Jan Peter Hammer, Tilikum, 2013–15, HD video, color, sound, 45 minutes.

Jan Peter Hammer, Tilikum, 2013–15, HD video, color, sound, 45 minutes.

Jan Peter Hammer

Supportico Lopez

Jan Peter Hammer, Tilikum, 2013–15, HD video, color, sound, 45 minutes.

Taking us from the Skinner box to the present-day tourist attraction SeaWorld Orlando, Jan Peter Hammer’s film Tilikum, 2013–15, shot on HD video, was the ambitious centerpiece of this exhibition. It tells the story of the past century through the lens of the ethical complexities of human–animal relations, but it begins in the recent past, with a black screen and the recording of a 911 call made when the orca (or, less scientifically, “killer whale”) after which the piece is named drowned his trainer in full view of spectators in Orlando in 2010. She was Tilikum’s third victim.

The arc from the punishment-and-reinforcement mechanisms of B. F. Skinner’s “operant conditioning”—first tested in his famous box, evoked in grainy black-and-white footage of a similar experiment—to the food deprivation and isolation by which animals like Tilikum are induced to perform tricks for audiences plots out something like a revenge tragedy. The orca’s killing of three humans is presented as the result of generations of animal abuse for the sake of a science-military-entertainment-industrial complex. The moral framework here is implicit in a question in the accompanying work, The Same Size as My Living Room, 2015, a video interview with the former dolphin trainer and current dolphin activist Ric O’Barry: “Is the fight for animal rights a logical extension of the fight for civil rights?” This may represent the film’s general outlook; the overriding point is that we should acknowledge the history of our cruelty not only to the animals with whom we share the earth but also to other humans: The research on sensory stimulation and the “brainwashing” of American POWs who defected to North Korea, Tilikum suggests, led fairly directly to the torture manual used by US troops in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

If, on the one hand, the film clearly wants to educate and inform, it avoids dryness through its own version of a “wow” factor, albeit one in a different register from the orcas at aquatic theme parks. While the story of Margaret Howe’s physical intimacy with Peter the dolphin in the 1960s has recently received some media coverage, you probably haven’t heard its details in her own words: “I can easily rub his penis with either my hand or my foot. Peter accepts it either way, and he seems to reach some sort of orgasm and relaxes. . . . Peter and I have done this with other people present, but it is a very precious sort of thing.” And did you know that the renowned anthropologist Gregory Bateson once speculated that dolphins would make ideal psychotherapists once they could speak English?

As an exercise in drawing together seemingly disparate threads, Tilikum works much like an Adam Curtis documentary: The narrator’s rather formal, wise-old-man tone of voice invites—some might say pressures—you to trust him, while the connections made in the piece are rendered plausible thanks largely to the video’s editing. Still, the facts it presents are often astounding and incontrovertible: As Hammer, referring to John C. Lilly, put it in an interview, “the man who trained the navy dolphins is the same man who fictionalized the dolphin as an icon of kinship and harmony.” Lilly ended up tripping out so much that his funding was discontinued; he came to believe that dolphins were psychic conduits between extraterrestrials and humans.

Tilikum emanates not the aura of art but the aura of truth telling, or, rather, of the telling of a suppressed truth. And the issues it raises are no doubt important and timely. Yet the recuperation of the everything-is-connected paranoiac mind-set into a suggestive grand narrative can also easily generate an affective register in which intellectual vertigo is its own reward. In telling the story of Tilikum’s second victim, a twenty-seven-year-old called Daniel Dukes, Hammer can’t resist speculatively exaggerating the significance of Dukes’s alleged LSD use and enthusiasm for computer games. Some loose ends are just loose ends.

Alexander Scrimgeour