But the attempts too often feel fake, a clumsy bridge on the brink of collapse. Many artists think the problem comes down to language and more specifically an absence of metaphors that really describe an interconnected existence.

I’m walking through a nondescript consumer electronics shop in the Netherlands, or wait, am I in Poland, France or the UK? These places all look the same. Piles upon piles of electronic devices. Whatever subtlety existed in shop displays has given way to crude piles of white, brown and grey goods. They don’t even bother taking the stuff off the pallets; they just haul it into place and wait for the inevitable. This can’t last forever.

As they stand, they’re the future dumps, intellectually and physically; we just haven’t quite realized it yet.

On many of these devices we’re offered nature as an example, as the literal wallpaper to our digital lives; something to witness but not experience. Nature, in all its vast terror, is atomized and replaced by images of what will soon be fantasy. It’s technology’s idealized and romanticized version of nature. These stock wallpapers will be the backdrops to the apparently inevitable singularity. A force rendered beyond agency specifically for our pleasure. It’s bitterly ironic how the very thing we’re destroying by buying this stuff is used to sell it.

PET Environment, from the series:

Center For Living Things, 2017, Diana Lelonek

Nature and technology have always had an odd relationship, though. As Alfred Nordmann, professor of philosophy at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, explains:The most advanced technological research programmes are thus bringing about a curiously regressive inversion of the relation between humans, technology, and nature. No longer a means of controlling nature in order to protect, shield, or empower humans, technology dissolves into nature and becomes uncanny, incomprehensible, beyond perceptual and conceptual control.

Maybe this explains why we have opted for the language that’s associated with it today. We’ve had to mine our past so as to be able to verbalize and comprehend our connected present. We’re failing, it seems, to grasp the enormity of the network and our place within it. But there are those who are trying to untangle this mess by examining the language used, and asking us to see ourselves as not just living through our devices but with them.

Diana Lelonek, Roc- k-like ground, from the series: Center For Living Things, 2017

The British artist and writer James Bridle has been discussing this for some years now. In his book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (2019) he writes:

What is needed is not new technology, but new metaphors: a metalanguage for describing the world that complex systems have wrought. A new shorthand is required, one that simultaneously acknowledges and addresses the reality of a world in which people, politics, culture and technology are utterly enmeshed.

This plea for a new metalanguage can structure our thinking away from the idyll that it currently exists in with its farms, clouds, and streams. The network has already laid claim to our natural world, hollowing it out while occupying our imaginations. So, according to an increasing number of designers and researchers, we should ditch all the previous associations in favour of an all encompassing image and shorthand: ecology. Using this we can start to restructure our thoughts surrounding technology as it does away with the dissected imagery. It’s at once approachable and incomprehensible. As Joanna Skorupska, founder of Radicalzz, says:

For me ecology is an ecosystem. And an ecosystem is a system where everyone and everything is connected and relies on one another. Every action you take affects the other person or thing.

Image by Radicalzz during research trip to India

An approach fostered by Skorupska would allow enough room for our imagination to propagate. It allows us to think about the world, digital or not, and its connections without having to fully comprehend what mitochondria or SoCs do. As Bridle notes: “survival and solidarity must be possible without understanding”.

So does digital ecology mean going back to nature? Not quite, because we need to be reminded that we never left it. The Polish artist Diana Lelonek’s work visualizes this for us, creating yet another fissure of critique in the digital. Her work Yesterday I met the really wild man is a series of photographs of naked wanderers, in what could be tribes, roaming across different natural, post-industrial and peripheral-urban landscapes. As Monika Bakke, associate professor in philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland, notes while in conversation about Lelonek’s work:

Humans do not need to return to their animalistic past, because in fact they never ceased to be animals in the first place. They don’t need to return to nature, as they never existed outside of it.

Image by Josh Plough Taken in MediaMarkt, Warsaw

Another project by Lelonek is The Centre for Living Things, which according to the artist is “a research institution founded in 2016 in order to examine, collect and popularize the knowledge concerning new humanotic nature forms. All exhibits gathered in the Institute's collection are abandoned objects, used and no longer needed commodities – wastes of human (over)production, which have subsequently become the natural environment for many living organisms.” They act as a memento mori for speciesists, those who see humanity as separate and above the natural or rendered worlds. Both Lelonek’s and Skorupska’s work, while differing in approach, position us within an interconnected system where there is no clear hierarchy. They place the inanimate and animate in the same sphere and ask us to imagine more carefully how we’re connected to everything, whether it’s networks, illegal mines or discarded motherboards.

But for this to have the effect that’s needed it cannot only be communicated via artistic or designed interventions. That’s why Radicalzz is also pushing for an educational approach, as Skorupska describes:

It’s about trust, but it’s also about education because people are getting more aware but it’s still not enough… it’s because there is a lack of education in the tech field. I would like to educate people so they will have the power to force the companies to play fair with them.

Motherboard Nature, from the series: Center For Living Things, 2017, Diana Lelonek

This process has already begun with Radicalzz carrying out workshops with school children on the subject. During which they discovered that 80% of the participants didn’t know there was a link between ‘the cloud’ and environmental degradation. This lack of awareness – which we can all sympathize with – can be bridged by imagination when the term ecology is introduced. Whether we’re discussing the carbon footprint of video streaming or holding a piece of styrofoam covered in Leskea polycarpa and Amblystegium serpens, we’re actively participating inside the ecosystem of technological critique.

In practically every walk of life there are people demanding that we change our attitude towards the planet, and there are about as many opinions on how to achieve this to boot. So which one do we pick? There is of course no simple answer. But the ones that foster imagination and connections are the ones that link what an artist produces with the way we read and walk through a shop like MediaMarkt. We need more moments like these. We need more ramblers to make connections for themselves when traversing the ecology of things.

It’s with the likes of Bridle, Radicalzz and Lelonek that a revolution of thought can be brought about that subverts these commercial spaces. An ecology of thinking sees these sites as ecosystems, allowing us to examine and imagine. And if enough of us establish this ability to think then the more points of reference we’ll collectively share; the bigger the web will grow; and the more likely it is that Microsoft and Apple will start adding wallpapers with titles like Child Miner, Congo; Severed Finger, China; and Data Centre Next to Melting Glacier, Sweden, to their stock collection of backgrounds. I want to hope.

By Josh Plough




The Subversion of Paradoxes / LaTurbo Avedon, artist & curator: Vimeo

This article appeared in DAM76. Order your personal copy.