The Slowness of Digital Ecologies in Practice
Words by Noemi Duroux (with the Digital Ecologies Team)
Photography by Karolina Uskakovych
The 2022 Digital Ecologies in Practice conference took place at the University of Bonn on 28th and 29th July 2022. The first day of the conference involved a range of exhibitions and activities from artists and designers speculating on the futures of human-nature relations in a digitised world. The projects presented spanned diverse media, from audio to video to virtual reality. In this blog, I offer reflections on these exhibits and examine them through the lens of slowness, a key concept that emerged from discussions among artists, designers, and participants.
Michelle Bastian writes “when one understands time as agency, seeing nature as without significant changes, without time, is to also see it as without agency” (Bastian 2009, 102-103). By incorporating slowness into interactions with technology, the materialities and agencies of nature in the process of digital mediation can be brought into sharp focus.
A key presentation spurring these reflections on slowness came from interdisciplinary artist and researcher Matthew Halpenny. The Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) Matthew presented are open-source battery devices that harvest energy using ions produced by microbial metabolism (Halpenny 2022). Crucially, the MFCs are both living and non-living; consisting of moss, microbes, and organic matter, as well as anodes, cathodes, and other electronic components. “The mosses gather sunlight and produce sugar to feed microbes living amongst their root-like rhizoids. The microbes then produce ions which slowly accumulate to be sent in a pulse to the e-ink screen” (Halpenny 2022). This e-ink screen then displays Matthew’s project, Slow Serif, which involves the production of a novella by machine learning technologies. Several academic texts on climate change, capitalism, and slowness – such as Isabelle Stengers’ Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science – are fed into the programme, which then produces the novella – a string of bizarre and nonsensical, yet wonderful and sometimes insightful sentences. Yet this production is slow, and the supply of energy is not endless but takes time to replenish. “To overuse Slow Serif invites decay within the mosses, to care for them invites a slow and symbiotic exchange. This “slowness” that accompanies the generation of the novella prerequisites that we wait and reflect on each new word, disrupting the immediacy that is usually followed by the digital content we consume” (Halpenny 2022). Matthew also connected the MFCs to a lightbulb during his performance, but it barely managed a flicker over the course of the hour-long demonstration. To function, these technologies require patience and care, calling into question expectations of ‘energy immediacy’ (Halpenny, 2022).
Slowness thus creates space for contemplation. Matthew told us that while trying to power different websites using the MFCs it became clear that some websites require much more energy than others. The slowness of this technology’s energy generation, combined with Matthew’s detailed technological and ecological outline of how it worked, helped to understand the materiality of electricity production in an especially visceral way. These slow technologies, therefore, may act as a tool to address the commonly perceived immateriality of digital technologies and to critique modernity’s desire for speed; for instant energy (and accompanying social addictions to instant gratification). In reference to complex texts, Michelle Bastian (2009, 106) writes: “One must learn to work at a slower pace in order to appreciate them. In this way they have the capacity to challenge the consumerist desire for immediate wish-fulfilment and also offer a counterpoint to the breakneck speed that has come to characterize the capitalist world.” Slow Serif encouraged the audience to slowly read seemingly nonsensical texts, but in waiting for the text to emerge, we inevitably began to contemplate the fragments of ideas that were present in the novella.
Joe Revans, a recent graduate of the MA Material Futures course at Central Saint Martins in London, shared his speculative documentary After Wilding, exploring the future of Maple Farm, a rewilding project on former pastureland in the south of England. He interviews three participants – the volunteer, the wilder, and the landowner – and asks them to transport themselves to 2042 and to reflect on an imagined 20 years of progress. These interviews play over 360° video footage of Maple Farms. On one half of the screen, we see the farm in 2022 (the present), while on the other half, we see it transform over the course of 20 years. Joe materialised this ‘synthetic’ future using machine-learning technologies that use maps to forecast – or ‘dream up’ – future landscapes. “Narratives of the past, present and future are central to the theory and practice of rewilding” (Revans 2022, 72).
After Wilding was an exercise in speculation; using historical maps to determine what the landscape used to look like in the past in order to inform imaginaries of what the landscape could look like in the future. Joe’s work was thus penetrated by a non-linear narrative: using history to inform the future while simultaneously using this future to inform the present. In this work, the slow and speculative nature of rewilding was rendered visible in computer-generated grainy, fluid images that catalysed the future without imposing it. Their morphing, smudged, and glitchy appearance instilled a sense of waiting into the audience. Instead of cleaving a successfully rewilded future into the present, rushing to the end point, the audience is left to contemplate the temporality of the changing landscape, as the camera slowly pans round and round never arriving to the future.
In contrast to the waiting necessitated by both Matthew and Joe’s exhibits, Jonathon Turnbull and Adam Searle beamed us instantly into a digital zoo with species and landscapes from across the globe via their exhibit Nature Buffering. Interspersed with plants, the exhibit consisted of a dozen computer monitors broadcasting live audio-video footage of a diverse array of landscapes and species into the room from webcams all around the world. An osprey nest in Scotland, a peregrine nestbox in Sheffield (see Searle, Turnbull, and Adams 2022), a livestream of the northern lights in Manitoba, a panda enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, beluga whales in Hudson Bay, a waterhole in south Africa, a bee ‘hivecam’, and more greeted visitors as they walked into a room filled with a cacophony of nonhuman ambient sounds from each live broadcast.
Yet while Nature Buffering was characterised by liveness and immediacy, it also had parallels with the Slow TV movement (Jørgensen 2014). The animals and natural phenomena onscreen were not always visible, often wandering (or flying) offscreen, and remaining still or inactive for long periods of time. The juxtaposition of livestreaming technologies with the slow, everyday temporalities of the nonhumans onscreen created interesting affective relations between humans and nonhumans. The desktop computers on which the livestreams were broadcast, surrounded by houseplants and a typical office environment, created a space well equipped for reflection on the everyday role of such livestreams in people’s lives; playing in the background for their calming stillness and predictability, with the occasional thrill (Searle, Turnbull, and Adams 2022).
Érodé, a piece composed by Guillaume Malaret, a French sound artist, composer, field recordist, and sound designer involved a 17-minute-long composition inspired by Guillaume’s trips to the southern coast of Australia. He used sound editing to reflect the process of the geological landscape’s erosion. Made for immersive listening, the composition remains mostly calm and rhythmic, but is interrupted by waves crashing against rocks. Guillaume described three ‘realms of sound’ that he brings together in this work – the biophony (sounds of nature), the anthrophony (human sounds), and the geophony (sounds of the geological landscape). Audio is a unique way of bridging these categories. Technology can be used to isolate each of them from the other, to listen to them individually, but they can also be combined and listened to as one entity – blurring the separation between humans, nature, and landscapes. Interestingly, this practice is often used in mindfulness to encourage groundedness and contemplation of one’s embodiment: listen to the whole, then pick out individual sources of sound.
Slowness in audio format creates a sense of time being stretched out, bringing about a temporality often associated with epochs that predate the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration. Technology here is used as the mediator between the perceived divide between human and nonhuman worlds. Guillaume also uses technology to experience sounds that would be impossible to hear without technological assistance, placing microphones in nooks of the eroding stone and off the side of a cliff. His field recordings, therefore, provide an audio experience that is spatially as well as temporally stretched – an expansion of the sound spectrum which creates a novel listening situation from an imaginary point of view. This techno-soundscape evokes an inherently more-than-human experience, recomposing mediated and distorted sonorities.
Guillaume’s project had this decentring in common with Jan Christian Schulz’s exhibit Prosthetic Sensorium. Jan’s inflatable object reflects and refracts the ecosystem in which it is situated via vibration sensors and microphones that produce sounds. With sensors and microphones all around it, the object produced sounds—sometimes bizarre and unexpected—that could be distorted as it was touched, dragged, or contorted. The project is honest about the inability of humans to perceive as nonhumans do, and intends to distort the space and time of its surroundings to give a sense of inhabiting another acoustic world – a combination of both machinic perception and geobiological perception. The project is, again, a good example of technology acting as a mediator in the bridging of human and nonhuman worlds – in this case bridging different forms of listening.
Virtual Reality technologies and immersive experiences featured twice at Digital Ecologies in Practice. Phytomorphism, a VR audio-visual experience convoking deep-learning imagery, created by John Carrillo with Michelle Lai (Plant Fictions), explores the relationship between humans and plants. Participants break through into a psychedelic world in which the boundaries between human, plant, and landscape are completely dissolved. Plant Fictions create a deconstruction and reconstruction of the perceived environment, reflecting back to the viewers a ‘re-networking’ of human-nature relations. Responses to the experience varied from awe, relaxation, to slight anxiety – resonating with the diversity of people’s experiences with other consciousness-altering techniques. Indeed, the authenticity and immersion achieved by Phytomorphism is immense; the experience fusing viewers into a kind of techno-consciousness that reveals the phenomenological powers of developing new forms of writings and framing using VR technologies.
The other exhibit involving VR technology was our keynote, Mari Bastashevski. Mari came to Bonn for the inaugural showing of her exhibition Pending Xenophora at Brotfabrik art gallery. The collection of work deploys virtual reality among other methods for speculative world-building in collaboration with a rout of snails. A large inflatable tent sat in one corner of the room and through its translucent wall is projected the VR world that participants experience while wearing the headset. The experience begins in a dark room full of boxes with scrawled notes on the floor. We find ourselves in the archival drawers of the Natural History Museum in London; a specific drawer – Pending Xenophora, uncategorised specimens – from which the exhibition takes its name. The immersive experience is accompanied by music and a scent both composed specifically for the project, and intended to replicate a snail’s world.
In this virtual world, you can not only look around, but also physically move around as the headset is calibrated to motion sensing technology. In a world of blue, purple, and orange, users must find and navigate through gates that connect different worlds, passing through portals one after the other. The insecurity that people felt while being simultaneously in the VR world and an actual physical world (which they were audio-visually disconnected from) made most people move like a snail – slowly, cautiously, extending out their arms to see if they had reached the tent wall like a snail sends out its antennae to sense its surroundings.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, the snails sat in their terrarium, doted on by Mari at all times who was keen to tell us about each individual snail’s personality, name, and star sign. Mari’s keynote talk involved a demonstration of an iPad app (Unwhorl) that she had designed. The app could sense the snails as they moved across the screen, using their movements to generate a unique composition which could be streamed live around the world by other users of the app. In addition, Mari showed several sculptures she designed in collaboration with the snails that they could move around on.
Snails have an obvious connection to slowness. As a species, they appear slow (from a human perspective) and, in Mari’s words, ‘dumb’. But as Mari urges us: “Consider the snail again, master of dust, the time traveller, the pre-Victorian fossil, and an ‘ahuman’ archivist par excellence. Nothing in the process of fossilization, one of the most effective other-than-human ways of producing and storing data, speaks of desire for scale or speed” (Bastashevski 2022, 13). Mari uses the snail to illustrate the unimportance of fast-pace and grandness in bridging relations between human and nonhumans, urging us to slow down, speculate, and dwell with these creatures to invent new ethical modes of living together.
While digital technologies are frequently associated with disconnecting humans from nature and separating human temporalities from the nonhuman rhythms and cycles within which we’re entangled, the exhibits at Digital Ecologies in Practice provoked deep reflections on slowness, temporality, and connection in a coincidentally congruent way. They leave us with an appreciation that technologies have the capacity to be harnessed to deepen the ties between humans and the nonhuman world in conscious, educational, and profound ways depending on the context in which they’re employed.
It was an honour to witness these fascinating projects and to watch this common theme of slowness emerge throughout the course of the day. I hope my reflections resonate with the creators of the projects and the experiences of other participants of Digital Ecologies in Practice.
Bastashevski, M. 2022. Pending Xenophora.
Bastian, M. 2009. Inventing Nature: Re-writing Time and Agency in a More-than-Human World. Australian Humanities Review, (47).
Halpenny, M. 2022. Building a Microbial Fuel Cell. [Read more here: https://www.matthewhalpenny.com/]
Jørgensen, F. 2014. The Armchair Traveler’s Guide to Digital Environmental Humanities. Environmental Humanities, 4(1), pp.95-112.
Revans, J. 2022. After Wilding: A speculative documentary about rewilding and the future of British nature. 1st ed. London.
Searle, A., Turnbull, J. and Adams, W. 2022. The digital peregrine: A technonatural history of a cosmopolitan raptor. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.
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