Emergent is a research creation project investigating ways in which we can better comprehend and eventually cope with new “categories of the living”- those newly emerging or newly created life forms that won’t fit or will exceed the categories defined by traditional taxonomies.
Emergent is possible thanks to a SSHRC Insight Development Grant awarded by the Federal Government of Canada
“The world always exceeds our conception of it (Shotwell, 2016)”. This sentence encapsulates the struggle of the sciences and the humanities to fully grasp, and sometimes even speak of, phenomena that have inevitably become too complex and diffuse to be simplified through a model or a formula, or to be seized and summarized by one discipline. With this consideration in mind, Emergent is a research creation project investigating ways in which we can better comprehend and eventually cope with new complex “categories of the living.” By “categories of the living” I mean those life forms – known as Eukaryotes, Bacteria and Achaea – fitting any traditional tree of life diagram. I call “new categories of the living” those newly emerging, or newly formulated life forms that won’t fit or will exceed the categories defined by this diagram.
I identify three Emergent life forms: First, those originating from increasingly ubiquitous information technologies. This is the case of avatars and other imaginary creatures existing in virtual environments and taking life-like form thanks to Augmented Reality (AR) technologies; second, life forms stemming from the recent ability of science to manipulate organic matter through scientific experimentation (e.g. through synthetic biology and CRISPR-cas9 processes), as it is the case of synthetic bacteria and phages (Pawluk et al., 2016), which can be used in medical and commercial applications, or Mosquitoes programmed to fight serious infectious diseases like Denge Fever (Specter, 2012). Third, they emerge as the result of mutations due to radical and often invisible transformations in the environment from endocrine disruptors and pesticides. Some types of mutant fish have proved to be surviving and even thriving in an otherwise hostile habitat (Murphy 2015; Tsing 2015).
Attempts to fit these life forms into pre-existing conceptual and material containers casts doubts on the ability of individual disciplines to seize their complex formations and their porous boundaries. Furthermore, their discovery has posed serious challenges to current traditional taxonomies and general understandings of nature and culture.
The “digital chimera”, the “genetically manipulated monsters”, and the “environmental mutants” described above constitute three thematic guidelines leading to a long term inquiry: How is the emergence of these life forms challenging traditional research methods and existing disciplinary containers? My plan is to approach this challenge multidisciplinary, through ad hoc collaborations between artists and scientists, leading to artistic creation in the form of multimedia and site-specific art installations. Public outreach through panel discussions, demonstrations and artist talks will be an important component of this project. In addition to transcending disciplinary boundaries and creating new alliances across different modes of knowledge, the main objective of this research is to think of new strategies to better capture and make sense of the complexities characterizing the emergent “categories of the living” identified above. This includes thinking of new research methods constructed through sustained interdisciplinary exchanges; and finding novel ways to transmit and communicate research outcomes to the public. The arts here are not mere tools at the service of science but act as catalysts, as enzymes: when incorporated into the methodological apparatus of research (and not just as decoration or aesthetic attraction) they become connectors between disciplines, and between the scientific community and the general public, bringing in a diverse range of perspectives. Conceptually speaking, they may be instrumental in conveying aspects escaping verbal and written communication: namely, they may help reveal the entanglement of natural, socio-cultural, and material factors characterizing these new life forms and how they become apparent in the world.
This project is not designed to propose a set of new categories, but to pose a series of open questions, highlighting the necessity to conduct collaborative research between artistic practices and scientific research. In the current scenario of perceived growing complexity and uncertainty that both scientists and the general public face today, producing more solutions or searching for solid outcomes to map and visualize with more accuracy this, or that phenomenon may not be the best direction to take. Emergent searches for new strategies and methods to facilitate, even if generally, the coming to terms with these reconfigurations of old-fashioned categories. This doesn’t mean to passively accept environmental changes, or taking swift technological transformations as a given. It means to find critical ways to cope with the disorientation caused by these transformations. In this specific case, learning how to address the entangled nature of the “new categories of the living” making their appearance in the world today has potential impacts for the scientific realm and for the general public, as the former discovers aspects that current scientific methods are not able/not willing to examine, and the latter learns to approach these transformations with an open mind and with reduced anxiety.