Aesthetic Experience of Metabolic Processes
meson press, Lüneburg, Germany, 2021
184 pp. PDF, open access
Breathing, the act of respiration, is one that puts the human body in a direct, vital, and primordial relation with its environment. At the same time, this context and the interplay between the metabolic and the environmental is one that is not well accounted for, in aesthetic descriptions of outer experience, or those of the phenomenal aspects of that experience. In Aesthetic Experience of Metabolic Processes Desiree Förster observes that despite its being usually outside of everyday perception, changes in atmosphere fundamentally shift bodily, metabolic dispositions. She suggests that these changes can affect an aesthetic shift in which the pervasive but never quite present effects of gasses and temperatures within which all respiring organisms are embedded might become, if not directly accessible per se, then accountable in an aesthetics that considers the climactic.
Needless to say, in the context of the Anthropocene, the atmosphere demands attention. Förster’s argument builds on one project of new materialist theory that seeks to the work that can flesh out an account of the material and perceptual within the same ontological frame. To do this she draws on thinking from the ‘atmospheric turn’ in the humanities where thinkers in a number of fields: architecture, music, literature have embarked applied enquiries into questions of feeling, tone, and mood, and in doing so adopts a processural, relational approach.
One pleasure of this book is how smoothly Förster’s work moves past the apparent gap between descriptions of atmosphere’s material aspects more often dealt with in physics, and biology, and its phenomenological qualities as a mediator of shifts in individual awareness and consciousness. Doing so, the book fleshes out examples of the physical constitution of the posthuman in a way that comfortably moves between cellular and material processes to techno-cultural and inner perceptual and sensory dimensions. Exploring the relation between climactic and metabolic processes, Förster argues for the transformative effects of metabolic function’s effect on perception. The phenomenological approach allows her to develop a notion of metabolic subjectivity in which attuning to metabolic/environmental processes, offers awareness of shifts in metabolism effected by climatic change that would not be perceivable in themselves. Instead, they influence the tone or attunement to certain feelings in experience. This attunement, Förster argues, is a mode by which our ‘subjective’ perception allows us to engage with ‘imperceptible phenomena’ through interoperception of internal bodily and cognitive change. The goals of shifting one’s awareness not of the thing in perception, but to the now of perceiving it – in aesthetic perception – allows a different engagement “to shift our attention to the biological part of being as a bio-cultural creature” (p.170).
Förster’s analysis is informed by the collaborative production of “atmospheric media” artworks, installations using temperature, air and water in various ways to shift the disposition of the spectator at a metabolic level, so that they become aware of and attend to how their own perception is changed by the action of that environment on their body. A step onward from the observations made by theorists of atmosphere such as Gernot Bohme that much contemporary aesthetic production involves the ‘staging of atmospheres’. While philosophically, the idea that atmosphere is as much the product of the environment as it is of the moods and feelings brought to it by the visitor or audience, Förster’s work moves further, emphasizing this aspect of aesthetic experience as an interactive process of attunement, but also adding the idea that the spectator- or “inspirer”– might be encouraged to develop a certain awareness, to become actively engaged with their own perceptual processes as ground for experience. This idea, that Förster calls “prehension”, then offers, “a form of understanding something about an encountered entity or situation operates in changing the subject-in-understanding itself” and were “there is no graspable essence to be understood, as the process of understanding is moved into the understanding subject as it interrelates with the object itself” (p.173).
While intended to exemplify a certain kind of design approach that mediates and makes present climate rather than fixes it, in some cases the examples of urban installation artworks in the book feel slightly technocentric, perhaps because of the roles that organisms like algae play within them. The engineered solutions seem to lack space for sufficient work to be done by the organisms they engage who are kept in monocultures, essentially gardens of single life-forms. In contrast, Förster’s opening story, of climbing a hill in a tropical climate and being brought into awareness of the way in which the climate shifts her bodily responses and ability, points toward very different ecological spaces. In such busy and biodiverse spaces, the average breath would be full of chemical information from a density of lifeforms busily changing the atmosphere (emitting water, gasses, and other chemicals) partly for the purposes of communication, examples of life forms that might speak more to the human-non-human similarities in metabolism that bring us into dialogue.