Human / nature: the speculative art of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

The multi-disciplinary, speculative art of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg poses questions about the science that shapes our ideas of progress. Through collaborations with diverse creative and scientific disciplines, her works reveal the consequences of this thirst for human advancement on plants, people, animals and planet

It would be hard to have missed the work of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg over the last year. Her digital installation of a snorting, male white rhino (The Substitute, 2019) was one of the highlights of the Royal Academy’s Eco-Visionaries exhibition, which ended in February 2020. A life-sized screen projection of this now extinct species, he paced around his cell, first in a pixelated, barely recognisable form, but slowly transforming into a hyperreal, CGI-rendered, animated version. All the while an actual sound recording of one of the last male white rhino’s movements, breathing and snorting played, bringing the vanished creature into the room, and asking us to ponder, as Ginsberg said: ‘Why humans are so desperate to create new life forms [when] we’re so terrible at looking after what already exists.’

Or you might have seen her Resurrecting the Sublime (2019), at last year’s Milan Triennale: Broken Nature. An installation that uses synthetic biology and DNA analysis to conjure the probable scent of three vanished plant species, while evoking their habitat — lost in the 19th century, like the species, through invasive human activities such as mining, farming or dam-building — via geologically appropriate rockscapes. ‘We’re using biotechnology to evoke a feeling of loss,’ said Ginsberg in the Triennale literature. ‘We’re reaching into the past to help us think about what we value in the present.’

Ginsberg’s work has come a long way since 2014, when I first spoke with her for Blueprint as she was embarking on a PhD at the Royal College of Art (RCA). She had completed her MA in design interaction at the RCA in 2009, having discovered and embraced the then-embryonic discipline of synthetic biology. She was excited by the idea that biology could ‘make the world a better place, with new kinds of materials, with unlimited food’. She declared: ‘Biology, and life with it, is becoming a 21st-century material for design.’

Image: Bettina Matthiesen

Five years later, her PhD reflected a growing cynicism and alarm at the way synthetic biology, and the design and tech industries, were shaping our environments with little thought for the consequences. Titled Better, its contents probed the dark side of the design world’s lust for constant reinvention. As she has articulated subsequently at multiple symposia around the world, including at Malmö-based The Conference in 2018: ‘Better isn’t the same as good… Better for some may be worse for others. Better is contingent on people and context. What is better? Whose better? And who gets to decide?’

Since completing her PhD in 2017, Ginsberg’s work has emerged from the rather niche, speculative design terrain into the increasingly prominent art/science arena. She now has a portfolio of several complex installations, each one showcasing a different issue, albeit focused on loss of plant and animal species and the unintended negative consequences of human behavior, and each one involving collaborations with multiple scientific and creative disciplines.

In 2019, these works burst on to the international arts and culture arena, with appearances at major cultural institutions and galleries — including the Pompidou Centre, Royal Academy and Design Museum — as well as design festivals such as the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial and Milan Triennale. Ginsberg also had her own solo show, Better Nature, at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery, featuring six of her key projects to date that represent her diverse journey as an artist and critical designer. That trajectory was set to continue for 2020, until the coronavirus pandemic brought the world as we knew it crashing down around us.

Image: Bettina Matthiesen

What triggered this massive burst of productivity and visibility in 2019? As her PhD completed, she says, ‘I was released from the library and thought if I don’t make something now I’ll shrivel up creatively. There were so many things I wanted to explore, and I had set up a framework in my final chapter for challenges I wanted to set myself.’

She was able to secure commissions for four projects. And then she was offered a studio at Somerset House, home to a thriving community of diverse disciplines. ‘That studio has been absolutely essential,’ she says. ‘It’s the most incredible, generous thing, in Brexit Britain, to be in this position; being able to join a community and have people who are further along in their practice to ask questions of and to feel supported in taking risks. Having space to get started and the flexibility to grow as the studio grew has been absolutely brilliant. I don’t think I could have done the same things I’ve done in the last two years if I hadn’t been in that position.’

Within mainstream culture, there has also been a growing appetite for artworks that articulate our current unease with — and fascination for — the anthropocene, the era we have entered where human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and environment. Most of the artists embracing this topic are bleakly dystopian, going for shock rather than awe. Ginsberg seems to prefer awe. Where her work has come into its own is in the sophisticated aesthetic and rigorous science that underpins each project, as well as the particular mix of emotional responses they conjure.

‘I play with beauty,’ she agrees. ‘I’d like to think all my work is beautiful. I play with aesthetics, especially in the more recent works. There’s a strong frame of reference to the history of art and landscape, playing with the tropes we recognise and finding this uncomfortable line — there’s this sense of anxiety and loss and beauty mixed together to create a certain reaction. Resurrecting the Sublime is an intensely aesthetic experience. It’s like a zen garden: just rocks and nothing else.’

But I raise an issue that troubled her when we met in 2014 but which seems even more pressing now: that the more seductively real you make a vision of the future, the more convinced people appear to become about its inevitability, however undesirable. There had been some very strange responses to an installation she had shown in 2013, The Sixth Extinction at the Science Gallery in Dublin: a series of beautifully realistic CGI-rendered landscapes inhabited by fictional creatures that would help to mitigate the pollution damage we humans have inflicted on plants and the environment.

‘It was a critical project that was intended to reflect on the discourse,’ she says now. ‘But gallery audiences are not yet trained in the way that [we are] when we go to a cinema or read a book: you know that what’s in front of you is not real. It’s even harder online. You can’t control how people are writing about things. I had accusations from within synbio (the synthetic biology community) that I was being irresponsible: that we were causing problems when synbio fails to save nature because we’ve made our speculation look so realistic.’

Image: Royal Academy of Arts, London. David Parry.

She continued to deploy the seductions of CGI with The Substitute and for the Wilding of Mars, which debuted at London’s Design Museum in 2019, as part of the Moving to Mars exhibition. Created in collaboration with game designers AND NASA astrobiologists, the work presents different simulations run in parallel screens to show what the possibilities might be for the wilding of Mars, without human intervention. It a compelling study of how plant life might thrive, based on real botanical and astrobiological science, and providing multiple possible evolutionary scenarios thanks to the deployment of game design technology.

Her purpose, from the outset, was to suggest that colonising other planets was not the way forward — after all, look at the mess we have made of our own. Her proposition for the next Mars millennium was definitively free of human intervention. But given the gorgeous landscapes she conjured, might the work not induce a feeling of pleasurable escapism — a ‘wouldn’t it be nice to live there’ response, rather than that intended discomfiting awakening to our own innate toxicity?

Ginsberg doesn’t see this as a problem, so much as part of the work’s power. She says: ‘With The Substitute, that plays very much with hyperrealism and using the tools to give us a sense of intimacy alongside the kind of CGI experience you would have on a Hollywood blockbuster.’

She does, however, admit to being challenged by some of the reviews of Eco-Visionaries. ‘I was asked to talk about the role of the artist in the environmental crisis. What insights can we give? I said I don’t have a clue. I don’t have any solutions. Why are we expecting artists and designers to come up with solutions? There are solutions we can develop as citizens, and solutions that we can demand for dramatic change.’ She was shocked by a Times reviewer’s comment that ‘Ginsberg has no answers’, and jokes: ‘That’s my mantra now. I can contribute as an individual, and as a citizen. We can all contribute.’ But her work is, in fact, underpinned by a quest for solutions — isn’t that urge to frame what ‘better’ means a call for more enlightened practice and some kind of civic awakening?

The solutionism she seems to reject, however, is that of the science and tech evangelists, who believe that their disciplines might hold the key for averting the oncoming evolutionary disaster. ‘I’ve been involved in synbio since 2008,’ she says. ‘Back then it was a critical space for artists and designers to work within, but as the field solidified and industrialised it became much more instrumentalised, and the kind of thing we saw emerging was the “biodesign challenge”. I’m very against this solutionism. While it’s great people are innovating with new materials, I’m very wary of people saying they have got the solution. It is not just about what we consume, it’s how we consume. When consumption goes down the economy collapses.’

Image: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sascha Pohflepp

Which brings us to the very fragile moment we are living through as we speak, in March 2020. In the time between arranging my interview with Ginsburg, conducting it two weeks later, and then writing it up, the world we inhabited had changed beyond recognition.

When we spoke, museum and gallery closures were being rolled out universally — a particularly painful experience for Ginsberg, at this point in her practice, with more than half of her 10 shows for 2020 either cancelled or postponed. Her concerns were not just for the work that won’t be shown, the revenues lost, and the possible obliteration of commissioning budgets for 2021 due to lack of ticket sales, but above all for her studio of five, most of whom are architects.

Image: Luke Walker

Ginsberg herself studied architecture to master’s level — at the University of Cambridge. She abandoned the profession after four months in practice, however, rejecting an industry she saw as chauvinist and punitively structured, overly dependent on unpaid competitions, powered by unpaid interns and long working hours and with no chance of making an impact until your 40s. She adds: ‘I think it’s a fantastic degree and I don’t regret doing it. It gave me a rigour and a way of thinking at different scales. The whole team I have in the studio have all studied architecture to master’s level. I picked them because I knew we were building installations and they’d have the skills to be versatile.’

While she and her team undergo their enforced solitary retreats, she will be working on writing a book inspired by her PhD, and on further proposals. ‘I remain utterly fascinated with the natural world and telling stories about it. I really enjoy pushing myself and testing new technologies as a way of telling stories about nature.’

But she is all too aware of the much bigger project that will be gestating until the coronavirus threat abates. ‘The real question is — what world will be rebuilt? That’s the optimistic angle on all of this. We’ve had to radically change our lifestyles in a matter of weeks and there’s an opportunity to say: how do we radically continue to change our lifestyles? And how do we make sure we don’t rebuild the same world?’

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