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.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Transduction, Transmateriality, and Expanded Computing

In common usage a transducer is a device that converts one kind of energy to another. Wikipedia lists a fantastic variety of transducers, mapping out links between thermal, electrical, magnetic, electrochemical, kinetic, optical and acoustic energy. In this form transducers are everywhere: a light bulb transduces electrical energy into visible light (and some heat). A loudspeaker transduces fluctuations in voltage into physical vibrations that we perceive as sound.

In analog media, transduction is overt (put the needle on the record...). But digital media are riddled with it too. Inputs and output devices all contain transducers: the keyboard transduces motion into voltage; the screen transforms voltage into light; the hard drive mediates between voltage and electromagnetic fields. A printer takes in patterns of voltage and emits patterns of ink on a page. Strictly transduction only refers to transformations between different energy types; here I want to extend it to talk about all the propagating matter and energy within something like a computer, as well as those between that system and the rest of the world. From this transmaterial perspective a computer is a cluster of linked mechanisms and substrates; a machine for shifting patterns through time and space.

If this sounds unfamiliar, it's only by historical accident. Mechanical computers, where these patterns are physically perceptible, predate electrical (let alone digital) ones, by centuries (above: a replica of Konrad Zuse's Z1, a mechanical computer from 1936. Image by rreis). Materially, our current computers are more or less black box systems. Their transductions come as a sort of preconfigured bundle or network, a set of familiar relations constructed again by mixtures of hard- and software, protocols, standards: generalising frameworks. I press a key, a letter appears; this is all I need to know. Click "OK". No user-serviceable parts inside.

Except that currently, across the media arts and a whole slew of other fields, the computer is undergoing a rich and productive decomposition. It's composting, to borrow a Sterlingism. This goes under all kind of different names: hardware hacking, device art, homebrew electronics, physical computing. Such practices mount a direct assault on the computer as a material black box, literally and figuratively cracking it open, hooking it up to new inputs and outputs, extending and expanding its connections with the environment. Microcontrollers like the Arduino present us with nothing but a row of bare I/O pins. Finally we can tackle the question of what should go in, and what should come out: of transduction. A whole generation of artists, designers, nerds and tinkerers are taking up soldering irons and doing just that. Below: the Spoke-o-dometer from Rory Hyde and Scott Mitchell's Open Source Urbanism project.

One side-effect of this decomposition of computing is that the ontological status of the digital starts to break down with it. As Kirschenbaum shows brilliantly, the digital is just the analog operating within certain tolerances or threshholds. Thomas Traxler's The Idea of a Tree (below) is a solar-powered system that fabricates objects from epoxy, dye and string, by turning a spindle. Solar energy generates electrical energy, which drives the motor, which draws the string through the dye and onto the spindle: a chain of analog transductions produce an object that manifests specific changes in its local environment. The work is a beautiful demonstration that variability doesn't have to be worked up with generative code: if the system is open to it, it's already there in the flux of the material field.

This is not to dismiss computing, only to recast it: an incredibly dynamic, pliable set of techniques for manipulating the material environment. Paradoxically the very generalities of computing - the abstractions and protocols that insulate it from local, material conditions - make it a powerful tool for transduction, that is, the propagation of specificities. Usman Haque's Pachube is a generalised infrastructure, a set of protocols and standards that rest in turn on wider standards like XML, and which assume a whole stack of functional layers: IP, HTTP, and so on. All in order to propagate material patterns and flows from here to there: this is an architecture of transduction whose utopian aim is to "patch the planet" into a translocal ecology of linked environments.

Digital fabrication is part of the same shift: an expansion and extension of the computer's range of material transductions. Digital pattern, to lasercutter instructions, to physical form. Fabbing shows how material matters. It's unsurprising that a piece of laser-cut ply is aesthetically different to a luminous pattern of pixels; more interesting is the way computation reaches out into the substrate's material properties, and the range of potential applications and domains it opens up. Fabbing has often presented itself with a narrative of materialisation, making the virtual real, translating bits into atoms - Generator.x 2.0 was subtitled "Beyond the Screen." Not so: because of course, the "virtual" never was, and the screen is material too. Fabbing does get us beyond the screen, but only because its processes and materials have different properties, different specificities, and they hook us up to new contexts, as well as new sensations. (Below: Andreas Nicolas Fischer & Benjamin Maus: Reflection - from 5 Days Off: Frozen)

Transduction suggests a way to link practices like physical computing, fabrication, networked environments, and many more. Data visualisation - in the broadest sense, from poetic to fuctionalist - is about creating customised transductions, sourcing new inputs and/or manifesting new outputs (even if they don't reach "beyond the screen"). We could add tangible interfaces, augmented reality, and locative systems. What does all this amount to? In 1970 Gene Youngblood observed a similar moment as the dominant cultural form diversified into a networked, participatory, interdisciplinary field of practices. He called it expanded cinema. So perhaps we can call this expanded computing: digital media and computation as material flows, turned outwards, transducing anything to anything else.