Mateusz Herczka

A conversation with Antonio Cerveira Pinto

Mateusz Herczka moving a killifish for a fish tank. Photo: MH (detalle).

Mateusz Herczka moving a killifish for a fish tank. Photo: MH (detalle).

July, 2009

The infiltration of culture

Mateusz Herczka is a Polish-born European artist currently living in Stockholm. His work has been influenced by many years spent learning in the United States and by a long creative experience in Holland, where he has done most of this work. This brief interview was held on the occasion of his production of the work commissioned by the Ortega Muñoz Foundation: Laboratory to ascertain plausibility of Jim’s basement floor anecdote, or Lab JBF.

ACP — How did you arrive at such a long title?

Mateusz Herczka (MH) — Well, I think it was inspired by the long titles of scientific papers! The idea behind this project, so to speak, is somewhat like typical scientific research. There are many stories about the behavior of a species of fish generically known as killifish, which to date have yet to be verified experimentally. These small fish supposedly live in extreme conditions – in small ponds which then dry up -, which forces killifish to move from one pond to the next, until they die, leaving their eggs behind to wait for the rains to return. Nobody has ever verified this theory, so we don’t know whether it’s true or just an old wives’ tale. There are thousands of collectors around the world who keep this species who defend the hypothesis that killifish jump from pond to pond in order to survive. The fact that these fish often escape from aquariums without leaving behind any trace is, according to them, proof that they must jump to survive. The problem is that this has yet to be seen…

ACP — But with so many fish keepers around the world taking care of hundreds of thousands of killifish, how can there not be any proof?

MH — Well, the purpose of those who keep killifish isn’t to test the acrobatic prowess of these diminutive fish, which they take as a given, but to ensure the survival of this threatened species and to study its specific behavior. In fact, its acrobatic skills are somewhat of a myth, as is the belief, especially in Africa, that they come with the rains, that is, that they literally rain!!!

ACP—  I’d like to know how the killifish’s survival skills were discovered.

MH-—  Well, there’s even an anecdote being spread by email on internet about the killifish’s remarkable ability to move along the ground, jumping from pond to pond. The setting for this story is the basement of the Canadian Killifish Association’s founder, the now famous Jim. He has a bunch of aquariums in his basement full of various killifish species and families. One day a friend of his was visiting and as he was looking at the aquariums and talking to Jim, he noticed that one of them was empty. Puzzled, he asked Jim about the empty tank, to which Jim replied:

“What’s the aquarium label say?” The friend replied, “Rivulus punctatus”, and Jim said, “Well shucks! That’s another one that got away”.

Upon returning to the basement a bit later, the friend noticed that there were a couple of fish on the floor, swimming in a small puddle of water that was dripping from a large water recirculation system, of the type used to supply aquariums. “What kind are they?” asked Jim. “Rivulus…”, the friend answered. “Then leave them there”, said Jim, crossing his fingers.

Six months later the friend went back to the basement. Out of curiosity, he looked at the floor in the direction of the corner where he had seen the killifish on his last visit. The two Rivulus were still there, in the puddle, but they had doubled or tripled in size to a length of seven centimeters. Their bodies were almost half out of the water. What’s more, they were surrounded by about forty offspring! The friend told Jim, “there’s a bunch of fish downstairs!” “Yeah, I know”, Jim replied. “They like the floor more than my aquariums”.

The fact is that these movements, these jumps, are a near certainty, but there’s no empirical evidence for them.

ACP— Hence the idea to study this myth in the context of artistic “research”.

MH— Exactly. So I designed a system of aquariums intended to facilitate the jumps of Rivulus Punctatus and other killifish species. In preparing this work in my studio, I set up a motion capture device to record the movements and the expected jumps of the killifish. In one of the scenarios, two adjacent transparent aquariums allow the fish to see where they’re going. In another arrangement, I hid the adjacent aquarium from sight to see whether the Rivulus would still jump or not. In both cases the killifish acted out of a survival instinct, jumping out of its aquarium – the first time, toward another aquarium in sight; and the second, into the void! I think it’s the first time that anyone’s gotten visual proof that killifish, and the Rivulus species in particular, can jump to a height of up to ten times their length. And they do so regularly in an effort to stay alive. This way they ensure the evolutionary continuance of the species.

ACP— But, from this standpoint, what degree of involvement, or responsibility, do you think can be attributed to the eco-philosophical activism of killifish lovers for its survival?

MH—  I was in fact interested in studying their involvement as part of this work: to expose the almost symbiotic relationship in recent decades between these seemingly insignificant fish and people. Due to their tendency to feed on mosquito eggs and larvae, they’ve been used since the early 20th century to combat the spread of malaria in some parts of the world. The results have been contradictory, since the introduction of killifish in new habitats has resulted in the decimation of some fish species, since killifish, in particular Rivulus Punctatus, are highly aggressive. At any rate, this biological warfare experiment has allowed the killifish, now threatened by extreme drought and by climate change in general, to successfully engage in a new survival strategy: the cultural infiltration of the human species! The worldwide network of killifish fans has, in a way, thrown an unexpected lifeline to many species that are threatened by climate change and by the damage that mankind has inflicted on the vast majority of the Earth’s ecosystems.