A Museum for Contemporary Nature
June 12 2020
The first seminar dedicated to the XXIII International Exhibition 2022 took place on March 4, 2020 in Triennale. It was joined by experts in various fields, from astrophysics to philosophy, ethology, visual art, geopolitics and robotics. Philosopher Emanuele Coccia, who attended the event, through this text offers a suggestion made during the seminar about a 'Museum for Contemporary Nature'.
The Museum for contemporary nature
For centuries we have considered the city as the most important and impressive result of our intelligence. We have built objects that exceed any other human artifact in size, complexity and importance. The city is the greatest technical and artistic work that our species can build. It is the art of the arts, the technique of techniques: in no other object can our mind be reflected so clearly and definitively as in a city. Every city has been a mirror reflection of what we call spirit, mind, consciousness, its material manifestation, its translation into a geological fact.
The shape of cities, therefore, their history is but the result of the way we represent this same 'spiritual' element. To radically change cities, therefore, it is not necessary to change the geometrical forms of the parallelepipeds with which we compose buildings, nor to imagine alternative routes of roads and traffic management or futuristic means of transport. We need to change the image with which we conceive our mind, our spirit, our consciousness.
Chiara Vigo, Golden Bee, 2019. XXII Triennale di Milano Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. Photo Gianluca di Ioia
In this philosophy, biology and medicine do not seem to help much. The former seems to be blocked by a theological inheritance that requires it every time to recognize in man the noblest of creatures. The latter, stiffened by the almost exclusive observation of animal life, seem to be caught up in the cerebral obsession that is incapable of measuring intelligence and consciousness outside the presence of a nervous system.
To try to do this it is perhaps more useful to start from a work of art. It is a sculpture by Pierre Huyghe, portraying a sort of sphinx, a crouching female figure. But in this case the human body is composed like a hive. Exomind, this is the name of the work, it is not only an incredible work of art. It's a treatise on interspecific biology. It is, first of all, a manifesto for overcoming neurobiology: the mind, Exomind teaches us, is not an organ, but exists outside the body of every living individual. The mind is not a thing, it is a relationship: the mind does not exist in our body, but in the relationship that our body establishes with our bodies. But above all, if the mind exists outside the body it is because it is not a monospecific equipment of individuals: what we call mind is always an association between the life of two species. Bees, for example, embody the mind of human beings. This idea - which could be taken up with the formula: the mind is not an organ, it is an ecology (taking a very famous title from a Bateson book) is not at all alien to ecology or contemporary biology. The first to propose a thesis of this kind was Paul Shepard, in Thinking animals: thought is the effect and not the condition of possibility of symbiotic coexistence between plants, animals, bacteria, etc.. It is only and always in the interspecific relationship that the great predators developed their intelligence: without the herbivores, the great carnivorous predators would have been completely stupid.
Emanuele Coccia, Métamorphoses, 2020. Bibliothèque Rivages
The novelty, originality and genius of Huyghe's gesture lies first of all in the fact that he attributes for the first time the thesis of the inter-specific nature of the mind to the human mind: our mind does not depend on having a brain and a nervous system but it is within the body of a group of other individuals of different species (and perhaps of a different kingdom) that has literally colonized our head. In a way the human body is a hyper-object made up of at least two species (and says that each species is a hyper-object - this was also the idea of the film The Human Mask) Secondly, Exomind also states that what we call art is nothing more than the search for this mind always embodied in another species, or rather in the relationship with another species. Thanks to Huyghe's work, our mind is now embodied by bees. Conversely, and perhaps even more importantly, Exomind's gesture allows us to think that this interspecific relationship we call mind, spirit, intelligence or brain is not something natural - it is not spontaneous, eternal, purely biological, but a technical, artistic fact. Any relationship between species should be read not only as something contingent, but as something similar to the relationship between an artist and the piece of matter that she or he is manipulating, or better still as the relationship between curator and artist. In Exomind's biological hypothesis, bees, as human minds, are the curators of humanity. On the contrary, we would be an artistic installation of bees. A sort of biennial that has lasted for about 300 thousand years. What this work hypothesizes is that the relationship between species is a logical, mental and not purely material, but also artistic-curatorial relationship.
Pierre Huyghe, Human Mask, 2014
It is from this hypothesis that we should imagine the city of the future. What it means to imagine cities if the mind for each species is embodied in the life of another species (or that each species is the mind of another species). What it means to imagine the city if we start from the hypothesis that the relationship between the species is technical and artistic.
The first idea to fall is that of natural selection and evolution. Fish, plants, chickens, bacteria, viruses, winds, oceans, moon, fungi and horses: it doesn't matter if they are large or extremely small, no matter which kingdom they belong to, all living beings are minds, and minds not for themselves (thinking, sentient, able to decide what to do) but for other species. All living beings are able not only to change their environment and other species in a conscious way and to establish arbitrary relationships with other species not necessarily oriented towards any usefulness, but to change the destiny of other species. What we call nature, observed from this point of view, is an immense city in which each species plans the lives of others, and on the contrary a sort of collective cosmic mind is built, produced by an endless series of encounters and arbitrary and rational decisions, taken by different species at different times, following the most bizarre and strange intentions of each of them.
The mind, the interspecific city, is the result of random encounters and ephemeral cohabitations.
Now, if each species is linked to another species like its mind, this means not only that all evolutionary development is a co-evolution (as Peter Raven and Paul Ehrlich taught), but also that co-evolution is what we normally call agriculture or breeding. Or, if you like, agriculture becomes the transcendental form of any interspecific relationship.
From this point of view, the choice of bees is not random. If you think about it, the relationship between flowers and bees is that of a strange inverted agriculture, where flowers force bees to become their geneticists, to make decisions about their genetic destiny (because it is the bees who decide who mates with who). The choice to put our mind in the life of bees is similar to the gesture of flowers. A flower, in fact, is a particular anatomical structure that puts the genetic and biological destiny of a species in the hands of another species (that of insects or other pollinating animals) or of another non-organic subject (wind, water, etc.) who then take autonomous decisions on who mates with whom, just as a breeder, a farmer, a geneticist would do. With one important difference. The decisions or the choice of the bees, about which flower to mate with which other flowers, are not based on a rational calculation but on taste. The evolution, therefore, is the result of a judgment of taste. It is the sensitive taste of one species that decides the fate of other species. This, however, means that evolution is nothing more than a fashion in nature, it is a catwalk that lasts millions of years, where one species lets other species wear new clothes. Each landscape is the equivalent of a contemporary art exhibition or fashion collection. Everything in nature is therefore artificial and arbitrary, as is every sphere of our human existence. What we call nature is just a multi-species historical art gallery, a sort of multi-species Biennale, an installation waiting to be replaced by hundreds of others. Each forest is the equivalent of a museum exhibition.
Pierre Huyghe, Human Mask, 2014
In this context, following Pierre's logic, each species is as the mind that decides the fate of the other for taste, then each species is both the artist and the curator of other species. On the contrary, each species is both a work of art and a performance of the species whose evolution it represents, but also the object of an exhibition whose species are the curators.
The city should become the space of this mutual construction of species and become what could be called the Museum for Contemporary Nature.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, when art became established as an avant-garde, it has ceased to fulfil an aesthetic function. It has been freed from the task of producing beauty, decorating the existing and bringing it to a form of harmony. By claiming to be contemporary, that is, to embody a form of time and not a mode of space or matter, art has become a collective practice of divination of the future. From that moment on, through art, every society builds something that does not yet exist within it: it is no longer a harmonic reflection of its own nature, but an attempt to reproduce itself in a different way from what it is, a way of being different and to know this difference that does not yet exist. Contemporary art is no longer defined by some means, by a method, by a discipline: it is a movement that crosses and shakes all sensitive media, all cultural practices and disciplines to allow culture to become different from what it is. Art is the space in which a society manages to make visible what it cannot confess, think or imagine.
Pierre Huyghe, Exomind, 2017. Art Basel, Basilea, (KEYSTONE/Georgios Kefalas)
We have to think of the city as a similar space for the mutual relationship of species.
Nature is not only the immemorial prehistory of culture, but its future has not yet come true. Its surrealist anticipation. Contemporary nature is the stage on which life is at the forefront of its future. It is life as a natural avant-garde. It is the surrealist reproduction of life forms.
Exomind invites us to reform cities as a sort of biennial of natural history. If our mind is embodied in another species, the city can only emerge in the interspecific dialogue between species. The city of the future must be the spatial and mental encounter in which each species becomes the mind of others, each species delegates decisions about its future to the others.
Modern politics began with the myth of a monster produced by the association of all the bodies of all human beings. The Leviathan. What we call the state (the political body) is none other than this monster imagined by Hobbes. The work The City of the Future must be a sort of interspecific Leviathan: a monster, a hyper-object, a sphinx produced by the association of different species in which each life is at the same time the body and mind of infinite others.
Cover photo Exomind(2017), Pierre Huyghe, Art Basel, Basilea, 2018(KEYSTONE/Georgios Kefalas)