European programmes | FERAL LABS

Feral Labs Network: “Going Feral” by Luis Campos

On the occasion of the end of a cycle of the Feral Labs Network – a Creative Europe cooperation programme co-funded by the European Union (2019-2021) – and the release of the associated publication “Feral Labs Node Book #1: Rewilding Culture”, Luis Campos proposes the essay “Going Feral”. 

Feral: From ferus (L.) – wild.

1. Of a deadly nature; deadly, fatal.

“Life, um, finds a way.” This most famous utterance from Jurassic Park is an evocation, an invocation, of ferality. Of uncontrolled ecological escapes and explosions, freedom from systems manipulated and dominated by humans. Fatal, even. But what if the feral is not simply that which is to be feared, but the unbidden, reversed potential of the more-than-human Jurassic ark of possibility? What if the feral is what finally emerges when all hope of a completely controlled system has run out—a sort of reverse Pandora’s box where after domestication, discipline, engineering, design, implementation, and control, have all flitted away, the final snarling item to come reticently bounding out of the box, freed from prior human restraint, is the feral? We need a theory of the feral.

What does “Hogzilla”[1]—a giant feral pig more than 2.7m long and weighing over 360kg—have in common with feral humans past and present: the medieval man of the greenwood, the Neanderthal, the mythical Sasquatch? And beyond the human, are extraterrestrial others the product of feral fantasies as much as genetically engineered GloFish®? Can the alien or the aesthetically pleasing be as feral as the fearful?[2] Ferality may be harmonic: a fundamental with multiple but distinct overtones.

If the field is the potential space of most envisioned feral encounters, then the laboratory is often framed as the place the feral has escaped from. Or better put: laboratories, like studios, are spaces for the production of controlled ferality. Beakers, bacterial fermenters, and digesters: the technologies of unconstrained growth, sieved for utility, for novelty, can be theaters for the emergence of the unexpected. A bolt from Zeus, a cosmic ray, passes through a colony and the world is changed, mutatqd. Feral radiation, uncontrolled from the heavens above, generates feral amino acids and feral proteins, mutational novelty emerging in pure strains of bacteria, running for thousands of generations. In Richard Lenski’s labs the feral produces the future from hidden unknown novelties that lay within the cell undetected for generations before springing forth, digesting citrate and making new digestions possible.[3] New branches of evolution, new ways of measuring and assessing the happenstance: the unlikely, the contingent, the “founder effect.”

And if laboratories are the places the feral has emerged in — spaces for the production of controlled ferality — then nowhere were the links between the feral and the fearful as legion as in the early days of genetic engineering, when mutational possibilities dovetailed with prospects for intentional design.[4] Although some tried to reassure that “the chance of these strains transmitting their plasmid to a more vigorous, feral relative before perishing seems to me remote,” the feral was seen to pose risks to the familiar—literally: “Let each scientist decide at the outset of his experiments whether he would care to expose himself, or better, his children, to the newly assembled ‘agent.’ If not, let him learn and use the techniques of containment needed to control such agents…”[5]

But the feral is by definition that which we have made, and has become beyond our own capacities to make or to control. It is the result of our deliberate actions—that which is domesticated, then undomesticated once again. It comes back to bite us.

Schematic illustration of mutational diversity in an evolving E. coli population from Barrick and Lenski. © 1998 – 2010 Richard E. Lenski. Michigan State University

2. Of or pertaining to the dead; funereal, gloomy.

A divine spark of inspiration, driving us mad. A slightly different accent in the language of life, the smallest of interventions, and a few amino acids in a codon transform meaning: the feral goes viral. What can we do but laugh — a comic ray piercing the Petri dish of our lives. A bat in a cave, a seafood market, modern networks of global commerce and transpositioned bodies — a daring dance of unconstrained communal capital — an explosion of fierce movement suddenly stilled by domestic detention. Welcome to 2020.

Still, fixed in place, we have nevertheless gone feral in our own homes and lives. In the place of a four-legged beast, snarling, snapping at passersby from behind the fence, or creeping out from the edge of the forest, slinking to the forgotten food in the outdoor bin, decaying, rotten, and somehow still appealing to the beast, we have become feral in new ways. Hair unbound from its usual schedule at the salon and barbershop, cut by our partners and children; cultivating the sourdough starter like our grandmothers. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our boarding passes, as we relive those days before plexiglasses were placed against us. And lead us not into our workstations, but deliver us from upheaval. Amen?

The familiar takes on new form. We make art (or don’t) as never before. We watch television and cringe at so much social intimacy in the feral flow of electrons. As we click to enter the stream, life streams by: Heraclitus redux. Moments of terror and respite integrated in an undulating pattern of reprieve and retreat, as the seasons turned. Not only a winter, but a spring, summer, and autumn of our discontent. We long for the field — not to be free from others, but to be feral with others, for real together. But we encounter circumstances we never could have envisioned: we find each other fearful. How does one interact with another, once familiar, who is now unsure whether they want to interact with you? What is this if not another essence of the feral?

In 2020, the future manifested itself. Once the distant future, we cannot too quickly put this year behind us. And, with 20/20 hindsight, we fervently wish for an honest inversion: that instead of going viral, as we once hoped, 2020’s viral things would go. Haven’t we had enough things gone viral — of social media, of clicking and scrolling (that ancient technology turned into a verb), of eyestrain and RSI, of bodies so hunched over and constrained in lockdowns and social distancing that only a free release — feral ease — will do? (will you? wild you? the world echoes). What if instead of going viral, we went feral, and replaced virtual virality (and endless viral virtuality) with newfound fealty to ferality. This is the prosody of poetry as poesis: the feral as the return of the repressed, finding fierce potential in undisciplined, generative juxtapositions.

How far can this extend? What potentials remain to be unfurled in considerations of the feral? The constraints of narrative and typography contain unanticipated possibilities within their alphabetical enumerations. The feral erupts new magmatic meanings from failed realities. When a key gets stuck, when wires cross, and one lqttqr bqcomqs anothqr, likq thq novql writtqn without thq lqtter q. “No, not likq that!” wq say—thq othqr way. But wq no longqr control a procqss gonq fqral. Our codons of mqaning bqcomq confusqd, the framqs of rqfqrqncq shift, qvq nas wqa dapt tot hqn qwn orm al. “Man can gqt usqd to anything, thq bqast,” as Dostoqvsky once wrotq. Indqqd, wq can rqad dqspitq thq fqral noisq, thq floatqr blocking kqy parts of our tqxt. But wq can bqgin to adjust—to find alt ways of writing that adapt to that visual tinnitus, block it out, and bring us to unknown, unfamiliar, unusual artmaking within distinct constraints, whether we work with words, colors, or objects. Finding a way forward is what going for all is about.

We are familiar with the feral on the margins, prowling the cultivated field, gleaning its meals where it can. But when we are far from the field, and world-historical events confine us indoors, new genres and genera for expression can emerge. How, in other words, can we rethink feral ecologies in a time of limited travel, without reducing it to piles of dirty dishes in a sink, streaks in the microwave, and crumbs on the floor? It has happened before — in a cold and rainy summer at Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lac Léman in Geneva, where “the modern Prometheus” was stitched together. Frankenstein extends ferality from the biological to the literary, capturing how a forced indoor respite can veer off in unexpectedly, unconstrained productive ways, and lead to the invention of a new text, a new genre. This is the feral as fruitfulness, as creativity, opening worlds of speculative possibility: telling tales of matter repurposed, of things once wild, domesticated, and rewilded. Frankenstein’s monster — a being created by a man who would be as a god—shows us (monstrare) something perfectly, demonstratively, demonically evident: that the feral is not only a tragic exile from the familiar, a second form of nature irreparably altered by its experience with an unwelcoming familiar. It is a response to an absence of understanding, a search for a way to find one’s own native land, and new ways of loving when the patriarchy has let one down.

The feral is so often construed as a rejection of invitation to relationality. But it need not be. “What happens when indigeneity collides with queerness inside the reserve, and how might a feral theory make sense of that collision?” asks Billy-Ray Belcourt, author of “The Poltergeist Manifesto” in Feral Feminisms. “I want forms of love in which lifes quickly fold into each other — sometimes lopsidedly — but nonetheless gestating a something that could help us endure, together. And, even in the event of separation, we might know how to love, better, next time. Instead of waiting for something to happen, what if we experimented with others, testing out more capacious intimacies that don’t condense into a trained public sensorium we might call the social… perhaps we need more complex and messier forms of love, ones that can, in their otherworldliness, sustain native peoples’ attachments to themselves. Love might be our last hope.”[6]

How can one have love for all of one’s own, a love fierce and feral, when one cannot even escape to the field? What do we do, in other words, when the modern Prometheus’s modem light flickers and goes out? We can invite the field in, and take notes. When confronted with the unknown in uncontrolled and unstable frontiers, wolves encircling the campfire and the hearth, we can open the door to domestic living, to domestication, with a scrap of food — a playful gesture, a dance, and graduated reductions in threat. (A bit of gristle, and a whistle, and “graduated reciprocation in tension reduction” applies to wolves just as to missiles.) We can play with possibility, and—living at the cutting edge of the possible, never fully domesticated but never totally wild — take a step back from the abyss with the ever-expanding members of our feral families of choice and circumstance. We are children raised by wolves — we have learned to depend not so fully on our institutions, and our institutions have learned to reinvent themselves in ways previously seen as impossible.

How can one be free to be, to think, and to create, when budgets are cut, spaces enclosed, and attendance has vanished into thin air — what remedy for such a fierce encircling of vacuity? Old ways are obstacles suddenly overcome, though not without cost: not everything survives a revolution in ways. But we are freed from the expectable, even as we scrounge for food and funding. The feral is an encounter with a difficult reality: not what things ought to be like, but as they are — difficult, confrontational, but hard to grasp, in the shadows, uncertain. But very real. The stakes of the feral have become so very much “for real.”

But to envision a feral future also means to have been set free from old expectations. The feral is the realm of the unresolved. As Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young friend in 1903: “…I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or like books that are written in a very foreign language. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, TO LIVE EVERYTHING. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

© Feral Feminisms

3. Of an animal: Wild, untamed. Of a plant, also (rarely), of ground: Uncultivated.

The naturalist Aldo Leopold once wrote there are those who can live without wild things and those who cannot. But what about those who cannot live without things that are neither wild nor tame — those who cannot live without the feral? Feral ecologies are those “ecologies that have been encouraged by human-built infrastructures, but which have developed and spread beyond human control,” as Anna Tsing has proposed in the Feral Atlas — an Anthropocene out of control.[7] And culture refers to that which is cultivated. Going feral necessarily depends therefore on both cultivated and uncultivated ground.

The imposed environment is now, most everywhere in the world, the home, the block, the supermarket. In an environment so unendingly domestic, for months on end, we have never been more site-specific in our practice. There has never been a time in which experimentations in art have been more globally constrained, and never a time when Feral_Notes have been more necessary. We develop, through these experiences of deep, muddled time, a new ecology of senses, generative of novelty and hybrid matters, where the heavens are the limit. As Darwin once wrote: “We know that changed conditions have the power of evoking long-lost characters, as in the case of animals becoming feral.” (And not only animals.)

What process guides us forward in learning from our feral cubmates, conducting research and developing practice in uncultivated fields, and engaging in co-creation with the once-known, half-known, never-to-be-fully domesticated again? How do we network and hack from our temporary dislocations in remote time and international space? But if we leave the Hollywood dinosaurs and snarling wolves aside as our metaphors of choice, and even turn away from the charismatic megaflora, we can appreciate the importance of uncultivated ground—not just wild, but fallow. Land that was once productive and will be again, but not right now. A winter season for a plot of land we call our own, a rotation of dormition.

And as the snow melts, the dirt emerges. If we “stay with the trouble,” as Donna Haraway advocates, we can consider the feral as more than simply the “unruly, dirty, out of place.”[8] And in the late winter dirt, where everything turns to mush, something new may come to stir: in these end times, we will find new ways of living and creating in, with apologies to Tsing, the mush Zoom room at the end of the word.[9] Something new has intervened, disrupted the established theoretical framework: the essence of encountering what is for real, what is for all, what is feral.

To acknowledge the feral means that we are no longer in control of our circumstances. As H. G. Wells once noted, “feral and obscure and altogether monstrous forces must be at work, as yet altogether unassimilated by those neat administrative reorganisations.”[10] And to be not in control is either to be out-of-control, or to be playful. Feral play is constitutive of evolution, of ethology, and of our emerging practice.[11] In other words, reality unfurls in sometimes the most unexpected ways. We are not the authors of fates, but can dispose a system set in motion toward new centers of chaotic and contingent possibility. As J. D. Bernal envisioned the feral futures of life in the early twentieth century:

“The new life would be more plastic, more directly controllable and at the same time more variable and more permanent than that produced by the triumphant opportunism of nature… Such a change would be as important as that in which life first appeared on the earth’s surface and might be as gradual and imperceptible… The need to determine the desirable form of the humanly-controlled universe… is nothing more nor less than art.”[12]

Astrapotheria : Astrapotherium magnum. Illustration : D.R.

4. Of, pertaining to, or resembling a wild beast; brutal, savage.

The feral has always been more than human, and has always been an intervention in interspecies relations. One result of the Columbian Exchange between the Old World and the New that began in 1492 was the emergence of “enormous feral hordes of horses and cattle” across the Argentine pampas and the plains of northern Mexico, Alfred Crosbie has recounted: Equus ferus.[13] Within a century, these hordes were themselves the target of packs of feral dogs. And the pattern repeats time and again: feral goats on the Galápagos Islands, feral rabbits in Australia. But these are moments of ferality in space: the reconstitution of lost species, from breeding to de-extinction, is a way to conceive of ferality in time: anything-but-immaculate, amalgamate conceptions.

The discovery of Przewalski’s horse in 1889, and its extinction in 1969 — not even a century later — raises questions of how one can back-breed a primitive feral horse from the wild horses of the Mongolian steppes into a prehistoric ancestor of all horses, as Nigel Rothfels has argued. (What do we gain in reifying notions of primitivity and breeding them into existence?) Such horses are both feral and anything but: they are designed.[14] Similar feralities abound with the putative back-breeding of prehistoric cattle: “In bringing back the aurochs, and other modes of de-extinction, are we making the world more feral?” asked Science magazine in 2015.[15]

The doyen of de-extinction, Harvard’s George Church — who among other things has proposed de-extincting woolly mammoths for Siberia as a solution to climate change and de-extincting Neanderthals both “to increase” and to understand “true human diversity” — himself acknowledged gratitude for the “roughly four hundred journalists who, since 1996, have helped me rise slightly above my feral dream-speak to something closer to intelligible.”[16] The de-extinction of the Neanderthal, the original Homo ferus, is not only Jurassic Park written for humans, but a feral dream of timelessness: a realized scientific vision of a still life.

Paintings and natural history museums alike have long proposed to capture a form’s life and preserve it forever in a state of timelessness — existence outside of time. In a time when we assert whose lives matter, the killing of feral animals — as Ursula Heise has noted — “continues a long tradition of disregard of lives that are considered expendable”: stilled lives. What interspecies experiments can we engage in “to instill freedom” in service of feral futures, Juno Parrenas asks in her study of the complicated colonial and decolonizing legacies of orangutan conservation.[17] Orang-utan, in Malay, means the feral person of the forest: Homo ferus.

Where is the feral in lives that have been stilled? It seems that even as space is constrained in our domestic detention, time—the forgotten dimension—has elongated in weird ways. Having so much of it, days pass unnoticed, deadlines slip, and we feel unmoored, at sea, grasping at spatial metaphors for an experience of being thrown out of time. The paleontologist G. G. Simpson, whose field notes are published in a variety of entrancing diaristic works recounting everything from the feral sheep of Patagonia to the dinosaur bones of New Mexico, once wrote a terrible science fiction novel about time travel, in which a paleontologist from the future finds himself not only studying the fossilized thunder-lizards and their associates of the past, but unexpectedly living amongst them. The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is a story of being trapped in deep time, isolated from all other humans, scratching one’s name on a rock for a future uncovering. Can one be feral in time, when one is domestically detained?

Simpson proposed that the beasts of the past were examples of life finding a way through the constraints and contingencies of possibilities to create forms familiar but fearfully and wonderfully made. Consider the astrapothere, Simpson proposed: “It is baffling to try to describe these in terms of any animals living in the world today, for they have left no descendants nor even any distant relatives. They are not like the extinct animals of any other part of the world. To describe them you have to start from the ground up, or to compare them with half a dozen different animals at once, and then add a few original touches, like the fantastic combination beasts in children’s stories.”[18] With his expert eye for the unusual animals of the past, uncovering what he characterized as a “Lost World,” familiar only for the presence of opossums and armadillos, Simpson told how paleontology required difficult, exacting, and exhausting hard work: “the past history of life on the earth has to be pieced together slowly and laboriously from many finds and from decades of work in different regions. The competent student needs constantly to visualize, and to allow for, the difficulties and the inevitable gaps.”[19]

Is it any wonder that the creator of the extraterrestrial quadrupeds on display in the 1970s in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s “Life in the Universe” gallery, was an artist whose scientific studies of the biomechanics of horns and antlers at Berkeley led her from artistic work in paleontological reconstructions—borne of tight museum budgets in the midst of another crisis—and teaching human anatomy into inventing studies of the muscular systems of potential dragons, and a career as one of the few women science-fiction illustrators of the time? As dogs howled outside Bonnie Dalzell’s door in the Before Times, we talked about the gait of her disabled dog, the several different distinct groups of animals that successfully invaded the terrestrial environment in geological history, the deep physiology of extraterrestrial vertebratoids like hexapedia, and high-density planet flying filter-feeders. (From paleontology to planetology, with apologies to Dune.) We talked about her artistic techniques, her home as her studio, her hobbies as her career, her integration of science and art in ways few before her had ever envisioned, and the unexpected contingencies of life—those feral moments—which led to an integration of paleontology, astrobiology, and fantasy art. “Life, um, found a way” in her artistic practice, weaving through constraints and contingencies of possibilities, as she created forms familiar, fearfully and wonderfully made, “an exotic bestiary for vicarious space voyagers.”[20]

Perhaps we need no theory of the feral, after all. We need only serendipitous inspiration from an assemblage of possibilities: we need Feral_Notes. The feral is, after all, intermittent, staccato, provocative, opportunistic. Let us glean what we can from our uncultivated fields, and approach nearer the fire, in these difficult times of stilled lives. Winter will pass, and lockdowns will end. And it will be time again to go forward, and go feral in new ways.

[1] See Abraham Gibson, “Harvesting Hogzillas: Feral Pigs and the Engineering Ideal,” in Luis Campos et al., Nature Remade: Engineering Life, Envisioning Worlds, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. See also Helen MacDonald, “Nothing Like a Pig,” Vesper Flights, London: Grove (2020), p10. Or instead of feral pigs and boars, perhaps a giant hogweed? “A Toxic Alien Is Taking Over Russia,” New York Times, October 3, 2020.
[2] “Life is fundamentally uncontained, and those built for ornament still deserve a feral chance.” Adam Zaretsky, “G®FPR: The GloFish® Freedom and Reconciliation Project,” TDR The Drama Review 54 (2010): p2-3. “Adam insisted that mutants deserved the right to enjoy their own existence, not just live for the sake of corporate profits or lowbrow aesthetic pleasures.” Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans, St. Martin’s Press (2020), p56.
[4] See Luis Campos, “Strains of Andromeda: The Cosmic Potential Hazards of Genetic Engineering,” in Luis Campos et al. Nature Remade: Engineering Life, Envisioning Worlds, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.
[5] Irving P. Crawford, MD, Dept of Microbiology, Scripps, unpublished letter to the editor, Genetics, October 1974. Folder 611, “Correspondence” (November 1974), Oral History Collection on the Recombinant DNA Controversy (MC100), MIT Special Collections.
[6] Billy-Ray Belcourt, A Poltergeist Manifesto, “Feral Feminisms,” Feral Theory, issue 6, Fall 2016.
[8] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Durham: Duke University Press (2016), p24.
[9] Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
[10] H.G. Wells, “The New Machiavelli,” London: Lane, Boadley Head (1911), chapter 2, §4.
[11] As the designer Sascha Pohflepp wrote shortly before his untimely passing, “By being intertwined into a collaborative relation with organisms subject to factors like randomness of Darwinian evolution or different timeframes, a human designer must shield part of her command over the creative process.”
[12] J. D. Bernal, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, p46
[13] Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Westport: Greenwood Press (1972 [2003]), p84.
[14] Nigel Rothfels, “(Re)Introducing the Przewalski’s Horse,” in Ben A. Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, eds., The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, University of Chicago Press (2018), p77-89.
[15] Erik Stokstad, “In bringing back the aurochs, and other modes of de-extinction, are we making the world more feral? Science 350.6265 (4 December 2015): p1147.
[16] George Church, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, New York: Basic Books, (2012), p11, p255. See Campos, “Neanderthals in Space: George Church’s Modest Steps Toward Possible Futures,” in Oren Harman and Michael Dietrich, eds. Dreamers, Visionaries and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences, p143-160. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
[17] Juno Parrenas, Decolonizing Extinction.
[18] G. G. Simpson, Attending Marvels: A Patagonian Journey (1934), p65.
[19] Ibid., p78.
[20] Bonnie Dalzell, “An Exotic Bestiary for Vicarious Space Voyagers,” Smithsonian 5 (October 1974): p84-91.

More information on Luis Campos

Luis Campos (Ph.D.) is trained both biology and in the history of science, specializing in the history of the life sciences in the twentieth century, especially the history of genetics. His scholarship integrates archival discoveries with contemporary fieldwork at the intersection of genetics and society.

Download the publication: Feral Labs Node Book #1: Rewilding Culture.

The Feral Labs Network was cofinanced (2019-2021) by the Creative Europe program of the European Union. The cooperation was led by the Projekt Atol Institute in Ljubljana (Slovenia) with the Bioart Society (Helsinki, Finland), Catch (Helsingor, Denmark), Radiona (Zagreb, Croatia), Schmiede (Hallein, Austria) et Art2M/Makery (France).

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