Currently, more than half of the world’s human population lives in urban areas. Urban growth poses challenges to the various city dwellers, and creates material demands that cause lasting damage to the wider environment. The climate crisis is already announcing threatening scenarios particularly for coastal regions and megacities located at coastlines. Global urbanisation and the exploitation of resources happen on the expense of human and other species alike. The Posthuman City features artists who propose a shift in perspective.
Taking NTU CCA Singapore’s overarching research topic Climates.Habitats.Environments. as point of departure, the exhibition The Posthuman City considers the possibilities of a conscious sharing of resources, and a respectful and mindful coexistence between humans and other species. Through imaginative propositions at the intersection of art, design, and architecture, the selected artists engage questions addressing issues of sustainability, water scarcity, invisible communities, nature as a form of culture, and suggest the implementation of lived indigenous knowledges. Examining the urban fabric in its condition as a habitat for a diversity of life forms, the featured works range from installations to time-based media.
Stressing the vital importance of clean water and the challenges of its scarcity around the world, the artist and design duo Lucy + Jorge Orta have developed a long-term project on water collection, purification, and distribution. OrtaWater focuses on the general issues surrounding clean water and the privatisation and corporate control effecting access to it. Starting from a rigorous analysis of this crucial resource through visual and textual research and collaborative workshops with engineers, Lucy + Jorge Orta create sculptures, large-scale installations, and public artworks, that are both artefacts and functional design. One angle of their research—low-cost water purification devices enabling filthy water to be pumped and filtered directly from local sources—is translated into Portable Water Fountain (2005) and Mobile Intervention Unit (2007). These devices have been used to purify and distribute water from the Venice’s Canal Grande (2005) and the Huang Pu River in Shanghai (2012), among others, and now from the creek that runs through Gillman Barracks.
Similarly combating water pollution, Irene Agrivina’s Soya C(o)u(l)ture is a mixed media installation that demonstrates how to transform wastewater from tofu and tempeh production into usable biomaterials, such as fuel, fertiliser, and leather-like fabrics. Soya C(o)u(l)ture was developed in collaboration with XXLab, an all-female transdisciplinary collective that Agrivina co-founded. Usually, large amounts of wastewater pollute the water in the rivers surrounding the plants, which in turn causes cholera and skin and bowel diseases in humans. Soya C(o)u(l)ture intends to divert this wastewater from tofu factories and put it in a homegrown starter culture medium to create useful products. A biological process using various bacteria and cell cultures, for instance Acetobacter xylinum, generates alternative energy sources, foodstuffs, and biological material. This process creates cellulose sheets that can either be used for consumption—nata de coco, a variant made of coconut water, is a popular snack food—or further processed (pressed, dried, enhanced with colouring and coating) to make clothing and craft materials. This biological procedure can be reproduced in any household using normal kitchen utensils in combination with open-source software and simple hardware. In this way, the project could provide women in poverty-stricken regions with opportunities to increase their income.
Indigenous peoples of various territories around the world, with deep historical and cultural ties to their land, have preserved sustainable ways of living that respect the limits of the planet’s resources. The artist and architect Marjetica Potrč’s Earth Drawings refer to these unique indigenous cosmogonies and their essential knowledges, based on research done over the past 15 years, centred on indigenous communities, such as the Asháninkas (in the Brazilian state of Acre in Amazonia), the Aboriginal (in Australian), and the Sami (in northern Norway), The Earth Drawings, a series on paper, point to the growing alliances between indigenous groups and bottom-up initiatives in the effort to ensure a more resilient future, beyond the social and economic agreement of the neoliberal order. Potrč stresses that the world’s diverse societies, taken together, form an intelligent organism: when necessary, they self-generate new models of existence and coexistence—a precondition for human resilience on Earth. Sharing life experiences is, after all, a basic human condition. Coexistence on Earth requires new foundations that foreground collective ownership of the land and a socially-conscious individualism.
Planetary coexistence of species acknowledges the presence and agency of diverse forms of intelligence. The artist Nicholas Mangan is inspired by termites and their capacity to build sophisticated and dynamic architectures that provide a model for decentralised social and economic organisation. The starting point of Termite Economies (Phase 1) was the anecdote that Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) researched termite behaviour in the hope that the insects might one day lead humans to gold deposits; a proposal to exploit the natural activity of termite colonies for economic gain. Mangan, on the contrary, proposes that the termites’ way of living in colonies might suggest other complex and global-scale systems for people to live and work together, better regulating and metabolising human consumption, production, and digestion. Termite Economies combines footage Mangan filmed on locations in Western Australia, alongside archival video and table-mounted sculptures, to speculate on the use of termites as miners and ruminating on how capitalism puts nature to work. The 3D-printed models reference existing infrastructures, for instance an underground tunnelling system for Tindals Mining Centre, a gold mine in Western Australia. The idea was to produce a 1:100 scale model to train termites.
In Bangkok Opportunistic Ecologies, the design practice Animali Domestici studied the urbanity of Bangkok from a non-anthropocentric perspective, focusing on the presence of pythons. Mapping the city through a snake’s experience, the resulting tapestry puts multiple beings of different species at the centre, displacing the human from its exceptionalism. The graphic realisation is freely inspired by the representation techniques, colour palettes, and composition of Thai traditional mural paintings. Their work process translates research and statistics on the Thai capital into multiple encapsulated narratives, including such elements as sewerage, canals, water swamps, and rain water “cracked” pipes—typical spots used by snakes, according to fire department experts—, as well as folkloric cultural practices like the numerology and superstitions connected to the shape and location of the animals.
In Untitled (Human Mask), the artist Pierre Huyghe films a monkey, Fuku-chan, who in real life has a work permit as a “waitress” in a traditional sake house in Tokyo. In the film, the animal is wearing a dress and a wig, as well as a white, human-like mask created by Huyghe. Made of resin, the mask is inspired by traditional Japanese Noh theatre masks, where only the main actor wears a mask, meant to show the essential traits of the character. The film’s first images are drone shots of a devastated landscape, that of Fukushima in 2011, after the earthquake-triggered tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear plant reactors. It then shifts to an empty restaurant and house, where we follow Fuku-chan moving around in the dark. Fuku-chan is seen acting, and seems to be waiting, shaking her leg, looking at her nails, playing with her hair. A cat appears, and we see close-ups of insects and cockroaches. Raising questions about the essence of human nature and of non-human forms of intelligence and communication, the work points at the prevailing relationship of domination between humans and other species.
Ghostpopulations, a series of collages by the artist Ines Doujak, combines ill human bodies with flora and fauna, transforming drawings from 19th-century medical textbooks into provocative assemblages that investigate desperation as an economic force. Doujak points out that entire populations uproot and flee in the direction of the faintest glimmer of hope, only to find themselves in the worst of predicaments: abandoned and deported, sold, abused or stigmatised forever, circulating as extremely cheap and disposable commodities. While she is giving visibility to such marginalised, abused, and displaced populations, these collages draw a dystopian mirage, reminding us of the pending threat of pandemic illnesses.
Death, from a post-humanist perspective, is not only inevitable and part of life, but is an event that is already in our past. The artist and entrepreneur Jae Rhim Lee developed a burial suit as an environmentally-conscious alternative to conventional funerary processes, shifting the negative narratives around death. The presented Infinity Burial Suit, a handcrafted garment that is worn by the deceased, is completely biodegradable, and co-created with zero waste fashion designer Daniel Silverstein. In addition, the Forever Spot Pet Shroud is featured, also consisting of a built in biomix of mushrooms and other microorganisms that together do three things: aid in decomposition, work to neutralise toxins found in dead bodies, and transfer nutrients to plant life, enriching the earth and fostering new life. Highlighting the importance of decompiculture—the cultivation of waste-decomposing organisms—, this project also suggests a strong link between human resistance to mortality and climate change denial. She advocates for a post-mortem responsibility towards the natural world and a direct engagement with our own mortality, making funerals new beginnings instead of endpoints, becoming more emotionally and socially accessible.
A parable on economic crashes, financial trading, mixed martial arts, and general contemporary culture, artist and writer Hito Steyerl’s large-scale architectural environment features Liquidity Inc., a single-screen projection that uses water and liquidity as guiding tropes. Opening with the quote “be water, my friend” by martial arts legend and actor Bruce Lee, the film comments on the circulation of digital images, big data, information, financial assets, labour, and weather systems. The installation consists of a double-sided projection screen in front of a blue, wave-like ramp, where the viewers find themselves in “troubled water.” Steyerl merges CGI and green screen scenes with an assortment of embedded videos, swipes, clips, scrolls, and pop-up windows, that include the story of Jacob Wood, a former financial analyst who lost his job during the 2008 economic recession and decided to turn his mixed martial arts hobby into a new career. The intricate mesh of late capitalism structures needs to be hijacked in order to allow space for new ecological and sustainable policies that value people and life over profit.
The Posthuman City, through artistic propositions, intends to open a discussion about the imbalanced relationship between an anthropocentric thinking that puts the human at the centre, and the fact that the urban environment is a habitat for many life forms. In her book The Posthuman (2013), Rosi Braidotti calls for resilience, stating that “sustainability does assume faith in a future, and also a sense of responsibility for ‘passing on’ to future generations a world that is liveable and worth living in. A present that endures is a sustainable model of the future.”
Curated by Ute Meta Bauer, Professor, NTU ADM, and Founding Director, NTU CCA Singapore, and Laura Miotto, Associate Professor, NTU ADM
The accompanying public programmes include seminars addressing techno-optimism and eco-hacktivism on 23 November 2019, and biodiver-city and urban futurism on 18 January 2020, deepening the discussion around posthumanism and the urban condition.