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Blog

More than Human

Scott Bahlmann

As we entered the Het Nieuwe Institute we worried we’d inadvertently chosen a workers entrance. We were greeted by a musky aroma from shelves of dirt, straw and gardening gloves. How did this relate to a museum of architecture and digital culture? 

The entrance to Het Nieuwe.

The entrance to Het Nieuwe.

This entryway is likely a direct connection to the institutes exterior urban garden expansion, but also connects to the immersive Neuhaus exhibit which considers dynamic possibilities of more-than-human knowledge. 

With stations exploring examples of the past guiding our future, and looking at matter beyond it’s capitalist value, there was a depth of information presented in an interactive and stimulating environment. 

I also found a collection of essays in the museum shop exploring these same topics, and will refer to the work Schemas of Uncertainty as it relates to these interconnected areas. 

Schemas of Uncertainty, contributions from a cross-departmental research group at the Sandberg Instituut, Gerrit Reitveld Academie. 2019

Schemas of Uncertainty, contributions from a cross-departmental research group at the Sandberg Instituut, Gerrit Reitveld Academie. 2019

The text opens with an exploration of algorithmic history originating from astrologer and astronomer Al-Kwarizmi in 820 ad. Schemas deliberately includes the pairing of mainstream and more esoteric areas of study as being a unification of certainty with a flexible predictive element. Ancient systems of prediction were considerate to include non-human actors in the process, where our current systems are so numerically and systematically fixed that they lack that flexibility and uncertainty of expression. Even Newton explored the esoteric alongside his developments in optics and classical mechanics, using biblical passages for divination as a form of predictive technology. Calculation requires separation and assumption for the purpose of control, but our future is always dependent on imagination. Outcomes are never certain. The contributors to Schemas of Uncertainty feel that the flexibility to develop multiple future narratives is an essential counter to the current capitalist imperative. 

In the Neuhaus exhibit Tabita Rezaire explores practical outputs for emotions and healing, drawing from ancient African archetypes. Many of our site visits have included innovations that involve countering the colonial perspectives to make room for more authentic interpretations. The divine polarity of serpents is one area Rezaire highlighted, which still carries weight in our western medical symbols, and Christian creationism. The serpent embodied the power each being carries to heal or destroy, with an undulating spine that defies stagnation, allowing authentic expression and release of emotions. 

How we choose to manifest these symbols informs our interactions with data, and each other. 

Flavia Dzodan’s contribution to Schemas made this more clear by tracing the influence of Carl Linnaeus on current classification systems. Linnaeus coined the terms mammals and homo sapiens in the 1759 publication Systema Naturae. Not only did Linnaeus categorize and create a hierarchy of races, with Europeans at the top, he also developed a binaural system of two specific genders. How he subtly contextualized them is of particular interest to the author. Of the numerous defining characteristics our class possesses, Linnaeus focused on the mammary glands, which only operate for a short period in half of the class. The female half. He could have distinguished us by the presence of hair with the Latin term Pilusa, or by our unique hollow ears with Aurecaviga, but connected us to the rest of the beasts through a uniquely female characteristic. Additionally, homo sapien distinguishes us from the beasts, classifying us as Man of Wisdom. The text traces the influence of these taxonomies through western culture, as they become cornerstones for data and information gathering. A clear contemporary example is the census which divides us into racial and gender categories, separating white from everyone else. This data is used to inform policy, distribute aid, and continues to shape our views as algorithms draw information from gender, ethnic and class profiles. 

Traditionally and in contemporary times this data is heavily used to draw profit, with a long history of Christianity and capitalism informing rational materialism. The concept of human dominion disregarding non-human contributions also has a direct impact on the natural world.  Our effectiveness at combating wildfires, for example, has created more delicate and imbalanced ecosystems. With 98% of wildfires extinguished successfully in the US, we’ve shifted the habitats from more open grasslands to congested forests, which contributes to more fierce and longer burns. Being respectful of these natural cycles, rather than trying to control them, makes a healthier balance. (Why We Should Let Raging Wildfires Burn, 2016

The increasing rate and intensity of wildfires in the US.

The increasing rate and intensity of wildfires in the US.

Kenric McDowell from Google Research was interviewed for an entry in Schemas of Uncertainty, and suggests that a radical reframing of our relationship to the earth is necessary to balance our technological advances. As the museum innovators we’ve seen during this course have demonstrated, he suggested that the involvement of women, indigenous and earth centered perspectives are critical. McDowell proposes high dimensional systems, rather than binary, to allow for a continuum of choice in algorithms. Current materialist systems leave little agency, while reinforcement learning systems can derive their own functions in pursuit of an established goal. For humans the inclusion of non-human intelligences and diverse perspectives can enhance neuroplasticity, leading to greater creativity and innovation. If we listen to and incorporate the natural world and flexible prediction systems, as ancient civilizations have, we can be more creative and innovative in crafting future solutions and possibilities.