Carsten Höller by Xerxes Cook

When Ever Manifesto approached Carsten Höller to create an artwork which explores notions of consciousness for the cover of this magazine, the Belgian-German artist suggested recreating a famous scientific experiment to gauge levels of self-awareness in animals.

Seeing Double

The experiment, originally devised in the 1970s, saw Carsten draw a dot on the forehead of Sina, a 14-year-old chimpanzee who is somewhat of a celebrity in her native Germany. He then positioned a mirror in front of Sina to see whether she would try to rub the dot off. If she did — and Sina did — it would indicate that the animal recognised her reflection. That raised a further question: if is she is aware of herself, can an animal be held responsible for its actions?

For Ever Conscious, Carsten devised two distinct set-ups for his experiment. The first was a close recreation of the conditions of the original 1970s experiment, conceived and conducted by the evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup, in which a mirror was placed in the hands of the chimpanzee. The second set-up involved embedding a lens into a hole cut out of the mirror, in order to capture a direct point-of-view image of any moment of self-recognition.

With the dot on the great ape’s forehead echoing the bindi of Hinduism — a sign that a person is in touch with the “concealed wisdom” of the third eye — Carsten’s image is loaded with meanings that are as hard to define as the nature of consciousness itself. Carsten has a longstanding expertise and interest in perception and the way non-human animals think and interact: before he became an artist, he had trained and practiced as an agricultural entomologist specialising in olfactory communication — i.e., he studied how insects smell. In one sense, his work with Sina is an exploration of “the double,” the way the ‘other’ is so often also a reflection of ourselves.

Gallup’s original 1970s experiments found that other animals, like dolphins and African grey parrots, also demonstrated levels of self-awareness and “a proper concept of themselves”, but it’s the great apes with whom we share 98.5 percent our DNA that reveal the most about the nature of what we call consciousness. It is an observable fact all humans experience, but the concept remains an enigma to current methods of thinking. Modern science understands that we have a brain, and that consciousness is a phenomenon related to it, but despite all that, the experts can’t pin consciousness down to a mechanistic principle. “The ‘material’ of it is unknown,” as Carsten puts it.

“Consciousness, personality, and the ways in which we develop our sense of self is something that both science and philosophy have struggled to define,” he continues. “It’s something that’s unsayable, untranslatable — and so it may be better to embrace our incapacity to comprehend through looking at an ape, who is so far and so close.” As an artist, creating artworks that have taken the form of 60 foot tall slides in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and a half-Congolese, half-Western nightclub with décor from each country presented on opposite sides of each other, Carsten is interested in exploring this mystery of the mind as a means to “get out of the rationality system” we live in.

While acknowledging the benefits this system has brought us to date and the technology we have created that’s made our lives so much easier, our concept of the self is something we usually take for granted. Carsten believes we have the opportunity to see what lies beyond this utilitarian logic. “Consciousness and its opposites are our tools to explore what else could there be, and where we could get to.” It’s time to think out of the box.

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