Robertina Šebjanič, the artist who whispered into the ears of axolotls
Published 29 May 2018 by Rob La Frenais
Whether studying the regenerative abilities of the salamander or the myth of aquatic humans in Mexico, the Slovenian artist is pushing the limits of life in order to rethink what it means to be human—at the intersection of art, science and biohacking.
In the context of that fairly tight-knit international community of biohackers, interspecies communicators and “biotweakers”, Slovenian artist Robertina Šebjanič is generally known as the “jellyfish artist” and the “underwater woman”.
This is mainly because of her marine research projects using hydrophones, such as Deep Blue in Izmir in Turkey and performance-installations such as Aquatocene – Subaquatic Quest for Serenity, which was performed at Kosmica in Mexico City.
“Aquatocene, Subaquatic Quest for Serenity”, Robertina Šebjanič (2016-2018):
But her work goes much further than this. As she presents Aurelia 1+Hz with Slavko Glamočanin in the ongoing group exhibition Capitaine futur et la supernature in Paris, it’s an opportunity to examine the wide interests of this prolific experimenter, from investigations into the search for longevity to the myths surrounding it. Her website displays a dizzying range of projects.
Humalga – towards the Human Spore, in collaboration with the other Slovenian bioartist Špela Petrič, is based on her self-professed obsession with longevity, possibly also because some species of jellyfish are “immortal”. In a rather bold statement, Šebjanič and Petrič propose a “biotechnologically engineered post-technological vehicle, which could facilitate the long-term survival of a species of human and its evolving culture”. In this combination of art project and actual attempts to do the science, they brought together experts to discuss the implications of creating a transgenic human/algae lifeform, then went on to do what they called “proof of concept experiments” as part of Hackteria Lab in 2013 in the neurobiology department of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India—in a chloraplast-to-zebrafish microinjection.
I asked Šebjanič how the practical results of these experiments affected her more philosophical observations. Her answer: “By working on a proof of concept, we implemented the practical results into the philosophical observations. Humalga in its conceptual frame was really wide and provided strong entry points into understanding the human-plant relationship. Possible changes such as longevity in society is not only a sci-fi concept, it is already happening in our society. And of course, due to efficient medicine, more people live longer and prosper more, or at least the ones who can afford it. We still live in a world where the quality of our life depends on our geographical, cultural, social latitude and longitude. Extending human life at the same time would mean a watershed moment between the generations, because the age difference between parents and children is constantly increasing. Prolonging life would also enable more time, which humanity certainly needs when it comes to space travel, as for now travelling in the range of our solar system still requires a generation, and therefore seems impossible. However, that could change in future decades. New knowledge is always waiting to be learned, and new concepts and ideas are to be accepted and rethought from critical perspectives. A state of constant curiosity is one of the main leading forces behind my work.”
This kind of speculative biohacking involves the use of real biological materials and real scientific techniques to produce a kind of symbiosis of myth-making and potentially measurable results, without the pressure of peer-reviewed research. It also introduces a critical debate about the way big science is going. One might contrast this particular approach with the human quest for longevity, such as in the work being done on species like naked mole-rats by the Google-funded Calico Labs, a research and development company “whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan”.
Her forays into the mythical, or the world of biological monsters, was recently advanced in Mexico, where she is researching axolotls, a species of salamander that is facing extinction in its natural environment, and a subject of scientific research considering its extraordinary regenerative abilities and the promise of everlasting life. Axolotls so intrigued the ancient Aztecs with their fascinating appearance and regenerative powers that they were believed to be a manifestation of the god Xolotl, who was the ferryman of the dead to the underworld and the God of Fire. At the same time, they were part of the Aztecs’ culinary tradition and folk medicine. According to Scientific American, axolotls can regenerate multiple structures such as limbs, jaws, tail, spinal cord, skin and more without evidence of scarring, throughout their lives.
This project combines her interest in longevity with her desire to communicate with the non-human, or to re-think the human. It’s a view into myths around “aquatic humans”, including reported sightings of aquatic humans in Mexico and the rampant new-age and conspiracy sites about mermaids—which caused the U.S. National Ocean Service to put out a correctional link titled “Are Mermaids Real?” to state that no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.
From Slovenian Caves to the Adriatic Sea
The ongoing project on self-regenerating salamanders continues with work on Proteus, the Slovenian cave salamander. Under the broad title of Lygophilia, she is investigating both the scientific and cultural aspects of this species, in collaboration with the French curator Annick Bureaud.
This year Šebjanič will undertake a EMAP (European Media Art Platform) residency at Ars Electronica Center in Linz called aqua_forensic. According to her, it will combine “art with high-end science and a citizen-science approach to collect and process information on upstream invisible anthropogenic pollutants.” Working in the Adriatic Sea and using an underwater drone for exploration and sample collection, she will ask: “Could the ocean supply us with new therapeutics? Marine biotechnological research gives hope, it can yield useful molecules that can serve as drugs or help us look for new forms of drugs that we can use to fight the antibiotic resistance war.” This is an example of what her collaborator on the project, Gjino Šutić, calls biotweaking: “the act of improving biological organisms on any level, by available means, to exhibit and use to their full potential.”
Šebjanič will be biotweaking all over Europe this summer in several exhibitions and projects, including Assonance of Drops in Graz, Austria, and The Universal Sea in Poland.
More about Robertina Šebjanič