Jenna Sutela: "I want a culture that’s based on symbiosis between species, rather than the survival of the fittest narrative"

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What should art and culture do to help us deeply reconnect to our nature and biology - a connection which could help us make strong lifestyle changes, as a response to climate disruption? And how daring does it have to be to reforge that connection?

Interviewed in Tank Magazine, Jenna Sutela (website) is exploring this challenge in her “collaborations” with slime moulds, probiotic microbiota and a machine intelligence trained to speak “microbial Martian.” Excerpts from the interview below:

I believe we should seek to connect with, or sense other intelligences around us – be it neural networks or, for example, ancient microbes – developing new sensibilities in the light of novel experience.

In my performance Many-Headed Reading, I ingest a dose of Physarum polycephalum, the single-celled yet “many-headed” species of slime mould, also known as a natural computer, and imagine that its hive-like behaviour is “programming” my own.

A plasmodium of Physarum Polycephalum

A plasmodium of Physarum Polycephalum

This decentralised autonomous organism was my first microbial collaborator. Polycephalum has been popular in scientific experiments for its ability to navigate a maze using the shortest possible route to its food source and, for example, to confirm or refute the efficiency of transportation networks.

In the field of robotics, there have been attempts to use it as a control unit. What I find useful about experiments like this is that they can enable a profound shift in subjectivity beyond individualism and anthropocentrism. They help to understand oneself as interconnected with the wider environment.

A lot of my recent work has been interfering with language or trying to sense the world in some other way. That’s because, particularly in the art context, I find it difficult to truly collaborate with life forms with which we don’t share a language – and yet we do that all the time as symbionts [an organism living in symbiosis with another.]

I mean, in light of the gut-brain connection, I think we should finally move from traditional ideas of agency as an exclusively or predominantly human attribute to a concept where human agency is bound up with that of bacteria, viruses, mites, fungi and so on. When I’m working with the slime mould, for example, my job tends to be that of an architect creating interactive habitats for the organism.

What I basically want to do is to contribute to the development of a culture that’s based on interspecies symbiosis rather than the survival of the fittest narrative. Or, as Caroline A. Jones would put it, insert humans within the mentality of a symbiont. The futures I anticipate are free from the modern urge to achieve domination over nature and each other. They will be built on shared terms between us and other life forms. And our form will be different.

We’re already more bacteria than ostensibly our own cells. According to the gut-brain connection, the bacteria in our gut regulates not only the course of our health and well-being, but our thoughts and emotions, too. They speak through us.

My video Holobiont (2018) considers the idea of embodied cognition on a planetary scale, zooming out to space and into the gut. The term “holobiont” stands for an entity made of many species, all inseparably linked in their ecology and evolution. 

Panspermia – literally “seeds everywhere”– is a hypothesis that life exists throughout the universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids and spacecraft in the form of unintended contamination by microorganisms. On Earth, humans are convenient vessels for these microbes, to carry them around and distribute them.

No doubt, the slime mould will outlive us. Similarly, some synthetic life forms of our making might prove to be better equipped to make the next evolutionary steps than we are. If we’re lucky, maybe they will carry something of the human as a parasite to the next emerging phase