BY Dominikus Müller in Features | 29 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

Ambient Natures

The resurgence of nature motifs is part of a shift from Pop cultural references to pure atmospheres

BY Dominikus Müller in Features | 29 MAY 12

DJ Mediafire, Manual for the Earth Awakening, 2012

James Cameron just became the first person to complete a solo trip to the deepest point of the Earth’s oceans. He stayed in the Mariana Trench for almost three hours, 10,898 metres below sea level. Through a small porthole he watched a robotic arm collecting samples. Total silence. Then he used a 3D camera to shoot material for his new movie.

In many respects, Cameron’s last 3D film – the digital-indigenous epic Avatar (2009) – is a lousy work of eco-fundamentalism, which fosters stereotypes of the noble savage and plays to dubious fantasies of oneness with nature. Yet the film should not be underestimated, especially since the global financial crisis of 2008 revealed the extent of the world’s networked interdependence just before the film’s debut. Avatar offered a new, fascinating take on the principle of total immersion: not only for the audience, sinking their eyeballs into the scenes with the help of 3D glasses, but also for the film’s paraplegic protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), sinking into the eyes and body of the avatar. Encased in his pod, Jake loses his human self to walk again as a blue-skinned, giant forest dweller. Bodily alienation never felt so complete for film audiences and characters alike. With its technology and its imagery, the film became an all-encompassing, holistic ecosystem located beyond any distinction between human, animal and extraterrestrial, between nature, culture and technology. Ever since, pop culture has been in thrall to ‘tech­nature’ and the experiential mode of deep immersion.

There’s a similar link between nature and immersion in Manual for the Earth Awakening (2012), a mix produced for the online magazine DIS by the artist and musician DJ Mediafire (alias Sterling Crispin). Over the soft beats and ethereal voices – Clams Casino, Sigur Rós, Massive Attack – a computer voice recites texts from the websites of New Age communities and spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle, Bashar or Ashtar Command. The cover art shows two hands offering up Planet Earth as a gift and flanked by the heads of six New Age luminaries. The lower part of the collage depicts the principle of evolution with a classic sequence of figures with increasingly upright gait; the upper part shows God’s outstretched index finger from Michelangelo’s fresco The Creation of Adam (1508–12), although the finger meets, not the hand of Adam but – of course – a robotic appendage.

The sounds, texts and accompanying imagery all evoke the full repertoire of what can be read as ‘nature’ – albeit with a hint of irony. The work paints an esoteric, spiritual picture of ‘atmosphere’ as something enveloping and ethereal. Everything flows. All is one. Take a deep breath, let it out again. Could this smoothly aestheticized, exaggerated vision of nature be satirizing the zero-irony in Avatar? Is the mythico-indigenous primal ground to which Cameron returns with the help of digital techno­logy subjected to a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction? Whatever the answer, the image of an all-enveloping but dazzlingly technical nature remains.

Smooth digital aesthetics with nature motifs can be found on countless Tumblr blogs and have found their way into exhibitions, such as Notes on a New Nature (2011) at 319 Scholes in New York. This show included Joe Hamilton’s video Hyper Geography (2011): a slow-motion flight over mountains, polar seas and deserts whose contours dissolve again and again, overlaid with still images, accompanied by the sounds of wind, water and birdsong. There are surface structures and indefinable patterns or grids, superimposed on mountain ranges and ice, desert sand and canyons, merging with them to form a semi-synthetic and sublime landscape.

Joe Hamilton, Hyper Geography, 2011, video still

Hamilton’s website offers a similar experience. Here, the landscape becomes a dense, inextricable jungle of fractal patterns, visual noise, images of hands, faces, eyeballs, robots, cameras, all manner of digital gadgets, contorted architecture and, again and again, plants, leaves, grass, sky, mountains and minerals. In terms of perspective, the whole thing is so complex, so fraught with tensions, that there is no longer any outside, no beginning or end, and no horizon. The images all stand out on the surface of the screen, their various visual axes adding up to a strange mixture of smooth, all-encompassing and ornamental depth – as if Arcimboldo’s nature compositional portraits were mixed with M.C. Escher’s tessellations and Thomas Bayrle’s infinite patterns. Central perspective is displaced by a bewildering but inclusive multi-perspectivity which favours, not overview, but immersion. The only way to ‘look behind’ is by clicking on the images, only to discover others.

Blogs like Hamilton’s Tumblr page – with their dynamically higgledy-piggledy photographic wallpapers – and art works like Thomas Häméns Waterfalls (2010) – a projection that merges animated waterfalls from different video games to create one big cascade – suddenly look incredibly contemporary. With a single voice, they call for a ‘NOW!’ not seen in a long time, since the past decade has been defined largely in terms of the past: via constant references to yesterday and yesteryear, to specific styles and periods, from retro dresses to countless revivals. Simon Reynolds’s Retromania. Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011) best describes a present thoroughly fixated on the past in terms of pop music. Yet his insights equally apply to the retro drive of much contem­porary art: from recycling 1960s and ’70s Conceptual and post-Conceptual Art to reviving the abandoned Utopias and progressive narratives of classical high Modernism, from discovering long-forgotten artists, marginalized by art history, to fetishizing discarded analogue media like Super-8 movies or slide projections. While citing the past formally, many works became narrative through their dependence on history. Retro art always tells a story.

Thomas Hämén, Waterfalls, 2010, video installation

By contrast, the coupling of ‘nature’ with technicity might be a sign of the end of the massive retro-narrative mode of the last decade: making sense via endless references and infinite shifts of meaning into the past. In this new visual universe, everything always already refers to everything else and only functions as a whole (eco-)system. There is a correspond­ing shift in emphasis away from text – read, deciphered, developed into a story – and towards texture, which envelops and encloses. As the text becomes texture, past culture is taken up by an always present nature; indulging in memory and nostalgia is replaced by immersing in an environement, if not merging with it; distinct breaks, cuts and revolutions become the slowly but steadily changing continuum of evolution.

The philosopher and cultural theorist Gernot Böhme seems to have anticipated this shift in his 1995 book Atmosphäre. Essays zur neuen Ästhetik (Atmosphere. Essays on a New Aesthetic). ‘The aesthetic of the present is dominated by semiotics,’ he writes, ‘in other words: the theory of signs. Signs must be understood, they mean something or refer to something, and both meaning and referring depend crucially on being embedded within a culture: signs are conventional.’1 By contrast, atmospheres are ‘gripping emotional forces, spatial carriers of moods.’2 The atmosphere ‘points suggestively to something beyond what can be accounted for in rational terms, and it does so emphatically, as if only there the essential and aesthetically relevant had truly begun.’3

Interestingly, Böhme often links the aesthetics of atmosphere to the experience of nature, which figures so strongly that it becomes a paradigmatic experience. Even when Walter Benjamin was writing about the technical reproducibility of the art work, he chose to begin with the concept of aura – a kind of prototypical version of atmosphere – and with a reference to nature. Benjamin cites the experience of ‘resting on a summer afternoon, [following] with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you’.4 Nature appears as an all-enveloping ecosystem, an overall texture that is diffusely inclusive and interwoven to the point where individual elements become indistinguishable, where the individual becomes the landscape.

In this sense, atmosphere also differs from context. It is impossible to extract individual elements from an atmosphere, which is always a woolly, intangible hybrid that respects no boundaries. But context refers to a specific framework of meaning where individual objects are embedded in a narrative (without this framework, they cannot be fully apprehended). As a category of perception, the atmosphere could be compared to what Bruno Latour calls ‘hairy objects’: hazardous things that keep entangling the subject and escape clear assessment. Atmospheres can indeed be understood as a mode of making meaning beyond the subject-object dichotomy.

Still from Clams Casino’s video I’m God, 2011

Of course, nature names a living environment. We are not dealing with a naively romantic regression into some myth of natural beauty, nor with the moral finger-wagging of the environmental movement. Instead, as an all-enveloping image, ‘technature’ is a cipher for the increasingly fragile divide between nature and culture: the point where the two terms – mediated by an emphatic concept of technology – start to become one. Beyond this point, agency can be attributed to both inanimate objects and animate beings, to humans and to animals, machines and pictures.

Technature redefines the traditional human subject, who can no longer stand back and enjoy an overview of these immersive nature images. Instead, the subject becomes just as involved and entangled as these images, which are more like living environments in their own right than mere likenesses of them. In their woolly, intermingled texture, atmospheres no longer represent anything, certainly not for the subject. The retro-narrative drive of the past decade took a backward approach to images: pursuing images towards some mythical and unreachable origin while copying their aesthetics or mining them for stories. Images retold stories of an analogue age when the link between an object and its representation was as assured as the link between the representations and the subjects for whom they were made. On the level of content, images – with all their references and cross-references – nostalgically repeated what has been lost at the level of technical production in the digital age. But now things have changed. The subject is no longer the master of images but is enclosed by them; this enclosure is not a supporting shell but more like a dissolving tissue. And who knows? Perhaps the subject will disappear one day, like a face drawn in the sand at the seashore and washed away by waves of pictures.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 Gernot Böhme, Atmosphäre. Essays zur neuen Ästhetik, Frankfurt, 1995, p. 53
2 Ibid., p. 29
3 Ibid., p. 21
4 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations, New York, 1968, p. 222

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.