Monday, 20 July 2015

Anthropocene Desiderata

35 years after Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 the world population has doubled to 7 billion people. The combined effect of population growth and industrial processes on our planet is now so great that it has been proposed that our age should be regarded as a new geological epoch - the Anthropocene. Changes to the atmosphere and the effects of mining, manufacturing and agriculture are affecting Earth systems and increasing rates of extinction to levels that will be as visible in geological strata as the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) boundary that marks the end of the age of the dinosaurs. Even if the putative need for continual economic growth can be sustained by renewable energy sources and/or the long-awaited realisation of thermonuclear electricity generation, the journey to a world population of 16 billion by the end of this Century will cause us to question attempts to preserve even small areas of nature in an unaltered state. New forms of art are required to help us to think about what is natural, essential, desirable or beautiful.

Landscape art used to be the genre through which nature was contemplated, but it is now so unfashionable it no longer appears in the index of most books about contemporary art. The painting of views of nature emerged from the domination of history painting in the 16th Century to become the most fashionable form of painting in the 19th Century. From being a background setting for biblical scenes, nature became the subject of pictures. A landscape picture is a kind of virtual garden combining elements such as trees, rivers and hills into a pictorial whole. In everyday life relatively peripheral elements such as these can be ‘bracketed’ by our consciousness so as not to distract us from our constructed sensation of living in a plastic ‘now’.

Our sense of the present is constantly modified by events flowing with time. The attraction of pictures is that they offer a frozen ‘now’ in which associations, emotions and memories can be experienced in relation to a scene which is comprehensible but outside time. With contemplation and reverie the viewer of a picture can vicariously experience a place in which the passage of time is halted. Through the materiality of a landscape picture we can imagine our life in relation to nature depicted as being almost a substance.
Wooded Landscape with Figures 
Walking by a Sandy Bank
by Jan Wijnants.
Manchester City Art Galleries

Idealised nature can be contained within a picture, as a paradise garden or a hortus conclusus contained real plants. What we mean by the word ‘nature’ has become something of a lost question. The word 'nature' was originally derived from the Latin word nasci (to be born). This original definition suggests that the natural world is filled with life that is tended and cared for. The concept of the walled garden implies that nature is only fully realised through the act of cultivation.The creation of art is like cultivation. It was through 17th Century Dutch painting that landscape art found an expression that was both popular and commercially viable for artists.

Although the wealth of the Dutch merchants who bought landscape paintings was derived from international trade, the culture of that country has been shaped by the need to ‘reclaim’ their land from water. What would otherwise be a nation of marshes became an agriculturally productive land due to a concerted effort to exclude water. This opposition between cultivated nature and ‘other’ is like opposition between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. The opposite of cultivation is often though to be wilderness or even void. Language has associated ‘nature’ with forms we believe to be beautiful or purposeful aspects of the naturally occurring world. It could be argued that its definition has evolved as much through landscape art as language.

Landscape art embraced fashions ranging from the beguiling quaintness of the ‘picturesque’ to an appreciation of the menace and looming magnitude essential to the ‘sublime’ but landscape art does not easily show the invisible workings of nature. William Dyce’s painting Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 (1858-1860) was made when the divergence of art and science was accelerating. The coastal scene depicts a family group on the seashore, collecting shells and fossils while Donati's Comet is visible in the sky. It was painted as Charles Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species’ become famous. Dyce’s painting hints at the cultural change that occurred when natural philosophy evolved into science, but can only suggest a sense of unease caused by the emerging scientific view of nature and the resulting controversies that continue to this day.

In the 20th Century, landscape pictures slowly disappeared from modern art at the
CAMM. F.J. Marvels of Modern Science.
London: George Newnes Ltd.1935
same time as ‘wild’ nature became less evident in the actual landscape. Mechanisation changed the landscape of agriculture by amalgamating fields thereby reducing the number hedgerows and trees. Light pollution from electric lamps erased stars from the night sky. Artists converged on cosmopolitan cities and the practice of art concentrated on formal aspects of painting or the subjective experience of individuals. After a brief dalliance between impressionism and the science of colour, the study of nature disappeared into the laboratory as physicists investigated existence at the level of the atom. 
 Although landscape art remains popular, especially with those who paint for recreation, the context in which nature is understood has changed. Technology extended a comfortable insulation from nature, which was once the preserve of the privileged and wealthy, to the wider population of consumers who live in the ‘developed world’. While the rest of the world now expects to attain the same levels of health and comfort, technology has produced unexpected effects. Environmental damage is often invisible, such as: the threat to birds from dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), the damage to the ozone layer caused by chlorinated fluorocarbons (CFCs) and the exaggerated retention of heat in the atmosphere due to release of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels.

Within one generation the widespread definition of ‘untamed’ nature has gone from the ‘other’ that should be feared, to the concept of ‘Gaia’ that needs to be respected and protected. Once the return of an ice age was feared and now we are worried about uncontrolled global warming. Communities in harsh environments face difficulties made worse by climate change.

Can traditional landscape art ever be more than a nostalgic icon of nature in the 21st Century? Will it only offer a superficial view of nature? Even mass media and journalism struggle, through individual stories, to portray our changed relationship to nature as much as art fails to contain it within an isolating frame. From the single viewpoint of landscape art the global scale of the human-induced changes escapes understanding. Whereas the traditional landscape picture often depicted a scene resulting from the efforts of humans to establish cultivation within wilderness, today it might depict a wilderness that is being preserved.

Even before the current ecological crisis became evident with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) (1) the extension of our senses by technical means such as infra-red photography, radar and
Page 171 Plate 187
Structure of a Typhoon. Radar
Photograph: Official Photograph
U.S. Navy. The New Landscape
in Art and Science
the mapping of large-scale phenomena with isoline maps caused an increasing disparity between the practices of art and new visions of nature. The ability to see nature via technology has produced little change in the cadence of art. The investigation of nature by science produces images that can be like echoes returned from darkness.
Gyorgy Kepes’ book The New Landscape in Art and Science (1956) (2) contains
Page 167 Plate 179
The New Landscape in
Art and Science
many beautiful images from biology and physics, but the pictures are nearly all photographs. Pictures of organisms and crystals either pictured by x-rays on film, cameras seeing through microscopes, telescopes or a radar screen provide an impressive collection of uncanny images. On page 217 a high-speed photograph of water droplets caught in mid fall by Harold Edgerton is compared with the shape of a Greco-Roman flask.  On page 323 a relief construction by Hans Arp from 1932 is compared to a 17th Century Japanese garden design. These deliberate juxtapositions occur throughout the book and seem to suggest that there are universal principles of formation and design that underlie natural processes as well as manufactured products.

Page 262 Plate 321 Reinforced
Concrete Structure :The New
 Landscape in Art and Science
Gyorgy Kepes used the word ‘landscape’ as a metaphor for an emerging designed world which might be realised through the application of science. The implicit message behind the examples of modern architecture was that new technology should create buildings free from the restrictions of classicism and express almost biological principles of construction. The design for the Sydney Opera house was decided in the year following publication. The tone of this book is optimistic, in the style of Buckminster Fuller. By stating that mathematics describes the processes that create both natural and engineered structures, a fusion of the two seems possible.

Using science to build the future was a theme of the 1950s, both in the the capitalist West and the communist East  As a statement of cultural difference, Europe and the United States chose to express the application of modernist principles in art, as well as technology. The New York art critic Clement Greenberg championed the abstract painter Jackson Pollock. Greenberg’s aesthesis was based on a principle of purity of form which was to be attained by rejecting realism. Even the possibility of ideas from outside art was excluded, especially literary ideas such as truth, beauty and virtue.  Abstract art was to be restricted to formal elements of painting, flatness and paint itself.

Modernism was a form of investigation, comparable to the work of scientists who were defining nature in terms of four fundamental forces; gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. Greenberg’s assessment of art sought to define painting as the exploration of the properties height, width, brightness and colour. Perhaps it is a coincidence that some of Jackson Pollock’s paintings resemble images of sub-atomic particles photographed in bubble-chambers operated at that time. The difference between the two methods is that the images of the tracks of particles revealed in the physics experiments are not intrinsically abstract but the mathematics needed to understand them is.

An example of the type of interaction being studied by Experiment 234 in the Fermilab 15-Foot Bubble Chamber

Gyorgy Kepes was within the canon of writers and philosophers identified by Susan Sontag in her essay One Culture and the New Sensibility (1965) (3) Susan Sontag predicted that emerging technologies would lead to new creative possibilities operating in an area between science and art. Within a few generations the transformative power of technology had eclipsed the traditional circumstances of landscape art. Wealth came from underground, in the form of oil, instead of agriculture. The landscape was increasingly seen from above. The view from the Eiffel Tower had influenced some painters even before the proliferation of aerial photography after the Second World War. Television apparently brought distant places closer. The landscape was traversed by telephone lines and overhead networks of electricity distribution.

With some naivety Susan Sontag’s essay praises “the clean automated technology” that she claimed would help to end the intellectual antagonism between 19th Century “smoky” industrial processes and “literary men” such as Emerson, Thoreau and Ruskin. Her theory led her to predict a new non-literary culture created by “certain painters, sculptors, architects, social planners, film makers, TV technicians, neurologists, musicians, electronics engineers, dancers, philosophers, and sociologists.”
Landscape art was not one of Susan Sontag’s interests. In her opinion nature became “a vessel of spiritual and aesthetic values” only in opposition to the dehumanising industrialisation of the 19th Century. Her essay anticipated that new cultural forms would emerge from what she saw as an ending to the artificial 200 year separation between science and art. Vehemently rejecting C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ thesis,(4) she argued that there is a false division between the concepts of “unintelligible, morally neutral science and technology” and the “morally committed, human-scale art”. Claiming that art - “is never simply (or even mainly) a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments. It is, first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition, however slightly, of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments” - Susan Sontag argued that the essential functions of art and science overlap. She expected that avant-garde culture would increasingly occupy a new middle ground.

In the following years a few interesting but now largely forgotten creations fulfilled that speculation. As predicted by Susan Sontag, it was a designer who suggested to the artist Edward Ihnatowicz that he should build the first environment-sensitive sculpture Sound Activated Mobile (SAM). The piece was exhibited at the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in 1968. SAM comprised an array of four microphones attached to the front of sound-reflecting dishes, combined into a flower-like structure, on top of an electro-hydraulically operated ‘spine’ which moved the structure to face the source of sounds. By 1971 this project had Senster. With the help of engineers from the Mullard and the Philips electronics companies, Edward Ihnatowicz created a kind of early electronicl robot. Unlike the mechanical automata created as toys since Hellenistic times, the Senster was capable of self-determined movements enabled by a computer programme. Senster responded to sounds and movement made by gallery visitors. The system detected sound with microphones and movement with short-range radar built into its ‘head’.
developed into a computer-controlled mechanical giraffe-like moving sculpture called the

Although its legs were firmly anchored to the stage on which it was presented, the elongated neck and head moved around a volume of 30 cubic metres. After a two years of development the device was installed at the Evoluon, the permanent science and technology exhibition run by Philips in Eindhoven. The creature-like device measured 2.5 metres high and four metres long. There was no attempt to cover the welded steel tubing skeleton or to hide the Philips P 9201 computer that controlled Senster.    

It seems appropriate to refer to Senster as a device as much as a motorised sculpture. The project was located very much in the centre of the ‘new sensibility’ field predicted by Susan Sontag. The project featured both in the book Science and Technology in Art Today (1972) (5) and the BBC book Tomorrow's World -second Volume (1971) (6) based on the popular science and technology TV programme of the same name. The installation of Senster at Evoluon followed an established tradition of celebrating technology in special exhibitions. From the Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations (1851) in London to the New York World’s Fair (1939) the future development of society was imagined as an industrial design process. The 1851 exhibition was housed in the Crystal Palace which was so large it contained mature trees under it glass roofs. The 1939 New York World’s Fair featured the General Motors sponsored Futurama. The diorama depicted an imaginary landscape of 1960 in which mountains, rivers and lakes were straddled by a network of expressways for motor vehicles.

Exhibitions such as these relocated the idea of limitless power from nature to technology. In his book American Technological Sublime (1994) (7) Richard E. Nye described the rise of technology as a rival not only to the actual power of nature but also its capacity
to create sensations of grandeur and awe within the witnessing individual and society. 

This feeling was already entering culture when J.M.W. Turner produced his painting Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844). The viewer is invited to empathise as much with the tiny image of a rabbit fleeing from the approaching steam locomotive as with the ingenuity of the railway. The technological sublime became established in public awareness during a 25 year period between the detonation of the first atomic bomb on the 16th July 1945 and the launch of Apollo 11 on the 16th July 1969. Seven years after the end of the Second World War H-bombs 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were being tested. There seemed to be a certain inevitability to the development of these weapons resembling the planning for climate change today.

Within nine years of the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, nuclear power reactors were being built. If we doubt that the quality of overpowering strength, attributed to nature by Edmund Burke in 1756 (8) , now resides with technology we only have to consider that after the devastation of parts of Japan by the 2011 tsunami, it is the radiation from the resulting damage at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that is most often remembered.      

Susan Sontag’s eclectic list of people she imagined would create the new fusion of science and art could be characterised as a benign patriarchal intellectuals. Writing just before the escalation of the Vietnam War her essay presents a reassuring vision of a liberal technocracy that would not just build a better mousetrap but also design new systems for living. Outside of the rarefied atmosphere of happenings and installation art, it was architecture through which modernism was most widely felt. Brutalist architecture was an international style of building that displays an interest in geometry that can be traced back to ideas of Platonic shapes studied in ancient Greece. Le Corbusier’s often quoted dictum that “a house is a machine for living in” influenced the new era.

Although many new housing projects were born out of the genuine desire to create high quality housing, the radical style of this architecture was eventualy perceived to be alienating and associated with unapproachable public authorities. To explore the potential of Computer-Aided Urban Design to improve the work of architects, Nicholas Negroponte with the Machine Architecture Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) built a device that was to examine the ability of computers to interact with the unpredictability of behaviour. 
                                             The experiment was called SEEK and consisted of a
computer controlled miniature gantry crane which was programmed to find and stack a collection of small wooden blocks in an open-topped 5 by 8 foot tray with transparent sides. To simulate computer/human interactions the tray was populated by gerbils that constantly disrupted the arrangements of the blocks. The project was exhibited the Software exhibition (1970), curated by Jack Burnham for the Jewish Museum in New York. Although the Machine Architecture Group was funded by a mixture of defence and industrial funding, SEEK became a de-facto art installation in which the gerbils came to represent people trapped in a technologically determined environment over which they had little or no control.

By describing the project as an experiment in which the computer programme was the
test subject, and not the gerbils, the development team was able to get funding from the Ford foundation and Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA- inventors of the internet). As well as fulfilling Susan Sontag’s prediction of a new combined art and science field, SAMSenster and SEEK presented a new aspect of the technological sublime. Whereas technology challenged the physical power of nature before the 1950s, after, information technology appeared to have the ability to imitate its capacity for behaviour.

The SAMSenster and SEEK creations re-imagined our relationship to nature. Although traditional landscape art made an emotional connection to nature, depicting it almost as a material substance in which we are immersed, it failed to account for its invisible underlying forces. Throughout the 20th Century technological innovations, both destructive and productive, challenged culture to acknowledge the aspects of nature revealed by science but ignored by art. Even today it is quite common for poetic writing or visual art to refer (often without irony) to the mythical elements of earth, water, air and fire.. It is as if, from the viewpoint of artists, Ancient Greek philosophy is still current.

20th Century science fiction tended to infiltrate new knowledge of nature into culture. Probably because of the association between science fiction and 1930s ‘pulp’ magazines and staggeringly inept 1950s ‘B-picture’ films, this genre of writing is not included in the canon of literature. Outside the science fiction ghetto, literature does not usually produce narratives arising from an imagined alteration to the material functioning of nature. One of the most outstanding exceptions to the inadequacies of science fiction was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey filmed from 1965 to 1968.
Written in collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, the film seems to be influenced by the philosophical ideas of the Russian rocket scientist and pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935).. Stanley Kubrick had the audacity to create a kind of new ‘Greek myth’ in which the narrative spans millions of years to depict humans transcending earthly constraints. The new space-based destiny revealed in the final scene is reminiscent of the panpsychism contemplated by Tsiolkovsky and his followers. (9) The penultimate ‘star gate’ scene uses slit-scan filming to depict a transition to a new state of existence. As this utopian idea has no physical actuality that can be photographed, the slit-scan filming was used to create an abstracted visual equivalence to an imaginary formless state beyond previously experienced nature.

Kubrick's eagerness to experiment with the fundamental qualities of film echoes the playful innovations with signal manipulation created by George Martin and the Beatles during the recording of their album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). While the dematerialisation of nature was a feature of impressionist and cubist painting, it was a feature of the 1960s that a film director and a record producer could contemplate the manipulation of film and tape-recordings, media usually regarded as owing allegiance to ‘concrete reality’.                   

Masolino, The Foundation of
Santa Maria Maggiore. 
Capodimonte Museum, Naples.
Renaissance painters had already used amorphous clouds as a pictorial device to enable Earthbound people and celestial divine events to be depicted within the same frame.(10) By the time John Constable was producing his cloud studies science was dispelling their formlessness by classifying them into types. The appreciation of form became more eclectic in the 20th Century. The elegant tracery of trees and the sculptured form of mountains was joined by a mapping of the apple-shaped form of the Earth’s magnetic field and photographs of the curtains of light created by auroras. The ‘floating castle’ architecture of battleships gave way to the sleek shapes of airships and submarines. The First World War trenches were attacked with clouds of poison gas, softer than rain but as deadly as shrapnel. Aeroplanes, cars and trains became progressively more streamlined. Motorway created the need for clover-leaf junctions.

Landscaped gardens that had become progressively softer since the geometry of the 17th Century formal geometrical designs were superseded by the English landscape park in the 18th Century. The expansive rolling landscapes loved by aristocrats had their equivalence in the 20th Century. As wealth creation moved from agriculture to industrial manufacturing the expanded middle classes took to the golf course.

By the mid-1960s there was a move by some artists in the USA - via soft sculpture and process art (anti-form sculptures using flowing or slumped material) towards what became known as ‘Land Art'. These large constructions were created in remote areas of the U.S. The sites were chosen partly because of the need to purchase cheap land but also because Land Art sought a kind of tabula rasa to establish a distance, both geographically and aesthetically, from gallery-based art. Ostensibly, Land Art should be visited to experience the intention of their artists. Inevitably, the constructions project themselves to a wider public via photography, film and video. While publicising the existence of Land Art, media representations of it also serve to emphasise its unique geographical isolation.

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) was made by placing 6,650 tons of rock in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. The resulting 4.6 metre wide causeway is 460 metres long and leads away from the bank and spirals in on itself for two and a quarter turns. The piece seems to mock the utility of the industrial work that has left derelict sites nearby. Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977) is a construction of 400 stainless steel poles set vertically and 22 feet apart in a grid one mile by one kilometre. The piece suggests a kind of pseudo-scientific experiment designed to attract lightning to the ground, although there is only one                                                                                          photographed instance of this.

Land Art creations often share visual similarities with scientific or military installations. The Lightning Field resembles a phased-array radio telescope, the type used to discover pulsars. One of Robert Smithson’s early pieces was PartiallyBuried Shed (1972) made at Kent State University,Ohio. The wooden shed and piled-up soil resembled some of the structures built to observe the detonation of the first atomic bomb in
   Left: Preparations for recording the detonation
  of  the first 'atomic' bomb at the Trinity test site in 
  New Mexico,  United States.
  Right: Partially Buried Shed at Kent Sate 
  University Ohio.(1972) 
1945. Conversely, military or scientific projects sometimes have the appearance of land art. Concrete sound-mirrors built to detect aircraft in the pre-radar era of the 1920’s could be mistaken for land art projects if presented out of context. Radio aerials constructed from concentric cylinders of wire mesh for communication with submarines also resemble a kind of Land Art creation.

A Wullenweber Circularly Disposed Antenna Array (CDAA)
Both Land Art and these homologous structures could be considered as ‘heterotopias’ – a term coined by Michael Foucault to describe sites that only achieve significance in relation to places or processes far away.                               Foucault’s theory of heterotopias describes different categories of such spaces. The military installations could belong to his category of ‘heterotopias of crisis or deviation’ because of their implied threat from a distance. Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field also implicitly refers to the danger of a lightning strike. Another category of Foucault’s heterotopias links distant places. The Field Of Mars in ancient Rome was used as a ceremonial space dedicated to the Roman god of war. The idea that planets and their ‘celestial spheres’ acted intimately on human affairs was a common belief. In the 1960s, connecting the celestial with the Earth was literally accomplished at Cinder Lake in Arizona where explosives were used to create an exact replica of a cratered area on the Moon. The site was used for training Apollo astronauts and testing equipment. Land Art projects that explore the theme of distance include naked-eye observatories such as Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt, Roden Crater by James Turrell and Star Axis by Charles Ross, which follow a tradition exemplified by the18th Century Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur, India. 

Another category of heterotopias identified by Foucault signifies different times. Most Land Art sites allude to entropy and the passage of time. Spiral Jetty was submerged by rising water levels for several years only to emerge covered in crystals. A condition of visiting Lightning Field is that viewers are required to live next to the work for 24 hours in a log cabin next to the installation. Whereas traditional landscape pictures offer an image of nature frozen in time, Land Art places the viewer within the landscape and are so large that time must be spent traversing them.                   

Another non-art heterotopia that suggests distance and time is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which contains a stock of frozen seeds.  Located on the arctic island of Spitsbergen, the underground facility is intended to ensure the continuation of agriculture in the event of a global catastrophe. Storing seeds for every type of food crop grown, the entire agricultural world is represented in its deep-frozen tunnels. The facility connotes the 12,000 year history of agriculture and time extending into the distant future. The facility has a symbolic power that exceeds that of many conceptual art creations.
The entrance to the  Svalbard
Global Seed Vault

Whereas the Svalbard facility contains the dormant genes of future plants from around the planet, the Eden Project in Cornwall UK uses botanical greenhouses in the form of geodesic domes, or biomes, to emulate the different climatic conditions of the world. Unlike the glass greenhouses of Victorian botanical gardens which were build in the form of regular polyhedral shapes, the Eden Project has biomorphic bubble-shaped domes made from high-tech plastic. As well as being a heterotopia for the planet, the site is in a former clay pit that was previously devoid of plant life. Like many ‘late period’ Land Art projects, the Eden Project has a remedial aspect that is as symbolic as practical.
A more radical precursor to the Eden project was the Biosphere 2 hermetically sealed analogue of the biosphere. Built from 1987 to 1994 the project was designed to test the possibility of emulating the entire ecosystem of the earth to such a degree that eight people could live in it for two years without air, water or food from outside. The facility was built with different biomes that housed ecosystems emulating: rainforest, ocean, coral reef, mangrove swamp, savannah and an agricultural zone to provide food, water and air for the ‘biospherian’ inhabitants. Crucially, the inability of the designers to adequately predict the interaction between the atmosphere and the sealed ecosystem caused oxygen levels to fall.

Biosphere 2 has since been modified for use as a research centre in which scientist come and go on a daily basis. (11) Because the biomes can be isolated from the outside atmosphere the centre is used for Earth systems research, such as investigating the effect of climate change on specific species of plants. Facilities such as these may be used in the future to test the feasibility of genetically engineering plants to increase their photosynthetic process by 25%, with a corresponding increase in CO2 uptake from the atmosphere. Initially food crops might be altered but there are proposals to re-engineer what remains of ‘nature’ so as to deal with the results of climate change.(12)

Attempting to create a ‘nature 2.0’ (13) would be as controversial as other geo-engineering plans such as altering the albedo of the atmosphere with aerosol particles or sequestering CO2 underground. If such projects were realised we (or someone )would have our hand on the world thermostat as we could release the gas or switch off the aerosol pumping if an ice-age threatened. Even without such drastic measures, humanity is already flying the planet without a chart to guide us. The failure of the original Biosphere 2 project suggests that re-engineering what is left of the natural world would be an impossibly ambitious and dangerous process. However, evolutionary computation has the potential to create algorithms that are useable, but so complex as to be beyond human understanding. In the future this power might be used to try to re-order the biosphere to function in a stable way within the conditions created by humans.

This scale of geo-engineering would be the antithesis of the sustainability movement that seeks to modify economic activity to fit in with natural systems. The ‘hard engineering’ that tried to stop river flooding with concrete levees and stop coastal erosion with sea-walls can be replaced with natural water interception and salt marshes. Renewable energy systems; photovoltaic electricity, wind-power and tidal generators are an alternative to fossil fuels.

The idea that human influence over Earth systems is now so great that we are living in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, is gaining acceptance. Some geologists are sceptical, they depend on their system of classification of eras and epochs as physicists need their periodic table. As there are artificial elements in the periodic table we also live in an epoch of altered Earth systems. Even if computers are not used to re-engineer eco-systems they can be used to help us imagine the Anthropocene. The narrated computer animation Welcome to the Anthropocene (2012) (14) by Owen Gaffney and FĂ©lix Pharand-DeschĂȘnes used climate data and composite satellite images rendered onto a virtual globe. Such data visualisations are digital heterotopias, the most auspicious realisation of Susan Sontag’s ‘new sensibility’ prediction.

Science can provide facts about the Anthropocene but we need new art to help us contemplate its meaning. Data visualisations are important but they will not replace art. We need a new equivalent to landscape art that will help us to consider the distinction between nature and artifice. In the Anthropocene the ‘walled garden’ is now greater than the wilderness that used to surround it. The ‘lost question’ of what is natural needs to be re-discovered. Whether we are inside nature looking out or on the outside looking in, the images of this future art will be the Anthropocene desiderata.

The Arizona Connection.

Due to an optical illusion Giovanni Schiaparelli 
misidentified marks on the surface of Mars as connected
lines in 1877. Compounding this error, his Italian word 
‘caneli’ was  translated into English as ‘canals’ instead of 
the less evocative word 'channel'.As well as observing Mars 
in great detail from the Flagstaff Observatory, his other
achievement was the discovery of  asteroid 793 Arizona
in 1907.
Arizona, as well as being the American state in which, Roden Crater, Biosphere 2, the former NASA training site at Cinder Lake and the setting for the stereoscopic anaglyph film It Came from Outer Space (1953) can be found, is also home to the Flagstaff Observatory. After establishing the observatory in 1894 Percival Lowell wrote two books, Mars (1895) (14) and Mars and its Canals (1906) which had a lasting impact on astronomical science. The thesis of both books was predicated on the supposition that canals are visible on Mars, and that they were build by a civilisation of intelligent beings to save their planet from encroaching desertification. This idea is now known to be untrue, and based entirely on the mis-seeing of unrelated marks on the surface of the planet as connected lines. Lowell’s belief was so influential that it is possible that although some astronomers may have managed to glimpse craters on Mars (without photographing them) decades before they were seen by the Mariner 4 spacecraft, they were reluctant to publish their findings as they feared that they might not be believed. The paradigm shift, from imagining Mars as an abode of life to understanding that it is more similar to our Moon than the Earth, was so gradual that even as the Mariner 4 spacecraft cruised towards the planet in 1965 it was predicted that areas of vegetation would be photographed.

Percival Lowell was a businessman and scientist born in 1855. His generation grew up with the expectation that the power of engineering would only ever increase. The invention of large-scale steel production enabled continent-wide railway networks to be built. Percival Lowell’s books mark the period in which global-scale engineering was first imagined. The possibility of producing planet-wide engineering projects occurred to Lowell as the Suez and Panama canals were being built or planned. Industrialisation caused some artists to move their attention from nature as the application of science in the technologies of building, energy and communication became central to international culture. The futurist painters particularly identified their revolutionary zeal with new technology.

Cross-section at Richmond, V.A. Three lines cross
Chesapeake and Ohio,  Seaboard Air-line and the
                                                      Southern Railroad
Science fiction, radio, film and architecture celebrated technology through stories and the essence of their form. Radio, film and modern architecture owe their existence to the application of science. Wall plaques depicting the trades that made the Empire State Building are placed around the entrance lobby of that iconic building. Whereas 18th century industries relied on sites of water power clustered around fall lines and processed agricultural products restricted to climatic areas, the makers of the 20th century were served by networks of transport and power. The Empire State building lobby images look as if they could easily belong to a Soviet building of the same era in the U.S.S.R.  
The Empire State Building, Lobby.

Percival Lowell imagined that Mars was experiencing a process of environmental decline that was natural, but today’s speculation about geo-engineering the Earth is a response to the challenge of climate change. Means of changing the amount of sunlight reaching Earth, aerosol particles created and pumped into the upper atmosphere, space mirrors, are unlikely to be attempted. The more straightforward concepts of sequestering carbon dioxide underground after capturing it from power plant flue gasses or even extracting the gas from the atmosphere seem less extreme by comparison. All of these schemes would involve the use of extra energy that would contribute to global warming if derived from fossil fuels. The only energy sources free from CO2 emissions are the renewable ones; wind, tide and solar and the ‘atomic’ options of nuclear fission and the as yet unachieved thermonuclear fusion. After 60 years of nuclear fission power the I.T.E.R. experimental fusion reactor in France is not expected to produce any power until 2050. Industrialisation may have invented the idea of the future being different from the past but science helped to define uncertainty..

By far the greatest unknown for the future is synthetic biology. Whereas the laser beam and nuclear energy were predicted by mathematics, the possibilities and consequences of engineering biology are incalculable within the context of the biosphere as a whole. Genetically engineered crops are already in use and micro organisms have been changed to produce diesel oil, short-circuiting the fossilisation process by millions of years. The possibilities of this are tremendous. As well as increasing the production of food it might be possible to increase the efficiency of the photosynthetic process by up to 25%. If the genes that caused this effect were to be introduced to uncultivated plant this could also have the effect of removing much of the CO2 emissions added to the atmosphere.

The idea of reconstructing ecosystems damaged by climate change could be extended to change the whole of the biosphere. Human influence already affects the evolution of species without our intention. It is no longer just a question of reducing biodiversity; the species that survive in the Anthropocene will be genetically changed by the environment we have created.  In the age of the technological sublime we already behave as if our industrial and agricultural industries were a given process as inevitable as nature. Laurens van der Post once suggested that the continued existence of wilderness is necessary for the psychological well-being of humanity. If the Anthropocene removes the psychological expansion chamber into which we once escaped the pressure of our techno-civilisation, art will have to work harder.                                                 .

Gyorgi Kepes - The distinction between images of purely artificial systems such as the left image of oscillations within electronic circuits, made visible by an oscilloscope and the centre photograph of destructive shock-wave in a sheet of glass ( A natural process within an artificial substance.) The right image shows an x-ray diffraction photograph of DNA - an artificial abstracted image of a natural molecule. The X shape is caused by x-rays diffracted by the helical shape of DNA, recorded on a photographic emulsion.The New Landscape in Art and Science. 1956. 

(1) London: Penguin in association with Hamish Hamilton,
(2) Chicago : Paul Theobald
(3) SONTAG, S. Against Interpretation. New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966, Chapter 5: Section 5.
(4) SNOW, C.P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution: 1961: New York: Cambridge University Press.
(5)  BENTHAM, J. London: Thames and Hudson. Pages 78-83.  
(6) BAXTER,R. and BURKE, J. London: B.B.C. Page 201.
(7) Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press  
(8)  Burke, Edmund. A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful,
(9) TSIOLKOVSKY, K. The Will of the Universe. The Unknown Intelligence, 1928
(10)  DAMISH, H. A Theory of/cloud/:Toward a History of Painting. Stanford : Stanford      University Press, 2002, Plates 2-5.
(11) New Scientist 27th July 2013 Pages 41- 45
(12) New Scientist: 5th July 2008: Pages 32- 35   
(13) Welcome to the Anthropocene.