Author: Felix Stalder --- Date: 12/02/96 --- Copyright: ThingReviews NYC

Digital Gardens - A World in Mutation

The Powerplant, Toronto

curated by Louise Dompierre

The question that the artists are invited to reflect on is, as the catalogue puts it--in which ways have new media altered our relationship to nature? The exhibition offers three distinct views across this discourse-burdened relationship.

The first one is focused on the influence of technology on nature while both systems are conceptualized as separate or are at least separable. One version of this is presented in the installation "Sowin’ Machine" by Montréal artist Doug Buis. The arrangement consists of some kind of low-tech electro-mechanical device that is suspended above a bed of soil. This machine drops seeds onto the ground where they start to grow (if they are watered by the friendly museum’s personnel). An interface placed out of sight in a different room seems to enable the visitor to control the sowing process by choosing the different seeds but, as the catalogue reveals, everything is completely predetermined, except some minor details such as the movement of the apparatus back and forth along the rails where it is suspended. This movement is influenced by the visitor’s presence in the room, interfaced through standard motion detectors.

This installation is, unfortunately, stuck somewhere in between two poles. One is a critical-fascinated view of machines, as presented by Jean Tinguely but without achieving his superb irony or dark beauty, the other is a more social- and process-oriented one, such as in the project Telegarden that actually allows people to control the planting and growing process in a real garden over the Internet, a project developed at the University of Southern California and on-line since June 1995.

The uncovered message of Buis’ middle position is that machines can be involved in initializing a natural process and that we can not always control the results.

The second position is the view of nature through media, questioning the way we perceive (a mediated) nature. In the series greenwork the Australian artist Rosemary Laing show the impact of the speed culture on the appearance of nature, glossy fuzzy green computer-altered photograph of the burgeoning jungle. The images play with the clash of the static and dynamic, rendering the static dynamic by accelerating the view on it and rendering the dynamic static by slowing down the view on it, as done in the second part of this series, where she presents time-lapsed photographs of the airstreams of jet planes, making the routes in the sky visible as faint, cloud-like traces.

Even though Laing’s work opens some classical questions of poststructural semiotics, the signifier being disconnected from signified forming a sphere of its own, her perspectives, as well as Buis’, draw upon a very conventional, actually modern concept of the relation between nature and technology, as two distinct spheres with distinct systemic logics that are linearly related. In the case of Buis it’s technology impacting nature, in case of Laing it’s technology mediating nature as something in between the viewer and the object. But in both cases the relation is a uni-directed, punctual, and both nature and technology are functionally closed systems--in short, these perspectives describe the same old mappings.

A different approach is pursued in the installation ‘Bird Song Cycle’ by the British artist Matt Collishaw, a very reduced close-circuit set up. Seven budgies are living in a large bird’s cage, flying and singing. Their sounds are captured by a microphone hanging from the ceiling of the cage and constantly replayed with a several seconds delay. The effect is that both sounds are constantly present, the actual and the recorded one, and the birds live under a constant feedback of their own activities, influencing their further singing which itself is played back again.

The media used in this piece is very old technology - a generic mic and two Revox reel tape recorders - but the set up creates a immediate experience of the direction of a more interrelated, non-linear connection between nature and media, how the blending of these two systems generates effects that are irreducible to any one of the systems. What one hears on the tape are the birds that can only be understood as under the constant influence of their own feedback, generating a peculiar atmosphere which defines their actual singing. This setting is redefined constantly and the outcome, the specific soundscape in the moment of the viewer’s presence, is the result of a processual relationship instead of a punctual one.

Still waiting to be addressed are the more disturbing questions that arise from the interconnection of technology into networks, from the emergence of new ecological systems, where biological characteristics begin to appear in technological systems creating ostensibly nature-like technologies.

Felix Stalder

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