“News” is a generous term. This is where I keep occasional track of projects, conferences, conversations, ideas (of mine, of others), news, rumors, gossip, and events related to digital culture, science fiction, environmental practice, electronic literature, digital art, the history of science, the concept of nature, and many other weird and wonderful things under the sun.
This semester I’m teaching a class on Literature and the Environment, and when I was reading John Muir’s descriptions of the pines in “A Wind-Storm in the Forests,” I noted the following passage: “The waving of a forest of the giant Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime, but the pines seem to me the best interpreters of winds. They are mighty waving goldenrods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives” and this next one shortly after: “I drifted on through the midst of this passionate music and motion, across many a glen, from ridge to ridge; often halting in the lee of a rock for shelter, or to gaze and listen. Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees,–Spruce, and Fir, and Pine, and leafless Oak,–and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way,–singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures,–manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other forest I have yet seen.” Both passages reminded me of a trip I took to San Diego a couple of years ago, and an unusual series of artworks I encountered when I was there: Terry Allen’s TREES, a gorgeous installation at UCSD, part of the Stuart Collection. It also reminded me that I’d taken some pictures and video, which I’m sharing below.
The Singing Tree
The Quiet Tree
An oldie but a goodie. I don’t have an issue with the outdoor swingset as a playstation. It makes for a good pun. But it also perpetuates this idea that nature and technology are mutually exclusive domains when they are not.
My book, Animal, Vegetable, Digital, is “in press” and scheduled for a spring 2016 publication (so long to wait! so far away!). In the meantime, with the help of some very talented students, I’ve made a web page for it, not merely to promote it, but to keep track of artwork, news items, insights, and events that relate to the intersections between digital and ecological aesthetics that the book explores. Once the book’s closer to publications, I’ll make the site a little less bloggy and (I hope) more useful and interactive for people who share an interest in eco-digital culture.
The last time I was in Los Angeles, I visited the Velaslavasay Panorama, which is located right off the 10 at the Hoover exit, which is pretty close to where I went to grad school at USC. On display was “Effulgence of the North,” a fantastic, fully-immersive, decidedly *not digital*, audio-visual experience. I look forward to returning, and not just for the panorama. They also had a petite camera obscura located in the back, as well as a garden full of carnivorous plants.
At the PAM in Miami. Lorna Simpson’s “Still” (1997)
The MLA was a jam-packed extravaganza. My panels went well, I met lots of neat people, and I got to see many amazing people that I don’t get to see nearly enough; I also learned lots of new stuff about online games, OCR, phonographic audio-books from the Victorian period, Thoreau, code, and the evolution of microfiche. But my favorite part of the conference occurred at around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, in panel #486. It was at this point that Mikhail Gershovich demonstrated to a crowd of many the pedagogical potential of MaKey MaKey by using the kit to control his computer with…wait for it…a banana. Yes, a banana. The MLA has reached new heights.
We recently checked out “The Art of Video Games,” on tour from the Smithsonian. It was a blast! Not only did we get to play old arcade favorites and wax nostalgic about the home entertainment systems of our bygone youths (hello, ColecoVision!), we also got to see some games that departed familiar gaming conventions (i.e., the first-person shooter, the quest-oriented adventure, the OCD creature that needs to consume (or touch) everything in its path). I enjoyed the whole exhibit, but I particularly enjoyed playing ThatGameCompany’s Flower for PS3. There’s no object to the game, really. You “play” the wind and as the wind you blow through different environments, picking up flower petals along the way. It’s a gorgeous game. You get to be the wind. You get to participate in an (albeit simulated) eco-system. You get to move your whole body, not just your wrists and fingers. I enjoyed how I felt when I played it: I could lean into it, bend away from it, glide and drift with it. I didn’t feel anxious or tense (the way I can sometimes feel in games in which I am chased) when I played it. Instead, I felt relaxed and a little dizzy, like I’d been flying.
Last night we went to the Jaffe Center for Book Arts here at FAU and heard an amazing talk by Matthew Reinhart, the fiendishly clever paper engineer (aka pop-up *master*) and author of some of my favorite contemporary pops: The Pop-up Book of Nightmares, The Pop-up Book of Phobias, etc. The entire event was a treat. In keeping with the theme, the folks at the Jaffe Center served popcorn, soda-pop, and m&ms in little boxes stamped with the word “pop!” on them. Reinhart told us his story about how he came to be a pop-up master and showed us some of his techniques. It was mind-blowing. I had no idea that everything was made by hand–all the way up to and through production. Reinhart showed us how he drafts his works–first by sketching, then by making paper, then by tracing, folding, sculpting, and more sculpting. It was fascinating to watch. It rekindled my love of paper and books (as if this needed rekindling) and made me want to try making pop-ups of my own. Fantastic stuff!
I’ve been re-reading Oryx and Crake for my Science Fiction and Environmentalism class at FAU. Atwood’s an amazing writer—lyrical, funny, smart. But I was more disturbed this time around by the Pigoons than I was the first time I read the book. Maybe because I’ve been thinking much more about animal intelligence these days. I’m not sure. But they horrified me on a visceral level, which is odd, because I remember thinking before that they seemed almost silly. And then this morning I read about the enviropig project in Canada, which aimed to genetically engineer a pig that would not produce as much phosphorous in its droppings as normal pigs do. The funding for enviropig has just been cut, but I wonder how much press it got when Atwood was writing the book.
I’m having a hard time getting my head around this weird, misguided proposal. As much as I love science fiction, the thought of giraffes, zebras, and rhinoceroses roaming through the Everglades due to some human error (happens all the time) or as a consequence of a natural disaster (again—this is Florida—it happens all the time) is an unwelcome one. When we were in college in Sarasota, a bunch of parrots got loose from Jungle Gardens during Hurricane Andrew. They did really well. And while it was oddly cool to see their bright green and yellow bodies take wing, they became a raucous and invasive airborne street gang. And let’s not forget the pythons. Oh boy.
This year’s ICFA has been a blast. This is my third time at this conference, and I’m always blown away by how intelligent and friendly the attendees are. There are so many good papers that it would be impossible to mention them all, but there was one that was so smart and so much fun that it must be shared: Timothy Miller’s “Lives of the Monster Plants: The Revenge of the Vegetable in the Age of Animal Studies.” Miller connected monster plants to anxieties about Darwinian evolution and offered up some fantastic specimens. In addition to the usual green-leafed suspects (in, e.g., Little Shop of Horrors, Day of the Triffids, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) Miller excavated some real gems. My favorite was Paul Bunyan Fights the Monster Plants. I will be ordering this book immediately. I also appreciated Miller’s linking of plant life to animal studies—a good reminder of the interconnectedness of all things. Great stuff!
I’m beyond thrilled to be a part of this exciting event in Sweden this spring!
Science Fiction Across Media: Alternative Histories, Alien Futures
For the past few days I’ve been at the “Knowledge Organization and Data Modeling in the Humanities” workshop in Rhode Island. It’s been a treat to participate in a conversation about some of the most ancient and enduring questions we have as human beings: How do we model the world? How do we model models of the world? And how—and now we’re approaching the Borges parable “Exactitude in Science”—do we model our modeling of our models? This is all in the context of the digital humanities, of course, and therefore packaged up and explicated through xml and questions about ontological structures (both in terms of Aristotle and data schemata), but the conversation should be of interest to anyone interested in how it is we know what we know.
Re-reading Pattern Recognition for my presentation at the ACLA in a couple of weeks. Although my presentation focuses upon the novel’s relation to film—in particular, Chris Marker’s La jetée—Pattern Recognition speaks to a vast and inter-related media ecology comprised of words, images, icons, fashion, adverts, watermarks, human labor, sigils, and typewriters (including, hilariously, “Stephen King’s Wang”). Published shortly after 9/11, and informed by the subsequent trauma of that event, the book remains a phenomenal read. Even though the rendering farm that makes the footage and therefore the F:F:F possible seems slightly antique ten years later, the theme of technological obsolescence and overlap is so expertly woven throughout the text that it doesn’t seem remotely out of date.
“a Wang…but not Mr. King’s”