“Unrivalled Sensory Properties”: Information and Meaning in Biohybrid Systems

“Unrivalled Sensory Properties”: Information and Meaning in Biohybrid Systems

1. Semiosphere

What do bees think? What do fish feel? A flood of scientific studies over the past few decades have revealed a wealth of cognitive and communicative activity perfusing the natural world. A recent paper, for example, suggests that honeybees are capable of advanced numerical cognition.1 Honeybees can “learn to use blue and yellow as symbolic representations for addition or subtraction,” simultaneously employing short-term memory and long-term acquired rules to perform mathematical operations. Zebrafish, meanwhile, have been shown not just to avoid noxious stimuli but to respond to pain differently depending on context; whether, for instance, they were frightened by exposure to the alarm pheromone of another zebrafish.2 In What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, Jonathan Balcombe explains that evidence of variability of response to pain indicates conscious awareness of it. Zebrafish also seem susceptible to boredom and will try to avoid it unless there are good reasons to endure it. Balcombe describes an experiment conducted by Lynne Sneddon that suggests zebrafish will forego an interesting experience in pursuit of pain relief:

Like most captive animals, fishes like stimulation. For instance, zebrafishes prefer to swim in an enriched chamber with vegetation and objects to explore rather than in a barren chamber in the same tank. When Sneddon injected zebrafishes with acetic acid, this preference didn't change; nor did it change for other zebrafishes injected with saline water (which causes only brief pain). However, if a painkiller was dissolved in the barren, unpreferred chamber of the tank, the fishes injected with the acid chose to swim in the unfavorable, barren chamber. The saline-injected fishes remained in the enriched side of the tank. Thus, zebrafishes will pay a cost in return for gaining some relief from their pain. (Balcombe 81-82)

Studies such as these contribute to a vision of life as intricate relations of affective, cognitive and communicative processes. In his 1993 book Signs of Meaning in the Universe,3 Jesper Hoffmeyer introduces the term semiosphere to denote the vast, complex web of signification within which each earthy organism is enmeshed: “The semiosphere is a sphere just like the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the biosphere. It penetrates to every corner of these other spheres, incorporating all forms of communication: sounds, smells, movements, colors, shapes, electrical fields, thermal radiation, waves of all kinds, chemical signals, touching, and so on” (vii). The semiosphere is comprised of innumerable chattering, buzzing relationships, but in the quarter century since Hoffmeyer introduced the term, the chattering and buzzing has gotten alarmingly quiet. Over a million species face imminent extinction, as a recent IPBES report makes clear.4 Complex networks of sign processes which stabilized over vast tracts of evolutionary time are rapidly breaking down. At the same time, digital semiotic phenomena have come to occupy a greater and greater share of the semiosphere. On one hand, denizens of the semiosphere diverge dramatically in the kinds of signs they may be equipped to encounter. On the other hand, sign processes and the relations they enable are not in principle confined to either natural or cultural, organic or synthetic, human or nonhuman realms. This play of openness and opacity means that the effects of future permutations of and interventions into the semiosphere can be difficult to anticipate. How might emerging technologies help maintain, repair or conserve the natural networks that animate ecosystems? What new forms of risk might they create or intensify?

A biosemiotic account of life views organismic relations as interpretive, agentic and meaningful. It also enables visions of digital technologies capable of tuning into and perhaps manipulating these semiotic flows. Hoffmeyer argues in Biosemiotics: An Investigation into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs5 that it is possible to transform industrial production by replacing the brute force driving the mechanical control of energy flows with a biosemiotic technology capable of leveraging and redirecting, rather than disrupting, nature's communicative, self-organizing intelligence:

The task ahead of us is to embark upon the second half of the industrial revolution. And this will consist in the development of a mastery of the biosemiotic controls that can match (and thus sophisticate) our present mechanical mastery of the gigantic energy flows that, in an overpopulated world, necessarily must destabilize nature's optimal balance points. Another way to say this is that we need to develop a biosemiotic technology base for our production systems – a technology base that can replace natural biosemiotic control mechanisms with biosemiotic control mechanisms artificially set to fulfill human and environmental needs. (347)

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Adopting a biosemiotic framework means rethinking concepts like information and meaning. In Expecting the Earth: Life|Culture|Biosemiotics,6 Wendy Wheeler argues that organisms are active agents engaged in interpreting and reshaping their surroundings, not passive nodes through which disembodied, abstract information is transferred. Information, to have an impact on the world, requires interpretation and contextualization: “In other words, a billion pieces of encoding within a billion channels (whether books, pictures, telephone lines, computers, etc.) is not information until some living being (or part thereof) makes sense of it” (62). Wheeler argues that meaning is fundamentally about relationships. An organism may respond to “a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson, quoted in Wheeler, 41) differently, depending on what else is going on both in their surrounding environment and with the other organisms they are bound up with, as the zebrafish studies alluded to above suggest. Meaning, unlike a notion of information as a straightforward transmission of coded content, requires an ontological setting marked by self-organizing, relational, complex and dynamic living systems: “It seems clear that we are living through a shift, or development, from an Age of Mechanism to an Age of Information. The latter will, I believe, eventually come to be expanded and better understood as a third Age of Systems and Semiosis which is characterized by relational and semiotic ontologies” (66). What would a biosemiotic technological intervention into ecosystemic relations look like?

2. Biohybrid Systems

In the March 20th issue of Science Robotics, Frank Bonnet et al. report using the internet and robots to enable communication between zebrafish and honeybees, two species unlikely to engage in very much cross-species conversation without a highly motivated mediator.7 They describe their experiment as a case of digitally mediated interspecies communication. The researchers constructed a “biohybrid system” in which decisions about which direction to move made by one species affected the behavior of the robot mimicking them, which led the other species to move in sync:

These results demonstrate the feasibility of generating and controlling behavioral patterns in biohybrid groups of multiple species. Such interspecies connections between diverse robotic systems and animal species may open the door for new forms of artificial collective intelligence, where the unrivaled perceptual capabilities of the animals and their brains can be used to enhance autonomous decision-making, which could find applications in selective “rewiring” of ecosystems. (Bonnet et al., Abstract)

Robots have been used in a variety of ways in recent studies of animal behavior. In some cases, biohybrid systems have been created that are made up of groups of robots and animals.8 The robots are designed to socially integrate into groups of animals by mimicking some of the signs used in the species' social interactions. These sign exchanges are described as closed interaction loops which can be used to test hypotheses about self-organized collective behavior. The researchers describe them as new biohybrid information and communication technologies systems “because the animals can enrich the capabilities of the machines, and vice versa” (Bonnet et al., Introduction). While earlier studies have focused only on interactions involving robots and single species, this study is interested in coupling two distinct biohybrid systems. Expanding biohybridity into multispecies networks enables researchers to study how “collective decision-making can arise at a larger scale, among multiple individuals of different species, with their own sensing and acting properties...” (Bonnet et al., Introduction).

Why honeybees and zebrafish? Honeybees are well known for their self-organizing collective behaviors, while zebrafish are model organisms in fields like genetics and neurophysiology. Both are social species and serve as common models for understanding the link between individual variability and collective action. Honeybees and zebrafish differ in habitat as well as in the dynamics of their group and individual interactions, but they both exhibit decision-making at the collective level. The researchers argue that this collective behavior opens the possibility of indirect information exchange.

The robots have to be designed with enough semiotic sophistication to be socially acceptable to and capable of reaching consensus with the animal group: “For each species, we created the simplest and smallest set of robotic agents that could either autonomously reproduce some of the signals used by animals during their social interactions or emit physical cues that are present in the animals’ natural environment and to which the animals will react in a predictable way” (Bonnet et al., Results). The honeybees used in the experiment were 1-24 hours old. The honeybee robots were designed specifically to interact with juvenile honeybees: the robots produced heat, which the researchers describe as an “attractive cue” for young honeybees who cannot yet produce heat themselves. For the zebrafish, they used a lure that has the same shape and size of a zebrafish and which moves in patterns similar to the fishes. The animals respond to the robots in ways similar to how they respond to their conspecifics. Both groups were given a binary collective choice, which is a common framework for studying self-organization. The honeybees could congregate around one robot or the other, while the zebrafish could swim either clockwise or counterclockwise. The robots allowed the two groups to share their collective decision-making processes, from which a consensus emerged: “We observed how the collective decision from one species was transferred to another via information exchanged between the robots” (Bonnet et al., Introduction).

3. Mediation

The researchers claim to be able to mediate interactions between animal species: “We developed an autonomous robotic system capable of coordinating the collective behavior of two animal species using socially integrated robots” (Bonnet et al., Discussion). They imagine inserting robots into interspecies relations in the wild, working with the self-organizing communicative activity that already exists within a group and then redirecting that activity toward some end. For this experiment, the researchers tried to use the smallest number of robots and animals necessary to demonstrate the interspecies interactions, but they argue that the system they designed could accommodate a large number of robots and species:

This approach may also be generalized to other living species, such as plants, fungi or even microorganisms, to allow systems to interact at different scales. It would then be possible, on the one hand, to exploit the unrivaled sensory properties of the living systems, their behaviors and their ease to move in the wild, and, on the other hand, to influence their choices and to add physical properties like telecommunication and other capacities. (Bonnet et al., Discussion)

The researchers anticipate applications in which future robots can learn on their own how to evolve as part of biohybrid systems: “We envision robotic systems that can discover by themselves new properties of biohybrid artificial intelligence toward synthetic transitions and organic computing devices, where robots could passively evolve among animals” (Bonnet et al., Discussion). Evolving robots could repair or “rewire” damaged ecosystemic relations (Bonnet et al., Discussion). They could relocate species, encourage them to avoid some areas, and use whatever data the robots obtain to build more resilient ecosystems. Evolving robots embedded in ecosystems would construct a technological infrastructure around living beings, incorporating and partially redirecting their semiotic capabilities into recursive systems entwining artificial and organic semiotic processes.

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What does it mean for a robot to passively evolve among animals within a biohybrid system? Could such a system be constructed that would not impede or constrain the semiotic relations among the organisms imbricated in it? As biosemiotic theory and the empirical studies cited above suggest, semiosis in a real environment is highly complex, relational, opaque and sensitive to continually shifting contexts. We do not possess comprehensive knowledge of the semiotic abilities of any species. What the evolving robots would have to learn for themselves goes beyond mapping flows of information and movement. Wheeler points out that information requires a living organism (or at least an interpreter with the “unrivalled sensory properties” of a living organism) to turn it into meaning. The difference between information and meaning is minimized as much as possible in the experiment by making both the environments and the organisms themselves very simple (in the case of the honeybees, even isolating a specific stage in their semiotic development). The animals are placed in tightly semiotically constrained environments and presented with a binary choice, leaving little room for interpretation. This kind of semiotic control is entirely appropriate for a scientific experiment, but to introduce social robotics into ecosystemic relations would be to alter the contexts within which those relations are made in ways not necessarily discernible in advance to human meaning-making processes.

Integrating digital semiotic phenomena more deeply into the semiosphere offers the alluring promise of a future in which environments could be monitored and protected in real time, with minimal disruption to these complex systems and their chattering, buzzing relationships. The difficult part is knowing whether biohybrid systems could be constructed that would keep open, rather than reify and close down, the dynamic, creative and exploratory semiotic activity that animates life. In a semiosphere full of meaning-making beings that perform math, feel bored, and do who knows what else, attempts at constructing biohybrid systems bring with them a number of difficult but interesting questions. What is the difference between information and meaning? How do we negotiate between what we can identify as semiosis and what our considerable, technologically mediated human semiotic processing powers might miss? When do digital technologies risk imposing tightly coordinated, functioning but boring semiotic circuits, and how might they be deployed to foster interesting webs of relationships that are given space to grow and develop on their own terms? Is there any possibility of approaching nature as an intelligent and useful technology and also as a realm of agency and autonomy beyond the human which must be accorded respect and value? Is it possible to manage and control urgent, catastrophic ecosystemic risks through digital technologies without potentially creating new risks in the process?

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Notes

1. Howard, Scarlett R. et al., “Numerical Cognition in Honeybees enables Addition and Subtraction.” Science Advances Vol.5 no. 2 (06 Feb. 2019). Internet. Accessed June 11, 2019. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav0961

2. Study by Caio Maximino referenced in Balcombe, Jonathan. What a Fish Knows: The Inner lives of Our Underwater Cousins. Scientific American, 2017.

3. Hoffmeyer, Jesper. Signs of Meaning in the Universe. 1993. Translated by Barabara J. Haveland, Indiana University Press, 1996.

4. Díaz, Sandra, Josef Settele, Eduardo Brondízio et al. “IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers” Bonn, Germany, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Internet. Accessed June 8, 2019. https://www.ipbes.net/sites/default/files/downloads/spm_unedited_advance_for_posting_htn.pdf

5. Hoffmeyer, Jesper. Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Translated by Jesper Hoffmeyer and Donald Favareau, University of Scranton Press, 2009.

6. Wheeler, Wendy. Expecting the Earth: Life|Culture|Biosemiotics. Lawrence & Wishart, 2016.

7. Bonnet, Frank et al. “Robots Mediating Interactions between Animals for Interspecies Collective Behaviors.” Science Robotics vol. 4, issue 28 (March 20, 2019). Internet. Accessed May 27, 2019. DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aau7897

8. See for example Kernbach, Serge, editor. Handbook of Collective Robotics: Fundamentals and Challenges. Jenny Stanford Publishing, 2013.

SKIN/SCREEN: THE ENFLESHED FOSSILS OF JULIUS CSOTONYI'S INTERACTIVE MEDIA     Sarah Bezan

SKIN/SCREEN: THE ENFLESHED FOSSILS OF JULIUS CSOTONYI'S INTERACTIVE MEDIA Sarah Bezan

Skin/Screen:

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

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            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.”

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            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

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            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

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            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.

[iv] Julius Csotonyi, Evolutionary Routes Blog, https://evolutionaryroutes.wordpress.com Accessed Dec. 6, 2018.

[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.”

https://www.rc.umd.edu/sites/default/files/imported/reference/wcircle/gaull.pdf

[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).

The author wishes to thank and acknowledge Julius Csotonyi, whose images are featured here, along with Vlad Konstantinov and Audrey Atuchin, who sculpted the 3D models for the "Ultimate Dinosaurs" exhibition.

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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.

UNGUICULATE HUMANITIES

UNGUICULATE HUMANITIES

Digital Animalities / Unguiculate Humanities by Binarius

Probably because of the ubiquity of its use in common parlance as an adjective describing media and technologies, the term digital now rarely carries the sense of “a number less than ten”, which has its root in the Latin digitalis, “measuring a finger’s breadth”, or more generally “of or relating to the finger”. But as technologies based on the manipulation of numerical digits, whose use often (but of course not exclusively) relies on the articulation of physical digits, we should not overlook the connections between omnipresent digital technologies such as phones, personal computers, tablets, gaming consoles and the like, and hands.

Hands, those most humanist of human appendages: anthropocentric thought has so often been swept up in what Stanley Cavell has called “the romance of the apposable thumb”.

In her blog post, Nicole Shukin explores the legacy of Heidegger’s thought for thinking about digital animalities. And it is there, too, as Jacques Derrida and after him Cary Wolfe, Matthew Calarco, Steve Baker and others have explored, that we find the most dogmatic assertions about the hand as a distinguishing feature of the human: “man does not ‘have’ hands, but the hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man” (qtd in CIFERAE, p. 15). The distinction is between a kind of purely anatomical “having” of hands and an existential being grounded in the hand as such; this, in turn, is thought to separate the human from the animal—as Heidegger notoriously puts it: “the ape, for example, possesses organs for grasping but it has no hand”.

This all goes to suggest that there is a quiet but important assertion in the title of our collective research project—with its unabashedly catachrestic alignment of digitality with animality—and so also its blunt refusal to accept the humanist terms of binary separation (which is of course another crucial facet of the digital).

In this context it is worth looking again at a fascinating moment in the history of the development of digital and information technology and their interpenetration with visual aesthetics and live animal bodies. (We write this, indeed, at the moment the Guggenheim Museum first chose to show and then to remove three artworks involving various forms of violence towards animals.)

 

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In 1970, MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, led by Nicholas Negroponte (later co-founder of Wired magazine and enthusiast for the “digital revolution”) produced an exhibit called Seek. This was shown at the Software exhibition curated by Jack Burnham at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Seek involved an arrangement of small metal-coated blocks in piles inside a plexiglass vitrine. Also trapped inside the box were four gerbils, whose job was to move the blocks (as is gerbils’ wont). We could call this “rearranging” the blocks, but that would go against the logic of Seek: it also included a computer-controlled system involving a robotic arm which was programmed to pick up and rearrange the blocks into the original configuration after the gerbils moved them; the conceptual assumption was that the gerbils would only be putting the blocks into disarray, not arranging them to their own requirements.

As an artwork, then, Seek dramatises a dualistic conflict between information-systematic order and chaotic life. In it, the computer-programmed robot is on one side and the gerbils (assuming the place conventionally allotted to animality in this equation) are on the other.

The point, though, is not quite that the robot technology is aligned with “the human”, so that together they oppose a chaotic animality. For, as the name of Negroponte’s group suggests, Seek is really an allegory of the relationship between the establishment of order in architecture (here, physical as well as information systems architecture) and the unruly impulses, desires and drives of human life. This allegory plays out as a dramatic battle of wills (or rather of will and technological skill versus instinct and chance), with the opposing sides performed by the robotic arm and the gerbils.

In Seek, then, ordinary human life is equated with unruly animality, continually disrupting and destroying the order of the ideally designed system—a system which is in principle machinic. That said, if we take together the thematics of the hand discussed earlier and the importance of the very idea of establishing order for post-Enlightenment notions of the pre-eminence of the human, it is, in a sense, no surprise that, in Seek, systematicity should be epitomised by a robotic arm.

With Seek’s allegory, we are dealing with a mid-twentieth century recapitulation of an age old drama, with two different and equally conventional characterisations of “the human” as its protagonists: the human as exceptional, the intelligent designer par excellence, and the human as animal, with needs and desires that are by definition unruly. In order for that allegory to have any kind of dramatic force, it must deflect us from the more prosaic reality of the exhibit: in which it is a more or less mundane animal experiment, like any other in which the skill an ingenuity of animals—in this case gerbils’ brains and their claws—are physically as well as conceptually manipulated to tell a story not about animals but about humans.

Earlier, we mentioned the philosopheme of the human as the paradigmatic digital species. Gerbils are, by contrast, an unguiculate species: animals that bear one or more claws. We might say, then, that Seek, is an example, not perhaps of  the “digital animalities”, but of the “unguiculate humanities”. It tells a story that needs, implicates, and traduces animal life to body forth the most techno-utopian dreams of human futures.

 

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(Binarius consists of authors Robert McKay and Tom Tyler)

 

 

 

CONNECTING THE DOTS ON CLIMATE CHANGE

CONNECTING THE DOTS ON CLIMATE CHANGE

Climate change infuses so many aspects of our lives and changes the way we think about our relations with nonhuman animals.  Critics of the media have rightly observed, however,  that there has been a massive failure to connect the dots in telling such stories.  Here is an example of a dot that fails to connect.

Canadians eating less meat, taking a bite out of food industry’s margins. (September 2015)

https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/canadians-eating-less-meat-taking-a-bite-out-of-food-industrys-margins/article26373758/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

In this story published in Canada's "business" newspaper, people are eating less meat for economic reasons. I selected this one  to illustrate my point but it could be n any number of news stories.  Perhaps you have seen some you would like to share.  The author fails to mention two important subjects concerning why people do or don't eat meat.

1)  Animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, a connection now widely accepted as fact.

 2)  People have started to know about the brutal exploitation of animals in the meat industry and this may dissuade many of them from wanting  to eat its products.

There are many reasons for people to eat less meat, and not all of them are about money. Some of them are about the future of the planet.

Of course, it's possible that the Globe and Mail's flagship Report on Business knows nothing about these issues.  Perhaps these particular journalists have not read any of many news stories or reports that demonstrate that the relationship between animal agriculture and climate change has been known for some time.  Here are some of those stories.

Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns. (2006)

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=20772#.WdE250wZO8U. 

A Leading Cause of Everything: One Industry That Is Destroying Our Planet and Our Ability to Thrive on It

https://journals.law.stanford.edu/stanford-environmental-law-journal-elj/blog/leading-cause-everything-one-industry-destroying-our-planet-and-our-ability-thrive-it

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/04/livestock-farming-artificial-meat-industry-animals

There are many articles on this subject displaying quite a variance on the statistical findings.  The range of statistics produced to  document this connection is unusual and fascinating in itself.  This variation is one of the research questions currently being addressed by our Digital Animalities project. 

But right now, I'm in flabbergasted mode.  All these stories about hurricanes... about glaciers...wildfires out of control....hundreds of species of animals becoming extinct every year....  is there something in the training of journalists in the commercial or mass media that blocks them from acknowledging the links between the stories??  

Now would be a good time to start.  Talking about animals means talking about climate change.  Catastrophes that are killing thousands of people and animals and making their lives unlivable.

But there is another problem connecting the dots where it comes to environmental issues. To cite journalist Nick Fillmore:

Environmental groups need to work together.

"With the creation of Blue Dot, Canada has at least seven networks and 17 groups that claim to be fighting ecological collapse.

"The groups seldom, if ever, work together. In fact, they are just as likely to see other groups as rivals. They don’t tend to share campaigning information. They compete for funding. The bosses protect their own isolated empires."

http://nickfillmore.blogspot.ca/2017/09/heres-why-you-need-to-give-climate.html

For those who care about animals, for those who care about media representations of nonhuman life in the age of risk, for this who care about what animals get to live and those that must die, this is urgent.  Let's work together to make these journalists and organizations connect the dots!