The Trouble With Landscape: A Look At How 8 Digital Artists See Our Natural World

How art and technology are creating a new idea of the great outdoors.

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Jul 17 2013, 7:53pm

Still from Garret Lynch's

 Netscapes, 2011

The tradition of art representing nature is one that goes back to at least the middle ages, but in 1995, William Cronon told us that the time had “come to rethink wilderness.” 

The wilderness, Cronon explained, was an idea we had historically and culturally constructed. When the King James Bible told the story of The Fall, nature was a place of deceptive beauty; a place where you could easily lose your moral compass. By the 19th and 20th centuries, however, this same nature was the place where you could go to find yourself, your country, and your God. 

Ask any number of people to describe the wilderness or how wilderness makes them feel and you're likely to not hear the same answer twice. Is the wilderness a sprawling jungle, or a wide-open plane? Is the wilderness the place we go to take a break from our technologically fraught lives, or is it the place we avoid because it is uncharted, remote, and full of unknowable, creepy-crawly bugs?

Historically, landscape art has reflected our feelings towards nature and the wilderness. If Cronon is right and the scene outside our window really has changed, then how has that been reflected in our art? These eight artists are taking up that very question. Their work takes apart the very stuff of landscape vistas (mountains, trees, birds) and puts it back together in new and challenging ways. Some pieces are less about the finished image and more about the process of getting there; some pieces aren’t about an image at all and instead require our participation. All of them, however, use technology as a tool to help the artists, and us, better understand what it is we mean when we talk about nature and the wilderness today. 

Joan Fontcuberta, Landscapes Without Memory series

Orogenesis Pollock, 2004 [photo source]

Joan Fontcuberta works with a software originally developed by the U.S. Air Force intended to generate three-dimensional, photo-realistic landscapes from scanned cartographic data. Instead of maps, Fontcuberta feeds the software scans of artworks painted by art-historical giants such as Cézanne, Turner, Pollock and Kandinsky. The resulting images are of any number of landscape cliches (picturesque mountains, pristine lakes) that have paradoxically been built off of nothing rooted in the physical world. Landscapes Without Memories are visual phantasms of a “natural” world modeled entirely on free-flowing colors and shapes. 

Dionisio González, Halong series

Halong XIII, 2010 [Photo courtesy of Galerie Richard]

Dionisio González inserts fantastical architecture into recognizable environments to create new imagined landscapes. These environments range from the picturesque vistas of Ha Long Bay to Brazilian favelas. The new structures that González envisions in these landscapes are visually at odds with their surroundings. However, González is able to so seamlessly integrate them into the existing environment that the end result reads like a realistic vision of a not-so-distant, non-utopian future.

EcoArtTech, Indeterminate Hikes+, 2010

Indeterminate Hikes+ app [photo source]

Indeterminate Hikes+  is a locative mobile media app that appropriates the form and logic of a nature hike and grafts it onto environments not often hiked but most likely walked--for example, a city block instead of a national park. Users enter a start and end location, and the Indeterminate Hikes+ app generates a random, indirect path to follow, punctuated by suggested points of interest. The app’s points of interest function as analogies to scenic vistas on a nature trail. They prompt users to perform and engage with their specific hike in a way that might seem more fitting for “natural” environments. There’s also a “species companion mode” that allows non-human hikers to join in on the fun. 

Underlying EcoArtTech’s app is a fundamental question about how an idea or image of physical space can condition our behavior. When and where do we walk? When and where do we hike? Indeterminate Hikes+ is an effort to rewrite the flawed logic that grants permission to treat certain environments as sacred, while at the same time forgetting the more immediate spaces we call home. (Added bonus: it’s free, and available for both iPhone and Android.)

Julien Levesque, Books Scapes

Book Scapes, 2012 [photo source]

Books Scapes builds on the success of Levesque’s earlier collage landscape Street Views Patchwork (2009) in creating images thats subtlety belies its depth and complexity. Books Scapes’s landing page is a familiar pastoral scene replete with rolling fields, bird-scattered skies, steeples and miniature country-living vignettes. However each element of Books Scapes is a fragment from an existing nineteenth century engraving, sourced on Google Books. Clicking at random on various points in Books Scapes opens the Google Books site for that image, along with a dashed box highlighting the precise element chosen for collage.

As Paddy Johnson commented in L Magazine, “It’s well-enough composed that I didn’t immediately notice it was a collage, but the level of detail is overwhelming: every cloud, for instance, seems to have four or five different sources, and one scribble on the left side hardly looks intentional, but turns out on closer inspection to be a tiny flock of birds from a Napoleonic battle scene.” 

Garrett Lynch, Netscapes, 2011

Still from

Netscapes, 2011

Garrett Lynch’s digital performance Netscapes is an automated application that uses web scraping of images, instead of text, to collage live webcam feeds of networked environments into new landscape compositions. The most compelling part of Lynch’s landscapes are in the disjointedness of the scenery, where lakes with reflections of clouds are caught beneath cloudless skies, or when mountain terrains singularly appear without shadow or context. As an added layer, images are often composited from environments spanning across different time zones. The effect is one which the skies look like midday and the ground like the dead of night, or vice versa. These kinds of creative decisions emphasize the artificiality of landscape art as a category and uses it as a tool for new creative output. 

Djeff, Super Google Clouds, 2002

Djeff’s Super Google Clouds is a copy-slash-homage to Cory Arcangel’s 2002 Super Mario Clouds. Arcangel famously modified a Nintendo Super Mario Bros cartridge to remove all graphics except for the game’s iconic blue sky and semi-pixelated clouds. Super Google Clouds visually mimics the blue sky and laterally-floating clouds of Arcangel’s piece, but the images themselves are sourced from a standard Google search of “blue sky” and “clouds.” The making-of video is just as delightful as the piece itself. 

Thomas Hämén, Waterfalls

Waterfalls, 2010 [photo source]

Thomas Hämén’s Waterfalls is a projected composite of images of waterfalls from various video games. The fragments come together on the projected surface to give the appearance of a unified cascade. In the installation the cascades “pour” onto a reflective ground surface, creating a slight kaleidoscopic effect when viewed at a distance. This effect can appear as a sort of reshuffling of the axes and echoes the familiar first-person point of view perspective in many video games. 

It’s also interesting to note the differences amongst the isolated landscape fragments themselves. These details and discrepancies emphasize how unique each individual’s understanding of nature and landscape is. 

Fujiko Nakaya, Fog sculptures

Fog Sculpture, [photo source]

Fujiko Nakaya creates dense, chemical-free fog installations by blasting extremely hot water through very small, custom-designed nozzles. The artificial fog sits in unlikely spaces such as parking lots, rooftops, and (of course) museums. Nakaya’s fog sculptures are in part a continuance of the legacy of her father, Ukichiro Nakaya, who is said to have made the first artificial snowflake. Nakaya has been producing fog sculptures for public spaces around the world since 1970. 

The fog sculptures make explicit the role of place in categorizing our physical world. Fog and clouds are technically and scientifically the same material, but their location (in the sky or on the ground) is what distinguishes them in our vernacular. 

@nikksters

by Nicole Sansone

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