At Tate Modern, an Installation Blurs the Line Between Technology and Biology

LONDON — Strange sounds of buzzing and whirring fill Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall. It’s a familiar noise of machinery and mechanical motion; not the great grinding and clanking of the industrial era to which Tate Modern (as a former power station) owes its architecture, but the insidious whining of drones and computer-operated motors. 

This subtly audible landscape prefigures the appearance of the Turbine Hall’s new inhabitants, Anicka Yi’s flying machines, which she dubs “aerobes.” They make a surreal and mesmerizing sight, floating above visitors’ heads and transforming the enormous space into a cross between an aviary and aquarium. Two types of aerobes fill the space: antennae-sporting hairy brown puff balls and translucent jellyfish-like creatures with flexible tentacles. Their air-filled bodies are set in motion by tiny fan propellers (the source of the swarm-like whirring noise). 

In Love with the World is a gentle and engaging installation. The aerobes move slowly through the space, seeking out warmth from human bodies, but never getting too close to the visitors, the walls, or each other. Created in collaboration with a team of AI programmers, the aerobes are responsive to the conditions of the space, following a set of key principles rather than a pre-ordained route. They are designed to echo the appearance and behavior of animals; despite their hypnotic beauty, however, they are crude approximations compared to the complex realities of even the simplest living creatures. This may lead viewers to question why we are so easily seduced by these technological ghosts of everyday biological marvels. 

Anicka Yi, In Love With the World, Hyundai Commission, Tate Modern, London

This installation is an attempt to break down the distinctions we make between plants, animals, micro-organisms, and technology. By turning the Turbine Hall into a digitally driven ecosystem that relies on the presence of both humans and creaturely machines to function, Yi emphasizes ecological notions of interdependence and the enmeshment of human beings in our environments. 

Yi’s thinking behind this work is wide-ranging and thorough. A long wall text explains how the work speculates about a future in which humans live alongside machines that have evolved as independent life forms. Although the project utilizes artificial intelligence programming, the floating aerobes seem a long way off from acting without human instructions or from evolving new modes of surviving and thriving. The speculation therefore feels a little hollow. 

The significance of the work is greater in the context of the present than the future. The wall text proposes that we are all “connected by air,” and notes that “Yi is interested in the politics of air and how this is affected by changing attitudes, inequalities and ecological awareness.” It seems strange that there is no reference to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has taught us an unprecedented lesson about our interconnectedness through air, especially considering that some of the aerobes have a striking similarity to now-familiar depictions of airborne virus particles.  

Installation view of Hyundai Commission Anicka Yi at Tate Modern, London (photography by Will Burrard Lucas © Tate 2021)

The text also indicates that the installation has an olfactory element. It suggests that visitors will experience “scentscapes” formulated to evoke smells from different eras in the history of Tate Modern’s site, including vegetation from the Cretaceous period and spices used in attempts to ward off the Black Death in the 14th century (again, another unexplored connection to COVID-19). In reality, however, the scents are so faint as to be undetectable; perhaps the Turbine Hall is too big or perhaps it’s because visitors are required to wear masks (which must have been expected during the installation’s planning stages). 

The absence of the promised “scentscapes” is surprising, because Yi has successfully worked with scent and olfactory responses in the past. For example, for the project You Can Call Me F in 2015, she collaborated with a biologist to create an exhibition of smells produced from bacteria from the bodies of 100 women. The project powerfully challenged the primacy of visual representations of women as well as culturally ingrained fears around women’s bodies and female bodily fluids. It’s a shame that this bold and nuanced interpretation of microbiology wasn’t put to more effective use in In Love with the World

Installation view of Hyundai Commission Anicka Yi at Tate Modern, London (photography by Will Burrard Lucas © Tate 2021)

What is the collective noun for a group of floating mechanical creatures? A flock? A school? A pod? Yi’s inventions simultaneously evoke both marine and airborne forms, erasing the horizon line that divides water from air and suggesting possibilities of hybridity and interspecies fluidity. Yi’s aerobes draw visitors into an encounter with artificial life. They suggest that machines can enact behavioral patterns and respond to sensory receptors, despite not having brains. The visual reference to jellyfish, which are highly successful brainless organisms, reminds viewers that this trait is not unique to machines; the boundaries between species and between types of intelligence may be more porous than expected. 

Anicka Yi: In Love with the World continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through January 16, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume, Mark Godfrey, and Carly Whitefield.

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