Friday, 18 September 2015

Utopias - 1

If Land Art marks an end to the history of landscape art, it seems fitting that many of the constructions that characterise that 'ultimate' form are in desert locations (the antithesis of pastoralism) such as Arizona in the United States.
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, Arizona is also home to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. After establishing the observatory in 1894, Percival Lowell wrote two books, Mars (1895) and Mars and its Canals (1906) which had an effect on popular culture and science.

The thesis of both books was predicated on the idea that a system of irrigation canals exists on Mars, and that they were build by a civilisation of intelligent beings to save their world 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 books fired the imagination of H.G.Wells (1) and many others. The idea became so popular that the shift to the realisation that Mars 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. (2)

Born in 1855, Lowell’s generation grew up with the expectation that the power of engineering would only ever increase. The possibility of planet-wide engineering  occurred to Lowell as the Panama and Suez canals were impressing the world with their ambition and scale. The futurist painters identified their revolutionary zeal with the power of technology as the application of science in the technologies of building, energy, transport and communication became central to international culture. 20th century science fiction, radio, film and architecture celebrated technology. These forms and media owe their essence to the application of science.

Commerative plaques depicting the industries used in the construction of the Empire State Building (electricity, heating etc) are placed in the entrance lobby of that iconic building. Whereas 18th century industries relied on water power at sites around fall lines and processed agricultural products restricted to climatic areas, the zeitgeist of the 20th century was created by networks of transport, transmission and remotely generated power. The Empire State building lobby plaques look as if they could easily belong to a Soviet building of the same era in the U.S.S.R.

Percival Lowell imagined that Mars was experiencing a process of environmental decline that was natural, but today’s speculation about geoengineering is a response to anthropogenic climate change. Means of reflecting sunlight back into space, such as aerosol particles created and pumped into the upper atmosphere (3) or space mirrors in orbit, are unlikely to be attempted. The more straightforward concepts of sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) underground after capturing it from electricity-generating power station flue gasses or even extracting CO2 from the atmosphere seem less extreme by comparison. Energy sources free from CO2 emissions are the renewable ones; wind, tide, geothermal and solar or the ‘atomic’ options of nuclear fission and the as yet unachieved thermonuclear power. Even if global warming is reduced or even averted the transformation of the Earth by civil engineering, agriculture, fishing and mineral extraction will diminish wilderness.

The most unpredictable technology for the future is synthetic biology. Whereas the laser and nuclear energy were predicted mathematically, the possibilities and consequences of engineering life are presently incalculable within the context of the biosphere as a whole. Industrialisation may have invented the idea of the future being different from the past, but science predicts future uncertainties. Genetically engineered crops are already in use and a micro-organism has been changed to produce diesel oil, short-circuiting the fossilisation process by millions of years. The possibilities of
synthetic biology 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 altered genes that enabled this effect were to be introduced to uncultivated plants this might remove much of the CO2 emissions added to the atmosphere. The idea of reconstructing ecosystems damaged by climate change, through planting of species pre-adapted to altered conditions, could be extended with synthetic biology.

Human influence already affects the evolution of species without our intention. It is no longer just a question of accidentally reducing biodiversity. The species that survive in the Anthropocene will be genetically changed by the environment that we have created. In the age of the 'technological sublime' we already behave as if our industrial and agricultural processes are a given factor as inevitable as nature. The idea of bio-engineering our way out of problems we have created is controversial but conceivable. However, 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.

If Land Art was the final chapter in the story of landscape art, then the ability of contemporary art to reflect important aspects of our future relationship to nature comes into question. The flow of landscape art through history appears to have ended in an aesthetic delta of stylistic distributaries in the 1930s.

Firstly, realistic views of landscapes fell out of favour with intellectuals but retained the loyalty of both fascist and communist ideologies for which landscape art was an arena for heroic figures representing the 'manifest destiny' of a nation. Secondly, some artists tried to include Surrealism in landscape pictures, not always convincingly. Thirdly, democracies in the 1930s were attracted towards the styles of folk, naïve or 'primative' art. Fourthly, photography offered the possibility of elegiac images of nature based on an aesthetic of the clarity of 'mechanical seeing' versus the subjective vision of impressionism and abstraction.

Percival Lowell’s books were published when the subjugation of nature and the 'technological sublime' were first imagined by science fiction. Art has only recently explored the Anthropocene, synthetic biology (4) and what Gaston Bachelard called (in a different context) ‘intimate immensity’- an idea redolent of the present situation. New art that admits knowledge of nature from science, without merely illustrating it, should evolve. It might feel like Percival Lowell’s description of working at Flagstaff:

“To sally forth into the untrod wilderness in the cold and dark of a winter’s small hours of the morning, with the snow feet deep upon the ground and the frosty stars for mute companionship, is almost to forget one’s self a man for the solemn awe of one’s surroundings. Fitting portal to communion with another world, it is through such avenue that one enters on his quest where the common and the familiar no longer jostle the unknown and the strange. Nor is the stillness of the stars invaded when some long unearthly howl, like the wail of a lost soul, breaks the slumber of the mesa forest, marking the prowling prescience of a stray coyote. Gone as it came, it dies in the distance on the air that gave it birth; the gloom of the pines swallows up one’s vain peering after something palpable, their tops alone decipherable in dark silhouette against the sky. From amid surroundings that for their height and their intenancy fringe the absolute silence of space the observer must set forth who purposes to cross it to another planetary world.”  

Percival Lowell – 1906.

In the Anthropocene the Earth is like another world.  Whereas Lowell projected his
imagination beyond the limits of vision, the art of the Anthropocene should help us imagine what science will reveal to our sight.

(1) Wells, H.G. : The War of the Worlds - William Heinemann. 1898

(2) New Scientist - No 419: 26th November 1964 Page 572
    also New Scientist - No 406: 27th August 1964 Page 489

(3) Philosophical Transactions A - 13th September 2012 Volume: 370 Issue: 1974

(4) Synthetic Aesthetics: investigating synthetic biology's designs on nature: 
MIT press 2014

   "If we could analyze impressions and images of immensity, or what immensity contributes to an image, we would soon enter into a region of the purest sort of phenomenology - a phenomenology without phenomena; or, stated less paradoxically, one that, in order to know the productive flow of images, need not wait for the phenomena of the imagination to take form and become stabilized in complete images. In other words, since immense is not an object, a phenomenology of immense would refer us directly to our own imagining consciousness. In analyzing images of immensity, we should realize within ourselves the pure being of pure imagination. It then becomes clear that works of art are the by-products of this existentialism of the imagining being. In this direction of daydreams of immensity, the real product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being."

          Gaston Bachelard - Intimate Immensity - The Poetics of Space. (1958)

Anthropocene Desiderata