Nature Through a Screen
Roisin Kiberd on the relationship between technology and the natural world
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The first in a series of commissioned responses to Woman in the Machine, tech writer and author Roisin Kiberd considers our relationship with technology, and how we might use it to bring us closer to the world around us
There’s a scene from a film that has haunted me for years. It comes at the end of Soylent Green. You probably already know what Soylent is made from; when Sol, one of the film’s characters, finds out, he’s so horrified that he makes his way to the nearest euthanasia clinic, where citizens of an overheated, overcrowded, dystopian New York form orderly lines to meet eternity.
Sol gives the clinic his music and lighting preferences and is led to a bed in a room where the walls are covered with giant screens. There, as he drinks a glass of poison, a video plays scenes of nature that are almost painfully vivid and luminous. In death he’s invited to contemplate everything the planet has long since lost; the deep sea, flowers in bloom, a flock of birds crossing the sky against a sunset. There’s something about this scene that remains relevant to the times we’re living in. It depicts technology as a facsimile of life; an archive, an opiate, and an act of mourning.
Lately I find myself, like Sol, experiencing nature through a screen. Late at night I watch videos of squids and octopuses. I use a phone app called Plantnet to identify trees when I go for walks. I find myself contemplating how we talk about technology and life as opposite realms, ‘online’ and ‘IRL’, and how some of the problems we experience with technology might emerge from this dichotomous thinking.
What if technology didn’t have to be at odds with nature? What if it could bring us into closer contact with the world, broadening our vision, and deepening our understanding of place and time? The piece in Woman in the Machine which brought these ideas to my mind was Barbara Knežević’s TOUCH TECHNE, an arrangement of eight high definition screens lying flat, displaying imagery taken from the natural world. It’s not very different to that scene in Soylent Green: at first the screens offer us isolated glimpses, patterns rendered near-psychedelic in their intensity, then they synchronise – for a few seconds I found myself facing a wall of leopard print – and give way to something new. The rosy stems of coral, cuttlefish shells, birds and their blazing yellow eyes, and the delicate veins inside a leaf; together they conjure the glimmering shock of the world, seen through eyes more perceptive and more efficient than our own.
In the final years of his life Alan Turing, the father of AI and computer science, studied patterns in nature, proposing a theory that could explain everything from the way fire spreads to the spacing of an alligator’s teeth, to how leopard spots are formed, or how ants dispose of their dead. Turing’s paper fell into obscurity for several decades after his death, only to be rediscovered at a point when computer modelling was sufficiently advanced to test it.
The thought of cooperation between technology and nature feels almost blasphemous, yet it’s all around us and has been for some time. With sensors situated around the Irish countryside, as well as in the gallery at VISUAL, Fiona Mc Donald has created IoT pastoral art. Tiny Raspberry Pi computers display environmental data including light, temperature and humidity, assembled via algorithm as visuals and sound. Mc Donald’s visuals become an act of translation; mountainscapes and marshes speak to us through geometric patterns and a ghostly hum.
Another work considers a variation on this process: rather than asking how technology might help us to understand nature, it explores how nature might be understood by technology itself. In The Other, by Méadhbh O’Connor, a split-screen video captures the artist at her desk, speaking in verse to an entity living inside a computer. To her left the screen displays a tableau of tiny explosions, cogs whirring into motion, as though ‘the Other’ is thinking. Performing a role somewhere between scientist and spirit medium, O’Connor tells the machine about landscapes, about a journey over cliffs and through long grass. It responds, displaying a vast, silvery landscape of mountains and a sea draped over with fog.
It’s a vision of strange, Covid-era companionship, The Other’s CGI world bringing to mind the terrains of video games, lonely echoes of nature processed in pixels. The Other strikes me as some clue to our devices’ inner worlds, vast spaces which remain alien to us. It reframes our use of technology as an interspecies dialogue.
At the end of Woman in the Machine, if you follow the route I took through the gallery, the last thing you’ll see before you leave is three booths arranged in a line near the exit. Niamh McGuinne’s The Shell/ters draws on William Reich’s 1940s orgone accumulator, a human-sized box lined with layers of organic and inorganic material, said to increase the user’s libido and lifeforce. Reich was concerned with ‘body armour’, tensions and pain held in the body. The boxes were intended to collect and concentrate esoteric energy for their users, healing them through its absorption into the body, but in the end Reich was jailed, and orgone was dismissed as pseudoscience.
Each of McGuinne’s Shell/ters has its own title: Hold Still, Shed Skin and Press Pause. The first is closest to Reich’s original, a cabinet meant for ‘energy transfer’, and encased in steel, glass, polyester and wool. The second contains a large brush for the skin, a reminder of touch, but also of the body’s capacity for renewal. The last is somehow more eerie, and mysterious; a metal box containing only a stool to sit on, and a metal grille on the door to allow in a small amount of light. It’s a Faraday cage; no WiFi or phone signal can enter. It looks a lot like a medieval iron maiden, although McGuinne’s website states that “it is not a sensory deprivation space, but a place to escape from sensory overload.”
What does ‘escape’ look like, in a culture in which work, entertainment, our relationships and even our identities are inextricably linked with the internet? This ‘accumulator’ is ominous, although what Press Pause really seems to suggest – taking time to think, and being alone with ourselves – is entirely practical, and practicable without the box.
Culture shifts; energy is transferred; it strikes me that at this present moment our relationship with technology has progressed from one of adoration to something more complicated. Perhaps soon we’ll put the technologies which define modern life to a different use, looking outward, rather than allowing ourselves to be contained. Perhaps we’ll attain the states and relationships envisioned here in art.
A little like Soylent Green, we are what the internet is made of. The more aware we are of this, the closer we’ll be to changing it for the better.
Woman In The Machine runs at VISUAL Carlow from 4 June – 12 September 2021.
Roisin Kiberd is the author of The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet, available in VISUAL’s bookshop.
- Soylent Green – a 1973 science fiction film depicting an ecological dystopia. Set in 2022, the film depicts in a future in which overpopulation, pollution and climate catastrophe has caused food, water and housing shortages. With natural food out of reach to all but the elite, the population relies on synthetic food produced by a sinister corporation, Soylent Industries. The company claims its most popular product, Soylent Green, is made from plankton, but when analyst Sol and detective Thorn learn that the ocean no longer produces plankton, they set out to uncover what protein source the food product is really made from – and are horrified by the answer.
- IRL – ‘in real life’, an abbreviation used to distinguish between online and offline activity. Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism and other texts have pointed out the fallacy of distinguishing between ‘real life’ and ‘online life’ and advocated for the use of the alternative abbreviation ‘AFK’ or ‘away from keyboard’. “IRL falters in its skewed assumption that constructions of online identities are latent, closeted, and fantasy-oriented (e.g. not real) rather than explicit, bristling with potential, and very capable of ‘living on’ away from the space of cyberspace,” Russell writes. “Instead, AFK as a term works toward undermining the fetishisation of ‘real life’, helping us to see that because realities in the digital are echoed offline, and vice versa, our gestures, explorations, actions online can inform and even deepen our offline, or AFK, existence.”
- Alan Turing (1912–1954) – English mathematician and early computer scientist, who pioneered the fields of computer theory and artificial intelligence. A skilled cryptographer, he worked for Britain’s codebreaking centre during the Second World War, playing a crucial role in breaking wartime Enigma codes. Despite this, Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts and subjected to a chemical castration and died from cyanide poisoning two years later. He received an official pardon in 2014.
- IoT – an abbreviation of the term ‘Internet of Things’. IoT refers to ‘smart devices’ which connect to the internet to gather and communicate real-time data. This might include a lightbulb that can be switched on by a smartphone app, a fitness band that counts your steps, or a driverless car. IoT technology is increasingly used in the medical industry, urban planning and consumer products. Fiona Mc Donald’s use of IoT is in the gathering of environmental data via Taoglas sensors, which she then manipulates to generate sound, image and video.
- Raspberry Pi – a single-board computer that plugs into a monitor or TV. Low cost, small in scale (about the size of a credit card) but high-performance, the Raspberry Pi is used by artists, designers and engineers working with robotics and sensor technology. It is often used to increase literacy in computational media.
- Faraday Cage – an enclosure made from conductive metal that blocks electromagnetic signals from entering or exiting. First developed by the English scientist Michael Faraday in 1836, their technology is now commonly used in power plants, aeroplanes, and microwave ovens.
- Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) – an Austrian psychoanalyst and former student of Sigmund Freud, who fled Nazi Germany only to be imprisoned for his radical ideas in the US. Reich believed traumas were stored in the body as muscle tensions. His ‘orgone accumulators’ were built devices designed to release those tensions by harnessing an energy flow he called ‘orgone’. These accumulators were deemed fraudulent and banned by the FDA in 1947, and Reich was sentenced to two years in prison when he was found to have broken the ban in 1956. He died in prison after the FDA supervised the destruction of the accumulators, and the burning of his books. Despite this, Reich’s ideas have remained influential in psychoanalysis, critical theory and alternative medicine.