Entry III: Kinship

Artwork by Dr. Lakra. Design by Helena Geilinger. Original design concept by Sara De Bondt and Mark El-khatib.

Artwork by Dr. Lakra. Design by Helena Geilinger. Original design concept by Sara De Bondt and Mark El-khatib.

This communiqué is written by Sarah Demeuse and is the third of a three-part episodic series relating to the 11th edition of Liverpool Biennial: The Stomach and the Port. 'Kinship' is the third entry point after 'Porosity'.


Kin – a quaint enigma, like “kayak” or “kudo,” one of those rare words that start with a K.

Kin – not as in “kind” or as in “kinetic” (though a kind, kinetic kin is obviously appealing).

Kin – as in young birds helping their parents in rearing their own siblings or in nest building, even when they themselves are capable of breeding.

Kin – yes, as in “next of kin”. It’s an expression mostly associated with dread as it concerns planning for the transfer of belongings or debt after one’s passing. “Next of kin” also presents the question: who will take care of me when my body or mind starts failing? In many contemporary human cultures, the notion of kinship emerges at the crossroad of the nuclear family, legal obligations, and estate planning. These practices stand at a far remove from those birds that defend the parental nest, or the worker bee who foregoes breeding so that the queen’s offspring can thrive.

In zoology, kin selection (or kinship) is explained through genetics, which boils down to basic cost-benefit reasoning. A web search pulls up this quote: The gene that favors altruism spreads when participants are related and the cost to the individuals is low as compared to the benefit to the recipient. Therefore, altruism is promoted by kin selection and close genetic kinship.

The human animal, however, has applied this selective logic in a contradictory way. On the one hand, it has developed methods to subordinate and exploit other species as well as its environment to promote unsustainable population growth. On the other, it has created deep inner division within its own kin so that certain humans feel legitimized to exploit and subordinate other members of their own species. It’s the prime example of altruism meeting – and ultimately getting trumped by – selfishness.

We live in a time when traditional structures of division and belonging have become so deeply entrenched that the human genome has become too weak to bring about collective purpose. The pendulum has gotten stuck on the individualist end of the spectrum rather than on the genome-at-large end. In other words: a few humans experience economic, financial and maybe familial growth for an indeterminate, yet certainly finite, time, whereas all other human and non human animals, along with the environment, gradually go to hell.

So then what? In a time when genetic manipulation is rife, the altruistic gene + group fitness mechanisms seem outdated and insufficient to create a new, sustainable connection. Yet, I wonder: what if there’s a way to reverse-engineer kinship? That is, by activating radical altruism, could we experience that primordial sense of being in the same boat? I’m thinking about practices of giving and caring that would supersede logics of paternalism, pity and anthropocentrism and instead build connections: between humans, as well as between humans and non-humans – at times ephemeral, at times lasting til death do us part.

Now that’s kind, kinetic kinship.