The following is an extract from the essay Octopolis by Rosie O’Reilly published in the Winterpages Issue 4. 2019
Octopolis was born from conversations between artist Rosie O’Reilly and photographer Yvette Monahan on octopus’ and consciousness.
The first octopus I ever knew by name was the infamous Inky; he escaped from his enclosure in a national aquarium in New Zealand by breaking out of its tank, slithering down a 50-metre drainpipe and disappearing into the sea. The aquarium staff were not surprised by his escape and are still hopeful he will come home. He is they say, ‘that type of octopus…all personality’.
In his book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith journeys through the evolutionary pathway of Inky and his fellow Cephalopods in search of what these incredible animals can teach us about other minds and the origin of consciousness. To examine this evolutionary story is to ask big and timely questions of our place in the world. Consciousness – the possession of an ‘inner’ model of the ‘outer’ world, or the sense of having subjective perspective on the world – is, in his view, just a highly evolved form of what he calls ‘subjective experience’ and of course possible outside of just a human perspective.
A common octopus brain has 500m neurons, an astounding amount for a creature that only lives for two years. Unlike a vertebrate’s, an octopus’ neurons are ranged through its entire body. It is ‘suffused with nervousness’ – including its arms, which act as ‘agents of their own’ and sense by taste as much as touch. For the octopus, Godfrey Smith tells us ‘the body itself is protean, all possibility’; it ‘lives outside the usual body/brain divide’. The Octopus seems to have boundless possibilities as a symbol of the thinking we need in these times. All-sensory with a tentacular understanding of space and time, a creature whose boneless body seems to challenge borders with every movement, shapeshifting to escape entrapment, curious and inquisitive.