Natural Habitat

Published on November 4th, 2006

* * * * * * * * * * * *

From 04-11-2006 until 22-12-2006

Boredom Research, Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau, Erwin Driessens & Maria Verstappen, Evelina Domnitch & Dmitry Gelfand, Koert van Mensvoort & Mieke Gerritzen, Marloes de Valk & Aymeric Mansoux, Mateusz Herczka, Merijn Bolink, Simon Heijdens, Steina

In the Natural Habitat project artists are working at the interface of nature and technology. Here they investigate the extent to which nature and technology complement each other, and whether a distinction can be made between what is natural and what is technology. In Natural Habitat the boundaries between nature, culture and technology become increasingly blurred.
Natural Habitat consists of an exhibition and a seminar.


In our environment today nature is ever less natural, and applications of technology are ever more natural. The way that our industrialized world deals with nature is based on technological control and scientific analysis. In this context it is not surprising that the expression ‘disposable landscape’ is being heard with increasing frequency in The Netherlands, and one also hears of a ‘cultivated landscape’. The message is clear: the landscape is subject to continuous change as a consequence of human interventions, making it ever more difficult for one to relate to that landscape. Pure or untouched nature is something which is found only in our imagination any more. In the publication Next Nature by Mieke Gerritzen and Koert van Mensvoort, Michiel Schwarz correctly asserts that the question ‘what is nature?’ is no longer relevant, and must be replaced with the question ‘how do we relate to nature?’. ‘In the age where we have genetic engineering, artificial beaches, nature-identical food flavorings and virtual environments, what we traditionally used to view as ‘nature’ has now become an object of human design. ‘So-called nature’ has become a culturally-constructed nature in a mediated world. In this world, it is perhaps fitting that we now manipulate not only what we believed to be nature, but we happily also manipulate our images of nature… What the images of multiple natures reveal to us, then, is the ‘new ecology’ in which we now find ourselves. A new ecology, where natures, technologies and media are all caught up together.’ He concludes his argument with the question, ‘What sort of nature do we want?’

Only a small group of artists shared an ecological consciousness in art in the 1960s. Artists involved in what was called the Land Art movement placed the relation between man, nature and the environment at the heart of their work. Presently this discourse has reached far beyond the narrow confines of art, and the framework in which we regard the natural environment, and its boundaries, has become an important point for discussion within the cultivated urban milieu throughout the Western world, and certainly in The Netherlands. In art too reflection on nature from purely aesthetic grounds, or from an intrinsic art value, has become passé. With the developments in digital culture and research by artists into artificial life and its expressions, traditional and humanist ideas about nature are being revised.

The exhibition

Artists respond in various ways to the influence of technology on nature. Sometimes they play with our feeling of nostalgia for an idealized pre-industrial era in which man and nature lived harmoniously alongside and with each other. It is a desire for virgin nature that we can really only find any more – skillfully packaged – in amusement parks, zoos and other theme parks where nature is made natural. The imitation of wild nature, the taming of nature and the extension of nature are important points of departure for these artists. By these means they try to return nature – the power and existence of which we hardly recognize any more – to our environment. Beside that, there is attention for nature as science, in which processes of change play a large role. Artists focus on the possibilities that underlying mechanisms of processes from biochemistry, genetics and evolution might provide for art by implementing these as purely visual and image-generating systems. Self-organizing processes such as growth and evolution are theoretically still capable of being understood, but not visible in everyday life. Translated by artists, this science becomes perceptible at the level of the senses.

On the other side, there are artists who themselves go in search of ways to create living nature. Sometimes they make use of scientific methodologies and mechanisms, in order to see to what extent unnatural processes can become part of our environment. Computer processes and networks are examined for the creation of new and interesting visible phenomena. Artists are particularly interested in processes in which simple rules lead to complex behaviors. Efforts are undertaken to make digital life as real as possible, so that people can identify with it. Individuals from complex ecosystems eat each other up, reproduce or die a lonesome death. These examples reveal that these artificial processes perhaps have more relation with ‘wild nature’ than with what we see at this moment in our natural environment.

Finally, artists devote attention to invisible technology – technology that merges into our environment, architecture or body so that it becomes invisible and functions as a natural part of the environment. This puts to the test our conditioned way of seeing, and the artists focus on the possibility that nature takes on new meanings. According to them, recognisability ultimately underwrites true-to-nature images. Here a new image of Nature arises.

The artworks

Boredom Research (UK)
Ornamental Bug Garden (2005) and Biomes (2005)
Boredom Research is interested in constructing calculated works inspired by simple rules that they find in natural systems. They investigate processes from computer models and the creative possibilities of genetic algorithms for the creation of phenomena which are to all appearances natural They are interested in a series of subjects such as the aesthetics of emergence, synthetic ecological systems, network communities, observable knowing or calculated abstractions, A-life and belief systems. At the moment they are investigating processes from computer models for the creation of a new visible phenomenon. Through the use of computer algorithms based on scientific models, the artists reveal how simple programmed rules can create an endless number of elaborate patterns. Small robot-like figures (beings) arise from these mosaics of pixels, then perform in a digital ‘Theater of Life’.

With Ornamental Bug Garden they have created an aesthetic ecological system that that comes across as a living kinetic painting. Small forms jump back and forth, some look like exploding tracks, and circles float through the air like pollen. Elements from video games, slot machines and formal landscape gardens form the mix; elements of which, when the collide, generate sounds, creating incidental audio compositions. In three different Biomes, Boredom Research demonstrates how artificial life can be created with the help of simple techniques that are present in natural systems. The Biomes transform diverse forms and patterns that are found in natural environments, subsequently leading a life of their own on the basis of simple rules.

Christa Sommerer (Austria) & Laurent Mignonneau (France)
Life Spacies II (1999)
Since 1991 Sommerer and Mignonneau have been making interactive artworks that are continually changing, evolving and adapting to the use of the visitors. What is notable about this is their use of figurative, emotional, natural and sometimes instinctive interfaces that can react to scent, contact or temperature. They are interested in research into the relations between people and how interactivity can arise in them, and ultimately how this interaction can be translated in a creative manner. What is important for them in this is not the creative mind of the artist, but the dynamic process which arises from that creativity. They adapt principles from research into artificial intelligence and genetic programming language for many of their installations, in order to develop open systems that change over time and through interaction with users. In Life Spacies II they use a keyboard as interface, through which text messages are transmitted. By linking typing behavior with the creation of lives, they play with the idea that interaction between the user/character and character/character is essential for the creation of digital life. At the same time, the relation between analogue and digital worlds comes to the fore. By means of specially developed software the written text is seen as a genetic code and translated into images. As soon as the text message is sent the visual beings come to life and begin to move through the Life Spacies space. Their mobility and form is dependent on the complexity of the written message. As soon as the characters come to life they begin to search for food, which consists of other text characters. Their diet does remain restricted to characters with their own genetic code (for instance the ‘john’ character can only eat ‘j’, ‘o’, ‘h’ and ‘n’), but because other creatures are hunting for the same letters a lively competition develops. Some will die if they do not get enough food, or if they are eaten up by others, but if there is enough to eat, they have the opportunity to reproduce.

Erwin Driessens & Maria Verstappen (Ned.)
Frankendael (2001) and E-volver (2006)
From their desire for a meta-creative system in which aesthetic expression and experience are uncoupled from the individual artist, Driessens and Verstappen literally and figuratively discovered ‘life out there’. Within the artificial universes they triggered, they stumbled upon unexpected, autonomous expressions, generated by processes operating independently.

In their work Frankendael they literally take nature as their starting point for systematically automatizing and formalizing perception. Frankendael is part of a project for which the artists documented a number of locations in Amsterdam’s Frankendael park over a year. Each scene was always photographed with a digital camera from the same spot, and at the same time of day, around noon. With software they themselves developed they edited each series of shots into a ‘film’ nine minutes long in which a flowing movement of the changing seasons and variations in the landscape become visible. The systematic automatization and formalization of perception prevents the Frankendael films from becoming a romantic or subjective reflections on nature, making them studies of the spontaneous course of nature and the emergent and entropic processes that are its foundation.

The manifest change is the result of the internal structure of nature, of nature as a meta-creative system. In order to still prevent sliding into neo-romantic or techno-utopian concepts, with the Frankendael films it is crucial to acknowledge that at the same time a conceptual inversion is involved: in interaction with the camera, the software and editing, nature reveals itself as an artificial life-system, or as a universe whose natural qualities can only be exposed by means of artificial means and an artist’s gaze.

E-volver is an ‘image-cultivating-machine’ that develops digital images on the basis of an artificial genetics, making use of evolutionary techniques. Both methodologically and visually the work displays interfaces with the work of laboratory technicians and scientists. Driessens & Verstappen developed software that generates artificial ‘organisms’ one pixel in size. Each ‘organism’ consists of thirteen genes that collectively determine how the organism will behave on the screen. The genes read the characteristics of the eight pixels surrounding them, and on the basis of the values that they encounter instruct the organism what to do with the pixel on which it stands and to which pixel it should move. In this way a colorful moving pattern arises, reminiscent of cosmic or, at the opposite end of the scale, microscopic processes. What the image looks like is the result of the collective conduct of the organisms. E-volver reflects the complexity of the biochemical universe and the human desire for knowledge and insight. With E-volver self-organizing processes such as growth and evolution – which in theory may well be comprehensible, but are never immediately perceptible in everyday life – can be experienced at a sensory level. At the same time it provides great aesthetic pleasure.

Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand (Russia)
Camera Lucida (2003-present)
The installations by Domnitch & Gelfand are presented as continuously changing phenomena that can be observed. Because these exceptional phenomena take place directly before the viewer’s eyes, without being altered or mediated, they affect the visitor at a deeper sensory level. In almost all the work of Domnitch and Gelfand, one’s eyes must get accustomed to the gloom before the operation and details of the light come across well. Without darkness, however, the light would be invisible. Domnitch and Gelfand are very interested in development processes that are in a state of continuous flux. In search of a manner of making sound waves visible, Domnitch and Gelfand ultimately developed the installation Camera Lucida. The work Camera Lucida is a light sculpture, a sound observatory, which is constantly in motion. Sound waves are directly translated into light through the intervention of a glass sphere that is filled with special gasses and liquids. Officially this principle is designated with the term ‘sonoluminescence’, a scientific phenomenon which has been investigated since 1934, but which was made public for the first time by Domnitch and Gelfand.

Koert van Mensvoort & Mieke Gerritzen (Ned.)
Next Nature (2006)
After the success of the Biggest Visual Power show in which Van Mensvoort and Gerritzen focused on the strength and power of the image, last year they went in search of examples of new nature, Next Nature. With Next Nature they raise the question of the relation between nature and culture for discussion. According to them, real nature – wild and untouched – no longer exists; nature has become a cultural category. At the same time they see that cultural products, which previously were manageable, are increasingly slipping out of our control. Van Mensvoort and Gerritzen went in search of examples that reflect an image of ‘next nature’, in order to give things new meaning and define our place in them – a journey of discovery through real nature in all its functions, dangers and potentials. It includes wild systems, genetic surprises, tranquil technology, autonomous machines and beautiful black flowers – because ultimately recognisability guarantees the true-to-nature image.

Marloes de Valk (Ned.) & Aymeric Mansoux (Fra.)
Metabiosis (2006)
De Valk & Mansoux investigate to what extent artificial life can develop in a network of computers linked with one another. They have developed software with which an ecosystem can be set up on a computer. Small packets of data can be planted in the ecosystem. In actuality the packets contain only a set of numbers, but they indeed have particular characteristics. The packets can jump to other computers with the same ecosystem, they can reproduce themselves, and they can die. Metabiosis is not a virus, it is a system of networked ecosystems that are populated by data packages that copy themselves. It is an experiment and a game for people who are curious about the possibilities of digital life and the continuous growth of ecosystems in a network of computers.

Mateusz Herczka (Sweden)
Life Support Systems – Vanda (2004)
Herczka shows that in essence our whole life can be reduced to information. What we do, the people we meet, our likes and dislikes, the sound of our voice – all this information that is stored in our brains can be recorded by means of electronic pulses. The installation reveals the possibility that after death life can go on in an altered form: as information. The point of departure for such an effort is the electronic recording of the memories and reactions of a living organism. Vanda is an experiment in that direction. The Vanda Hybrida orchid – used because of its inspiring beauty and simplicity – is translated into a virtual organism in a 3-D environment. The virtual plant reflects the characteristics of the real plant and the changes that it undergoes. After the death of the living orchid, the digital orchid continues to live on. Vanda investigates the possibility for making life (in the form of pure data) possible after death. With his work Herczka finds himself at the juncture of art, artificial intelligence and the biological sciences.

Merijn Bolink (Ned.)
Untitled (Branch) (2006)
Bolink makes images that are constructed of existing objects or dead animals. The procedures that he employs are often duplication, fusion or dissection. In all cases, what is important is that, as he himself puts it, he ‘lays bare the soul of things’. One of his best known works is the baby buggy from 1992, that begat a procession of 14 mini-baby buggies, all made separately from one of the 14 materials from which the ‘mother buggy’ was made. Another icon is Bolink’s apple, which from the inside looks like an orange. With his project Untitled (Branch) he breathes new life into an old gardening technique. By means of grafting he alters the growth process of a tree branch. Grafting, sometimes also termed vegetative propagation, is used in horticulture to get a special blossom or to have a tree reproduce and improve itself. Bolink’s result is a hybrid branch, a cross between natural growth and a computer graphics branch. Bolink breaks with our conditioned way of looking at nature and focuses on the possibility that nature has new meanings.

With thanks to the Rabo Art Collection

Simon Heijdens (Ned.)
Reeds (2006)
In his work Heijdens occupies himself with nature that we tend to walk past, hardly acknowledging its existence and its power. Heijdens realizes that we spend our time in climate controlled rooms with artificial light, so that a sense of time has disappeared from our daily life. While the natural environment changes in character, color and form during the year, our artificial space remains static and inflexible. Heijdens seeks to return the natural character that has been excluded to the space where we live and work. In his Reeds imitation reed stems respond indoors to the wind that blows outside, and the number of people and amount of traffic that passes in front of the building. In it, Heijdens brings a living technological organism into a space, that responds to the real nature of its immediate environment. The character of the space is reflected in the intensity of light, which is continually changing. Here is a technical installation as a living organism.

Steina Vasulka (Iceland)
Geomania (1987)
With her installation Geomania Steina returns to the land of her birth, Iceland. Ten monitors piled up like a mountain show images of landscapes and natural phenomena that Steina shot in Iceland and her present home, New Mexico. Rough, uncultivated geological landscapes pass in review, and are interwoven with one another electronically. Stone and water, movement and stasis, nature and technology stand next to one another in a way that normally is not seen. Steina wanted to do more than just record shots of nature, and through her manipulation the work has become a sensual representation of electronically generated color and texture from which paradoxical worlds arise.

Thanks to:
Powered by
Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst
Rabo Art Collection

* * * * * * * * * * * *

T O    T O P