What is it like to be a (virtual) bat?
2023 Zheng Mahler, What is it like to be a (virtual) bat?, 4k 3D animation, VR 360 video, 4k point cloud animation, thermal videos, ultrasonic field recordings
Zheng Mahler’s work ‘What is it like to be a virtual bat?’ is the second in a series of multispecies, sensory ethnographies around the ecosystems of Lantau Island, Hong Kong, and is an attempt to acknowledge the limitations of human sensory capacities and how technology can be used to ‘mediate’ these constraints and embody more-than-human experiences. The first work in the series was the culmination of long term fieldwork conducted on the wild water buffalo and cow populations living in Lantau Island and explored the buffalo’s unique sonic experience of the landscape with hearing that peaks at the 40,000hz range, almost double that of humans at the ultrasonic level. ‘What is it like to be a (virtual) bat?’ takes a similar approach in using technology to communicate the ‘more-than-human’ experience of the non-human inhabitants of Lantau by focusing on the Japanese house bat (pipistrellus abrahmus) while also incorporating philosophical and anthropological perspectives. The starting point is philosopher Thomas Nagel’s seminal 1973 essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ which introduced the problem of qualia or the ‘hard-problems of consciousness’ to philosophy. It asks whether the mind is reducible to an emergent faculty of the brain and human physiology or if an aspect of the ‘raw feels’ of consciousness, the subjective quality of experience, is irreducible to the material structures of the brain. In Nagel’s essay, he conducts a thought experiment by asking the question of whether it is possible to ever understand what it is like to be a bat. If the answer is yes, then it would suggest that consciousness is not mysterious and perfectly replicable which opens the possibility for artificial intelligence. Conversely, if the subjective experience of a bat cannot be ever fully understood by a human, since the subject cannot ever embody the cumulation of life and bodily experiences of being a bat, then it means that consciousness is essentially a phenomenon closed off from human understanding. At a more fundamental level, Nagel’s essay addresses the long standing mind-body problem in philosophy; the dualist and physicalist position which proposes that the brain creates the mind and is impossible without it versus the idealist perspective which suggests that all material matter is created by the mind itself and cannot exist without the perceiving subject. It is a question about the nature of reality, and whether we construct it through our consciousness or we are ourselves the mere illusory products of a material universe. Zheng Mahler’s approach to this question is empirical and draws from the latest research in the field of VR, which has recently focused on the possibility of animal embodiment and the sensations of presence this induce, as strategies for creating greater empathy between humans and animals. Working with virtual reality, ultrasonic microphones, thermal cameras and photogrammetry, it attempts to simulate the sensorimotor contingencies of what it is like to be a bat in order to ask the question of whether, in simulating the physical properties of being a bat, we can get close to the subjective qualitative experience of being one. At the same time, the project attempts to engage with a neglected aspect within animal embodiment using VR, which has a bearing on Nagel’s approach to the question of qualia, which is the transitory, liminal states between human and animal and how important these are to the possibility of understanding the experience of non-human ontologies.
The work will take the form of a year long process of field work on the bat species native to Lantau Island and research and prototype development for the VR bat system. Intermittent ‘field reports’ will be updated on the project page of the ‘Are You For Real?’ website commissioned by IFA in Germany.
An essay written by Zheng Mahler summarizing their research for the project can be downloaded here
The virtual reality and video version of the work uses 'deity yoga' visualization practices in Tibetan Buddhism as a reference for a guided meditation which leads the audience through the bat feeding sites in Lantau Island through to their transformation into a bat, before returning to their human form.
The second phase of the project involved collecting field data about the local bat species which live in Lantau Island using thermal videos and ultrasonic microphones and 360 video which were then translated into a point cloud visualization of the area seen from a hybrid human/bat /machine perspective.