Philipp Oswalt (Translation Tas Skorupa) | 1998
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Designing Nature

Human beings long for nature as something unspoiled and unadulterated. The more civilization advances, the more pronounced this longing becomes. The industrialization of the nineteenth century produced the enthusiasm for nature of the Romantic period, and in the last decades of the twentieth century the ecology movement turned the cry for preserving the natural foundation of life into a general consensus of society. At the same time, the origins of human activity are based on the desire to no longer be subject to nature's game of chance. Culture emerges from the transformation of nature, and it is thus not a coincidence that one speaks of cultivating (kultivieren) farmland. The German word Kultur (culture) derives from the Latin word cultura, which refers to agriculture as well as the care of the body and mind. The philosopher Vilém Flusser describes the connection using the gesture of planting: 'Planting means to dig holes in order to force nature to become unnatural (cultural). The basic attitude of the gesture of planting is to make the unpredictable necessary. Planting has naturally become more technical in the course of the past millennia because the theoretical distance to it has constantly increased. But all this was essentially part of the original Neolithic gesture of planting, that is, the decision to turn nature in its own legitimacy against nature itself. Thus thanks to the gesture of planting mankind has lived in an artificial world since the Neolithic age.'[ 1 ]
Humans create their own world, with laws which they can decide on and control themselves. 'Nature' is being replaced more and more by 'culture' in our lives. Due to the advancement of this process a reversal has come about: While culture used to be a counter to nature and a liberation of humans from the random chance of nature, today the idea of nature is a counter to culture and a liberation of man from the restraints which he created himself. Yet since nature is no longer something given, but something made, the presumed release from the restraints of culture becomes a utopia. That which we generally call 'nature' is to a great extent culture, and is controlled and constructed by man.
Landscapes have been profoundly transformed by the agrarian and tourism industries, by the mining of raw materials and obtaining of energy, and by the regulating of rivers and infrastructures, but at the same time the richest and most varied biotopes have emerged in quarries and urban wastelands. As this millennium-long transformation continues, we find ourselves at the turn of an era which is fundamentally changing our understanding of 'culture' and 'nature.' Two new key technologies are decisive: biotechnology and the newer development of computer technology, the key words being 'artificial intelligence' and 'artificial evolution.'
The progressive decoding of the construction principles of life make it possible for human beings to selectively interfere with the building plan of living beings, to change existing living beings as they wish, and to conceive of new living beings - at least theoretically. In 1982 it was possible for the first time to produce a human hormone of genetically manipulated bacteria; in 1990 a seriously ill person was successfully treated for the first time by interfering with his genetic substance. The genetic code of humans is almost completely decoded. Current biotechnology makes it possible to obtain, produce, transform, and break down a great number of substances from microbe, animal, or plant cells.[ 2 ] Microbes obtain raw materials such as copper, zinc, or uranium from ore; bacteria clean contaminated land or produce biodegradable synthetic materials. Genetically manipulated plants produce lubricants for machines or even human antibodies and vaccines.
At the same time technical constructions of humans increasingly take on characteristics which up to now were reserved for the living. This includes self-repair, self-regulation, ability to learn, and self-reproduction. Since the seventies computer scientists have been working with 'genetic algorithms' and 'artificial evolution.' Since the end of the eighties the former zoologist Tom Ray has been experimenting with computer programs that reproduce, mutate, and also die. On his computer he prepared 'cultures' of computer viruses which produced forms of sexuality and parasitism on their own in an evolutionary process. Ray follows the idea of 'digital agriculture' for 'cultivating' new computer programs on the evolutionary path.[ 3 ] Computer sciences are thus undergoing a paradigm shift from linear chains of cause and effect to complex structures, from constructing to self-sufficient evolution.
Due to these developments, the boundaries between 'natural' and 'artificial' become blurred. Both spheres begin to merge. In medicine for example, parts of the nervous system are beginning to be replaced with electronic parts. The earliest example of this was the pacemaker. By now, electronic sensors have been developed which even replace the sensory organs of humans. Thus formerly deaf people can hear again thanks to electronic implants in their nervous system. Due to the lack of donor organs, methods are being developed for cultivating artificial organs. In tissue engineering a supportive construction of biodegradable plastic is, so to speak, sowed with cells which multiply and merge until they almost totally fill the form. Then the plastic dissolves and the living tissue remains.[ 4 ] Computer technology works increasingly with organic substances which are inserted into electronic devices, for example as 'biosensors.' In 1994 the American Leo Adelmann developed the first DNA computer which, using amino acid sequences of genes, can solve certain types of mathematical problems faster than any conventional computer. Nature thus becomes artificial and technical, while technology becomes alive. The direct connection of life and technical construction, once a fantasy of science fiction films with their cyborgs, has become reality.
This synthesis is not only taking place on the level of living beings, but also in their interplay in the ecosystem. With the start of space travel after World War II, the science of ecology turned from an analytic to a projective way of working. The desire to support life beyond the biosphere of the earth for short periods of time required designing temporary ecosystems for changed basic conditions. From these first attempts the science of 'industrial ecology' was created, the goal of which was to induce manmade matter and energy to circulate naturally. It was not a matter of being as close to nature as possible, but of integrating technical civilization and nature in one system.[ 5 ]
A simple example of this is the greenhouses in which flowers, tomatoes, and other vegetables are cultivated without soil in a purely chemical nutritive solution and with artificial lighting and air conditioning. These ecosystems are cut off from the external cycles of days and seasons which make it possible to double the diurnal rhythm of the plants, thereby also doubling their growth.
Along with the agricultural industry the tourism branch has developed into one of the important 'producers of nature.' In the last few decades a tremendous number of swimming pools with wave movement, indoor ski trails, and halls for climbing have been built which enable people to engage in outdoor sports independent of location and season. The artificial landscapes are not only safer and more comfortable than their natural models, they are also changeable. For example, the slant of the walls in the climbing halls can be varied, and by changing the configurations of panels numerous climbing routes can be generated. Every year in Europe these sorts of artificial landscapes are visited by millions of visitors who in many cases are no longer interested in visiting unspoiled nature, instead preferring the increased intensity of the imitation.
Close to conurbations large glass buildings have been erected in which short-term vacationers can experience a simulated version of the South Seas for a few days. The Dutch company Center Parcs runs thirteen such vacation centers which are visited by over three million guests each year. The most varied landscapes, attractions, and events can be found in a relatively small area - jungle, cliffs, white water rafting, walls for climbing, sandy beaches and palms, lagoons with coral reefs, ski trails for snowboarders, ship wrecks, Turkish steam baths, and whirlpools. The artificiality makes possible the connection of nature and comfort, of adventure and safety.[ 6 ]
The artificial nature of Center Parcs is easily reached by autobahn, can be enjoyed regardless of the weather, and is comfortably and easily consumable. Since it is both condensed and intensified, the nature of Center Parcs seems to be superior to nature outside. The desire for maximal intensity of experience takes the place of authenticity and unspoiledness. Tourism researchers have ascertained that expectations of the consumers have changed and that a new type of tourist has emerged. The so-called 'post-tourist' no longer searches for authenticity, but sees himself as a self-confident participant in a game in which artificial worlds like Las Vegas, Disney World, or the postmodern shopping mall can be more attractive than supposedly authentic places and landscapes.
The curator Jeffrey Deitch commented as follows on the occasion of an exhibition about artificial nature: 'Now, with the direction of science toward the creation of artificial life forms and a computerized virtual reality, and with the emphasis on image, rather than substance (...) the traditional search for truth has perhaps become obsolete. There is no longer one absolute reality, but the possibility of multiple realities, each one as 'real' or as artificial as the others. (...) It may be that the end of Modernism not only coincides with the end of nature, but with the end of truth.'[ 7 ]
The realization that nature is no longer something given, but something made, is immensely gratifying. On the one hand, we can think up alternative natures. But with this realization we also lose the ground under our feet, because there is no more certainty. The authentic no longer exists, nor the self-evident, the natural. This requires, according to Vilém Flusser, a totally new way of thinking in politics, ethics, science, and religion: 'I am convinced that we will have to rethink all categories, if not give them up. This is not at all the case of falling back into the fascist biological way of thinking of the recent bloody past, since biology is in fact no longer seen as the unchanged given, but on the contrary as that which has to be designed.'[ 8 ]
The ideal of the eternal and the absolute, of demarcation and control are being questioned. The artifacts are taking on a life of their own. The self-regulating self has taken the place of engineers, artists, and authors. The American journalist Kevin Kelley sums up the latest developments of biotechnology and computer technology in his book Out of Control as follows: 'The world of the made will soon be like the world of the born: autonomous, adaptable, and creative, but also consistently beyond our control.'[ 9 ]
The fusion of technology and nature marks the turn away from the mechanical age; the fusion of biotechnology and computer science does not only question the exact, the standardized, and the homogenous, but just as much the calculable and the predictable. It discovers the amorphous, living, and unpredictable, the autonomously evolving. This results in an expansion of the programmatic, thematic, as well as the formal canon which can today be realized just as much by means of technical constructions as by 'natural' substances. Thinking in linear chains of cause and effect is replaced by network thinking, constructing by evolving and artificial evolution. Instead of demarcation and division, there is integration and linking; instead of the true, the possible; instead of the unspoiled, intensity; instead of supremacy, intervention.
We are at the beginning of a radical cultural, political, and ethical change which will transform the everyday life of every one of us. 'We can't hold onto anything anymore: neither to things nor ourselves,' writes Flusser. 'All realizations and all values are projections of a temporary consensus, and freedom consists of taking part in working out the consensus and its projection. In fleeting moments of understanding we begin to pull ourselves out of submissiveness into designing, in full knowledge of the fact of how uncomfortable, dangerous, and unpromising the adventure is, which we have to accept.'[ 10 ] The artificiality of nature is the subject of the Dutch Pavilion. It thus refers to the radical change we are experiencing now. At the same time, it experiments with their possibilities and implications, and offers possible scenarios. It wants to promote designing nature, not as something for specialists only, but as a project of society.
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Footnotes :
[ 1 ] Vilém Flusser, Gesten: Versuch einer Phänomenologie, Bensheim/Dusseldorf 1991, p. 171.
[ 2 ] See John E. Smith, Biotechnology, Cambridge 1996, p. 2.
[ 3 ] Kevin Kelley, Out of Control. The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization, New York 1994; Tom Ray, 'Evolution as Artist,' in C. Sommer and L. Mignonnneau (eds.), Art@Science, Vienna 1998, pp. 81ff.
[ 4 ] R. Langer and J. Vacanti, 'Künstlich gebildete Organe,' in Spektrum der Wissenschaft (special issue 4: 'Schlüsseltechnologien'), Heidelberg 1995, p. 80ff.
[ 5 ] Kelley 1994 (note 3).
[ 6 ] Center Parks catalogue 97/98 of Center Parks GmbH, Cologne.
[ 7 ] In Artificial Nature, catalogue of the exhibition with the same name, Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens 1990.
[ 8 ] Vilém Flusser, 'Leben und Leben lassen,' in Spuren 24, July - August 1988, pp. 19ff.
[ 9 ] Kelley 1994 (note 3).
[ 10 ] Vilém Flusser, Vom Subjekt zum Projekt: Menschwerdung, ed. Stefan Bollmann and Edith Flusser, Bensheim/Dusseldorf, pp. 24ff.

Philipp Oswalt

published in : Thesis, Wissenschaftliche Zeitung der Bauhaushochschule, 5. Heft | Weimar | 1998
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