Kingyo Kingdom by Cohen Van Balen


30 January 2013

"This particular goldfish is the king of goldfish: Ranchu. He's the animal side of bonsai, from the same period and from the same part of Japanese culture that is concerned with the manipulation of nature. It’s hard to control nature to such an extent, but Ranchu was invented even before glass."

Revital Cohen - who together with her partner Tuur Van Balen forms the design practice Cohen Van Balen - is describing her studio's latest work. The project is Kingyo Kingdom, a video exploration of the practice of selective goldfish breeding in Japan, a film that is now on show at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton as part of the art exhibition Transformism.

The project - named after "kingyo", the Japanese word for goldfish - is focused on Ranchu, a form of goldfish bred in Japan. The fish is bulbous, with no dorsal fin, and a rounded protuberant head. Originally bred from carp, the fish are mated selectively to produce offspring that conform to the ideal of Ranchu.

The practice is similar to the breeding of pedigree dogs and, like the dog industry, breeders show the animals at competitions to try and win "best in show" awards. The purpose of Kingyo Kingdom is to acknowledge these fish as designed consumer objects, biologically created to adhere to strict design constraints.

Ranchu viewed from above

As a studio, Cohen Van Balen is interested in the examination of animals as design projects. Van Balen's previous project Pigeon D'Or (2011) saw him add bacteria to pigeon feed to make the birds' guano soapy enough to clean streets, while Cohen's Life Support (2008) reconfigured animals into life-prolonging technologies such as respirators. Now, with Kingyo Kingdom, the studio turns its eye towards an older form of biological design.

"Goldfish are completely functionless," says Cohen. "They’re purely aesthetic and a decorative object, which is interesting for us because people cultivate them and treat them as objects for viewing. We wanted to go and follow this story of the people who breed them and sell them. We wanted to find breeders and get them to talk in designer language: why is your fish orange rather than red or white; why is the head big; why is the tail like that? How is the breeder a designer and what are the design constraints of the animal."

While in Tokyo, Cohen and Van Balen visited Ranchu competitions, where the fish are displayed for scoring in opaque ceramic bowls. Because the bowls force the fish to be viewed from above, it is the fish's aerial profile that is of import to the judging. "The breeders have taken an animal and flattened it to just an aerial view when it swims," says Cohen. "It’s an animal completely created and designed for its aesthetic properties. This is not a fish; it's a living commodity."

Ranchu's form has been carefully cultivated through selective breeding

Despite having originated from carp, breeders strive to ensure that Ranchu do not look like carp. Careful breeding has led to outlandish varieties within Ranchu such as the Shishi-Gashira and the Tatsu-Gashira: animals bred to resemble a mythical lion and a dragon respectively. The breeding of the fish is deeply embedded in Japanese culture, but is also highly-coordinated and technical process.

To mark the release of Kingyo Kingdom, Cohen and Van Balen have shared with Disegno a specially edited version of the film. The movie explores their findings in Japan - the culture of showing Ranchu; the breeding farms where the fish are created; and the industrial packaging of the fish for sale - and presents the development of Ranchu as a strand of design. The creation of Ranchu is, to Cohen and Van Balen's eyes, as much a part of product design as the creation of a new chair or lamp.

"It's a part of design that is ignored and which the industry doesn’t admit," says Cohen. "But everything about the manipulation of nature is extremely relevant for where design will go in the coming years. Biology is becoming a material that we manipulate. But before trying to invent crazy biotechnological manipulations, it's good to see what there already is and what there always has been.

"Both Tuur and I are product designers and we are interested in biology as technology and what that might bring. What is a bio-product? People talk about bio-products as if they're the future, but they’re already everywhere. The animals around us have been designed. Ranchu is just a very extreme case."