The things we create define us, as a culture and as a species. Yet, so often, as we hurtle into the future, our creations seem to take on a life of their own. For just over a year, the artist Morehshin Allahyari has partnered with the writer Daniel Rourke on a project that grapples with this conundrum in such a mind-expanding way that, after speaking with the pair about their work, my brain was reeling. This is a story of two people who, while working to explore the nuances and politics of a new creative medium, have found themselves entangled with a philosophical conundrum: What does it mean to be more than human?
It all began when the pair set forth to investigate the hidden politics of 3-D printing. This endeavor was articulated when Allahyari and Rourke published “The 3-D Additivist Manifesto,” which calls for today’s artists and engineers to push additive technologies (that is, software and hardware used to create 3-D-printed objects) to their absolute limits, into “the realm of the speculative, the provocative, and the weird.” But what, exactly, does this mean?
From Allahyari and Rourke’s efforts to define this, the Additivism project has taken on a life of its own. Deeply concerned with the morality of presumably innovative technologies, the politics of augmented humans, and questions about our planet’s future, the project’s creators are working at the forefront of conceptual creativity.
I spoke to Allahyari and Rourke over Skype, and as our video avatars resolved from fuzzy to crystal-clear, I began to feel conscious of the whole experience as a metaphor for a future in which humans may not be bound by time and space but instead by the forces that connect us. As sentient beings, we’re connected to each other by the characteristics that define our shared past, present, and future, yet there seems to be little agreement on how all those connections should coalesce. Imagining and building an intentional future is not yet something that our species has figured out, but the question remains: How can we make the most of our shared knowledge, to build what comes next?
Interestingly, Allahyari and Rourke see the processes of renewal as holding our species back: as time moves along, we are conceptually tethered to a cycle, looking at what came before as leading to what comes next. In this sense, there’s no way to shed old ways and move into a new era of existence; we’re always limited by our past. Knowing this, how can we aim for something better, and shed the behaviors, models, and mindsets that are limiting our species to less-than-ideal ways of existing?
Allahyari frames her notion of the future: “I consider this new species ‘other than human’ or ‘more than human.’ While the center for the singularity and Silicon Valley is the white male, for us the center is something else.” For Rourke, who’s pushing us to think beyond the cliché futures trumpeted by science-fiction movies, the future of humanity is “something unsayable.”
What’s interesting about the Additivism project is Allahyari and Rourke’s insistence on expanding our minds to embrace abstract concepts of the future. With the “3-D Additivist Manifesto,” the pair took a cue from Jorge Luis Borges, who was fascinated by the idea of a limited list of endless things. In the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,” a fictitious taxonomy of animals described by Borges in a 1942 essay, the author sought to articulate the arbitrary specificity forced on our minds as we attempt to understand the world through language, symbols, and other invented tropes that make strangeness more digestible.
After Michel Foucault read Borges’s essay, he essentially said that the list shattered all the familiar landmarks of thought, which, in a sense, is what Allahyari and Rourke are attempting. Additivism aims to blow your mind, if only to give you room to build a new brain, limitless in its capacities and potential. In their manifesto, they’ve made a Borges-inspired list of radical things, beginning with familiar concepts—violence, protests, weapons— and ending with made-up words, ideas, and sounds that are expansively weird, spiritual, abstract, and nonsensical. But for them, this is just the beginning.
As Rourke explains, “Capitalism will always bring us back to what is ‘normal,’ but we are calling for a radical openness, where we don’t need to understand everything.” Why? To paraphrase Rourke, there have got to be better ways of being, and moving beyond the concepts that limit us is the only way to head in the right direction.
As the next part of the Additivism project, Allahyari and Rourke are putting together the “3-D Additivist Cookbook,” an open-source publication that will feature more than seventy critical essays, instructions, blueprints, 3-D design files, and beyond. Loosely inspired by William Powell’s 1971 Anarchist’s Cookbook, Allahyari and Rourke are interested in how their “3-D Additivist Cookbook” will be radical in an entirely different way than that of its Vietnam-era predecessor.
Says Rourke, “Powell’s cookbook has become a symbol for certain kinds of radicality. When people think about a radical act, they think of a violent act. The thing about Powell’s cookbook is that, yes, it included some things that could have been violent, but the book was written from the perspective of a guy who had utopian values. Part of its potential was that it could invoke people’s imaginations. Powell’s cookbook was more exciting for young people because it represented a space that was outside of society, filled with potential and different ways of acting and being—a creative, other space.” In other words, the directions and recipes within the book are irrelevant to its power as a muse and a symbol. “It becomes this kind of representation of creativity and potential,” says Rourke.
This reminds me of Umberto Eco’s antilibrary—our collection of unread books—and a Lincoln Steffens quote: “It is our knowledge—the things we are sure of—that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.” Creative potential is more exciting, and perhaps more dangerous, when it’s not bound to literal or physical manifestations. Allahyari takes the 3-D-printed gun as an example: “You can’t really print a gun and get it to work…it’s much easier to buy a gun. The reason the idea [of a 3-D-printed gun] is powerful is because it suggests the potential of the technology.”
I asked Allahyari and Rourke whether they were concerned with how people might react to their radical cookbook, given the fate of the Anarchist’s Cookbook, which has been labeled as a tool for terrorists, among other things. Rourke’s response: “The most revolutionary stuff in our cookbook is giving people tools with which they could change themselves.” Whether this notion is seen as radical, utopian, violent, or even possible is the question.
As the duo has stated about their work, “We believe technology can open up new perspectives, providing us with the means to challenge the structures, ideas, and institutions that maintain the status quo.” In this sense, we must consider new technologies as poetic muses, as physical manifestations of unbridled potential, and as capable of leading to a point just beyond reality. Moving in this direction, we may find ourselves outside of whatever we cling to so dearly, unhinged and free, in a new and unnamed era.
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