The Rapoport Award for Women in Art & Tech

Resurrecting the Sublime, 2019

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Dr Christina Agapakis/Ginkgo Bioworks & Sissel Tolaas

Could we ever again smell flowers driven to extinction by humans? Resurrecting the Sublime is an ongoing collaboration between artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a team at biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks led by Creative Director Dr. Christina Agapakis, and smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, with the support of IFF Inc.

The work allows us a glimpse of two flowers, both lost due to colonial activity. At the Cité du Design in Saint-Étienne in March 2019, our largest installation so far, we displayed two vitrines. One vitrine was filled with the smell of the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock (Maui hau kuahiwi in Hawaiian), once indigenous to ancient lava fields on the southern slopes of Mount Haleakalā, Maui, Hawaii, before its forest habitat was decimated by colonial cattle ranching; the final tree was found dying in 1912. The other vitrine contained the Orbexilum stipulatum, or Falls-of-the-Ohio Scurfpea, last seen in 1881 on Rock Island in the Ohio River, Kentucky, before U.S. Dam No. 41 erased the island in the 1920s.

Using DNA extracted from flower specimens from Harvard University’s Herbaria, the Ginkgo team used synthetic biology to predict and then resynthesize gene sequences that encode for fragrance-producing enzymes. Using Ginkgo’s findings, Tolaas reconstructed the flowers’ smells, using identical or comparative smell molecules. We know which smell molecules the flowers may have produced, but the amounts are also lost. In Ginsberg’s installation design, fragments of each flower’s smell mix: there is no “exact” smell. The lost landscape is reduced to its geology and the flower’s smell: entering the vitrine, the human connects the two and contrary to the natural history museum, becomes the specimen on view.

Resurrecting the smell of extinct flowers so that humans may again experience something we destroyed is awesome and perhaps terrifying; it evokes the “sublime”. But this is not de-extinction. Instead, biotechnology, smell, and digitally reconstructed landscapes reveal the complex interplay of species and places that no longer exist. Resurrecting the Sublime asks us to contemplate our actions, and potentially change them for the future.