“We have not always been humans: we started as bacteria, we also had been the species deep in the oceans, and we also had lived in the trees. Now we are humans, but just temporarily, and we see now that we are a species merging with technology, merging with our own creation.”
Neil Harbisson, in interview with Aleksandra Łukaszewicz Alcaraz (2019)

In "Beyond the World’s End" by T.J Demos he focuses specifically on "models of aesthetic practice where life is being reinvented in ways that not only critically identify the manifold problems that threaten existence as we know it; they also offer diverse approaches to a hopeful futurity, where hope joins speculative imagination to the material practice of living otherwise, capable of carrying us beyond the end of the world." (2020)
This essay will critically engage with the practices of Neil Harbisson and Patricia Picinnini, two artists whose work relates to hopeful futurity and speculative imagination. Both these practitioners explore trans-species hybridisation, and the diffusion of boundaries.
I will draw heavily on the work of T.J Demos and Donna Haraway, as well as technomaterialism. I will define technomaterialism here as a critical interest in technologies as an activist tool, while confronting a contemporary reality and emphasising the more obviously material elements of interaction and intervention (Hester, 2018).
Patricia Piccinini (1965) is an Australian artist who works in a range of media, including video, painting, sound, installation, digital print, and sculpture. She is most recognized for her sculpture, creating “life size” hyperreal hybrids from silicone, metal and natural materials. Her work focuses on “unexpected consequences”, conveying concerns surrounding bio-ethics and helping to visualise future dystopias (Smith, 2011).
I will primarily focus on her 2019 solo exhibition ‘Life Clings Closest’, which took place in Cairns Art Gallery, Australia. The exhibition comprised a selection of works from the prior 20 years of Piccinini’s practice, as well as a selection of works specifically made in relation to Cairns, and North Australia more broadly.
Piccinini, in the exhibition’s catalogue describes her work as engaging with ideas such as “ evolution, the environment, technology, family and maternity, the artificial and the natural” (2019), which she explores through “relationships, narrative and emotion”. The majority of works in this particular exhibition are surreal hybridised forms- a young girl and an owl on an armchair, a glossy spiked form which resembles a sports shoe as much as antlers, a fleshy, rounded, many-mouthed creature with flowing brown hair.
The scenes created within her work appear fantastical and implausible, however real world scientific developments in biotechnology such as gene therapy and genome mapping inform much of her work (National Gallery of Victoria, 2002).
Piccinini uses the term ‘chimera’ to describe the hybrids she fashions. In reference to this choice she says:
“A chimera is both a mythic creature (half lion, half goat) and a technical term for a genetically engineered organism that includes DNA taken from more than one source.” (2019).

One of the works created by Picannini specifically for this exhibit is Unfurled (2019, fig.1). Picannini asserts that the sculpture aims to “imagine a different sort of relationship between people and nature; one that is more equitable and with a more shared outlook”, with the level pairing of the two animals aiming to draw parallels between species. The duo stare forward, appearing poised and engaged.
Picannini’s work is created by a team of “skilled artisans”, from sketches she draws. The girl in Unfurled is drawn from images of “indigenous Amazonians”. In the exhibition’s catalogue, the artist details the comparison she sees between the endangered culture of the Amazonian people and the owl; two groups whose “land is under constant threat”, and who must “fight and adapt to survive”.

Fig.1- Unfurled (2019), Patricia Picannini
There are obviously problematic aspects to this work- the suggested comparison between an indigenous human and an animal by a white artist being a major point. Piccannini acknowledges this-
“There is a long history of denigrating other cultures as ‘less human’ or ‘more human’ than ourselves and so I run the risk of invoking this sort of rubbish when I connect the girl and the owl. The girl’s level of humanity is never in question, it is humanity’s self importance that is in question. Ironically, Amazonian culture has much less of a problem with that idea than mine does” (2019)
Regardless of the sincerity of Picannini’s intent with this work, she still risks exoticising non-western cultures, and as T.J. Demos cautions- idealising “indigenous knowledge systems” (2016, p.24, as quoted by Elwes, 2018, p150.).
Despite her utopian vision for the piece as unifying the division between species, she could be criticised for reproducing the kind of western, “head-in-the-clouds idealism” (Demos, 2020, p.5) that is too anchored to present “destructive”, “wholly unjust” and “outmoded ways of organizing existence” (Demos, 2020, p.2) to materially gesture towards the “hop[e] for something better”(2019) that Picannini aims for in reference to this work.

Fig 2- No Fear of Depths (2019), Patricia Picannini
Another of the sculptures created for this exhibition is No Fear of Depths (Fig. 2), a 150x150x110cm silicon sculpture depicting a young girl nestled in the ‘arms’ of a wrinkled, pale creature that bears a resemblance to some kind of marine animal. Picannini herself describes the creature as being “caught at an evolutionary point between the land and the sea”. (2019) The scene brings to mind images of motherhood and care; the creature has a docile expression, with forward facing, deep set blue eyes, and the girl seems peaceful and relaxed. The comfort which the pair demonstrate in each other’s company suggests that they may have some kind of pre-existing relationship. Given that much of Picannini’s work imagines future man-made genetically-engineered creatures, we might wonder if the creature in No Fear of Depths has been created, or was born- or perhaps the distinction is not important. As Picannini writes earlier in the piece- “Are these chimera artificial because they have been engineered or are they natural because they are perfectly functional organic creatures?”. (2019)
In writing to her own practice, Picannini emphasises her utilisation of empathy as a tool, in creating a journey from “disturbance to warmth” (2019), and striving to exemplify that we are “nurtured by the nature around us”. In a review of another Piccinini exhibition, Curious Affection (2018), John McDonald slates Piccanini’s work as “gross[ly] sentimental[ ]”, criticising her prevalent depiction of human children in interaction with her chimeras- “the adoring innocent children who can ‘see’ more clearly than we adults''- as a “sentimental cliche”. McDonald seems to view Piccanini’s leveraging of empathy as naive and assimilationist, reminding readers of the “terrible consequences'' that can result from “treating animals as friends”, and criticising the artist’s “interspecies fantasies” as “horribly far-fetched”, given the contemporary geopolitical climate wherein “political leaders are allowing the most blatant forms of racism and ethnic tension to be normalised”.
Despite this, notable posthumanist author Rosa Braidotti writes of Piccanini’s work as “show[ing] us posthuman subjects who care” (As quoted by McDonald, 2018). Similarly, screen studies professor and animal ethicist Barbara Creed praises Piccanini’s practice, describing it as “call[ing] to the spectator to consider a new way of being, a new form of opening out and embracing difference” (2018). Those who acclaim Picannini’s work generally do so through the lens of its radical de-anthropocentrism. Creed says that the artist’s work “remind[s] us we are all animals”. As an audience, we might infer that through her non-hierarchical assemblages, and hybridisation of human and non-human; artificial and real; plant, machine, and animal, she aims to diffuse the categories imposed on us, which in themselves are not naturalistic. Even the hyperreal form of her sculptures creates boundary subversion in the mind of the viewer- they mimic both the “real” and the “imagined, they are fashioned from silicone and steel but resemble flesh.
Donna Haraway, in her pivotal Cyborg Manifesto (1991), writes that:
“Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imaginations. The Centaurs and Amazons of ancient Greece established the limits of the centred polls of the Greek male human by their disruption of marriage and boundary pollutions of the warrior with animality and woman. Unseparated twins and hermaphrodites were the confused human material in early modern France who grounded discourse on the natural and supernatural, medical and legal”
Informed by this, we could interpret Piccanini’s chimeras as new kinds of “boundary pollut[ers]”, informed by modern categories of division. Through encouraging empathy with the viewer, they draw new boundaries, and in the tradition of Haraway’s kin (2016), encourage us to widen the scope of our self-identification.
Piccanini’s work explores areas where the possibilities of technological intervention press up against the natural world (2019), featuring genetically engineered animals and other technologically enhanced spaces of imaginative futurity. In her own words, she imagines a sort of “artificial nature”, even in the medium in which she works. The flipside to this is to consider “naturalised technology”(Piccanini, 2019). In line with Helen Hester’s writing, Piccanini emphasises the redundancy of encouraging a return to a pre-industrial past. As Hester says “we can’t imagine a new starting point” (2021). “We cannot remove technology from humans any more than we can take hives from bees or nests from birds or tools from orangutans” (Picannini, 2019). While many authors reject the concept of the “anthropocene”- “the epoch in which human disturbance outranks other geological forces.” (Tsing, 2015)- for naturalising climate transformation, capitalism and the myriad injustices that contribute and result as “human activities” (Demos, 2020), authors such as Hester emphasise the criticality of acknowledging the world as it is, and rather than rejecting its conditions and technologies we might seek to create a “reparative framework”, which repurposes and re-appropriates existing tools to a new end(2018). In these limited circumstances, perhaps it would be more productive and progressive to focus on “co-evolution”, and “making with” as an antidote to neo-luddism, as Haraway often urges us to do.
This sentiment is echoed in the ethos of Neil Harbisson (b. 1984), a Spanish born cyborg rights activist, who since 2004 has had an antenna implanted into his skull (Fig.3), allowing him to hear colours (from a broader scale of the electromagnetic spectrum than is visually accessible to a non-modified person) through bone conduction (Alcaraz, 2004, p.61). Harbisson, in his work with his non-profit organisation, Cyborg Foundation (Est. 2010), advocates for morphological freedom in self-design, positing cyborgification as the next step in a long line of evolution- “becoming less human is not bad, but rather [ ] it is natural”(As quoted by Alcaraz, 2019). Harbisson embraces the mutational possibilities that technology can offer, and emphasises the opportunity we are offered to “be part of the evolutionary decision making tribunal”, shedding any eco-nostalgic attachment to ‘the natural’. He views his modification as “an artistic statement” wherein his “body and brain [are treated as] a sculpture” (As quoted by Jeffries, 2014).

Fig 3- Neil Harbisson via Thinking Heads
In her piece Cyborg Transfeminism (2017) Sølvi Goard critically investigates many of the naturalised boundaries we take for granted, detailing their recent conceptual incarnation. Goard cites in particular, the development of the ‘natural’, leading to “a conception of technology as something exterior to an innate humanity”, noting the contradiction of sanctifying the natural/pure while “chang[ing] out social conditions, and in doing so, ourselves, including our bodies”, establishing that even through simple tasks such as eating cooked food, we are “technologically modifying our bodies”. Similarly, Helen Hester reminds us that under modernity, we are necessarily part of a “toxicant economy”, from which “extracting” oneself is a non-generalisable possibility (2021). In line with Harbisson’s call for a wider engagement with evolutionary self-design, Hester emphasises the need for a “proactive hormone discourse” (2021). In any system in which we must inexorably participate, our “agency is never truly absolute [...] we are controlling our bodies within a space that is fundamentally restrictive”(Hester, 2021).
Harbisson describes cybernetic enhancements as
“bringing us closer to other animals and to nature; it’s about awakening our senses, our instincts, our intuition… qualities that we seem to have lost due to out constant use of technology as an external tool, and not as part of our body”
(As quoted by Alcaraz, 2019)
Despite his self-conception as a cyborg (rather than an enhanced human), Harbisson evidently naturalises his implants- “I feel like I am technology. I don’t think of my antenna as a device- it’s a body part” (As quoted by Jeffries, 2014). This unconventional integration of artifice into Harbisson’s self-schema represents a materialist rejection of the ecosocial boundaries that Hester encourages in Xenofeminism (2018). Hester explores the negative perception of artificiality as “pollution”, and calls for a rejection of a false “purity” wherein goodness is entangled with the “born”, and the “made” is seen as disingenuous and corrupting. She argues that this conservatism ultimately indefinitely reproduces the present and “shut[s] down mutational possibilities”. Hester, and Haraway, both see the potential in retooling artificiality and mutation as a vehicle towards utopian diversity.
Harbisson is also critical of the ways in which we primarily choose to delegate certain technological enhancements to external creations, rather than integrating them into ourselves, for example the creation of a car’s reversing sensor, rather than giving “this sense” to ourselves. (Jeffries, 2014). This perspective falls in line with the context in which the term “cyborg” was originally coined in 1964 by Clynes and Kline, with relation to space travel-
“Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space” (p. 26)
In relation to more earthly issues, Harbisson proposes engineering night vision as opposed to artificial lighting- “if you change yourself, you don’t need to change the environment so much, so you are thinking more about the environment” (As quoted by Alcaraz, 2019). This kind of radical autopoiesis proposes a future wherein humanity limits technological interference outside of its species by intentionally directing human alteration towards human bodies.
In Xenofeminism, Hester further details the case of Paul B. Preciado, author of Testo Junkie, who undertook self administration of testosterone. Preciado’s perspective is that the body constitutes “a political laborator[y]”- a potential space for “political agency and critical resistance to normalisation”(As quoted by Hester, 2018). In Body, The (2009) Johnston writes that
“The body is a crucial site of sociospatial relations, representation and identities. It is the place, location or site of the individual. It is also a site of pain, pleasure and other emotions around which social definitions of wellness, illness, happiness and health are constructed”
What does the cyborg signify? Despite her text The Cyborg Manifesto generally being taken to be metaphorical, Haraway proposes the cyborg as representing a being with “no origin story”, ie; a creature which entirely rejects the naturalisation of boundaries that Haraway sees as a tool for oppression. The concept of the cyborg offers a framework within which “we are responsible for boundaries”- “a disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling” between people and “other living beings”(1991) .
Similarly, in writing about Harbisson, Alcaraz suggests that
“people are very often afraid of changing themselves in such a profound way, because this would show that we humans have no pure origin- we are just an effect of hybrid evolution, of what is natural and what is technological” (2019)
The function of Harbisson’s antenna is not therapeutic. Despite being born colourblind, and the antenna initially remedying his disability, he can now experience a greater range of sensory experience than any non-cyborg person. His experience of his new sense is distinct too- he can record the tones he hears in correspondence to colour, and create music; or he can produce artworks, which to him sound like particular musical compositions. Johnston asserts that a phenomenological approach to embodiment suggests that “subjectivity is not located in the consciousness but the lived body”, that “bodily awareness becomes inseparable from the world of perception” (p.328, 2009). Through phenomenology, new sensory experience represents a new corporeality, a new world for the subject. He exists technomaterially as a collaboration between technology and biology, representing and embodying potential futures.
Richard Goldschmidt (1940) coined the term ‘hopeful monster’ to describe a mutation that “set[s] a new standard” by overtaking an ecological position previously occupied by another species and reappropriating it for itself and its descendants (Fuller, 2021). The mutations, which are initially disadvantageous, cause the creature to succeed in the long run. Fuller reminds us that the perception of ‘innovation’ as a positive is a contemporary notion, that until the mid-nineteenth century ‘innovation’ was synonymous with ‘monstrosity’.
“It was only once industrial innovations started to boost the Europeanized world to unprecedented levels of productivity and wealth that the relevant value reversal took place” (Fuller, 2019)
Innovation became valued for its “novel combination and repurposing of already existing technologies” (Fuller, 2019). This definition recalls Helen Hester’s continued appraisal of ‘retooling’ as a strategy for political and social organising- for us to be both “hackers and engineers” (2021), “conceiving of ‘a total structure as well as the molecular parts from which it is constructed'' (2018, p.147). US Cold War strategist Herman Kahn suggested that the vast range of mutations that would appear in post-nuclear war humans, would serve to eliminate persistant social discrimination (Fuller, 2019). While his claim is undoubtedly optimistic at best, and reckless at worst, it is echoed in Laboria Cubonik’s “Xenofeminist Manifesto” (2015), which proposes that “the system of gender difference [ ] be abolished via the proliferation of gender differences” (2015). In Patricia Piccanini’s work, the real and the imagined, the engineered and the evolve; become redundant categories, with the variation in species fertilizing harmonious relations.
The cyborg can be regarded as a ‘hopeful monster’- it is mutation and innovation (Fuller, 2019). It allows us to acknowledge and utilise the possibility of hybrid evolution, creating unity between technology and biology, but also (as Harbisson emphasises) allowing us to more closely relate to animals through sharing sensory data with them that had previously been inaccessible to humans- Harbisson says he relates to insects in their shared sense of wide spectrum vision (As quoted by Jeffries, 2014). The cyborg represents co-creation, a playful, explorative endeavour involving technology, which retools capitalistic, profit driven technological innovation for inclusive, subversive ends. We cannot extract ourselves from our current material conditions, however in a technomaterialist fashion, we can create with what we have to hand- Hester quotes Marx: “Man makes his own history, but does not do so in conditions of his own choosing” (2021)
Donna Haraway’s metaphorical cyborg is a celebration of multiplicity, a focus on the untenability of distinctions in a world wherein everyone can be human/machine, natural/artificial, human/ animal, male/non-male. (Reid, 2021). In the same legacy, Harbisson and Piccinini’s work both addresses contemporary issues of technological development head-on, exploring the mutational possibilities it offers as a new frontier for radical de-anthropocentism, for the unity of human and non-human as an opportunity for the de-platforming of homo sapien, and for the subversion of the ‘natural order’. Using Paul O’Brien’s 2008 analysis of the forms of modern environmental art, we might take this technologically imbued vision of futurity to represent “Integrative environmental art”- a practice whose goal or effect is to “Heal[ ] either nature itself, or the perceived split between humanity and environment” . Whether in Picannini’s tender visions of posthuman mutation and chimerism, or Harbisson’s vision of uniting the animate and inanimate, both artists present thought provoking visions of possibility, and resist hopelessness and stagnation.
“There are any number of scenarios we can imagine, some great and some terrible, and as a community we need to figure out how to maximise the good outcomes because the reality is that now we can do it, we will” (Piccanini, 2019)

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Image Bibliography
Fig.1- Unfurled (2019), Patricia Picannini, image via
Fig.2- No fear of depths (2019), Patricia Picannini, image via
Fig 3- Neil Harbisson, image via
Hopeful Futurity in the work of Patricia Piccanini and Neil Harbisson