© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author
Body Shifts in a Techno-Anthropocentric World
What if the cephalopod served as a model species for humans? Miriam Simun explores how we overcome using high technology for human enhancement by training the body.
Interview with Miriam Simun — Mrz 7, 2019
Interdisciplinary artist Miriam Simun, who is currently a web resident through Solitude and ZKM on the topic of »Planetary Glitch,« proposes in her project Training Transhumanism (I WANT TO BECOME A CEPHALOPOD) to use mostly the octopus, but also cuttlefish and squid, as model species for the future of the human. In an instructional video series for training human enhancement, Simun outlines the psycho-physical regimen for improving the human biological system in the face of rapid ecological as well as technological change. Visit the project and read an interview with the artist on her transhumanist project toward »co-evolution, rooted in desire.«
Schlosspost: Your project Training Transhumanism provides an instructional video series based on the cephalopod as a role model for enhancing the human body and mind. Your research therefore responds to the ideology dominating the promises of genetic modification: cleansing the genetic make-up in order to »improve« human performance and rectify human »issues.« What interest or idea led to your project?
Miriam Simun: What led me here? I am interested in adaptation and survival. I was in the hospital when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and I was doing nothing but watching the news on TV, for days. Those images of people, stranded, wading through water after the levees broke and the city flooded and nobody really came to help are burned into my mind. Then I was in New York when Hurricane Sandy hit. I remember biking around a pitch-black Manhattan and realizing how quickly this becomes a new normal. I was raised by my grandparents who lived over half a century in the Soviet Union; their universe was built of totalitarian permanence. Then in a blink of an eye all of reality fell apart. This can happen anywhere, and ecological change only speeds up destructive sociopolitical realities. Adapt or die. This is true ecologically, sociopolitically, biologically.
»Then in a blink of an eye all of reality fell apart.«
SP: That leads us to your approach, and your statement »The future will be wet.«
MS: When I was invited to join the MIT Media Lab, I was interested in participating in the production of »futures« in this place that in popular, mainstream culture has been called »the future factory.« All the futures I can see are overwhelmingly WET FUTURES. Meaning the very real and present threat to our current way of living posed by rising sea levels. Except building sea walls, which is almost universally the standard response to sea level rise in coastal cities is an insanely short-sighted solution, an almost absurdist one: A Wall Against the Sea.
Miriam Simun, still from YOUR URGE TO BREATHE IS A LIE
Walls will always eventually fail. They are also dangerous metaphor to live by – building walls against perceived oncoming threat conditions us to think about relations, place, permanence in all the wrong ways. Building walls at ecological borders, and political ones, too.
»Walls will always eventually fail.«
So, the question becomes one of how we adapt to WET FUTURES. Instead of trying to adapt the natural environment to fit human needs, how do we adapt humans – biologically, psychologically, socially – to live more intimately with the sea? It’s a mindset shift that I believe needs to take place before any real large-scale infrastructural shift (or, practical solutions) will occur. I mean, look, they’re still building new coastal projects in Miami. Our heads are stuck deep in the sand.
While at MIT and thinking about human adaptation, I started looking at genetic modification. I talked with bioengineers and we played out different possibilities, various genetic traits we might want to scavenge from different sea creatures in order to modify ourselves for life in the sea. But then something struck me as I was combing through ocean organisms looking for DNA snippets that could be useful to humans: In some ways, this is just a new form of something really old, which is natural resource extraction. We take what we want from complex ecologies for our own needs, and often without understanding the implications for the entire system.
So I decided to start rather with an entire and single organism: another way to think about »model organism« – the cephalopod. I arrived at cephalopods through cecalias – half-human half-octopus creatures in various traditions of mythology that are mostly evil, mostly female, but always powerful. As I learned more about cephalopods, and the completely unique and amazing form of evolution of consciousness they inhabit, I fell in love, so to speak.
Miriam Simun, still from YOUR URGE TO BREATH IS A LIE (2019)
Miriam Simun, still from YOUR URGE TO BREATH IS A LIE (2019)
Miriam Simun, still from YOUR URGE TO BREATHE IS A LIE
At the same time I was learning to free-dive. I wanted to both understand how humans have lived intimately with the sea for thousands of years (there are many ancient diving practices around the world; in east Asia, Polynesia, the Iran/Arabian Gulf) and to try to tackle the question with my body, and not just my brain. When I went from being able to hold my breath for 25 seconds to 2.5 minutes in the course of a single training session – and then when I learned that the human record for a single breath hold is 11 minutes and 54 seconds – I understood that we really need to take a step back. That we have no idea about the true limitations of our existing biology. About the adaptations that are possible through training, through labor.
Which led me to the question, how do we know what technology we need to augment the human body if we don’t yet know what’s possible with what we already have?
Training Transhumanism, as opposed to building (or buying) transhumanism is also a question of equity of access, of internal capacity building, of valuing physical labors and hard work, and of making do with what you have.
SP: You write that your work is about the »collision of bodies with rapidly evolving techno-ecosystems.« Can you explain the importance of the body for your knowledge production on ideas of future human conditions? How can your project refigure our idea of the body in the context of technology and ecology?
MS: Our bodies know much that our minds do not. We really need to listen to them more. They have a lot to tell us about the state of our technoecologies: pollution, climate change, implications of ubiquitous digital devices. Seriously, just stop for a second and pay attention to how you are sitting, how you are breathing, how your shoulders feel. You will immediately understand a lot.
»Our bodies know much that our minds do not.«
When I start a new project I do read a lot, but then I find it really important to get out of my head and go use my flesh: eating, weeding, hunting, smelling, diving. That’s when I begin to understand.
Find new supports in mutual pressure - Miriam Simun, Training Transhumanism Training Manual
Become entangled - Miriam Simun, Training Transhumanism Training Manual
Now entangled accelerate - Miriam Simun, Training Transhumanism Training Manual
SP: How does your project respond to the idea of the »Planetary Glitch?«
MS: It’s a training program for surviving the neverending oncoming glitch(es).
SP: You redefine the term »training« by thinking of it as a technology, rather than immediately outcome-based intervention. Why?
MS: Training is a technology in that it is a process and method; it is the application of (scientific and other) knowledge toward practical purposes, it enables you to accomplish something you were not able to accomplish before. We train our body-minds in order to be able to sense and feel and do things that were previously impossible. We don’t outsource our new capabilities to machines, rather we train and build these capabilities within our internal biological systems.
SP: Sea animals serve as a role model for your instructional videos. Why is it particularly interesting to look at them as a base of knowledge production?
MS: Cephalopods are our role model organisms. They are completely fantastic creatures that present a radically different model of evolution. They evolved a consciousness almost entirely independently of mammals – our last common ancestor was 500 million years ago, a deep sea worm – and yet they have a highly developed neurological system that functions in all kinds of incredible ways.
»Cephalopods are our role model organisms. They are completely fantastic creatures that present a radically different model of evolution.«
They also have specific capacities that are crucial to human survival. These include, first, embodied intelligence (tactile awareness and cognition). Then there’s shapeshifting and camouflage, which I define as a hyperawareness of one’s hyperlocal environment and the ability and flexibility to respond swiftly by morphing one’s perceived identity for best resiliency. And distributed intelligence – post-negotiation, post-collaboration: the ability to form a single intention with one or more people.
SP: Reminding us of the ongoing climate crisis, curator Mary Maggic outlines that your project asks the viewer to »become a cephalopod in the wake of rising sea levels and watery realities.« How do your instructional videos mirror the consequences of and produce knowledge about climate crisis, as well as ecological and technological change?
MS: One of the traits the instructional videos train is embodied intelligence: an enhanced sensitivity toward your techno-ecological environment. Once this ability is developed, your enhanced sensitivity will alert you to the crisis. We won’t have to.
It’s also vital that our »role model organism« – our model for the future of the human – is neither human nor human-made. Destabilization of the anthropocentric worldview is necessary in addressing climate crisis.
SP: Several decades of research have shown that there are many benefits to using video in education. Video can impact teaching and learning because the recipients can digest content at their own pace and explore it more thoughtfully during the watching time. Can you elaborate your specific idea of using video in the context of your project?
MS: I want Training Transhumanism to be as widely available as possible; the only resource required to become transhuman is access to the Internet, time, and diligence to train. You’ll notice that the instructions do not describe a specific physical position – the videos just demonstrate one possibility. Thus the training regimen can accommodate a wide variety of psycho-physiological needs and abilities.
But of course, we do hold in-person training sessions, too.
Find first touch - Miriam Simun, Training Transhumanism Training Manual
Explore your invertebrate parts - Miriam Simun, Training Transhumanism Training Manual
Allow your toes to become sensors - Miriam Simun, Training Transhumanism Training Manual
SP: In your opinion, what role does biology play in our technocratic world and (how) can it lead us to a better future?
MS: Better for whom? I don’t adhere to this idea of a grand monolithic FUTURE. We have many futures ahead of us, all of them coexisting in their contradictions. Just like we have many presents on this planet – my present is vastly different than many other people’s on this planet. Better for some people, worse for others.
As far as biology, we are already biologies playing in a technocratic world. I am interested in what we learn and how our attention shifts when we pay more attention to the rest of our bodies, and not just the brain bit. My hope is that this shift helps us relate better to where we are and whom we are with.
The interview was conducted by Sophie-Charlotte Opitz.