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Xenoaesthetics: Art as Speculative Empathy

In his seminal work After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux introduces the concept of ancestrality to challenge the anthropocentric assumptions that have long dominated Western thought. Ancestrality refers to the fact that the universe existed long before the emergence of human consciousness, and will continue to exist long after we are gone. This deep time of cosmological and geological processes, indifferent to any human witness or conceptualization, reveals the specter of a "world without us" - a reality that is not constituted by or for human subjectivity, but exists in autonomous indifference to our cognitive capacities.

The vast majority of the universe's history occurred in the absence of any apprehending minds, and its future will likely unfold long after any trace of human presence has vanished. This stark reality of an unwitnessed and unthought cosmos problematizes the privileged status often granted to the domain of the humanly apprehendable. We are compelled to radically decenter human cognition and recognize the contingency and partiality of our perspective. 

This recognition of the limits of human apprehension opens up the prospect of xenophenomenology - the possibility of radically alien or non-human modes of experience and cognition. If the humanly apprehendable is just a narrow slice of reality, we should be open to the existence of conscious experiences and ways of knowing that are utterly foreign to us.

We can speculate about the kinds of xenophenomenological realities that might exist for beings with vastly different sensory modalities, temporal scales, or cognitive architectures from our own, such as the experience of a being whose cognitive processes unfold over geological timescales, or a distributed, planet-wide superintelligence whose modes of awareness and understanding exceed human comprehension. Or, even closer to us, the inner experiences of animals, artificial intelligences, or even inanimate objects.

In Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost speculates about the aesthetic dimensions of non-living entities such as rocks or machines, inviting us to speculatively consider the “experience” of matter beyond the human or biological. Art has an interesting role to play in this. Through speculative, non-discursive gestures towards the aesthetics of the non-human, art can potentially be a tool for us to come closer to experiencing these alien interiorities. Through the Foreign Objekt residency, I am developing a series of video-based xenoaesthetic experiences to imagine, however speculatively, the alien realities that surround and even constitute us.

Of course, the paradox and challenge of xenoaesthetic art is that it can only ever be an approximate, human-mediated gesture towards the inaccessible, but nonetheless, the artistic gesture is one of speculative empathy


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