Toward the Art and Aesthetics of Entangled Posthuman Engineers

This year’s Master thesis prize of the Faculty of Social Sciences, VU Amsterdam was won by anthropology graduate Jochem Kootstra. Kootstra wrote a thought-provoking and engaged work about aesthetic and engineering ways to deal with technology. Below you will find a synopsis of his research.

We live in the Age of Entanglement, in which the engineers are getting more entangled with technology by colliding the natural-artificial, human-nonhuman, subject-object; think of bioengineering or constructing self-driving cars. Now, objects are able to make autonomous decisions with us, and even for us; which brings about new ethical dilemmas. To understand such emerging technological and ethical challenges, ethnographic research is done at laboratories of prestigious North American universities, such as MIT. I argue that to channel such environmental perturbations that now touch the natural-artificial, a transdisciplinary approach is more appropriate than working from within silos. Considering that, the artist can be of great help in the lab of engineers to transcend individual boundaries and limits of the lab in order to be creative while considering the ethical complications of their craftsmanship, instead of disregarding the challenges which their products can bring about when they enter the larger social fabric of society. The research explores this complex relation between engineers and artists in their joint exploration of human-machine boundaries; it is an ethnographic quest into the utopic and dystopic faces of human-nonhuman entanglement.

Picture by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez and JODI

Posthuman engineer

As technological engineers are the innovators of our time, it made me wonder: do posthuman engineers create or produce craftsmanship because their possibilities and abilities are endless? Or are there certain moral values that influence their possibilities and abilities in our entangled, hybrid world? If there is such a thing as technological progress, should we assume a parallel moral progress? And what does the entangled, hybrid world say about the nature of engineering?

As a result, I witnessed that engineers create a physical and psychological relation with their craft, as the technology becomes part of the fabric of everyday life for the engineers. The intense affectionate bond engineers create with non-human machines sometimes even transcend the emotions they show toward humans. Besides, engineers copy the human into non-human and bring about hybridity, unconsciously reproducing cultural hegemonies into the material surface which forms a relationship of familiarity and reflection. Yet, the limitations of the object’s physicality and material presence sometimes do not match up with the engineer’s skills. This is where it could become ethically problematic, as the constant modifications and transformations between the engineer and his/her craft lead to tunnel vision within the laboratory. The artist can be of help to break through these individual and lab boundaries.


Posthuman artist

The artist prompts us to reflect upon the philosophical, biopolitical and ethical implication of technologies, and speculate on our world of becoming. They can offer us (participative) playgrounds of extremes, open up worlds of (un)familiarities and question the human-machine/subject-object dualities. The artist operates in a space that might be called fictional; they employ actors, procedures, and techniques known from real life, including, perhaps especially, the microscopic world of its functional and utilitarian domains.

As I learned from my time at MIT, artists collaborating with engineers in the lab can have a big impact because of their critically creative, expressive force. By using speculative design art, engineers could think more about the impact of (their) technology at an early stage. Furthermore, the communicative strength and dialogues around the ethics of the technological craft can provide the necessary connection between fields of study/work and encourage a transdisciplinary assemblage equipped with the language that is socially, ethically and scientifically relevant. One of my artist informants used science fiction art to encourage engineers in thinking more ethically. She has a background of engineering at Google and now successfully act as a connector, or gray thinker, that brings various disciplines together with art.


Posthuman entanglement

To be able to produce a constant feedback loop of information, ideas, energy and matter between the contrasting disciplines of engineering and art, a consensual domain and a shared language is needed. I witnessed such a consensual domain in practice in the lab of prosthetics at MIT, as their collaboration with an artist enabled them a start in breaking taboos. They are open to, and use each other’s knowledge to let prostheses evolve toward something you would love to show off, instead of something you want to hide—kids with an amputated hand are already asking for a prosthetic that looks like the technological, powerful hand of super hero Iron Man. It shows that a functional transdisciplinary arena will lead toward morally creative processes and a more humanitarian relationship with technology.

Somewhat altogether, this thesis ties the arts with speculative and critical design and ethnographic data acquired by encounters with posthuman engineers and artists, as a means to encourage the ethical and thoughtful design of new technologies. Throughout the research, there is a constant dialogue between the engineer, the artist and myself, between the engineer and artist, between human and machine, and between subject and object, toward a better understanding of our entangled posthuman being. The personal stories on posthumanism are an insurrection against the fixed viewpoint, to look beyond one’s discipline. These vivid stories become metaphors, allusions, allegories, and motifs of our entangled posthuman paradigm, making us aware that more meets the eye than the technological artefact or human subject. I provide a platform that explores the interconnected and enmeshed lines of people and things into the entanglement. It is intended to make the reader think critically and raise questions about perceived notions of technology and our (post)human future, and to be able to see past subject-object hierarchy in philosophy. Thus, it emphasizes on a more horizontal hierarchy between human and nonhuman; an interactive meshment that shapes outcomes as ever-changing entanglements, not as a single entity.


Jochem Kootstra studied Social and Cultural Anthropology and did his Master’s research on the way engineers and explore human-machine boundaries. He received the Professor Van der Zouwen Master thesis prize for his work.

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