Viewers enter what appears to be the headquarters of an unnamed biotechnology laboratory where they encounter an animated infographic presenting a glossary of key terms: “natural capital,” “ecosystem services,” “bioremediation,” and “aquaculture” are new models of sustainable production being adopted in the face of climate change.
Viewers encounter an industrial display presenting a historical overview of the oyster, scientific name Ostreidae. Known for producing aphrodisiac—a state of enhanced sentience—when consumed by humans, Ostreidae have influenced human cultural production in the arts and literature for centuries.
Viewers journey behind the scenes in the laboratory where they learn about the physiology of Ostreidae as a hermaphroditic organism, and how that impacts its bioengineering potential. A scientific study reveals that Ostreidae produce a rare amino acid that increases estrogen and testosterone production in human and nonhuman species, such as rats. They are also filter feeders, able to filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.
Viewers arrive at an undisclosed location where testing is being conducted on the Ostreidae 2.0 Aquaculture System™. Viewers gain insight into the Ostreidae amino acid harvesting process, and discover that toxic water is being converted into this amino acid and is being transferred into municipal water systems. Is this a risk to human populations? Or might this lead to more sentient ways of being?
The New Media Artspace presents Stephanie Rothenberg: Aphrodisiac in the Machine, a solo exhibition featuring a new four-channel video installation by the Buffalo-based new media artist Stephanie Rothenberg. The project was originally designed to span the four floors of the New Media Artspace gallery. We have translated it into an online format that preserves the four sections of the physical installation.
Aphrodisiac in the Machine presents a sci-fi narrative that explores the ethics and economics of bioengineering nonhuman life for human survival. Merging fact and fiction, the project plays on the libidinous myth of the oyster, a hermaphroditic organism being bioengineered in a futuristic aquaculture farm.
Shedding light on some of the extreme practices' humans are turning to in an era of resource scarcity, Aphrodisiac in the Machine is framed by the reality of climate change on the one hand, and extractivist imaginaries on the other. As throughout her practice, Rothenberg draws out the underlying absurdity she finds in current events. In this project, she raises important questions about the ethics of bioremediation and the technological design of living organisms, asking what these practices might look like and what they may mean.
Bioremediation reconfigures the relationships between humans and the environments they perceive as “natural”—which too often simply means available to extraction. So in turn, the desensitization wrought by technological immersion is what makes these practices seem “natural” or normative. For Rothenberg, the oyster could be the answer, but not in the form of “oyster-tecture,” like the (not science fictional) oyster reef proposal for Brooklyn’s New York Harbor. Instead, Rothenberg imagines an alternative: that the oyster’s aphrodisia could provide an awakened state of enhanced sentience, going beyond mere sexual connotations. Perhaps, this work suggests, the humble oyster could awaken humans from their technological stupor and teach them to proactively disrupt the desensitizing effects of media machines.
Stephanie Rothenberg: Aphrodisiac in the Machine is curated by Katherine Behar, Associate Professor in the Fine and Performing Arts Department in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College, CUNY. The exhibition is generously sponsored by the Sandra Kahn Wasserman Jewish Studies Center under the directorship of Professor Jessica Lang. The exhibition is made possible by support from the Baruch Computing and Technology Center (BCTC), the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, and the Newman Library. All images appear courtesy of the artist.
Stephanie Rothenberg’s interdisciplinary art draws from digital culture, science and economics to explore relationships between human designed systems and biological ecosystems. Moving between real and virtual spaces her work investigates the power dynamics of techno utopias, global economics and outsourced labor. She has exhibited throughout the US and internationally in venues including Eyebeam (US), Sundance Film Festival (US), Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art / MASS MoCA (US), House of Electronic Arts / HeK (CH), LABoral (ES), Transmediale (DE), and ZKM Center for Art & Media (DE). She is a recipient of numerous awards, most recently from the Harpo Foundation and Creative Capital. Residencies include ZK/U Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik in Berlin, TOKAS / Tokyo Art and Space, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace, Eyebeam Art and Technology and the Santa Fe Art Institute. Her work is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and has been widely reviewed including Artforum, Artnet, The Brooklyni, and Hyperallergic. She is an ongoing participant and organizer in the MoneyLab research project at the Institute of Network Cultures and co-organizer of the 2018 MoneyLab 5 symposium that took place in Buffalo, NY. She is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art at SUNY Buffalo where she co-directs the Platform Social Design Lab, an interdisciplinary design studio collaborating with local social justice organizations.