The Jensen Lab (Caltech)
Boundaries of Life
For several decades, scientists have considered the possibility of a shadow biosphere, simple or complex organisms which coexist with conventional life on Earth, but which are fundamentally different and unseen.
If such shadow life existed, how would we recognize it, and what kinds of tools or processes would we need to look? A collaboration between Caltech and Stanford University called The Boundaries of Life (BoL), seeks to answer these questions, and may be standing on a philosophical precipice, ready to lift the veil on a life force which has evolved in parallel to our own.
Vanguard artistic manifestations have been imperative to help society cope with revolutionary new realities. Taking this research as a point of departure we are considering what techniques, ethos and equipment will be required to develop a new sensory vocabulary to understand and experience realms which lie outside our natural tools of perception. We want to consider how these potential discoveries will affect our society in the spiritual, political and sociological spheres and how humanity may react to the unsettling and exciting news that we are not alone.
The existence of a shadow biosphere destabilizes our idea of what it means to be a biological being and could dismantle humans from our perceived position at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.
This notion of relative superiority has been challenged before with the realization that viruses and bacteria dominate the biosphere but humans managed to evade such unsettling thought, maybe until now.
By re-aligning our role in our planet’s ecosystem, we will promote discussion around what it means to be human in the Anthropocene. This new epoch is distinguished by significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. This impact is being felt in climate change and the accelerated rate of species extinction. Advances in technology and culture have positioned us as a global threat to the Earth. In light of the effect we are having on the known world, our project will facilitate dialogue between experts in science, technology and the broader public, about what effect we might be having on a microbial world, or even on shadow life, and what effect the shadow biosphere could have on us.
Colonization on Earth has been coupled with violence, displacement and an assumption of absence. As we face the possibility of interacting with non-Earth life, we risk creating ecological disasters by contaminating places like Mars, repeating our species’ shameful history of colonization. By engaging with ideas of shadow life, we hope to inspire empathy towards these prospective alien life forms, potentially making humanity’s exploration of the cosmos a more considerate process.
Our investigation will consider the role of the physical and subtle body as conduit for knowledge and experience, and re-evaluate aesthetic categories such as the beautiful and the sublime.
We will create a highly unstable feedback loop between artistic experiments which introduce the search for shadow life, and the public psychological, emotional, spiritual reaction to them. We will look for the points where participants experience awe, delight, a perceptual shift, or sensory confusion. We will continually iterate on our initial experiment to intensify these moments.
This process will leverage our backgrounds in creating immersive, participatory experiences and incorporate emerging technologies at points where it feels relevant and appropriate. In addition to physical experiences, we are interested in extending our research to include digital and online interactions, dramatically expanding our audience.
It is impossible to anticipate where our experiments will lead, and we are proud of that. We view unpredictable and chaotic outcomes as a prerequisite in discovering new modes of artistic expression and experience.