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 is an attempt to acknowledge the limitations of human sensory capacities and how technology can be used to "mediate" these constraints through the embodiment of more-than-human experiences.
While the first work focused on Lantau's water buffalo population, the current one looks at the island's bats, specifically the pipistrellus abramus. Moving beyond a purely ethnographic approach to documenting the bats' behaviour, the work explores larger philosophical and anthropological questions with new technologies. As a starting point, it takes Thomas Nagel's seminal 1973 essay "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" which explored the question of whether a human being can truly understand what it feels like to experience the consciousness of non-human species.
Zheng Mahler approaches this question from the perspective of current research in virtual reality and the field of "animal embodiment" which allows users to experience the physiological and sensory faculties of animals. By simulating the sensorimotor contingencies of what it is like to be a bat through immersive technologies, they ask the question whether we can get closer to the subjective, qualitative experience of being one.
The work has been revealed over the course of a year with the research phase taking the form of a website on the ARE YOU FOR REAL online platform commissioned by ifa – Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen in Germany. The website has functioned as a repository for the field work Zheng Mahler conducted surveying one local bat species in a village on Lantau Island, using text, thermal video, ultrasonic recordings, photogrammetry and virtual reality.