Entangled, networked and blurred boundaries — Moral Imaginations at The Serpentine
In our own bodies, we are outnumbered 9-to-1 by non-human cells. If we as humans need these organisms to function, what exactly do we mean when we think of ourselves as ‘an individual’? What new ecological insights can be gained from thinking of the planet as an organism in itself?
In 2016, I was part of one of my favourite projects to this day, the General Ecology Programme at the Serpentine Gallery UK. I served as an advisor to the programme and had the honour and privilege of participating in the programme, bringing my lens as a deep ecologist and designer and the topic I was obsessed by: how our boundaries blur with other species and we learn to organise like mycelium.
Serpentine Podcast: General Ecology: In Our Bodies on Apple Podcasts
In our own bodies, we are outnumbered 9-to-1 by non-human cells. If we as humans need these organisms to function…
You can find the recording of my contribution to the General Ecology radio, drawing on Moral Imaginations, above — alongside Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, who wrote possibly one of my favourite books, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.
Below is the transcript from the radio piece, and at the end, you can find the video of when I opened a talk at the The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish with a guided meditation, taking everyone by quite a lot of surprise. This meditation is now being produced as an artistic recording in collaboration with Perhaps Contraption as part of the Moral Imaginations Project.
Sometimes referred to as a scientist, Phoebe Tickell used to work with bacterial genetics, algae, and a little bit of genetic engineering for algae. She now works as an educator and consultant for organizations who wish to structure themselves in more networked and dynamic ways — biomimetically, mimicking nature. She also lectures at Schumacher College on the topics of symbiosis, ecological and ‘symbiotic’ design and networked organisations.
It’s funny — the fact that we evolved from being apes, in a way brings us closer on a time axes to being in something like a symbiosis with with other species. There was once a blurring of what was human and what was ape — like a symbiosis over time.
But you know, Darwin’s theory of evolution and and the narrative of ‘competition and survival of the fittest’, I feel it really bled into culture.
There’s this notion of nature red in tooth and claw. And directly on top of that you’ve got Dawkins’ work with the gene and The Selfish Gene. And then that really bleeds into our economic system in the way that we see everything as a competition.
And I think it’s also important to point out that it’s not that competition is wrong, or that it doesn’t happen. It’s just that it’s not the whole story. So it doesn’t describe… it doesn’t do justice to the amount of evolutionary novelty and development and progress that happens through networking through collaboration, cooperation, blurring of species boundaries.
There’s a species of bird that helps alligators clean their teeth… They have a relationship where the bird comes and like removes the leftovers from the alligators teeth. It’s amazing to see this on video. And, you know, if we’re observing that from a Darwinian lens, you could definitely argue that it’s a selfish move because they’re just getting each other to help themselves.
But it’s just like the lens that we see these things happening. I think there are different ways of seeing the same phenomena.
Phoebe opened this symposium with a symbiotic meditation, encouraging us to understand our minds and our bodies as interconnected with the rest of the world:
So take a deep breath and make yourself comfortable and just sense into the feeling of your body. We’re starting by focusing on everything that’s solid in the body. So I’m asking you to think of your bones of the solidness of your feet.
Explore the material of your bones. Calcium carbonate is the same material out in the world, thinking of rocks and the very same atoms in your bones or atoms that may have been part of bones as dinosaurs, many many years ago
and essentially the same solid…
This rock inside your body returns to the earth and we’re shedding skin all the time, shedding bacteria, taking in new bacteria.
So now let’s think about everything that’s liquid.
The saliva in your mouth,
In your eyes, in your nose,
The mucous lining your throat, your stomach,
Now think of everything that’s liquid outside the vast oceans and rivers…
Rains and clouds water stagnating in the soil,
And water inside other organisms…
The saliva of a sheep,
The blood of a salamander,
And these water molecules on your breath that you’re breathing in and out, The very same water molecules were acted on by cyanobacteria…
A billion years ago as they first converted water into oxygen,
which allowed us to be here…
And this brings us on to the element of fire.
These tiny bacteria deep inside your cells are working very, very hard all the time
To provide you with the energy that allows you to walk, to think…
Millions of years ago,
Mitochondria were converted from a free living bacteria
Into the tiny power houses
Inside every single one of your cells today
They were enslaved.
They are kept captive…
Allowing you to live.
If you focus in on the warmth of your breath as it comes out,
You can thank the millions of mitochondria
For keeping you warm.
Now focusing into your heartbeat.
This heartbeat has been a continuous heartbeat down the whole evolutionary chain of living beings that led you to be here today.
When you were an ape,
when you were a small mammal,
and then think about
The time before there even was a heartbeat
When you were just a cluster of cells
And then when you were just a single
And from that single bacteria now,
A multicellular organism
Housing millions of bacteria all working together in concerted action.
We really here thanks to cooperation
When we have
huddled small mammals,
When we came together as intricate and complex symbioses
Becoming multicellular mosaics of beings.