Why should we bring back extinct species in virtual reality?
Postdoctoral research associate Sarah Bezan delves into an imaginative space of future revived species.
Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen describes the present ecological age as one infected with ‘a collective anxiety that everything will vanish.’ To mitigate this anxiety, Steensen uses virtual reality (VR) technologies to create spaces where extinct species can live on in new environments.
But what do we gain by bringing back extinct species in virtual reality?
This question is an interesting one to ask as we venture further into an age of species revival. The prospect of bringing back extinct species through de-extinction science (through the means of gene editing, reproductive cloning technologies, and back breeding) invites us to imagine what these revived species and ecological habitats might look like, and how they might function.
To delve deeper into this imaginative space of future revived species, my research looks to speculative narratives and artistic representations of genetic rescue. Since de-extinction is a prospective conservational programme (comprised of a set of tools still in development), I argue that we are at a critical juncture in time in which authors and artists are creating the cultural space necessary to explore the environmental risks and potentials of de-extinction, along with the shifting emotional contours of species loss and revival in the twenty-first century.
My research showcases how narratives, film, art, and digital media situate emerging cultural attitudes toward human-driven species loss and revival. My analysis of ecological emotions like sublimity and bewilderment in Steensen’s installations Re-Animated (2018-2019) and Re-Wildling (2018), for instance, demonstrates that Steensen’s revival of extinct species in virtual reality expands the emotional register of extinction beyond the more familiar terrain of mourning and melancholia and into a realm that engenders alternative emotions, sensations, and technologically remediated encounters with extinct species.
The Species Revivalist Sublime
Re-Animated stimulates an ecological emotion that I am calling the species revivalist sublime. I define this as an affective experience that takes VR users into a space of reflection upon the sublimity of biotechnological potentials.
To enter the VR space that Steensen has created, I want you to imagine that you’re putting on a VR headset. The headset is receptive to your breath and movement. You feel a bed of wood chips beneath your feet, simulating the forest floor. What you experience at the outset of the 14 minute and sixteen second VR video of Re-Animated is a descent from an altitude of 12,000 feet onto the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Navigating your way through the fog and mist, a narrator’s voice informs you that you are falling through the air and through the ages.
Just like the explorers, missionaries, and naturalists who altered the habitat of the islands over the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, you are making your arrival. The narrator introduces you to Reverend Dwight Baldwin, a nineteenth-century missionary doctor and patriarch of what would become Hawaii’s first pineapple business and one of several sugarcane plantations. Reverend Baldwin is one of a number of nineteenth-century colonizers who witnessed the 1826 arrival of the mosquito, a carrier of avian malaria that wiped out a large number of Hawaiian bird species. By orienting users to the perspective of European figures like Baldwin, the VR film’s opening scene demonstrates how the sublime aesthetic remains nostalgically entangled in the destructive fantasy of Western arrival into what colonizers perceived to be untouched natural landscapes replete with species as yet unknown to natural science. This opening scene references the history and aesthetic traditions of the sublime, which is rooted in the hierarchical separation of humans and ‘nature,’ in which nature is overpowered and objectified.
But as the VR film continues, Steensen’s use of the sublime aesthetic is put to new ends by presenting users with a virtual object: a sonic, 3D representation of the ‘ō‘ō bird’s mating call. This object is one of a number of Steensen’s creations, appearing alongside a mausoleum space with 2D billboard-sized photographs of dead ‘ō‘ō birds from a museum archive, along with fantastically overscaled electric bug zappers, and a giant zombie bird.
Through the 3D sonic representation of the ‘ō‘ō bird’s mating call, Steensen repurposes the sublime aesthetic to critique the hierarchical separation of humans and nature. This is achieved by expanding the limits of audio nature recordings, which work by imposing a static frame on the time and space of an environment in order to preserve it as an objective reality for a human listener. An example of this is the MP3 audio recording of the last ‘ō‘ō bird mating call, which has been archived in the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This recording has also been made widely available on YouTube, where it has to date garnered well over a million and a half views and more than a thousand elegiac tributes in the comments section. The recording of the last ‘ō‘ō continues to elicit a strong elegiac response because listeners recognize it as a static, one-sided communication; a message transmitted to a mate that no longer exists. But by isolating the ‘ō‘ō bird’s mating call and emblematizing it as the voice of extinction, this acoustically engineered sound amplifies the hierarchical separation between the human listener and the natural environment.
The problem with this, as Jody Berland argues in her book Virtual Menageries, is that the ‘sonic individualization’ of birdsong in nature recordings eliminates the background noises of nature, along with all the layers of musical phrases and responses that might “speak to us of the complexity of presence, interaction, noise and loss.” The 3D sonic mating call does something very different. Blending together the foreground and background sounds of nature recordings through the multisensorial capacities of VR, Steensen allows the user to serve as an interactive responder to the mating call. Unlike the passive listener of the MP3 recording, the VR user is confronted with a distorted and incomplete 3D sonic object that metonymically stands in for the body of a bird that is distinctly absent. In the absence of the body of the bird, the sonic object takes on a larger-than-life, awe-inducing quality that showcases its embedded relations with the forest and its inhabitants, including the VR user who encounters it. By activating multiple senses in the user, from sight and sound to a sense of movement in space, the user learns how, in Berland’s terms, to situatedly listen.
This act of situated listening is achieved through the VR user’s embodied and immersive encounter with the 3D mating call. About halfway through the VR video, the user enters a mausoleum space. Here, you follow the camera as it lingers over the 2D photographs of ‘ō‘ō bird skins from the museum. The buzz of flies and the symphonious chirps, clicks, and tweets of forest creatures fill the mausoleum space. Next, the user encounters a feathered orb that descends from the sky through a hole in the mausoleum ceiling. A percussive cracking similar to the snapping of twigs can be heard as the orb and the mausoleum walls melt away, revealing silvery sonographic ribbons of sound that undulate and swell in time with the mating call. Juxtaposed with the self-enclosed vacuity of the audio recording of the last ‘ō‘ō and the funereal realism of the 2D photographs on display in the mausoleum, the 3D sonic object unites ‘ō‘ō birdsong with the creaturely operatics of the simulated forest.
This interactive, embodied, and experiential encounter with the ‘ō‘ō’s mating call offers a new perspective on the mediated relationship between human technologies and extinct species. At a time when natural environments and species are rapidly disappearing and being preserved in archives of data and text, the VR environment becomes a place where the user not only grieves but also creates new memories with the reanimated extinct bird. As such, the film captures an encounter with what is to come rather than merely a representation of what is past.
The elevated affective and aesthetic experience that has been afforded by VR exemplifies what philosophical anthropologist Jos de Mul explains as the “second” or “next natures” of the biotechnological sublime. In de Mul’s definition, the biotechnological sublime marks that historic shift from nature to technology that characterizes the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while also signalling the emergence of other converging technologies like biotechnology. Building on de Mul’s analysis, I propose that through the user’s novel encounters with recreated virtual landscapes and digital objects, the species revivalist sublime takes users beyond standard elegiac expressions in order to explore the second natures of extinction. In this way, Steensen makes it possible for the user to reflect upon the sublimity of the ‘ō‘ō’s biotechnological afterlife.
Re-Wildling, on the other hand, evokes feelings of bewilderment, which is a cognitive and affective condition that meets head on with the disorienting perplexity of what it means to be Extinct in the Wild — in other words, for a species to be lost, and out of place. As both an ecological emotion and a spatial (dis)orientation, bewilderment is a response that shows us the limits of the definition of extinction, and by extension, the meaning of rewilding.
Declared Extinct in the Wild in 2002, the Hawaiian crow (or ‘alalā as it is known in Native Hawaiian) is understood to be extinct insofar as it is out of place, out of the wild. Engaging in a speculative play on the spatial (dis)orientations of the crow’s Extinct in the Wild status, Steensen presents users with a virtual object: an aqueous floating orb. This orb acts as a spiritual portrayal of the crow as a guiding ancestral deity, or ‘aumakua, in accordance with Native Hawaiian mythology. As a watery medium — that is, as a psychic channel and as a mode of transportation that leads the user through the VR space — the orb gestures to the paranormality of extinct species like the ‘alalā, which has been in this liminal space between extant and extinct. In foregrounding Native Hawaiian cosmologies, the orb contributes to the disorder of the elements as it moves the VR user away from natural scientific methods of ordering.
In the first several minutes of Re-Wildling, the forest materializes and the raucous caws of the crow fill the headset. Tracking the sound, the camera pans left to right, scanning through the foliage from below, then tilting upwards into the overstory. A speaker’s voice is heard imploring to his companions: “any sign of that uphill bird still calling?” The speaker’s companions reply in the negative as a droplet of water filled with feathers begins to grow on the horizon. After the first minute marker, the orb begins to grow in size, spinning on its axis. The speaker declares that he will head uphill to continue his search. By the end of minute two, the droplet fades from view as the camera recedes into the shade of the vegetation overhead.
This opening scene of the film toggles between what Steensen calls the “middle existence.” This is the space that separates the screen, the 3D storyworld of VR, and the natural environment. This “middle existence” is signalled through a play of light captured on the flat screen of the VR headset itself. In this opening scene, and throughout the entire VR film, users encounter a curious arrangement of lens flares, refractive halos and small “droplets” of light and mist on the headset screen. Some of these “droplets” are mobile, floating through the user’s field of vision, while others are stationary, as if adhered to the very surface of the screen. While these glowing dots of light, also known as “backscatter,” are normally edited out of photographs, Steensen deliberately incorporates these near-camera reflections into the VR film to enhance the immersive experience of the user, who is surrounded by these virtual motes of dust, mist, and other airborne particles as if they are actually traversing the Hawaiian forest.
The refractive halos of light and droplets of mist that are visible throughout the VR film can also be interpreted as a disorder of the elements, echoing the upheaval created by anthropogenic extinctions within habitats like Hawai‘i’s mesic forest, where the ‘alalā once made their home. These extinctions have come in several waves since early Polynesian settlement around 1000 CE and more dramatically since European colonization in the 18th century, as we saw in the opening scene of Re-Animated. Through the dissolution of water as one of the primary elements —alongside earth, air, and fire — Steensen uses the symbolic power of water to ‘wild’ orders and methods of ordering, blurring the edges between elements and species that are typically arranged within Western classificatory systems.
The aqueous floating orb ushers users into an animal afterlife in which the boundaries between species and even the elements themselves begin to dissolve. This positions users to reflect upon the ontological liminality of the crow’s own Extinct in the Wild (EW) status. Here we might ask ourselves: what does it mean for the crow, which is understood to be an ancestral guide for recently departed spirits, to be lost?
Steensen’s use of the aqueous floating orb exposes the limits of the definition of ‘Extinct in the Wild.’ But it also allows for a critique of the conservational practice of rewilding, a practice founded upon the increasingly outmoded and fraught category of the “wild” in its aim to revive and restore species and ecological relationships. Although the title of Steensen’s film appeals to some kind of a future — one in which the Hawaiian crow is rewilded, thereby mitigating population decline and even reversing its Extinct in the Wild status — Re-Wildling does not offer a truly “wild” precolonial past nor does it imagine a “naturally” restored and fully rewilded postcolonial future. In the VR film, there is no originary or ideal “wilderness” to which the ‘alalā can return: there are only strange and novel encounters with a habitat that has been forever altered.
So what do we gain by bringing back extinct species in virtual reality?
What my work reveals is that by stimulating alternative ecological emotions like sublimity and bewilderment, Steensen’s digital artwork outlines a new set of conservational and cultural values that are shaping our responses to the sixth mass extinction crisis. While conservational practices like rewilding and de-extinction are often presented as a way to reverse the loss of extinct species and to restore ecological relationships lost due to human activity, Steensen’s artwork reveals that truly “authentic” rehabilitation is a fantasy. By identifying new conservational and cultural values like novelty and recreativity, Steensen is one of a number of authors and artists I’ve identified in my research who maintains space for the processing of grief while also working to critically expand our limited repertoire of affective expressions to account for the evolving meanings and processes of species loss and revival in the twenty-first century.
Dr. Sarah Bezan
Acknowledgements: Many thanks go to Jakob Kudsk Steensen for granting permission to reproduce images of Re-Animated and Re-Wildling.