From the enigmas of ancient cosmological literature to arcane mysteries about extraterrestrial life forms, to DNA—the secret code of life, to the myth of immortality, the project proposed for the III edition of Something Else presents a selection of works by four artists from different geographical and educational backgrounds: Daniela De Paulis (IT-NE), Heather Dewey-Hagborg (NY), Mariagrazia Pontorno (IT), Robertina Sebjanic (SL).
The group show is conceived as an exhibition journey through biological codes, in the arduous and copious attempt to decode them, come close to understanding them, or even, voluntarily, to mystify them. Technological progress in the very last few years has fostered margins of revolutionary improvement in the areas of A.I., regenerative medicine, genetic (counter)surveillance, and communications between Earth and Space. The works in the exhibition thus activate decoding processes and pave the way for new artistic experimentation and possible applications.
The expository journey starts with the Voynich manuscript, dated to the 15th century, widely described as “the most mysterious and esoteric book in the world” because it is written in an unknown and encrypted language. Attempts at translation have been many, but all the proposals made so far have turned out to be wrong. The artist Mariagrazia Pontorno wanted to translate part of the code, using machine learning and artificial intelligence but giving the machine the solution to find. By intentionally falsifying the result of the calculation and playing with Moravec’s paradox, widely used in the AI environment, according to which machines are good at what humans are weak at and vice versa, we witness a reinterpretation of the cosmic ordering, signifying crowns of petals floating on flowering stems and celestial symbols. Indeed, the work Super Hu.Fo* Voynich is born from the results guided by the unconscious impulses of the imagination, here represented by the childhood world of the child protagonist, and the range of possibilities that make human thought flexible and creative.
Brought together by the same questioning of the relationship between mythology and scientific facts, artist Robertina Šebjanič’s video essay Piscis Ludicrous / Transfixed Gaze | Lygophilia turns back to the root of the immortality code through the study of the relationship between humans and axolotl. The axolotl is a neotenic salamander native to North America, inhabiting lakes in the highlands of Mexico. It intrigued the ancient Aztecs because of its fascinating appearance and regenerative powers, and in the late 19th century, it began to be examined in the laboratory for the biological benefits of its perpetual youth.
Human impact, however, is endangering its survival and the entire ecosystem of the Xochimilco canals, the last remnants of a vast water transportation system built by the Aztecs, which have become an attraction for tourists and citizens alike. A narrative voice and some footage of the axolotls, against the backdrop of their natural habitat, guide the viewer to reflect on the symbolic significance of linking past and future life forms, and once again, to protect the ecology of coexistence and coexistence among species.
Life on the border between eternity and extinction, programmed obsolescence, and digital survival. The rush of multinational corporations for DNA lies along the thread of a process of generalized, extractive surveillance. Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a transdisciplinary artist, in her video DNA Spoofing, proposes some DIY techniques to counter genetic surveillance and confound its tracking and reconstruction from the genetic material that, as humans, we constantly disperse: hair, eyelashes, fingernails…
Just as IP spoofing—a particular type of attack that allows malicious actors to conceal their identity to be “trusted” by the intended victimmakes it possible to surf the Internet anonymously, DNA spoofing, through the scrambling of genetic material, extends that potential and enables anonymous physical trajectories along with digital ones.
The path concludes with A Sign in Space, an ongoing interdisciplinary project by media artist Daniela de Paulis. The project involves simulating an extraterrestrial message and launching it into orbit, with the involvement and collaboration of the global astrophysics community, including institutions such as the SETI Institute, the European Space Agency, the Green Bank Observatory, and INAF, the National Institute of Astrophysics. Using an ESA spacecraft as a celestial source, on May 24, 2023, a signal was transmitted from the Trace Gas Orbiter (an ESA probe orbiting Mars) and received by the Green Bank Telescope (West Virginia), the Medicine Radio Astronomical Station (Italy), the Allen Telescope Array (California), and the Very Large Array (New Mexico). The worldwide community of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, professionals from different fields, and the general public interested in new celestial challenges were involved in the reception, decoding, and interpretation of the message. The deciphering of the signal and its message, initiated on the project’s Discord channel, has set off an endless and varied process of interpretations that expose our technological and cultural limitations and, contextually, our fundamental need to transcend them.
(from the press release)
Unrolling the Code at Something Else III (Chief Curator: Simon Njami – Artistic Director: Moataz Nasr), curated by Elena Giulia Abbiatici, Citadel of Salah El Din, Cairo, 23.11 – 23.12.2023
*On the occasion of Something Else, a subchanel was created inviting artists, art professionals and others, to immerse themselves in this message interpretation operation. Something Else III, following the previous editions of Something Else – OFF Biennale Cairo in 2015 and 2018, is an extraordinary international art event that brings together 140 artists and 17 esteemed curators from around the world. This event explores profound questions using traditional and contemporary art forms, promising an engaging and thought-provoking experience. Citadel of Salah El Din serves as a backdrop, creating a bridge between the past and the contemporary. This experience is inspired by a commitment to continuous discovery and invention n the spirit of W.B. Yeats “The work is never finished” Therefore, our answer to the question “What next?” is “Something else.”
images: (cover 1)Robertina Sebjanic, ph: Uros Abram (2) Mariagrazia Pontorno,«Portrait» (3) Mariagrazia Pontorno, «SuperHu.Fo, Voynich» ,Videoinstallation, A.I., mixedmedia,2021 (4-5)Robertina Sebjanic, «Piscis-ludicrous-Tranfix-Gaze-Lygophilia», video essay, 2018, Still (6-7) Heather Dewey-Hagborg, «DNA Spoofing», video, 3’ 45”, 2013, with Aurelia Moser, Allison Burtch, and Adam Harvey (8) Daniela De Paulis, A Sign in Space, interdiciplinary project, ongoing from 2019 (9) Daniela De Paulis, Portrait