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Episode 20 logo for talking culture with three portraits and the number 20 in front of the portraits© Goethe-Institute London

Talking Culture #20: Biotechnologies and the Web of Life

Might reframing biotechnologies in the context of the sacred web of life be useful in guiding innovation towards the creation and restoration of flourishing and generative ecologies? When formulated within the modern paradigm the products of biotech tend towards the extraction, alienation and entrapment of life, both natural and synthetic. These tendencies disregard (willfully or otherwise) knowledge of the intricate web of life found in many indigenous cosmologies, whereby each living thing is able to fulfil its (sacred) purpose within the ecology it is part of.

In the Haudenosaunee perspective, for example, rootedness in place (understood as land) and relational entanglements are defining features of the web of life. The intra-relationships unfolding in place shape who all beings are. Deep, lived experience rooted in the wellspring of life is what enables harmonious living within nature, whereby all beings are able to fulfil their sacred purpose within the whole.

When life is grown in a lab or a geographically dispersed AI system becomes a biodigital organism it expands and complicates these interrelations and challenges the idea of place. What is the purpose of a, say, 3D printed tissue - does it have obligations to wider creation? What is its biography and ecology? Is the web of life complicit in its creation? Ultimately, these questions point to a bigger dilemma - whether the emergence of synthetic life further disconnects us and abstracts from nature, or whether it can be a part of restoring fractured relations with it.

What new pathways of understanding - and action - could arise, if we assessed the creations of biotech according to indigenous cultural and moral codes? Exploring questions such as these, seems vital if biotech is to have a chance of contributing to the restoration of diverse, sacred, flourishing ecologies - of the natural and synthetic. This conversation helps prepare the ground for approaching biotech as the latest iteration in a long line of sacred technologies; technologies that are created to aid living harmoniously with/in the web of life.

This episode was curated by Lucy Rose Sollitt. 

Podcast Guests

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Indigenous perspectives on the biodigital convergence by Keith Williams and Suzanne Brant (2022)

AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous PeoplesVolume 18, Issue 1, March 2022, Pages 210-214 © The Author(s) 2022, Article Reuse Guidelines

Anicka Yi's Artworks

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    Biologizing The Machine (tentacular trouble) (2019) - Installation view, 58th Venice Biennale
  • Plastic, helium, electronics, thermal camera, positioning system, artificial life simulation, fragrance, overall dimensions variable Photo by Will Burrard-Lucas/© Tate 2021
    In Love With The World (2021) - Exhibition view, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London
  • Ants, mirrored Plexiglas, Plexiglas, two-way mirrored glass, LED lights, epoxy resin, glitter, aluminum racks with rackmount server cases and ethernet cables, metal wire, foam, acrylic, aquarium gravel, imitation pearls, overall dimensions variable Photo by Joerg Lohse
    Lifestyle Wars (2017) - Detail view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
  • Plexiglas, agar, female bacteria, fungus Photo by Agostino Osio
    Grabbing At Newer Vegetables (2015) - Installation view, The Kitchen, New York