ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) proudly presents a new major commission by Zheng Mahler as part of the constantly growing web-based project ARE YOU FOR REAL, which started in 2020.

What Is It Like to Be a Virtual Bat? is the second artwork in Zheng Mahler’s series of multispecies sensory ethnographies around the ecosystems of Lantau Island, Hong Kong. It uses technology to communicate the more-than-human experience of Lantau’s non-human inhabitants, focusing on the native lesser short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus brachyotis), and incorporates elements of philosophy and anthropology. The starting point was philosopher Thomas Nagel’s seminal 1973 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” which introduced the problem of qualia or the “hard problems of consciousness” to philosophy. Working with drones, virtual reality, 3D scanning, and photogrammetry, Zheng Mahler attempts to simulate the bat’s sensorimotor contingencies to ask whether replicating the physical properties of being a bat can get us close to the bat’s subjective qualitative experience. What Is It Like to Be a Virtual Bat? is not intended to establish a specific unshakeable knowledge or mastery of the bat, but to document an engagement through which the bat becomes a subjective interlocutor whose very being shares in the creative force behind the work. The mixed-media artwork, spanning text, infrared photography, ultrasonic recordings, drone video, photogrammetry, and a virtual reality system, develops in four phases throughout 2022. The first phase is on the ARE YOU FOR REAL website now!

Zheng Mahler is artist Royce Ng’s and anthropologist Daisy Bisenieks’s Hong Kong-based collaborative examination of the mutual influence and relational networks connecting global trade, nature, and technology, with a particular interest in more-than-human geographies and the environmental architectures they produce. Utilising digital media, performance, and installation, they develop speculative scenarios and immersive sensory encounters that explore the limits and potentials of their respective disciplines. They have exhibited, performed, and participated in numerous art spaces, institutions, and residencies, working alongside various communities in Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the US. Recent presentations include those at Tai Kwun Contemporary in Hong Kong, the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, and Shanghai Biennale XIII (2021).

Initiated by ifa and curated by Julia Grosse, Paula Nascimento, and Yvette MutumbaARE YOU FOR REAL launched in December 2020 and is conceived as a participatory project testing interactive artistic practices. It brings together artists, researchers, filmmakers, writers, and coders to create new works, each offering a different understanding of and approach towards the concept of “reality.” It is about engaging with and visualising the connections between people, thoughts, things, and places that occur through the trading and training of data. It addresses the material and immaterial aspects of the digital, and how both are perceived from the perspectives of various disciplines.

ARE YOU FOR REAL aims to create an international cultural exchange as well as a contemporary co-creative practice of exhibition-making. The artworks produced change over the course of the project, as new artists join and take over, add and react.