In fifty years, as we flee regions made unlivable by climate change, we'll want to adapt quickly to new habitats. That's why we need the inventions of Maja Smrekar, an artist who works with scientists to create visions of the future — and glimpses of our evolutionary past.
Image from "History of the Future," by Maja Smrekar; Design: Oliver Marcetic; Produced by Aksioma Institute
I met Smrekar several months ago at a hot, crowded bar in Berlin where we'd both braved the possibility of rain outside to get a breath of fresh air. She was wearing an amazing jumpsuit that looked like something from a 1970s movie about cosmonauts, and was helping her large, friendly dog Byron play with a chunk of rock. How could I not strike up a conversation with this spacefarer and her geology-loving companion?
It was only after we talked excitedly for an hour about scientific papers on evolutionary biology, invasive species and extinctions that I realized Smrekar wasn't a scientist. In fact, she is part of a growing group of bioartists who work with researchers to create artworks that are about science — but also participate in the scientific process by making new discoveries or gathering data.
Working from her home city of Ljubljana, Slovenia, Smrekar has had a successful career over the past decade in Europe creating installations and shows about humanity's changing relationship with our environment — and the future of our species.
One of her recent projects, called "BioBASE" was to analyze the arrival of a new invasive species of crustacean in Slovenia's Lake Topla. A local nuclear power plant was releasing warm water into the waters that feed the lake — and that made it easier for the invasive red claw crayfish, which prefers warmer waters, to encroach on the territory of the indigenous European crayfish, which prefer colder water. Though the two species weren't yet in the same habitats, local environmental scientists were concerned that the red claws would soon get into the European crayfish areas, wiping out the indigenous species. Working with the scientists, Smrekar built an experimental chamber to test what would happen when the two species did meet in nature.
The chamber, which you can see here, had two sides — one with cooler waters and one with warmer. She put the red claws on one side, and the Europeans on the other, and watched over several weeks to see which ones would begin exploring the other side. It turned out, surprisingly, that the indigenous European crayfish were just as comfortable in the warming waters as the red claws were. By modeling a future environmental scenario, she's learned something that the scientists hadn't realized. Ultimately, the red claws may take over the local species' habitats. But there is still a possibility that the European crayfish will survive in the warmer waters.
Still, said Smrekar when I talked to her later by Skype, there is no cause for celebration. "I think we're heading to a huge local disaster there," she said. Then she continued:
I focused on crayfish, but there are five other tropical species that have invaded that [lake]. There is a plant called salad of the nile, eaten only by hippos. There was this idea that we would bring hippos in to eat them, but that would cause new problems for that damaged ecosystem. Another danger is that birds can spread the seeds of the salad plant. If that happens, then probably the next possible scenario would be that since the salad has no natural predator, it could grow successfully that it would overgrow the turbines of [a hydroplant that's currently being built there]. A lot of money will be wasted.
Plus, she added, it's hardly certain that the native crayfish will survive any of this ecosystem disruption. Even if the red claws don't invade their territory, some other invasive species might.
BioBASE wasn't just about doing experiments. It's also a work of science fiction art. Smrekar imagines this device as a mobile home and laboratory for future humans trying to plan how to adapt to rapidly-changing ecosystems. They could model future changes to their local habitats, using the data to figure out where to live and what to plant in farms. Said Smrekar:
The units are meant to be mobile laboratories/houses for the possible future where each individual will have to be a researcher ... Considering the invasive species accumulation, people in the near future will have to move around fast, because of different kinds of natural catastrophes. And they will have to be able to adapt extremely fast to a specific new ecosystem, or to already-crashed ecosystems. Hence a mobile house which is at the same time a self sustainable unit and a DIY research laboratory.
Smrekar said she has a very dark vision of our environmental future. Though this imaginary scene of future human home/labs in a park looks Utopian, it's actually a pessimistic vision of live in a crashed ecosystem.
If there is one thing that Smrekar is optimistic about — or, at least, upbeat — it's her relationship with her dog Byron. After poring over new scientific discoveries about how humans and dogs co-evolved, transforming each other's genomes over tens of thousands of years, she embarked on her current project. She was fascinated by the idea that dogs and humans co-evolved neurotransmitters like serotonin, thus facilitating socializing.
Called "Ecce Canis," it's an installation that evokes touch and smell to take us back in time to the moment when dogs first began to change us. Visitors to the Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana are invited to experience canine-hood by crawling inside the installation (you can still see it through October 3). They'll encounter a dark, fur-lined cave, saturated by the smell of serotonin coming from a glowing ball.
You might say it evokes the kinds of encounters that humans and dogs could have had in their pre-social state as they were taming each other.
Writes Smrekar about the exhibit:
The uncanny environment of the installation is covered in wolf fur (recycled fashionable jackets made in the 80s and 90s of the 20th century) as a cozy space ... the public is able to have an interactive experience with the sensor-installed respirator that works as an initiation into an essence of the relationship of me and my dog. The serotonin of the both of us [has been transformed into a perfume using common protocols borrowed from perfume industry chemists]. It is the essence of our relationship - our common mind. The spectators are having the chance to smell it if they choose so - therefore to experience it by the sense which is the most developed one in dogs and the least developed ... within humans.
Though she thinks of herself as a pessimist, there is a thread of slightly zany hopefulness that runs through Smrekar's work. And you find it in work like "Ecce Canis," where she explores the strange ways that species form bonds, even as ecosystems rise and fall around us.
1st Image: Design: Oliver Marcetic; Produced by Aksioma Institute
2nd Image: Photo: Jure Erzen
3rd Image: Photo: Janez Jansa; Produced by Aksioma Institute
4th Image: Photo: Janez Jansa; Produced by Aksioma Institute
5th Image: Design: Andrej Strehovec
6th Image: Photo: Miha Fras
7th Image: Photo: Miha Fras