Hovering between utopian promises and dystopian fears, Technology, as science’s omnipresent courtesan, personifies doom and gloom as she simultaneously slips into dreams of imaginative supernatural powers. All in all, such fantasies, at once projections of foreboding disquietude and buoyant assumptions, are the escorts of creative impulses of innovation and discovery. These images are visual portrayals of how an artist’s ephemeral hunch pirouettes into concrete results; how technological prowess partners with long-established art practices by transforming matter into the matter-of-fact.
Planetary expansion has always been a subject in fictive narratives and in science itself. From H.G. Wells to Stanley Kubrick, from Aldous Huxley to William Gibson, from Jules Verne to Ridley Scott1, the plotting expansion of travel into new worlds is a mass-produced hallucinogenic dream. Or is it? The race into the stratosphere and its allied resources seduce techno-dreamers that all yet-unexplored galaxies offer sophisticated techno-fixes and economic portals to a beleaguered earth. Novel imaging and recording devices, anti-gravitational agricultural experiments and bio-medical life support systems, fulfill the reverie of going galactic. As the earth goes through the throes of global warming, deforestation, and radioactive waste, “outer space” emerges as an alternative place with limitless borders.
Space exploration under the auspices of NASA is utilizing agriculture (a.k.a. astroculture) as a way to explore food sources. How do edible substances propagate under microgravity conditions?2 In space, perceptual experiences are additionally altered. For example, roses grown in outer space offer up unexpected scents.3 Various other projects include tissue engineering of cells to produce replacement blood for astronauts and revolutionary technologies for extracting ores and materials from asteroids.
In many philosophical ruminations, the partitions between types of matter figure prominently. From Taoism to Buddhism to Aristotle’s philosophical inquiries4 into the living world to further forays into alchemy as a form of proto-chemistry, the diffusion of one form of matter into another rebounds in Darwinian terms. For example, chlorophyll,5 the lifeblood of green plants, in a transformative process of photosynthesis creates sugars as nutrients from ephemeral light sources. Such metamorphic actions function as conceptual triggers for human interventions in science and art.
Casting a wide net, employing multiple overlaid metaphors, the work pictured here is a reminder both of life’s arrow and death’s decay as continuums. Remaking, repairing, restructuring, and revamping are the new calls of the wild as limited resources are being exploited and consumer interests continue to expand. Can we mine the stars? What ways can we incorporate other worlds into our orbit? How expansive do we dare to dream?
In prior centuries, vanitas paintings warned against the excesses of material culture. These portrayals usually contained the iconography of skulls, candles, flowers, fruit, jewels, books and musical instruments.6 Expressing the futility of life and its no-escape signatory presence of death, these representations exalt the fleetingness of personal existence. In the series of photographs entitled Vanitas (in a Petri dish) (figs. 1-6) the viewer is presented with dead insects, fruit stuffs which will decay, bones, skulls, minerals and such. As simple warnings about the delicacy of life forms and the manner in which the elements on earth can be transformed, we pause at the prospect of our own mortality. To bring these warnings into the twenty-first century, these images mingle together an amalgam of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens. Taking a cue from synthetic biology7, scientific research is opening the pathways under which organisms and plants can be fabricated to create a palette of living entities not present in the natural world.
Other pieces deal with the ways in which new technologies can picture places that are too toxic or remote or are difficult or lethal to visit. Employing state-of-the-art delivered Satellite data, remote sensing apparatuses are employed to computationally describe such spaces. That data then is compiled into a picture based on streams of zeros and ones. As an extension of digital photography, these images garner information electronically in which on-site visitations are eclipsed.8
In Remote Sensing (figs. 7-13) a series of rapid prototyped objects are created from Photoshop files. Images related to micro-landscapes are the result of these operatic extrusions. The software program which operates the output system makes “decisions” about color in which height, length and width are determined by programmatic aspects. Although a set program is in order, output varies and, in reality, no two specimens are identical. This then brings us to the question of code as a genotypical variable as in DNA and its variegation in phenotypical appearance. Conceptually speaking, this may be the most important issue here, in that in nature there are no identical specimens regardless of DNA equivalence.
These images and objects speak to the 21st century, where technology can be employed in both its applied market and design sense. All in all, however, such realities are like progenitors which breed heightened metaphorical possibilities. Searching, scouring and deciphering the natural world in all of its magnanimous coordinates adds to the database of visual and material mandates. Following art historical and theoretical narratives, although necessary for the visual artist, is not sufficient to parse out possibilities for our future benefit. Art, as a practice which employs all other disciplines as its subject matter, is currently embracing science as a way to expand its lexicon. These images and objects presented here carry untold stories and become catalysts for further inventive processes.
1 See H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and The First Men in the Moon (1901); Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932); William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984); Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982); Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870).
2 http://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/background/facts/advasc.html; How can industry take advantage of growing plants in the unique microgravity environment created as the International Space Station orbits Earth? The Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison –a NASA Commercial Space Center with partners in industry and academia– is dedicated to helping industry explore the possibilities.
3 WCSAR researchers had developed a plant growth chamber called ASTROCULTURETM for the middeck of the space shuttle. It provides plants with the appropriate temperature, humidity, light, and nutrients during spaceflight, explains Dr. Weijia Zhou, WCSAR director. ASTROCULTURETM was perfect for IFF’s purpose, and so on Oct. 28, 1998, a tiny rose selected by IFF was able to leave Earth for a 10-day flight onboard the shuttle Discovery (STS-95). http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/9-12/features/spacescents_feature.html
4 Sheldon M. Cohen, Aristotle on Nature and Incomplete Substance (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
5 Phillip Ball, “Reinventing the Leaf” Nature (October 4, 1999). http://www.nature.com/news/1998/991007/full/news991007-3.html
6 John B. Ravenal, Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art (University of Virginia Press, 2004).
7 http://www.syntheticaesthetics.org. Synthetic biology is an emerging field in the natural sciences which aims to apply engineering principles to living matter. By reassembling gene sequences in alternative configurations synthetic biological principles can create organisms that do not naturally occur in nature.
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