Resurrecting the Sublime: The Smell of Gaia’s Molecules
Resurrecting the Sublime, a time-bending project by Sissel Tolaas, Christina Agapakis, and Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg at the 2021 Venice Biennale, found its origins in the Harvard University Herbaria, a library of extinct specimens. Tissue samples of floras were then collected, and the gene sequences that could code for the flowers’ smell molecules were subsequently identified and isolated by the team. These tissue samples were later inserted into yeast for a ‘brewing process’ that allowed for the cultivation of the flowers’ smell molecules. Lists of possible smell molecules that the flowers might have produced were later sent to Sissel Tolaas, who managed to recreate what the flower might have smelt like using various smell molecules in her archive or by merging comparative ones.
Installation view of Resurrecting the Sublime at Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne, March 2019. Credit: Dr. Christina Agapakis, Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sissel Tolaas, with support from Ginkgo Bioworks and IFF Inc. ©️ Alex Cretey-Systermans
The installation illuminates a regenerative element that all beings possess: the fluidity of molecular life. It engages with the microscale of biological ecosystems to parse out new futures. Extinction debates tend to revolve around a very macro/external view of the predicament; however, the artwork hints to the idea that perhaps the solution lies within the transformative potential existing at the molecular level. Sublimation and transmutation are one in the same. Leaning into this idea, new innovations in the race against extinction and in the resurrection of nature could abound.
Resurrecting the Sublime both celebrates the advancements in biotechnology while also laying bare its shortcomings: despite the scientific expertise involved in recreating these forever lost smells, the manufactured smells will never exactly mirror the originals. Thus, it provokes a sensory and emotional response to species death. All is not lost though; what other regenerative actions can we elicit in the revitalisation of our natural ecosystems? How can we use biotechnology and art as a tool to deepen empathy and our responsibility to the planet? The resurrection of nature will not be one isolated event, but a series of many compounding manoeuvres towards biodiversity and non-hierarchical organisations of socio-environmental space.
Panellists at Resurrecting the Sublime: The Smell of Gaia’s Molecules
As well as posing questions on the Anthropocene, Resurrecting the Sublime examines the interplay between art, science and philosophy, and contemplates our future with or without genetic engineering and biotechnology. Reviving the smell of an extinct flower so that humans may again experience something they have destroyed is both beguiling and ‘sublime’. COVID-19 has heightened our collective awareness of death, illness, and grief, and also of the microscopic material that makes up our bodies and lives, with trillions of bacteria, molecular signals, and energy passing between matter any given moment. To think that humans can engineer immortality is still largely out of the frame of our scientific reference point. However, how can we implement a molecular scale into human design processes and urban planning that promotes sustainability and wellbeing for all inhabitants on the planet? Even if we don’t have a magic wand to turn back time, there are individual and collective decisions that we can make every day that, while they may not be able to fully bring back the flowers of prehistoric times, could allow us to commune with the ones that are still here.
1. How can we use biotechnology and art as a tool to deepen empathy and our responsibility to the planet?
2. What can the link between smell and memory be used to utilised for wellbeing?
3. What role can molecular intervention and experimentation play in the resurrection of nature?
4. What regenerative actions can we elicit in the revitalisation of our natural ecosystems
5. How can we implement a molecular scale into human design processes and urban planning that promotes sustainability and wellbeing for all inhabitants on the planet?
6. How do we want to live together as our own ecosystem (including with microbes and bacteria)?
Sissel Tolaas (Artist and Researcher)
Stefano Mancuso (Co-Founder of Pnat, Author & Professor of Botany at University of Florence)
Refik Anadol (Media Artist and Designer)
Not Vital (Artist)
Nina Gualinga (Environmental and Indigenous Rights Activist)
Salome Rodeck (Cultural Historian)
Jeanne de Kroon (Social Entrepreneur)
Hala Wardé (Architect)
Joseph Grima (Architect, Curator, Editor and Co-Founder of Space Caviar)
Hans Ulrich Obrist (Artistic Director, Serpentine)
Mikolaj Sekutowicz (CEO and Curator, Therme Art)
In partnership with
Refif Anadol, Salome Rodeck, Not Vital
Stefano Mancuso, Sissel Tolaas, Nina Gualinga, Mikolaj Sekutowicz, Monilola Ilupeju
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hala Wardé
Jeanne de Kroon
Photo Credits: Therme Art © Francesco Allegretto