The Northern White Rhino Went Extinct, but for Two Minutes at a Time, the Animal Makes a Digital Comeback

An artist’s 3-D recreation of the immense mammal probes the paradox of efforts to bring such animals back in the lab

Over its two-minute lifetime, the faux rhino (above: The Substitute) adapts “to his environment and moves around. His form and his sound become more lifelike, but ultimately, he is coming to life without any natural context and in this completely digital form," says the museum's curator Andrea Lipps. (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Collection)
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He first appears as a crude collection of 3-D pixels—or voxels. Soon, he looks like a conglomeration of blocks morphing into the shape of an animal. Gradually, his image evolves until he becomes a sharp representation of a northern white rhino, grunting and squealing as he might in a grassy African or Asian field. There comes a moment—just a moment—when the viewer’s eyes meet his. Then, the 3-D creature vanishes, just like his sub-species, which due to human poaching is disappearing into extinction.

The Substitute, a digitally projected artwork, was produced by British artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and a Dutch museum, the Cube Design Museum, commissioned the work, and Cooper Hewitt recently displayed it as part of the exhibition “Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial.” The work is now newly acquired into the Cooper Hewitt collections.

The last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died in 2018, and the two surviving females are too old to reproduce. Scientists have used sperm from Sudan and another male that died earlier to fertilize two eggs from the females, Fatu and Najin, who now reside at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The hope is that the breed can be revived after the fertilized eggs are implanted in a southern white rhino to gestate.

“I just was really struck by this paradox that somehow we were getting so excited about the possibility of creating intelligence in whatever form. And yet we completely neglect the life that already exists,” says Ginsberg. “The idea that we could be able to control an A.I. to me seems kind of suspicious. We’re unable to control ourselves. . . . When it comes to killing something as extraordinary as northern white rhinos for their horns, we’re all implicated in this, even if we feel very distant.” Ginsberg also wonders what errors in reproduction may arise as humans recreate life artificially.

The Substitute reflects this uneasy paradox. Within the work’s two-minute time frame, “there’s a moment of affection and tenderness for this thing coming to life before you,” Ginsberg says. “But then it’s gone—and it’s not the real deal.” The rhino appears not on the savanna amidst woodlands or grasslands where members of its sub-species typically have grazed, but in a plain white box. Just as a lab creation would, he lacks any natural context. While a real male northern white rhinoceros weighs 5,000 pounds, this one, of course, weighs nothing. It is ephemeral, unreal.

Ginsberg, who has been trained in architecture and interactive design, is a London-based artist who often uses modern science to draw attention to questions raised by new scientific developments. Typically, her work highlights a wide spectrum of issues. Among them are conservation, artificial intelligence, biodiversity, exobiology and evolution. She was the lead author of Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology in 2014. Synthetic Aesthetics, which is the scientific practice of redesigning living matter to make it more useful to mankind, activates passion in Ginsberg. She urges caution in these kinds of projects and illustrates her concerns with artworks that point to troubling outcomes.

“Ultimately what we saw in the exhibition was just incredibly moving,” says Cooper Hewitt curator Andrea Lipps. She describes The Substitute as “wildly successful” for communicating something both intellectually imperative but also triggering emotion, “which I think is what makes it resonate with anyone who comes in and watches it.” After seeing it herself, she realized that “it was one particular piece that everyone would talk about with everyone.”

When Lipps brought her three-year-old daughter and six-year-old son to see it, she was surprised by the differences in their reactions. Both saw a certain reality: Her daughter was frightened and confused by the authentic nature of the rhino image, but her son wanted to hug the animal.

She, too, notes the paradox. “Why are we fixated on spending resources and time and effort on de-extinction projects when . . .we couldn’t keep the natural creature alive in the first place. And why would we value that kind of technological copy, if you will, more than we did the real rhino?”

Rather than bombarding viewers with facts and figures about the northern white rhino, Ginsberg believes sparking an emotional response is more effective, and thus, her artificial rhino conjures passions that a lecture would not elicit.

Like Ginsberg, Lipps questions the reality of an animal born through DNA experimentation in a laboratory far from the wild. “How much of what an animal is, do we understand to be just that information, and how much of it is much more environmental and much more contextual?” she wonders.

Over its two-minute lifetime, the faux rhino adapts “to his environment and moves around,” Lipps says. “His form and his sound become more lifelike, but ultimately, he is coming to life without any natural context and in this completely digital form. He’s totally artificial; he doesn’t really exist; and so it lends provocation and communicates with all of us about what is. Is that life?”

“I just was really struck by this paradox that somehow we were getting so excited about the possibility of creating intelligence in whatever form. And yet we completely neglect the life that already exists,” says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. (Martin Kraft, Wikimedia Commons)

The rhino’s image, its sounds, and its behavior are based on 23 hours of video footage showing the last herd of northern white rhinos, which included Sudan, the last male. The video was made by a Czech scientist named Richard Policht. The rhino in The Substitute is not an exact copy of any rhino member of the herd but represents a composite image.

He acts, appears and sounds real, as any real rhino probably would. However, appearing in a sterile white box, it lacks the context and herd experience that shapes a rhino’s behavior, much as a lab-created, captive rhino would carry the proper DNA without having any of the experiences that color the life of a rhino in the wild.

Lipps believes biotechnology is “important, and it’s good that we have these explorations. But it’s also important that we just call into question what our goals and our aims are for all of it. . . . Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. We really need to be rigorous in how we are questioning ourselves and these technologies as we continue having the ability to undertake them.”

Ginsberg encourages humans to focus on the effects of choices available in the modern world. For example, she says, “Our increasingly urban lives afford modern-day conveniences like ordering takeout in plastic containers. . . . Ask yourself: What have I excluded in that choice and did I actually care about it?” At London’s Royal College of Art, Ginsberg’s 2018 Ph.D. project, Better, explored visions of a “better” future and how they affect what designers choose to create. She argues that “better ideas” such as environmentally problematic plastic bottles and energy-saving lightbulbs, create new problems as they solve old ones. She also contends that consumers and scientists must ask better questions to reach more successful solutions. She is well-known for her lectures on these topics, and her other works include an installation, also seen at Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial that presented scents from flowers that are now extinct. This project uses gene sequences to create scented enzymes.

Her attention to the concept of “better” plays a role in The Substitute. Ginsberg raises the question of whether an artificially created rhinoceros would be better and have a greater right to live than those who preceded it and lost their lives to greedy humans.

Ginsberg has won the World Technology Award for design in 2011, the London Design Medal for Emerging Talent in 2012, and the Dezeen Changemaker Award in 2019. Twice, her work has been nominated for Designs of the Year. Her art has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Beijing’s National Museum of China, Paris’s Centre Pompidou, and London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and her works are more permanently housed in museums and private collections. She has built a growing audience through lectures shared via TEDGlobal, PopTech, Design Indaba, and the New Yorker TechFest.

The Mill, which has studios in London, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Bangalore and Berlin, provided animation for this project, and Dr. Andrea Banino at DeepMind, an international company that develops useful forms of artificial intelligence, provided the experimental data to set the rhino’s paths. After each two-minute episode, the rhino reappears and follows another of the three programmed paths.

The Substitute is currently not on view at the Cooper Hewitt. In 2020, the artwork will be exhibited at Fact in Liverpool, with an opening on March 20 and on view through June 14, at Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh April 24 through June 14, 2020, and at Ark Des Stockholm, October through December.

About Alice George
Alice George

Alice L. George, Ph.D., is an independent historian with a special interest in America during the 1960s. A veteran newspaper editor, she has authored or co-authored seven books, focusing on 20th-century American history or Philadelphia history.

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