Speculative Life members Orit Halpern, Chris Salter, WhiteFeather Hunter, Ida Toft, Garrett Lockhart, and Thierry Bardini will be running workshops and creating an exhibit on “Elusive Life” at the Natural History Museum and HKW in Berlin this February, in the context of Transmediale 2017.

Loss, extinction, disaster, catastrophe—these terms presently define our relationship with environments, other species, and with each other. This workshop used the space of the Natural History Museum in Berlin to begin asking how we might imagine and design relations to a future earth that neither escape nor deny the ruins of the one we inhabit. How shall we design and encounter the ineffable without denying history or normalizing violence?  What forms of knowledge and experiment might produce non-normative ecologies of care between life forms? How shall we inhabit catastrophe?

These are particularly topical questions given that natural history museums worldwide are stepping up their efforts to digitize collections and build global data infrastructures for biodiversity discovery, analyses and preservation. Some commentators even speak of a “new enlightenment” in relation to digital natural history. Such hubristic diction compels us to take a moment and scrutinise the passage from physical specimen to datafied life, not just with a view to what gets lost in translation but also to what endures of the destructiveness that has given us the physical specimen in the first place. As an imperial institution the natural history museum is built on the spoils of colonial extractions while its promotion of specific ways of knowing continues to quell other knowledges. How, we want to ask, can we figure (re-figure?) the museum and the notion of “biodiversity loss” so that they encompass the “[d]ebt to those who are already dead and those not yet born [as these] cannot be disentangled from who we are.” (Karen Barad, 2010)

The research-studio was a site-based study of both the “public” part of the museum, which has recently been redesigned, and the “non-public” collections which hold most of the museum’s 30 million objects. The collections, divided according to taxonomic phyla, comprise of a rampant mass of bodies, body parts and other objects, stuffed into cabinets and drawers, biding their time in various stages of decay. Their mass digitization is thus seen as a form of resurrection that can breathe life into this “breathless zoo” (Rachel Poliquin). The workshop engaged with both the physical specimens and processes of datafying and digitizing life. We also examined technologies of mass digitization, next-generation biodiversity discovery and remote-sensing (like satellite imaging) that are used to gather and predict biodiversity loss. We thus engaged the alienness of other forms of life, ecology, and the earth, as well as produce new imaginaries, interventions and understandings of “elusive life” as subjected to these forms of technological transformation.

The participants engaged with the recent redesign of the museum, data visualizations of biodiversity change, and use these archives and their imaginations to build speculative designs, prototypes for artistic creations, and writings that engage with and re-envision how we might experience and encounter  loss, extinction,and diversity in order to imagine into being other worlds and ecologies of life.

The project culminated with an exhibition of prototypes and designs to be shown on the following Sunday, February 4th at the Transmediale conference.

.gif animations by WhiteFeather Hunter.