robertogreco + nataliejeremijenko + mattmargini   1

Into the Beast – Versions
"“I couldn’t care less about empathy,” said Natalie Jeremijenko. “I don’t see VR as a prosthetic for empathy. I refuse that. I think it’s bullshit.”

Few people have been working at the intersections between art, technology, and animals for as long as Jeremijenko, whose eccentric, restlessly interdisciplinary energy has produced an impressive array of bizarre projects. In 2009, she set up an installation along the East River in which participants could send a text message to a fish and receive a response recording its overall health and wellbeing; at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, a place where many of her ideas have been realized, she built a “Salamander Superhighway” across the road that would tweet whenever salamanders migrated through it, since salamanders, in her view, represent a better potential source of ethical meat than Google’s artificial burger; more recently, she enlisted kids from New York’s PS 153 to use “Feral Robot Dogs”—some of them disturbingly repurposed AIBOs—to sniff out soil contaminants in their local community.

In 2004, Jeremijenko was already thinking about what VR could do to connect humans and animals. But she wasn’t thinking about empathy, which she views as an “atomizing, individuating phenomenon” that should never be instrumentalized. Instead, she asked a counterintuitive question: what might VR be able to do to improve the material lives of animals themselves?

Inspired by the canard digérateur—or “digesting duck”—invented by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, Jeremijenko created a fleet of duck and geese robots that could be operated by people wearing VR goggles (with beaks attached). After enlisting local kids from an LA public school, she encouraged them to drive their ersatz waterfowls directly into contact with real-life counterparts. The real ducks and geese never mistook the robots for other real ducks and geese. But the drivers could engage in rudimentary communication with them, learning quickly that a straight neck would be interpreted as aggressive behavior, a craned neck “would allow for a closer approach.” And they would see their interactions firsthand.

“I didn’t build a 3D environment, because we were in one,” she said. “I was actually using a physical avatar in physical space. But it constituted a critique of what it is we do with VR: whether it should be this closed world, fantastical, or whether it should allow us to understand the actual world.”

In one case, the project actually led to environmental change—or at least potential environmental change. After one mecha-goose found a nest full of smashed eggs, she and her team investigated and discovered the root cause: the park authorities had been using petrochemical fertilizers that had compromised the eggs’ structural integrity. They weren’t able to fix the situation, but they did discover a situation that might not have been discovered, precisely because they had been seeing things from a more gooselike POV. The project demonstrated one of Jeremijenko’s central theses in utter clarity: if and when VR and animals come together, the only worthwhile byproduct ought to be actual, material change. Anything else is mere escapism.

For the team behind In the Eyes of the Animal, escapism is the entire point. The project is premised on the idea that a blissful, peacefully psychedelic sensory experience can expand our vision—our moral vision—beyond the scope of the human. “Somehow it creates a cocoon,” Steel said. “It gives you this kind of isolation, in a similar kind of way that you get when you’re walking through the woods and you’ve got no mobile signal. It gives you space to think. It taps into the tranquil state of mind that you can get floating on the surface of water, or sitting on a mountain and looking at the view. That sense of presence.”

Jeremijenko would call bullshit. And in a lot of ways, she has a point, even though In the Eyes of the Animal has the advantage of being much more aesthetically and emotionally arresting than a VR-controlled duck sim in which you look for signs of petrochemical toxicity. Jeremijenko maintains that nothing good will happen from the perspective of environmental health if we let VR transport us to “nature” in the traditional sense: a space pristine, unpolluted, unaffected by our presence. VR could be an agent of real change in what she calls the “environmental commons”—a way of seeing how our animal neighbors actually live, not necessarily through their eyes but at the level of habitat. It could also be a dangerously effective way to ignore that commons: a way to strap on the headset and return to Xanadu while the world silently turns to waste."



"Major new technologies of representation have a tendency to advertise themselves as ways of bringing us into closer contact with “nature”. They also have a tendency to do precisely the opposite. When the aquarium took Britain by storm in the 1850s, it was promoted as a glass box that could bring people into a completely new relationship with the inaccessible ocean depths; it also became a way of framing those depths, making them artificial, subjecting them to editorial control. One of the very first motion pictures was Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion, which revealed new truths about animal movement; another was Edison’s electrocuted elephant, which proved in the most darkly literal way that technology could destroy animals by making them into spectacles. Nature TV from the David Attenborough 1980s to now has been defined by its gradual, insistent movement toward intimacy: where we once observed them from a reserved distance, we now find ourselves among them, in their lives, in the fray. It has also been adept at hiding its own mediation, at pretending to be a form of closeness when it is really anything but.

We already know what some animal-centric VR experiences are going to look like, and others are pretty easy to imagine. Sir Attenborough himself has already collaborated on VR nature films, insisting that “you actually really are there—inside a rainforest, diving in the ocean or exploring a pyramid, wherever you want to go.” Apps like Ocean Rift unironically use the word “safari” to encapsulate the experience of coming that much closer to exotic creatures. These experiences still place us outside the animal, albeit an inch away. More will come, though, that attempt to place us “inside,” leveraging the power of empathy that seems to be the medium’s unique ethical promise. Much more than Jeremijenko, I’m inclined to think that a piece of software that takes a stab at interspecies empathy could form the basis for material change. I can imagine seeing from the eyes of an orca at SeaWorld. I can imagine feeling a rage that lingers.

At the same time, In the Eyes of the Animal, Jeremijenko’s VR waterfowl, and Theriomorphous Cyborg share one thing in common that should serve as a warning to the creators and consumers of empathy apps in general: all three envision “VR” as a means to “AR,” the self-enclosed app as a means to a more layered, more nuanced understanding of the world—or worlds—in which we live. Perhaps this ought to be the ethical litmus test for empathy apps: what they ask us to do with the experience we’ve had as soon as we take off the headset and return to the world. What they ask us to remember. What they ask us not to forget."
vr  virtualreality  empathy  nataliejeremijenko  via:anne  multispecies  ethics  mattmargini  escapism  pov  jakobvonuexküll  simoneferracina  philipkdick  rickdeckard  nonnydelapeña  border  borders  us  mexico  wilburmercer  richardfeynman  barneysteel 
march 2016 by robertogreco

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