Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: How tech can resurrect the smell of extinct flowers

Barbican Centre

We speak to artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg about her role in a project that has captured the scent of a plant last seen in 1912. 

Artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg discusses her project, Resurrecting the Sublime, featured in the Barbican exhibition AI: More than Human.

Tell us about your work as an artist? 
"I'm an artist based at Somerset House Studios and my work sits at the intersection of nature and technology and our relationship with the two. In my work I explore how technology affects nature and vice versa. My projects really explore the relationship between humans and the natural world that we're part of. But I often use very high tech tools to explore those issues from synthetic biology to machine learning and AI."

What were the origins of 'Resurrecting the Sublime'?

"The project is a collaboration between myself, the smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas and her lab which is supported by IFF and the biotechnology company Gingko Bioworks.

A team of synthetic biologists led by Christina Agapakis work together to resurrect the smell of extinct flowers. the project started when Christina and her team decided that they wanted to see if it was possible to bring back the smell of extinct flowers and Christina went to the Harvard University herbarium to sample, to search out any extinct specimens in the archives."

"From this work in the lab, smell researcher Sissal Tolaas was given a list of the smell molecules the flowers may have produced. With the reconstructed smell, I designed and built an installation where a visitor can experience the smell of a lost flower in an abstracted version of its landscape."

Home of the hibiscus

"The Hibiscadelphus wilderianus grew on the slopes of Mount Haleakalā on the island of Maui, Hawaii. It was last seen in 1912 and the flower itself went extinct due to colonial cattle ranching. The indigenous flora and fauna was decimated. Where there was once a forest on these dry lava slopes, today there is just grassland and cows roaming.

With each of these flowers, we are focusing on flowers that were lost to colonial input and activities. The hibiscus itself was a beautiful green flower with a red central part. This flower grew on a tree as part of the forest on that slope and the last one was found in a dying state in 1912. The effort to try and bring back the smell is both trying to get a glimpse of that lost plant itself and also bring back the landscape that it was once part of."

The ethics of 'resurrecting' nature

"The thought of bringing back a flower that humans have been responsible for its loss is something quite tricky, especially since these flowers the hibiscus and the other flowers, one is an orbexilum stipulatum, which was called the Falls-of-the-Ohio scurfpea, and grew in Kentucky and the third flower, the leucadendron grandiflorum, which grew in the shadow of Table Mountain in Cape Town, was lost to colonial vineyards.

There's something incredibly rich and also slightly terrifying about the fact that we can get a glimpse of what these flowers might have smelled like using technology. At the same time, since humans were responsible for them, do we deserve to smell them again? And that's a really fundamental question for this project."

Since humans were responsible for their extinction, do we deserve to smell them again?

'I'm adamant that this project is not 'de-extinction' - this idea that we could bring something back and negate the human impact on the environment using technology. For example, bringing back a Northern White Rhino, the last male of that sub species went extinct last year is tempting - if it were technologically possible. But in these cases, we have to say what is that animal or flower or species without its context?'

"In the installation we have a lava boulder which indicates the landscape the flower came from and we want you, as you smell this flower, and stand in this abstract moment of this lost landscape, to think about how a flower could be without the landscape it was part of - the entire ecosystem that it was part of is gone. For me it was really crucial that we don't have a flower brought back - we just have this instantaneous glimmer of hope, but at the same time it's not fooled the extinction. Without the context, the organism is nothing."

Experiencing the sublime

"When Christina first told me about the work they'd been doing with these flowers, I got this dizzying tingling sensation, which to me felt like the technological version of the sublime - this classic aesthetic and philosophical state of experiencing nature where men in the 19th century would go off to the Alps and stand at the edge of a mountain and experience nature and at the same time, know that they were safe and could go home at the end of the day. And there's something in this technological feat that feels like an echo of that, the fact that we could destroy something natural and then experience it again."

What interests you in artificial life?

"For the last ten years or more, I've been exploring synthetic biology which is a kind of genetic engineering which employs engineering principles onto the design of living matter. I became really intrigued by this field of science and engineering because the engineers involved were effectively designing living matter and I wanted to know what would they design? What would good design be? And ultimately, who would get to decide?

Scientists and engineers are using tools of machine learning and AI in the laboratory and in doing so, we start to see convergence of technologies where, as humans who are part of the natural world, there are immense questions we need to be asking urgently about who gets to use these technologies - and what they are used for."

What do you think the artist of the future looks like?

"The artist of the future maybe looks like me, maybe looks like a scientist, a smell researcher - maybe none of the above. I hope that whichever technologies we're using, whether that's paint or advanced biotechnology that the artist remains an important role to help us reflect on the decisions we make as a society. And bring a critical voice into technology, that's something I really enjoy in my practice. The different ways we've used technology in this project, from simulations of the lost landscapes to smell reconstruction are just tools to get people to have an emotional response and that to me is what good art aspires to do and helps us think about our place in the world at large."

Credits: Story

Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is an artist working across disciplines and media to explore the human values that shape design, science, technology, and nature. Through installations, writing and curatorial projects, Daisy examines why we make things, what those things are, and their relationship with us and the world.

Daisy has spent over ten years researching synthetic biology and the design of living matter, pushing the boundaries of design and science with scientists, engineers, artists, designers, historians, social scientists, and museums around the world.

AI: More Than Human is a major exhibition exploring creative and scientific developments in AI, demonstrating its potential to revolutionise our lives. The exhibition takes place at the Barbican Centre, London from 16 May—26 Aug 2019.

Part of Life Rewired, our 2019 season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

Credits: All media
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