with Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta
By Joe Ferguson, contributor
Think apocalyptic floods followed by oppressive droughts. Multiply by thousands of years. Now imagine transcontinental migration. Not once. Not one way. Up and over and back again. Picture volcanic eruptions and thunderous tectonic upheaval.
It was once thought that our evolution - like uniform geological progression - marched slowly and steadily forward. Imperceptibly small morphological changes occurred stepwise, and over thousands to millions of years one species gave birth to a new one. The simplicity of this linear model, while seductive, hardly describes the cataclysmic fits and starts of human history. We faced remarkably challenging environmental changes that sometimes occurred quite rapidly. It was our ability to adapt that allowed us to overcome, to survive and thrive.
Once again, the climate is changing. Regardless on which side of the fence you are sitting in regard to causation, we are faced with a disturbing question: Are we at peak biology, or will our inherent plasticity be required again?
That question is the premise of the at-times unsettling art of Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta. Their works presuppose a world in which humans have evolved—sometimes forcibly through the use of technology - to overcome the hurdles of a less-welcoming environment and overpopulation.
More than amusing or fantastical fictions, their works take inspiration from many fields of science and technology. For instance, imagine a world in which humans receive their energy through photosynthesis. Think of what it would be like to visit your gastroenterologist for behavioral management, or to have an extra stomach organ embedded to assist with digesting contaminated food. We discuss these ideas and others in the following interview.
Joe Ferguson: Tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to work together.
Michael Burton: I grew up on a farm in Cambridgeshire, U.K. It was this immersion in the countryside along with a young fascination of nature and being hands-on with growing food, tending to livestock, and making things such as rafts, which helped catalyze an interest in science and art.
I studied fine art sculpture before joining the Design Interaction program at the Royal College of Art. It was at the Royal College of Art where I met Michiko.
Michiko Nitta: I grew up in Tokyo, Japan. We met each other when we both studied at Royal College of Art. After working as individual artists for a few years we started to work together in 2009. We found ourselves having similar interests, but having completely different backgrounds. This led us to start a multidisciplinary/multicultural practice.
JF: Did particular aspects of science and art inspire you?
MB: There was a choice in my education whether to follow art or science. As a result, an interest in science has always followed alongside my art practice.
MN: Since a young age, I wanted to become someone who could save animals’ lives. My dream was becoming a veterinarian, which naturally led me to be interested in math and science. I was also hugely inspired by my mother who worked as a background artist in the Japanese animation industry. This led me to practice art/design/manga/anime/drawing throughout my life, exposing myself heavily to Japanese manga, anime, and game culture, and happily living in multiple, artificial worlds.
Those two interests fused naturally when I started my career as an artist/designer.
JF: Do you face scientific or artistic roadblocks in your work? What are they, and how do you overcome them?
MB: Every project has its own challenges, but instead of considering them as negative, they become essential in gaining new perspectives with creative potentials. Sometimes the roadblocks that might be experienced - such as legislation or restriction of access to technology, sites, or funding - reveal something quite interesting about the bigger systems we work within or how society, law, or culture create risk, security, secrecy, or hierarchy of priorities. With a critical approach, the entire process can enrich the work produced.
MN: We do face roadblocks in many ways, but one thing we promise in our practice is that these roadblocks do not pose burdens but creative challenges - perhaps this is how any practice would face such roadblocks. The good side of these challenges is that they become a good story to share between ourselves and others, and create good memories of our lives.
JF: Your work is inspired by science. Describe your process.
MB: Our works span a range of processes and collaborations. Each piece starts with a curiosity and means to approach the questions of “Who are we?” and “Who or what might we be in the future?” Science is one important source of inspiration that reveals and uncloaks altered visions of ourselves and who we might become.
Our works aim to construct world-views and transformations of what could be. Although we often speculate into future contexts, the concepts we explore probe the now - “who we are,” our current dreams and desires. By inspiring an audience to question "what could be" and allowing time-travel or journeys to parallel universes, we offer a reflective space to allow viewers to find a relationship to their own views and the current time/place.
We are fascinated with, what we call, the messiness of human beings and the process of cultural formation. Within this messiness, our works aim to explore the interlocking spheres of influence, behavior, rituals, and beliefs that shape our world, that may originate from rational fact or myth, belief or the less tangible.
Ultimately our works aim to form emotional connections. Sometimes the scientific interruptions are extrapolated into the unintentional use of technology to offer new connections with ourselves, each other, and the world where we live.
MN: Our practice creates speculative futures by looking at how humans can evolve differently when influenced by disruptive technologies such as nano- and synthetic technologies, and how this can change according to one’s dreams and desires. Our artwork starts from this interest, and then we collaborate with exciting scientists and technologists.
We get inspired and excited by emergent technologies, and in what science and technology can offer humans in ways that we’ve never thought of. For us, these big steps in human evolution are not only adding new abilities, but also leading us to create an alternative world where we can thrive differently. We speculate an alternative world and culture which we offer the audience an opportunity to experience and engage with emotionally.
We aim to work in a cross-disciplinary way, and to open our ideas to other disciplines - such as scientists, technologists, other artists, musicians, and performers. In this way, we get richer responses for an art piece.
JF: Some view your work as dystopian - a frightening biological outcome of our contemporary choices. Another perspective is hopeful - that our rugged biology will adapt to allow us to survive. Which is it?
MB: The provocations that are expressed in our work seek to create jolts from the current worldview and to challenge viewers to consider other ways of being. As such, the positions we take - whether they might be considered dystopic or utopic - are navigations of the consequences and implications of our collective actions. These positions and provocations materialize through the use of design, prototypes, and speculations. The critical reflections underpinning them are not solutions and neither take the position of desirable or otherwise. Instead they present the challenge to reconsider ourselves, and the sacrifices we might be called to make if we continue on current paths.
JF: The idea of an ideal diet based on our evolutionary past is in vogue and the destruction of our microbiome through antibiotics has become a medical issue. How does your work address these issues?
MB: Landscape Within can be considered as a challenge to the idea that diets based on our evolutionary past are still relevant in the future - when our world has moved on. We consider the question of “How can we evolve to this future world?” to be a more interesting discussion.
As suggested by environmental epidemiological research, some aspects of the food chain have been changed by contamination and waste which circulates on a global scale. The piece posits that a choice we face is how our food systems and dietary behavior now evolve to this world of our making. We are fascinated by how the microbiome and the concept of the human super-organism can create adaptations to live in contaminated and toxic environments where food is grown.
MN: With Landscape Within we hoped to engage the audience with the fact of human contamination. It originally came from when we worked with a cross-disciplinary team of scientists who were working on a project called Cleaning Land for Wealth. We were hugely inspired by different disciplines such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology working together to create different organisms - like micro bacteria and plants - that allow for a big leap in human evolution.
We created a performance piece called Instruments of the Afterlife in response to this scientific project. We wanted to address the questions: How can we avoid making the same mistakes? How can humans thrive in the late Anthropocene where there is no escape from the contamination we created?
JF: Algaculture also seems a comment on the Anthropocene. Tell us about this work.
MN: As artists, we think a lot about the future. Historically, humans were hunter-gatherers and we made a huge step in human evolution 10,000 years ago when we set the first seed, stored crops, and began the Agricultural Revolution. After 10,000 years of sustained agriculture, we are now facing the threat of a food shortage in an overpopulated world, which is predicted to happen by the year 2050.
With our first project Algaculture, it was very important for us to change the question from “What will we eat in the future?” to “How do we fuel our body alternatively in the future?”
We attempted to engage the audience with an alternative vision of how we could thrive happily in a different world - in an age of food shortage - in which humans don't eat but sunbathe to get energy. We posed many questions, such as: What kind of house would we be living in? What kind of restaurants would we go to? How could we redesign the city to follow the journey of the sun? If we could get energy from sunbathing, what kind of sensational experience would we receive from the process?
We created Algaculture as an art installation, to let the audience experience this new world.
JF: Your work implies solutions through the amalgam of technology and biology. Is that how you see humanity’s future? Is that your hope or a warning?
MB: Our work doesn’t present solutions, but does speculate how technology will ultimately be applied. The pieces reflect on the human animal, our motives, and the external pressures of how technology might be used. The resulting world-views that we speculate in response to these technological disruptions act to remind us that actions and choices have consequences, often unseen or interconnected with other agents of change. When a technology and biological interaction is created, we propose: we exist within a complicated and connected world, with far-reaching implications on who we are, how we think, which inadvertently send us on paths into unknown worlds. By understanding who we are as a human animal, we ask “Can we evolve to future worlds and experience other ways of being?”
MN: When we make our artworks, we never try to solve problems nor predict the future. Instead, we create alternative future worlds to engage the audience and allow them to explore the endless possibilities in which humans can evolve and thrive—possibilities that can change according to our dreams and desires. Rather than giving solutions, we create artworks that reflect alternative visions of what humans and the world could be in the future. In this way we hope to inspire the audience with a different way of thinking about the future, as well as engage them on an emotional level so as to embed the ideas in their memories. So, if some of our audience is angry, sad, happy, or disgusted that’s okay. All audience emotions count as success for me.