How can the imagination of designers contribute to the ‘re-mythologisation’ of an embittered reality? Can non-scientific, magical thinking help us better understand different parallel time scales?
Pandora’s Box is an installment 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. The installation in Het Nieuwe Instituut is a collaborative and iterative project conceived by 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).
Previously, Groenewegen presented the installation Fashion Machine in the Temporary Fashion Museum. Montalti previously presented and curated the Biotopia section of Dissident Gardens at Het Nieuwe Instituut.
The installation critiques and reimagines human and nonhuman timescales in relation to past and future technologies. In its current iteration, Synthetic Times invites the participant to “open Pandora’s Box” in order to discover a mixture of complex temporalities and mythologies that evoke fascination, wonder, dread, and hope.
The ancient Greek myth of Pandora describes the weaknesses of human behavior and the misfortunes of the human race. Given a box and told never to look inside, Pandora cannot control her curiosity and opens it, unleashing evil on the world. Hesiod’s version of the Pandora myth explains where evil comes from, or as he tells it, “why life is hard.” The entirety of Works and Days is written as a lecture, cautioning humans to obey laws of both gods and men – or else.
However, others tell Pandora’s story differently; she was not at fault; she was merely a pawn in the fight between Titans and Olympians. Pandora was fashioned as a punishment for Epimetheus and his lack of foresight. Tasked with giving all the creatures on earth tools for survival, Epimetheus failed to reserve a gift for the human creatures. Prometheus loved the humans, and he knew that his brother’s oversight would surely end in disaster for the human race. In order to save, them, Prometheus went against Zeus’ wishes, and stole fire from the gods, saving the human race.
But still Epimetheus did not learn his lesson. Even though Prometheus warned his brother not to accept any gifts from the gods, Epimetheus was enchanted by the beautiful Pandora and took her as his wife. Pandora tried gallantly to tame her curiosity, but one day, overcome with curiosity, she opened the jar. At once, all the illnesses and evils escaped the jar! As soon as she saw what she had done, she closed it as fast as possible, but not fast enough. Only Hope remained.
The story of Pandora's Box is marked by Epimetheus’s lack of foresight. Today the phrase, “Pandora’s box” means “a source of troubles.” It is a metaphor that suggests that we don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. Our actions today have consequences tomorrow, but we cannot know precisely how they will affect our future. As an exhibition, Pandora's Box explores the nature of unheeded warnings, of the unknown consequences of our actions. It enfolds this myth with our attempts to technologically dominate the material world, and suggests that—as our era of extreme climate change warns—these attempts may very well bring about human extinction. Pandora’s Box allows humans to glimpse their own extinction, and invites them to view “Hope” as embodied by Pandora herself. Pandora’s very existence, as a sentient being, has emerged from their hard work. Pandora reserves Hope for humans, even in their impending absence.
To explore this mythical space of both dread and hope, the installation invites participants to engage in a speculative archeology. Through mythical fabulation and physical engagement, participants are asked to investigate how their actions may not only bring about their own extinction but also pave the way for the emergence of a new species, a new and unknown form of sentience, that may one day inquire into its ancestral origins: namely, humans.
Pandora’s Box anchors this examination in a mythological retelling of the past and future of human mastery and domination of the material world through its hands and arms. These human limbs are conceived of as technologies that allow humans to grasp, engineer, and transform the world. In this playful history, we conceive of the “arm-hand” as an entangled physical and symbolic system that enacts strength, dominance, and efficiency. It is a technology that enables Anthropos to at once grasp (physically and intellectually) and make use of the world for its own purposes. This embodied technics makes it possible for humans to design the world in their own image.
As Martin Heidegger writes in his essay, “What is Called Thinking,” thought is a form of “handiwork” (Handwerk). Responding to this provocation, Jacques Derrida explains that, “[t]he hand,” for Heidegger, “is monstrosité, the proper of man as the being of monstration (i.e. both the monstrous and the demonstrative). This distinguishes him from every other Geschlecht (‘species’), and above all from the ape. The hand cannot be spoken about without speaking of technics” (Derrida, “Geschlechte II: Heidegger’s Hand,” 169). According to Derrida, the hand, human thought, and technology are inextricably bound together. Pandora’s Box freely plays with this proposition, and explores the technological world that the hand, in close proximity to the arm, makes possible, and also thinks carefully about the future of this world, and whether there is place for the human within it.
To this end, the installation features a variety of playful and interactive components. Each of them invites the participant to explore different mythical frames for how hands, arms, and technologies collide in human history. Perhaps most noticeably, there are two wheels featured in the exhibition space. The large wheel on the left operates like a hamster wheel with a mirrored interior. A combination of walking, grasping (with the hands), and pulling (with the arms) propels the wheel. But as the wheel turns, what the participant sees is only herself, expressing the way in which humans have historically regarded the material world as “standing reserve” (Bestand) for their own use and disposal.
Again, here’s Heidegger: “the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct…It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself” (Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 27). The mirror does not offer a faithful reflection, however. The images are distortions (like funhouse mirrors). The participant begins to realize that she is using her arms and hands to make distorted images of herself, images that she no longer recognizes as her herself. This misrecognition of the role of the human in its own productions reflects media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s interpretation of another ancient Greek myth. According to McLuhan, Narcissus, the beautiful boy who fell in love with his own image reflects our own relation to technology. It is indicative of our “narcotic culture” to mistake our own creations for something outside ourselves. In the end, just like Narcissus, the work one does to turn the wheel, only reflects back the material world in a distorted form.
As the wheel on the left is made to turn, the wheel on the right turns in the opposite direction. The latter wheel resembles a giant petri dish where human-engineered plastic and organic matter mix together. The living and the non-living, the biological and the synthetic, are combined to create something new. Thus, while the participant works to turn the wheel, she gazes at her distorted image and unwittingly produces a dangerous and toxic recipe (her distorted, Frankensteinian image). Together, the wheels express how human ingenuity and design engender a technologically engineered material world that is a distorted reflection of human desire. And this distortion will prove to be suicidal.
The mythical space of the installation does not end with bitter warnings and finger wagging, the all-too-familiar rhetorical frame for the so-called Anthropocene. Instead, there is a kind of perverse hope that pervades the work and is exemplified by the haunting audio, which presumably originates from an unknown, future species who tells the story of its own origin: the cunning and destructive force of human “handiwork.” The human participant is invited to listen and experience the mythical retelling fabricated by the species-to-come. However, this is a retelling that defies standard genre conceits, since it is experienced as simultaneously etiological (myth of origin) and eschatological (myth of finality). This blending of mythical genres creates a temporal complexity that does not resolve neatly into linear timelines: the human event is experienced as both an ending and a beginning at the same time.
The physical space of the exhibition is designed to reflect this temporal complexity. It is as if the installation were the physical manifestation of the myth. The playful and even whimsical layout encourages participants to see themselves, indeed their own history of “handiwork,” from the perspective of what is not human. And yet, this is a non-human perspective that humans have had an essential hand in designing. For this reason, humans are able to faintly recognize themselves in this future: a mutant species whose nervous system is at least as complex as the human’s, but is located primarily in its arms and hands, and not its brain. This (cephalopodic) distribution of hand-arm intelligence is reflected in every aspect of the installation, and it is by means of it that humans are invited to mythically reframe human history, and as Sēlah’s musical name suggests, to pause and think on that.