Resurrecting the Sublime

Project

2019

Immersive smell installations, video works, images, documentary film. Supported by IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. See resurrectingthesublime.com.

Digital reconstruction of the extinct Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock on the southern slopes of Mount Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, around the time of its last sighting in 1912. Credit: Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, with support from IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Could we ever again smell flowers driven to extinction by humans? This question motivates Resurrecting the Sublime, an ongoing collaboration between artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, and an interdisciplinary team of researchers and engineers from the biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks, led by Creative Director Dr. Christina Agapakis, with the support of IFF Inc. Bringing together cutting-edge scientific research with immersive installations, the first in La Fabrique du Vivant at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (opening 18 February 2019), the project allows us to smell extinct flowers, lost due to colonial activity.

Using tiny amounts of DNA extracted from specimens of three flowers stored at Harvard University’s Herbaria, the Ginkgo team used synthetic biology to predict and resynthesize gene sequences that might encode for fragrance-producing enzymes. Using Ginkgo’s findings, Sissel Tolaas used her expertise to reconstruct the flowers’ smells in her lab, using identical or comparative smell molecules.

The Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, or Maui hau kuahiwi in Hawaiian, was indigenous to ancient lava fields on the southern slopes of Mount Haleakalā, on Maui, Hawaii. Its forest habitat was decimated by colonial cattle ranching, and the final tree was found dying in 1912. The Orbexilum stipulatum, or Falls-of-the-Ohio Scurfpea, was last seen in 1881 on Rock Island in the Ohio River, near Louisville, Kentucky, before US Dam No. 41 finally flooded its habitat in the 1920s. The ‘Leucadendron grandiflorum (Salisb.) R. Br.’, the Wynberg Conebush has a more complex story, which we are still uncovering. It was last seen in London in a collector’s garden in 1806; its habitat on Wynberg Hill, in the shadow of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, was already lost to colonial vineyards. This flower may prove to be completely lost: the project is bringing to light that specimens around the world may historically have been incorrectly identified.

While we can use technology to reach back into the past and learn which smell molecules the flowers may have produced, like the flowers, the amounts of each are also lost. In installations designed by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, fragments of each flower’s smell diffuse and mix, introducing contingency: there is no exact smell. The lost landscape is reduced to its geology and the flower’s smell: the human connects the two, and in contrast to a natural history museum, the human becomes the specimen on view.

Using genetic engineering to resurrect the smell of extinct flowers—so that humans may again experience something we have destroyed—is awesome and perhaps terrifying. This dizzying feeling evokes the sublime, an “expression of the unknowable”, an aesthetic state encouraging contemplation of humans’ position amidst the immensity of nature.

This is not de-extinction. Instead, biotechnology, smell, and reconstructed landscapes allow us to once again experience a flower blooming on a forested volcanic slope, in the shadow of a mountain, or on a wild river bank, revealing the interplay of species and places that no longer exist. Resurrecting the Sublime asks us to contemplate our actions, and potentially change them for the future.

Dried specimen of Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, collected by Gerrit P. Wilder on Maui Island, Hawaii in 1910. Courtesy Gray Herbarium of Harvard University.

Installation at La Fabrique du Vivant, Centre Pompidou. Resurrecting the Sublime: Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock (smell diffusion hood, lava boulder, documentary film), February 2019.

Digital reconstruction of the extinct Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock on the southern slopes of Mount Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, around the time of its last sighting in 1912. Credit: Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, with support from IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Digital reconstruction of the extinct Orbexilum stipulatum on the shores of Rock Island, in the Ohio River, near Louisville, Kentucky, around the time of its last sighting in 1881. Credit: Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, with support from IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Digital reconstruction of the extinct ‘Leucadendron grandiflorum (Salisb.) R. Br.’ on Wynberg Hill, behind Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, prior to its last sighting in 1806. Credit: Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, with support from IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

FORTHCOMING EXHIBITIONS

La Fabrique du Vivant
Centre Pompidou,
Paris, France
February 18, 2019 – April 15, 2019
Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock

Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival
The XXII Triennale di Milano
Milan, Italy
March 1, 2019 – September 15, 2019

Resurrecting the Sublime
Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne
Saint-Étienne, France
March 21, 2019 – April 22, 2019
Solo exhibition

Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
New York, USA
May 10, 2019 – January 20, 2020

Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial
Cube design museum
Kerkrade, Netherlands
May 10, 2019 – January 20, 2020

AI: More Than Human
Barbican Centre
London, UK
May 16, 2019 – August 26, 2019

 

CREDITS

PROJECT PARTNER
Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc.

SUPPORTED BY
IFF Inc. 

WITH SPECIAL THANKS TO
Dr Michaela Schmull, Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge

THE FLOWERS
Hibiscadelphus wilderianus, coll. J. F. Rock s.n. from e [east] Maui, Hawaii. The Herbarium of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Leucadendron grandiflorum (Salisb.) R. Br.’, coll. F.G. Meyer and T. R. Dudley s.n., Aug. 15- 20, 1966. The Herbarium of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Orbexilum stipulatum, coll. C. W. Short, Kentucky and Bot. Garden 1871. Gray Herbarium of Harvard University

GINKGO BIOWORKS, INC.
Dr Christina Agapakis, Natsai Audrey Chieza, Grace Chuang, Jason Kakoyiannis, Dr Jason Kelly, Scott Marr, Krishna Patel, Kit McDonnell, Dr Christian Ridley, Dr Dayal Saran, Atsede Siba, Dr Dawn Thompson, Dr Jue Wang

PALEOGENOMICS
Dr Joshua Kapp and Dr Beth Shapiro, Paleogenomics Lab, University of California, Santa Cruz

DNA SYNTHESIS
Twist Bioscience

ALEXANDRA DAISY GINSBERG
Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Ana Maria Nicolaescu (3D artist), Johanna Just, Ness Lafoy, Ioana Mann, Stacie Woolsey, Nicholas Zembashi 

FILM EDITING
Inferstudio 

SOUND DESIGN
Sam Conran 

SMELL HOOD FABRICATION
Factory Settings 

WITH THANKS FOR ADDITIONAL PLANT RESEARCH TO
Dr Nicholas Hind, Dr Gerhard Prenner, Harry Smith, The Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Dr Anthony Roberts, Changing Lives Through Nature, Cape Town; Dr Tony Rebelo, SANBI, Cape Town

Digital reconstruction of the extinct Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock on the southern slopes of Mount Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, around the time of its last sighting in 1912. Credit: Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, with support from IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Dried specimen of Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, collected by Gerrit P. Wilder on Maui Island, Hawaii in 1910. Courtesy Gray Herbarium of Harvard University.

Installation at La Fabrique du Vivant, Centre Pompidou. Resurrecting the Sublime: Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock (smell diffusion hood, lava boulder, documentary film), February 2019.

Digital reconstruction of the extinct Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock on the southern slopes of Mount Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, around the time of its last sighting in 1912. Credit: Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, with support from IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Digital reconstruction of the extinct Orbexilum stipulatum on the shores of Rock Island, in the Ohio River, near Louisville, Kentucky, around the time of its last sighting in 1881. Credit: Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, with support from IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Digital reconstruction of the extinct ‘Leucadendron grandiflorum (Salisb.) R. Br.’ on Wynberg Hill, behind Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, prior to its last sighting in 1806. Credit: Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, with support from IFF Inc. and Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.