Techno-Eco-Engineering

by Amy M. Youngs


Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind's most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
–Sigmund Jahn, astronaut.1

Seeing the earth from space causes a change in perspective that astronauts report upon and the rest of us have been able to experience in photographs. These photographs of the beautiful, delicate earth hanging there in space have made the earth into a perfect poster child for environmentalism. Now we know we have to take care of this earth. We know what it looked like thirty years ago and we can see that we have changed it's surface and atmosphere with our imperialistic technologies. Our understanding of the terrible consequences of our own technology is ironic as it is delivered to us through the probing technological tools we use to image our earth.

Our exploitation of nature goes back to our very early tools. In his article "Nature and Silence" Christopher Manes implicates the language of Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism as the tool that changed the western world from an animistic perspective to a humanistic, or anthropocentric one. He discusses how the effect of this language has been to privilege humanity over everything else in nature, therefore giving us license to commit environmental injustices. Nature cannot talk back. Or are we failing to listen properly? Perhaps humanity's hubris would be checked if we were to listen differently to the world that sustains us. Manes calls for learning "a new language free from the directionalities of humanism, a language that incorporates a decentered, postmodern, post-humanist perspective." 2 While I am in perfect agreement, I want to explore what this looks/sounds/feels like. Manes suggests, "the language of ecological humility that deep ecology, however gropingly, is attempting to express." 3 He also suggests looking back to native American cultures. Again, I agree. However, in our attempts to understand our current place in nature - to understand that we are not in the center of it - we need to do more than just go "back to nature". This is a perspectival shift that needs to be pushed on from many directions and disciplines. We have witnessed the effect that the photographs of the earth from space had on our understanding of humanity's position in the universe. Another outlook is presented by some of the work being done by contemporary artists. Specifically, artists who are using science and technology to re-present nature in ways that challenge humanity's anthropocentric viewpoint. Recently, there have been some interesting and profound ways that artists have been using technology to converse with the nonhuman world and to bring these conversations into a public realm.

Sound is an integrator. Communication goes on between all living systems as part of a community of intelligence, which is a magnitude we have yet to really understand.
–David Dunn 4

In an interview with Ear Magazine, David Dunn describes his work as a "research project concerning the interaction between language, music and environment." He uses technology to extend our limited human senses by capturing delicate environmental sounds, like tiny underwater insects. His underwater recording equipment transforms our understanding of the nonhuman world by revealing sounds we never knew existed. He also creates environmental music by backpacking his digital sound equipment into the woods to record environments, reflect the sounds back to the environment and then record the result of the environment's response. His experiments have shown that low-quality audio equipment gets very interesting responses from birds. He says, "It isn't that they're responding to the fact that it's themselves; they're responding to something that is reminiscent and yet far enough away that it has a quality of otherness." 5

The idea that technology can help us appreciate nature is very problematic, due to the fact that technology is the tool that humans have used to ravage nature. Indeed, we humans wield this tool in surprisingly reckless ways. David Dunn is aware of the contradictions involved in his use of technology to record environments that are rapidly being destroyed by technology. He believes that perhaps humankind has been so desensitized, that we now have to rely upon technology's ability to reveal nature to us - and to preserve it. He describes his frustrating experience of going into a large wildlife game park in the African wilderness to do field recording of animals at watering holes. In this seemingly pristine, non-peopled environment he was perplexed to hear the sound of a motor in his recordings. He later learns that it is one of the many kerosene-driven motors that pumps water up from underground and into the watering holes that keep the wildlife alive. Without these technological measures, Dunn learns that, "it's estimated that eighty percent of wildlife in Africa would die within about a year." 6 How do we deal with these contradictions? We cannot simply turn back the clock and undo what humans have done to alter the water sources and migration paths for these animals.

In A Cyborg Manifesto,Donna Haraway suggests that the cyborg concept could lend some new perspective to our current situation, "a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, are not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints." 7 Instead of attempting to simplify issues, by demonizing technology or by celebrating it, Haraway attempts to recombine it into an interesting chimera that seems to be the most realistic way to deal with, and perhaps treat, humanity's paradoxical relationships with nature and technology. Haraway's "cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work." 8 Haraway suggests that these shifting boundaries can be exploited to reorganize and re-energize our positions. Just as the cyborg helps us understand the blurring of traditional boundaries between technology and humans, the cyborgian concept of ecoengineering might helps us understand the strange blur in the boundary between ecology and technology. So perhaps we can begin to deal with the problematic motorized pumps in Africa that sustain the water holes (and therefore the wildlife). We can call it ecoengineering and require that it be done by people who have the best interests of the environment in mind. There is for example, Mel Chin, an artist who has been working on an ecological project since 1990 that might be considered a form of positive ecoengineering. Chin has been collaborating with scientist Rufus L. Chaney to create Revival Field, an ecological restoration of a toxic landfill in St. Paul, Minnesota. For this experimental project, they use hyperaccumulators, a group of plants that extract heavy metals from the soil. As the plants grow on the toxic site they absorb metals like zinc and cadmium, which are possible to reuse once the plants are harvested, dried and ashed. Their hope is that this technology will become self-sustaining, as the costs of cleaning up toxic sites might be able to be recovered in the recycled metal from the plants. 9

Also working amid the fuzzy distinctions of ecology/ technology/art/science is Gail Wight. She is the creator of Slime Trace: A Tale of Two Slimes, an art piece that reconsiders of the notion of "lower" life forms. She shows the similarities between the dendritic forms of slime molds and human brains and reveals the fascinating and intelligent behaviors of slime by presenting them in a book, in video footage and in an enormous petri dish. The combination of reading about them, watching them in time-lapse video and seeing the actual creatures gave me a thorough appreciation of slime molds I could not have had with any one of the mediums alone. The live slimes branched out throughout the petri dish, sliding toward each food source (pieces of oatmeal) in patterns that made it clear that they knew where the food was. When other molds invaded the environment, each of the individual pure yellow slimes residing in the giant petri dish would somehow simultaneously sprout black "fruiting bodies". 10 These are like seeds for the next generation of slime molds to grow, when the environment becomes more hospitable for them. This piece is an artistic, technologic and scientific revealment of nature that challenges the anthropocentric viewpoint.

The body language of Siamese Fighting fish is under investigation by artist Ken Rinaldo. While the behaviors of these fish have been studied by scientists and described in books, Rinaldo was asking different questions. He created a sculpture, Mediated Encounters, to learn about the desire of the fish and to give viewers the opportunity to observe to this investigation. It is a motorized sculpture that allows two fish to control their own glass bowl's positions in a 360 degree radius. Each fish controls the speed and direction of his own robotic structure by swimming in front of an array of light sensors. "I wanted to give these Siamese Fighting fish the ability to virtually leave the tank and meet each other by moving it around. Like many fishes, Siamese Fighting fish have excellent sight giving them the ability to see far outside the tank." 11 Rinaldo notes that the fish have become "cyborgs, using their robotic structures to extend and explore their artificial environment." 12 His desire is not to make the fishes into a machines, but to hand the control of the machine over to the fishes with the hope that we may learn more about the way they communicate. As technologies such as vision-based intelligent systems become more sophisticated he has hope that they may be used to decode the communications of animals and plants.

A challenge to the anthropocentric viewpoint exists among the smeary boundaries of ecology, art, science and technology. The four contemporary artists discussed here are crafting new understandings of humanity's place in nature. They might be using the same technologies used by scientists, corporations and governments, but their focus is on revealing nature to us in ways that these others are not. Artists do not have to justify their work in the name of official science or profit margins. Their experimental use of backpackable digital recording equipment, hyperaccumulators, time-lapsed slime mold videos and cyborg fish, shows that technology can be employed in an artful language to commune with the nonhuman world.


Notes:

1. Sigmund Jahn, Earth From Space, http://physic.technion.ex.il/~eran/solar/solar/earthsp.htm
2. Christopher Manes, "Nature and Silence," in The Ecocriticism Reader ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press) p. 17
3. ibid.
4. David Dunn, interviewed by David Laskin, Ear Magazine 16, no. 2 (May 1991) pp. 22-29.
5. ibid.
6. ibid.
7. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991) p. 154
8. ibid.
9. Mel Chin, ArtsEdNet, http://www.artsednet.getty.edu/ArtsEdNet/Images/Ecology/revival.html
10. Gail Wight, Slime Trace: A Tale of Two Slimes, mixed-media installation, exhibited in Turbulent Landscapes, 1997 at the Exploratorium, San Francisco.
11. Ken Rinaldo, Mediated Encounters, http://www.cgrg.ohio-state.edu/~rinaldo/works/mediated/index.html
12. ibid.

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