Hackable Forests (Draft)
(Unpublished text for "Clouds ⇄ Forest" 7th Moscow Biennial)
Seiha Kurosawa (Assistant Curator)
The criticism of the “Great Division” of western modernism, which dualizes nature/culture, human/non-human, life/non-life or subject/object emerged in between the modern and pre-modern era. It has been actively discussed in the field of philosophy, aesthetics and art theories, anthropology, sociology, life science, and artificial intelligence studies in these decades. Its background can be found in the high interest in the new geological era called “Anthropocene.” It includes the significant human impact on the geology or ecosystem of the Earth, such as rapidly changing natural and urban environments, the use of artificial energy represented by nuclear power, or even the transformation of mind structure of individuals due to the emerging new communication form through highly developing information technology. These inevitable phenomena generally urge our new ecological awareness. It is not a bright ecology; it is probably an era of “anxious” dark ecology, as Timothy Morton insists.
What state of consciousness is appropriate to an age of global warming – apart from just a cry of terrible pain? (Which wouldn’t be a bad reaction…) Is there a poetics that might help point out this state of consciousness? I believe that there is, and have called it ambiance. The ambiance is a poetic enactment of a state of nondual awareness that collapses the subject-object division, upon which it depends on the aggressive territorialization that precipitates ecological destruction. Furthermore, this collapse of subject-object dualism, however in temporary in experience, spontaneously gives rise to howsoever weak a sense of warmth towards one’s world, in which one is included.
The dualistic thinking and its custom of the “Great Division” are the ground of the artificial world or the environment in the era of “Anthropocene.” To survive in such an environment, Timothy Morton suggests the practice of “Ambient Poetics” which collapses such dualism. The strategy of “ambiance” has been significant to be aware of how to live with the vulnerability without denying the artificial world from the viewpoint of human control of nature.
Furthermore, the power of “ambiance” that collapses this ground of dualistic thinking encompasses what one might call “hackability.” The term “hack,” which has been established as a computer terminology, also has negative usage and connotation such as “I’m afraid I can hack it in this world.” This term, along with such “anxious” atmosphere, represents a sense of vigorously breaking and reassembling the environment in front of a man for survival as if one knocked down a confronting forest - it is a radical possibility of acting in pairs with the gentle resonance of the term “ambiance.” At the same time, this term “hack” also acts eccentrically, with fruitless and frivolous applications used in any context in recent years, and it easily decentralizes as well as reassembles the system constructed by the subject-object division. In the current deteriorating environment, this gentle but messy sensation to “ambiance” and “hackability” are the unique creativities for Cloud’s and Forest’s tribes that circulate with each other, which is the basic concept of the biennial, to “survive” in their ecology. This survival technique is not an analogy; it is precisely what occurs in the zone where “great division” that supports modern thinking is melting down as if the Antarctic iceberg melting due to global warming.
This essay will investigate the practice of the biennial participants who powerfully recombine the code of the reality of “anxious” body and environment by utilizing the potentiality of the power of “hackability” and “ambiance.” This reality is occurring in the gap of the “Great Division,” and their expressions decentralize the dualistic thinking habit without focusing on any single term. Thus, their practices function as experiments to seek survivability in this new ecology while crossing over borders of various fields of contemporary art and technology such as plants, animals, artificial intelligence (android), an information network, or biotechnology.
Kanako Azuma’s work Eternal Lovers is based on the note of a botanist Tomitaro Makino, who is known as the father of modern botany in Japan, “Plants smile gently at me as my eternal beloved ones.” Her work focuses on cultivated and reproduced orchids mediated by human beings in Japanese botanical gardens and laboratories. Historically, orchids are one of the most artificially modified plant species for the sake of appreciation. Through delicately showing the contact and intervention between humans and plants as non-human, this work appeals to issues of modern botany, sexuality or eroticism.
The white coat as the authority of the modern natural science seen in this video is not practically necessary to wear in the field of cultivation. Is wearing white coats functioning as the ritual of a manifestation of bio-politics controlling life, and at the same time, a manifestation of awe of plant adaptability to the environment that overcomes human imagination?
Azuma explains that she began to visit highly humid greenhouses and botanical gardens in order to maintain the ecology of her mind. It is becoming worse due to politically and socially changing situations that vary widely in the world, as they provide her a transparent feeling: the outline of her body becomes ambiguous, and herself fluidly interchanges while fusing with the surroundings in the botanical gardens.
Through the dynamics of erotic affection emerging from the contact zone of human and non-human at the field of cultivation and highly humid greenhouse, each subject of human and plants (orchids) transforms by interacting with – “hacking” – each other. With the effect of hacking that mingles both subjects, the artist experiences a sense of transforming “love.” Moreover, the effect of osmosis is generated through the ambient breathing sound of both humans and plants flowing out from work. It also creates the intersection of the gazes to plants from humans and vise Versa. All the existence shown in her work, such as human-plants-insects, mediate each other with the osmosis effect. They penetrate across the boundary and create one ambiance that implicates the various fields of art, eroticism, and politics.
In comparison to love through the osmosis effect of plant species and humans in a modern botanical garden in Azuma’s work, Polish artist Natalia Bazowska illustrates hybrids of various creatures – deer, birds, moss – in her paintings, sculptures and video works. She has a background specializing in Psychiatry, and her works also represent her knowledge of the psychiatric approach, including a sense of dream and symptom. In her video work, Luna (2014) shows a contact between the artist and a wolf protected in a cage as it is separated from its pack. The concept of “companion species” that Donna Haraway describes is exactly illustrated here. In this “contact zone,” as Haraway states, “the Great Divide [Division] of animal/human, nature/culture, organic/technical, and wild/domestic flatten into mundane differences.”
Furthermore, Bazowska’s paintings and sculptures appear to be somewhat abrupt and violent but humorous. These merged interspecies hybrid bodies enable us to sense specific “becomings” that are fragmental, ambiguous, and composite and dispose of the presentation of logical relations between dream-thoughts in the sense of psychoanalytic interpretation. Metaphorically “hacking” the forest, Bazowska’s works collapse our biased understanding of interspecies communication by enabling us to tune to the forest ambiance or “closeness,” including their smell and physical contacts.
On the other hand, the video installation Co(AI)xistence (2017) by Mirai Moriyama and Justine Emard demonstrates an interaction and links between human body gesture and an android, which is still under development in Takashi Ikegami Laboratory in Tokyo University and Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory in Osaka University. Moriyama, an actor as well as a dancer, attempts to communicate with this artificial intelligence. The android challenges to imitate Moriyama’s gesture; however, its range of motion is limited and shows a clumsy movement. This work presents a pre-structured and pre-verbalized physical communication. Here, a new technique of the posthuman era can be found through the contact of Moriyama and the android. It is the technique of “the play,” which suspends modern dual terms of nature and humans mentioned by Giorgio Agamben, referring to Walter Benjamin. Literally Speaking, “the play” between Moriyama and the android brings a state “at a standstill” to the dual terms. Through an almost animistic method of capturing the language, they share a certain level of communication that also involves communion in the era of a new ecology by utilizing their unstructured language as we can see that they try to dance together and liaise in the latter part of the video. One might be able to say that this communion is the share of the “ambiance.” When they stop the division of life/non-life – keep them at a standstill- by the technique of “the play,” we can realize the emergence of their environmental sphere itself. It is also possible to say that this ambiance generated through the communication at the era of a new ecosystem is obtained from “hacking” (playing with) each other: hacking of arithmetic processing and human body gesture.
The bio artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is questioning another kind of future ecosystem with her works. In her project, 《Designing for Sixth Extinction》, she investigates and simulates an impact of artificial synthetic organisms on existing ecosystems and biodiversity. By applying designed synthetic organisms, the artist questions: “Could we tolerate ‘rewilding’ — the conservation movement that lets nature take control using synthetic biology to make nature ‘better’? […] The taxonomic status of organisms that are technologically isolated with no purpose except to save others is also uncertain. Are they even ‘alive’?” As Morton is critical to the current dominating environmentalism that emerges from the dualism of nature and humans, it is uneasy about separating a “natural” ecosystem from an “artificial” ecosystem. In the current circumstances, the question of how to preserve biodiversity fundamentally involves genetic “hackability” of fungus, bacteria, invertebrates, or mammals. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, who discuss multispecies ethnography, states about bio-art as follows.
If Foucault understood biopolitics as disciplinary forms for optimization, coercion, and control of biology, then bio art is organized around attempts to detour, derail, or expose these regimes of domination and systems for managing “life.”
Following Kirksey and Helmreich’s point, we notice that Ginsberg “hacks” and displaces the dominant regimes and systems for managing life in a slightly forcible manner. That is to say; she challenges to preserve particular ecology while decomposing the current environmentalism in the era of Anthropocene.
Nile Koetting’s installation Sustainable Hours reveals multiple inter-material ecologies. This autonomous installation is composed of several readymades, such as solar panels, aroma diffusers, speakers, Wi-Fi router, and evokes perception towards new materiality and potentiality of inter-material communication without being mediated by humans. The artist purchased these products comprising the installation mainly through recommendation by Amazon. This installation contains unique sustainability that utilizes a solar power system without relying on an external power source while also referring to the algorithm of Amazon. Occasionally, anemic vocaloid’s flattened voices from the lyrics of various punk music from the 70s to the 90s are repeated. As various elements - invisible wireless Wi-Fi, flattened sounds of puck vocals, artificial lights from the Speakers and LED products – responding to each other, the installation as a whole creates a posthuman organic atmosphere: a specific zone. As if reflecting the dark ecological situation, it indicates a decentralized and standardized environmental sphere of “No Future” or “No Feeling,” which slightly differs from dystopian cosmology in the 80s highly represented in the film Blade Runner (1982). This work, therefore, impinges the audience with flattened materiality and the decentralized ambiance. In the current time, the invisible algorithm of cloud networks or big data almost inevitably interacts with our bodies. However, this installation rewrites the code of “anxiety” in the age of Dark Ecology by taking over and reassembling the algorithm. Here, even the DNA of the distorted thinking “No Future” is decoded and recombined. It creates an autonomous and sustainable-viable territory while showing that the algorithms, information, or readymade, which has already become part of our physical environment, is potentially “hackable.” The audience comes into contact with what one might call “hackable zone” in this installation, and with its weird comfortableness, their physical materiality gradually melt into its ambiance; at the same time, the audience can be linked to a different level of information space as they can connect to the Internet through the Wi-Fi which is also part of the installation. Therefore, the audience can experience alternatives and potentiality of our sustainability-survivability through their bodies by sensing the “hackable zone.”
Meanwhile, Koji Nakazono, a painter of the same generation as Nile Koetting, expresses the contemporary primitive notion as well as the emerging mental condition and its physicality created by digital technology through multilayered oil paintings. He creates a sophisticated pictorial space through multiple deep layers of stratified images of various outlined portraits, background motifs, and primitive appearance floating like a ghost.
While he respects an orthodox framework of oil painting methods, his style is free from it. He often utilizes various available media such as his fingers, elbows, or tissue papers to blur various boundaries of concrete/abstract or color/monochrome of which paintings tend to create by default.
He explains that what is painted “inside” the painting is not significant. Instead, it is what he calls “outer edge” generated through a more valuable combination of multiple paintings. In this sense, what he evaluates the most is not the focus on one specific motif or methodology, but the ambient extensity emerged from numerous layers of multiple paintings. By sensing the “outer edge” of his works, we can imagine the matière derived from his finger stroke in the same way as touching a screen of his smartphone or pale expressions of ghostly floating bodies of “anxiety” - that can be called neo-primitivism - as if getting lost in a deep forest.
Besides, he is also known for his adventurous personality and habitat that he often walks up alone to mountains or bays in the midnight and come back in the early morning. As if a child plays in a sandbox, he plays and “hacks” the hidden dynamics of “anxiety” in the deep ambiance of the natural environment. From this perspective, we can withdraw the notion of “uninhibitedness” that differs from the modern concept of “freedom” from his paintings.
Morton states the challenge of Ambient Poetics as follows.
We destroy atavism and religious sincerity in caring for the environment in the name of delight and passion, always making room for more writing, more songs, and more care for our world.
The practices of these participating artists of the biennial are questioning how we can care for our world together with and within the world through the mild power of ambiance and hackability as its radical power source. In the very moment of the meltdown of the modern “Great Division,” on the one hand, the circulation of clouds and forests is a new ecosystem as the metabolism of “hope,” but on the other hand, it is also generating enigmatic “anxious” conditions. These artists sometimes enfold the various boundaries with ambiance and sometimes recombine them through hackability, and they attempt to survive without focusing on any single term of their surroundings. They consciously or unconsciously confront this weird dark ecological time through this unique creative survivability. This kind of will slips out when we try to grasp its concept, but at the same time, it is a new decentralized will involving all of us with a certain level of haptic sensation.
 Morton, Timothy. (2002). Why Ambient Poetics? Outline for a Depthless Ecology. The Wordsworth Circle. Vol. 33, No. 1, ROMANTICISM AND THE PHYSICAL: A Collection of Essays from the 2000 NASSR Conference (Winter, 2002), pp. 52-56: 52
See Haraway, Donna., (2003). The Companion Species Manifesto. Prickly Paradigm.
Haraway uses the terminology “companion species” instead of companion animal to point out human species have been historically, culturally and or socially affected by many species that do not fall into the animal category, and implode nature and culture mainly through looking at the joint lives of dogs and people, who are bonded in "significant otherness"
Haraway, Donna. (2007). When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press: 15
Agamben, Giorgio. Translated by Attell, Kevin. (2003). The Open: Man and Animal. Stanford University Press: 83. Please refer to the following:
Rather, according to the Benjaminian model of a “dialectic at a standstill,” what is decisive here is only the “between,” the interval or, we might say, the play between the two terms, their immediate constellation in a non-coincidence. The anthropological machine no longer articulates nature and man in order to produce the human through the suspension and capture of the inhuman. The machine is, so to speak, stopped; it is “at a standstill,” and, in the reciprocal suspension of the two terms, something for which we perhaps have no name and which is neither animal nor man settles in between nature and humanity and holds itself in the mastered relation, in the saved night.
 The artist’s website: http://www.daisyginsberg.com/work/designing-for-the-sixth-extinction
[Accessed on December 12th, 2017]
 See Kirksey, Eben & Helmreich, Stefan. (2010). The Emergence Of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology. 25. 545 – 576: 557
Morton, Timothy. (2002). Why Ambient Poetics? Outline for a Depthless Ecology. The Wordsworth Circle. Vol. 33, No. 1, ROMANTICISM AND THE PHYSICAL: A Collection of Essays from the 2000 NASSR Conference (Winter, 2002), pp. 52-56: 55