Zoextropy. The Posthuman Beauty
Zoextropy explores new ways of thinking the aesthetic categories of the beautiful and the sinister through contemporary artistic production within the context of recent philosophies of thinking which question anthropocentrism. These currents of deterritorialization of the human seek to make porous the borders between the individual and their “others”, and entail a criticism of the humanist concept that conceives the subject as a unity and the centre of all thought and knowledge. It is not, as Rosi Braidotti points out, a cognitive or moral loss, but rather an expansion of the human being, making us flexible and allowing us to adopt several identities and dimensions. Her concept of the posthuman explores the practice of hybridization, dislocating the differences between humans, animals, plants, bacteria and other species.
Zoextropy originates from the concept of Zoe which Hannah Arendt defines as natural life, that which continues and repeats itself constituting the life of the species, in opposition to Bios, the concrete life of an individual, which begins with birth and ends with death. Equally it suggests a movement towards the exterior, exo and the quality of deviating, turning and taking another route in order to think about objects and categories, trópos.
The exhibition proposes a selection of artistic practices and debates that are at the frontier between science and technology, and that address on the one hand the terrain of human limits, generating new ontologies such as the non-human or the a-human, and on the other the limits of beauty, both in the representation of one’s own body and in its intricate relationship with other living entities.
Exoskeletons, technological prostheses, interspecies sexual organs, neural networks, biological prototypes, wi-fi organs, nanoparticles, sensor technology, neurobotics, microbiology, neurology, are some of the fields of intersection between art and techno-science which introduce new processes of creation and reinterpretation of the environment through new aesthetic and conceptual understandings. Art acts here as an essential and non-hierarchical factor of knowledge production thanks to its speculative capacity, which allows it to create new models of interpretation of the world and of reality, to question established structures and to balance epistemological asymmetries.
The framework of thought which inspired the exhibition is that of the new materialism, which recovers the importance and agency of matter, traditionally forgotten or displaced by a humanist thinking based on rationality and the human consciousness as a tool of superior and unique knowledge. The truth is that we are thinking bodies, but above all bodies, which are intimately entangled in the environment and the biological surroundings in which we live, and in relation with the other inhabitants of the same environment. The very heterogeneous authors of this new theoretical current cover a wide spectrum of fields and approaches, but as a whole they propose a new paradigm in order to think about matter and question the vision and human relationship of and with it, introducing new organic, hybrid and inclusive perspectives, and reviewing the previous anthropocentric schools of thought.
Following the ideas of Karen Barad, knowledge is based on an intricate and direct commitment to matter, becoming a practice of intra-action with the world, being part of it and being influenced by its dynamic configuration and its constant process of interaction and change (Barad, 2007). Likewise, her concept of a subject that “feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers” establishes a broad platform from which to observe and understand the world in new ways, because “feeling, desiring and experiencing are not singular characteristics or capacities of human consciousness “(Dolphjin, van der Tuin, 2012). Also the vibrant materiality defined by Jane Bennet that runs through both human and non-human bodies, highlights the need to re-think the vitality of bodies and non-human formations recognizing and considering the active power of living things (Bennet, 2010). This materiality of life is just an update of Spinoza’s idea that there is only one nature for all bodies, individuals and their variations and responds to the practice of reinterpreting and updating previous thoughts and theories within a new context.
As a result, the aspirations of Zoextropy are, to extend the area of the ambiguous, the shared and the hybrid, of the entangled and unclassified and to marvel at the matter that we have before our eyes, and to rescue it from epistemological oblivion. For this it will be necessary to question where, when and by whom the canons, taxonomies and classifications of the world that surrounds us are established, going out to meet with other subjectivities and thus surpass humanist exceptionalism. Zoextropy aims to explore how this new orientation in the conception of matter, the decentralization of the human and the inclusion of the non-human in philosophical thought reconfigure the classic aesthetic categories of the beautiful and the sinister. Both concepts, which have been traditionally articulated around anthropocentric premises and models, far from the situated knowledge proposed by Donna Haraway that questions subjectivity and the context of who produces it (Haraway 2013).
In his book Lo bello y lo siniestro, 1982 (The beauty and the sinister) Eugenio Trias proposes an interweaving of the aesthetic categories of the beautiful, the sublime and the sinister, the latter being the condition and limit of the former. For this philosopher the serene and balanced harmony of the beautiful dialogues with the disturbing strangeness that appears when what should be hidden manifests itself, suddenly revealing the unsettling face of what was hitherto perceived as familiar, nice and stable, and which Friedrich Schelling defined as the umheimlich (Trias, 1982). From Plato to Kant, via Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Schiller or Wittgenstein, beauty, since the beginning of Western philosophy, has been one of the concepts which has been more speculated upon, but basically it has been linked to truth, good, the just, the harmonious, to that which does not harm but, on the contrary, provokes an aesthetic pleasure. This aesthetic category never shows the disturbing a priori, but is nevertheless capable of containing it in itself. It is precisely in this point of inflection in which beauty leaves its territory, the zone bordering on the sinister, the moment in which its slightest touch with this border makes its halo of harmony fade to make way for the unsettling, in which the works of the exhibition palpitate and resonate with different intensities.
Simultaneously and in different degrees and registers, the works in Zoextropy traverse the two aesthetic spectrums of the beautiful and the sinister, questioning their limits and inviting us to rethink these categories from a different perspective and conceptualization.
The bodies hybridized with the machine, in the work of Marco Donnarumma are tinged with a certain tragic aspect in their metamorphoses and intertwinings. Calyx presents fragments of skin manufactured artificially by the artist himself which incorporate elements of his own body. A robot equipped with artificial intelligence has exercised a delicate brutality on them, cutting them with a steel knife. An autonomous prosthetic piece (Amygdala) performs this intervention. Its design resembles an articulated arm endowed with a dark anthropomorphism and through being connected to a neural network it is capable of organic behaviour, learning as it carries out its activity. Despite not being defined as such, these skins suggest the human, its belonging to the living, its fragility and resistance. They are shown after having experienced a mechanical process inspired by tribal rituals in Papua Guinea, Africa and Eastern Asia, which have imprinted scars rather than traces. Calyx not only opens a field of ambiguity and speculation about the origin of organic material, but also about the autonomy of a prosthesis that does not replace any ill-fated organ or belong to any visible body and which is as distant from the calculated movements of the logistics robot industry, as from medical applications that enable the movement of phantom limbs. Waste material as an aesthetic element questions the limits of our perception and makes the vitality of matter eloquent, even in its quality as remains and the relic of a techno-ritual, as the artist himself describes it.
In the same line in her video Delusional Mandala Lu Yang designs a digital avatar of herself based on her own body. To do this, she uses digital clinical technology such as three-dimensional and magnetic resonance scanning (MTR) as well as 3D animation technologies. The echoes of her visual universe refer to video-games and Japanese manga, and her heroine dances for most of the video to the rhythm of electronic music. That is, when it is not connected with devices of visualization and clinical intervention used in neurology and subjected to deep brain stimulation tests. However, in the baroque and overflowing visual display of Lu Yang technology connects with the most basically organic and the mystic-spiritual. The body devoid of visible sexual organs, overcoming sexual dichotomies and differences, appears in some fragments as a collage of head and visible organs (lungs, heart, intestines) that become sick and change in consistency. Lu Yang wonders about the location of the soul in the body using science and its ability to analyze and manipulate the brain. But in the end she integrates the influence of meditation and human identification with God at the moment of death without religious distinctions.
The fields of scientific speculation about human cloning, embryonic ectogenesis and the ethical questions and emotional responses that accompany them are picked up on by Renaud Marchand in his work Daniel & Esther. Two tanks of water surrounded by containers and other laboratory elements which contain the exact chemical composition of both bodies are presented as a still life of natures in a state of vital suspension. The decomposition, quantification and analysis of the natural for its investigation is part of the scientific method of verification which excludes everything that can not be proven empirically. This practice of isolation of the components seems to be at the antipodes of a hybridization between beings. But in spite of being presented here as a mere accumulation of substances in a non-anthropomorphic representation, between them Daniel & Esther exists a relationship of affection and vibrational bond. And although they are disconnected from their organic continuum, they question the place of the soul, or at least of consciousness. A lamp hangs over these chemical bodies containing the DNA of both in the manner of a clinically controlled and zenithal eye of God that watches over the capricious entanglement of the genes for forming two humans: Daniel and Esther, the characters in the novel “The possibility of an island” by Michel Houellebecq (2005), which give the work its name. It is a pre-state or perhaps a para-state of existence, in which the apparently inert matter creates an emotional bond with the public, challenging the sterile and aseptic environment of the laboratory created by science.
Diametrically opposed to Marchand’s aseptic method, Dust Bunny the work of Alan Warburton, concentrates on the dust, dirt and remains of the digital work stations that create the animation universes of large contemporary film and commercial productions. His encounter with these materials has a dual purpose. On the one hand, the great human effort and technological expense to insert a real biological aura, the noise of living matter and traces of the organic in the pristine and flawless digital image in order to create realism and empathy with human perception. On the other hand, the technical care taken so that the same dust and dirt generated by the work of the large computers producing the images, mixed with the skin and tissue cells of the humans who handle them, is completely eradicated from contact with the electronic systems. A human agency in the almost schizophrenic machine, which Alan Warburton encapsulates in a figurine made from the dust which sticks to the machines’ filters, simultaneously including the presence and absence of the human. A highly unstable micro-monument in honour of the first 3D animation test creature: the bunny created by the University of Stanford, located in Silicon Valley.
The discovery of the huge patch of plastic in the Pacific, also known as the plastic continent, is an example of the need to think about the so-called hyperobjects (Timothy Morton). Amongst them are found new elements and phenomena produced by continued industrial action and a massive human consumption that exceeds our imagination, the evolution of which and the consequences for life, as we know it, are unknown. The primordial soup in which life was born on Earth is inhabited by plastic and in An Ecosystem of Excess, Pinar Yoldas speculates on a new concept of nature and biological forms that follow their evolutionary process incorporating the changes produced in their environment.
Within these new ontologies of life, monsters abandon their tragic and romantic character to become hybrid, symbiotic matter that drinks and enjoys enriching mutations. This particular tangle of the living suggests new models for conceiving the organic and a revision of the aesthetic canon. In the ecosystem imagined by Pinar Yoldas, the creatures seem to be happy in their bio-evolutionary process, adapting to the changes that humans have introduced into nature, fruit of our greed for consumption and ecological irresponsibility. Life remains. A colourful life, which develops new organs and whose bodies mutate taking the plastic on like any other primordial material. A biological variation that does not need humans and has the ability to develop on our industrial aftermath and the toxic waste which the former may not have outlasted. Perhaps we should not only talk about post-nature, but also about a post-beauty that, still being dazzling, extends itself tentacularly through the fields of the sinister and the disturbing.
Developing a concept of nature inhabited by other forces and spirits Yvonne Roeb composes her sculptures from natural and artificial materials. Her creatures float in an ambivalent state that hybridizes sketched, but not exactly recognizable organic forms from the animal and vegetable kingdom. In her pieces resonates an echo of the natural which is not distorted, only recoded. These present new possibilities of intertwining between organic and non-organic substances, and at the same time invoke a sacred and mystical retreat. Matter seems to be endowed with life in its staticism and the chimerical but serene sculptural compositions explore the asymmetrical dialogue between the human and the non-human. Wrapped in a supernatural animism and even suggestive of a ritual totemism that can be read in terms of anthropology and cultural theory, the pieces invite us to aesthetically blur the humanistic boundaries between naturalia and artificialia and to let ourselves be carried away by a spiritual contemplation.
In vegetal terms, Suzanne Treister’s algorithmic mysticism combines digital, botanical and cabalistic Hebrew parameters in the context of high finance. HFT the gardener is an imaginary financial trader who discovers the power of certain plants to alter consciousness and access worlds that oscillate between the real and the imaginary. Fascinated and obsessed by the magical, medicinal and spiritual qualities that have been attributed to these species, he undertakes an investigation and classification of these by drawing them meticulously, using new parameters in his taxonomy. The botanical name is translated into Hebrew and this in turn converted into figures through the Hebrew mystic technique known as gematria. These figures are related to the universe of finance and associated according to their number to various corporations of the global ranking of companies. Appropriating neocapitalist and digital tools to create a new universe, HFT which questions the power and structures that govern the world by introducing associations between science and rationally antagonistic disciplines. Visually inspired by Ernst Haeckel´s scientific illustrations of nature and the surreal worlds of the outsider artist Adolf Wölfli, HFT proposes another type of speculative knowledge, non-hierarchical and without scale of value, integrating the natural, the organic, the shamanic with the obsessive human quantification delegated to digital algorithms. An alternative in order to think of the world from other unconventional perspectives with exceptionally beautiful results, but from a disturbing trajectory. One possible therapy for an individual who decides to get out of the neoliberal machine and set out on other paths.
Towards posthuman beauty
Zoextropy proposes a reinterpretation of the aesthetic systems of the beautiful and the sinister within the current paradigm of hybridization between technology and the materiality of the living. It is not only about questioning the boundary between both categories, but also about overcoming, expanding and stretching it, making the dividing line a vast and exciting territory through which to travel. An area that expands our field of perception, thought and affectivity, freeing the aesthetic experience from well-travelled paths learned a priori.
The set of works and parallel activities, as well as its programme of interventions, call for a unique activation of the sensorial. But at the same time they aim to create reverberations with a new way of relating to the world, according to which power and intelligence belong to all matter and not only to humans, thus overcoming the anthropocentrism and centrality of the subject of Western thought.
– Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 2007. Durham: Duke University Press, 379
– Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter, 2010. Durham: Duke University Press, 96-99
– Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, 2013. Cambridge: Polity Press.
– Rick Dolphjin, Iris van der Tuin, New Materialism: Interviews and Carthographies, 2012. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 15-16
– Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, 2013. NewYork: Routledge
– Eugenio Trias, Lo bello y lo siniestro, 1982 (2018). Barcelona: Debolsillo Ensayo, 18