What is it like to be a (virtual) bat?
The research based art work ‘What is it like to be a virtual bat?’ is the second in a series of multispecies, sensory ethnographies around the ecosystems of Lantau Island, Hong Kong, and is an attempt to acknowledge the limitations of human sensory capacities and how technology can be used to ‘mediate’ these constraints and embody more-than-human experiences. ‘What is it like to be a virtual bat?’ takes a similar approach in using technology to communicate the ‘more-than-human’ experience of the non-human inhabitants of Lantau by focusing on the native lesser short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus brachyotis) while also incorporating philosophical and anthropological perspectives. The starting point is philosopher Thomas Nagel’s seminal 1973 essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ which introduced the problem of qualia or the ‘hard-problems of consciousness’ to philosophy. It asks whether the mind is reducible to an emergent faculty of the brain and human physiology or if an aspect of the ‘raw feels’ of consciousness, the subjective quality of experience, is irreducible to the material structures of the brain. In Nagel’s essay, he conducts a thought experiment by asking the question of whether it is possible to ever understand what it is like to be a bat. If the answer is yes, then it would suggest that consciousness is not mysterious and perfectly replicable which opens the possibility for artificial intelligence. Conversely, if the subjective experience of a bat cannot be ever fully understood by a human, since the subject cannot ever embody the cumulation of life and bodily experiences of being a bat, then it means that consciousness is essentially a phenomenon closed off from human understanding. At a more fundamental level, Nagel’s essay addresses the long standing mind-body problem in philosophy; the dualist and physicalist position which proposes that the brain creates the mind and is impossible without it versus the idealist perspective which suggests that all material matter is created by the mind itself and cannot exist without the perceiving subject. It is a question about the nature of reality, and whether we construct it through our consciousness or we are ourselves the mere illusory products of a material universe.
Ng and Bisenieks’s approach to this question is empirical and draws from the latest research in the field of VR, which has recently focused on the possibility of animal embodiment and the sensations of presence this induce, as strategies for creating greater empathy between humans and animals. Working with drones, virtual reality and 3D scanning and photogrammetry, it attempts to simulate the sensorimotor contingencies of what it is like to be a bat in order to ask the question of whether, in simulating the physical properties of being a bat, we can get close to the subjective qualitative experience of being one. At the same time, the project attempts to engage with a neglected aspect within animal embodiment using VR, which has a bearing on Nagel’s approach to the question of qualia, which is the transitory, liminal states between human and animal and how important these are to the possibility of understanding the experience of non-human ontologies. Drawing on ethnographic and anthropological research on shamanism and the mediatory roles which ritual takes in guiding the transition from human to animal perspectives, the work will complement the VR bat simulation with a sound sculpture which creates a ritual sonic environment through hypnotic narration and field recordings drawn from research on the biological, cultural and historical lives of the bat in Lantau Island and cantonese culture in Hong Kong.
The work will take the form of a year long process of field work on the short nosed bat in Lantau and research and prototype development for the VR bat system. Intermittent ‘field reports’ will be updated on the project page of the ‘Are You For Real?’ website.
The work will finally culminate with online and ‘real’ world presentations; a VR version of the work be presented as a 360 video online, which can be downloaded and experienced on a head mounted display. The physical version of the piece will be presented in two parts, the first is a sound sculpture presented through a spatial array of speakers in a sound-proofed room, which is presented as a liminal space for transition into being a bat. The second is the digital simulation of being a bat, presented in a CAVE virtual reality system, which projection maps a 3D environment onto the walls of a room to create an immersive, sensory experience for the audience.
Commissioned by Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA), Germany
For the online platform ‘Are you for Real?’