What is TransNatural ?

This is a introduction to, and a first exploration (one year old now) of intended meanings of the newly invented adjective TransNatural. TransNatural is above or beyond nature. This is a narrative exploration of the possible meanings of transnatural thinking and acting.

In its most glorious role, technology was the way to escape the limitations of nature – it was a freedom not granted, but created, developed by focused human trial and error. A limping, half-aware imitation of evolution.
Often the relations between nature and technology are understood along the lines of Greek myths, with their powerful and highly dysfunctional, divine characters. In this context, technology often plays the role of natures’ crude brother, that breaks the delicate toys with its clumsy, thick fingers – or more dangerous characters, like that of the dark genius with a hidden agenda, and nature is then cast as a vulnerable, oversensitive child. Conversely, nature often takes stage as tormented mother, that finally loses her patience with her cold, cruel son, and hits back with tsunami’s, AIDS or Mexican flu.
This thinking, telling and acting by which technology and nature are posed against each other has had its most productive period in the past.
Culturally, technology was the means by which humans protected themselves from nature, and with which they tried to control it. Technology served as a fortress and a weapon against nature. Most technology has thus conceptually come forth from a world of users with walls around it. Close to the walls is a source of endless raw material and energy. And further outside is a wide, wild, even hostile place, where non-personal dangers lurk, and where used -up stuff and dangerous waste can disappear into.

This notion has brought us a lot of development, but from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, it has turned itself strongly against us, as is well known. Through mass-media and later the world wide web, one could see and experience that the world of users, the source of raw material and energy and the outside world were actually one and the same place, that was far from endless, and that its tasks were more and more irreconcilable. The first photograph of the whole earth, taken from an orbiting spacecraft helped a lot to establish that idea.

In the 21st century we have to look for another role for technology, another story about technology, and from there also for a technology that follows different design paradigms. In this context, the practices from the arts, design and technology, science, politics and nature are more and more connected, and meaningful to each other. It is high time we get used to the idea that nature and technology have the potential to form a less dysfunctional family, whose family name is not yet decided. It even looks like the 21st century will be the first century in which nature and technology will have children that will have children of their own.

The adjective transnatural is an attempt to start thinking beyond the animosity between technology and nature. Transnaturalism in a way acknowledges that nature has always been complete, and yet, that it will never be finished. Note: there is no moral obligation or a manifest destiny to expand nature, it is merely a tendency we are beginning to observe. Technology can expand nature infinitely, and is finally learning by which rules that game can really be played.

Opening speech of the TransNatural exhibition

Mail clients are the new Galapagos islands. The  struggle-for-life between spambots and spamfilters demonstrates again Darwins’ intuition, and this time we are there to watch it happen…

There is no reason to assume that people in, say, 50 years, will still have to stick to this body plan, or one like it.
And if the convergence between nanotech, biotech, and infotech really builds a head of steam, some of us may live to plant a tree in their garden that is capable of growing a juicy chicken leg one day,  and a paperthin rollable widescreen television the next.

But all that is NOT the point.

The point is that worried mothers learned to believe, online, that surveillance nanochips were mixed into the  H1N1 vaccination, and THAT is the reason they didn’t want their kids to get an injection. (note: there may be other good reasons to not go for that injection, but this is a stupid one) The point is that many people guiltily believed that the tsunami of Christmas 2004 was natures’ revenge on the humans that are thrashing the planet. The point is that economy and ecology should always have been two versions of the same story – but somehow they are caught up in a fatal zero-sum game.

The TransNatural project, of which this exhibition is the first move, tries to explore elements of a new narrative about the relation between nature and techology, and also tries to adress some practical means that would justify such a narrative.
The idea TransNatural wants to lightly step over the (continously percieved and performed) essential anatagonism, deeply rooted in mythology, between nature and technology. TransNatural is an exploration of possibilites towards reconciliation, in objects, images, poetics, processes and technologies.

The TransNatural, in this sense, is a space we haven’t really entered yet. We’re sidetracked by dystopian variants (Grey Goo, genetically enhanced supersoldiers going rogue, not to mention Frankenstein) But along the dystopian track we end up with the same old classical battle between good (nature) and evil (technology… ok it’s cool as well, but hardly ever harmless) And we have to get rid of that story if we want to make it with our biosphere, because the problem is: if nature wins, humans loose everything. (think of 2012 the movie,  and WaterWorld) But if technology wins, humans loose everything too. (the Matrix, Ray Kurzweills Singularity)

So, what is and what isn’t TransNatural ?
Bio-art itself isn’t, but Eduardo Zac (how made Alba, the fluorescent rabbit) is. Adam Zaretsky isn’t, with his attempts at two headed zebra-fish. Tobie Kerridges Biojewellery is, Guerilla Gardening isn’t (that’s still a war after all) Hundertwasser isn’t. But Cradle-to-Cradle and Grave-to-Cradle is. And Rachel Armstrongs’ Living Architecture is.
The Cyborg isnt -Robocop, the Borg,  half human meat, half stainless steel, and always war between the two halves.  But the Nexus 6 from Blade Runner is.

Yes, nature was always complete, but also it is never finished. This could be naïve utopism if it wasn’t also a pragmatic need.

TransNatural is meant as a probing gesture of reconciliation.

Klaas Kuitenbrouwer – 19 02 2010