Mediated Earthworks: New Media Goes Wild

The artistic use of emerging sensor technologies in remote locations is resulting in artworks inextricably linked to dynamic forces in the natural landscape. Like Earthworks, these projects are shaped by nature, connected interactively with their environments but using technology instead of bulldozers to mediate. New media is introducing new types of environmental impact in sculptural, visual, cinematic, and narrative construction.


Throughout history, artists have taken the materials and forces of nature and used them in the creation of works. The sculpting of clay, the mixing of pigments both represent the use of natural or organic materials as servants to artistic inspiration. However, a subset of art has allowed that relationship to be reversed. Using a wide range of tools­ – wind, entropy, erosion, mapping – some artworks allow nature to be a physical, determining influence in their realization. These artists have shared their vision with the natural environment and transferred the power to shape its form to the forces of nature.

Recently, new media artists have joined this tradition and begun using data from the natural world as a driver for visual, temporal, narrative or dimensional components of their work. Taking advantage of the increasingly portability of computational sensors, these artists are ‘reading’ the natural environment and then using the data to shape artworks that exist in a mediated but symbiotic relationship with the natural world.

Easily understood as a type of data visualization, the projects often focus on the computational and can be associated with other information arts. Alternatively, they can be viewed as ecological art, tapping into the contemporary zeitgeist surrounding sustainable design. However, if one considers the interactivity of the works nature as a collaborator they fall rather interestingly into a history of Land Art sculpture. Perhaps by viewing these projects as Mediated Earthworks, we broaden both the depth of these artworks and our understanding of our complex relationship with nature.

The moving image is usually considered a mediated art form since it is difficult to separate kinesis from the machines that power it. However, kinetic sculpture is also time-based, often narrative, and its changes in shape, color, and even materiality share many qualities with cinema. Making this leap, one can consider the evolving form of Calder’s mobiles and the rambling wind-powered sculptures of Theo Jansen as non-mediated moving images.  In a sense, kinetic artworks are screenless cinema.

The Earthwoks sculptures that began emerging in the 1960’s were often sets of instructions that foreshadowed programming as well as made to change over time. Their innate ephemeral qualities – artworks that embraced entropy and change instead of battling it – made them temporal forms whose changing ‘image’ was part of the artists’ creative strategies. As sculptor Robert Morris explained, “What art now has in its hands is mutable stuff which need not arrive at a point of being finalized with respect to time or space. The notion that work is an irreversible process ending in a static icon-object no longer has much relevance.” [1] The sculptures had cycles, changing stages, life spans. Earthworks were images that moved.   

 Like the moving image, interactivity is also strongly associated with computation and media. However, interactivity can be purely relational, with no mediation required. Paul Willemen puts it almost bitterly, “To refer to interactivity as a new feature characteristic of ‘new tech’ discursive forms is, again, nonsense. Indeed, in many respects, the digitalization of information has rendered interaction between reader/viewer and text-production more restricted in that the protocols governing interactivity have become tighter, narrower, more inflexible, and more policed. The expansion of opportunities for interaction has become accompanied by reductions in the scope for action.” [2] Part of that scope of action is limited by a view that interactivity must occur with machines.     

However, interactivity may not be limited to Willemen’s reader/viewer either. The emphasis on process and temporality of Land Art was directly tied to forces in the environment. It was a unique and radical form of interactivity, where context was given influence and power, forming a triangle to the reader/viewer relationship. The artist interacted with the natural environment, viewers interacted with the spaces and systems that were created, and nature would interact with the sculpture by reshaping it. Artist, viewer and nature were in a messy mix of interactivity…which wonderfully increased the unpredictability of each of the interactions.

This emphasis on time and process allowed viewers to look at the dynamics of the elements in the environment. One had to experience different stages of the system to experience the whole work. The physical forces of the landscape became an interactive driver for the realization of the visual artwork. It was “a programmatic approach to the work and advocates sculpture which experiences, reacts to its environment, changes, is non-stable… art is gradually entering into a more significant relationship with the viewer and the component parts of his environment.” [3]

Changes in time led to changes in form and the Earthworks movement viewed sculpture as malleable, changing, entropic, and participatory. Earthworks connected physically with their environments and were designed to react to the forces found there. Nature was the hammer that pounded the sculptures, the brush that changed their colors. “During the period, many artists worked with natural materials, often fascinated by their evolution and their organic decomposition. To better observe this process, the artist became almost a laboratory assistant, engaging in artistic experiences.” [4]

Many of the Earthworks artists would probably contend that they were fighting the creeping technology and mediation of the 1960’s and took to the desert for its innate isolation and primitivism. It is ironic that many of the works were actually very complex systems and, when connected with the programmatic strategies evolving in Conceptualism and Fluxus, became keystones in the computational arts of today. 

These artistic systems are celebrated as early ecological art but could easily be equally lauded as early programming art. Hans Haacke creating artificial ecosystems (“Rhine Water Purification Plant” 1972), Agnes Denes harvesting wheat in downtown Manhattan (“Wheatfield: A Confrontation” 1982), and Robert Smithson pouring tar down an eroded hillside (“Asphalt Rundown” 1969) all leaned on nature to do the heavy lifting and provide the meaning. The sculptures could not exist without the input of nature itself. The direct use of forces and processes in nature to create sculpture continues today. John Grade’s “Host” (2007) is partly sculpted by the local birds pecking away at the form of his work.

Today culture has shifted towards an emphasis on sustainability – how those ecological systems can continue on. It is an approach that empowers natural systems, giving them the capacity to endure. Sustainable design often incorporates a direct agency with environmental power – wind, currents, sunlight, etc. The highlighting of systems in nature has been replaced by a closer look at the forces of nature.   

Tapping those forces means that artistic gestures can be shared with nature itself. Kinetic art has often recognized this possibility and used natural force as a method to change the form of a sculpture. Alexander Calder’s mobiles opened up sculpture to the dynamics of outside influences, for example. Two recent exhibitions of kinetic works have emphasized the forces of nature as a collaborator in the creation of an artwork. Guy Brett, curator of the Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic show in Barcelona, explained that “we begin to see that ‘natural phenomenon’ and ‘aesthetic decision’ were at this time in a shifting and reciprocal relationship to one another. The working-out of natural processes was allowed to change the conception of the beautiful; artists ceded their ‘will to form’ to certain degrees and in certain ways, and allowed natural events to prevail, which was seen as an emancipatory process, and to offer deeper insight into reality.” [5]

The Drip, Blow, Burn: Forces of Nature in Contemporary Art exhibition at the Hudson River Museum presented artworks that used wind, water, and fire to shape the materials of the art. Curator Thomas Weaver observed that “the natural here is not just a subject, and certainly not just a material…moving natural elements are primal elements that, by rupturing the boundaries that govern the significations of visual art, embody the power of art to wrestle with the world.” [6]

Although wind, water and fire are dynamic forces to use as creative influences, they are just the beginning of the possibilities. Computer technologies have not increased the distance between man and nature, new sensors have actually introduced new types of environmental agency. Many natural forces are not directly tangible and now the invisible energy fields, patterns, rhythms and dynamics of nature are possible artistic ‘shared gestures’. 

Today, indiscernible changes in motion, light, sound, temperature, depth, and a host of other variables can be detected. Our newfound computational detail is spreading and giving us unique information about the natural environment. One of the largest initiatives, Hewlett-Packard’s “Central Nervous System for the Earth,” plans to release a trillion sensors into the natural and built environments. [7] Tiny wireless  contraptions will swarm the planet giving real-time information on ecological systems, geological activity, energy waste, etc. We can now discover new types of kinesis in our environment. 

Increasingly, artists are co-opting these stunning data streams for artworks. When the sensors are matched with timespans, data over time, we see the increased possibilities of nature itself affecting an artwork. Similar conceptually to Earthworks, these new computational versions have a key difference. Mediation is not limited to the photographic or video documentation of the artwork but now includes the actual collection and input of artistic materials. Media is no longer just presentational.

With sensor and datastream as a type of mediation, emerging technologies make it possible to create new media artworks in remote, wilderness locations. The miniaturization, portability, and cheapness of sensors, computers, projectors, etc. is leading to a body of work where the landscape is inextricably linked to the artwork. The list of sensing technologies is growing at a phenomenal rate; this includes commonly used sensors like GPS, DNA, motion, altitude, tilt, speed, light, sound, SONAR as well as emerging technologies in 3D/stereoscopy, 360 degree cameras among others. When matched with artistic strategies, we’re seeing GPS Drawing, light and sound installations, projections, and a host of other technologies all using captured datasets that transform the artwork in real time as the data from nature is incorporated. 

The narrative possibilities are also being explored when nature is used as a driver for story construction. The natural environment can now become a protagonist, not metaphorically but literally, in the evolution of a story. Sensed changes in nature can be used to select and present from databases of a wide range of media, creating real-time stories in text, moving image, sound, etc. One of the lures of exploring environmental agency is the hidden interactivity of the process. The narrative still allows for interactivity’s flexibility, but is not controlled by direct human interface. Tomorrow’s auteurs may be dynamic spaces.

The direct agency of the natural environment has been investigated by several artists. Mary Lucier’s “Dawn Burn” (1975) used a video camera to record the rising sun until its rays left a scar on the image and eventually destroyed the camera’s tubes – the power of sunlight directly shaped the visuals on screen. The Center for Land Use Interpretation (1994, ongoing) has initiated several projects that merge database arts with a proactive nature and have made advances in the art of mapping. Paula Poole and Brett Stalbaum have mixed painting technologies with GPS systems, and Haruki Nishijima has designed systems that capture ambient sound and translate it into light and motion. Sheldon Brown’s “Video Wind Chimes” (1994) used wind sensors housed in streetlights that had been converted into projectors. Changes in wind changed the television channels being projected down onto the sidewalk.

In my own practice, I have also been working with the forces of nature. The “Sustainable Cinema” series (2009, ongoing) are kinetic public sculptures that use natural energy – wind, water – to generate the moving image [Fig. 1]. The artworks combine references to both the optical illusion toys that led to the invention of movies and early natural energy sources. By referencing the histories of both film and industrialization, these sculptures are simple illusions created with simple energy to make us reflect on how removed we are from the original magic of the moving image. It is a primal media experience, which due to the rapid development of cinema technologies, is no longer an oxymoron.

I had explored this direct agency of nature years earlier when I created a light installation based on the topography of Los Angeles’ famous Mulholland Drive. Together with programming by Michael Chu and sound design by Martin Bonadeo, we collected the tilt, altitude, location, direction, speed and sound of the drive and created an exact duplicate of the experience of traveling along the road in a 3D computer program. That virtual path was then used to control two robotic lights in a dark room filled with fog. Like cinema, direct data is captured, then edited and presented. However, here the environment directly defines the experience, the precise geography is used computationally. “Mulholland Drive” [Fig. 2] demonstrates how the rhythms, patterns, and random chance of the environment can be sensed through new media technologies and used to create new forms of visual experience.

Computational sensing, database aesthetics, real-time processing and visualization systems all can give new perspective on the natural environment. Working with science, media artists can now use the same materials that shaped the Earthworks movement like water, air, soil, stone, temperature, light, acoustics, topology, geography. However, with sensing, shared creative input can be given to natural forces and phenomena in those materials­ – flow, echo, wind, currents, reflection, decay, animal migration and behavior, topology, projection, and so on.

Once again, artists are reflecting society’s views on the environment but now with an emphasis on shared input – natural energy paired with creative energy. With emerging sensing technologies, hidden natural forces can also be used in artistic strategies. For centuries, nature has been celebrated as an inspiration for the arts. Finally, nature can do more than inspire, it can pick up the brush itself.

References and Notes: 

  1. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture Part 4: Beyond Objects,” in Land and Environmental Art, ed. Jeffrey Kastner, 231 (London: Phaidon, 1998), originally published in ArtForum (April, 1966): 51-53.

  2. Paul Willemen, “Reflections on Digital Imagery: Of Mice and Men,” in New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative, ed. Martin Reiser and Andrea Zapp, 14 (London: British Film Institute, 2002).

  3. Willoughby Sharp, “Notes Towards and Understanding of Earth Art,” in Land and Environmental Art, ed. Jeffrey Kastner, 200 (London: Phaidon, 1998), originally published in Earth, the catalogue from the Andrew Dickson White Museum (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1970).

  4. G. A. Tiberghien, Land Art, trans. C. Green (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995), 14.

  5. Guy Brett, “The Century of Kinesthesia,” in Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic, ed. S. Cotter and C. Douglas, 31 (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000).

  6. T. Weaver, Drip, Blow, Burn: Forces of Nature in Contemporary Art (Yonkers: The Hudson River Museum, 1999), 24.

  7. J. D. Sutter, “'Smart Dust' Aims to Monitor Everything,” from the CNN website http://edition.cnn.com/2010/TECH/05/03/smart.dust.sensors/index.html (accessed May 24, 2011). 


The Legacy of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) : an Environmental Aesthetics

E.A.T.'s legacy rest on the early development of an environmental aesthetics. This aesthetics, however, does not focus on the idea of nature (as the prevalent notion of environment has it) but rather on the built and, particularly, the technological environment. This environmental aesthetics problematizes the nature/culture dichotomy in a manner that is of particular relevance to contexts that are increasingly infiltrated by technology.


Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) is a well-known example of interdisciplinarity at the intersection of art, science and technology. It was founded by Billy Klüver, Fred Waldhauer, Robert Whitman and Robert Rauschenberg in order to facilitate collaboration between artist, engineer and industry. As Branden W. Joseph wrote in Artforum in 2004 : “Klüver bequeathed to us a set of questions and contradictions involving art, industry, technology, and corporate sponsorship that--amid the glitz of new technologies and the renewal of foreign wars--deserves a place at the forefront of our historical consciousness.” [1] Indeed, E.A.T. sought to recognize the role of technology in society and especially the new responsibility of artists and engineers in complex industrial societies.

The organization has been examined in part by curators, art historians and researchers who focus mainly on the 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering festival (1966) and, to a lesser degree, on the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion at “Expo '70”, at the Osaka World Fair. The Pavilion can be seen, as Fred Waldhauer says, as “a culmination of the experiment during 9 Evenings.” E.A.T. and its projects are often interpreted either in terms of their success, by defenders of new media art, or their failure, by contemporary art critics in the main.

From a different perspective, however, the Pavilion can be considered a turning point, and some experimental works and projects resulting from collaborations initiated by E.A.T. meaningful attempts to renew fundamental aesthetic questions. Closer examination of the statements associated with E.A.T. projects pre- or postdating the Pavilion, or even projects that remained unrealized (which are numerous and merit attention), reveals the omnipresence of the concept of “environment.” Beyond the development of devices as tools or instruments, that would be available to other artists, this notion, investigated in Oracle and in the Pavilion, can be seen as a key concept in seeking to understand the switch by E.A.T from an art to a non-art context. E.A.T.'s legacy can be said then to rest on the early development of an environmental aesthetics, which does not focus on the idea of nature (as the prevalent notion of “environment” has it [2]) but rather on the built and, particularly, the technological environment.


Following Allan Kaprow's Assemblage, Environment and Happenings or the exhibition Environments, Situations, Spaces, it is tempting to consider an environment as a new art form. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an environment in art as “a large structure designed to be experienced and enjoyed as a work of art with all (or most) of one's senses while surrounded by it, rather than from outside.” The definition is precisely illustrated by a quote by Robert Whitman from The New Yorker on the Pepsi Pavilion. [3] But the environment (“that which environs”) is a much more difficult notion, according to Frank Popper or Peter Sloterdijk. Contrary to the artistic concept of landscape – which implies the idea of a frame – the concept of environment seems to be used in art to question our understanding of our “surroundings”, and how it affects us and can be affected by us. As a result, certain of Tinguely, Rauschenberg and Cage's works can be seen as different attempts to focus on the perception of our shifting urban environment, in this case New York City.

Rauschenberg's Oracle is an essential work that deals primarily with this issue. Deeply affected by Jean Tinguely's self-destructive sculpture Homage to New York (1960), Rauschenberg subsequently tried to realize, with the help of Klüver, an “interactive environment where temperature, sound, smell, lights, etc., could be affected by the person who moved through it.” [4] This resulted in Oracle. First exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1965, this work consists of a console with an aluminium staircase housing AM radios and electronic control equipment, to which Rauschenberg added four other sculptural elements described by him as “gifts from the streets”: a round industrial duct in the form of a funnel; a window frame with duct; a car door mounted on a rolling typewriter table, with a large piece of crumpled metal behind it, and a basin combined with an air-conditioning duct through which water circulates. All of these assemblages were on wheels so that the artist could move them freely. As it is no longer possible to interact with the work, one has to revert to earlier descriptions of the experience, in the 1960s, to understand how this work problematises the perception of environment. Klüver specified that, in this installation at the Leo Castelli Gallery, “the viewer could freely walk among them and operate the controls on the staircase.” Visitors were able to move control the volume and the speed of the dial scan. “In full operation,” Klüver wrote, “Oracle becomes an animated cityscape.” As an active participant in the work, the visitor took part in this urban environment and was responsible for what he did. Oracle was also described by the art critic William Berkson as “a funhouse, a torture-chamber or a laboratory for testing perception.” This latter metaphor corresponds exactly to Andrew Forge's description:

To stand by the console is to be aware of a continual coming and going of sound, predominantly spatial. […] The very sensation of hearing, it seems, has become a kind of looking. One doesn't know which way to point one's eyes, so strikingly does the sound reframe the appearance of the machines, giving them a kind of speed -despite the fact that they just stand there dinning- or if not speed, a kind of flashing nowhereness like parked cars seen peripherally from a speeding scooter. And as soon as you move away from the console, among the pieces, you find your movements, your familiar physical measuring of close distances becoming a matter of urgency to be set alongside this new space that you are hearing inside your head. [5]

Forge's description of his experience focused on the plasticity of sound and the mutual interdependence between seeing and hearing which Rauschenberg would explore further during the 9 Evenings with his performance Open Score. This festival took place at the 66th Regiment Armory in New York, in 1966, as a result of several months of collaboration between artists and engineers from Bell Laboratories. According to Clarisse Bardiot, the Theater Electronic Environmental Module, known as the TEEM, was the “major achievement of 9 Evenings and its most important message for the art experimentation that would follow.” [6] Designed to fulfil the function of an on-stage environmental electronic system, it enabled the performers to reconfigure the space in which the action took place by using a remote-control system for the lights, speakers, microphones, cameras, film, motors, etc. John Cage's statement for his performance Variations VII was to “use sounds available at the time of the performance” picked up indifferently inside or outside of the Armory. 10 telephone lines were installed in the Armory, open in different places in New York city including a restaurant, an electric power station, the New York Times press room and Merce Cunningham’s studio. In addition, there were contact microphones on the performing platform itself and on domestic appliances (a fan, a juicer, etc); there were also 20 radio bands, 2 television bands, and 2 Geiger counters. 30 photocells and lights set up around the performance area activated the different sound sources as the performers moved around. Classical musical composition and traditional instruments are here replaced by a protocol which welcomes, like Oracle, selected sounds “in the air” and challenges profoundly the perception of inner and outer exhibition space frontiers as well as the perception of distance.

McLuhan's theories – that John Cage always praised – were controversially discussed during the 9 Evenings. The recognition of technology by Klüver and Rauschenberg as a “natural environment” resembled in a certain way the naturalization of technology as emphasized by the media theorist and essayist. The variable environments built in the Armory can also be interpreted as a means to employ “multiple models for exploration”, McLuhan's so-called “method of our time”, to make people aware of technology's effects on perception. Indeed, McLuhan described the role of the artist, with regard to the technological environment, as follows :

Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The ground rules, pervasive structure, and over-all patterns of environments elude easy perception. Anti-environments, or counter-situations made by artists, provide means of direct attention and enable us to see and understand more clearly. [7]

Marcelyn Gow rightly established that Klüver's concept of the environment differs from McLuhan's understanding of a pervasive and ineluctable process. According to Gow, Klüver thought it “in relation to human interaction with technology or what could be called programming, in order to produce specific effects”, i.e., where “feedback mechanisms” enable the effects of technology to be actively reshaped. [8] We can add that the core opposition, aesthetically, is based on the quantity and the quality of the feedback(s), that is to say between a conception of art as anti-environment (i.e as a reactive art form), and art as open-ended “experience, environment, process” (Barbara Rose), illustrated by the PepsiCola Pavilion for Osaka '70.

The Pavilion was a unique opportunity to work with industrial support, in the manner expressed in the E.A.T manifesto. While not deeply involved in the project, Rauschenberg suggested that artists working on the project “shift their approach to include elements that appealed to all the senses rather than just the visual, that is, elements that would create what people would feel as an 'invisible' environment.” [9] This “invisible environment” was quite different from McLuhan's determinist understanding of such an environment, since the visitors would be encouraged to participate and then to “create their own experience” in what they called a “living responsible environment.” Despite the relationship with Pepsi breaking down, the design and development of artificial fog and of an indoor programmable environment, responding respectively to local weather conditions and to visitors, can be considered meaningful artistic research. Outside the pavilion, Fujiko Nakaya's designed a Fog Sculpture in collaboration with the physicist Thomas Mee. 2,250 special fog nozzles were developed to create an artificial fog made of pure water at the request of the artist. Pumps were programmed to respond to different weather conditions: an automatic control system for programming was designed with real-time feedback of local meteorological data; namely, wind direction, velocity, and wet/dry bulb temperatures transmitted from the sensors at 6-minute intervals. The artist described her work as a “negative sculpture” because atmospheric conditions sculpted the fog in a concrete sense. She thus abandoned so-called “artistic control” in the shaping of this hybrid nature-culture artefact. Here again, however, she defined a protocol. Inside the Pavilion, a hemispherical mirror made of aluminised Mylar produced striking optical effects. One of these was an effect known in physics as 'real image', consisting of an upside down or inverted image that exists suspended in the 'real' space inside the dome, rather than in the 'virtual' image created by an ordinary mirror. (i.e. images produced in ordinary mirrors exist in a 'virtual' space behind the mirror itself). Above all, this interior space, consisting of the mirror plus lighting and sound systems, was also designed as an “instrument” to be used “by individuals from different professions who [would] come to the Pavilion to implement their program ideas, and through this participation be able to adjust, expand and extend their ideas in response to the situation and opportunities they [would] find there.” [10]

The Pavilion is a turning point not only because E.A.T. assumed an environmental approach  to its activity but also because the team moved to a non-art context; in large part they weren't even sure what they were doing was art (they came to recognize it as such by the end of the project). The move to a non-art context – which had already been achieved by 1969 – may disturb the world of art but it makes sense from an environmental aesthetics approach.  Thinking indeed that “the main influence of art and technology together will come in the area of the environment,” the aim of E.A.T. was redefined in 1969 by Klüver, to “encourage the artist-engineer collaboration to fulfil its potential as a revolutionary force in shaping the hardware and software of our technological environment.” [11] It is not a utopian definition since the nozzles developed for the Pavilion's Fog are currently used by Mee Industries Inc. in agriculture and industry, proving that successful transfer of an innovative technology, developed in collaboration with an artist, to industry is possible.

The word 'art', however, tended to be neglected in 'non-art' projects. Nevertheless, one can still recognize Klüver and Rauschenberg's aesthetic statements in an unfunded proposal for ten exhibitions. E.A.T. proposed a series of exhibitions for which the overall theme would be “Technology for the Individual: Recognition and Choices.” [12] Indeed, the subjects chosen represent “areas of technological change where the unresolved issues will affect the direction of technological development in advanced as well as developing societies.” The aim of these exhibitions was “to promote a recognition of the options presented by the new technology for the individual.” The exhibitions were planned for October 1969, with the opening of Automation House in New York City, established by Theodore Kheel for “people to adjust in a rapidly changing world of automation and helping the individual to have a sense of participation in the society in which she or he lives.” These exhibitions would have been designed by contemporary artists in collaboration with experts in the appropriate fields. The working titles for the ten exhibitions speak for themselves: “Variations of the Body: Genetics” by Allen Ginsberg; “Variations of the Body: Renovation, Transformation and Extension” by Steve Paxton; “Interactive Technology for the Three-year-old: Environments Designed by Teenagers” by Olga Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg; “Woman: Her Technological Environment” by Jean Dupuy; “Sports Equipment: Individual and Nature” by Claes Oldenburg; “Secrecy, Privacy and Snaring: Effect of the new communication and information technology” by William Burroughs; “Automation: Involvement or Alienation?” by Jean Tinguely; “Technology and the Environment: an Interactive, Computer-Simulated Ecosystem” by John Cage; “Atomic Energy: the Cloud and the Clear Sky” by Öyvind Fahlstrom; and “Shaping the Environment: Participation by the Individual” by Robert Whitman. This list comprehensively reveals the different preoccupations of the artists by this time, the extent to which they were concerned by the shifting environment they lived in and their desire to analyse the mix of technology, human and nature subsumed within this concept. Rauschenberg and Whitman's propositions in particular suggest an insistence on personal involvement as opposed to a more analytic approach.

Projects Outside Art (1969-1972) notably illustrated how E.A.T. paid attention to the specificity of a given environment, in contrast to McLuhan's position. Presented as “an exhibition of realizable projects in the environment”, interdisciplinary teams were asked to propose a project dealing with education, health, housing, concern for the natural environment, climate control, transportation, energy, etc., using the most innovative technology. Participants were asked “to recognize, in particular, the scale adequate for the problem undertaken, social and ecological effects, organizational methods necessary for realizing the projects” and for their project to “apply to specific geographical environments.” In Children and Communication, two groups of children from remote parts of the city of New York (considered as a rich and a poor district) were placed in two connected environments built by Robert Whitman. They were invited to experiment with available communication technology through the use of telex, fax, etc., a situation that Hans Ulrich Obrist compared to “a sketch for connected schools ages before the emergence of the Internet.” Another selected project, City Agriculture, aimed at creating closed-environment systems that would make it feasible to undertake city agriculture on a large scale. This also sounds extremely contemporary. Crossing different cultures or sociological contexts – city/countryside, rich/poor – was considered as a means of discovering solutions to contemporary problems while developing creativity.

Part of the multi-dimensional scaling projects or studies realized in collaboration with psychologists at Bell Laboratories, A Scaling Project Facing the Nation precisely dealt with the perception of social problems. The project aimed to correlate 22 economic, technological and social problems (i.e. unemployment, inadequate healthcare, pollution of the environment, racism, over-population, war, misuses of technology, etc.) with technical and scientific resources applicable to these areas. Individuals were given questionnaires and were asked to evaluate the relation between these problems and different contexts. The data was then processed by statistical analysis algorithms – the INDSCAL program developed by Douglas Carroll and Myron Wish at Bell Telephone Laboratories – and “the results were such that the axes in a three-dimensional space could be interpreted as local political--national political; technological--non technological; and moral individual--large scale organizational.” The subjects and the techniques involved (information visualization) are at the forefront of our contemporary preoccupations.

This move “outside art” makes sense as an attempt to escape the reification of art by the cultural industries and by the art world itself and to promote, as Klüver has it, variety and choice against repetition and uniformity. Nevertheless this move was misleadingly interpreted as a departure from aesthetics. However, the importance of aesthetic decisions and aesthetic conflicts in collaborative situations had already been noted and an aesthetics symposium was scheduled as part of the Projects Outside Art in 1970 to analyse these problems as well as to question the relevance of interaction between artists and engineers and of artists participating in non-art projects.

Through the concept of environment, the works and projects described stress the notion of artist or engineer control in art, technology and sophisticated industrial societies, and subsequently the role the artist can play therein. There was a belief in the possibility of improving the world quite different from postmodern cynicism. This belief placed the emphasis on the artists themselves – and in a larger context, on individual responsibility in a high-industrial context. E.A.T.'s environmental aesthetics does not consist of an aesthetic appreciation of natural, human environments or indistinct everyday activities. Rather, it is a question of examining art through the concept of environment and the environment through the practice of art; recognising a specific artistic expertise for environmental issues in art or non-art projects which require collaboration between artist and engineer. Moreover, this aesthetics problematises the nature/culture dichotomy in a manner that is of particular relevance to contemporary contexts increasingly infiltrated by technology. As a result, it can be brought to bear, fruitfully, on discussions of contemporary strategies in art and design, ecology and technology.

References and Notes: 
  1. Branden W. Joseph, “Engineering marvel: Branden W. Joseph on Billy Kluver,” in Artforum (March 2004).
  2. Allen Carlson, Nature and landscape : an introduction to environmental aesthetics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
  3. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, The Oxford English Dictionary Vol. 5 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989): 315.
  4. Billy Klüver, “Working with Rauschenberg,” in Robert Rauschenberg, A Retrospective, ed. Walter Hops, 310-327 (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1997).
  5. Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969), 230.
  6. Clarisse Bardiot, “9 evenings: theatre and engineering,” Fondation Daniel Langlois, 2006, http://www.fondation-langlois.org/flash/f/index.php?NumPage=571 (accessed September 4, 2011).
  7. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The medium is the massage : an inventory of effects (London: Penguin, 2008), 68-69.
  8. Marcelyn Gow, “Soft- and Hardware: E.A.T.’s Environmental Feedback,” Site Magazine (March 1, 2004): 10-11.
  9. Billy Klüver, Julie Martin, and Barbara Rose, ed., Pavilion (New York: Dutton, 1972), 20.
  10. Pepsi Pavilion: Expo 70 : live programming, June 13, 1969.
  11. Techne Vol.1, no. 1 (April 14, 1969): 1.
  12. E.A.T. proposal for ten exhibitions at Automation House, New York: Experiments in Art and Technology, March 17, 1969.


In contemporary art the most recent artwork of Gilberto Esparza deals with microorganisms, environmental issues and electronic media.  His project Plantas Nómadas navigates the everyday life urban ecosystem.  His work is based on the recycling of consumption technology, human wastes and a robotic mechanism that survives from served waters and solar energy.



From the outset of civilization, human beings have tried to express some of their ideas, fears and emotions through art. One of our deepest fears today is the continuous destruction of nature and the irreversible alteration of the ecosystem. This concern has reached the art arena together with the sciences, both of which, in cooperation, create tools for new expressions, perhaps as solutions for the apparently uncontrollable problem. The results are broadening the limits of art and science beyond unrecognized limits. The artworks we study in this context are examples of this process.

The evolution of informatics systems, hardware, and the arts have revolutionized the way we perceive the world and by consequence the aesthetics of arts itself.  Few are the cases in daily life where digital process is not playing a role in modern existence and thereby enabling us to fulfill our tasks in the world.

With the use of these new tools, many human activities have undergone changes, sometimes, not in the right direction: uncontrolled materialistic consumption may be one of the causes. The development of the web has become a tool and a weapon for globalization, a concept strongly tied to those concerns. Today, the global frontiers are blurred, time is relative, and perhaps the only limitation is the capacity of reception and transmission of data, depending on the levels of technological advancement in the region.

Antecedents of the Project Plantas Nómadas 

For instance, to observe the robotic creatures Parásitos Urbanos (Urban Parasites) of Gilberto Esparza is to pass through the lens of the future, and believe that the most disturbing images like those found in the painting The Garden of Earthly Delights of Hieronymus Bosch have become true. It makes us feel, in a way, that we are entering a sort of the Gate of Hell in Dante’s Inferno or into the space of a science fiction novel.  This is not because the goal of the artist is to intimidate the viewer, but rather the opposite: his works pretend to become a saver device of humanity after the damage already done to earth. 

The physicality and size of Parásitos Urbanos are not like the microscopic organisms that enter our body and which we are not able to see; nor are they like the new invented sicknesses that are globally widespread today; and neither are visible to the so called viruses made to affect computers. It is true that not all parasites are microorganisms; however, Esparza’s mimetic parasites are depictions of living creatures that are mechanized and autonomous to some extent. In this case, they have not evolved in nature as the rest of living species, but in the creative mind of the artist. The devices are designed to obtain their requirements of energy from existing sources like electric lines, solar energy or batteries - in order to move and call the attention of viewers - while at the same time emitting sounds, like animals that roar, sing or tweet in order to call the attention of their partners. The artist’s robot emits sound in order to call the attention of the viewer by emulating zoosemiotics.

At first glance the devices seem to be part of the ecosystem in which they inhabit but once we pay close attention to their movement, we realize that they have an independent mechanism.

Esparza is not only working with scarce technology within the arts, creating quasi-mechanized creatures living from the wastes of the city, he is as well, tackling one of the most destructive problems faced by humanity, the destruction of the environment and the problems generated by the overpopulation of humans.

The Biological Side of the Robot

Plantas Nómadas is a concept that includes micro-organic plants contained in unhealthy waters (Geobacter) and a robot living in an environment, which has been rendered hostile after transformation by means of human activity. The plants have been transplanted from the soil and adapted to the new ecosystem. Its nomadic condition allows it to adapt and find nutrients with the help of the robot.

This artwork is an example of the lack of human consciousness destroying the planet, and the persistence of care for the planet.  By observing the piece in its environment we can contemplate how the robot takes residual water, separates its elements and ignites the motor of the robot by providing energy.

The piece is a prototype of a hybrid organism developed in symbiosis by being constituted out of electro-mechanic, kinetic and biotic systems. Its electro-mechanical construction works with the help of biological cells cultivating a diverse spectrum of bacteria that transforms the glucose and the amino acids, releasing microvolts of energy. The energy is accumulated inside a harvest system, providing autonomy to the whole device. The design of the system uses cybernetics in order to protect the system itself and keep it alive.

The power cycle nourishes the bacterial culture that feeds the electronic system. The purified water that is irrigated to a plant comprises its existential cycle. Plantas Nómadas were created in earnest of a concern for the deteriorated environment caused by human activity and its irreversible consequences. These changes are directly hitting all sorts of life on the planet making it imminent that organisms have to, either, adapt faster or perish.  During the mission of Plantas Nómadas, several organisms adapt themselves to the new environment in order to survive in a symbiotic way, taking advantage from the nutrients found in polluted surroundings.  The paradoxical thing is that this symbiosis manages to start off the union of a robot whose origins are in the human imagination and which is yet manufactured in a system that is bound to the modifying surroundings of the natural Earth.  Plantas Nómadas are a species that come indeed from the alienated processes that the planet is undergoing. It is a robot of inverse understanding, whose vital processes do not need to obey or be in agreement with the structure of capital production. Their behavior, movement and times, are determined by their vital cycle of existence, it is an organism that exists in contradiction to the acceleration of the world that has been imposed by human dynamics.

The goal of Esparza´s research seems to open the possibility of reversing the alterations of ecosystems and therefore the killing of other species. The pretension is to learn the habits that other species have accumulated throughout millions of years of adaptation and reintegration to the environment and to give back to the Earth, in different form, the energy that it rendered to us.  The idea may allow the human species to survive on the surface of the planet.

It is our concern to highlight the lack of water and its pollution all around the world and the possible solutions through the use of a new hybrid organism, which are products of alienated processes. It appears - by the simple act of coexistence in those zones of ecological disaster, to represent, a serious manifestation of social and environmental impacts in the communities that depends on clean water of the rivers.

Ecological Concerns

Plantas Nómadas is a utopian dream of healing the earth, where the waste of uncontrolled human consumption and growth deteriorates and destroys nature. The long known Malthusian theories on overpopulation, [1] demonized by the Catholic Church are not far from truth.

The damage to biodiversity in modern times (in the name of progress) ends up in the paying of a high price. Some solutions may be found with the ethical consumption of resources, an anti- Malthusian consciousness about human reproduction or a strict birth control and a respectful behavior towards nature.  If that happens, the earth will continue to feed the living creatures on its surface for many more generations to come.

The united system of knowledge of the sciences and the humanities to which [2] it appeals in his book Consilience have found a point of convergence in Esparza’s Plantas Nómadas.

It appears that the Enlightenment ideals have collapsed not because of a continuous progress in the name of social development but because of capitalist wastefulness.  It will be suitable that the work of art in focus will be made for mass circulation, like cars, in order to save the planet.  A utopian desire rooted in ecological initiatives.

In formal terms Plantas Nómadas is like a Kafkaesque cockroach, nevertheless instead of the human becoming an insect turned upside down, it seems that Esparza’s dream is to contribute to reverse a future natural catastrophe. It is a sort of crusade against the evident disregard of nature.

It is quite revealing in the first two lines of the introduction by Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton, of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, where Hamm exclaims: “Nature has forgotten us” and Clove replies: “there is no more nature.” [3]

In analyzing Esparza’s device, we realize that it is a conjunction of nature and machine living together, a proposal for new ecosystems and symbiosis of nature and culture, art and science, and last, the creation and destruction as one of the conditions of nature but nowadays most importantly with ecological balance.  In that sense, Guattari argues:

 “The earth is undergoing a period of intense techno-scientific transformations. If no remedy is found, the ecological disequilibrium this has generated will ultimately threaten the continuation of life on the planet’s surface. Alongside these upheavals, human mode of life, both individual and collective, are progressively deteriorating. Kinship networks tend to be reduced to a bare minimum; domestic life is being poisoned by the gangrene of mass-media consumption; family and married life are frequently ‘ossified’ by a sort of standardization reduced to their meanest expression….. It is the relationship between subjectivity and exteriority –be is social, animal, vegetable or Cosmic –that is compromised in this way, in a sort of general movement of implosion and regressive infantalization. Otherness [l’altérité] tends to lose all its asperità.” [4]

The symbiosis of robot, plants and microscopic organism may therefore appeal to opposites, the Apollonian and Dionysian concepts in the Birth of Tragedy, [5] where the author argues that “Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art; man himself now moves with the same ecstasy and sublimity with which, in dream, he once saw the gods talk” and in this case we may say that it is not man who became a work of art but a fusion of nature and machine creating new organisms.  Plantas Nómadas is a piece where ethics became an unquestionable component of the artwork itself and more than an aesthetical constituent to what art pleaded long time back. Here the artwork is closely connected with scientific thinking rather than with gestural process of painting or sculpting characteristic of traditional art. Postmodern times have favored the development of new expressive forms concerned with the earth itself distancing at the same time from the inaction of the land art in the sense that it uses its components by transforming it, but does not questioning the human effects on the earth.

The natural and the technological

Nowadays the scandals centered in some religious institutions concerning material wealth and libertine morals of the leaders, make it possible for a nihilistic society to flourish, a society closer to nature's demands and its protection. Technology became important to contemporary knowledge only through the mediation of a generalized spirit of performativity. Even today, progress in knowledge is not totally subordinated to technological investment as Lyotard, claims. In many art works produced nowadays, some artists need the newest discoveries and inventions produced in science to achieve their ideas, while scientists are more open to intuitive thinking that had characterized the arts. In Plantas Nómadas both processes go hand in hand, looking for an equilibrium that keeps both the mechanism and the organic system in symbiosis while producing an artistic experience. The goal in the artist's mind is to keep the machine working through the recycling of served water and the bacteria contained in it.  The mimesis of nature, for instance, is emphasized with the sound produced by the robot when it has excess of energy -- it becomes a kind of animal in its aspiration to reproduce itself. Plantas Nómadas the sound may have as its goal to spread the benefits of the robot on a wounded earth. A question arises, Is it possible to envisage and build an autonomous community of robots that could reproduce themselves?  Deleuze' concerns about the reproduction of machines was as follows:

“It is said that machines do not reproduce themselves, or that they only reproduce themselves through the intermediary of man, but “does any one say that the red clover has not reproductive system because the bumble bee (and the bumble bee only) must aid and abet it before it can reproduce? No one. The bumble bee is a part of the reproductive system of the clover. Each one of ourselves has sprung form minute animalcules whose entity was entirely distinct form our own…These creates are part of our reproductive system; then why not we part of that of the machines?” [6]

Deleuze’s question is fundamental on metaphysical issues.  An approximation was made some time back with hybrids between human and machine approached in creative writing such as Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or analysis like the Cyborg Manifesto of Donna Haraway.

Esparza’s work is promoting an interdisciplinary study of ecological perspective in a profound scientific engagement. The interstitial piece is on one hand mimicking amphibians, living partly in aquatic sediments and soil, while there is also another concern for land involving the process of restoring nature after being abused, by the seven thousand millions of humans inhabiting its surface.

Plantas Nómadas show us that through the exploration of the intersections of art and science many imaginable worlds can be reached, by originality, producing a state of fascination and enchantment. Paul Virilio quoted the architect Kasuo Shinohara who claimed that “the city of the future will express the beauty of confusion” to what Virilio reacted: “I am, on the other hand, quite convinced that it will in the near future illustrate the tragedy of the fusion of ‘biological’ and the ‘technological.’” [7]

Here the artist is not far from what Virilio fortell. It is also important to mention the recent work of the Brazilian-American bio-artist Eduardo Kacs with his project Natural History of the Enigma that consisted of the hybridization of his DNA and a petunia plant (The Edunia).

In Esparza’s work, the green plant is provided with a locomotive system that at the same time is ignited with clean energies, solar and micro biotic combustion cells. A previous work of his used a similar principle of solar photocell, though it was far more simple and tremendously poetic, the artwork was produced in 2008 and was named Perejil buscando al sol (Parsley looking for the sun).

The idea in Perejil buscando al sol as much as in Plantas Nómadas is that the artist in a way is altering the evolution of the plant by adapting a locomotion system in the first case, and locomotion and nutrients to a symbiotic system in the second. 

An article of Victoria Gill, that appeared in the BBC news, affirmed that “plants can think and remember, based on the founds of the scientist Karpinski Stanislaw (2010), chemical signals could be passed throughout whole plants - allowing them to respond to and survive changes and stresses in their environment, included in his study was a discovery that when light stimulated a chemical reaction in one leaf cell, this caused a "cascade" of events and that this was immediately signaled to the rest of the plant via a specific type of cell called a "bundle sheath cell.” [8]

From this perspective, the apparent symbiosis of the plant and the machine, the artificial intelligence and the chemical signals of the plant complement each other.  The machine becomes the perfect object, where the movements of the machine, like human gestures, or the locomotion of a turtle, are replicated in the piece, but the automata is just an object.  As Baudrillard wrote:

“The strictly practical object acquires a social status: this is the case with the machine. At the opposite extreme, the pure object, devoid of any function or completely abstracted from its use, takes on a strictly subjective status: it becomes part of a collection.” [9]

The piece may look like an animal-machine or a toy, but it is not. Its complexity goes further because it is an art piece and falls into a new classification called Device Art, We quote:

“What we call device art is a form of media art that integrates art and technology as well as design, entertainment, and popular culture. Device Art is a concept that pushes the boundaries of media art and inherits the legacy of the experiments artists have been conducting with media technologies. By raising questions regarding possible relationships between art and technology, the role of hardware-based devices, and the borders between art and its related fields, and creating a common ground for artists and engineers to work together as equals, we might find some answers with regard to future directions rather than the past.” [10]

In a sense, the robot reflects the spirit of his creator, it is the perfect mirror or pet, the object is the perfect domestic animal. It is the only ‘being’ with such qualities that exalts my personality instead of restrained. [11]

Baudrillard compared the robot to a mirror because the robot does not produce real images but only desired ones; it assumes the image of the perfect domestic animal because it highlights the character of its owner. Plantas Nómadas incarnates the myth of functionality, where its efficiency is in direct relation with the amount of nutrients contained in the water and the sun that hits the photocells.  The robot, as Baudrillard makes a case, [12] is a symbol of a completely functionalized and personalized world that at the same time embodies the abstract power of men in extremes and without plunging into identification.


Esparza’s robots draw attention to our relations with the environment allowing us to see the fragility of the machine, like nature, that at some point will stop running, perhaps destroyed, or become a part of the museum cemetery. 

The creation of Esparza's piece questions the human excesses in consumerism, wastefulness and the lack of control of the public administration to handle the problem of the residues produced.

References and Notes: 
  1. T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London: J. Johnson, 1798), Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project, http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf (accessed December 18, 2010).
  2. E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage, 1999).
  3. F. Guattari, The Three Ecologies (New York: Continuum, 2005), 1.
  4. Ibid., 27.
  5. F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1999) 121.
  6. G. Deleuze, and F. Guattari, Anti-oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis, MA: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 284-285.
  7. P. Virilio, Open Sky (London: Verso, 2000), 57.
  8. V. Gill, “Plants Can ‘Think and Remember,’” BBC News, July 12, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10598926 (accessed July 12, 2010).
  9. J. Baudrillard, The System of Objects (London: Verso, 2005), 82, 101-102, 138.
  10. M. Kusahara, “Device Art: A New Form of Media Art from a Japanese Perspective,” Journal Intelligent Agent 6, no. 2 (2002), http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/ia6_2_pacificrim_kusahara_deviceart.pdf (accessed January 7, 2011).
  11. J. Baudrillard, The System of Objects (London: Verso, 2005), 102.
  12. Ibid., 101-102.

Eco Sapiens Round Table

Saturday, 17 September, 2011 - 11:00 - 12:00
Ian Clothier
Nina Czegledy
Andrea Polli
Sophie Jerram

We know we have built a civilisation which is unsustainable. How are we developing today the new culture that will allow us to create a sustainable civilisation?

Roger Malina, Astrophysicist and Editor of Leonardo

The great work of our times, I would say, is moving the human community from its present situation as a destructive presence on the planet to a benign or mutually enhancing presence. It is that simple.

Thomas Berry, Cultural Historian And Geologian

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