SpotlightOn: Ben GJ Thomas

SpotlightOn will be showcasing research projects undertaken by Society and Space students at the University of Bristol for the 2020-21 academic year. This is a space to celebrate people’s achievements, efforts, and interests as we explore what moves us.

Today’s spotlight is on Ben GJ Thomas. Ben completed his undergraduate degree in 2012 in Photography and moved to Bristol in 2014 where he was the Curator of Learning at Arnolfini until last year. Ben began the Society and Space programme in 2019 and is interested in: visual culture; intersections between film & photography; social practice and the city; and, as can be found on his website, who speaks and who is heard in the stories we tell.

Ben has been working on a podcast, which you can listen to here. It focuses on stories of populations that are spoken for, even though they do speak for themselves, though the topic of the podcast may not be what you are expecting. Our podcast protagonists are eels (yes, eels speak?!).

Ben’s inspiration for focusing on eels was sparked upon seeing a noticeboard erected by, he assumes, Bristol City Council. The eel stuck inside his memory and inspired the poetic storytelling podcast that we can listen to, or read through a full transcript, today.

The threads of the hour-long podcast are complex and immersive, taking you through the motion as though, eel-like yourself, you become woven through the tales of the eel and its adventures. It situates the listener, or, at least, it situated me, in a moment and position of appreciation and reverence of the aquatic creature. Its ability to cross huge distances – across the entire Atlantic Ocean – in a process we humans forget about because it is a life (hi)story unseen and unknown to most of us. 

Us human, terrestrial, beings fly over and migrate across the sea, whether that’s for a holiday, interrailing experience, a permanent move, or interwoven into our darker and more complicated histories of slave trade and forced migration. This movement has a history in every creature and places are imbued with, though not only, the stories of the moves of humans and other creatures inhabiting it. We are not so different from the humble eel.

Yet anthropogenic-induced climate change is threatening them too, as their population decline adds to the damage being inflicted upon biodiversity across and within the world. There they weave, in between the huge canal walls of the United Kingdom and the United States – two great polluters. 

The podcast brings into the auditory and visual horizons histories of place, realities that are difficult to face, and the magical mystery that we can experience by stepping beside ourselves for just under an hour. While we still look through our eyes and hear through our ears, our focus is on an experience other than our own species. Yet, we remain interconnected to that “Other,” interwoven into its story in some way or another. In fact, the podcast is revealing and makes the listener/reader question the distinctions between “Other” and “Us,” and you may find those distinctions are not so distinct, after all.

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