By Stephanie Moran. This article was first published in Vector 292.
Since at least the beginnings of industrialism, technological innovation has incorporated attributes of animal perception and behaviour. More recently, this process has been recursively intensifying, in a process of ‘the biologisation of computer technology and the computerization of biology’ (Vehlken, 2019). Technologies inspired by nature deepen our understanding of natural systems, in turn fostering new technological developments: from the development of behavioural biology around 1900, through the use of media technology in biological research and the acceleration of bio-technoscience in the 1970s, to the use of simulation modelling and then computational-intensive modelling beginning in the 1980s, and most recently the rise of Machine Learning methodologies in Artificial Intelligence. Now studies of birdsong inform voice recognition software such as Siri and Alexa, while billionaire sci-fi fan Elon Musk is funding research into neural interfaces with the brains of mice and pigs.
This blurring of the biological and the machinic is reflected in that black mirror of the cultural subconscious, in science fiction tropes such as cyborgs, androids and the uploaded consciousnesses of cyberpunk and transhumanism. Given the intensification of animal research in AI, we could be on the verge of becoming interspecies cyborgs, cyborgs that are not only part human and part machine, but part animal too. Science fictional art has a significant role to play in investigating, reflecting, questioning, and perhaps even steering such developments. As Jennet Thomas’ dystopian sci-fi films Animal Condensed>>Animal Expanded propose: “The category ‘human’ is falling apart” (2018). Jennet Thomas is part of an eco-sci-fi current in contemporary art that deals with both positive and negative aspects of the dehumanising effect of interspecies technology and its potential to alter ideas about species boundaries and taxonomies of the human. As a subgenre, eco-sci-fi art explicitly questions the category ‘human’ by depicting possible ecological futures using what I call ‘interspecies technology’ — that is, forms of technology that focus on the perspectives and rights of other species. Such artworks reflect on the ethics of AI and automation, and on the way humans are dehumanised and re-humanised by technology, through science-fictional devices and methods.
‘When art engages directly with the world as-it-is it already surrenders some of its power’ (Burrows and O’Sullivan 2019, p.2). David Burrows and Simon O’Sullivan, AKA lead instigators of art collective Plastique Fantastique, catalogue science-fictional philosophical methods in contemporary art, including the use of alienation, worldbuilding, modelling, nonhuman worlding, and technology for creating new human and nonhuman entities. The CGI film Feel My Metaverse (2019), a collaboration between art collective Keiken and George Jasper Stone, celebrates the possibility of virtually inhabiting nonhuman life-worlds, while implicitly commenting on real ecological and economic futures. The film is set in a future where, similarly to the Hollywood science fiction blockbuster Ready Player One (Spielberg 2018), the planet has been rendered uninhabitable and those who can afford to escape to Virtual Reality ‘metaverses.’ Other artists use interspecies technological avatars, like collective Plastique Fantastique’s techno-animal avatars, and Ian Cheng’s self-playing video game of computer-generated digital plants and animals, Emissaries (2015-2017); a new generation of artists such as Ayesha Tan Jones and Millicent Hawk use the multiple identities afforded by technological platforms and avatars as means of thinking beyond gender and species boundaries, envisioning joyful convergences of gender and species fluidity.
Through my work with design and tech research agency Etic Lab, I have also been conducting my own eco-sci-fi interventions. In his classic philosophical essay ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ (1974), Thomas Nagel writes:
Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.
Nagel is using the example of the bat as a thought experiment, to explore the so-called ‘mind-body problem,’ about the relationship of mental reality to physical reality. At the same time, these words point to the possibility of practical experiments in connection with the non-human. What entities have a ‘perspective,’ or something like it? How much access can we have to one-another’s mental realities? What other realities exist side-by-side, and entangled with, our own human realities? Is it possible to have empathy with the non-human, or is ‘empathy’ perhaps a misleading paradigm to adopt in the first place?
At Etic Lab, we are developing interspecies technology for a number of art and technology projects. In one such project, based at Aberystwyth University’s Marine Biology labs, we are working with artist Maggie Roberts of 0rphan Drift on a collaborative project to produce an AI coded by an octopus. Too often in the past Artificial Intelligence has implicitly meant Artificial Human Intelligence. The influential Turing Test for AI (‘Can a machine fool a human into thinking it is a human?’) illustrates this anthropocentrism. By contrast, in our project, the octopus’ responses to a stream of video produced by Roberts will help program an AI to interpret octopus emotions and predict octopus-like behaviour. The video inputs created by the artist with the underwater film footage will be informed by scientific research into octopus perception.
As part of my own PhD project, Etic Lab and I are developing an eco-sci-fi roleplaying game set in another species’ sensory world. The game will model the alien world of freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera), which are highly important to freshwater ecosystems and are globally endangered. This underwater game-world will enable sensory exploration of what it’s like to live as another species, and will even use digital methods to introduce some non-human players. I am drawn to mussels — despite the suggestion of one of my Etic Lab colleagues that I might want to focus on more easily narrativisable creature (“what do freshwater mussels actually do?”) — precisely because they feel so alien, so difficult to anthropomorphise.
In connection with this work, I’ve also been experimenting with group storytelling from various animals’ perspectives, grappling with the problem of what may be translatable, communicable, or imaginable beyond the human. I have already created a number of digital animal avatars, seeking to bring together the lifeworlds of humans, mussels and bats in an interspecies habitat, on Twitter and Instagram (both @alien_ontology). Each avatar posts text and images based on their species’ sensory perceptions. Our ‘Interspecies Twitter Bot’ is currently trying to understand what it is like to be a bat. Its posts include text about the sensory perception, environmental responses, behaviour and cognition of bats and other non-human entities, scraped from large scientific databases. Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook operate on a model of what Benjamin Bratton calls “identity and display,” in which connectivity depends on standardised and ‘relatable’ social performances, refined and rewarded by likes and shares (Bratton 2015). Our bot @alien_ontology seeks to go against this grain. Its communications are deliberately strange and alien, while also supporting speculation into how non-human entities may actually experience the world differently from their human kin.
Other works have included algorithmically-generated scripts for nonhuman roleplaying and for characters in the performance artwork Interspecies Disco, including a crow and an octopus (2018). All these eco-sci-fi artworks expose how ways our understanding of what it is to be human has been altered by the newly technologised relation with other species. They call for a new definition of ‘human’ that accounts for new technologies and their impact on our relations to other species and entities.
Burrows, David and O’Sullivan, Simon. Fictioning: the Myth-Functions of Contemporary Art and Philosophy. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2019.
Cheng, Ian. Emissaries trilogy. 2015-2017.
Hawk, Millicent. QUEER ECOLOGIES DIGITAL PLANES. London: SPACE Art + Technology, 2018.
Keiken with George Jasper Stone. Feel My Metaverse. 2019.
Plastique Fantastique. “Seed Archive Breakout and the Burning of Elon Musk.” Skeen Night (Come). London: CGP Gallery, 2018.
– “Myth-Drone.” Transmetic Heresiacs. London: Lewisham Art House, 2014.
Plastique Fantastique and 0[rphan] D[rift>]. Green Skeen. 2017-2018.
Roberts, Maggie Mer, with 0[rphan] D[rift>] and Etic Lab. Kraken. 2020.
– “Interspecies Disco.” Skeen Night (Come). London: CGP Gallery, 2018.
Roberts, Maggie Mer, with 0[rphan] D[rift>]. If AI Were Cephalopod. San Francisco: Telematic Gallery, 2019.
Spielberg, Stephen. Ready Player One. 2018
Tan Jones, Ayesha. “Psychic Excavations: Parasites of Pangu.” Alembic II Chrominance. London: Res, 2018.
Thomas, Jennet. “Animal Condensed>>Animal Expanded #2.” Animal Condensed>Animal Expanded. London: Tintype, 2018.
Vehlken, Sebastian. Zootechnologies: a Media History of Swarm Research. Amsterdam University Press, 2019.