Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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The Technological Herbarium: Introduction, by Gianna Maria Gatti (translated by Alan N. Shapiro)

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The Technological Herbarium: Introduction

by Gianna Maria Gatti

(translated from the Italian by Alan N. Shapiro)

Infinite are the facets in which the living manifests itself. Infinite are the possibilities in which it expresses its existence. Art seizes these possibilities of existence, interprets them, advances unusual combinations of them, breaks up their consolidated connections. Art probes and enhances the value of the deeper regulating principles – in our times ever less hidden and ever more engaged in the recreation of life – of an accelerating increase in the complexity of the existent. Art is at the center of this development. Art redefines its identity in relation to the evolution of knowledge and technique. Art opens to dialogue with every field of knowledge. Art makes itself the vanguard of the reflection on the mutating demands and urgent unknowns of the present. As part of this movement, a number of contemporary artists have dealt with the theme of vegetable nature, uniting it with the ‘new’ informatic technologies. Trees, plants and flowers are joined in communion with electronics, computers and telematic networks. The natural world and the artificial world – two realities that would appear to be non-communicating – are placed side by side, their interaction producing artistic creations. On the one hand, the longest standing and most tenacious living beings of the Earth, those who, characterized by a slow evolution, have faced up to the greatest number of tests, demonstrating in the course of time that they know how to adapt themselves to every climatic or geographic change. On the other hand, the most advanced technological products generated by the mind of man, engaged in continuous, increasingly rapid transformations which prevail in every sphere of his life. The two realities share the fact of having been and of being reference points for humanity, of having formed and of forming – in two rather distant historical epochs – decisive turning points in human existence.

On the planet for hundreds of millions of years, vegetation has survived all the ice ages that have taken place upsetting the precarious balance attained by terrestrial life, a life that these vegetables have continued to ensure, providing for the sustenance of all other living beings, thanks to their unique ability to synthesize the energy of light. The colonization of the Earth by forests, the progressive extension of the vegetable kingdom in very fertile areas, determined the radical mutation of the conditions for life of several human groups. Already dedicated to hunting, and to the gathering of edible wild plants, the invention of elaborate farming techniques turned nomads into sedentary people, conscious producers of food. The agricultural revolution of the Neolithic era marked that profound change involving all aspects of rising civilization: from the introduction of structured forms of social organization, village communities, to the acquisition of ever greater and precise know-how that supports not only practical workability but also the formation of a symbolic imaginary of religious content. “The first and perhaps the most important consequence of the discovery of agriculture,” asserts Mircea Eliade, “is the mystical solidarity between man and vegetation.” Man recognizes the affinity between his own existence and that of plants, gleans from this affinity images and metaphors to describe his own existential drama, which he identifies with the ‘mystery’ of vegetal regeneration, the mystery of birth, death and rebirth. From the rhythm of vegetation, agricultural cultures devise the ideas of ‘circular time’, of the ‘cosmic cycle’, of the ‘periodic renewal of the world’, in this way developing a cosmic religion. In the course of cultural evolution, man has assimilated from plants the etymologies and fundamental analogies of his mental constructions, myths and beliefs, which have been an indispensable source of inspiration and symbolization, models on which to shape his own configurations of existence.

From a scenery that goes back to the dawn of human societies, to contemporary perspectives that project themselves into the future, to computer technology – this is the range of concerns in the present study. With respect to informatics or computer science, one has spoken of revolution (si è parlato di rivoluzione), contemplating the transformations that it has brought about on the level of the management of information and communication in every economic and social sphere, from industrial and commercial productive sectors, to administrative and cultural domains, to the point of entering into the everyday life of objects in common use. Grafting itself onto the progress set in motion by the first and second industrial revolutions, building atop the foundations of innovation and scientific- technological development laid down by them, the new computer technology of this past half-century penetrates deeply into the present age of man, conditioning, beyond all operative and practical aspects, his very patterns of thought. Temporal rhythms of speed, and redimensioned spatial and geographical perceptions, are just some of the singular behaviors and relationships dictated by computer technologies.

Man, while he is conscious of no longer being able to do without the new technologies  (he is surrounded by them and uses them in everyday life), is perhaps less aware of the indispensability of vegetables, of their irreplacable contribution to the guarantee of existence. He relegates them too often to a marginal, ornamental position, reduced to the status of a side dish.

Bringing together in a work of art plants and new technologies means comparing these two fundamental components of human history one to the other, and thereby re-evaluating their contributions. It means unifying them, and ascribing to them an above all aesthetic meaning that makes it possible to discover their not always obvious qualities and see their true value. The works and projects that have been chosen and analyzed in this study belong to the last thirty years, an epoch marked by the passage between the second and third millennia. Their authors are mostly European and American, a few Asian and Australian. Although the generation that is most represented here is the one born in the 1960s, there are also exponents from the preceding and following generations. Differences are reflected in their respective educations, in intentions, and in the tools and methods adopted to creatively elaborate this specific relationship between plant life and new technologies.

From the selection of emblematic works testifying to this unusual duo is born a herbarium, a ‘technological herbarium’. If a herbarium gathers together or illustrates with scientific methods a sampling of plants, indicating their names and describing their properties, for the purpose of documentation and practical use, for the most part medicinal, the present collection metaphorically recalls it, in so far as the criteria followed to comprise it are similar to those organizing the classical herbarium, albeit oriented to different objectives and applied in a different context. There are two principal forms in which vegetation appears in the works under examination: either as real, meaning those flowers, trees and environments which are effectively existent and originated by nature; or artificial, or better, reproduced, elaborated or invented by technological media. On the technical level, the instruments involved are multiple. They can be agents acting alone or cooperating together in the singular installation: mechanicals, electronics, robotics technologies, telecommunications networks whose structuring organization is transferred to the computer. The role of the computer is essential, including in those artworks that engage with the field of genetic engineering.

After the first chapter, in which nature and new technologies are brought together in the same conceptual framework, in which are explained the contributions of the latter to the field of art, follow the three sections in which the herbarium is structured, corresponding to the second, third, and fourth chapters of the monograph. Chapter Two groups together all the works which are distinguished by their having placed new technologies side by side with real vegetables, which implement solutions that foresee either the insertion and operation of the technologies in natural environments – such as gardens, woods, or forests – or else the placement of vegetation – such as grass, flowers, or plants – amongst the arrangement of specially designed equipment. The interaction and reciprocal influence of the components are subjected to the biological dynamics of the living being: maintenance of its life and respect for the timing of its growth condition the course of the artwork. In Chapter Three, technological languages occupy a dominant position, to the extent that through them the formal properties and external characteristics of vegetation come to be reread, for the purpose of recreating them in the form of digital images, video settings, and virtual realities. In this case, being a matter of representations obtained and re-elaborations realized while exploiting the vast possibilities offered by computing, more freedom of expression is granted to the artist in interpreting the phenomenal qualities of the natural model, from which one can distance oneself and instead confer on the artist’s creation attributes that are not present in nature, but are rather fruits of his fantasy. In Chapter Four, the biological model is implicated in two diverging formulations. In certain works, computer technologies avail themselves of the model in its constitutive codes of life in order to transfer it to digital beings who, in their evolutionary processes and mechanisms of growth, reflect the template of those life forms. The result is a simulated vegetation that combines the peculiarities of the natural with the potentialities of technological media, but that truly makes itself notable by also being ‘alive’. Other works go beyond the simulation of a model to act on the living organism itself, carrying out the operations of hybridization, intervening in the genetic material of natural vegetation, altering the composition of the living being, or even cloning it. In all these cases, real and living – yet genetically modified – flowers or plants are originated.

With the overview presented in the technological herbarium, one can understand how art, increasingly linked to the sciences, comes to be the determining instance for the success of the new and unusual double-vision of the vegetable kingdom and the new technologies, thanks to the intuition of bringing them into association with each other in a significantly original and efficacious combination. By instituting a reciprocal relationship between these two elements, an exchange is created that turns out to be beneficial to both from the moment that they acquire a different value and centrality from those assigned to them by the everyday approach, or by the ordinary knowledge that one has of them. Plants come to be recognized as living beings. The devices that exalt the vitality of vegetables – precisely because vegetal vitality is so different from animal and human vitality – become ever more fascinating to discover. Commonly perceived as inert and insensible organisms, exempt from suffering, because they do not have the same motor and movement capacities typical of other beings, because they are enclosed in a silence that sanctions their incommunicability, in these works of art are gathered that which is usually hidden: the most intimate rhythms of growth and the smallest possible adaptations to external conditions by vegetation now becoming recognizable, capable of being read, no longer as simple changes, but as true behaviors. Electronic and computer technologies allow the user to come closer to this particular world, to relate himself to it to find affinities and differences, to establish a dialogue enabled by other parameters of communication that underscore how such diversity, often considered to be a symptom of inferiority, demonstrates, on the contrary, an existence that is at least as complex and consolidated as human existence (if not more so). At the same time, technologies assume an identity that is more integrated into the natural dimension. They dissociate themselves from being seen and used as tools that serve man at a professional and productive level, instead disclosing their own special laws of operation to the user, allowing him to interact with them. They appear in new guises: the Internet network that, through useful information, enacts the cultivation at a distance of a real or virtual garden; a video screen that lets itself be crossed by breath to disseminate in pixels a typical dandelion. Here we are faced with evolved machines, to which the philosopher Mario Costa attributes an existential independence: “In my opinion, we have gone through a transition, as far as the mode of being of the ‘instrument’ is concerned, through three fundamental phases: from techniques to technologies to new technologies. New technologies can no longer in any way be considered as ‘extensions’, ‘prolongations’, or ‘prostheses’ of the body. They are rather true and proper separate entities, functions already belonging to the body but now extant in themselves and complexified… Here we have to do with tools that exist in themselves, that have their own inescapable logic into which it is necessary to enter.”The architect and designer Marco Susani goes even further in the interpretation of this high degree of autonomy of new technologies. From his thought emerges the idea of how intelligent objects could be regarded as ‘other’ to us, as partner-tools capable of sharing common experiences with their user, tools which are capable of “stimulating and respecting the capacities and creativity of the user,” real interlocutors which play an active part in the relationship with man that is established thanks to interfaces that define the ‘appearance of life’ of objects themselves, and reveal their presence among us. Susani elevates them to the status of a fourth kingdom of the living, asserting that objects increasingly resemble autonomous organisms, and that the world of objects more and more resembles a fourth kingdom, existing alongside the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms – an independent kingdom, endowed with a specific system of actions and reactions which together determine the distinct behavior of those who belong to it. Considering the strong relationships that objects keep up with humans, it is the latter who, taking note of this new category of the living, will have to make an effort to get to know these beings and improve their relations with them. Susani calls for “the definition of a discipline – perhaps an ‘objectology’ or an ‘ethology of the object’ – that will allow us to analyze and systematize objects, that will permit us to formulate the rules and codes of their behavior.”Following such reflections, one could then meditate on these works of art as being the original encounter of three different forms of living ‘being’: the user (human being), the plant (vegetable being), and the computer (informatic being). Their indispensable interaction guarantees the success of the artwork and instills in the user a new awareness: that there exists an alternative to the living as we know it.

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