Then we shall also see all our fellow men in their individual soap bubbles, which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs. There is no space independent of subjects.1
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the investigations of zoologist Jakob von Uexküll challenged the classical anthropocentric view that all creatures share a single unitary world and revealed the existence of infinite perceptual worlds—a mesh of intersecting and reciprocally exclusive bubbles enclosing and defining the spatial and temporal lives of animal and human subjects. Against the illusion of a fixed common environment, Uexküll advanced the notion of Umwelten, life-worlds specific to each individual animal and comprised of the operational and perceptual cues required to form—with varying degrees of complexity—complete functional cycles. The illustrations in Uexküll’s books allow us to peer at the world as it would appear to a tick, a snail, a jackdaw, or a bee. “The experiment is useful”—writes philosopher Giorgio Agamben—“for the disorienting effect it produces in the reader, who is suddenly obliged to look at the most familiar places with non-human eyes.”2
Such a bewildering non-human gaze and the mysterious worlds it may engender are the subject of the “Theriomorphous Cyborg” project.
Set in a near-future environment teeming with locative media, sensors and portable devices and co-constructed by virtual objects and information overlays, the project aims to establish and activate new relations between human cyborgs and their “sentient” environment. The animal Umwelt becomes a metaphor for designing and opening up new perceptual realities and fields of experience—and reach previously invisible worlds.
The project is an immersive Augmented Reality game acting—in the words of sociologist and intellectual Roger Caillois—as an “engine of metamorphosis,” a framework for transforming game participants and their spaces of action.3 At each level, the game interface establishes a different environment-world and endows users with non- and extra-human senses.
Inspired by migratory birds and their ability to perceive the Earth’s magnetism, LEVEL 1 superimposes the participant’s field of vision with an additional signal consisting of directional color patterns. The gamer learns to navigate space according to his/her own magnetic compass. LEVEL 2 overlays synchronous retinal signals with asynchronous digital recordings, thus causing time to appear fluid and heterogeneous. Upon reaching LEVEL 3, all direct visual reception is shut off. Participants engage their surroundings relying entirely on the broadcast of cyborgian “eyes”—a network of hacked CCTV cameras activated by proximity. LEVEL 4 explores communication between the human and animal kingdoms, and Ernst Haeckel’s notion that language is the discriminating factor between them. A voice-changing device —the mouther—transforms the gamer’s utterances into incomprehensible animal sounds, preventing him/her from normal human interaction. LEVEL 5 changes the player’s appearance with theriomorphic features dependent on random sets of alternative geographies. LEVEL 6 mixes the consummatory cycles of gamers and bees. Optoelectronic devices paired with recognition technology mask billboards and signs with images of flowers, thus neutralizing their imposed top-down message. LEVEL 7 augments objects with electronic hairs, quills, scales, tails and feathers based on readings of atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed and temperature. And so forth.
Hundreds of potential levels follow, each representing both a pause in the self-absorbed routine of everyday survival and a window into the partial objectivities of human and animal “others.” Rather than describing a progression culminating in the player’s victory and the software’s apparent defeat, the game folds continuously back upon itself, weaving new dynamic relations—new feedback loops—between living beings and their post-natural environments.
1. Jacob von Uexküll, “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds,” in Semiotica 89(4), ed. T. Uexküll (Berlin & New York: De Guyter Mouton, 1992), 339.
2. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 45.
3.Roger Caillois, Les jeux et les hommes, quoted in Jussi Parikka, Insect Media: an Archeology of Animals and Technology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 107.
1. LEVEL1 Migratory birds magnetoreception information based on K.J. Lohmann, “Q&A: Animal Behaviour: Magnetic-field Perception,” in Nature no.464 (Macmillan Publishers, 2010)
2. LEVEL 4 Longitudinal topographic section of Manhattan adapted from section generated at geocontext
3. LEVEL 5 Manhattan demographic information loosely based on maps generated at webfoot maps
4. LEVEL 5 Refresh symbol by The Noun Project used under a CC BY license.
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