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Interspecies Library
Photography Sean Davidson, model Mia Arbucci

Tiger penises and de-extinct dodos: inside New York’s Interspecies Library

Brooklyn-based researcher and curator Oscar Salguero collects speculative books that explore our changing attitudes towards the non-human

According to some artists and researchers, we’ve entered a stage of humanity known as the technocene, where emerging technologies have completely scrambled our place in time. From scientists de-extincting dodos and recovering ancient artefacts using AI, to extending life using cryogenic freezing, technology is completely distorting our experience of the present by opening up new temporal possibilities.

Responding to this time warp are countless artists using bio-art and speculative design to imagine alternative realities, populated by weird and wonderful creatures inspired by these scientific breakthroughs. Based in Brooklyn, New York, the Interspecies Library is the first-ever archive dedicated to alternative interspecies possibilities. Run by researcher and critical designer Oscar Salguero, the collection features books and documents that exist on the borders between fiction and reality.

From lost diaries and investigative dossiers to lab journals and field guides, the texts use myth-making to explore our changing attitudes towards more-than-human worlds. Featuring AI poetry, post-fossil designs, speculative zoology and cryptids logs (animals whose existence hasn’t been proven by empirical science), the library is a treasure trove of strange and esoteric texts: mythological creature sightings, accounts of resurrected dodos, and texts documenting “hypothetical eel-centric” imaginations on how humans have sex. Here, Salguero tells us more about the project.

How did the Interspecies Library first come about?

Oscar Salguero: Though Interspecies Library as a concept began in 2019, it really took off during this show, Interspecies Futures, which I curated in 2021 at Center for Book Arts in New York. It was the first public event where I started presenting all of these books. One thing I found when looking at these texts was how many were inspired by two currents: the multispecies fabulations of Ursula K. Le Guin (The World for Word is Forest, 1972) and the de-anthropocentrism of Donna Haraway (Staying with the Trouble, 2016). So, I coined Interspecies Futures to describe this new era of research and how we speculate in fiction to imagine our relationship with animals in the future. 

Interspecies Library really started at the same show, where I put this selection outside the main gallery. Each book is dedicated to different species, so it's really interesting, and all from this century.

What is your artistic background? How did you initially get into speculative art and alternative species possibilities?

Oscar Salguero: My background is in industrial design, so I studied how to make objects, furniture, tools, and things like that. But I was never satisfied with just that, I really wanted to know more about the designers at the cutting edge – what kind of things they were researching? And a lot of them were researching sustainability, which leads to ecology, which leads to relationships with other organisms. So, this is how I got really interested in the subject – and also I’ve always been super fascinated by books. 

What is it about books that makes them a good medium for exploring these ideas?

Oscar Salguero: Books are a really interesting artefact – they’re a medium that we’ve been using for 1000s of years across different cultures from the east to the west. It’s extremely intuitive, it’s designed for the human hand. So you hand a book to anyone, a two-year-old or an older person, and they intuitively know what to do with it. That’s what I love about the fact that a lot of artists were going back to books to tell their stories (even though we’re doing a lot of technology and new media things).

“The use of speculation is very important because it helps people mentally travel and extrapolate into a reality where that is already the truth, or that is already the real everyday” – Oscar Salguero

Out of all the books on display, what are some of your favourites?

Oscar Salguero: There’s one book called Dodo in the Room by Ege Kökel that imagines a fake bio-corporation’s handbook for adopting a dodo, because they’re going to be resurrecting dodos in the future. You’re given this guideline on how to take care of your dodo, what traits each dodo has, and so on. There’s also Aurelia Immortal about a corporation that invests heavily in jellyfish to find immortality for humans. And another called The Tiger Penis Project suggests that, in order to end pandemics, we need to start bio-printing parts of animals, because a lot of pandemics are happening because of wet markets where they sell animal genitalia as part of traditional Chinese medicine. 

What are some of the uses of speculative fiction and myth-making?

Oscar Salguero: I think it’s more of a provocation, because we hear a lot of the news, reports saying that by 2040–something, these species are going to be completely extinct, or certain places are going to be inundated. We hear a lot of very alarmist news all the time – and rightly so. These things are going to happen sooner or later. So, the use of speculation is very important because it helps people mentally travel and extrapolate into a reality where that is already the truth, or that is already the real everyday. 

How does myth-making come into this?

Oscar Salguero: It begins to create this kind of disruption in your mind. It goes from an absurdist possibility to a more concrete reality, and I think that’s the value of using mythmaking, especially in books because books have this sense of authority.

There’s also an entire section on crypto-zoology (the study of animals whose existence hasn’t been proven by empirical science). I feel like this plays into a lot of current discourse about non-human intelligence.

Oscar Salguero: Part of the Interspecies Library project was not just gathering things about our relationship with existing animals, but also our relationship with the mythology of some animals. In some way, you can almost think of them as playing a very interesting role in a certain respect, and a little bit of fear, of beings that we don’t know or understand how they operate.

That’s traditionally something that has happened throughout human history – we’re always afraid of what we cannot see, the animals we cannot see, because we don’t have a super sense that allows us to understand where they’re hiding or what they’re doing. There is also a fascination with aliens and UFOs – the idea that there are intelligent beings coming from outer space that are observing us. We’re so uncomfortable, but also fascinated by it.

I read somewhere that the gorilla was thought to be a mythological creature for centuries until its existence was proven by science. 

Oscar Salguero: Even throughout history, scientists created these taxonomies – animals, plants etc. – but they are constantly challenged. Until a few years ago, Pluto was a planet and now it is no longer considered a planet. So all of these things that appear to be set in stone, continue to change because there are new things we find out and new information we access.

I think it’s important to maintain this healthy sense of mystery in regards to nature – and cryptids are an expression of that. Even the "father of modern taxonomy", the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus suggested in his original proposal that mermaids might be another species that we have to consider (because at that time there were sightings of mermaids but nobody was sure if this was mythological or real). 

How do you think these practices will develop as we become more aware of non-human intelligence?

Oscar Salguero: There’s a stronger push for the idea of post-humanities, a decentering of the human. It’s really shaken up a lot of fields because now they’re opening up to other intelligences, whether that’s animals, objects or AI. There's a book called Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton, which looks at how there are things that now we cannot even grasp, as a concept, like all the plastic in the world – that is an entity that we cannot even mentally grasp anymore. There are new ecosystems happening because of that already. Or, what if I told you that the book about de-extinct dodos, which is fictional, will one day be real? That’s what I’m interested in – these artefacts that are familiar but destabilising, they mindfuck you. 

Find out more about the Interspecies Library here