Modding Nature – Tails of the Extreme

Steampunk modification for an X-Box unit

“Modding”, for the noncognicenti (of which I count myself one), is making everyday objects into works of art that fit into some genre. Steampunk is where I’ve come across this at, in my opinion, its most inventive. As an example at random, here’s an X-Box unit cleverly modded to reflect a 19th Century steam-powered contraption, created by Dopelgunder. Read more about it here.

Modding seems to me to stem from an inherent desire to tinker creatively with the world around us. It’s a fundamentally different activity from creating something de novo, because it doesn’t advance – or even address – functionality. It’s purely an aesthetic overlay to an existing object.

The Bonsai. It ain’t natural…

Although modding in its current incarnation is a new phenomenon, humanity has for aeons been creating modifications to anything we could get our hands on. Think, for instance, of the bonsai. Since before 900 AD, people have been taking  healthy seedlings and, over decades of pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation and grafting, producing a version of the tree, a few centimetres high, that mimics the shape and style of a mature, full-sized specimen. The result can be, at times, extremely tortured, as if the large tree it mimics has grown in highly adverse conditions.

What are the ethics of this? Bonsai’s a fairly safe example. Nobody’s going to complain about contorting up a tree that might, given the right conditions, grow that way naturally (although see this brief criticsim).

Einstien, the world’s smallest horse.

Playing with size is a popular passtime with animal breeders. We’re used to chihuahuas – little dogs have been part of everyday life since at least the late Middle Ages and still decorate the handbags of the moneyed classes.  The more modern phenomenon of miniature pot-bellied pigs are becoming more mainstream. When young, they fit fetchingly inside a coffeee cup. Despite the fact that, to the dismay of many unwary owners, the demanding creatures grow to over 70kg, those fond of pets you can bottle feed continue to snap them up.

Pictured above is Einstein, the world’s smallest horse. Despite, to my eye, looking a little odd (is it just the photo or is his head slightly too big?) in the horse genome is still the vestage of Hyracotherium, the tiny ‘proto-horse’ of the middle Eocene, about 45 million years ago. I’m not going to rush out and buy a knee-high pony (I’d rather own a dog), but essentially I’m okay with it.

The bubble eye goldfish. Call me squeamish – I’ve got a problem with it.

Here’s what I’m not okay with: the the numerous creepy hybrids of goldfish that have been created over the past several centuries. Looking at them in the pet shop (the closest I’ll ever get to one), my heart goes out to them. Their swimming is laboured, with jerky movements that seem more like wrything than locomotion. Their bloated bellies make them look dropseyed, in need of a good dose of antibiotics. They say viewing goldfish in a tank is supposed to lower your blood pressure. These give me the metabolic effect of a triple shot latté.

Glofish, on the other hand, I’m still undecided about. In 1999, Dr. Zhiyuan Gong and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore extracted the green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene from a jellyfish that naturally produced bright green bioluminescence. They inserted the gene into the genome of some unsuspecting zebra danio (a common blue and silver striped aquairum fish), causing the fish to glow brightly under both natural white and ultraviolet light. Shortly thereafter, his team developed a line of red fluorescent zebra fish by adding a gene from a sea coral, and yellow fluorescent zebra fish, by adding a variant of the jellyfish gene. There are concerns in some quarters about the ethics of this sort of tampering, although if the fish are healthy and able to lead normal lives, (they say) safe for the environment. So maybe we don’t need to be too worried. Then again, cane toad epidemics in Hawaii and Australia prove just how wrong we can get it.

Glo fish. Much weirder than bubble eye goldfish.

Now, technically, breeding strange animals and plants isn’t modding in the same way that Steampunking (is that a verb?) is. The animal itself, although heavily tinkered with genetically, is born and then left unmodified.

However, this example surely fits all the criteria. It’s a living broach, made from a hissing cockroach from Madagascar and a fistful of Swarovski crystals, created by New York coutureir Jared Gold. There’s a lead that’s glued on to the creatures back, so that it can move around your twin-set defecating and generally causing mayhem. On one level, it’s not a lot different from a chihuahua – small, unobtrusive, of marginal aesthetic value. On another level, how many of these insects get crushed,

Madagascan Hissing Cockroach. Don’t wear it to the opera.

dehydrated and starve to death? Should we be concerned about a creature whose mental processes are restricted to a few neurons loosely clumbed together, which in other circumstances would be dispatched with a burst of Mortein? What worries me about it isn’t so much the life of the indiviual animal (admittedly probably abysmal) but what it says about our relationship with nature and, especially, with other living things.

I don’t mean this to be a diatribe about animal ethics. When art and biology intersect, however, there are bound to be some interesting conversations.

I was going to end this by musing that a useful extension to this would be tattooing and other forms of body modification. In a brief search for interesting material, I stumbled on what might be the most challenging piece of ‘nature’ modification I’ve seen. Tattooing pigs, a practice started by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. He works in China where, apparently, animal ethics are more lax.

Tattooed pig. Stuffed.

The pig is decorated while still alive, then the purchasor of the ‘artwork’ has the animal slaughtered, stuffed and mounted for delivery. The specimen pictured here is adorned with Disney Princesses set against an Yves Saint Laurent background. Those interested in seeing the process can view it here. (Warning – some images may disturb.)

To my mind there’s a big difference between doing this to an animal and to yourself. Of so-called “neoprimatives” (a term coined by sociological to describe a subsection of people who go to extreme lengths to decorate themeselves), Michael Atkinson and Kevin Young say in Extreme Tattooing:

Collectively rejecting mainstream notions of what is aesthetically pleasing as banal and uninspired, neoprimitives consider deviant forms of body expression and appearance to be appealing. Attempting to break free from what they see as repressive Western conceptualizations of beauty and art, neoprimitives stress the importance of taking
personal control over the body in a culture that ultimately seeks to regulate, restrict, and prohibit the completely free pursuit of sensuality.

I’m not an animal rights campainger. I’m not even a vegetarian. But I think there’s a conversation to be had around our relationships with other living creatures. It might ultimately be the difference between our continued survival on the planet. Meanwhile, I’ll stick to Steampunk.


4 thoughts on “Modding Nature – Tails of the Extreme

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  1. Nice article on an under-reported topic. Just how far will we stretch creatures as if they are things. How about those new Corgi-type cats with legs 2 inches long?!

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