, in the context of desertification, climate change and environmental challenge, amphibians are under stress. A Primer in Current Biology by Wake and Koo (2018) provides some key information on our current understanding of amphibians and their resilience and current threats to their survival. These authors note that:

While amphibians might appear to be vulnerable to environmental challenges because of their moist skins and life history traits, they are, in fact, examples of resilience, having survived previous mass extinction events and being successful in diverse habitats from lowland rainforests to deserts and extreme high elevations. Their resilience makes it all the more challenging to explain some of the current declines.

Further, according to the Britannica English Dictionary entry on amphibian, an amphibian is: 

any member of the group of vertebrate animals characterized by their ability to exploit both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. The name amphibian, derived from the Greek amphibious meaning “living a double life,” reflects this dual life strategy—though some species are permanent land dwellers, while other species have a completely aquatic mode of existence.

However, a Google search also rapidly reveals that the term amphibian is increasingly connected to military arenas, in the form of craft rapidly adaptable and easily manoeuverable in watery and solid terrains, but also in different climate conditions and states. Then there are concept cars, and visualisations of attempts to reach beyond the dreams of inventors and transportation visionaries. 

Ours has been less technical interest, despite working in interaction design and technology critiques. It’s also been less biological than it might have been in that we have engaged with design fictive creatures rather than living ones in the ecosphere. But we have been inspired particularly by the ability of amphibians to shift state, setting and sensibility. This has led us towards a range of discussions, while involved in fieldwork, in acts of dancing, while travelling in the arctic for example, and seeing a changing environment within a day. Tricky, hard to grasp, slippery, unstable, but also that these are positive qualities and categories that allow us to escape through artistic inquiry containment in literal functionalism.

Yet, we have needed to stretch our key concept into a more slippery one: Amphibiousness. An elusive, queer theory linked, and ultimately excessive term to allow us to shift and move, to change character and qualities in motion. To move between, within and across domains of knowledge, environment and reflections on the kinetic in context, in the now, through its legacies and into futures. 

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Wake, D. & Koo, M. (2018). ‘Amphibians’. Current Biology, 28(1), 5 November, R1237-R1241.

Image: “The Frog” by Klaus Lechten is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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