The alchemy of biofiction
Artist Anicka Yi takes us through her exploration—a realm with olfaction, microbial and artificial intelligence as its primary ingredients.
a conversation with Anicka Yi
With no formal training, Anicka Yi started making art in her 30s. She addresses her approach to human beings as well as the dichotomy of ‘living’ and ‘non-living,’ by introducing concepts like hybridized speciation, machine ecosystems, and ‘biologizing machines.’ Above all, she questions both the philosophical and social implications (and biases) of society.
Cross-disciplinarity, art, and science: Is there a duality at play, in your creative process?
I wouldn’t necessarily restrict this to a ‘duality,’ I would rather call it ‘multiplicity.’ Creative people have a very omnidirectional curiosity, which isn’t limited to any specific discipline since the entire universe is up for detection, pondering, and philosophizing. In this contemporary climate, cross-disciplinarity is even more of an urgency, and I do feel the intellectual responsibility to address the most important questions of our time. Not just for me, as an artist, but for me, as a person. It is impossible to separate my concerns as a human being from my own practice, which I see as completely fluid.
Lifestyle Wars—a mesmerizing combination of the dynamics and tunnels of an ant colony with those of a computer server structure—is an example of how complex and stratified your practice is: What’s the genesis of your work?
Everything begins with inspiration, research, fragments, and traces that catch my attention to the point that they get truly metabolized inside of me and I don’t want to let go. The process is multilayered, as I eventually need to convert it into some kind of energy, or matter. I consider myself an artist in the world, not outside of it. I’m very much embedded in the real world, thinking about real problems and world global issues. Then, there’s a sort of alchemy that happens when I create an artwork that could really straddle reality, spurring a kind of fiction that I call a ‘biofiction.’
We are in the middle of a pandemic. Society as we intended it is jeopardized from an invisible-yet-powerful microorganism: in this surreal scenario, to what extent is the traditional role of the ‘social precursor’ of the artist evolving—or where is it going?
I think that artists need to become first responders in this intellectual crisis, and also start educating themselves, just like I have done in the last weeks, learning about the virus and its deep impact on ecosystems. My studio and I have dedicated a lot of time and effort researching at a molecular level, and we don’t feel this pandemic should come as a surprise. I feel responsible to pursue intellectual labor, exploring it. On a global scale, people are afraid of the virus because it is invisible, and we are all trying to focus much of our effort on labor, like working in health care, or helping to raise money for artist pension relief funds, humanitarian aid, or being an emotional support for friends and family. However, my training in biology mitigates the fear of the virus, even if it cannot be seen, detected, or isolated. Viruses are not technically living entities and yet they’re part of an entire engine of the living system: Covid-19, as well as microbiome research and synthetic biology, is destabilizing our binary approach to living and non-living and is teaching us globally that we cannot have rigid categories of natural versus artificial living, non-living versus organic. These boundaries are an illusion, and will be dissolved, eventually. I find this an incredibly liberating perspective, one that calls for a need to consider new ways of thinking—we are at the intersection of a huge, massive shift in our position about what is life and what is non-life.
Speaking of which, you use biotechnology as a hybridizing tool to reflect on potential connections between organic and non-organic, as well as to re-think both the present and the future of our species. What do you mean by the term ‘hybridized speciation’?
In a way, viruses are a philosophical opportunity. Again, this is not just a ‘biological’ moment, but a truly philosophical one that’s going to mark a very important step in our evolution as human beings. When I talk about hybridized speciation, I refer to the fact that the human being is—literally—the definition of a hybridized species, composed of trillions of microorganisms from microbes to fungi, and beyond. We are less human than we are microbes, and to consider ourselves as the sovereign individual of the self is just flat out wrong, precisely because there are so many other species inside of our bodies. We are a catalyst and conduit for this kind of multi-species entanglement, and we demonstrate it every day with our breathing, decomposing and dying.
And somehow, it is precisely this interconnectedness of all things that shows us the flaws of our anthropocentric approach. In Life is Cheap (Guggenheim NYC, 2017), for example, you ask visitors to have all of their senses—not just vision—activated to experience the show. Do you think our senses are a way to come back to our animality?
I believe we just had it wrong when we started to think of humans as separate from nature. This assumption has plants, microbes, and animals on one side, and humans on the other—with AI somewhere else in the equation. There really are no such categories, and it’s a disservice to our species to think we aren’t animals: What’s happening right now teaches us that we are not, more than nature, that there is no human exceptionalism that allows us to transcend biology. In truth, we are biological entities, we cannot control a virus like this and we cannot escape our reality by creating a new technology. We should embrace this idea, it is something that I find incredibly exciting. It’s both a cosmic and biological reminder: A starting point, for we need new definitions, a new vocabulary to talk about what the human is and what is its relationship to all other entities, living, and nonliving. This is an opportunity to start from a very honest and realistic place, leaving behind a misinformed definition that we’ve been embracing since the eighteenth century. This is a new time and every generation has to define it for itself.
So where exactly do we position artificial intelligence in all of this? For instance, your project for the 2019 Venice Biennale, Biologizing the Machine, establishes a strict dialogue between the organic cultures of the Winogradsky column, and AI, using smell as common language.
AI is everywhere, and not on some kind of fantasy horizon. AI is so banal in everything we do: It’s at our bank, at our coffee shop, at the bathroom, it has invaded quotidian life as we know it—so much so that we are already embedded in it, we have merged and hybridized with it. This is what Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” is saying, that we’re all a bit cyborg-like and we are going to be increasingly more so. We do not only make machines that are more similar to us, it’s rather the opposite: We’ve become more machine-like as human beings. I believe there is a kind of exchange and hybridization here. Going back to the dichotomy of ‘organic’ and ‘synthetic,’ machines complicate the questions even more: Are they alive? Do they have consciousness? As, it turns out, these questions don’t matter: They’re the wrong ones to be asking. I believe consciousness cannot be the way to define what is life and what is non-life. Take Covid-19 for example: it is technically not alive and has no consciousness, yet it has been able to have us all locked down. Would you still prioritize consciousness after this pandemic?
What do you mean by ‘transnatural,’ then? What is natural and what is technological?
A really good example to define transnatural is looking at CRISPR, a gene-editing tool. It didn’t originate from an algorithm or a computer, it came from microbes, making it a microbial organic biological tool that can be used to artificially edit other genes. To me, this is the perfect encapsulation of transnatural: taking something as ancient as bacteria, and using it as a gene-editing tool to make modifications. It speaks about the ability to build an organic element to create synthetic means: although the process itself is somewhat synthetic, it is difficult to say what the final outcome actually is—it blurs the boundaries. It is hard to precisely define natural and authentic after something like CRISPR, and it certainly isn’t helping us in defining technology and nature. After all, nature is the original computer, the original algorithm: It is technology.
In your work–like Force Majeure or your latest line of perfumes, Biography, three fragrances created with French designer perfumer, Barnabé Fillion, and inspired by powerful women of the past—you emphasize once again the key role of olfactory sense, odors, and scents in your practice. How does it change the visitors’ experience of art?
I’m looking for new ways of entering the experience of art. Art has been a largely disembodied experience (the don’t look – don’t touch policy) for a very long time. I want to activate other senses and really bring the body in, almost like a collaborator for the art in this truly corporeal exchange. So, for instance, my olfaction-based works require a body to take the smell in through scent receptors, from the nose to the pores. It’s an exchange that becomes activated through the air and the atmosphere of the space where you are experiencing the work. This is a huge shift in how we experience art compared to, say, what we have traditionally done for modernist painting. It’s as if we are truly putting ourselves in our own bodies, biologically, not in a separate experience, but in a totalizing experience where we receive the work and exchange something with it. The whole experience seems really powerful for me, and a very hopeful direction for art: One that activates all of the senses instead of privileging one and ignoring the others. Art has been kind of stuck in a very modernist loop where senses are isolated, with vision especially segregated from all the other senses. But we need to update the menu options and explore these corporeal sensorial experiences, because we, as humans, perceive reality through our whole body.
The re-appropriation of our whole perceptive body seems also a very political statement. In the 2019 Venice Biennale website you were defined as a ‘biopolitical artist.’ Do you agree with such a definition?
Yes, I think it’s appropriate. Biopolitical refers to the political dimension of biology, and my work tackles the way we humans tend to assign different values to different senses. For example, vision is often linked to the masculine energy related to knowledge, discovery, and seeking, whereas our sense of smell has traditionally been associated with a more feminine energy for its invisible, mysterious, and hard-to-grasp nature. I disagree with all of these attributions. We are talking about politics because the senses have actually become sites for designation, and thus for political views and social discourse often based on biological conditions. For example, from a human genome point of view, race doesn’t exist. Our genomes are too similar to the point that you cannot say that a race is distinctly different from another: In fact, similarities far outweigh the differences. Thinking of somebody as a different race is a political and social construct. This is the power of biopolitics to me. The time we are living in is an opportunity to envision politics through a different lens, embracing nature and thinking through nature instead of trying to forcefully separate it from politics. I find it symptomatic how humans don’t seem to embrace this yet; the language in the media coverage and the conversations around the pandemic are still wrapped around this human-centric attachment.
You have been appointed for the next Tate Turbine Hall Commission in September 2020. Could you give us any insights about this project?
I have fully realized the project already, as I have been working on it since April 2019. I can’t talk about the specific details, but we can talk about some of the concepts for it. I’m exploring AI and I am interested in creating a sort of ‘aquarium,’ a natural history of machines in the Turbine Hall, which becomes a ‘site’ to think about the philosophical potential of these machines. I want to foreground the concept of Artificial Physical Intelligence, which is in stark contrast to what we only know about AI in the form of Artificial General Intelligence or AGI. AGI is essentially a disembodied intelligence, a kind of brain in a vacuum, an omniscient software. I am challenging that notion by saying that since biological entities perceive reality through the body, why do we make machines differently? Why don’t we foreground this Artificial Physical Intelligence? I tried to encapsulate this concept in a term that I call ‘biologizing machines’ that indicates the necessity to make machines, and the industry, more biological.