Pandora’s Box is an instalment of the Synthetic Times series, a collaborative and iterative design project that critiques and reimagines human and nonhuman time in relation to modern and future technologies. It is a project conceived by NON+ consisting of Conny Groenewegen (fashion designer and material researcher), Maurizio Montalti (design researcher and hybrid designer), Adam Nocek (philosopher and design researcher), and Stacey Moran (feminist philosopher and writer). This interview is also published in the Neuhaus Reader
How does this project aim to show how we are bringing about our own extinction?
Pandora’s Box is an invitation to reflect on how mythology propels our thinking about the end of human history. In this spirit, the project encourages the participant to entertain how the human species is confronting an end that is of its own design (extinction), but which cannot be framed using the methods and tools that brought it about in the first place, namely the technologies of modern reason, science, and design.
As designers and philosophers we are especially compelled to think alongside Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiro De Castro who wrote that “the end of the world is one of those famous types of problems of which Kant used to say human reason cannot solve, but cannot help posing at the same time either; and it does so in the form of mythical fabulation or, as it is fashionable to say nowadays, of ‘narratives’ that orient and motivate us”. (The Ends of the World, 8).
For this reason, we do not rush to modern science, engineering, or philosophy for answers. Rather, we look to mythology, and to the ancient myth of Pandora in particular, for inspiration. According to some versions of the myth, Pandora was a mere pawn of warring gods, whose curiosity brought about horrific and unimaginable consequences, even though she was not directly at fault. It is hard not to see resonances between Pandora and our current situation; the goodwill and curiosity that drives modern design and techno-scientific innovation is precisely what paves the way for what is utterly unimaginable in the course of human history - an earth where human history is history.
And so while it may seem strange and even naïve to look to mythology for tools to understand the earth’s six mass extinctions, we think that in an era dominated by technocratic solutionism (which leaves little room for paradox, ambiguity, and non-modern ways of relating to the world) it is naïve to think that we could rely on the styles of thought and reasoning that brought about the problem in the first place. In this way our project, as well as our work as a collective, calls upon humans to harness the powers of mythical fabulation in order to address our relation to an earth future that we will bring into being (it is a product of human design), but which completely escapes our human capacities for understanding.
In this spirit, the project is deliberately non-linear and full of paradoxical elements. It is an uncomfortable mix of disciplines and methodologies - science, design, art, mythology and philosophy - that calls upon us not only to reflect on the unintended consequences of our designs but also to experience the tensions and problems that arise from them in ways that cannot be calculated, planned for, or understood using solely the powers of human reason. Pandora’s Box is a story about these tensions - between the past and the future, the living and the non-living, the natural and the artificial, the mythical and the scientific, and how they came to co-exist with one another in what seem like “incompossible” worlds (as Leibniz would say).
Of the many tensions explored in this project, there is one that seems to be especially vivid. TIme becomes a metaphysical problem for a species that fabricates stories about its design of an earth that has no room for it. Under these conditions, myths of extinction are at the same time myths of origin (our end will bring about something new). Eschatological narratives become etiological ones. Western priorities such as cause and effect, before and after, are subverted in a kind of 'design theology' that is at once pessimistic and hopeful. Perhaps what we’re proposing is best framed as an 'alchemy of time' - a transmutation of endings and beginnings, of futures and pasts through design.
How does the wheel try to make philosophy more interactive? What are the reactions of visitors to this physical experience?
We have a couple things to say about this. First, a widely held misconception is that philosophy is an abstract, conceptual activity that occurs in the mind and is thus disengaged from the material world. This is a notion of mind that we have inherited from Western modernity and that does not stand up. Philosophical concepts are born out of material engagements with the world; thinking is an embodied and relational practice.
Second, the wheel is deceptive. It is big, bulky, and it looks like a cross between a giant hamster wheel and a hall of mirrors, or so we are told. In any case, the wheel seems like the furthest thing from a 'philosophical tool', but once you engage the wheel, that is, you get inside of it and turn the apparatus using your arms and legs, what you notice is that you’re looking at a distorted image of yourself - what your actions produce is just more warped reflections of yourself. However, what this wheel of narcissism does not allow the visitor to see is that his or her actions have unseen effects - the giant wheel turns a smaller wheel (a petri dish) mixing organic and synthetic materials with unknown repercussions.
Our sense is that visitors are beginning to appreciate that the wheel is not merely installed to entertain. If you use it, if you engage with it, then it becomes an apparatus to think with. This is not to say that the wheel is not a spectacle; it is a kind of spectacle. Indeed, it is there to make a spectacle out of all of our good intentions, their troubling connection to human narcissism, and all that cannot be known about what this combination will produce.
What are the future plans for the work around the theme of synthetic time? And what’s next for the collective behind this project, now called NON+?
Pandora’s Box is a part of the Synthetic Times series designed and curated by NON+. Moving forward, we will be exploring how each layer of the project - sculpture, time, narrative, archaeology, bio-design, video, and so on - can stand on its own, but can also be (re)combined with new elements, including dance, performance, sculpture, and interactive media, to generate alternative ways to probe what our species is doing to itself and to others. We are particularly keen to explore what it means to design spaces for mythic engagement with our present. We are in conversation with designers and artists throughout the Netherlands and Europe who want to collaborate with us on this. We also have plans to publish a book that engages with many of these themes.
Adam Nocek is an assistant professor in the philosophy of technology, and science and technology studies in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University, and founding director of the Center for Philosophical Technologies.