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Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is the artist behind The Substitute, the digital art installation at the centre of our new exhibition The Lost Rhino, which she curated and is now open. An artist for the Anthropocene, Ginsberg's work explores the interplay between technological advancement and our relationship with the natural world.
A resident at Somerset House Studios in London, Daisy studied architecture and then critical design (using design to ask questions, not make products), which led to spending a decade with synthetic biologists as she sought to understand how humans redesign nature. She has a PhD from the Royal College of Art (RCA).
Ginsberg's video artwork The Substitute is a life-size, northern white rhino that roams an empty white room and becomes increasingly “real” over time, before disappearing. With just two female northern white rhinos left in the world, Ginsberg created a digital rhino, informed by developments in artificial intelligence and copying its movements and vocalisations from research footage of the last herd in the early 2000s. The Substitute may look and sound like a rhino, but alone and away from its natural context, it is an imperfect copy. Through this artwork, Ginsberg wants visitors to think about what a rhino is, and why it matters.
We interviewed Ginsberg about her work as an artist, curating our display and her feelings on museums and archives.
Your art career didn’t start on the traditional route, what made you want to be an artist?
I think I've always been an artist, but I didn't know that I could call myself one. I was very interested in design, but not to become a designer – I wanted to understand why we design; what is this impulse that humans have to try to create a better world for ourselves? Why do we make things? Why do we think the world needs improvement? Is that human nature? Thinking through design was a way to explore the world and how humans interact with it.
I think being an artist is a privileged job, and I'm very lucky to do it. It also comes with responsibility: for me, that’s telling stories and asking questions about how we treat our natural world. My fascination with all sorts of subjects informs the way I work. It’s a joy to bring together these different ways of thinking into my practice and to hang out with experts and scientists and think about what it means to be a (human) animal.
Does your background in design feed into your art?
Absolutely. In 2008, I started hanging out with synthetic biologists, who are engineers working to design life itself by programming DNA code. This was a new field of genetic engineering, and I was stunned at how they were looking at living matter as a design material, something that humans can design to suit human needs – whether by engineering bacteria to produce fuel or medicines or by modifying coral to withstand climate change. As an outsider, I found this was a very different way to think about life and it raised a lot of questions for me about our relationship with life and the natural world, and the technologies we choose to create.
I'm curious about the technologies we value and invest in. They reveal a lot about our values. 500 years ago, the first rhino in modern times was brought to Europe as modern science emerged, and now scientists hope to bring back a rhino using sperm cells created from skin cells from a now-dead rhino. Why do modern western societies value new technology and new forms of life such as synthetic biology or artificial intelligence (AI) more than the fragile life that already exists around us? Why do we invest in innovation and the new rather than in protecting the natural environment that enables our existence?
Are there themes that appear repeatedly in your work?
I’ve thought a lot about the implications of designing living matter and how the people involved will have an impact on the future of nature itself. Over the last five years, I began to look more broadly at our relationship with nature, through technology. Nature and technology may seem like two very different things but investigating artificial intelligence or synthetic biology can reveal a lot about what we think life is. The last 500-plus years of European modernity have been rooted in the idea of humans being more powerful than nature, as better than it, and separate from it.
Extinction and loss are key themes in my work, alongside the creation of new forms of life, or copies of life. AI can be used to make deepfakes: huge databases of photos are used to train a neural network, which can then create new photos that have never existed. This technology, like any, can be used for good or bad. I wanted to learn more about how it works to explore what other implications making artificial things might have.
For Machine Auguries (2019), I worked with a string theory physicist to recreate the dawn chorus. We fed tens of thousands of recordings of different species of birds singing, from robins to chiffchaffs to great tits, into a kind of AI called a generative adversarial network. Over a week, the machine learnt the song of each of these different birds, and then the calls were assembled into a synthetic dawn chorus. As a visitor, you enter the darkened gallery, and the dawn light begins to rise. A natural bird calls out, and then an artificial bird responds. The chorus becomes increasingly discomforting as the machine birds take over from the natural birds. I wanted to bring attention to the dawn chorus – and the threat it faces, by creating an artificial version. There's a phenomenon called shifting baseline syndrome: we don't notice what slowly disappears. Each year there may be fewer birds, but it’s gradual over time so we don't notice what we’ve lost until it’s gone. Creating an artificial version creates tension. We are reminded of the beauty of the natural world by listening to a copy. Then the copy is all that’s left of reality.
What response do you want visitors to feel when they see The Lost Rhino?
I'm interested in the idea of beauty and what it means to us. You may think of beauty as harmonious, but I think beauty is uncanny and sublime. There's something immense and awesome about the natural world that we are part of. The rhinoceros is one of the greatest examples that we have today of the awesomeness of life. Rhinos have also lived in our imaginations for thousands of years, holding a special, symbolic place in cultures around the world. But there are no rhinos in The Lost Rhino exhibition – there are things that look like rhinos, sound like rhinos, and have a rhino’s cells, but none of them is a real, live rhino. I would love visitors to think about the question that puzzles me: what is a rhino and why does it matter that they live? Why should we need to protect them? We are surrounded by long-held cultural ideas about rhinos being strong and powerful, or stupid, savage, and wild. But like all life, they are fragile too.
Walking through the exhibition you’ll see four different representations of a rhino. You’re in the Natural History Museum expecting to see animals, but the displays aren’t the living breathing organisms that interact with their environments; they are physical memories. This is my provocation. You can create a picture of a rhino in your mind, but it's not the whole picture. In The Lost Rhino, reality slips away from us. These are symbols of an animal. So, what is an animal?
What does it mean for this exhibition to be at the Natural History Museum?
It’s exciting to show my work amongst the incredible collections and also to use my work to invite visitors to look back at the collections differently. As we rush through the Museum we may just see a model when we look at a taxidermy animal and forget that it was once an individual that lived. These lost animals are now important objects: the Museum is not just a place for visitors, it is a major scientific research centre that supports the future of the living world.
But what do we learn from a taxidermy rhinoceros? We can learn about its size and shape and its history. The southern white rhino in The Lost Rhino was killed in 1893. It was collected because there was an awareness that rhinos were disappearing. The logic was that it was important to have rhinos for the collection to be studied in the future when they had gone extinct.
It's interesting to show the rhino out of the context of the mammal display where it normally stands, so we can focus on thinking about what it means for life to be frozen in time. Who are these animals? What do they mean to us? I hope visitors will look at these objects differently and think about what it means to be an animal. A living thing is not an isolated object, it is a being that interacts with its ecosystem and its kin.
What's your opinion on archives? Does it still have meaning that we can draw and act on?
There's nothing more exciting than rummaging around in an archive! I want to know why someone has collected these things. Why are they important? What are they used for? What we collect tells us a lot about ourselves and the society we live in and that's important because it helps with understanding the world. Five hundred years ago, the people involved in the beginnings of modern science created cabinets of curiosities. These were collections assembled to create knowledge by assembling, ordering, and structuring the world - creating a very different kind of worldview. The scientific archive, in a way, represents the creation of the modern world.
What was it like to curate an installation with different elements?
The Lost Rhino contains some of the objects and idea that inspired The Substitute, so it’s been brilliant to bring them together with my artwork here at the Museum.
The exhibition is a cabinet of curiosity spanning 500 years. The most contemporary artefact is the video of the rhino’s beating heart cells and the earliest is a copy of Dürer’s 1515 image that was endlessly reproduced and became the icon of the rhino’s power. This idea of constantly copying an image despite its errors until it is all that is left informed my work – as did Dürer’s design of the rhino contained in its box.
And then there’s my artwork which in a way brings together all these things. It appears to be a living and breathing archival copy, but it's full of imperfections.
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?
I love bringing people together from many different fields to work together on ideas and then wrangling those ideas into life. Making The Substitute is a good example: a few weeks after Sudan’s death in 2018, I took part in a panel at London’s Science Museum talking about artificial life, but during the discussion, I experienced cognitive dissonance! As rhinos disappear thanks to human actions (and inaction), how could we be talking about humans controlling AI when we can’t control ourselves?
A few weeks later, I read a paper about an artificial agent learning to navigate around a room, written by a team led by Andrea Banino at the AI company DeepMind. I had been reading about Dürer’s rhinoceros… all the pieces came together and the idea for a new artwork came to life. I then came across the ethologist Dr Richard Policht, who had been studying the vocalisations of the northern white rhino. He kindly sent me 23 videotapes he shot of the last eight northern white rhinos when they were in the zoo in the Czech Republic in the early 2000s. The Substitute’s movements were informed by the experiment run by DeepMind. They let me use the experiments to allow my substitute rhino to perform like an AI, which the animation team brought to life. The Substitute became more interesting to us because of its connection to AI. Bringing this all together is what I get up to every day!
Your work often challenges the idea of whether human design truly makes things ' better' instead of embracing what we have. Can you see people turning away from this thirst for human advancement?
I like how the climate champion Christiana Figueres advocates for stubborn optimism. It would be easier to admit I’m a pessimist on issues of climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis, but we must hold on to hope. Actually, we have to create a hopeful world. I spent a few years trying to unpick the promise of ‘better’ – the promise that we can make a better world. What is better? Whose better is being delivered? Who gets to decide?
These ideas of better and progress are spread by modern humans - the western societies who colonised and destroyed so many other worldviews and other cultures. Why has this mindset supposedly rooted in betterment excluded care for the natural world that is essential to our own survival?
While I think we’re on a devastating and irreversible path, we must create stories to inspire people to think about what matters and to enable agency for change.
Although your work is speculative, do you think it can inspire others to a positive outcome?
I’m not sure I’d describe my work as speculative, more that it explores the imagination. But this question of outcomes is something I've asked myself about The Substitute, which is essentially an elegy to loss. What do I want people to do after experiencing it? You could donate to save the rhino. You could become an activist and demand change or find ways to intervene, but the rhino still feels very distant. Maybe that’s the fascination with this animal; we only experience its power through images and symbols. Why does it matter if this strange animal on the other side of the world lives or not? We see pictures of polar bears on melting ice caps, but what are we meant to do? It all feels so distant.
That’s something I’ve experimented with in Pollinator Pathmaker, my latest artwork. It's about agency. What can I do to feel less powerless?
Pollinator Pathmaker is an artwork for pollinators. At pollinator.art, you can use the artwork’s algorithm to generate planting designs that support the most species of pollinators possible. You don’t get a choice in how it looks; but you can download instructions to plant your unique edition of the artwork. As a human, your job is as the caretaker, not the consumer of the art. You tend the artwork so that pollinators can experience it. I’ve planted one with the Serpentine up the road in Kensington Gardens [map], which you can see after you’ve visited The Lost Rhino.
It's easier to think about that than a rhino on the other side of the world, but these are connected problems. How do we spend more time with nature? How do we see that as valuable and essential? It’s easy to feel like you don't have time with so many immediate pressures in the everyday. Stories can help us see value. I hope people join in and together make the world’s largest climate-positive artwork.
There is no future without living ecosystems but with the emergencies we face today, it's hard to manage both present and long-term thinking. Spending time looking after flowers for pollinators is a way to act in the present with a positive impact. Pollinator Pathmaker won’t solve the pollinator crisis, but like The Substitute, it reconnects each of us to consider nature’s sublime beauty and its value.
See the new art exhibition The Lost Rhino in our Jerwood Gallery in the Blue Zone until March 2023. Book your free ticket now.