Biologists and philosophers often ask “What is life?”
Yet, instead of trying to define the vital phenomenon from an essence, it is perhaps more fruitful to consider it as an evolutionary process, perceived and objectified in different ways according to human societies. In these circumstances, an inquiry into the origins and conditions of emergence of life –especially of extra-terrestrial life- should take into account the dynamic nature of its object of study, as well as the diversity of theories that Humans invent to explain it. On the one hand, it is necessary to develop an analytical framework to study the historical and cultural variations of conceptions of life. On the other hand, we must consider the plurality of forms that life can take, on Earth and in extra-terrestrial environments, to determine not only what life is, but what it could be
(or could have been), as well as what it could become (or could have become). In order to do this, BIOARTI mobilizes the methods and resources of the anthropology of life, which bases its knowledge on ethnographic inquiries, to contextualize and compare knowledge about life. This comparative aim is undertaken at several levels: between scientific productions and the culture within one society; between different societies; between terrestrial and extra-terrestrial life. Our hypothesis is that conceptions of life can be approached throught their relations with the techniques and practices –especially artistic and scientific- developed by human societies. Technical activity, understood in a broad sense, can be used: (i) to produce instruments (for measuring and observation) to investigate life and explore its manifestations; (ii) to reproduce and model living systems; (iii) to create worlds of fictions in
which living beings interact and evolve.
More fundamentally, the fact that technology and art allow humans to experiment with various modalities of the interweaving of vital processes and technical processes within hybrid environments suggests that it may be relevant to adopt a broad definition of life in exobiology. Beyond the search for biological forms, the emergence of artificial life forms on Earth invites us to reflect on the possibility of discovering non-biological signs of life (cf. Steven Dick’s
hypothesis of a postbiological universe). The objective of BIOARTI is therefore to study how technical and fictional devices help to address the problem of the diversity of evolutions – Darwinian or non-Darwinian, biological and post-biological- that could exist in the universe. BIOARTI aims to foster collective and interdisciplinary reflection, mobilizing researchers in the social sciences and in the natural sciences, to establish links between the definition of life and its social (cultural, technical and artistic) contexts. This two-year project will be based on the activities of the research team “Anthropology of life and the representations of the living”. Several members of this team –the PI, a visiting researcher (I. Praet), a postdoctorant (J. Becker ), a doctoral student (H. Yen Dam) and a student (L. Kamili)- will conduct ethnographic fieldwork on the topic of observation and modeling of living ecosystems. In
collaboration with Régis Ferrière (ENS – UMI Arizona), a comparison between Ecotron & Biosphère will be undertaken. A postdoctoral researcher (J. Becker) will conduct an investigation in the field of Robotics. International workshops and a conference will be organized on the following topics: observation and measuring instruments (org: I. Praet), robotics and vital processes (org: J. Becker), the modelling of living systems (org: R. Ferrière,
P. Pitrou, I. Praet), Origin and conditions of appearance of life in science fiction (R. Lehoucq, J.S Steyer), and the relationship between art and science (R. Lehoucq, J.S Steyer). In order to diffuse the work of OCAV several activities will be organized outside of the academic circles: round table at the Science Fiction Festival Les Utopiales (Org: R. Lehoucq), a serie of movies commented by scientists (R. Lehoucq, P. Pitrou, J. S. Steyer).