top of page

 

IMAGE MAKING AS

POST-ANTHROPOCENTRIC INTERFACES



SANTIAGO MORILLA

Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain



The Blue Marble photograph (1972, captured from the Apollo 17 space mission, at a distance of about 29,000 km) [Fig. 1], is commonly mentioned as a reference activator of the ecocritical debate, as well as a necessary technical mediator in the development of visual studies in relation to the ecologist and environmental movements of the late twentieth century. For the first time in history the complete figure of the planetary shared home could be observed, which appeared as a fragile and solitary entity, and even cold, alien and distant. But also, somehow, the visual unity of the globe contributed to transcending the local, regional or national identity, integrating it into a broader network of interaction and meaning, widely shared among multiple subjects and objects, individuals and communities, governments, identities and territorialities. As the geographer John Pickles points out, thanks to the production of extra-terrestrial images such as Blue Marble, and many others that came later, it was possible to consolidate the western ‘trope’ of the global unity of a systemic nature [1] and, at the same time, it activated the environmental criticism around the political responsibility of the prevailing neo-capitalist model. In fact, this incipient planetary consciousness directly challenged the development of the Technosphere [2] framework, whose infrastructures had been massively deployed since the 1960s to the point where today, in material terms, its anthropogenic causes (beyond the geological age of the Anthropocene) impose multiple effects that derive from the logic of endless capitalist accumulation. It is in this global framework-system where an economic policy of hegemonic nature is still being developed for an ecology-world that we know is finite and in permanent crisis. As the environmental historian and political economist Jason W. Moore proposes, today we inhabit the terms imposed by the geological era of the Capitalocene, [3] precisely because the force that shapes the planet is that which emanates from the elitist alliances between capital and technoscience, those that instrumentalize the planet at any cost and subordinate it to an unequal benefit that causes the evident breakdown of the ecosystem balance.



Fig.1 Blue Marble, NASA AS17-148-22727.

By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans, 1972. Analog photograph taken in a translunar trajectory, where the entire terrestrial disk can be seen, from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Antarctica.



From this approach, the appearance of Blue Marble can be seen as a vehicle for the techno-scientific and instrumental impulse that ultimately illustrates and justifies the material exploitation of the planet. In this case, the biopolitical vision and domination would be fused and present ontologically from the origin of the techno-military machines that have offered and facilitated such imaginaries. This narrative, halfway between the complicity of technical mediation that still participates in the old ways of seeing and portraying nature, is critically examined by authors such as the sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, [4] or the biologist and philosopher Donna Haraway, [5] among others. However, their attention is focused both on pointing out the existence of an evident “conquering gaze” [6] as on moving away from its hegemonic, western, heteropatriarchal and unifying influence inscribed in the production of the universalizing object/image/map (an influence that weighs so much still as a vestige of the epistemic inertia inherited from modernity). Both thinkers thus open the way to another horizon of possibilities for a post-anthropocentric visual creation, thus fertilizing the discourse of an investigative and multidisciplinary artistic practice, from the idea that the current planetary challenges are both scientific and technological as well as cultural and political. Thus, a practice is envisaged that can convene a parliament of multiple and heterogeneous representation, and that pursues the composition of a multidimensional world shared between humans and non-humans.


Today, in the space-time of terrestrial life, humans and animals account for only 0.3 percent of the total biomass, while vegetables constitute the overwhelming remaining 99.7 percent. [7] If we were aware of the implications of this proportion in relation to the quantity and, above all, to the quality of our interdependence, we should consider the assembly processes together with this majority otherness, often invisible to us. We should –at least– entangle our imaginary to “become-with” [8] the multiple forms and vegetal beings, keeping in mind that the present, past and shared future need to be imagined from another paradigm of thought. From here, it would be urgent to establish an ethics and inter-species aesthetics that would allow mutual encounter, beyond the instrumentalization and exploitation that we exert on biomass. A first step could undoubtedly be to become aware of how complex and urgent it is to “become-with” the vegetable, but also “become-with” –and through– our total technological dependence. Becoming aware of how complex and urgent it is to “become-with” the vegetable, but also “become-with” –and through– our total technological dependence could, undoubtedly, be a first step. An ecosophic question already raised by the post-structuralist philosopher Félix Guattari:


This existential tension will proceed through the bias of human and even non-human temporalities such as the acceleration of the technological and data-processing revolutions, as prefigured in the phenomenal growth of a computer-aided subjectivity, which will lead to the opening up or, if you prefer, the unfolding [déphase], of animal-, vegetable-, Cosmic-, and machinic-becomings. [9]

This is the epochal context in which we currently find ourselves, sharing the potential, emerging and urgent alliance that we could establish with other living beings, sessile and silent (including non-humans). But on this journey, the technological accompaniment cannot be ignored, it cannot be detached from the historical habits that we have acquired. On the contrary, technology has to participate in and submit to the permanent critical questioning of its own techno-business and political success (pursuing its "de-blackening" as argued by Latour). But before such a heterogeneous composition of elements... one might wonder where do we start? Where do we stand? Can we easily break a model of thought and action so deeply rooted in the instrumentalization of everything that does not serve the purposes of techno-capital? And, more specifically, how can we change our cognition and relationship with/towards/about plants? The first hypothesis of this article is clear in this regard: we can start a composition of multiple sensitivities and identities if we focus on not losing its heterogeneity and share a non-hierarchical vocabulary. In fact, the second hypothesis is that it is precisely from certain technological images that spaces for inter-species communication can be created. And it is in these spaces of empathy and connection where it is easier and more appropriate that the epistemic rupture of the post-anthropocentric can occur.


But what do we know about plants, or about their - let's say - plant intelligence? Let’s nor forget that already between 1875 and 1880 Charles Darwin established the well-known root-brain hypothesis (ignored for many years), in which he argued that the root apices would have similar functions to those of the brains of lower animals, receiving chemical and electrical signals in analogy with neuronal and nervous activity. [10] Today his argument has not only been developed and widely demonstrated, but has also given rise to a new discipline known as plant neurobiology, certainly controversial in regard to the terminological level, but defended by well-known scientists such as Stefano Mancuso. [11] However, far from aiming to enter a debate on the relevance and validity of this discipline designation, we want to highlight as unquestionable that plants demonstrate sophisticated ways of solving problems, asking for help, collaborating and communicating with each other... showing, in addition, an extraordinary capacity of resilience to environmental changes and aggressions. In fact, plants not only have been on the planet for approximately 500 million years (while Homo sapiens has been around 350,000 years), as they have actively contributed to its “terraforming”, that is, to the conditioning model of our world as we know it today. We can say that plants are the key agents of planetary habitability, while, in addition, they are "terraformed" by environmental and contextual conditions that affect the modularity of the network of which they are part of. So, knowing that plants and humans are elements on the same network of interdependencies, settled in the same shared territory, what happens to them when we alter the conditions of said territory? And consequently, what happens to us?


At the turn of the 20th century, the German plant physiologist Wilhelm Pfeffer used time-lapse photographic imaging to demonstrate the effects of “terraforming” on plant growth. [12] Thanks to photographs interspersed over long periods of time, Pfeffer was able to show how a plant of the genus Impatiens, which rested horizontally, was able to pitch for hours until it finally achieved verticality with respect to the earth's surface, even though it had to completely bend its stem [Fig.2]. This way, it managed to minimize its gravitational effort and make its future metabolic efforts profitable by acquiring the form required by the earthly context. It should be highlighted that the mediation of the photographs produced in the laboratories of the Botanical Institute of the University of Leipzig managed to demonstrate the undeniable capacity of plants to perceive external environmental conditions (in this case caused by human beings), and interact with them (and also with us) to make the opportune decisions, in real time, that implied radical formal changes in their state and position.


Fig.2 Impatiens glandulifera. Kinematographische Studien an Impatiens, Vicia, Tulipa, Mimosa und Desmodium.

Wilhelm Pfeffer, 1900. Time-lapse video still. Source: https://av.tib.eu/media/12258


The experiments currently carried out by the team of the philosopher Paco Calvo, in the first laboratory in plant neurobiology philosophy (the MintLab [13] of the University of Murcia), also use time-lapse photographs taken in monitored cameras [Fig. 3] to study, for instance, the behavior and processing of electrochemical information of the climbing bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.). Thanks to these images, they verified an undoubted endogenous control in the approach maneuver of the plant to grasp an object from its close environment, that is, a conscious relationship of the plant towards its spatial context that is manifested in the pattern of its movements. [14] Equally revealing are the images from Mancuso's experiments on the conscious agency of two climbing beans competing in equidistance for the same stick to hold on to [15]: when one of them manages to reach it first, the other, aware of both the presence of the club and that of its competitor, “decides” to look for another club in the surrounding environment [Fig.4]. Here are many examples of competition, collaboration and further information transfers between plants in interaction with their environment. However, the crucial question lies on the fact that it is through the photographic image that humans can come to measure the heterotopic space-time of plant life. It is, above all, through the technologically mediated vision that we can analyze, empathize and learn about the intelligence of plants and, also, about the contingencies of their ancestral terraforming processes.



Figs. 3 / 4: MINTLab facilities (Minimal Intelligence Lab)

A climbing bean is monitored with a stick in each of the laboratory's growth cabinets. An overhead camera records all her movements in time-lapse. Image Courtesy of Dr. Paco Calvo and the MINT Lab – Minimal Intelligence Lab


Pfeffer's images, as well as those of Calvo or Mancuso, can be considered as spatial proto-interfaces of communication between humans and plants. Let us remember that from the specific knowledge of computer science, the term "interface" is understood as a facilitating space where communication can be established between agents of different nature. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the cultural theorist Branden Hookway, considers the interface not as a technology in itself but as a threshold of relationship between humans and non-humans, between the material and the social, between the political and the technological that defines and eliminates their differences. [16] In this sense, the photographs mentioned in this article can be presented as the framework for the relationship and encounter between agents of different natures. But they are also the result of both the invention and creation of a machine that orders space-time chaos, as a metamodelization of the production of subjectivity on the basis of a certain aesthetic and political action.


Now that NASA invests its efforts on the research for possible habitable exo-planets, and their subsequent terraforming processes (mainly on Mars), plants seem to be located –once more–on the axis chosen by capitals’ instrumental vector: plants would not only be the producers of food and oxygen in space missions, but they would also function as a colonizing vanguard and generator of the habitability that humans need on extraterrestrial soils. In this regard, a recent study published in Nature Astronomy [17] suggests that applying silica airgel to ice-rich Martian soils could raise the temperature, melt the ice, and allow photosynthesis, thus creating the necessary conditions for plants to grow [Fig.5]. This, among many others, could be a future plan B for humanity given the certainty of the prompt extinction of the resources that the Capitalocene machine demands on every object/subject of its exploitation. Clearly, it is a complex and extremely costly flight forward that is embedded in our imaginary and cultural consciousness, which gets stronger each day. But isn't there a compensatory territorialization vector that imagines a better habitability on planet Earth, from the narrative and emancipatory capacity of artistic practice? Is it easier to imagine the end of this world before the end of the Capitalocene? [18] Is it that we are not capable of conceiving another possible terraforming? Perhaps it is time to increase our vision or to listen carefully to the 99.7 percent of the biomass.



Fig.5 Shapes and Spots on a Polar Sand Dune

This image shows numerous dark shapes and bright spots on a sand dune in the northern polar regions of Mars. The polar caps of Mars are a combination of H2O and frozen CO2. Like its gaseous form, frozen CO2 allows sunlight to penetrate while trapping heat. This solid-state greenhouse effect creates hot spots under the ice, which are seen here as black dots.



The project Traducir un Bosque (2021) [To translate a Forest] is based on the creation of a human-plant communication interface that is inspired by plant models, their care networks and their network collaboration [Fig. 6/7]. This interface monitors both the external environmental stimuli and the internal reactions of the plants in real time, also enabling the informational interaction of users/spectators in a shared environment: thanks to augmented reality technology, the data collected by various sensors connected to the plant are visualized and integrated, in turn, into a generative soundscape that complements the audiovisual and interactive experience of plant-human translation. [19] In this way, the alliance established between art and technoscience goes beyond short-term and technophilic approaches, and points towards the ability to change our understanding of a more direct environment, shared with other forms of non-human life, from a proposal of interspecies perceptual immersion. Here, creation pursues the emergence of a new critical human subjectivity, aware of the many paradoxes that the new techno-ecological materialities of our time display. Hence, the image, understood as an interface, wants to position itself as a control panel and interpretation of the events of our shared existence with the vegetables, and to operate reciprocally both in the person navigating and in what is navigated from the interface itself. Ultimately, the objective of this audiovisual translation process (for a language that we cannot see, hear or fully understand) is to establish a space of connection with an unknown intelligence. Only this way, perhaps, can we come to love that which acquires a certain meaning through artistic experience within our shared space.



Fig.6: Interfaz del programa de realidad aumentada “Traducir un bosque”. Santiago Morilla, 2021.

Screenshot of the app installed on a tablet, showing the augmented information about a myrtle (myrtus).


Fig.7: Forest translator prototype#1. Santiago Morilla, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Greenhouse facility designed to increase the information generated by a boxwood (buxus sempervirens). Partial view of the exhibition "To translate a forest" in Palacio de los Condes de Gabia, Granada (Mar 26 - Jun 20, 2021).



Disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the ideal of progress inherited from modernity, understood as a suicidal flight forward, finds in the artistic proposal of To translate a forest a critical possibility of emancipation of the contemporary subject which, in the figure of a cultural agent and technological and visual mediator, wants to reformulate the current relationships and interdependencies between humans and non-humans. An artistic practice that is, situated beyond the already known epistemological reference, inherently local, capitalist and anthropocentric, which proposes a new orientation of cultural production, while conniving on one of the greatest cosmopolitical challenges that we face: how to inhabit (represent and reinterpret) planet Earth in the face of the informational management of the imminent ecosystem collapse.

 

[1] PICKLES, John. (2004). A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World. London, United Kingdom: Routledge, p. 78.

[2] Originally, the term "Technosphere" was coined by the Russian geologist and geochemist Vladimir Vernadski (1863-1945) to address the habitable artificial layer or sphere composed of all the artifacts and infrastructures resulting from the alteration produced by humans on Earth. Later, Peter Haff rescues it from a geological perspective which integrates thinking about technology and the philosophy of information. See: HAFF, Peter K. (2013). "Technology as a Geological Phenomenon: Implications for Human Well-being". Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395, 24 October 2013, pp. 301-309.

[3] See: MOORE, Jason W. (Ed.) (2016). Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (p. 1-11). Oakland, EE.UU.: PM Press.

[4] An approach that is especially presented in his book Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (2017), in which Latour lays the foundations for a future collaboration between scientists, activists and artists before an ecosystem collapse of anthropogenic causes: It is no longer possible to maintain the validity of the classic separation between the natural and the cultural (artificial), heir to modernity. See: LATOUR, Bruno. (2017). Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Medford, MA: Polity.

[5] See: HARAWAY, Donna. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14, pp. 575–599.

[6] HARAWAY, Donna. (1995). Ciencia, Cyborgs y Mujeres: La Reinvención de la Naturaleza. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra. p.324.

[7] MANCUSO, Stefano; y VIOLA, Alessandra. (2015). Sensibilidad e inteligencia en el mundo vegetal. Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, p. 107.

[8] A concept of a constituent relational encounter between humans and non-humans (especially focused on so-called “companion animals”) developed by Haraway in her article When Species Meet (2019). See: HARAWAY, Donna. (2019). When species meet: introductions. Tabula Rasa (31), pp. 23-75.

[9] GUATTARI, Félix. (2000). The three ecologies. London; New Brunswick, NJ: The Athlone Press, p. 38.

[10] See: DARWIN, Charles. A. (1875). ”The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants”. Nature volume 13, po 65–66. Accessed: https://www.nature.com/articles/013065a0; and DARWIN, Charles.A.; y DARWIN, Francis. (1880). The Power of Movement in Plants. Sydney: Murray.

[12] See the film Impatiens glandulifera. Kinematographische Studien an Impatiens, Vicia, Tulipa, Mimosa und Desmodium (1900) by Pfeffer, produced in 16 mm. Accessed: https://av.tib.eu/media/12258

[13] The MINTLab (Minimal Intelligence Lab) laboratories are located in the Department of Philosophy and in the CAID building of the University of Murcia (UMU). Its activity is developed in collaboration with the Office of Naval Research of the United States Department of Defense, within the Plant Intelligence for Robotics and AI project.

[14] These experimental results have been recently published in the Scientific Reports of the journal Nature. See: RAJA, Vicente; SILVA, Paula L.; HOLGHOOMI, Roghaieh; and CALVO, Paco. (2020). "The dynamics of plant nutation". Nature, Scientific Reports volume 10, Article number: 19465. Accessed: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-76588-z

[16] HOOKWAY, Branden. (2014). Interface. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press, p. 59.

[17] WORDSWORTH, R.; KERBER, L.; COCKELL, C. (2019). “Enabling Martian habitability with silica aerogel via the solid-state greenhouse effect”, Nature Astronomy volume 3, pp. 898–903. Accessed: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-019-0813-0

[18] Here I paraphrase the quote: "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism", which has been attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek.

[19] These sensors are measuring the following parameters: intensity of ambient light, amount of CO₂ and organic volatiles in the air, humidity in the air and near the ground, temperature in the air and near the ground, temperature of the leaves, pH value and moisture level within the soil, level of greenery reflected by the leaf and amount of environmental noise. The interface operates from an app (developed in Unity) that integrates the image of the plant and its generative soundscape. For more information, see: www.traducirunbosque.com and www.santiagomorilla.com


 

To cite this article:

Santiago Morilla (2021). IMAGE MAKING AS POST-ANTHROPOCENTRIC INTERFACES. Archivo Papers Journal, 1:2. Available from https://www.archivoplatform.com/post/apj-v1-2-morilla-2

 


Comments


bottom of page