Interviews

A Museum for Our Postnatural Age

Image of the Center for PostNatural History, courtesy the center.
Image of the Center for PostNatural History (image courtesy the Center for PostNatural History)

The Center for PostNatural History’s mission is to collect, document, and study living organisms that have been intentionally altered by people. Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and founded by artist and Carnegie Mellon professor, Richard Pell, the Center is the result of years of research and an art project slowly transforming into a tiny and unique museum.

As world leaders meet to discuss the fate of the planet and climate change, we should take stock of our role on Earth. On a macro-level the science is clear; humans are having substantial and negative impacts on this planet. The effects are growing more fierce annually while we do little to slow the causes. 

What’s unclear is the role humans should have on this planet. When we ask ourselves this, the divide between “us” and “nature” quickly begins to blur. We are inexorably part of this planet. There is no pristine “wilderness” or “nature” to return to that doesn’t involve us. This reveals what few natural history museums ever discuss — that we, too, are nature.

I wrote about the Anthropocene’s new stone, a fusion of plastic and natural materials, and how it is a clear geological marker of humans leeching into the very rocks of this planet. The Center for PostNatural History complicates this further by studying, in Pell’s words, “things like laboratory organisms, house pets, farm animals,” and “every vegetable you’ve ever eaten” that have been forever altered by human desire. Whether through science, taste selection, or careful breeding, PostNatural destroys a myth of humans existing outside of nature. I spoke with Pell over email to learn more about the Center’s inception and mission.

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0003Richard Pell & Lauren AllenHeather Mull
Richard Pell and Lauren Allen (image courtesy Heather Mull)

Ben Valentine: What personally drew you to create the Center for PostNatural History?

Richard Pell: A decade before I started the Center for PostNatural History, I co-founded an art and engineering group called the Institute for Applied Autonomy. We built robots that write graffiti, maps that help you avoid surveillance cameras, and a tool called TXTmob that some other people later developed into Twitter. The idea was to invert the relationship between technology and authority. This is what I was doing when I went to my tenth high school reunion in 2004. There, I ran into the one other guy who was a bit of a computer hacker back in the day. I hadn’t seen him since high school, so I started telling him about the Robotic GraffitiWriter we’d invented, hoping he’d think that was cool. He nodded sympathetically and said, “That’s cool, Rich. I make robots too, actually, but mine are living bacteria and I program them using DNA.” He is now the director of a very significant synthetic biology research center. This opened up a rabbit hole for me that I’ve yet to emerge from.

I had not had a science class since high school and I did not know even the basics of molecular biology, but I became somewhat obsessively interested in this field of synthetic biology in particular. I needed to learn as much as I possibly could about how engineers were applying the way they think about technology to living organisms. I started carrying around biology text books everywhere I went. I remember being on a topless beach in Bulgaria, nose-deep in my copy of Molecular Biology Made Simple And Fun. I attended academic conferences in the field and got involved with a team at the University of Michigan that was preparing to compete in the early days of iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition.

That same year my friend and mentor, Steven Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble, was raided by the FBI under the mistaken suspicion of being a bio-terrorist. Steve had written books and performed artworks involving biology and the politics of biotechnology for a number of years. He had a small, very simple, biology lab in his home. The FBI pursued a case against him for four years before a federal judge threw it out. This case was the subject of the film Strange Culture. It was a sobering wake-up call that there was an emerging anxiety about biology that wasn’t necessarily grounded in rationality. When I asked Steve for advice since I was, at the time, assembling a lab of my own, he said, “Be as public as possible.” 

The political and ethical issues involved in engineering life seemed to me to be much more nuanced and complicated than they were in other realms. The more I learned, the more it complicated my thinking. It wasn’t obvious on the surface which uses were “good” or “bad.” In my attempt to reconcile these ideas. I tried to visit a place that was dedicated to these issues. I found that none existed. Natural History Museums avoid even domesticated organisms as being too boring or too far removed from nature. Zoos are similarly focused on a somewhat nostalgic view of nature that exists outside culture. Once it became clear that this was a pervasive blind spot and had been so ever since we started separating the concepts of nature and culture, I started collecting specimens with the idea that I would eventually open a museum. It took a while to whittle down the definition, but a deceptively simple category emerged: The changes made by people to living organisms that are both intentional and hereditary. So, that includes everything from the domestication of dogs and the dawn of agriculture all the way through to genetic engineering and synthetic biology. It’s the changes we make to the tree of life that are on purpose. I called it PostNatural History since Natural History Museums had already identified their own end point by choosing to stop paying attention to newly created organisms.

BV: Does nature exist as something outside of culture and society? Did it ever during the span of human life?

RP: Nature as a concept, like every other concept, is a human invention. The scope of what is meant by “nature” is constantly being renegotiated. I had discussions with the director of a very large museum of natural history who was frustrated by the concept of the postnatural because he felt that “everything is nature.” And he’s absolutely right. As members of the grand tree of life, everything human beings do is as much a part of nature as any other species. However, in practice, museums offer a very specific narrative concerning nature. Certain organisms are featured, nearly anywhere you go in the world, and others are systematically excluded.

Museums of natural history typically end with the domestication of plants and animals. They will sometimes have an exhibit that acknowledges this transition, but their collections are not seriously trying to document this realm. They essentially ignore any living thing that was raised in captivity. The entire collection of the Smithsonian has a single genetically modified specimen in it. So there is a definition of “nature” in theory, and a different one in practice, at least as far as museums are concerned. And this is really where the meaning of postnatural history, as we use it, comes from. It’s not about an end of “nature,” but rather what happens after “natural history.”

Genetically modified mouse embryo that developed no ribs, image courtesy Heather Mull.
Genetically modified mouse embryo that developed no ribs (image courtesy Heather Mull)

BV: I recently finished reading The Capitalism in the Web of Life by Jason W. Moore, where he deconstructs capitalism’s use of the nature vs. society dichotomy. Moore proposes instead that society is one (albeit strong) actor of many in the entire ecosystem of our planet Earth. Our understanding of “nature” is a political and historical one, often at the behest of those in power. What actors are pushing us towards genetically altered life? 

RP: It is important to remember that there is also a political interest in saying that “nature has never existed.” It’s an idea you increasingly hear from the political left and right, but to serve different purposes. On the left, it is used as a way of looking forward, with a strong emphasis on coexistence and sustainability. It is a turn away from the nostalgic era of environmentalism. However, a similar sounding idea is used on the right to justify limitless industrialization. So you have to pay attention to whom you are speaking to when making large overarching claims about nebulous concepts.

It is within this often murky context that the mission of the Center for PostNatural History had its genesis. It became clear to me that while the intensity of the political rhetoric surrounding biotechnology was increasing, there was very little in the way of firsthand experience that was available to the public. Utopian and dystopian narratives were, and still are, flourishing without any check against reality. I started to imagine what a space would look like that could occupy this blind spot. The place would need to serve as an archive of simply what is already happening. Not a speculative vision of what might come. It would need to avoid using any of the language or narratives that were already commonly in play. In other words, it should avoid words that emerge from academia or industry, or activism for that matter. In a context where the only discussion points are the ones designed to divide or consolidate people, the radical proposition becomes one that eschews flag-waving in favor of unguided discourse and personal discovery. It is rare that people are given the opportunity to arrive a conclusion on their own that wasn’t already articulated as a “talking point” or a “learning outcome.”

One often overlooked factor in evolutionary and postnatural history is chance. Most of the time, the changes that humans harness were not necessarily the changes that we intended or planned for in the beginning. They are random mutations that humans notice and then reinforce through reproductive control. This is perhaps the most basic level that brings the postnatural into being. It happens every time anyone plants a seed from the best crops of the previous season.

Any human effort could have consequences for postnatural history. Once you start looking at the world through a postnatural lens, you see it everywhere. Every time you read in the news about a new advance in cancer research, look for the animal. A mouse? Rat? Tissue culture? In every biological laboratory are actual living organisms that only exist in laboratories. Nearly all little black mice that are used in laboratories all over the world today, are descended from a single black mouse, No. 57, purchased from Ms. Abbie Lathrop’s pet shop by Dr. C. C. Little in 1922. The point is, these organisms have histories. They are not abstractions.

Hairless mouse close up, image courtesy Heather Mull.
Hairless mouse, close-up (image courtesy Heather Mull)

BV: Is postnatural the term you would describe to the current epoch?

RP: We don’t present the postnatural as anything so serious as a new epoch. We use it to loosely describe the influence of human intention over evolution during the last 10 to 15,000 years. We find that the kind of arguments surrounding the various post-Holocene monikers don’t help people to understand what we are describing. We chose the terms because they’re simple enough to get the conversation started. It’s easy to get a vague sense of what’s going on. It is also a bit paradoxical. “Aren’t humans a part of nature?” Of course! It’s a term that is intended to have cultural meaning, not scientific. The postnatural is to biology as architecture is to geology. There’s clearly a relationship and if we zoom out far enough the edges will become quite blurry. But architecture is, on one level, the cultural reconfiguration of the mineral world. And so is the postnatural a cultural reconfiguring of the biological world.

BV: What is one example of the postnatural that many are probably familiar with, but likely wouldn’t have understood as postnatural?

RP: A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their head around the scope of the postnatural. If I start describing it in terms of agriculture and the domestication of animals, then people will be surprised that we’re also talking about synthetic biology and genetic engineering. If I start with genetically modified foods, then people will be surprised that I am also talking about organic produce. Every vegetable in your garden has been substantially altered from anything that can be found in the wild. These changes are a reflection of cultural desires.

As Michael Pollan often points out, sweetness is something that people have sought out for millennia. The first time I bit into a Honey Crisp apple, I laughed out loud. It was the size of child’s head and so improbably sweet. It felt like the culmination of the West’s slavish obsession with sugar production. It also immediately reminded me of the oversized donuts with neon icing that they sell outside all the marijuana shops in Amsterdam. These are very culturally specific interests.

Giant Pumpkin Growers Association of Western Pennsylvania Weigh-In. Altoona, PA, 2014. Image courtesy the Center for PostNatural History
Giant Pumpkin Growers Association of Western Pennsylvania Weigh-In, Altoona, PA, 2014 (image courtesy the Center for PostNatural History)

Not far from our museum in Pittsburgh, every October, is the Giant Pumpkin Growers Association of Western Pennsylvania’s annual Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off. Held in the parking lot of the Sam’s Club in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the first Saturday in October. These pumpkins were raised by individuals for one thing only: to be as heavy as the limits of nature will allow. Over a period of just two to three months, these pumpkins will grow to weights approaching, and sometimes exceeding, 2,000 lbs. That’s a ton of pumpkin. The shapes these gargantuan gourds take on betray their overfed sedentary lifestyle; they are nothing if not obese pumpkins.

Near where I grew up in Delaware is the annual Punkin-Chunkin competition. Here, the same species has been bred instead to be small, uniformly round and to be comprised almost entirely of rind. The reason being that these pumpkins must be able to withstand the incredible forces of being fired from an air cannon at distances that are approaching a mile. It’s essentially a pumpkin-toss that has gotten way out of hand. In both cases, these pumpkins have been radically altered to serve cultural goals and the evidence can be seen in the organism itself. That is what postnatural history is all about.

The Center for PostNatural History (4913 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, Pa.) is open Sundays 12–4pm and the first Friday of the month 6–9pm, or by appointment. 

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