Berggruen Seminar 18: The Ethics of Symbiosis

On the evening of December 2nd , 2022, the Berggruen Research Center of Peking University held its 18th Berggruen Seminar titled “The Ethics of Symbiosis: Finding a Cross-Border Entrance from Comics Literature and Art.” We invited Professor Tsung-Chieh Huang from the Department of Sinophone Literatures at National Dong Hwa University, and Professor Shi Danqing from the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University to present their findings and discuss “The Ethics of Symbiosis.” This event was moderated by Li Xiaojiao, Deputy Director of the Berggruen Research Center, Peking University, and was live streamed through the center’s Bilibili channel.

Symbiosis in Contemporary Artworks and Comics
Tsung-Chieh Huang discussed the possibilities of contemporary hybridity, symbiotic imagination, and development from the perspective of art and literature. She began by sharing several installation artworks by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini – such as “The Welcome Guest” (2011), in which a young girl looks delighted and happy to be touching a “chimera” creature. The work shows how human contact with “the other” can influence everyday perception. Without any prejudice, one might find it easier to accept an “alien” being. However, Patricia’s work does not simplistically convey the image of children as being simple and unworldly, but bring out various possibilities. For example, in the artwork “Alley, 11:15 am” (2011), an alien creature is seen fleeing down a street, with children chasing after it, each exhibiting varied facial expressions. Professor Huang asked the audience: Do you think the children are trying to be kind or are they trying to provoke the creature?

Through this series of works, Tsung-Chieh Huang drew out a starting point for reflection: In an era when we must engage with new things or beings, how should we interact with them? Suppose that the relationship between humans and nature is more fluid in this post-human era full of mutations and cross-boundary transformation, what kind of vision, imagination, and development possibilities can it bring?

In this regard, Tsung-Chieh Huang put together and presented the installation works of several artists, such as Li Xiaojing and Shen Shaomin, to demonstrate three kinds of “hybrid” possibilities. In terms of formation, mutated humans and creatures can be created through techniques of fusion, combination, or metamorphosis. This presents myriad possibilities for a world of human mutation.

Huang further expanded on her thoughts on symbiosis through the manga works of Daisuke Igarashi and Taiyo Matsumoto. These manga focus on the relationship between humans and nature, using visual advantages of manga as a weapon to guide the readers to watch, think and “see through the eyes of other creatures.” She presented the concept of the Umwelt (self-centered world) or the “biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter of the study of both communication and signification in the human [and non-human] animal.” Igarashi’s manga stories bring out a particular cosmology: that we are all essentially the same, so transformation is possible. The forest is not just the trees, but it includes all the creatures in it. Hearing something doesn’t always equate to fully understanding it, and crossing boundaries may not necessarily be the same as transcending oneself. On the other hand, Matsumoto’s work suggests that a certain level of homogeneity is often required to fit into a group. There is a theme of duality in his work. Heterogeneity can sometimes be uncomfortable or unsettling, but awareness of differences is a prerequisite for the acceptance of others.

To conclude, Huang proposed a perspective of “being this, as well as that.”

Showing a picture that can be interpreted as both a duck and a rabbit, she said: only after moving from “vision” to “transposition” can we progress from the ethics of coexistence to the ethics of co-dying.

“New species” Resulting from the Fusion of Art and Science

Shi Danqing discussed the possibility of “new species” created by the fusion of art and science based on his own creative experience. He first shared the “Ci Park” project in which he created several “new species” in a fictional theme park. In this project, he was tasked with designing a porcelain exhibition for young people, using purely digital means to display porcelain artwork and history without actual physical objects. In this process, he encountered many problems: how can he make porcelain objects move like living beings? How can he merge pop culture and historical knowledge? And how can he use design to create memory anchors? After a series of experiments, he finally made the porcelain come “alive” by adopting ideas from the American science fiction franchise “Transformers” in bringing different porcelain parts together to form “Ci Creatures.”

Five “Ci Creatures” were made from different ceramic pieces assembled to represent different personalities, dynasties, and characteristics of porcelain from their respective era. In conceiving these creatures, Shi Danqing described the process as being very much constrained, as he needed to choose just the right piece of ceramic for each body part from a massive collection of porcelain relics. The final products were wide ranging in styles and colors. For instance, he made a “sea turtle” inspired by Song Dynasty porcelain excavated from shipwrecks, a “qilin” inspired by blue and white porcelain from the Yuan dynasty, and a “vermilion bird” made from richly colored Ming Dynasty porcelain. The layout of the pavilion is also ingenious, as he took material ideas from traditional Chinese antique shelves to create a dwelling for each sacred creature. Altogether, he created a Disneyland-like experience of “Ci Park.”

In his second case study, Shi presented “Cosmo Botanic Garden,” a project that he collaborated with experts and scientists from various fields to construct twelve virtual planets with different ecosystems and plant species. For example, in one of the icy cold planets, one can find roses growing under a frozen lake and a set of twin plants growing with two heads, displayed through multi-dimensional video effects.

In addition, he also shared artwork from the “Innovation Workshop on Art + Aerospace” held once a year to promote cross-disciplinary methods in creating “new species and items.” In one of his annual workshops, he and his students envisioned and created many interesting gadgets for outer space, such as a “bathing suit” for astronauts, a “garbage terminator,” and a dance suit that can change its motion through inflating air.

In conclusion, he suggested that the coming together of science and art across borders could produce a wide variety of new things. In many cases, these costumes and interiors may not make sense or have practical functionality in our current world, but they are conceived and projected in a colorful and imaginative environment.

Selections from Q&A
Tsung-Chieh Huang added that we need to break free from cognitive inflexibility and cultivate fluid thinking. Perhaps through art installations or various literary works of art, new kinds of future possibilities can be imagined. Symbiosis is an abstract idea. Through their work, artists may exaggerate the unfamiliar and complicate simple things to express certain concepts, but in the process, they also provide audiences with a simplified understanding of symbiosis. It is vital that we grasp this mode of simplification and stretch our own cognitive flexibility. The most exciting component of art is its ability to widen our imagination.

In response to the concept of “symbiosis,” Shi Danqing said that although the word may sound relatively positive, in the history of biological evolution, it also includes the possibility of elimination. After a long period of natural selection, the combinations that remain are just systems that are congruent with one another. In relation to his personal creation, he is very much concerned about the rules behind his works, which he sees as analogues to the evolution of living beings. Like evolution, they can give birth to an endless possibility and a colorful world. Shi hopes that his creation will continue to evolve and expand freely beyond one’s imagination.

Summarized by: Chen Lin, Berggruen Intern.

composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.