[ISEA2020] Introduction: Christine Ross & Chris Salter — Preface Proceedings and Catalogue

In late August 2019, when the ISEA 2020 academic committee began discussing the theme of “Why Sentience”? little did we know how prescient the topic would become.With the initial themes tossed around – “animality,” “the politics of sentience,”“sentient difference” and “matter’s mattering” – we were trying to capture the significance of a broader symbiotic turn taking place in the technoscientific arts, humanities and social sciences – the term that the late biologist Lynn Margulis used to describe “the living together in physical contact of organisms of different species.”[1] Living together, however, involves sensing together – where the etymology of the Latin word sentientem signifies being “capable of feeling,” not only for ourselves but also for others. But we weren’t wholly satisfied with the theme of “sentience” alone – we sought to turn it into a question to demonstrate that living together as different species is not easy, especially among entities and things we wouldn’t necessarily consider “like us”: nonhuman animals, plants, bacteria but also machines and the Earth itself. By making sentience into the question of “why sentience,” we thus hoped to provoke a debate around two core issues: (1) why is sentience something that presently occupies many artists, scholars and scientists and, (2) what degree and nuance of difference would a deeper exploration of sentience imply?

This was in August 2019. One year later, we are living through a triple catastrophe: the novel coronavirus, the resulting economic collapse and the worldwide unrest brought upon by the exposure and explosion of systematic racism, as well as gender based violence. These crises have resulted in a major transformation of human and nonhuman life, bringing the theme of ISEA 2020 into a new perspective. It is not that the virus – an invisible entity that some 25% of US citizens (as well as others) think has been invented and planned by a worldwide conspiracy but that has visibly wreaked havoc across the world – is unprecedented. From the Black Death that eliminated at least 60% of Europe’s population between 1346-1353 and the 40-100 million lost during the Spanish Flu, to 2003’s SARS epidemic, we as humans have long had to live with the otherness of the bacterial and the viral. As historian Mike Davis wrote with uncanny foresight in 2005 in The Monster at our Door, “Human-induced environmental shocks — overseas tourism, wetland destruction, a corporate ‘Livestock Revolution’, and Third World urbanization with the attendant growth of megaslums—are responsible for turning influenza’s extraordinary Darwinian mutability into one of the most dangerous biological forces on our besieged planet.”[2] What, however, is unprecedented is the planetary scale and speed of this entanglement of contemporary conditions in which socio-technicalpolitical-economic systems are so deeply and fundamentally intertwined with and influencing each other.

But what does this global crisis we are all living through have to do with the theme of Why Sentience? First, the “pandemic condition” has demonstrated that viral, machinic and terrestrial forces are indeed symbiotic. For example, a May 2020 Science article reported on a global “quieting” taking place as the amount of “anthropogenic” (human made) vibrations fell by almost 50% due to the effective shutdowns of the world economy. Utilizing a network of 268 seismographic sensors in 117 countries, geophysicists at Imperial College London could observe a literal “wave of silence” sweeping across the globe from China to Europe to Australia to North and South America as transport networks, football games, air traffic and effectively stopped. This near planetary reduction in noise catalyzed by the global shutdown and picked up by machine-automated sensors thus shows the close coupling of technical, natural and human worlds. Meanwhile, the media have also been filled with stories of renewal – the return of the natural world in the canals of Venice, the purifying of air in normally pollution-choked global cities or the increase in birdsong, usually masked out by the sound of transport infrastructure.

At the same time, if sentience signifies “the ability to feel,” the crisis has also revealed the inability to feel – to sense the plight of others. As Davis argues, “The essence of the avian flu threat … is that a mutant influenza of nightmarish virulence—evolved and now entrenched in ecological niches recently created by global agro-capitalism—is searching for the new gene or two that will enable it to travel at pandemic velocity through a densely urbanized and mostly poor humanity.”[3] The ingrained injustices of the colonial past and the repeated and acute amplification of these through our pandemic present thus compel us to address the hard questions asked by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe concerning what he calls “the ordeal of the world” – “Can the Other, in light of all that is happening, still be regarded as my fellow creature? When the extremes are broached, as is the case for us here and now, precisely what does my and the other’s humanity consist in? The Other’s burden having become too overwhelming, would it not be better for my life to stop being linked to its presence, as much as its to mine? Why must I, despite all opposition, nonetheless look after the other, stand as close as possible to his life if, in return, his only aim is my ruin?”[4]

These questions are not the usual bill of fare for ISEA, which has long been focused on the relationship between technology and the arts. Indeed, in these proceedings you will find this focus again – along with perhaps something new: critical positions in race and anti-racism studies, queer studies and disability studies, Indigenous knowledge, eco-criticism, reflections and interrogations of the histories and geographies, places and non-places, temporalities, processes, and residual colonialisms of sentience through an international cross section of current explorations in the media arts and technological aesthetics. As philosopher Bernard Stiegler (1952-2020), the great pharmacologist of technology who recently left us, argued: now is perhaps the time to think as a form of healing.

Like most cultural events in 2020, ISEA2020 is thus both a response to crisis and an experience with a not yet realized imaginary. Experience here is used in the French sense of the word: as both an experiment, an attempt and an experience . Through these contributions from scholars and creators from across the world, it is our hope that the question of why sentience – of not only sensing the world but also acting with it – can be a response to our more than uncertain future.

[1] Margulis, Lynn. The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York: Basic Books, 1988, 3.
[2] Mike Davis, The Monster at our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. New York/London: New Books, 2005, 25.
[3] Davis, 26.
[4] Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019, 2-3.

  • Christine Ross, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
  • Chris Salter, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada