“Life didn’t take over the world by combat, but by networking.” — Lynn Margulis
What does it feel like to be a tree? Do flowers comprehend their own mortality? Can cows appreciate culture? Through human eyes, these questions are difficult to answer. Not least because, as the “dominant” species, we often ignore the heaps of non-human lives that coexist alongside us. Science Friction, a new exhibition at Barcelona’s CCCB curated by Maria Ptqk, wants to explore these untold stories. Only in doing so, she says, can we properly understand our earthly companions, as well as our place alongside them.
Based on the works of Lynn Margulis and Donna Haraway – two of the last century’s most radical ecological thinkers – Science Friction lays out in both technical and artistic terms the relationships that connect all life on earth. From the molecular level upwards, we’re invited to journey through the lives of microbes, invertebrates, plants, fungi and fellow mammals to reveal that all are interconnected, that “the entire Earth is alive.”
Viewed in this way, the myth that humans are somehow superior or exist apart from nature becomes an even harder pill to swallow. Unravelling the story of life on Earth through a biocentric lens, the exhibition hopes to create new stories – new f(r)ictions – which challenge the idea of human supremacy and force us to re-engage with the natural world around us.
“It starts with the idea of symbiosis,” Maria tells us. “If we accept that all life is interconnected, this has significant scientific implications, but also huge philosophical and cultural implications. It creates a radical shift in the way we think about who we are and how we relate to the ‘other’. When you study microorganisms like bacteria, for example, the concept of individuality falls apart. Because we are made of bacteria, along with every other living organism. And so under a microscope, the idea of human supremacy becomes totally absurd.”
The word symbiosis comes from the Greek syn (with) and bio (life). ‘Living together’, in other words. According to Lynn Margulis, the history of life on earth was founded on this principle. Through her research (rejected by the scientific establishment until the 1980s) Margulis challenged the idea that life is, by design, motivated by competition and individualism. She found that not only did life on Earth begin through a process of collaboration, but that the Earth itself exists in an entirely symbiotic state.
The moment we enter Science Friction we’re transported to this world of symbiosis on a molecular level. A painting by Shoshana Dubiner welcomes us, displaying a motley crew of microbes wriggling in and out of frame. Inspired by Margulis’s research and animated for the exhibition by David Domingo, the work pictures a world teeming with life, full to the brim with microscopic, iridescent interaction.
“This is kind of an iconic painting,” Maria says. “It was originally made to hang in the faculty of biology at the University of Massachusetts after Margulis passed away, and was later included in one of Haraway’s books. I love the way it shows microorganisms interacting so imaginatively, and yet so accurately. Accurate to the extent that you could use it in a classroom. It’s the kind of material I wish had been used to introduce me to biology at school.”
The use of art to express complex biological phenomena is a theme that runs throughout the exhibition. Where science meets its limits, a poetic imagination swoops in to pick up the slack. As Maria explains, the idea that art and science don’t belong in the same room is a pretty recent phenomenon. Throughout history, she says, art has been essential in “visualising scientific realities that we cannot otherwise conceive.”
In part, art is used to express complex relationships between humans and other living creatures. In “Networks of Biochemical Consciousness,” a section dedicated to the intelligence of plant life, the visionary paintings of Dimas Paredes Armas express a deep-rooted connection between the communities and psychotropic plants of the Amazon. Meanwhile, a documentary by ethnobotanist Terrance McKenna theorizes on the science behind this. And bridging the gap between humans and plants entirely, the virtual-reality installation “Treehugger” transports us directly into the body of a 300-foot California redwood.
Through art, Donna Haraway explains, we can also tell ourselves new stories about the world around us. As humans we thrive on storytelling. Our narratives give us purpose. But as Haraway points out, a human-centric view of the world can tie us to stories that limit our perspective. For this reason, she proposes a new way of telling stories – “storying otherwise,” as she puts it – in which new, post-human perspectives are taken into account, and alternative futures imagined.
Maria agrees: “Humans are made of stories. We are the result of the narratives that we have been telling each other and ourselves for centuries. But of course, we can always change the plot. We often think that in the history of evolution, we are the ultimate species. When really we’re only one among many others. In the story of Earth, we’re likely to be only a footnote. And so if we recognise that we need to change our relationship with the environment, we first need to change the story of our place within it.”
Nowhere is this idea better expressed than the installation Ecosystem of Excess by Pinar Yoldas and marine biologist Sylvia Earle. Sitting in giant test tubes, bizarre, tentacled creatures reflect an imagined post-human future; an “anticipatory zoology” in which life has evolved to consume the plastic left behind by humanity. Part science fiction, part reality (bacteria are already adapting to microplastics in the ocean), we’re asked to contemplate an unfamiliar world which, despite being of our own making, has no human stories left to tell.
But alongside alien encounters, an even more urgent narrative winds its way through Science Friction. Turning to politics, we’re walked through concrete ways to begin retelling the story of life on Earth and rewrite the rules of coexistence. Here the Rights of Nature movement is placed front and centre. Led largely by the efforts of Indigenous communities in Latin America, this global alliance is pushing for a new “natural contract” that recognises the value and protects the rights of all non-human forms of life. And as the exhibition shows, its successes are gathering pace.
“So at the end of this speculative trip through alternative stories and species, we come to an important political question. In a symbiotic world, if humans have certain rights, why don’t non-human animals and plants? Why don’t mountains, rivers and other ecosystems?” Maria says, “And now the situation is urgent. Ecosystems are dying, entire species are going extinct. Minds need to be changed, and decisions have to be made. Ultimately we are saying that all forms of life should be allowed to live peacefully together; that all, regardless of their relevance to the human story, have a right to exist.”