Invasive nonhuman actors: In conversation with Saša Spačal and Heather Barnett
Late last year, the new Art Laboratory space in Berlin ran a conference and exhibition entitled Nonhuman Agents. Focussed on contemporary philosophical approaches to anthropomorphism, topics included object-oriented ontology, human-nonhuman encounters, and the wider philosophical space of nonhuman agency.
We invited Heather Barnett, an artist and researcher at Central St. Martins, and Ljubjuana-based artist Saša Spačal to talk about these concepts and how they mix into the work that they exhibited during the event.
Please start by introducing what you are exhibiting at Art Laboratory Berlin, and your story behind the creation of the work.
HB: I am showing a selection of recent work from my on-going ‘collaboration’ with the intelligent organism, the slime mould Physarum polycephalum. Works include timelapse films observing growth behaviours; live biological works where the patient viewer (its top speed is 1cm an hour) can watch it navigate a laser cut map of the local area; films documenting collaborative collective research projects with dancers in Malmö and workshop participants in Berlin; and digital moving image works exploring flow dynamics of collective motion.
SS: We are exhibiting Myconnect, a biomimetic structure mimicking a cocoon, a womb. It is intended to be a safe place where visitor lays into the pod to experience a biofeedback loop with mushroom mycelium. In a way, it is a space where they can experience a symbiotic bond between their nervous system and the environment, in this case it is a very particular isolated environment: the mushroom Mycelium.
My story with fungi started a long time ago, when I was a little girl picking mushrooms with my grandmother and father on long walks through the forests every autumn. However the Myconnect inception happened when I looked closely at mushroom mycelium and saw this wonderful fluffy material full of tiny little white hair, a fragile interconnected world of thread like hyphae that had this amazing ability to expand its network beyond its own fungal materiality via mycorrhizae, a symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of plants.
All of a sudden the vast forests and meadows of our planet got an underground floor for me, an extended underground network with incredible flow of data that human beings do not have physical access to. Next question was obvious. How could human body access the largest underground network on the planet? This is how Myconnect developed, with mycologist Mirjan Švagelj and technologist Anil Podgornik.
Then came layers and layers of meanings and possible entrances into the work: connecting to a non-companion species; isolated experience of environment; becoming the environment; symbiotic experience making the human nervous system feel the flow of data through mycelium; experiencing the symbiotic bond, etc. The flow of data about Myconnect just does not seem to stop. The network of Myconnect grows with each new visitor and new meanings emerge out of symbiotic encounters.
Out of my personal experience with Myconnect, the story of connection and symbiosis evolved. My realisation emerged as to the degree that my nervous system is dependent on the environment; how my body is the environment and the fact that I have to make a bond, a connection, because my life depends on it on various planes of existence.
How has your understanding of “non-human networks” through this exhibition shaped your own pre-existing views of human, digital, and social networks?
HB: I’m not sure if this question should be the other way around - how have my pre-existing views shaped the exhibition, though of course it works both ways, there is always a feedback loop, especially when exhibiting with others and you see your own work afresh in relation to a wider context or different approaches.
The two contributing organisms in Nonhuman networks are slime mould and mycelium, two complementary simple organisms which are capable of forming complex networks that far exceed expectation of capability based on their simple mechanisms and structures. These kind of organisms are in many ways the unsung heroes of natural intelligence and environmental sentience, and offer valuable lessons in adaptability and resilience.
I’ll leave Saša to talk about the Mycelium, but as a self-appointed spokesperson for the wonder of slime mould, I see the potential in the organism as a vehicle for human exploration; whether it be physical, conceptual, ethical or philosophical. The slime mould is a dynamic information distribution system, which is highly responsive to environmental conditions. If you knock part of the network out of action, the organism will reorganise itself and work around the problem. This level of self-organisation requires no control centre or cognitive drive. In many ways it is easier to self-organise for simple organisms, human systems are often cumbersome and complex. And when a non hierarchical system is created, such as the World Wide Web, it is impossible to predict how it will be used, how it will be adapted, interpreted, subverted, or put to other uses. So I think we have to be careful when viewing nonhuman networks through a human lens, and instead recognise that these systems operate within their own subjective reality – not ours.
SS: To be honest, it didn’t really. However, my understanding of networks is constantly getting new flows of data and the next phase of evolution is bound to happen.
3. Further, how have you challenged your own view, and perhaps that of wider contemporary Western society, of anthropocentrism?
SS: It seems to me that a lot of times while reading articles about the planetary environmental crisis some people tend to forget that it is physically a lot closer that they imagine; they tend to forget that they are the environment that media is talking about. The stories about plastic in the oceans or on the beaches are the stories about plastic in human bodies. Human inhabitants of planet Earth will slowly understand through painful experiences that what we perceive as outside is actually also inside and that there is no constant inside of the body and no constant outside. As I see it, there is more like a flow of data through physiological, mental and other systems of human bodies going in all directions in constant intra-actions as Karen Barad formulated it.
Myconnect questions several ideas: defined inside and outside; human existence as separate from the environment; human ability to connect to nonhuman; human control of the environment; and symbiosis as basic principle of existence.
Sonoseismic Earth, Saša Spačal
HB: I can’t possibly answer how I have challenged any views in others. I can only talk of aspirations.
In regards to anthropocentricism, we firmly believe ourselves to be the central, most important organism on the planet. We have developed language, culture – which in our mind lifts and separates us from the rest, the merely biologically orientated creature. But we are not so special. There are countless examples of linguistic communication in other species and many forms of ritual practice - what we could call culture - in other animals, such as elephant grieving, baboon trading, or octopus problem solving.
The notion of intelligence is an interesting one. When the - largely Japanese - team concluded their slime mould maze experiment in 2000 with the conclusion that "the organisms demonstrated a primitive form of intelligence" it caused great upset amongst some scientific communities. But this was largely a semantic cultural upset, in Japanese culture, closely aligned with animism where every particle, rock or cloud has some form of sentience, it makes perfect sense for a slime mould to be intelligent. It is mainly a western humancentricism that questions nonhuman intelligence.
What these organisms offer us is a vehicle to view systems and environments from a different perspective, to ask philosophical questions about the basis for intelligence, how self-organisation does and can work, the core principles of emergence. What I try to do is use the slime mould as a starting point for exploration of these topics, the organism narrating alternative ideas of intelligence as a stimulus for creative enquiry.
Although society considers humans to be in control of networks, we are in fact controlled by them (for example, bacteria). Given an increased tendency for such non-human networks to transcend human limitations (avian flu, MRSA), do you believe that the relationship between human and nonhuman networks is changing and if so how?
SS: The idea of control always amuses me because I think that there is no such thing on any plane of existence. Of course there are certain possible attempts at controlling, however it would be more legitimate to call them influencing. Control always presumes that the controller is able to imagine all of the possible outcomes however that is a very difficult task for any organisms or network to do that.
In my reality, we are not controlled and we do not control. There is certain flow of living organisms that produces certain effects, sometimes a particular kind thrives and another time it doesn’t. However for anything to exist there has to be symbiosis, there has to be the exchange of data. The relationship between human and nonhuman networks is in constant flux. Sometimes it’s even difficult to distinguish human and nonhuman data. We are immersed in the networks and always have been, their physicality may be changing or maybe we are developing new ways to get plugged into them and of course we might get lost in them and disorientated and feel like we lost control. Maybe we need a new way of connecting, perceiving and understanding the flow of intra-actions. Maybe we need new navigational technologies to help us in the flow. One of our works Mycophone_unison was also presented at Art Laboratory Berlin as part of exhibition The Other Selves. On the Phenomenon of the Microbiome tackled a similar question.
Like I mentioned, human perception of our own body is changing; we have to accept that we are part of a multitude, that our body is an ecological collective of not only human cells but also human microbiome, a consortium of archaea, bacteria and fungi. Besides that we depend on certain connections that can kill us or make us thrive. There is much to be learned and integrated in everyday lifestyle of human individuals as they learn how to be a multitude in the network of multitudes. I believe that If human species will ever be able to adopt this notion as a worldview, we will at least have a chance of surviving next few hundred years. However at the moment it seems that we are living not light years away, but several billion parallel universes away.
HB: We are becoming more aware of the interconnected complexities of networks that operate within and around us, and we now recognise that to be human is inherently connected to a shared and intimate cohabitation with nonhuman species. But what we know to be true at a molecular level we don’t necessarily recognise at a macro (whole organism) level - we don’t actually see the multitude microbial communities sharing our every breath. So knowing at a conceptual level and knowing from direct experience or encounter are two different things and I think we are still somewhat squeamish about the fact that we co-exist with complex bacterial and viral societies and that they contribute to our mood and character.
But, much recent research about the Internet of trees, octopus intelligence and many books published on nonhuman phenomena all help to further question any fixed position on where we stand in relation to other living systems.
Heather Barnett, The Physarum Experiments Study No. 022, Film still, 2016
“Boundaries do not sit still”, wrote Karan Barad. Do you consider that, now, this is more true than ever?
SS: As I see it at the moment, the basic principle on all planes of existence is flow and exchange of data in the connections continuum. In my view, boundaries were never still, once the scale is small enough everything moves and dances. Karen Barad also wrote: “We are of the universe – there is no inside, no outside. There is only intra-acting from within and as part of the world in its becoming.” A lovely example of this are red clover Trifolium pratense and a bacteria of the genus Rhizobium, a rhizobia that we researched for the work Symbiome – Economy of Symbiosis. Bacteria initially enter the plant as parasites, but the relationship is then turned into a symbiosis due to mutual benefits. The rhizobia is nested in the root system of the clover and develops nodules, while the clover provides them with favorable conditions for survival – with a home. If we would have to predict future evolution scenarios for rhizobia and red clover than one of the possible futures would include the merger of both biological organisms into one. Boundaries thus can be negotiated across species. Furthermore symbiotic relationship between the plant and bacteria allows their survival and consequently the development of larger and wider ecological connections.
Clover and rhizobia are also a part of the human’s symbiotic relationships in the process of food production. For example, agronomists value clover as a beneficial plant in crop rotation, which is able to enrich depleted soil with nitrogen. This process takes place with the help of symbiotic relationship with rhizobia. Through connection with human species clover and rhizobia entered our agriculture and their numbers grew considerably. We must be aware that there are a lot of ecological problems with plantations full of monocultures that we as a species are growing. However, changing boundaries are actually a great technology for making new symbiotic friends and keeping them, also because nutrients are not always in abundance and then the symbiotic negotiations start.
HB: Slime mould could very well be the perfect manifestation of a dynamic and borderless state. It is a shape-shifting amoeba, a multitude of cellular matter contained within a permeable cell membrane, distributing information and resources in an egalitarian fashion throughout its collective body. It is also nomadic, constantly on the move looking for new environments rich in resources, searching for the optimal conditions. Its adaptability and its high level of resilience make it difficult to kill. You can cut it, separate it, put it back together again, and it will survive, fuse, explore, go dormant... generally shift state to suit what’s needed in that place at that time. The boundaries between individual and collective identity are often blurred – it is multinucleate but unicellular – and it is difficult to know when to us ‘it’ or ‘they’ when describing its form.
In disciplinary terms, we are seeing boundaries called into question, there is a general recognition that complex 21st century problems require many heads to work in conjunction. I think polycephalism (many-headedness) will continue to increase in practice, and institutional will be forced to adapt their rigid delineated structures to keep up.
Climate change. Global diseases. Toxic waste. Is the Heidegger school of thought, that human privilege exists over nonhuman objects, essentially dead?
HB: We are the only organism that actively harms its own habitat. We see planetary resources as ours to possess and use up.
The idealist in me hopes that a more interconnected holistic understanding of resource utilisation and biodiversity is achievable, and that greater respect of nonhuman species will lead to greater environmental responsibility. A more nihilistic (or at least pessimistic) view thinks that we don’t deserve the richness of the planet and that, despite all the truly incredible contributions made throughout our history on this planet, by rights it should be returned to organisms that hold it in better regard and demonstrate far greater stewardship of it.
And if humans do proceed on a catastrophic scale, I suspect the slime moulds and mycelial cells will thrive long after we have left the building.
SS: As the Heidegger-influenced school of thought rejects human privilege over the existence of nonhuman objects and as I see it, it would be very wise if the whole human population would do the same. Out of the idea of any kind of human privilege violence emerges and we are witnessing disruptions in the earth’s systems on a planetary scale. The things humans consume do not rejuvenate or replenish through the metabolic processes of the Earth. Products are discarded as toxic waste and end up in the bodies of organic creatures, human not excluded, amassing in landfills, polluting the oceans.
During the research for the work Sonoseizmic Earth that we developed with Ida Hiršenfelder we realized that the metabolic rift may only be overcome in millions of years. The work tries to condense the effect of the fossil fuel industry into an experience of carbon war waged against all life forms on the planet. Such violence makes itself visible in an abrupt and unpredictable way. At the forefront of this war is the global distribution of water, which has been profoundly influenced by climate changes, global warming, and invasive and toxic fossil fuel extractions such as fracking. Equal disruption of water is further violated by privatisation of water resources and deprivation of a large number of living organisms from having access to their basic needs. One of the candidates for replenishment of the earth’s fossil fuel reserves is a living product, an industrial chicken. Due to mass production, it is predicted that the industrial chicken will be the model fossilised organism of the Anthropocene. Now go and eat that chicken and see if it still tastes the same.
Heather and Saša are on Twitter as @heatherabarnett and @sasaspacal respectively. Further information on the Nonhuman Agents conference and exhibition is available at the Art Laboratory Berlin website.