Originally published in: Dobrila, Peter T. and Kostic, Aleksandra (eds.), Eduardo Kac: Telepresence, Biotelematics, and Transgenic Art (Maribor, Slovenia: Kibla, 2000), pp. 47-52.


From a Bat's Point of View

Suzana Milevska

In his book The Conscious Mind, David J. Chalmers states that "from the physical facts about a bat we can ascertain all facts about a bat except the facts about the conscious experience. Knowing all the physical facts we still do not know what it is like to be a bat" [1]. We may agree with the assertion that if we know everything physical about certain creatures we can still not be certain if they are conscious (in the sense that we consider ourselves a conscious species). We may also agree that knowledge of physical facts about animals does not allow us to know what their experiences are like. Agreeing with both premises does not imply that we should give up on trying to get closer to those unfamiliar "others" and quit the attempt to explore the question "what it is like to be" [2] other than ourselves. For artist Eduardo Kac the question offers a unique opportunity to stimulate our imagination.

"Darker Than Night" was a telepresence artwork realized by Kac from June 17th to July 7th 1999 with a robotic bat ("batbot") and approximately three hundred Egyptian fruit bats living in the cave at the Blijdorp Zoological Gardens in Rotterdam [3]. This work is a profound attempt to investigate the possibility of empathy towards creatures (not necessarily only bats) that are different from us due to their specific sensory and motor system-­the physical facts that determine their actions and experiences. In "Darker Than Night" Kac addresses the human ­machine­animal relationship with a complex interface, enabling humans and bats to become mutually aware of their presence in the cave through the exchange of sonar emmissions. Humans can experience the cave through the batbot and can visualize the behavior of the bats through a special interface. The bats, on the other hand, can hear the sonar emmissions of the batbot.

Kac's provocative work is stimulated by the awareness that we cannot accomplish a thorough understanding even of our own consciousness and self and the fact that "no one has seen or ever will see a center of gravity, or a self either" [4]. This understanding echoes David Hume, who in 1740 wrote in his "Treatise of Human Nature": "I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe anything but the perception" [5]. In "Darker Than Night" Kac employs telepresence as a vehicle to investigate the link between perception and consciousness. "Darker Than Night" is not only about our ability to see or to adapt to conditions that are not ordinary for us and are natural to the bats but it is also about self-perception and the experience of perception and understanding of others.

The question posed here is not whether we can understand the physical facts about how bats move and communicate with each other. These facts are the subject of a body of scientific research which is widely available, and which Kac has studied. Through his writing [see note 3] the artist made sure that all details about echolocation as technique for orientation in dark space are transparently explained. In so doing, he makes us aware of the relevance of the scientific basis of the project and its establishing of a circuit of information, exchange and adjustment between the fruitbats, batbot and the visitors. However, the physical facts become only starting points for Kac's treatise on their own limitations. In "Darker Than Night" the biosonar echolocation system of the bats is converted to audible waves accessible to the human sensory system. As Eduardo Kac creates a world in which humans can have similar empathic experiences with another species, he expands the field of impact of his project from technology to culture.

Thomas Nagel warns us in his seminal article [see note 2] that it will not help us to try to imagine what it feels like to perceive the surrounding world by a system of reflected high frequency sound signals (fruitbats echolocate usually with 30,000 to 80,000 hertz that human ears can not hear). This warning is taken by Kac as an exciting challenge to our artistic (not scientific) imagination. Kac translated the sonar signals into the human audible range by a frequency converter placed inside of the head of the batbot. "Darker Than Night" is a network of relationships, a complex circuit of signals that circulate between human (visitor with a headset), animal (bats emitting and hearing ultrasounds as their "sense of vision"), and machine (batbot that simulates the real bats while echolocating in the same manner as them). This net of mutual experiences questions the problem of understanding the "other"--a member of another species, race, or culture.

"Darker Than Night" reminds us that all relevant physical facts are not enough to provide us with proficient answers to the question "what is it like to be". Given all accessible information, the problem of our unique experience (which forms the basis of our imagination) remains unsolved. It can obviously help us to try to understand what it would be like for us to behave as a bat behaves but it will not help us to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat [6]. Although the work extends our abilities beyond human perception, it seems that the main obstacle is still our restriction to the natural resources of our body and mind, which are, obviously, inadequate to the task. According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, there is no method that permits us to extrapolate completely from our own condition to the inner life of another creature. We are determined by our own bodily structure and innate capacity, which sets limits to the human experience [7]. In other words, ultimately human experience can not be anything like the experience of other animals, no matter how close they are to humans on the phylogenetic tree.

The question of transferring data pertaining to one's inner experiences is closely related to the question of evidence for the existence of other minds pointed at the beginning of this text. The questions "what kinds of minds are there" and "how do we know" emerge from the fact that each of us know only one mind from the inside and no two of us know the same mind from the inside [8]. The substantial disagreements among scientists about the existence of other minds comes from the impossibility to confirm the coincidence of one's inner with one's outwardly observable capabilities for perceptual discrimination, introspective avowal or intelligent actions [9].

Obviously, this problem is not limited only to radically different creatures for it exists between one person and another. The subjective and nontransferable character of experience is evident among people and is an inescapable obstacle to any complete understanding of and communication with each other. Moreover, "once that the ability to represent your own structure has reached a certain critical point, that is the kiss of death: it guarantees that you can never represent yourself totally" [10]. Cognition of self and in general "is not only representation but also embodied action: the world we cognize is not pregiven but enacted through our history of structural coupling" [11]. Therefore, the different subjective experiences prevent us from having the same "self" story to tell. Every human mind is culturally redesigned so that only our ability and desire to be engaged in "presenting ourselves to others, and ourselves" [12] and representing ourselves "in language and gesture, external and internal" [13] make us different from other creatures.

This idea that cognitive structures emerge from the kinds of recurrent sensor-motor patterns that enable actions and experiences to be perceptually guided might give the wrong impression that perception is direct and that there is no need for any kind of representation. In this sense, "Darker the Night" is more than a metaphor for the good human will to understand how it feels in one's skin. The batbot, the virtual reality headset, the converter of the high to low frequency sounds, the interface generated on a computer, all those elements may give the false impression that high technology is the "missing link" in the natural history drift that can help us to overcome the gap in the evolutionary history. However, Eduardo Kac has only used the technological devices to make and to provoke us to make the step forward to "a middle way" of understanding the relations between the mind and the world: not in opposition to each other but rather mutually constitutional. "Darker Than Night" shows how "knowledge depends on being in a world that is inseparable from our bodies, or language, and our social history ­ from our embodiment" [14].

The "middle way" would mean that we should accept as facts the capacities that are rooted in our biological embodiment but we should also accept that they are experienced within the domain of "consensual and cultural history"; that the idea of the world existing somewhere "out there" independent of the knower will never challenge our inherited conclusions of what the mind is. For the mind is not "a special inner arena populated by internal models and representations but is rather the operation of a profoundly interwoven system, incorporating aspects of brain, body and world" [15].

NOTES:

1. D. J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind ­ In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1996, p.103

2. This question originates from the well known text by Thomas Nagel "What is it like to be a bat?", first published in 1974 and reproduced in Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1979, pp.165-180

3. The visitors view the bats and the batbot in the cave through a small window but they are given virtual reality headset so that they can receive the audio and visual information. Thus, the viewer's sight is transformed into the point of view of the batbot's sonar. The viewer sees a series of real-time kinetic white dots against a black background. The white dots represent obstacles encountered by the batbot's sonar. For more complete description of the project see: http://www.ekac.org/darker.html

4. D. C. Dennett, "Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity" in F. Kessel, P. Cole and D. Johnson, eds, Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1992

5. D. Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, I, IV, sec. 6, quoted acc. D. Dennett.

6. T. Nagel, p.169

7. H. L. Dreyfus, "The Current Relevance of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Embodiment", The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 4 (Spring 1996)

8. D. C. Dennett, Kinds of Minds ­ Toward an Understanding of Consciousness, Basic Books, New York, 1996, pp.1-19

9. D. C. D. "Consciousness" in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Ed. By Richard L. Gregory, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, p. 161

10. D. R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach ­ an Eternal Golden Braid, Vintage Books, New York, 1989, p.697 There is interesting analogy between mind and ant colony that Hofstadter has developed in his book also questioning the existence of mind among animals.

11. F. J. Varela, E. Thompson, E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1991, p. 202

12. D. C. Dennett, "The Origins of Selves", Cogito, 3, 1989, p.169.

13. D. C. Dennett, "The Origins of Selves", p.169

14. F. J. Varela, E. Thompson, E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind Ép .149. Further on, in the chapter "Steps to a Middle Way" (pp.133-217) the authors discuss the Cartesian anxiety: in their opinion the extreme treating of "the world and mind as opposed objective and subjective poles".

15. A. Clark, "Embodiment and the Philosophy of Mind", Trends in Neuroscience,19, 2 1996, p.36


Suzana Milevska is an art critic and curator. She publishes critical texts and reviews regularly in periodicals such as Flash Art, Index, Siksi, Nu, and Springerin. She has curated many individual and group projects in the Balkans, at the International Istanbul Biennial, in Turkey, and also in Sweden and the United States. She also participates in many art theory conferences and symposiums. Currently she works at the Museum of Skopje, Macedonia.


Back to Kac Web