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Artist's Exhibit Borrows Human Tech To Solve Nature's Manmade Problems

Jonathon Keats
In an exhibit at the Samek Art Museum, artist Jonathon Keats explores what the world would look like if animals and plants got to use human innovation for their own benefit. Here, flowers use "botanical sex toys" to simulate bee pollination. "What got me thinking was the fact that (artificial pollination) didn't seem like much fun for the plants," Keats says.

Humans have long looked to animals for design inspiration. From basic camouflage to a quiet bullet train in Japan to the Wright brothers' wings, the process called biomimicry is a basic tenet of human engineering.

Jonathon Keats has turned it on its head.

The artist and philosopher's latest exhibit, at the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, is a thought experiment on the selfish ways we humans innovate.


The central question of the works: We steal the animal kingdom's evolutionary inventions, so why shouldn't the animal kingdom steal ours?

"What I've observed as I've researched these inventions is that they're really great for us, but not necessarily so good for the species that came up with them in the first place," Keats told NPR Here & Now host Robin Young. "Or more broadly, that our technologies have made the world much more difficult for life on the planet aside from us."

He didn't need to create anything new to show the absurdity of human problem-solving — all he had to do was give our technology to animals. The pieces in his exhibit are based on actual problems, and demonstrate solutions that are technically within the realm of possibility.

Take for instance, his "GPS For Birds" model:

The problem is well-documented: Climate change is threatening bird populations because their normal migration patterns now lead them to spots where they no longer can nest safely. Keats' proposed solution is a sort of drone magnet, which would neutralize a bird's natural compass and create a new migration pattern that would lead them to a safer place to nest.

Jonathon Keats
GPS For Birds
Jonathon Keats
Fiber Optics for Corals: This design would provide an alternate energy source for coral, when polluted oceans prevent adequate sunlight from passing through the water. "We are building into our power grids ever more redundancy," Keats says. "Looking to have multiple possible sources for energy in order to make up for the fact that none of them is necessarily reliable."

Like a vicious innovation circle, Keats says humans create technology to fix problems caused by the technology they already have. His exhibit pushes that concept into the absurd.

"Where it gets more interesting for me is where all of this starts to fall apart," Keats says. "Does it really make much sense for us to have all of these flocks of drones as ways of getting birds around? Do we really want to bring other organisms into this kind of pileup of technology on top of technology that is very much the human way?"

In other words, even if it's possible, why create thousands or tens of thousands of drone GPS magnet planes, when we could just work to combat the damage to the planet that's hurting the birds in the first place?

"This way to me seems, potentially, to be unsustainable — and certainly to be questionable in terms of the logic," Keats says.

His exhibit, which explores a number of other philosophical questions as well, is on display at the Samek Museum in Lewisburg, Pa., until June.

You can see some of his other designs below:

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Jonathon Keats
Breathing Apparatus for Mollusks: This life support system would allow sea snails to migrate to land when ocean acidification imperils their shells. Keats' exhibit also features a version that would allow land snails to "escape to the ocean in case of extreme acid rain."
Jonathon Keats
Sex Toys For Flowers (2): A close up on one of the flower toys, which Keats said he made from cell phone vibrators. According to the exhibit's caption, "these botanical sex toys can be battery- or solar powered."