Factitious Flora was developed within the framework of Forecast – Skills e.V.
When I arrived at airWG I was struck by one thing in particular: the height of the ceilings. Research suggests ceiling height can affect how someone thinks — leading to more abstract and creative thinking. High ceilings also prevent one from feeling cramped or trapped. In a pandemic tall ceilings can thus become salutary.
My residency period at airWG was carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic, accompanied by a months long lockdown that included the first curfew in the Netherlands since the Second World War. I missed the opportunity to interact with other artists in the building, have studio visits, or host a closing presentation. The very idea of what might constitute an artist residency was just one of many norms challenged in this time.
Even the moderately young and healthy cannot completely eliminate the possibility of ending up hospitalized by coronavirus. Meanwhile I was residing in a former hospital, the Wilhelmina Gasthuis. To be fair, the actual residency studio/living space itself does not retain the air of a clinic; nonetheless, some corridors and the surrounding grounds have a distinctive feel, an atmosphere suggestive of the buildings’ former function. At the same time that I began the residency I also had the privilege to start working with a fantastic group of young artists in the “F for Fact” Masters at the Sandberg Instituut. Ironically, their studios are also in an unused part of a hospital (owing to capacity and access restrictions at the Sandberg, the course director sought to secure a space off-campus, which happened to be an unused wing of the Slotervaart hopsital).
Europe was already half a year into the pandemic when my residency at airWG began. I had already acquiesced and largely acclimated to the conditions. Some projects, however, entailed travel and meetings at odds with pandemic conditions. In general my projects begin and are often produced partially outside of the studio. I was fortunate to still be able to undertake the necessary steps and travels to move forward on my projects during this residency period. During this time I also worked with material gathered prior to the pandemic.
Aside from the additional challenges to travel, things proceeded more or less as usual. As other artists can no doubt confirm, the lifestyle imposed by the pandemic on those not classified as essential workers shares much in common with a stereotypical artist’s lifestyle: long hours working alone, no clear boundaries or schedules for work, remaining attached to a MacBook most of the day. The last, of course, applies more specifically to artists whose core practice is not a studio practice: the artist-researcher, the video artist, the post-studio artist, the artist-writer, the “application artist.” My work and practice during the past couple of years has tended in these directions.
As a research-oriented artist, my work is concerned not only with executing and materializing specific ideas but with open-ended searching and investigating. I took a conscious decision some years ago to reverse engineer a practice in which travel, exploration, meeting new people, and encountering new environments took precedence over production. Research then becomes a practice in itself — one that blurs the boundaries between practice and simply living. Projects often emerge organically from this matrix. Until then, possible projects exist as memories, notes, fragments, sketches, and tests — perhaps becoming visible in an instagram post, but mostly dormant on harddrives and in notebooks.
My research continually shifts and re-constellates. At present, and during the residency, many central concerns coalesce around artificial intelligence and bio/eco/climate futures.
In conjunction with research and thinking around AI, I began making some small experiments with machine learning, such as this one:
To produce it I used what is now a fairly commonplace method: a generative adversarial network, a GAN, (in this case StyleGAN2) which pits two neural networks in competition. For me the test was also a process of thinking about the constituent computational mechanisms at play. There is an evolutionary underpinning to the process. For this experiment the GAN was trained on an image dataset I manually gathered of paintings by Marianne North — an English Victorian botanical artist and biologist. (Thanks to Mihnea Mircan for tipping me off to the paintings of Marianne North.) The resulting model can produce entirely new botanical specimens of nonexistent plants. Moving through the “latent space” between those images produces a metamorphosis of unreal apparitions of unknown phenotypic expressions, exotic strangeness of never-before-seen botanical forms. Nature generates… and generates, almost grotesque in its fecundity. And yet the truly grotesque thing is the ongoing environmental destruction of the “Capitalocene,” which many scholars trace to the colonial period. Marianne North herself wrote letters to Darwin already in the 19th century deploring the destruction of indigenous habitats that she witnessed.
Starting with the development of my film Geological Evidences (2017) I opened a line of research into biological, ecological, and climatological futures. As a result of being selected for a residency with Walk&Talk in the Azores, and invited to produce a project that will be presented in the 2022 edition of the Walk&Talk Arts Festival — developed in dialogue with the festival’s guest curator, Irene Campolmi — I have returned to this topic. I started the research for this project during the airWG period. The island context invites many questions in the bio-geo-clima constellation given the importance of islands for studying climate change and evolution.
However, for this project I wanted to consider the way the psyche of industrialized human subjects in the future may respond to dramatic changes in climate and ecology. This led me to read J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World in which I discovered a chapter on “The New Psychology.” This “new psychology” emerges as a result of a changing environment in which temperatures have risen, ice caps have melted, and Europe and Britain have become a vast swamp. Ballard writes, “Nature has swallowed all but a few remnants of human civilization … [and humans] are transformed—both physically and psychologically. …We are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs. … Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The … central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurons and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.” This plot in this chapter centers around some self-experiments to deal with the encounter of this archaeopsychic past.
I began my own rudimentary self-experiments — different from those in the novel, though. I unearthed and began editing some field recordings from a forest on another island in the Atlantic, a 2 million year old laurel forest on La Gomera. (Admittedly, there is a great disparity — hundreds of millions of years — between this forest and the geological era described in Ballard’s novel. But this is only a first stage of regression.) Listening to these modified recordings on headphones for an hour at a time with eyes closed, I pay attention to which images, sensations, and ideas bubble up into my awareness. I took inspiration from these sessions as I started to draft fragments of a script, the development of which will continue during site visits to the sibling laurel forests of the Azores as well its other biotopes.
For various reasons the airWG residency found me at a moment when I was in the process of marshalling progress on several projects at various stages and scales. As a blog, such as this, is not — or at least for most artists is not — a forum for the final presentation of art it is somehow fitting these projects remain in progress at this stage.
Shortly after my arrival to airWG I took a corona test to cross the border to Germany and spent a couple of days in Cologne, at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research. There I met with research scientists and, as is customary for me, gathered video footage. I was resuming a project I had begun during the summer: Factitious Flora.
Diverse descriptions of flora, from mystical to mechanical, reflect the range of human ideas about plants. Meanwhile, artificial selection physically shapes many plant species. Colonialism and industrialism radically redistributed and reorganized biological life on the planet. Today, automated, controlled environments bring plants into new networks of relations while synthetic biology materializes previously impossible plants. The impact of climate change on Earth’s systems and agriculture drive further vegetal variation and transformation.
Taking the form of an experimental film, Factitious Flora looks toward the ongoing emergence of new botanical possibilities—in both idea and organism—as well as future plant/human, plant/machine, and plant/planet relations.
This video is being developed in close dialogue with horticulturists and plant scientists in Germany and the Netherlands. The first phase of Factitious Flora was also developed in conversation with artist, filmmaker, and photographer Tobias Zielony and made possible with the support of Forecast Platform.
In December filming for an upcoming short film took place in Finland:
Later in the 21st century, Lena, a young scientist and her colleagues interface with an artificial intelligence system named MATA that prototypes ideas to mitigate the accelerating climate crisis and energy needs. Lena is haunted by a ghost in the machine which she must confront.
A-GEN-CY (still a working title) anticipates a future form of research in which scientific experiments are designed by artificial intelligence and carried out through automation; scientists in turn shift their energy and efforts to working with the visionary imagination.
The film follows from extensive dialogue with scientific researchers at Aalto University, which has also supported the project. The production of the film has been carried out in collaboration with the Helsinki multidisciplinary production studio Veli as well as the duo Priya Lorenz and Vanessa Vandy, who work together as FERAL. Post-production is underway and I look forward to sharing the final film in the near future.
Ersatz Gardens is an experimental short film about an entangled garden of vision and abstraction, experience and memory, the real and the fake. Perceptual twists transform the garden into a psychological space of images, ideas, time, and economic fragments shaken from both their historical and natural orders.
The gardens of the film are Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny and a nearby 18th century garden of the Physiocrats—a group whose name means “government of nature” and who were the first thinkers to systematize economics. Within the video footage of these gardens, anti-counterfeiting features are being composited; these include UV fluorescing features like those of the British 20-pound note featuring Adam Smith (who visited the Physiocratic estate), and the dove of the Visa credit card. Doves see in ultraviolet, something they share in common with Monet’s vision after it was altered. The lens of one of his eyes was removed, giving him an expanded spectral sensitivity. Similarly, I used an altered camera and filters to modify the spectral range of the camera during filming.
Although much of the material was filmed in the summer of 2018, the editing for this project has proceeded in fits and starts as time allows. One of these editing fits was carried out at airWG, inching the project a minute closer to completion.
Filming was supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art and carried out during the Terra Summer Residency.
“Biotic Change” dossier
Much of what I film does not have a predetermined place in a script, leaving me with a large archive of material related to my core concerns, one of which is the interpenetration of ecology and technology.
It is from this archive that I began developing a “dossier” of still and moving image, as well as gathering new material, for a contribution to the Anthropogenic Markers: Historical and Material Contexts of a Twentieth-Century Transition in Earthly Matters project. Through an experimental documentary mode this visual material and accompanying text will focus on biotic signals, biotic change, and synthetic biological-technological systems.
The project is developed within the collaboration between the Anthropocene Working Group, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. It will be published on the web platform anthropocene-curriculum.org.
Every artist has their own rhythm and pace. Sometimes necessity intervenes in this individual process, compressing it into a predefined timeline. Whenever possible I like to work on projects for a long time, sometimes not touching them for months or even years. They can ferment and transform, reemerging as something else entirely — challenging me to abandon my own preconceived ideas in the process. Sometimes a project can rot and disintegrate into a sour sweet compost for other projects. From initial research to presentation can sometimes take a couple of years. Such a process is a form of slowness and patience, of coexistence with the not-yet, the unknown, and the indeterminate. Such a meditative mode is a luxury in some ways and a necessity in others — a result of cobbling together resources, unavoidable overlapping timelines, shuffling schedules, and in general adapting to the effects of precarity which are bound up with opportunity. It is the bittersweet existence of the itinerant artist, the residency hopping artist. It was a pleasure to briefly take up residence at airWG on this peripatetic path.