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Golden Snail Opera


Created as a collaboration between anthropologists Yen-Ling Tsai and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, filmmaker Isabelle Carbonell, and farmer and translator Joelle Chevrier, the Golden Snail Opera is a multispecies enactment of experimental natural history. The golden treasure snail, first imported to Taiwan from Argentina in 1979 to start an escargot industry, is now a major pest for rice agriculture. While pesticides are often used in their extermination, a new generation of friendly farmers in Taiwan’s Yilan County hand-pick the snails and integrate them within the ecology of the rice paddy.

Yilan is also the home of Taiwanese opera, o-pei-la, a form of entertainment that is grassroots, amateur, and infused with a queer sensibility. Golden Snail Opera incorporates percussion from Yilan opera, combining it with the noises of snails, water, birds, and other beings. Rather than just forming an accompaniment, the sounds engage in a dialogue with the script, which combines material from interviews, participant observation, and imagination. Through video and text, various beings of the rice fields offer an enactment of harmonious coexistence.

For Helsinki Biennial 2023, screenings with live performance readings of the Golden Snail Opera will be staged in June and August 2023.

Yen-Ling, who is teaching anthropology in Taiwan, has a deep, historically rich, and familial connection to the land, and years of hands-on direct experience with rice farming that allowed for a unique set of observations from which the seeds of the project arose. Yen-Ling and Joelle both work long hours every day in the rice paddy: whether planting rice, weeding, trying to make scarecrows for the birds, unknowingly interacting with the paddy ghosts, collecting the daily influx of golden apple snails by hand, or eventually harvesting the rice. In addition, they are both part of a larger farming community of old and young, that combines generations of experience with rice, water, weather, offerings to the ghosts, snails and other creatures, with more modern experimental techniques. Anna, who has decades of experience investigating, practicing, theorizing and writing about different attunements to multispecies life, not only acted as the initial connector between us all but also catalyzed a unique collaboration.

As a PhD student, my research and practice were – and still are – at the intersection of expanded documentary, environmental justice, and the Anthropocene, while striving to develop new visual and sonic approaches and methods to rethink documentary filmmaking and create a multispecies cinema. I flew in for an intense two weeks of filming, ready for a number of different shooting scenarios. Though I enacted traditional documentary filmmaking techniques, such as interviewing humans, I also experimented with other ideas, such as using a spy camera on the back of a snail. The piece came together afterwards in an iterative manner: while I was editing small pearls of the film to share with the rest of the team, Anna, Yen-Ling, and Joelle were writing and experimenting with the text. While editing, I realized more set-ups I wished to try even though I was no longer in Taiwan; Joelle volunteered to try her hand at filming, and she and I worked closely to create more footage. We all inspired each other, a type of call and response back-and-forth. This wide, collaborative web of relations formed the basis for our opportunity to attune beyond the human, acknowledging the pluriverse of the paddy.

Excerpt adapted from Isabelle Carbonell’s PhD dissertation, Attuning to the Pluriverse: Documentary Filmmaking Methods, Environmental Disasters, & The More-Than-Human

Photo: Isabelle Carbonell