Friday, May 15, 2009

Landscape, Slow Data and Self-Revelation

This text was an invited contribution to Kerb 17: Is Landscape Architecture Dead? This looks like a rich volume with a sharp critical edge, and a swathe of interesting material spanning architecture, urbanism, art and landscape. Unfortunately my contribution was edited fairly severely; so here's the unabridged version. Redundancy warning for regular readers: there's a slight rehash of Watching the Sky in here; but afterwards there's fresh material on landscape / data projects by Driessens and Verstappen and Usman Haque.

Data is, we imagine, an immaterial thing; or at least ethereal, made of light and electricity, processed at superhuman speed, transmitted in real time. The everyday world we move in seems dense and slow by comparison. The landscape is slower again; thick, heavy and persistent. At the moment however those two domains, the fast lightness of data and the heavy slowness of the landscape, are urgently linked. We are faced with the prospect of momentous change in the landscape that is somehow both slow and fast; too slow for our real-time culture to grasp, and too fast for the living systems of the landscape to adapt to. This paper presents a handful of works that dwell in that disjunction, between landscape and data; not solving it at all, but at least forming links, complicating assmptions, and recasting the relationship between two terms that seem to neatly encapsulate our future.

In Watching the Sky a camera looks out my office window, at the sky and the landscape. A banal view over a university campus to a bushy ridge in Belconnen. The camera takes an image every three minutes; four hundred and eighty images in twenty four hours. Tethered to a computer, the camera records for weeks at a time; the computer accumulates thousands of images. I think of the images as data, traces of change in the world outside the office window. I visualise, or re-visualise, this image data in the simplest possible way; an automated process "cuts" a narrow vertical slit from the same location in each image, and compiles all these slits together (this is a digital imitation of an analog photographic technique known as "slit-scan"). In the rectangular visualisations the slices are tiled from left to right. In the radial visualisations slices are gradually rotated so that a twenty-four-hour period spans one complete revolution (the "seam" is at midnight).

In the resulting images the patterns of change within and between days are immediately visible. As I imagined, day and night, cloud and sky are obvious. The brief, delicate colour shifts of dawn and dusk were more surprising. Below the horizon, though, patterns appeared that complicated the work's nominal focus on the sky. It became clear that some of the richest and most revealing data here came from the landscape. In one of the earliest sketches I found small but distinct variations in the horizon line over the course of a day, and recurring on successive days. I eventually realised that this was caused by the afternoon breeze, shifting foliage by a few pixels within the frame. In other words, subtle changes in the material field of the landscape carried through to the image data. Moreover in many ways the landscape visualises its own internal structure: the trees blowing in the breeze are partly instruments, revealing material changes around them (the breeze); but also data, traceable as pixels. In many images the passage of a shadow across the ground appears as a recurring pattern, an enfolded or multiplexed representation of another set of material interactions; the landscape measures and reveals itself, but not as an object, image or view. It is a connective, dynamic, material system; what is revealed are the specific interactions of that system with itself. The image data acts as a kind of core sample, drilling through multiple spatial and material systems, but each is connected outwards, beyond the frame. The wind in the trees doesn't belong to this image, but like the angle of the sun revealed in the shadow, is an index of a wider system.

It also became clear that the landscape is densely packed with human, social data which is equally apparent in image data. In the rectangular visualisations presented here stripes of colour are visible towards the bottom of the frame. These are caused by cars, parked illegally under the trees; they form another ad-hoc graph that reflects cultural, institutional calendars and cycles, though again they are intermingled with other scales and structures.

Landscape is also cast as a self-revealing instrument in Driessens and Verstappen's Tschumi Tulips project. This landscape installation occupied the Tschumi Pavilion, in Hereplein, Groningen, during the northern Spring in 2008. The pavilion is a rectilinear glass container, rising at an angle from the surrounding park. In this installation the artists filled the base of this box with soil and planted over ten thousand white tulips. A matching array of tulips was planted outside, extending the line of the pavilion. Like scientists, the artists set up two identical subjects, but vary their environment: ten thousand tulips inside, ten thousand outside. A webcam reveals how these variations in environment are slowly materialised in the life of the tulips. The tulips inside grow, bloom and then, wonderfully, decay more rapidly than their twins outside. As in Watching the Sky, long time spans are compressed into human-scale time and space; and here too digital imaging plays a pragmatic role in that revelation. Deployed in rectangular masses we can easily read the flowers as abstract, sculptural materials; organic pattern and variation enframed and aestheticised. But at the same time the work has a kind of deadpan resonance, a rendition of life, and death, inside a greenhouse.

The Huey-Dewey-Louie Climate Clock, by Usman Haque and Robert Davis, addresses the long timescales of environmental change head-on in a proposal that further develops this articulation of slow data and landscape. The clock is a multi-layered system of autonomous machines and material processes. The "Huey" agent slowly builds "accretion mounds" using material extracted from the atmosphere and formed into accumulating conical stacks over the course of a year; like tree rings or geological strata these embed environmental materials directly into a designed representation. The "Dewey" element is a circular array of one hundred transparent containers, in which air and biomass samples are preserved year by year. Like Driessens and Verstappen's Tulips, Haque and Davis propose a biological instrument of one hundred genetically identical daffodils, which are sown and harvested each year, then entombed in the plinths - again a simple grid, a layer of invariance is imposed that allows the landscape to essentially represent itself, materially. Finally Louie, an autonomous solar-powered robot, gathers soil samples and compresses them into cubes, one per day. The surface of each cube is imprinted with some current data point - chosen by daily popular vote; perhaps oil price, or rainfall. So here fast, real-time, socially selected data comes to rest directly on the slow, material medium of the soil.

At one stage, not long ago, it may have seemed that we were leaving the landscape behind, or drafting it in only in as a support or substrate for the flickering patterns of real-time culture. Even now, that seems possible: the monthly figure for new housing construction, a bellwether for economic growth, is imposed on the landscape by earthmovers and roadbuilders, underscored by raw mounds of earth. The works presented here suggest an alternative role, perhaps an alternative future for the landscape; as slow data and slow instrument, a complex material system that can be subtly designed into self-revelation.

No comments: