Intelligent frogs and humans

Aron Fleming Falk interviewed about The Frog Project by Jes Brinch 2006.

Jes Brinch: First of all I would like to ask you to explain the frog project briefly in your own words, as a starting point for this interview.

Aron Fleming Falk: The frog project is an ongoing project where I catch small frogs and tadpoles and try to educate them. After their education I return them where they been caught so that they can spread their knowledge to the other frogs.

The first part of this project was an exhibition in the church of St. John in Malmö where seven frogs got a crash course in technology and history. At the exhibition the audience was invited to participate in the education by recording messages to the frogs. As the exhibition was during the winter the frogs where put in hibernation until this spring when I released them back where I caught them.

At the moment I am preparing a school for frogs so that I can keep and educate the frogs for a longer period before I release them.  

Jes Brinch: How did you get the original idea to begin the frog project?

Aron Fleming Falk: I’ve always been interested in science and especially the borders of our knowledge. Good science fiction novels and short stories have always tickled my imagination. When I came in contact with butterfly effect, which suggest that even the smallest action, like a butterfly that flaps its wings, triggers a chain reaction that can lead to hurricane, I started to think about what could happen if I applied some of these things in a conscious way. Is it possible to change the world we live in by very small actions as the butterfly effect theory suggests?

This led me into some experiments; I started out by exposing fish to sound art at a sound workshop in Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Unfortunately this experiment was a failure. Later, at another exhibition, I did a new experiment where the visitors where invited to leave and listen to messages from an aquarium with a mix of water living organism. When I got the invitation to do a show in the church of St. John in Malmö I decided to go full scale.  

By coincidence I found tadpoles in a pond near where I live, and I decided to use frogs for this project, which for me makes perfect sense as I have a life long fascination for frogs.

Jes Brinch: Do you perceive the frog project to be an art project?

Aron Fleming Falk: Yes I do. For me really good art gives me a different view of the world and make it wider. And that’s what I try do for others with this project. And in that aspect it doesn’t matter if it works or not, what is important is that it is being done.

Jes Brinch: I would like to know more about your ideas of educating frogs. How is it possible to educate frogs?

Aron Fleming Falk: To be honest, I don’t know if it’s possible. I just believe it might work some how. We might not notice anything for a long time, but just by exposing them to a lot of knowledge I think they learn something.

Jes Brinch: What is the message of the frog project?

Aron Fleming Falk:  Mainly I want people to consider the possibility that this might actually work, and also make them think about our view of this world. I think it is important that all people do think about their role on this planet, and this is one way to achieve that. - If it is possible to educate frogs.

Jes Brinch: Please explain more about how you actually have educated the frogs, what subjects the education have focused on, and why.

Aron Fleming-Falk: As I don’t think frogs can read (yet), and I am sure that they can hear, all material had to be read for them. Fortunately in Sweden we have a huge selection of book read to tape for the blind so I went to the library and borrowed the books I found useful. In the case with the frogs in St. John the education time was short so I had to narrow down the amount of material to what I found most important for their immediate survival.

I used a lot from a book about history of technology where I took excerpts from early human history about tool making, irrigation and dam building among other things. I also used a lot from a children’s book about how to build your own simple waterwheel and other water powered devices. The main reason behind these choices is because frogs are dependent of wetlands to survive. These very practical advices where combined with parts from a book about humans desire to find intelligent life in the universe and parts from the book by Karel Capek – “The War With The Newts”. I included these texts as inspiration and encouragement for my students.

To increase the probability for the frogs to understand what was read for them all text where read to them both with normal humans speech but also in a modified way so it more resembles the frogs own sound.

Jes Brinch: Have you noticed any change of behavior of the frogs after they got educated?

Aron Fleming Falk: I wish I could answer yes on that question, but unfortunately I can’t. On the other hand I didn’t mark the frogs in any way so I can’t track them easily. In one way that would have been kind of nice to be able to follow the frogs after I released them, but on the other hand I think it is better this way. If I would have tracked them it would be more like an ordinary research project, where I try to prove to myself and others that it actually work. Now I’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Jes Brinch: Have your graduate students been able to adapt back into their natural environment, after you set them free?

Aron Fleming Falk: Yes, when I released them they acted as they never been away. Hopefully this means that their natural instincts aren’t affected by the education, but instead that their new knowledge can co-exist with their instincts.

Jes Brinch: I would like to hear your views on human education, since you are an educator, even though it is just an educator of frogs. There might be some interesting parallels.

Aron Fleming Falk: I think education is very important, as the ability to gather knowledge and pass it on generation after generation is one of the things that make us human. And institutionalized education is one way to make a lot of knowledge available to everyone, at least where education is mandatory as in Sweden.  Of course the education system can be discussed, but I think it is a bit of a luxury problem, considering that lots of people in this world don’t get any education at all.

Jes Brinch: Would you consider doing an educational project with human subjects in the future?

Aron Fleming Falk: No, that’s not interesting. Of course you can consider this project as a project to educating humans about the frogs situation, but I consider that an inevitable side effect.

Jes Brinch: Why isn’t it interesting to do educational projects with human subjects?

Aron Fleming Falk: Maybe I should say; it does not interest me to do educational projects with human subjects.  I have nothing against educational projects with humans; it’s just that I want to focus my efforts on frogs.

Jes Brinch: I know from earlier discussions with you that there is a deep and serious concern about ecology at the core of the frog project. Can you elucidate more on this aspect of the project, and explain your personal opinions on ecology as well?

Aron Fleming Falk: Well, frogs are one of the most threatened species on this planet at the moment. We humans are of course the biggest threat. Modern farming has no place for small ponds or ditches that are essential for frogs. They are also extremely sensitive to pollution. There is also an unknown factor that kills the frogs worldwide, one theory is that it is lethal fungus infection that due to the global warming have been spread.
Normally when it comes to ecology, the discussion concerns how we should stop pollution and restore the environment as much as possible.

This is excellent but also represents a kind of romantic picture of what nature is. I think we have to take other actions as well. More radical and imaginative initiatives are necessary. I believe in sharing our knowledge with other species. By doing that we give the frogs and other animals a chance to help themselves. And one way to do so is to educate them so that they have the knowledge to change their living conditions. It also makes them more equal to us.

Jes Brinch: There is a lot of psychological projection going on in the frog project; you project the status of students onto the frogs, in this way almost making them into small humans. Also you project your notions of valuable education for frogs onto the frogs. The project is almost Disney-like in the way it projects human personality and values onto the animals. I wonder whether this a conscious strategy, and what you think about it?

Aron Fleming Falk:  As the idea with this whole project is to change the frogs, not into small humans but to become intelligent beings in the way we humans recognize as intelligent - it’s definitely a conscious strategy. And if this makes us think of frogs as small humans its good, as I think it will lead to a greater respect for them.

I am also very aware that it’s mainly my notions of value that are projected to the frogs, and that’s why I invite others to participate in the frogs’ education as well. When the frogs where shown in the church the audience where invited to participate in the education, and I intend take this further and invite more people to help me educate the frogs by giving them lectures, conduct music for them for example.

Jes Brinch: The frog project is also a portrait of the consciousness and world view of Aron Fleming Falk, reflected through the different symbolic acts that the project contains, such as education and frogs. The project mirrors the mind of Aron Fleming Falk. What do you think about this perspective on the project?

Aron Fleming Falk:   Of course the project reflects how I view the world or more so: how I want the world to be. I have a strong hope and belief that educating frogs will eventually change something in their being. For me its not symbolic acts, I educate the frogs because I believe it works.

Jes Brinch: I would like to know a little more about frog psychology. Do frogs have a mind at all?

Aron Fleming Falk: That’s what I am trying to find out, I think they have a mind, but that it is very different from the human mind. One of the goals with their education is to build a bridge between the frogs and us, so that we somehow can have a communication. If that’s not possible at least I hope that this project will change the frogs mind so that they can understand and use the knowledge I give to them.

Jes Brinch: Another important part of the project is your peculiar sense of humor. The topic of ecology and the threat of extinction of frogs can be very depressing, and could easily turn people off the subject. I think that the sense of humor in the frog project is brilliant way to communicate a heavy subject. How important is humor for you?

Aron Fleming Falk: In this case I think it’s hard not to get a humorous touch to it. Most people think the idea to educate frogs is completely insane, which is understandable, and when people find ideas completely crazy they can react in several ways. I think it’s better if they find this whole project funny than if they would become angry because they cant understand it.

Jes Brinch: Have you done other projects that made people angry?

Aron Fleming Falk: This project also made a lot of people very upset. I got several phone calls from animal rights people threatening to report me to the police, but it was worse for the priest in charge, she was threatened on her life – probably by some religious fanatic. I also found a blog entry by a very upset priest who listed the project as one of the ten most stupid projects ever done in a church to get publicity.

Several years ago I made an installation with loudspeakers playing laughter in a bank lobby. The lobby was open 24/7 so people could access the cash machines there. Several times someone turned the installation of during night. After the show was over someone had written a message to me about how much they where insulted by the installation.

So it’s kind of unpredictable to know what will upset people.

Jes Brinch: Why did you bring the frogs to church? Are you Christian? Do you think that Christian values and beliefs are important for frogs? What was the point?

Aron Fleming-Falk: First I am not a Christian. The reason why this project was shown in a church was because I was asked to do an exhibition there. After some consideration I decided that this project would fit in there very well. The project has a lot to do with belief in several ways – our belief in science as the truth to start with. Until the renaissance religion was used to explain the world to us, so why should science be more true?
The combination of frogs and the church really triggered the media so by doing this project in a church it got a lot more attention than it would if it where shown in a gallery.

Jes Brinch: Please explain some more about your thoughts about science and how it can be used in art.

Aron Fleming Falk: I think it is important to question how we interpret our world, a lot of things we just accept as truths, without any discussion. And art is one of the only arenas where you can do this without being considered a nutcase or a fanatic.

Jes Brinch: I would also like to know some more about your views on science in relation to belief. The conventional perception is that science can be proved, and belief can not. What do you think about this?

Aron Fleming Falk: If you would have asked the priest and monks back in the Middle Ages they would have said that the existence of god can be proved. I think that when it comes to science it has become so abstract so only a few understands it. Most of us just have to accept the theories as fact, because they are said to be proved.

By this I am not saying that science is a fake, but I think that at some levels it can be compared to belief; to prove a theory you have to build a measuring system so complex and abstract that it beyond humans to interpret the result. So we use a computer, and both the machine to measure and the machine to interpret the measurements are made by scientists. If I where to prove something based on these premises, I would at least consider the possibility that the result in some way is generated by my wishes.

Jes Brinch: In a sense you are re-introducing science as a belief, which have some parallels to medieval thought and even alchemy, even though it might also have parallels in contemporary science and philosophy. Are you a kind of frog alchemist?

Aron Fleming Falk: To me an alchemist is a strange guy doing dangerous experiments with chemicals in order to transform stuff into gold, and that’s not what I am doing. But I share their belief in doing something that is considered impossible to most people, and I guess that I might be considered mad as well.

Jes Brinch: What is the future of this project? What will happen next, and what will it develop into?

Aron Fleming Falk: I’ll keep on my efforts to share human knowledge with frogs. As I mentioned earlier I’ve started a school for frogs, which resembles to a boarding school; the frogs stay at the school for 2 – 3 years, and after that they return home to share their wisdom with their friends. I will gather frogs from different parts of the world so that the educated frogs will eventually be everywhere. Alongside with this the frogs will during their education visit places where people can meet them and contribute to their education. This part is important as it will help the acceptance of intelligent frogs in the future.

Jes Brinch: What will the future curriculum of the frogs be? Please explain more about what topics and books the frogs are going to study, how and why.

Aron Fleming Falk: Their future curriculum isn’t entirely set yet. It will evolve during their education as I can see what they respond to. But of course I have some ideas. I think it is important to continue to teach them about things that consider their immediate survival, like how to make ponds, how to build canals etc. They should also know how to deal with pollution. Some construction would probably also come handy. Then they must get to know us humans, so maybe psychology. Then they need tools to pass on the knowledge to other frogs and coming generations of frogs, so they might need to be able to read and write some how. Exactly what books I’ll use I can’t answer at the moment, but if you have any recommendations, let me know.

How? Well I am not sure yet, to start with I’ll use reading, maybe moving pictures is a good way, as they have good sight. Then I intend to give them practical examples using models of different constructions. I’ll also invite other people to help me to develop methods that can be used, or participate in their education. For example I wish to cooperate with linguists to better translate human speech into frog speech or sound.