Stephanie Rothenberg

Aphrodisiac in the Machine (2019)

“Aphrodisiac in the Machine” is a multimedia installation that explores the ethics and economics of bioengineering non-human life for human survival. The project takes the form of an environmental sci-fi narrative about a futuristic aquaculture farm. Merging fact and fiction, the story centers around the bioengineering of a new species of cyborg oysters that are able to convert toxic water into an aphrodisia-inducing fluid. The special fluid will be piped into municipal water sources and can also be accessed at public water dispensing stations like you find at the airport. A special hookah inspired sipping station and a kitchen countertop unit are also being developed.

Playing on the libidinous myth of the oyster, a hermaphroditic organism, the project explores aphrodisia as a more sentient state of being and empowerment that moves beyond mere sexual connotations. It examines the contradictions of biotechnology and geo-engineering that can often adversely affect nonhuman life. It questions if creating more sentient and perceptible “humans” might be another path to consider.

The project extrapolates on a 2005 scientific study that investigated if oysters are really aphrodisiacs. The study made a buzz in online media ranging from Wired to Smithsonian but a definitive answer was never determined. It is known that oysters produce D-aspartate, an amino acid that affects hormone production in lab rats. The amino acid is also used widely in sports training for humans and has shown results.

The project also casts light on the oyster’s long history of domestication and its current role in ecosystem services, questioning the ethics and environmental consequences of utilizing “natural capital” as resources for extraction. Once a food source of the proletariat, the oyster evolved into a bourgeois delicacy that is now nearly extinct due to anthropogenic factors. Initiatives to repopulate go beyond its providing sustenance to the organism’s ability to filter massive amounts of polluted water (up to 50 gallons per day) and the use of “oyster-tecture” – leveraging the oyster’s habitat as a natural reef barrier against sea level rise.

In the project, the myth becomes a metaphorical wrench in the new global machine of sea farming as more sentient ways of being are unleashed into networks and infrastructures. Focusing on current environmental issues, the narrative moves between multiple perspectives and ways of knowing and being sentient as the story unfolds — the human, the libidinal, the oyster, the invisible living matter in the water and of the network. A non-human subaqueous system is explored comprised of not only the organic flesh and fluids of the oyster body but also the flows of data that circulate throughout.

The project manifests in myriad formats: single and multi channel videos; networked art; and an interactive installation featuring a tank of cyborg oysters that dispenses a drinkable elixir of their aphrodisia-inducing fluid. The elixir is currently being bioengineered.

Project support:
“Aphrodisiac in the Machine” is supported through artist residencies at Z/KU Center for Art and Urbanism in Berlin and Xenoform Labs in San Francisco and a fellowship at the Roux Center for Environmental Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Future project support includes Sensorium Center for Digital Art and Technology at York University in Toronto and the Coalesce Center for Biological Art at the University at Buffalo, NY. 3D model animation created by Sputnik Animation in Portland, ME.

About the Artist

Stephanie Rothenberg’s interdisciplinary art draws from digital culture, science and economics to explore relationships between human designed systems and biological ecosystems. Moving between real and virtual spaces her work investigates the power dynamics of techno utopias, global economics and outsourced labor. She has exhibited throughout the US and internationally in venues including Eyebeam (US), Sundance Film Festival (US), Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art / MASS MoCA (US), House of Electronic Arts / HeK (CH), LABoral (ES), Transmediale (DE), and ZKM Center for Art & Media (DE). She is a recipient of numerous awards, most recently from the Harpo Foundation and Creative Capital. Residencies include ZK/U Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik in Berlin, TOKAS / Tokyo Art and Space, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace, Eyebeam Art and Technology and the Santa Fe Art Institute. Her work is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and has been widely reviewed including Artforum, Artnet, The Brooklyn Rail and Hyperallergic. She is an ongoing participant and organizer in the MoneyLab research project at the Institute of Network Cultures and co-organizer of the 2018 MoneyLab 5 symposium that took place in Buffalo, NY. She is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art at SUNY Buffalo where she co-directs the Platform Social Design Lab, an interdisciplinary design studio collaborating with local social justice organizations.

Stephanie Rothenberg Website