The Enfleshed Fossils of Julius Csotonyi’s Interactive Murals
At the time of W.J.T. Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book[i] (1998), there was a sense in which the dinosaur had already been mediated within a full and complete array of visual forms. A fixture of the Jurassic Park film franchise and an iconic feature of paleoartistic renderings by painters like Charles R. Knight and Henry de la Beche over the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the dinosaur represents what historian of science Stephen Jay Gould argues is the “iconography of directional pageantry.”[ii] In Gould’s interpretation, the dinosaur is depicted as but a mere stepping stone in evolution’s trajectory towards the “pinnacle of the human.”
Human exceptionalism undoubtedly frames paleoartistic representations of the past three hundred years that depict the deep past of nonhuman animal life and death. But the fate of the human, as Jean Baudrillard would later proclaim before the turn of the century, is always trapped between “its fossils and its clones.”[iii] Across the page, the canvas, and the screen, the dinosaur is a subject that appears in an increasing range of endlessly replicating mediations that extend well into the territory of digital animalities, a field of visual animal images produced through new media and digital technologies.
In the work of Canadian scientific illustrator Julius Csotonyi, for instance, the dinosaur (along with paleo-botanicals and other ancient species) is digitally mediated to produce animate renderings of prehistoric life. Csotonyi’s interactive murals of extinct species engage human bodies in order to “enflesh” the fossil, bringing it forward in space and time in order to perform in a corporeal play with museum spectators. Through techniques of mirroring, shadowing, and motion-activated animation, these 3D murals explore the mutability of skin and screen, in turn bringing the seemingly immeasurable, distant, and coldly reserved deep time of the fossil into a proximate and reciprocal engagement with human life.
Digital Technologies and the Representation of Extinct Species
Featuring five of Csotonyi’s large murals of prehistoric flora and fauna and seventeen vignette illustrations, the exhibit “Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana” was presented at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada and the Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (along with a number of other museums across North America) in 2012 and 2013. This installation was preceded by an impressive number of digital paintings by Csotonyi, appearing in prestigious publications and venues such as National Geographic and the Royal Tyrell Museum, as well as in more popular public forums, such as in the form of coins for the Royal Canadian Mint. However, “Ultimate Dinosaurs” was among the first of its kind to include paleoartistic renderings in a multi-media platform. Rotatable digital tablets and reactive wall displays served as the highlight of the exhibit, which presented viewers with “enfleshed fossils” that were dynamically projected onto walls in the museum or through the cameraphones of the museum-goers.
On his blog, Evolutionary Routes, Csotonyi explains that the “Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants of Gondwana” exhibit was designed to feature “mostly full sized restorations of dinosaurs, positioned beside and behind the skeletons, and in the same positions as the skeletal mounts, allowing visitors to compare the skeletal anatomy to the fleshed-out restorations at the same scale.”[iv] Ranging from 15 x 150 feet in size, these multi-media murals utilize manipulations of scale and scope to “animate” the skeleton fossils into living creatures and even include motion sensors that “selectively animate plant and animal components of the murals as visitors approach them.”
In addition, the augmented reality features of the exhibit allows for these “giants of Gondwana,”[v] to appear alongside humans in intimate proximity. The iPads in the exhibition operate essentially like a reverse x-ray machine, enabling viewers to imagine what the dinosaur would look like when it was alive.[vi] In addition to the iPad touchscreens, upon which viewers tap to learn facts about the dinosaur, the exhibit offers an iOS app that allows viewers to point their mobile device at a bus shelter ad for the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit in order to see a Gigantosaurus (which is like a t-rex, only larger) rip through the ad and flash its pointed teeth. To achieve this effect, the Toronto-based augmented reality company overlaid graphics on top of the camera view using a Unity 3D game engine in order to create 3D models, which in turn allowed them to “skin” them, and animate their forms.[vii] As a result, viewers are able to get a sense of the texture and colour of the skin on screen, reaching back through time in a way that tangibly grapples with the problem philosopher Timothy Morton identifies as the “sensuous proximity” and yet resounding “withdrawal” of the fossil.[viii]
The Palaeontology of the Skin/Screen
In grappling with this problem of the fossil, and in taking a moment to reflect upon the ever-growing archive of digitally animated images and installations of prehistoric life in the present era, we might inquire: in which ways, and to what purpose, are “skin” and “screen” brought into proximity in Csotonyi’s work? How are today’s digital technologies at play in the representation of extinct species, but also in what Jussi Parikka calls “chronoscapes”[ix], a term that arguably intersects with the field of digital animalities and media archaeologies? In situating Csotonyi’s work at the junction of these two fields, we might note how past and future environments and landscapes are imagined and represented through multimedia technologies, and by extension, how these representations perform a particular understanding of human-animal relationships, spaces, and temporalities.
As we consider the enfolding of fossil and flesh in “Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants of Gondwana,” I would suggest that Csotonyi’s fleshly animations of prehistoric animals reflect what W.J.T. Mitchell calls the “paleontology of the screen” - a visual apparatus that works back through a whole range of optical technologies to represent the deep time of planetary history. This term, which Mitchell outlines in his theory of Iconology and in The Last Dinosaur Book, emerges from the meaning accrued by the “screen” in philosophy. Gesturing back to Plato’s allegory of the cave, Mitchell argues that the screen, like the allegory of the cave, is not the totality of the world itself, but merely a part of it: it is a metonymic figure that stands in for the whole of nature, a doubled surface for image-making and image-perception, and a metaphor for nature's own screening processes, whereby living things are "doubly articulated as visible, physical bodies (the phenotype) and as bearers of invisible codes of replication and variation (the genotype)." What Mitchell imagines here in the optical technologies and speculative philosophies referenced by the “paleontology of the screen” could easily be expanded to include a “paleontology of the skin.” Like the screen, skin is a figure that stands in for the whole of a body; it is a surface for image-making and image-perception, and it is the space within which biological organisms express their phenotype, which is shaped by the invisible codes of their genotype.
By utilizing the doubled potential of the skin and screen, Csotonyi’s exhibit adds a new dimension to the conventions of visual representations of prehistoric animal life. Like the filming of Jurassic Park, which largely imagines enfleshed fossils as a threat to humans, the enfleshed fossils of “Ultimate Dinosaurs” maintain this vision of the past but with the reassurance that any living thing can always be safely reproduced as a “clone” or digital copy. The “Ultimate Dinosaurs” exhibit utilizes a number of the well-trodden conventions of natural scientific display: it flattens dinosaur bodies onto wall murals, and it juxtaposes the shadowy figures of skeletal remains with images (normally static two-dimensional images) of dinosaurs in life. Yet the motion-activated animations function to bring the deep time of the fossil into proximity with humans, wherein digital technologies optimize a rendering of the deep past that ostensibly extends into an uncertain future. True to Baudrillard’s observation about fossils and clones, these installations also gesture to the human’s surmised demise in order to excite, and placate, our fears of extinction in the precarious epoch of the Anthropocene.
Digital Animalities in the Anthropocene
Thinking through the meaning of Csotonyi’s enfleshed fossils, I invite us to consider whether or not exhibits like these can address the imminent threat of a sixth mass extinction, and in what ways human exceptionalism works to shape prehistoric digital animalities in the wake of the Anthropocene. To respond to these inquiries, we could think about the use of mirroring, shadowing, and motion-activated animation in relationship to the process of cognitive evolution. To make this claim, I want to draw a loose comparison here between the technologically mediated forms of representation in Csotonyi’s work with paleolithic cave art. I would suggest that the representation of extinct species in museums today tells us just as much about our neuro-visual pathways and systems of response to animals and environments, which have been in a state of creation and adaptation over the course of our history as a species.
For instance, early renderings by paleolithic humans are generally comprised of three key principles[x]: 1) a representation of the highly mobile lifestyle of paleolithic humans (particularly through hunting); 2) commonly dark spaces of rendering (caves are dark spaces); and 3) an intimate proximity between the human and nonhuman animal. I would suggest that these paleolithic principles of mobility, darkness, and proximity are repeated in Csotonyi’s interactive murals, from the iOS app (which figures your own selfie alongside an “enfleshed” fossil) and the touchscreen surfaces of the iPads (which reflects the kind of intimacy we see in the hand stencils and prints that once appeared in ochre, or even blood, on cave walls such as Lascaux). In short, there is a connection between prehistoric/prehuman media practices and present-day digital technologies, both of which induce strong emotional responses related to survival in the face of extinction. Understood this way, Csotonyi’s exhibit uses the past to engage with the living present and future of extinction, echoing Baudrillard’s further observation on the Jurassic Park franchise that “we are using the dinosaurs to flirt with our own abolition as a species. We are projecting ourselves into the past in the form of the only species whose domination was as total as ours…[the dinosaurs are] our ‘model of disappearance,’ ‘prey to the clones of our own invention”.[xi]
Through this reference to models and projections of dinosaurs, we might take Baudrillard’s insights as a starting point to think more deeply about the meaning that the paleontology of the screen has accrued in provenance. This isn’t only about origins and the authenticity of evolutionary beginnings, but about the future of life itself on earth. By enfleshing fossils in “Ultimate Dinosaurs,” Csotonyi’s exhibit utilizes digital technologies to pursue something primal, something authentically “human” in us (whatever that means), but also to grapple with our own desire to replicate and reanimate a version of the human in an era where extinction is the norm, rather than the exception.
Csotonyi’s Immersive Vision
As I have argued elsewhere, this multi-layered aspect of Csotonyi’s work appears in other examples of his hyperrealistic digital paintings, which emphasize the importance of representing “anteriority” (an understanding of the animal that precedes us in deep time).[xii] Csotonyi’s “immersive vision” - as exemplified by this digital painting, “Troodon’s Gaze” - carefully composes an image of the paleontological object that tests, and even embraces, the limits of what is possible to validate through human perception. By utilizing immersive and embedded perspectives, indiscernible foregrounds, shifting frames, and expansive scales, Csotonyi’s digital paintings foreground the problem of representing life that existed before the emergence of the human. As I have argued, this problem of anteriority is not just a problem for paleoartists, but also presents a compelling set of questions for speculative philosophers like Quentin Meillassoux and Timothy Morton, who are part of a renewed discussion on the potential for nonanthropocentric modes and methods of engagement with evolutionary history.
Beyond this engagement with the skin/screen and with the philosophical problem of anteriority, what I think Csotonyi’s work has to offer the burgeoning field of the digital animalities is an alternative sense of the human’s relationship to the past, present, and future of extinction. There is a way in which a visit to see “Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants of Gondwana” is about gaining this proximity to long-dead things through the lens of digital (re)animations. But because the digital exhibit itself relies upon some of the same key characteristics of paleolithic cave art, I propose that we think about how such representations of digital animalities trace the same neuro-visual pathways that are founded upon a sense of “our” own survival as a species, and “our” ability (again, whatever that means in our critique of human exceptionalism) to recreate and reanimate the things that terrify us into the placid surface image of the paleontological screen. Csotonyi’s interactive murals explore the tension between the proximate and imminent engagement with long dead species that come to life under our fingertips, in the space between fossil and clone, skin and screen, digital and animal.
[i] W.J.T. Mitchell, The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).
[ii] Stephen Jay Gould, “Dinosaur Deconstruction.” http://discovermagazine.com/1993/oct/dinosaurdeconstr284
[iii] Jean Baudrillard, Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995 (Trans. Emily Agar. London: Verso, 1997), p. 138.
[v] Gondwana is the continent that existed before the break-up of Pangea, consisting of present day Arabia, Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, and the peninsula of India.
[vi] For more on the uses of technology in this multi-media exhibit, see the exhibit review by Sara J. Elshafie at https://www.academia.edu/15238272/Ultimate_Dinosaurs_Giants_of_Gondwana._Royal_Ontario_Museum_Traveling_Exhibit.
[vii] For more on AR technologies, read Brian Jackson, “Augmented reality app brings dinosaurs to life at museum,” itbusiness.ca, June 20, 2012. https://www.itbusiness.ca/news/augmented-reality-app-brings-dinosaurs-to-life-at-museum/18072 Accessed Dec. 6, 2018.
[viii] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
[ix] See Jussi Parikka, “Planetary Goodbyes: Post-History and Future Memories of an Ecological Past” in Archives, Technology, and the Social, ed. Ina Blom, Trond Lundemo, Eivind Røssaak. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2017), pp. 129-151.
[x] For more on these principles, consult Derek Hodgson and Benjamin Watson, “The Visual Brain and the Early Depiction of Animals in Europe and Southeast Asia” (World Archaeology 47.5, Winter 2015), pp. 776-791.
[xi] Qtd in Marilyn Gaull, “From the Fossils to the Clones: On Verbal and Visual Narrative.”
[xii] This research culminated in a chapter I recently published on “The Anterior Animal: Derrida, Deep Time, and the Immersive Vision of Paleoartist Julius Csotonyi” for my co-edited collection of essays entitled Seeing Animals After Derrida (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018).
Sarah Bezan is a Newton International Fellow at The University of Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre (UK), where she researches visual cultures of extinction and de-extinction. She has recently published a co-edited book, entitled Seeing Animals After Derrida. You can follow her on twitter @sarahbezan and learn about her research at sarahbezan.com.