Earth & Conservation

The Art Experiments of Jonathon Keats Explore What’s Next for Science and Tech

A self-described "experimental philosopher," Keats has sought to genetically engineer God and reverse the one-way exchange of biomimicry by providing human technologies to plants and animals. 

Jonathon Keats

San Francisco-based artist Jonathon Keats occupies some very peculiar coordinates in today’s art scene. His work incorporates elements of science journalism, culture jamming, performance art, absurdist comedy, and philosophy.

You may have heard of his work. He's the guy who, in 2011, attempted to genetically engineer God in a laboratory. (It didn't work, so far as we know.) A few years back, Keats opened the world's first photosynthetic restaurant for house plants, serving gourmet sunlight. He's dabbled in real estate, too, selling four-dimensional tesseract houses in the Bay Area. Leveraging quantum theory, he's assembled a prototype universe generator that allegedly spits out alternate realities from a mason jar.

If you detect an element of absurdity in all this, that's entirely deliberate. As a self-styled “experimental philosopher,” Keats specializes in thought experiments that keep the emphasis squarely on “experiment.” His projects, which are often displayed in art galleries, bring scientific rigor to art-school flights of fancy — all in the spirit of earnest inquiry.

Keats doesn't just think this stuff up. He designs experiments, tests hypotheses and builds prototypes. Those universe generator kits, for instance, are modeled on physicist Hugh Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Each was handmade in Keats's home laboratory/studio, using surplus scientific equipment like resonating crystals and uranium-infused glass, purchased through eBay.

Part performance art, part weird science, Keats's work is a kind of constantly morphing epistemology puzzle: How do we know what we know? Are technological advances the same as cultural progress? 

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Speaking from his home in San Francisco, Keats said he’s motivated by simple and genuine curiosity. Like many artists, he enjoys throwing monkey wrenches into the gears of everyday perception. His interdisciplinary projects are a way to explore society at large through the lens of science and technology.

“I try to think up mechanisms that serve as provocations for having debates and discussions,” Keats said.

Trained in philosophy at Amherst College, Keats has smuggled certain philosophical concepts into the art world, too. “For example, in philosophy, the thought experiment is used as a rhetorical tool,” Keats said. “It's a mode of argumentation. You want to prove a point, you set up a counterfactual thought experiment. When the experiment leads to absurdity, you've made your point.”

Keats has taken the thought process one step further: He’s constructed physical experiments.

“I never know what the conclusion is going to be because I'm not doing this for the sake of making an argument,” he said. “I'm doing it as an exploration. I really run the experiments.”

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One of Keats's latest projects concerns the fashionable trend of wearable technology, ranging from fitness bands and smart apparel to Google Glass and the Apple Watch.

His Superego Suits exhibition, recently showcased at San Francisco's Modernism Gallery, imagines hypothetical future wearables that drill deeper into our psychological selves, augmenting self-perception and making personality “completely adjustable.”

The exhibit features smart shoes that automatically elevate so the wearer is taller than anyone else in the room. Also on display are telescoping rings that extend physical reach, enhancing the user's sense of agency in the world.

Telescoping rings aim to extend the wearer's sense of agency. | Jonathon Keats

Then there are the biomechanical sunglasses, with apertures that open and close in time with the wearer's breathing, synchronizing internal and external stimuli.

“There's been some research recently about how interoception, a sense of your own internal organs and processes, leads to your sense of self,” Keats said. “I wanted to build this out so that you would interoceptively take in all of your surroundings. By making the sunglasses breathe, whatever you look at becomes integrated with your sense of self. It's the ultimate ego trip.”

Keats assembled a model of the device by running to his neighborhood Walgreens, buying several of pairs of $4.99 reading glasses, then replacing the lenses with microscope apertures from China, bought online. The “breathing” apparatus is a dental air pressure mechanism, found at a flea market. He also arranged for a photo shoot, with an international fashion model, to display the biomechanical sunglasses.

“When you see the sunglasses worn by the model in the fashion shoot, it all looks very slick,” Keats said. “But when you see the dental hammer itself, in the exhibit, it's just the opposite. That's important, because I want people to be seduced only to a point. There's this appealing idea that you can wear something that's an extension of yourself, or who you want to be perceived as. But then you see the reality of this awful dental pump powering it all.”

Technology developed by Jonathon Keats aims to give a boost to a user's sense of self. | Jonathon Keats

The juxtaposition is intended to provide a cognitive jolt, encouraging us to take a second look at the near-future implications of emerging technology. Like much of contemporary science fiction, Keats's imaginary worlds are rooted in our present. His wearable self-esteem technology isn't real, but it's uncomfortably close. 

“We're not there yet and we don't have to go there,” Keats said. “Not that we shouldn't or should, but we need to think long and hard right now. We're at a point where smart phones and mobile devices are giving us these bionic powers of global knowledge and instant communication. What's next?”

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Meanwhile, at Bucknell University's Samek Art Museum, Keats has mounted an exhibit called the Reciprocal Biomimicry Initiative. The idea: Human engineers regularly borrow design ideas from nature, such as airplane foils based on bird wings or underwater vehicles shaped like fish. But for the entire history of human civilization, biomimicry has been a one-way exchange. Maybe it's time, suggests Keats, to give a little something back.

The Reciprocal Biomimicry Initiative exhibit features eight proposed innovations, including urban camouflage for reptiles and GPS drones that help birds navigate climate change. One of the program's more generous proposals involves providing plants and flowers with sex toys.

“With colony collapse disorder, plants are no longer getting pollinated the natural way, by honey bees,” Keats explained. “There are ways to do it now that use what is essentially a feather duster. Now, that works well enough for our purposes, getting fruits and vegetables. But from the standpoint of the plant, it doesn't really seem particularly enjoyable.”

Keats's solution? Solar powered micro-vibrators that can be strategically attached to the relevant bits of deprived plants and flowers.

Artist Jonathon Keats reverses the one-way exchange of biomimicry by providing plants with sex toys. | Jonathon Keats

“I wanted to see if there was a way to provide for the sex life of plants, as a reciprocal gesture,” Keats said. “Bees, when they're pollinating plants, are buzzing around. Presumably, the plants enjoy that, and they're not getting it with artificial pollination.”

Once again, Keats developed actual working prototypes for his concept. Scouting around on eBay, he found that the vibration units of mobile phones made the perfect motors for bee-sized sex toys.

Scientifically, it was a breakthrough moment. “I mean, obviously the vibrators that humans use are completely wrong,” Keats said. “In terms of form factor.”

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If you're wondering how a guy can make a living as an experimental philosopher designing sex toys for flowers, the answer is: He can't. Keats is also a busy author and journalist, writing about the chaotic intersections of art and science for publications like Wired, San Francisco Magazine, and Popular Science. He's published several books, too, both fiction and non-fiction. Occasional grants and commissions fund his art exhibits.

Keats's migration to the art world has been gradual, but he believes he can trace his playful artistic impulse back to early childhood.

“I think my first project was when I was around six years old and decided to sell rocks,” he said. “These were the same as any rock you could pick up, but I was interested in the idea of value and the weird way money works in the world. By selling these rocks — or trying to — I think it was a way to do philosophy, really. The rocks had no value beyond what I assigned to them. But it was also a kind of performance, an installation, a transaction — everything I do today.”

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Keats's work operates at a very specific tonal frequency. By thinking through the implications of emerging technology — future wearables or reverse biomimicry — Keats generates work that's both serious and playful. But he also provides a critical sideways perspective on the Big Issues of our time. For instance, click around the Wikipedia page about him and you'll notice that many of Keats's projects point back to ecological concerns. As a core existential dilemma of our times, the relationship between human activities and nature can seem overwhelming. Keats's mischievous conjecture works like a camera obscura, protecting our eyes through apertures and inversions.

“The absurdity is essential to what I do,” he said. “I see absurdity as incredibly productive. We enter into an absurd space in which nothing is as it seems, nothing is as we assume. Our assumptions are no longer reliable.”

Interestingly, Keats insists that his work isn't political or activist in any way.

“I don't see my projects as satirical at all. I'm not trying to make a point, ever. I'm interested in scientific skepticism in the broadest possible sense of the word, as a mechanism of constantly questioning everything. Then using that to find a way forward that's more engaged and more responsible.”