From Elephans Photographicus to the Hybronaut

Laura Beloff, ‘From Elephans Photographicus to the Hybronaut: An Artistic Approach to Human Enhancement’, pp.51-66, in:

Elo, M., Luoto, M., 2014. Senses of Embodiment: Art, Technics, Media. Peter Lang.


[Ref Bateson and von Uexküll on environment of the organism]

Uexkull’s research revealed that every species has its own constructed Umwelt because each species reacts in a distinctive way to the same signals it receives from the physical world. What is thus necessary for one’s biological survival, is included within one’s perception of the world; the Umwelt.


From these arguments, we can draw the conclusion that an organism that modifies its environment modifies itself and, vice versa, the modification of one’s abilities and physiology leads to the modification of an environment.

This insight has interesting implications considering the human perspective. In the contemporary world humans actively modify and manipulate the environ­ment, and increasingly also their biological body.


A caricature illustration by a mid-nineteenth century cartoonist was claiming to have discovered a new species with a single eye, two wooden front legs and two human legs. This “very curious animal” was named as Elephans Photographicus according to the image-text. This illustration pointed towards the then recently emerged figure of a photographer in public.6In this caricature, one can see a sug­gestion that the human and the machine seemed to have fused together.


In the image, one can see a photographer whose hidden upper body seems to have been replaced by the camera and the hood under which a single-eye (a camera lens) is // looking for new prey.


The image points to the simultaneous fears and desires of the public towards new technology, in which technology is replacing parts of the human body with a specified functionality. In this image the human is learning to perceive the world through technology. The image forms a statement about technology im proving the hum an and extending his abilities, but also about tech­ nology possibly replacing the human or, perhaps, his humanity.

The figure of a photographer can be considered as an early example of a situ­ation, where the human senses have been enhanced with technology still allowing the mobility of the human body.

[Alfons Schilling’s] artistic production includes a large body of self-constructed instruments that are entitled Vision Machines (Sehemaschine). These perceptual devices were con­ structed as head-worn objects in a variety of shapes and sizes, which transformed the viewers’ perception through first-hand experience. At the same time, they also physically hindered the user through their dimension and heavy construction. Based on his research, Schilling claimed that human eyes are not spatial reference points, but temporal.


The [artwork] Appendix is con­ceived to be a tail, which has various human and non-human connections. These connections are developed to have no purposeful intention or self- evident meaning for the user. The horizontal direction of the tail movement is determined by the direction of the Helsinki city transport tramway, and the vertical movements are triggered by the wave height of the Baltic Sea, both in real time.


However, underlying the most body enhancement practices there is a cultural assumption on what is considered a normal body. Different cultural values create a different understanding of normality, and they also influence the degree of accept­ance of body enhancement. Prostheses, for example, are typically seen as improve­ments of an incomplete or injured body. They are not designed to upgrade a normal body. The scientific viewpoint to body enhancement practices typically do not allow playfulness or radical experimentation without a justified objective, such as repair of the body.

Wearable technology provides an open area for experimen­tal and playful practices that are concerned with human enhancement without necessarily requiring ethical and moral justification. Nevertheless, this oppor­tunity is currently mainly used by the practices emerging within the arts, which often drastically differ from the works motivated by technology, engineering or science.


I see the technological network infrastructure as potent for experimenting with new kinds of connections and bonds between human and the environment. For investigating this I have developed a practice-based research concept that I already mentioned at the outset of this paper: the Hybronaut.

The Hybronaut investigates the way in which (network) technology enhanc­es our perception of the world and our presence in it by becoming an integral part of our identity and physiology.

One of the central aspects of Uexkull’s concept of Umwelt is the organism’s abil­ity to interpret visual signs via a process guided by an organism’s physiological faculties and needs. According to Uexkull, the organism’s subjective Umwelt, the perception of the world, is created on the basis of recognisable signs.

Varela writes that “[…] sensory and motor processes, perception and action, are fundamentally inseparable in lived cogni­tion. Indeed, the two are not merely contingently linked in individuals they have also evolved together.” In other words, the structure of the perceiver is insepa­rable from the experienced world.


Notably, like biological death, a lost network connection could cause a loss of hybrid environment, a loss of the Umwelt, as well as a loss of identity as the Hybronaut.