Wandering museums on my own as a young girl, I would often select a bench before a landscape to sit and stare for an extended period of time. It was not the picture before me that captured my attention but what I imagined might be further down the lane, beyond the hill, on the other side of a lake in the distance. Returning to some of these pictures later in life, I am often startled at how inaccurately I remember them because my memory builds from the serpentine turns of my imagination. Landscape painting is a genre with a set of loose conventions around earth, water, vegetation and animal life. But, these elements are composed and not raw material, though we often treat them as iconic representations of a location.
In the Netherlands, landscape paintings flourished in the 17th century as the Dutch declared independence from Spanish rule. The restrictions of Calvinism coupled with the growth of capitalism produced a culture that embraced the landscape as its distinct creative terrain. These were rich in associations. The artists remain celebrated to this day for their talent at depicting tranquillity as well as tension across identifiable and imagined spaces. Their color. Their light. Their detail. But, their hyper-realism is not the Real. We can look at these idyllic imaginaries in retrospect and see how they framed a vision. But, before we dismiss them as mendacious fictions, we might, like Proust, look a little longer. There, on the edge of the picture, where the artist knew few would look, there is something precious for you to see and that, well, that just might change your perspective on…
Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems
Lilypads float in a pond, blossoming into flowers, offering rest for assorted land and air critters, sheltering underwater creatures. Part of an ecosystem, the lilypad serves many functions and its significance depends on perspective. If lilypads thrive without any check then much pond life suffers, but without them pond life falters too. They have been used as a symbol of exponential growth, notably in the 1972 report Limits to Growth, which aimed to explain how ecology and economics were two systems that were deeply related. The lilypad also offers a metaphor for an entrepreneurial strategy and became the name of an open-source toolkit designed in 2007 to simplify the process of making interactive clothing, toys, or sculptures. Most often, however, it is the forgotten base from which the endlessly symbolic lily emerges. Lilypads are liminal, floating along the edges of a pond, near land, but not yet there. They are idyllic but invasive. They have deep roots that spread quickly, horizontally, through the muddy water, shooting off new plants from nodes. They move down, across, and up. They are rhizomatic.
Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems at Nxt Museum proposes the lilypad as a way to move through a complex variety of perspectives on our rapidly changing world: our ecologies, technologies, cultures, and economics. The artists produce visuals of plant, water, and air that are also startlingly unfamiliar. Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Libby Heaney, and the duo Entangled Others—composed of Sophia Crespo and Feileacan McCormick—with composer Robert M. Thomas bring a holistic relation to their respective concerns about ecology and technology.
Technology as an Ecology
Ecology aims to orient the relations of assorted organisms to one another, considering them across five levels: organism, population, community, ecosystem, and biosphere. The term ecology derives from the Ancient Greek word oikos, meaning household, and logos as in reason, a structured thinking. The oikos was an important organisational unit of Greek social, political and economic life. More than a home, the household included the people and their relations to each other, the management of the property and daily life. In Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, he describes the financial management of the estate, which includes the daily operations, that is when things should happen as well as by whom. Ecology considers how things live together. Temporality emerges alongside a set of agrilogistics.
Agrilogistics refers to the shifts that happened around twelve thousand years ago when people started to plant themselves, domesticate animals, cultivate crops. It accompanied the division of land and established wealth, status, inheritance, trade, money, power. Through the surplus of food, people could turn to other activities and become scribes, musicians, priests, soldiers. Guilds, libraries, temples, armies, dynasties arose. People became more vulnerable to disease, weather, pests, invasion. Because this parcel of land determined societies, it became precious and could not be governed by that group over there and ours. A kind of binary thinking appears. True. False. Mine. Yours. Subject. Object. Life. Death. Aristotle formalised some of these ideas in his categories and logic. But as Timothy Morton writes in Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, “World sharing requires regular violations of the Law of the Excluded Middle.”  To shift behaviours now for the world we want, we need to violate longstanding patterns of thought. The past permeates the present, through our way of thinking, grouping, living, which then determines what will be next.
Technology stems from tekne meaning skill, practice or craft but is attached to the term logos in the English language to suggest a skilled, practical knowing. This is significant because typically an opposition is sustained between makers and thinkers, as in the classic sociopolitical divide of blue and white collar workers. We’ve come to associate tekne with industrial and computational devices, but the root word recognized the making of weavers and carpenters—any who produced toward the end of an object and had knowledge of that end through the intricacies of their craft. A way of knowing develops into a way of making, a way of worldbuilding.
Technology becomes an ecology once conceived as a community structuring.
The mediaeval guilds were social formations around a practice and industry. A similar kind of connection happens around types of knowledge today, especially in specialised fields like engineering or computer science. Too often though, a superior and dismissive attitude occurs that seems related to the algorithmic blackbox of so many software companies. It’s all too easy to point at Silicon Valley as a tech ecology–a social, political and economic landscape.
Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel Corp., proposed in 1965 that the components of a computer circuit would double every year until it reached 65,000 in 1975, at which point he shifted the number of chips in a transistor to doubling every two years and dubbed it Moore’s Law. It was off to the races! An accelerationist enthusiasm created the adrenaline-run, “move fast and break things” attitude of the global tech industry. It isn’t a law by any definition but a self-fulfilling prophecy propelled by military and government support, academic and private research. It became an ethos and a timescale. It created a cult of early adopters for new, faster, better devices and the sense that anything else was already behind the times.
“The history of culture is the history of its images of the future,” wrote the philosopher of science and proto-futurist Frederik Polak in The Image of the Future: Enlightening the Past, Orienting the Present, Forecasting the Future (1961). Moore described how the increase in transistor capabilities would “lead to such wonders as home computers—or at least terminals connected to a central computer—automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment,” a picture of tools but not people, a connectivity disconnected from the material resources necessary for its propagation. The image offered a landscape devoid of the planetary labour and ores necessary for the systems to run. It offered an explosion of lilypads without thought to the ecosystem of the pond.
Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems introduces artists who understand the technologies they use as systems that can’t be unwoven from their social and environmental fabrics.
Amelia Winger-Bearskin makes visible the potential of so-called artificial intelligence to revise the world around us. Libby Heaney engages the prospects of quantum computing, as does the duo Entangled Others, to shift our temporal relations and cognize our entwinement with a broad range of species. Like the lilypad’s liminal position, we are never quite settled in what we see and this shifting introduces the typically invisible forces of the softwares, algorithms, and other machineries at hand.
Each system has particular characteristics that arise from its constitution, even as it resembles others. A human body is a system, as is a landscape or a device. A scientific, political, or economic theory can also be seen as a system of ideas that are selected and advanced, acting and reacting to each other, conditional on ignoring others. Developed out of second-order cybernetics in the 1960s and ’70s, systems thinking is typically associated with computers, equations, and information flows, but, within it lies something we all deeply recognize.
Donella Meadows, a scientist, writer and educator, was at the forefront of establishing modern systems theory, most notably in leading the team of scientists who produced the groundbreaking study, Limits to Growth in 1972 with a twenty and a thirty year update, that used computer modelling to show how environmental concerns were inextricable with economic stability. She resisted the jargon that can amass around understanding systems and paired technical concepts with traditional wisdom:
“Because of feedback delays within complex systems, by the time a problem becomes apparent it may be unnecessarily difficult to solve.
– a stitch in time saves nine.
A diverse system with multiple pathways and redundancies is more stable and less vulnerable to external shock than a uniform system with little diversity.
– don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” 
Sometimes things make sense because they are positioned from a perspective that allows you to see them. The distorted projection of an object in anamorphosis was a popular visual trick in the 16th century – as if a byproduct of the structuring produced by perspective in the 15th century. One of the most famous examples occurs in Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting, The Ambassadors (1533), where the two young men, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, are surrounded by artefacts representing their knowledge and success, but an anamorphic skull reminds everyone that no tools will overcome the material constraints of life. Sometimes we need to see things weirdly in order to note their significance.
Entangled Others & Robert M. Thomas, Heaney, and Winger-Bearskin offer unusual visions. Alongside the need for a more “holistic understanding of ecological connectedness” comes a need to recognize gaps and distinctions.
These artists move away from depiction and ask us to shift perspective. The tempo of these works is unsettling precisely because we have been accustomed to a certain speed of information and visual content. The rhythm of their respective works doesn’t present a didactic or progressive experience, but invites connections of your own from which to cultivate insights well beyond the moment of delivery.
We learn how to see anew, open onto an imagination of something other. The past proposes a future but does not predict it, despite the many algorithms across our lives that operate in just that way. We are not fully determined…nor are the technologies these artists use, like various forms of AI or quantum computing. Their practices help shift the ecology of the technology. Amidst the all too common sense of futility, the strangeness of their work allows the possibility of doing things differently and making a difference. Our agency matters and can materialise our imaginings.
An Intentional Misuse
Susan Schuppli, an artist-researcher and writer who is also Director & Reader of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, explains “It seems we still need visual evidence before we can act as moral agents. This regime of visibility is a huge challenge. How do we act as ethical agents when there are all kinds of events that don’t produce coherent visual evidence?” How do we begin to understand what we cannot see?
For To Body, Amelia Winger-Bearskin trained an AI system to erase all human made structures out of urban landscapes like New York City, Venice, Vienna, or Miami. Just as our brain draws in what is lost in our eye’s blind spot, inpainting is the term for adopting algorithms to replace lost or corrupted parts of image data. Such image interpolation or video interpolation is widespread across the imagery of our technological landscape, a formalisation of a visual politic largely unacknowledged.
Winger-Bearksin intercedes in this unnecessary deceit to make the technology apparent. In so doing, she introduces us to a visualising system that is neither so complicated that it cannot be understood by a non-technologist, nor so inherently detrimental that it must cause the degrees of social anxiety discussed in the media.
She made the inpainting algorithm stay in one location for a certain number of frames so audiences see the video adjusting and catch what is happening. Winger-Bearskin disrupts the smooth image and thereby introduces the productive quality of flaws in our visible and invisible visual infrastructures. Widespread across cultures, the flaw endows a humility and the possibility of continuous effort. The act is not complete. There is more yet. Or, as Al Jolson humorously uttered in the first words captured for a talkie: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” The opportunity appears to consider how we observe what we perceive.
A poem, Midnight, accompanies To Body, as a text and sonic experience that opens “Today, I would like to cease” as if it were possible to abandon the roles she then delineates: artist, person, woman, daughter, sister. We can’t erase our part in relational systems but we can embrace new possibilities. She arrives at a desire to be midnight. What might that mean? We may say something is dark as midnight but can we see it? Perhaps we don’t need to see something, after all, to understand it. Winger-Bearskin’s background in performance studies allows her to suggest that our gaze is a performance of the ideologies we have internalised. We might access ways of seeing that we don’t currently see inside ourselves, perhaps to value the grasses, critters, and even light moving across the terrain in ways that real estate markets can’t comprehend.
The value we place on things stems from a perspective that serves a particular end. From the chemist’s perspective, the human body is made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine and magnesium. An economist with this data might quantify each element’s market value as it constitutes the chemical makeup of the 70 kg (150 lb) average physique and determine that a person is worth about €145 ($160), though figures range from €0.91 ($1) to €1,820 ($2,000). Except that is not the system by which we value a human life.
We can observe a similar challenge when we turn to the air, land and water that constitute our planet. Air and water have been considered renewable resources to be consumed, without a cost, in many economic frameworks – although places like New York City, where I live, have ‘air rights’ that quantify the cubic air area above a building up to established height limits as property. Another real estate developer can buy that air to stretch their building beyond ordained caps. This treats air like land, valued for what it can produce, with a total loss of value if not a part of an agrarian or industrial project. As Winger-Bearskin writes, “Who determines the protocol for looking at the sky? Like moss and fungi, animals and plants, and indeed most living beings, the sky does not have borders.” By enclosing it within a single economising perspective, we lose the ability to see it otherwise.
When Moore first formulated his notion of accelerating chip development, he articulated that “the cost per component is nearly inversely proportional to the number of components,” which is an economic argument for speed that the tech industry took as a way of life. There is a limit to this exponential growth, however, even if it is true that people will always want increased computer power. That is partly the promise of quantum computing, but it can do so much more.
Libby Heaney received a PhD in theoretical quantum information science before turning to art, which presented the opportunity of “weaving together facets of quantum computing and quantum physics with aesthetics, ethics, and other discourses” otherwise dismissed in much research.
In Q is for Climate (?) she creates a world that helps us see strange concepts like quantum superposition, in which particles exist in multiple states or places at once, and quantum entanglement, whereby particles bind together in weird symbiotic relations completely unlike the macroscopic world. Because the particles operate by other laws than those that govern our existence, we cannot visualise them.
But, Heaney creates a visual language that allows us to glimpse the possibilities of this alternate way of being, of knowing. By manipulating images and 3D models with data, the initial elements expand and distend, proliferating and interfering with themselves. The hybrid creature that occasionally surfaces in Q is for Climate (?) is based on her own drawing, its tentacles a nod to Donna Haraway’s feminist reimagining of posthuman possibility. It is never a fixed element but emerging in relation to the information of its environment. Quantum particles are tricksters, interacting across great distances, refusing to be concrete as they shift between particle and wave. Quantum computing does not depend on the binary language of ones and zeros, but a kind of movement that leads her to describe the code like a musical score, which means time enters the picture.
The film starts with a sequential progression that reproduces the temporality of digital computers and modernity’s linear march, but that dissolves into a layering where information flows forward and backward. The concept is challenging until we recall the insights of psychoanalysis, and realise we experience superpositions of time all the time. Heaney’s artfulness models thinking through a different perceptual lens for a world ever unfolding around us. A technology isn’t simply a tool but a framework by which we see the world, as in the adage: with a hammer in hand, everything looks like a nail. Artists help us transform a hammer into a pendulum or a lever, and begin to form the world otherly.
We see and hear in new ways, our expectations reformed. And yet, quantum’s promise comes at a cost. In Heaney’s landscape, the yellows and blues speak to the lithium mines in Chile necessary for quantum computers’ hardware. The departure from fossil fuels in novel technologies isn’t without its own impact, already causing pollution and conflict over water rights. Recognizing the multiple strands of impact is to practise systems thinking. The novel technology doesn’t alter the landscape of environmental abuse, just shifts it elsewhere.
Recognizing the situatedness of our sight, the cultural critic and Professor of English and Art History at University of Chicago, WJT Mitchell, argues that landscapes are ideological, “a process by which social and subjective identities are formed.” It is deeply tied to an imperial project, wherever and whenever it is found around the world; empires have a vision of the world they determine in part through celebrating certain manners of depicting their realm. The landscape as a genre of painting doesn’t simply take the raw material of nature but is “itself a physical and multisensory medium (earth, stone, generation, water, sky, sound and silence, light and darkness, etc) in which cultural meanings and values are encoded.” This is true whether the artist positions objects to idealise a scene or ‘finds’ a scene that offers those conventions. Landscapes naturalise the constructed and constructive vision of social relations.
A system of value coheres an ethic. An “extractive gaze” reduces the realm of our experience to “a cache of inert matter to be dammed, dug up, cut down, flattened out, raised up, divided and subdivided, harvested, photographed, mapped, assayed, bought, and sold and generally manipulated.” We can bring another eye to our world. All that matter matters. We need to see it as such.
Our ecological issues necessitate reframing economic discourse, an aspect of the battle over cultural attitudes that was articulated by the marine biologist and author, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962). Donella Meadows and the team of scientists that produced Limits to Growth (1972) did the same, emphasised it in Beyond the Limits (1992) and reinforced it with an even greater call for new approaches in Limits to Growth: the 30 Year Update. Produced at the Sloan School of Management, a business school at MIT, a university known for its advanced research developing and broadening the scope of technologies, the extensive computer modelling for Limits to Growth revealed the ecological constraints that would impact global economic development. Despite the serious call in 1972 for “profound, proactive, societal innovation through technological, cultural, and institutional change” to avoid an ecological impact beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, dismissals arose among a set of techno-industrialists that continuous growth should be possible.
Such a “politics of possibility” is a pie-in-the-sky framework. Conversely, in the internationally best-selling book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st Century Economist, the renegade economist and Professor of Practice at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences Kate Raworth suggested an actual system to help balance economic drives with environmental ones. These thinkers recognized how things are interconnected.
Oceans cover almost 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, crucial to the planet’s ecology. Plankton floating on the water produce more than half of our oxygen supply, though it’s unclear for how much longer that will remain true. We’ve devastated marine life through our industrial fishing and waste “management” practices. Around six and seven thousand years ago, oceans levelled but now are rising as warming temperatures melt polar ice caps, with some estimating that by 2100, the seas will be six feet higher than they are now, devastating a variety of ecosystems, including urban ones on which so much human economics depend. Scientists can hypothesise, model, and even propose findings, but they cannot fix things. The discrete data they present is part of a wider picture, one that isn’t still or determined. It’s in perpetual formation. The time-based media form that all these artists adopt is part of situating us not just here and now in our limited perceptual timescale but in a temporal scale that recognizes the butterfly’s wing as part of a season, a weather system, a planetary era. Ecosystems are relational, and always changing as parts respond to one another from memories of past incidents.
Entangled Others provides a way of seeing how discrete beings are more porous than we typically acknowledge. Diving beneath the surface of things, they offer a world where a being is always a becoming. There’s no now, now.
In Decohering Delineation, we see shapeshifting underwater creatures. Composed of neural nets and oceanic data across different temporal scales, they fluctuate and therein make tangible the bodies of information that constitute the thing we perceive in the moment. We may wish to see them as evolution in progress, but our cells are likewise shapeshifting, responding to our environment. Our breath draws in oxygen, carbon, particulate matter and aerosols. We consume flora and fauna, metabolising the environments in which they grew. As the professor of anthropology Elizabeth Povinelli explains: “Smoke has a biochemical signature that can be interpreted by leaves, animals, and wind, each of which will change course as a result. These biochemical interpretations will be interpreted in turn by souls and river beds and rocks and glaciers.” We exist because of weather systems that make possible the plants and bugs and rain and rock where we stand, breathe, and rotate around the sun another year. We are because of millennia of formations.
The undersea world fascinates. We cannot breathe there, so its lifeforms present a kind of alien status, an atemporality burgeoning past our notions of a lifetime. We cannot plunge its depths, any more than we can reach the edge of outer space. Its otherworldliness startles us because it is right here, and we are reliant on it now just as much as 540 million years ago when a wriggling, microscopic sea creature with a large mouth and no anus appeared in the fossil record and marked our potentiality. The Saccorhytus is the earliest known prehistoric ancestor of humanity. And so, to think ecologically depends also on selecting a timeframe for that ecology. In Decohering Delineation, Entangled Others introduce assorted temporal scales to the data to disrupt our expectations of the immediate, so that their critters present the mediations through countless others that all experience–including the inorganic.
Ecology is the study of a flow of transformation, the movement of energy through a system. We detail our histories in relation to organic matter but we bend our bodies in new shapes to cradle the devices we hold dear, just as occurred when people conformed to the operational mechanics of factories two centuries ago. Electricity changed the way we live. So did bronze, five thousand years before that. Our brains read information differently on screen versus printed. Technology is not distinct from us but a part of us. The British philosopher Ray Brassier explains the formation of a cell membrane as the activity of an organic entity that protects itself from a torrent of “influxes of excitation” by shedding part of itself to produce a barrier. That distinguishes between “organic interiority and inorganic exteriority” and he understands this careful construction of the self as a tekne: “There is no natural realm subsisting in contradistinction to the domain of technological artifice because matter—whether organic or inorganic—already possesses an intrinsic propensity to self-organization.”  All matter forms into systems to manage the influx of all that is, even as it must respond to new elements and events. The creatures in Decohering Delineation are not unusual in their formational response to data and code but more explicit renditions of what we all experience. More importantly, it’s not about them. They are floating in a sea of data, their edges guiding us outward and into the background depths.
Across Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems, the artists play with networked forms and challenge many established protocols. They subvert our ability to hold onto set designations of landscape, be they idealised natural realms, sublime cultural constructs, economised enclosures, or technological fabrications. We must consider our interconnectedness beyond the notion of a carbon footprint, a measurement developed by fossil fuel giant BP to retain exhaustive practices and shift responsibility onto individuals. The sciences and technologies that have contributed to our current condition do so because they are developed within a usurous economic framework. That logic limits the tekne and oikos of our lives. These artists present a tekne and an oikos for a life with a different kind of liveliness. Ecology used to be known as the economy of nature because it was how lifeforms organise their desires. What do we desire?
In March 1972, only six months before the publication of Limits to Growth that has formed so much of my thinking, Ellen Kirvin Dudis published “Lily Morning” in Poetry magazine. The opening lines: “I woke. I was a pond lily.” A friendlier transfiguration than Kafka’s, to think oneself something other than human is a marvellous and imaginative act. We do it as children. We do it around Carnival. In so doing, we broaden and challenge our thinking. We open new horizons.
There, perhaps around the corner, just beyond the grove at the end of the serpentine path, at the edge of the frame we are stepping out of, there is a world growing. It’s no longer a secret garden, a blackbox locked enclosure, but one for all to relish. The lily, the frog, the fish, the leaf, the breeze, the particles shimmering in the light, the waves lapping at the shore, the summertime swimmer, entangled together, as we always have been.
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