Could flowers come back from the dead?

Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg offers her thoughts on her installation, Resurrecting the Sublime, in AI: More than Human

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Resurrecting the Sublime brings together cutting-edge scientific research with immersive installations, allowing us to smell extinct flowers lost due to colonial activity. A collaboration between artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, and an interdisciplinary team of researchers and engineers from the Boston biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks, the installation offers us a way to experience the ghosts of flora gone forever, lost due to human activity.

Where did the idea for Resurrecting the Sublime come from?

It began with a research project by Dr Christina Agapakis, Creative Director at Ginkgo Bioworks, to see whether it was possible to extract DNA from extinct plants to determine what smell molecules they might have produced. In our technological ‘resurrection’, synthetic biologists extracted DNA from pressed specimens of extinct plants stored at Harvard University’s Herbaria. From these fragments of century-old DNA, Ginkgo’s scientists and engineers built a list of smell molecules that this flower may have produced (repeating the process for two other flowers). Tolaas then reconstructed the flowers’ smells in her laboratory using the same or comparable smell molecules that are manufactured by the flavour and fragrance company IFF, which we diffuse in installations for humans to experience.

" many things do we walk past everyday, which may contribute to a functioning ecosystem that we in turn rely on..."

What's the story behind the plants involved in the project?

The Maui hau kuahiwi, Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, 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 Falls-of-the-Ohio scurfpea, Orbexilum stipulatum, 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 Wynberg Conebush, "Leucadendron grandiflorum (Salisb.) R. Br.”, has a more complex story, which we are still uncovering. It was last seen in London in a collector’s garden in 1805; 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.

Where does AI make the critical difference in this project?

The congruence of biological engineering and new computational techniques such as machine learning make addressing questions like this possible. It was a big puzzle to solve: matching pieces of DNA to template fragments that could guide the scientists to DNA sequences that encode for smelly molecules.

people on gallery smelling extinct flowers from installation above

We don’t often hear about flowers going extinct (as opposed to animals) why do you think that is?

These flowers are not special. Each of the three flowers grew in very specific, very small, habitats, each of which were destroyed. I would say for most of us, they would appear to be less interesting than “charismatic megafauna” such as rhinos, but their ordinariness is interesting in itself: how many things do we walk past everyday, which may contribute to a functioning ecosystem that we in turn rely on, but we ignore as a weed or don’t even notice.

"It is not offering a solution, but a way to experience loss, a ghost..."

Do projects like these make you optimistic about our ability to use modern technology to heal our relationship with our planet?

The artwork addresses the legacy of human colonial destruction. It is not offering a solution, but a way to experience loss, a ghost, an imperfect fragment of a memory that we have never actually experienced. For my part in the collaboration, creating an installation, I wanted to flip the observer/object relationship, making the human the centre of the extinction narrative. That’s why you step into the piece, immersing yourself in the smell as you perch on the boulder, and complete the picture of an abstracted, lost nature. Meanwhile, other people watch you. Creating this moment of discomfort was important to me.

This project is cross disciplinary in its approach. Do you think this collaboration is key, and does it make you hopeful for the future?

Humans are hopeful animals by nature, but our nature also includes a preference for short-term action that makes long-term thinking difficult. Our behaviours in the present conflict with the aspirations we might pronounce for the future. Think of that plastic-wrapped sandwich or ready meal which fulfilled a short-term need (I was hungry!), yet counters your belief in long-term environmental care. Is it human nature to be like this, to fail to think longterm? I’m hopeful because I am human, but personally, I don’t have hope that we will or even can change our ways any time soon.