un/imagining “us” or the stories we live by
ESSAY BY GREG NIJS
Upon acquainting with a slice of the entities populating Aniara Omann’s Equanipolis, you may find yourself telling stories. Stories of origins, evolutions, transmutations, stories of alternative futures and otherwise possible presents, stories of interdependencies, entanglements, intimacies, and the differences within. Stories imagined, skilfully crafted, enacted convincingly, elegantly worn.
Amidst the current period dubbed the Anthropocene, marked by the rapid decline of biodiversity and changing climatic conditions due to human activity, making and relaying stories has considerable importance. For stories are big. They’re bigger than science, society, economics, politics, and all the stuff that makes up our contemporary human lives. This is because stories have capabilities, which are world-making, empathy-shaping, complexity-fostering. Stories affect, guide and enable us, not just as individuals, but as communities, societies and cultures.
Let us loop this huge potential back through Aniara Omann’s Equanipolis. Exploring Omann’s current work cannot be done without bringing up science fiction. Sci-Fi is usually understood as a literary or film genre and is mostly seen as an attempt to imagine the future of our social system. However, both Sci-Fi writers and cultural critics alike concurrently frame Sci-Fi as a method, more precisely “a structurally unique “method”, for apprehending the present as history”i. Sci-Fi can also be understood as a way of reading the present through the lens of an imagined future.
Omann’s approach hovers between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Sci-Fi. That is to say, she brings together bio and techno-oriented imaginaries, thereby navigating the intersection of “art in the biological, ecological, and cyborg modes”ii. Furthermore, the tropes of Sci-Fi movie blockbusters are sidestepped; the typical tales of human triumph or unambiguous dystopia, of quickly unfolding cataclysm or simplistic techno-heroism. Instead, Omann’s focus stands ‘besides’iii what is usually highlighted; epochal fashion garments, algae, the dreamlike state of a cyborg.
OF CYBORGS AND SEAWEED
The cyborg that Omann has created for Equanipolis presents an anthropo-zoo-technological knot – tackling questions of post/humanity, deep time and nonhuman justice-to-comeiv. As in a backward and forward-looking archaeology, this cyborg contracts origins, evolutions and transmutations in one figure, spanning from our deep past to a deep future. We are thereby reminded of the importance that origin stories have for understanding “us” as a species and their role in determining the fault line of subjectivity v.
It may be suggested that Omann relays the cyborg environmentalist posture advanced by literary and cultural scholar Ursula K. Heise – whereby bio- and technologically generated life-forms are not put into opposition, but they are rather seen as allies in repairing the fallacy of human exceptionalism. Heise proposes that “the animal cyborg can take us, through the discovery of otherness in our own technological creations, to the recognition of and respect for the nonhuman others we did not make”vi. Thus, re-reading the animal cyborg, not as a replacement for bio-species but as a co-shaping agent that queries our current take on more than human ethics.
All the while, like a hauntological thread looping back through a deep future, wonder glimmers underneath about the existential status of “us” as a cyborg-splice “of imploded (not hybridized) human beings-information machines-multispecies organisms”vii. The entity’s dreamlike state solicits questions about the extent to which human selves will dissolve. Would such bio-technological cross-platform architectures “burst forth a wholly different subjectivity, or none at all”?viii Will a constant state of pure experience be the rule rather than the exception? Pulsing a pure in which self, other and world are undifferentiated. Like a mosaic without seams. Whatever the case, it will entail considerable boundary work between “us”, “it” and “them”. For now, suffice it to say that we are all always already prosthetic. Most of it depends on just how – or how just – we name and qualify our entanglements.
The abundant presence of seaweed in Equanipolis signals another current world-making dilemma. By way of ‘thinking-with’ix – that is by describing and connecting situated stories to foster their ‘contagious potential’ – we can thicken the plot. To that end I want to relate Omann’s seaweed to science historian Leah Aronowsky’s ‘real’ astronaut-algae-spacecraft storyx. Although we associate spaceflight with human’s ultimate break from nature, with the space cabin as proof of human technological mastery over their environment (without the help of their earthly fellows), “the story “could have been otherwise””xi.
In the 1960’s NASA considered and earnestly researched the possibilities of a bioregenerative life-support system based on algae. Algae would “inhabit the spacecraft and, through a series of interspecies symbiosis, maintain cabin conditions and sustain astronaut life”xii. Aquatic systems with bacteria-algae compositions would digest human waste, dispense drinkable water and produce oxygen to keep the astronauts alive in space. The test results proved very promising, but the systems were prone to instability. The algae thrived so well that they needed to be culled by the astronauts to keep them at the optimal bloom state. More generally, the daily human maintenance was extensive. The demands of interspecies reciprocal care were deemed too high. It was not worth the risk. In the years that followed, NASA’s interest and funding for algae research faded. Were it not for the care bias, the story could have continued otherwise. As Aranowsky notes: “the history of American spaceflight as we know it today was not at all inevitable, and in fact it could well have been a thoroughly multispecies affair”xiii.
Let’s make a speculative wager here and take Omann’s Equanipolis’ seaweed as a material metaphor. The sheer abundance hints at a reversal of the “backgrounding of herbality”xiv, by literally spreading it around the entire exhibition. In enveloping everything, not only are we drawn into an encounter – drawn into granting due attention – but we are also confronted with an oblique reminder: that we’re all astronauts and Earth is a space cabin running on a bioregenerative life-support system.
... AND FASHION GARMENTS
Since its conception from early capitalist modernity, fashion has been an agent of change. As a nexus of creative imagination and social self-differentiation it has afforded humanist emancipation across race, class and gender. In its late postmodern phase, unfettered imagination cut loose representation from substrate. This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. Im/material resources and labours became more and more invisible and thus were unaccounted for. Anything goes and all is possible, production nor matter holding the flux back. Or so it seemed.
What if we were to take the best of both worlds, yet with a twist? As in Omann’s vestimentary applied speculative fabulation. To unleash an unbridled imaginary for emancipation once over – actually attempting to do it, not just referencingxv. Yet this time affording more than human emancipation. We’d arrive at something compostmodern going composthuman, in which “us” is not “us” is “us” again.
Upon acquainting with a slice of the entities populating Aniara Omann’s Equanipolis, you may find yourself telling stories, telling stories after stories told. In the process, you may be touched, thereby potentially transforming yourself, and touching, thereby potentially transforming the world. Subsequently you may solicit others around you to be and do equally so. And this, my dear fellow human, may turn out to be crucial, in some future past. Seriously. It’s the stories we live by that can invigorate us towards another here and now.
Aronowsky, L.V. (2017). Of Astronauts and Algae. NASA and the Dream of Multispecies Flight. Environmental Humanities, 9:2 (November 2017).
Barad, K. (2015). On Touching – The Inhuman That Therefore I am. In Kirsten Stakemeier and Suzanne Witzgall (eds.) Power of Material/Politics of Materiality, Zürich: Diaphanes.
Gruber, D. (2011). Bodies Without Skin. Feeling out of a Ubiquitous Future. ctheory.net, Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc025.
Hache, E. (2015). The Futures Men Don’t See. In Didier Debaise and Isabelle Stengers (eds.) Gestes Speculatifs, Dijon: Les presses du réel.
Haraway, D. (2011). SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far, Pilgrim Award Acceptance Comments, July 7, 2011.
Heise, U.K. (2003). From Extinction to Electronics: Dead Frogs, Live Dinosaurs and Electric Sheep, in Cary Wolfe (ed.) zoontologies. The question of the animal, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
Houle, K. (2011) Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics as Extension or Becoming? The case of Becoming-Plant, Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Vol. X, Issue 1/2.
Jameson, F. (2005). Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso.
Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017) Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Yusoff, K. (2018). A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
i. Jameson, 2005: 288, ii. Haraway, 2011: 2, iii. see Hache, 2015, iv. see Barad, 2015, v. see Yusoff, 2018, vi. Heise, 2003: 78, vii. Haraway, 2011: 6, viii. Gruber, 2011, ix. see Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017, x. Aronowsky, 2017, xi. Ibid.: 361, xii. Ibid.: 361, xiii. Ibid.: 361, xiv. Houle, 2011, xv. Aniara Omann, pers. comm