At the landmark “Nature–Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial,” on view in New York through January 20, 2020, one artwork sends viewers ricocheting between hope and despair. The Substitute, a video projection, depicts the virtual creation of a life-size male northern white rhino—the last of which died in early 2018. In actuality an artificial agent created through AI, the animal appears first as a blurry mass of gray pixels roaming around a virtual white cube, gradually evolving to become more lifelike and intelligent. By the film’s end, the rhino appears to be a living, breathing specimen, one whose virtual form could easily be mistaken for real-life footage. Is this resurrected creature, brought to life divorced from its natural context, a better substitute for the real?
It’s a question posed by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a London-based artist whose work explores humanity’s relationship with nature and technology, and our impulse to improve the world. Trained in architecture and interactive design, Ginsberg has been especially interested in the emerging field of synthetic biology—the design of living matter. She is also intrigued by designers’ desire to make things “better.” “What is better?” she asks. “Whose ‘better’ is being delivered, and who gets to decide?”
How Ginsberg distills hard science into a digestible artwork is one of the most remarkable aspects of her practice, which often involves head-spinning scientific processes. Another of her works included in the Cooper Hewitt Triennial is Resurrecting the Sublime, an installation that re-creates scents from extinct flowers lost as a result of 20th-century colonialism. The project arose from a long-term collaboration with Harvard University’s herbarium, biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks, and smell researcher Sissel Tolaas. Using tiny amounts of DNA extracted from specimens of three extinct flower species stored in Harvard’s collection, Ginkgo Bioworks resynthesized gene sequences that might yield fragrance-producing enzymes. Tolaas reconstructed the flowers’ aromas using identical or comparative smell molecules, which were then diffused in an immersive installation (imagine a giant fish tank where visitors can enter to sniff specimens) designed by Ginsberg.
“What does it mean to miss something that you didn’t even know existed?” says Ginsberg. “You have a double whammy: It’s gone, and it’s impossible to bring back. You don’t need to know much about the science in order to understand.” As she points out, recreating the exact smell is impossible: the amounts of each scent are lost to history.
As a visiting student at Harvard, Daisy pivoted from design to the then-emerging field of synthetic biology, which involves redesigning organisms by engineering them to have new abilities. (One of her earliest projects, E. Chromi, created colorful stool sample simulations as a litmus test for rare illnesses.) In 2018, Ginsberg received a PhD in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art.
She enjoys pitching tough questions—many of which lack immediate answers. “Better,” she says, is a nuanced term with manifold interpretations; one person’s better often comes at another’s detriment. “Our entire growth economy is based on this idea of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of better,” she says, “but those who created GDP to measure the U.S. economy after the Great Depression admitted it doesn’t gauge human well-being.” She recalls a metaphor made by economic historian Dirk Philipsen, who described an American driver who mows down a pedestrian while texting behind the wheel of his SUV. “Everyone involved is harmed, but the situation is brilliant for GDP because of medical bills, legal bills, and gas,” she says. “This system is so broken, and it doesn’t take into account what’s better for the environment. That affects us, and it’s not better for us.”
Ginsberg’s latest projects toy with these modes of thinking. “If we view ourselves as separate from nature, which stems from Enlightenment thinking, one could selfishly say we need to protect nature because it’s better for us.” One way to convince weary viewers, she argues, is to trigger emotional responses rather than barrage them with facts and figures.
The scale and complexity of her projects has only increased in recent years. “Sometimes we don’t communicate very well so I stop every now and then and ask: What are people getting from this?” The answer is an emotional experience, rooted in both loss and hope, that prods us to consider our impact and reflect on what we truly value. “Our increasingly urban lives afford modern-day conveniences like ordering takeout in plastic containers,” she says. “Ask yourself: What have I excluded in that choice, and did I actually care about it?”
Her newest project, Machine Auguries, commissioned by A/D/O by Mini, and Somerset House, where it is on view until February 23, illustrates this dynamic firsthand. The dawn chorus—the birds’ greeting of a new day—is one of the world’s natural wonders. Light and sound pollution means that birds must sing earlier, louder, for longer, or at a higher pitch to communicate effectively, and only those who adapt survive. Seeking to recreate a synthetic dawn chorus, Ginsberg fed thousands of birdsong snippets into an artificial intelligence network to create a chorus by deepfake species, which alternates with the natural edition over 10 minutes. The musical back-and-forth portends the insidious impact of our actions on birds: “We don’t consider how artificial sound and light diminishes their ability to communicate—they can’t find each other to mate because they can’t talk to each other,” she says.
Although her work ruminates on the destruction of natural resources, Ginsberg maintains a surprisingly sunny demeanor. “All my latest projects deal with loss, so people have been asking me if I’m depressed,” she says with a laugh, preferring to temper doom with hopefulness. She’s keenly aware of the effect of her inquiries on viewers. Creating provocative projects that ask hard questions can make a difference, she says. “It’s within our power to effect change.”