Beyond the Human: Unstable Media Art Constructing New Social Realities

Text by Katažyna Jankovska, written on occasion of the Evening of the V2_Archive, 2022.

“Art has to be functional. We see art as a creating principle in society. Art has to make use of the materials, the media and the possibilities of its time in order to have influence on its time. Science and art have to be a revolutionary power within society [...] It must not become an autonomy within our social system, but it must be a part of it, not to confirm the prevailing morals and politics but to propagate change” (Manifesto, V2_Organisation, 1987).

Written four decades ago, this statement has never been more relevant. The severity of the environmental challenge we are facing today requires not only ecological awareness but more radical systemic social changes. Many agree that there is a need for a “posthuman” approach to inhabiting the earth, one where existing human-centred conceptions and relationships between different (non)human actors are redefined. Although no one knows for sure what exactly the posthuman reality might look like. New narratives demand new fields of knowledge, which production, as Rosi Braidotti (2019) states, is “no longer the prerogative of academic or formal scientific institutions”; it places artists, who nowadays appear to be committed to reflecting upon the taken for granted paradigms and responding to ongoing posthuman turn, in a crucial position.

Yet it seems that unstable media art has always been posthuman. Specific characteristics of unstable media, such as its technological and indeterminate nature (which enables to receive data beyond what human sensory organs can collect), collaborative and participatory aspects (allowing for the interplay between man, animal and machine), keep transgressing the categorical ontological dualities of mind and body, nature and culture, subject and object. In Zylinska (2017) words, “it poses a challenge to the traditional tenets of the self-focused, capital- and fossil-fuelled, masculinist I, who is supposedly in control of his own vision and (world)view” (p. 8).

The digital archive of V2_ serves as a representative of the recurrent patterns of ways in which artists have been engaged with and imagined “posthuman” realities over the last couple of decades. While not explicitly linked with the emerging concept, transdisciplinary practices on the intersection of art, science and technology allow us to see, hear and experience things that are beyond the scope of human perception, this way relocating the focus outside of ourselves and envisioning different social realities that include both human and nonhuman agents and perspectives.

By bringing innovative technologies to the cultural sphere, artists continuously reconceptualise human relationship with the technological other. From intimate encounters with robots (e.g. Louis-Philippe Demers’ The Blind Robot) that go beyond the usual utopian/dystopian narratives to the creation of a new form of embodiment coming from technical extensions of the biological body; for instance, a prosthetic device in A Cryptanalysis of the Foreign Body Language by Yuping Hsu which allows hearing with a tongue or a wearable biomechanical cocktail making dress The DareDroid by The Modern Nomads, where the salient line between the human and the machine keeps blurring and the notion of “cyborg” comes to life.

Not only does unstable media help us to unpack common assumptions about the human-machine relationship but also positions humans among the myriad other (living) beings that were previously left on the margins of the art world and humanist ideology in general. From tiny creatures like insects and worms, fungi and bacteria to sentient plants and new semi-live forms, artworks become a platform to directly encounter nonhuman others in a more-than-representational approach. Rather than presenting animals and plants carrying a symbolic meaning, using technology, artistic works expose the characteristics, actions and agency that otherwise remain invisible, inaudible and imperceptible.

For instance, the sound dimension of installations Woodworms, Microphone, Sound System by Zimoun and Microscopic Opera by Matthijs Munnik brings into perception the existence of small life forms - too small to be heard by humans – and opens our eyes to the understanding of the environment and natural processes. Moreover, coupling two seemingly incompatible things - worms with sound – works question the exceptionalism of the human and dissolve traditional dualisms of nature and culture, where natural sounds become a piece of art and worms themselves become artists.

The experimental nature of artworks creates a space to contemplate the conceptual line between animate and inanimate. The most illustrative example is the assemblage of organic plants and technological devices, which allows us to see the invisible processes that occur inside plant cells, changing the perception of the plants that are commonly imagined as inanimate objects. The recognition of the agency of plants (Symbiotic Transmitter by Natalie Gebert) and the creation of new hybrid structures (Action Plant by Ivan Henriques) implodes boundaries between the technological and organic and suggests future ways of communication with plants, paving the way for non-hierarchical and sustainable human-nature relations.

While decentring the human, artists are more invested in presenting possible futures than in fatalistic critiques of the present. They speculate on the future interspecies relations by creating the symbiosis between the fungal and the human in Jae Rhim Lee’s The Mushroom Death Suit or a direct connection between the human body and developing lizards seen in the work Ever it Takes by Jacco Borggreve, echoing Haraway’s (2016) notion of kinship and “companion species”. Furthermore, responding to the posthuman ideas of “life”, unstable media art extends the notion of the living being, asking what is conceived as “natural” and “alive” by presenting semi-living beings (The Small Protein Translation Machine by the Tissue Culture & Art Project), iron crystals growing from the wires (Roots by Roman Kirschner), protocell formations (Protocell Field by Philip Beesley), or creating responsive environments as “new living organisms” inspired by nature (Liquid Space 6.0 by Daan Roosegaarde).

V2_Archive gives a vivid picture of ways in which radical artistic imagination coupled with technological innovations result in previously unimaginable social realities and can have an impact on our understanding of the world, in re-shaping our perception of it. By documenting artistic endeavours that for the past forty years were challenging anthropocentric thinking by trying to unfreeze deeply ingrained social beliefs, the archive unveils the potential of unstable media art in creating new posthuman principles in society and taking the first steps towards social change.


Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Experimental Futures) (Illustrated ed.). Duke University Press Books.
Rosi Braidotti Special Lecture: What is the Human in the Humanities Today? (2019). Post Media Research Network. Retrieved from http://postmedia-research.net/2019/05/07/rosi-braidotti/V2_Lab for the Unstable Media. (1987). Manifesto for the Unstable Media.
Zylinska, J. (2017). Nonhuman Photography. MIT Press.


Katažyna Jankovska, December 2021



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