From: Bruce Sterling <>
Subject: Viridian Note 00035 : Viridian Aesthetics: Landscape Transformation
To: Viridian List <>

Key concepts: cybernetics, nature, altered landscapes, cartography, bio-art

Attention Conservation Notice: Art criticism. Highly speculative. Poses many large and gaseous questions without taking the trouble to answer any of them. Is over 1,000 words long.


Entries in the Viridian "Fungal Typography" Contest:

Bruce Sterling remarks:

Andy Goldsworthy is an artist well worth our attention. How might his approach be furthered and extended in the century to come?

It might be argued that there is not much room for development there. After all, Goldsworthy has been working for two decades now. He obviously has firm ideas about what he is doing, but he seems to lack disciples. Does the world require more than one artist who wants to place wet flower petals on rocks? Would it even be possible to make dozens of art careers out of coloring tide pools green, or pinning fallen leaves together with thorns? Perhaps Goldsworthy is necessarily unique, a sui generis artist such as Cindy Sherman, who has a well-deserved hammerlock on dressing herself up as a movie still.

Or maybe not. Maybe the core Viridian issue here is not art photography, but the transformation of landscape. Viridians want a new and different appreciation of the biosphere and its processes and potentials; a new way to put hand to earth.

Imagine future artists having the hand-to-earth sensibility of Andy Goldsworthy, but extending it into other realms of practice.

A. Artificial life studies and digital "ecosystems." This is almost too obvious. One might note the uncanny resemblance between Goldsworthy´s leaf cornucopias and the spiral "ghost sculptures" of computer artist William Latham.

B. Gardening, park design, and plant breeding. Could you plant a landscape that would grow year by year to affect the viewer in the way that a Goldsworthy photograph does? Perhaps you´d have to genetically alter the character of the plants. If you can change plant genetics on fast- forward and at will, does this make Luther Burbank a sculptor? If "a rose is no longer a rose," then how does one properly introduce genetically transformed vegetation into a natural landscape? Just how different can a rose look and still be beautiful? Keep in mind that many landscapes we consider pastoral today are full of alien species from distant continents. In the USA this includes such "natural" icons as the mustang horse and the tumbleweed.

C. Vary the scale. How small could you make this art? Could you do it with a single plant? With a single leaf? With mold and pollen? With bacteria? With chromosomes? Could you create a legitimate "garden" on a microscopically etched silicon landscape? After all, if it´s the art photography that counts, why not art photomicrography?

D. How big could it be? Suppose you were given a giant abandoned strip mine and told to rebuild it from dead bedrock. Not as some desperate act of reclamation, but as a neo-biological art project. It could never look "natural." It has to look "something else." It also has to thrive, it has to be beautiful, it has to work. What is the "something else?" How do you judge it as artwork?

E. The traditional half-way house between city and wilderness is the farm, the park, the garden -- but Andy Goldsworthy isn´t a gardener or suburban planner, he´s a performance artist. Suppose you had never heard of agriculture, but you had unheard-of genetic and biological transformative powers. What does a bio/post/industrial landscape look like when you put the profit motive aside, and push the new medium for its own sake?

F. Goldsworthy doesn´t use unnatural objects in his nature studies. But it can be done. For instance, people frequently build offshore reef shelters by sinking dead ships and dead cars. Imagine building a Goldworthy landscape that contained (for instance) a wrecked internal combustion engine. Is there an aesthetic of ruined and abandoned technological enterprises returning to "nature"? Is there a realm of beauty where nature is thriving by devouring abandoned human creations? Not a ruin returning to jungle, not weeds thriving downwind of Chernobyl -- a place of genuine fulfillment. Of happiness. A place where this process benefits us. Where it is for our own good. Where we prefer it that way.

G. Goldworthy likes to document process and decay. Change the temporal scale. Can you accelerate this process, or retard it? How about a five or fifteen-year time lapse? What does a beautiful fifty-year process look like? How about fifty picoseconds? Is there an aesthetics of activity on a split-second scale, on a multigenerational scale? What is the rose doing that we can´t see?

H. Suppose Goldsworthy were a makeup artist. What would a human face look like? Now suppose he was a plastic surgeon.

I. Suppose he made clothes. Or houses.

J. Goldsworthy once did some striking work at the North Pole. How about underwater coral reefs? Deep-sea volvanic vent life? How about the surface of the Moon? Sealed biospheres are popular desk toys now, but why are they so modest? Why do they contain some algae and some brine shrimp sea-monkeys? There´s plenty of room for ambition here: let´s see something the size of a space station, full of blind cave life, or chemosynthetic tube worms. Or new and awesome things that we don´t permit to live outside of glass.

K,L, M, N (...). One of the most appealing aspects of Goldworthy´s work is discovering the subtle infiltration of human intelligence in his altered landscapes. There would seem to be a larger issue here: an aesthetics of cybernetization. The infiltration of machine processing into the fabric of the environment.

A host of questions arises.

What is the most elegant and attractive way to apply computational power to a physical environment? How do you properly entangle bits and atoms -- how do you properly entangle cybernetics and life? How does a 21st century garden or forest properly tell you that it has become different, that it is smart now? What are the principles involved in entangling biology and symbolic analysis?

Smart cars, smart houses, smart skyscrapers, monitored cities, weather networks, satellite surveillance, the intelligent battlespace: where is the artistic equivalent? Where is the biological equivalent? How does computation properly enter the natural world? Through monitors first, and then through augmentation? When and how does become bio-art?

What does a smart flowerpot look like? A smart garden, a smart lawn, a smart city park, a smart national wilderness, a smart continent? Is there a map anywhere that shows how computation has moved, during the last half of the twentieth century, into the textures of reality? If you´re not measuring it, you´re not managing it.

What would it take to make this invisible process of computation visible -- and attractive, and beautiful, and a thing to be desired?

Even the attempt to answer these questions would make us see a different world -- the newly revealed cartography of a truly postindustrial epoch.

Bruce Sterling (