The Future of the Lab-2

2021.3.8

Horst Hörtner / Managing Director of the Ars Electronica Futurelab

Art is an open invitation (to curiosity)

An example is The Listener by Partricia Piccinini, which was part of an exhibition called Project Genesis curated by Ars Electronica in 2013.
The exhibition focused on the topic of synthetic biology, a very complex area, totally unfamiliar to many of us, and hard to generate awareness of. There were very few visitors to this exhibition who did not immediately react to The Listener—with attention to and curiosity about the entire topic being raised immediately.
The Listener is a work of art that can question us on a very intimate level. Its strength is not based on a purely provocative creature; its strength is its precise, well-thought-out layer of communication. Not only is it a mixture of several creatures in one, which has all the remarkable “schemes of childlike characteristics”, but it also is entitled The Listener. With that step, the artist created a story right away, and endowed this creature with a task and a “function.”

This implication of a “functional life form provokes not the lowest human reactions of like and dislike”; it immediately addresses this challenge of an artificial life form in terms of our ethical criteria: “should we—as a society—allow for such a future?” It takes the “like and dislike” from the initial emotional reaction to this level of that social challenge and its question of our society’s ethical criteria. And it does this with children, with retired people, with university staffers and members of the working class. It communicates on all levels of education and age.

Art is an open invitation (to experience)

Another example of this very specific “layer of communication” of art is another installation that Ars Electronica has exhibited: Bell, by Soichiro Mihara, at the exhibition Art&Science.
What is addressed here is the question of the need and ability of our society to adapt to an environment that is increasingly pervaded by technology. The work is based on the idea of integrating new environmental phenomena into the traditional concept of wind chimes.
When we hear and see a glass cylinder shaking and touching a glass sphere inside a glass casing, then this is not caused by the wind, but by radioactivity, which is read by the Geiger counter inside the casing. The beautiful appearance of the work, which lets us experience omnipresent radioactivity in our environment, and the fact that the Fukushima disaster focused global attention on the future of nuclear power, raise questions about our societies’ adaptability to the increasing technologization of our planet’s natural world. By watching and listening to this work, all the above becomes an experience, and one that is not limited to Asian culture or society. Art’s layer of communication works cross-culturally. Art does not explain things or concepts, but it can make them accessible to many.
The integration of such sophisticated “communication layers” into projects at labs generates an essential benefit for the project’s outcome, and this benefit is accessibility. Art thinking might become a very important aspect for the future of labs, which will have to extend their role as providers of accessibility to their own work and project outcomes.
This is very speculative to be sure, but how are we to write about the future without speculation? There is another aspect that might strengthen the argument for a lab that provides accessibility to its projects’ outcome:

What many of our future challenges (global warming, global migration flows, financial crises and other sources of uncertainty) have in common is the fact that these phenomena are really hard to understand and hard to break down; they are extremely inaccessible. For individuals, these phenomena are impossible to understand, and it is difficult for them to maintain—or even obtain—an overview of the particular challenge and its consequences. These problems do not even impact on a single person hard enough for that person to be able to make a connection between the impact and the source—especially since these are interconnected sources and not a single one, and the chain of causality is way too complex to be tracked.
It is therefore not to be expected that we will find one single solution that resolves the challenge for us. It is more likely that our global community will fail or succeed in the attempt to cope with it. Answers need to come from every discipline and branch, and it is a huge set of answers that needs to be found.

Hyperobjects

The consequences of these phenomena are beyond our human ability to experience. For example, it is no longer possible for one person to experience what it means for 25 million refugees to be on the move worldwide. Even if a single person visits all the refugee camps, the tragedy of one person at sea on the Mediterranean cannot be understood. We can only experience single events such as a boat that has sunk. That has nothing to do with an overview of global migration flows and their consequences, which our society is focusing on in the future.
These challenges, which grow beyond our horizon of perception, have been framed by Timothy Morton in his book Hyperobjects, and we are constantly surrounded by their consequences without even understanding that we are.
It is a challenge to cope with hyperobjects, since even getting an overview of the challenge as a whole requires a transdisciplinary approach. And this is still far removed from solving something; it is just about getting a grasp of what sort of challenge we are really dealing with.
Hyperobjects are challenges that elude our perception—which doubtlessly does not cause hyperobjects to disappear.
Labs are sites of transdisciplinary collaboration, and therefore could potentially be used as a role model to start work on hyperobjects.
If this work is understood as a process that involves large segments of our global society, education of our societies will play a key role in the future. Explanation may fail due to the nature of the challenge, but experiencing it might work—which again makes mastering the layers of communication a form of expertise with great future value.
The uncertainty and instability that also increasingly characterizes our generation’s future will be both a threat and a chance for these labs. Including our societies as our “clients”—as proposed by several science and technology studies over the past decade—and adding persons “affected by the research field” to the research team seem to be promising future prospects for science and research in general.
But what will become increasingly important in the future of the lab is the need to involve a broad audience with its outcomes. More opportunities to communicate with the general public need to be found and new opportunities need to be offered. Labs will need to develop an “art of dialog” with public audiences in order to maintain their relevance as forerunners and pioneers.

*Image Source : Ars Electronica Futurelab (https://ars.electronica.art/futurelab/de/)

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