Designing Wildness

A Reflection on Deep Swamp by Tega Brain

Riccardo Venturi

Deep Swamp (2018-2021) is the title of a work by the Australian artist Tega Brain, recently shown at the exhibition Ti con Zero, one of the Tre stazioni per Arte-Scienzacurated by Paola Bonani, Francesca Rachele Oppedisano and Laura Perrone at Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni. The materials of which it is composed, as related by the caption, well illustrate the peculiarity of this installation: “Glass tanks, wetlands, plumbing, shade balls, electronics, custom software, 3 channel sound”. It looks like here we have the captions of two different works. We could say the same about Brain’s background: an artist and environmental engineer, professor of Integrated Digital Media at New York University and exponent of what she calls “eccentric engineering”.

Deep Swamp consists of three swamps protected by a glass wall, semi-submerged environments in which typical wetland plant life grows. However, far from the natural environment, the gallery context provides them with artificial lighting and the thermostat-regulated interior. And that’s not all: a system of sensors links them up to a programmed artificial intelligence, capable of learning, experimenting, collecting data and, thanks to the processing of the information thus obtained, orienting and optimising the plants’ growth.

The software analyses thousands of images available online and compares them with photos of the same swamp, to understand in which direction it is developing, correct the shot and, finally, make it resemble as much as possible the ideal that it has been programmed to achieve. The model of plant life becomes the digital, artificial image. «The agents, Nicholas, Hans and Harrison, patiently watch their swampy territories and modify the conditions in them. Every few minutes they adjust the light, water flow, fog and nutrients, to try to engineer their environments for different goals» [1]. Throughout the course of the exhibition, the three wetlands develop following the program’s even disparate directives: «Harrison aims for a natural looking wetland, Hans is trying to produce a work of art and Nicholas simply wants attention» [2]. In short, a purist, an artist, a narcissist.

Deep Swamp is a fascinating installation, with its psychedelic purple, pinkish, yellowish lights, immersed in a semi-dark atmosphere that makes us think of an after-hours aquarium, a secret underground laboratory, the strobe lighting of a nightclub – certainly, places far from any green aesthetic. This is an ecological landscape difficult to interpret through the history of sculpture or installation.

There are many questions, here, starting with the one that comes to mind upon my first encounter with it: what does Deep Swamp show us and where does it want to take us? What ecological thought, if any, does it convey? More specifically: is it that through the manipulation of nature, artificial intelligence takes the place of the gardener, or rather of three gardeners from different schools who adapt the plant landscape to their personal needs? Is it that today – that is, in the days of plant turn or the “Phytocene” as Natasha Myers calls it – monitoring will replace cultivation? That nature and wilderness conservation is becoming a matter of management? That a computational management of wilderness is possible? That environmental engineering, or the eccentric engineering professed by the artist, might play a decisive role in protecting contemporary ecosystems?

Through the invasive intervention of software, in Deep Swampa sort of designing wildnessis at work. This is no longer The Machine in the Garden – to cite Leo Marx’s classic 1964 book on the irruption of the machine, i.e. the alliance between technology and capitalism in the American pastoral landscape of the nineteenth century – but The Machine as Gardener. To what extent will the nature created by this cybernetic gardener be autonomous or socially constructed – will it be wild or anthropic?

IIn her article, The Environment Is Not a System, [3], Tega Brain argues that we cannot be surprised by the use of computation in the environmental domain if we think of the notion of an eco-system, a self-regulating system, dating back to 1935, when it was used by Arthur (and not Michael as reported in the article) Tansley. If ecology, as it was configured in the twentieth century, is inseparable from systems-theory and cybernetics, then natural environments must logically be viewed as operational and functional, manipulable and optimisable.

Brain opposes the idea that it is sufficient to collect a large amount of data to adequately represent reality and make predictions, which are ever more difficult in the face of climate change; she opposes the idea that the environment is a system because – here drawing on Bruno Latour[4], a “system” presupposes an Earth understood as an interconnected whole, and indeed an engineer secretly working away who is the only one to see the whole of which we grasp only parts.

Brain thus builds on thought of Anna Tsing: looking for an alternative to the plantation model that simplifies and optimises environments to make them more profitable, she considers them as an assemblage of non-human, living and non-living beings. Here, encounters – between different life forms or between different non-human species – come before interactions or exchanges between well-defined entities. At this point, it becomes more difficult to quantify and encode the complexity of the world using data, patterns or algorithms.

Is it that Deep Swamp shows a paradoxical ecosystem? That it illustrates ecology’s difficulty in becoming a system? That it plays with the different facets of rewilding? The discourse is suspended between, on the one hand, a classic vision separating man from nature, as in the case of Henry David Thoreau (In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World), for which the wild is the absence of human presence and interference, and, on the other hand, a cybernetic thought for which the landscape can be manipulated through artificial intelligence and a series of numbers and data, according to a model ultimately borrowed from the capitalist economy.

Is it that Deep Swamp is an assemblage and not a network? The former suggests the absence of static, prefixed entities, individualities just to be set in relation, for every relationship is fluid and has a materiality if not a body irreducible to taxonomy. Is it that it shows hybrid relations between the human and non-human? That, finally, it points to a different way of using data? Here we might think of digital naturalism, of those apps that induce us to observe, identify, know and thus extend our perception and sensitivity towards animal and plant life forms.

Faced with Deep Swamp, the questions multiply. Frankly, I hesitate to abandon all reservations about the three swamps, which I continued to visit during the exhibition to see how they grew and came to differ from each other. Today, at the time of the Anthropocene’s irruption into the visual arts, Tega Brain shows a plant landscape in full mutation; she does so with her eccentric engineering that rethinks, not without risk, the design of the wild.

[1] T. Brain, cit. by L. Perrone in Ti con Zero. Tre stazioni per Arte-Scienza, exhibition catalogue, Azienda Speciale Palaexpo, 2021, p. 158; for the original English-language text see.

[2] Ibid.

[3] T. Brain, The Environment Is Not a System, in «APRJA», 2018, n. 1, vol. 7, pp. 153-165.

[4] B. Latour, Some Advantages of the Notion of ‘Critical Zone’ for Geopolitics, in «Procedia. Earth and Planetary Science», 2014, vol. 10, pp. 3-6.