Interdisciplinary Conference


in Art & Science

26-28 November 2020, University of Applied Arts Vienna/Online

77. Aphrodisiac in the Machine
Session: Session "ORF1ab / Tonic"
Speakers: Stephanie Rothenberg

Soft, fleshy and viscous, the oyster is a magnificent and extremely talented creature of the sea. Almost extinct by the mid 20th century, one tiny 2-inch organism can filter up to 50 gallons (190 liters) of polluted water per day. Its shell forms a natural reef system that protects coastlines against rising sea levels. And legends speak wonders of its euphoric powers. So what if we bioengineered this magical species to transform water toxins into an aphrodisiac potion and sprinkled it into public drinking water? Could we create a public sentient machine better able to handle the climate crisis? 

Aphrodisiac in the Machine is a multimedia installation 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. In the story, technology is eroticized as the intersexual cyborg oysters convert toxic water into an aphrodisia-inducing fluid that is piped into municipal water sources. 

Building on Audre Lorde’s seminal text “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” the project moves beyond mere sexual connotations to investigate aphrodisia as an awakened state of enhanced sentience. In the essay, Lorde challenges the word’s patriarchal overtones and not only redefines but reignites the erotic as a power of feeling – a physical, psychic and emotional energy that can’t be reduced to a commodified good or systematized affect. In our current zeitgeist of neoliberal and recolonizing regimes, can a politics of sentience be used to reimagine systems, networks and infrastructures as agential and embodied spaces? 

In the project, the myth becomes a metaphorical wrench in the new global machine of sea farming as more sentient ways of being are unleashed into networks and infrastructures. Focusing on current environmental issues, the narrative moves between multiple perspectives and ways of knowing and being sentient as the story unfolds — the human, the libidinal, the oyster, the invisible living matter in the water and of the network. A non-human subaqueous system is explored comprised of not only the organic flesh and fluids of the oyster body but also the flows of data that circulate throughout. Perhaps the humble oyster could awaken humans from their technological stupor and teach them to proactively disrupt the desensitizing effects of techno-media machines.

Stephanie Rothenberg

Hosting Institutions

angewandte   inarts