BERLIN — After a century or two of separation, we’re finally beginning to see art encouraged to take its place alongside science as a legitimate means of knowledge production. As always, there are some who are just attempting to ride the wave of the arts-tech hype, but then there are those quiet achievers, like Art Laboratory Berlin (ALB) and its co-directors Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz, who have been honing their expertise since long before interdisciplinary practice became trendy. ALB is not your standard white cube gallery. In fact, it’s not your standard anything. A heady mix of think tank, science lab, art gallery, and ideas hub, the institution has been carving out a niche for itself since 2006 through a series of stringently curated exhibitions and symposia.
The current exhibition, PROSTHESES. Transhuman Life Forms, is true to form. Susanna Hertrich is as much a designer and researcher as she is an artist; her show at ALB constructs a narrative in which human senses, instincts, and emotions are prosthetically enhanced to better suit the specific challenges of the 21st century. “Jacobson’s Fabulous Olfactometer (JFO)” (2014), for example, is a device worn on the head and face that incorporates air pollution sensors and will mechanically elicit a flehmen response (a behavior that many mammals exhibit whereby the upper lip is curled back to expose the front teeth) when levels become too high. A slide in the accompanying video explains that “the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ allows animals to ‘smell’ chemicals, thus providing them with a secondary olfactory sense.” The video covers the problem of extreme air pollution in cities like Beijing and leaves the viewer wondering how humans managed to miss out on this common mammalian response — and even whether we’d interact with our environment differently if we hadn’t.
The “Alertness Enhancing Device” (2008) cleverly and succinctly juxtaposes the increased psychological pressure of the contemporary world — perceived threat of terrorist attacks fuelled by media ballyhoo, for instance — with the customarily downplayed and ignored real hazards of climate change and environmental pollution. In Hertrich’s work, text plays a critical role in communicating the complex philosophical and conceptual background of each prosthesis, and the “Alertness Enhancing Device” is shown in the manner of a history museum display, with neatly printed graphic visualisations of the relative risks of phenomena like terrorist attacks, plane crashes, car accidents, or cancer. Instructions explain that the device is to be worn while watching or reading the daily news and that it will administer mild electric shocks to stimulate goosebumps and raised hairs — bodily reactions similar to those caused by natural instincts. Thus, like Pavlov’s dogs with bells, the wearer is trained to be more physiologically alert in the face of real danger.
The show speaks clearly to Hertrich’s comprehensive research and expertise, presenting each piece alongside information about the scientific research that underpins it. Many of the devices evolved out of collaborations with international scholars and universities, blurring the boundaries between artistic investigation and technological experimentation, factual data and fictional solutions. Yet the exhibition retains a strong sense of aesthetic considerations. Several of the works feel curiously retro, with brown leather and chrome fixtures; this is a welcome change from the glut of obtrusively “futuristic”-looking works often associated with transhumanism.
The “Synthetic Empathy” (2008–10) device also seems to counteract the typical higher-better-faster-stronger ethos in transhumanist discourse (i.e. how individuals can be optimized, become superior), instead focusing on how we could be better for and to each other, better neighbors and global citizens. The work, which bears the poignant tagline “artificial commiseration in times of supersaturated sadness,” draws on psychological research indicating that one’s bodily state — like facial expression or posture — may influence one’s emotional state. “Synthetic Empathy” proposes to work against “a general numbing in the face of global misery” by creating bodily sensations — a back responding to a blast of freezing air, constricting of the chest — that are associated with emotional distress, thereby enabling wearers to experience a remote disaster as a personal one.
PROSTHESES. Transhuman Life Forms is a densely compact exhibition that spans sculpture, speculative design, video, photographs, and drawing — although sadly visitors are not able to try on the devices themselves. It catalyzes a fascinating chain of thought in which we ask ourselves not only how our physiological responses fall short in adapting to the contemporary environment, but also how we as a species are failing ourselves — through lack of empathy, susceptibility to socially destructive threat hypes, and a paradoxical poisoning of the natural resources we need to survive. In this way, Hertrich seems less interested in proposing fixes to human bodies or needs, with the purpose of making us even more dominant and powerful, and more in ameliorating pervasive social and environmental ills by tracing them back to our own failings.
Hertrich’s show could be seen as a stepping stone to ALB’s program in 2016–17, Nonhuman Subjectivities, presenting the work of artist-researchers, scientists, and humanities scholars in a series of exhibitions, events, and symposia that will critique anthropocentric approaches and explore new modes of thinking about objecthood and subjectivity. For those interested in art that genuinely seeks to expand our understanding of the world beyond ourselves, and that works in tandem with science to expand and produce knowledge, there’s much to look forward to from this Berlin-based powerhouse.
Susanna Hertrich’s PROSTHESES. Transhuman Life Forms continues at Art Laboratory Berlin (Prinzenallee 34, 13359 Berlin) through November 29.