Proliferating Plants and Strange-Looking Eyes

Proliferating Plants and Strange-Looking Eyes is a text by Boukje Cnossen on the work of Driessens & Verstappen.

Proliferating Plants and Strange-Looking Eyes

Driessens & Verstappen: Herbarium Vivum

At a time when people fear robots will steal their jobs, the prize-winning duo Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen share their aim with Dr. Frankenstein: to build autonomous machines – in their case, ones that make art. Boukje Cnossen looks through the eyes of the computer and describes what she sees.

Within 20 years, most people will be unemployed, the newspapers confidently tell us. Work in the health care, logistics and hospitality industries will mostly have been taken over by robots. The only solution, according to sources including the British magazine The Economist and the US newspaper The Washington Post, is a mandatory shorter workweek or a guaranteed minimum income. But try and convince governments of that. 

Europe, they add, will be spared the dystopian scenario for a while, since our economies run largely on high-level knowledge and creativity: work that’s harder to outsource to machines. See? I feel like saying. Certain abilities are still restricted to human beings. Creativity, for example, and imagination – computers will never have those. At least I thought so until I saw the work of Driessens & Verstappen.

The artist duo are known mainly for feats of technological virtuosity such as “tickle robots” that travel over your body and software-generated ecosystems. Generative systems – systems that create things on their own – are a central feature. Sometimes they’re computer-driven, sometimes not. Within these systems, the artists strive to create a feedback loop between “actors” and their surroundings. The works develop in a way they never could have predicted, exceeding human imagination.


Of course, fantasies of machines displacing human beings have been around a long time. Literature is full of them, from George Orwell to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Outside the domain of fiction, too, the fear that humans will be brought down by their own creations is far from new. In early 19th-century Britain, the Luddites destroyed machines in protest of the mechanization of textile manufacturing. And Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, observed in 1930 that technological progress had made humanity “a kind of prosthetic God.” 

There's another line of thinking that suggests people and machines aren’t really all that different. In the 1980s, in A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway argued that we should get rid of the distinction between them. Today, under the flag of post-humanism, her work is being continued by activist techies who claim there's no reason not to give human status and rights to machines that can do the same things people can. And everyday objects like pacemakers and prostheses make it hard to tell where human ability stops and technological ability begins.

What makes machines so fascinating isn't so much that they can do things we can do but that those abilities make them appear to have a will of their own, as it the case with Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s eponymous horror novel. In their art, Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen, like Dr. Frankenstein, are striving to create autonomous machines. Sometimes they build these machines using existing natural processes; more often, they work with computers and software. The proliferationof forms generated by their devices and systems challenges the idea that art springs only from the minds of human beings. Their works disrupt the comforting thought that the creative process belongs to us alone. But should we fear creative machines? And what do machines that make art look like, anyway?

Plants know how to grow

To begin with the least threatening example, in the grounds of the Verbeke Foundation in Kemzeke, Belgium, a series of plants are currently growing inside glass frames. Together, they make up Driessens & Verstappen’s artwork Herbarium Vivum. Amid the freely growing surrounding plants, the large rectangular frames call to mind the flowers and leaves you dried at school. You picked the prettiest one and kept it forever, or at least until the end of the school year.

In contrast to the dried flowers of schoolchildren, the plants in Herbarium Vivum are permitted to keep living and growing. Air holes in the bottom of the frames allow them to take in oxygen and water, and they will be allowed to use their limited living space as best they can through October. For some plants, this means a pathetic suspension of their normally abundant growth; others, facing less resistance than usual, grow bigger than they would have outside the frame.

In Herbarium Vivum, the generative system consists of the plant and its living space within the frame. Because this confined space affects the plant differently than the open outdoors would, it is able to behave in ways the human mind could not have envisioned. If children learn to preserve the form of a single perfect leaf by drying it, Herbarium Vivum‘s power comes from the multiplicity of forms that arise, some uglier, some more beautiful, but none permanent.

For other works, Driessens & Verstappen build a system themselves; in Herbarium Vivum, they use an existing one. Plants know how to grow; I've seen them do so often enough. The outcomes have varied, of course, but not one of them has needed any help from artists. Driessens & Verstappen ultimately don't care whether a system is invented or borrowed from nature: what counts is its visual expressiveness. This can be more surprising, and thus more interesting – and perhaps even more artistic – than what human beings are capable of producing.

Solid Spaces

Last year, the duo won the prestigious Witteveen+Bos Art+Technology Award. The prize included a solo exhibition in Deventer’s historic Bergkerk, and the artists made a new work, Solid Spaces, for the occasion. There, face to face with a machine, the limits of my own imagination were suddenly made painfully clear.

On entering the church, I saw a number of strange gray objects, each about 40cm square, displayed around the interior. Each consisted of a solid central part with acute-angled protrusions sticking out in all directions. On one, all the protuberances were of equal length; the rest of the objects were asymmetrical. Coming closer, I could see that the projections bore an intricate relief. The ribbed surfaces of these peculiar protuberances seemed somehow to comprise a ridged, frayed tracing of something else, some complementary thing.

This turned out to be right: the acute-angled objects represented the inside of the church. They were the result of observations made by a piece of equipment positioned a few yards away. This small black camera – actually more of a scanner – shrinks into insignificance at first amid the overwhelming visual stimuli of stained-glass windows and high ceilings. You didn’t notice it until you came closer to the altar. Mounted on a tripod, the machine used a laser beam to survey the room around it. Painstakingly it tilted its gaze down and back up again, then rotated slightly and scanned the next band of space. It had performed this action from a number of positions in the church.

Each measurement in a series stopped at the point where the laser collided with something in the surrounding space. In the Bergkerk, this was usually a wall, pillar, cable or chandelier. If, say, a rafter blocked the device’s path ten feet away, the vast space beyond it, in which the church “continued,” was disregarded. Thus, each of the scanner’s positions resulted in a completely different configuration of projections and gaps. To make a material record of the scanner’s ongoing dance, the artists three-dimensionally printed a model from the measurements taken from each position. They placed each 3D print in the precise spot where the device had carried out its measurements. These “solid spaces” are the gray objects; more were added as the Bergkerk exhibition went on.

Solid Spaces’ mechanical eye is set up in other exhibition spaces, too, and left to do its work there. The 3D prints of previously measured interiors accompany it on its travels. So far, besides the Bergkerk, the device has spent two months in Frankfurt’s DAM Gallery. Over time, Solid Spaces will consist of a larger and larger collection of interior spaces.

When it comes to the feedback loop between the actor and its surroundings, Solid Spaces is still “pretty dumb,” says Maria Verstappen. But the artists are currently improving the machine so that laser and lens, as they acquire each new piece of information about a space, can decide what to pay attention to. For instance, if the laser measures an unusual number of depth differences on a relatively small surface, the camera will zoom in to see exactly which protuberances or ornaments are causing them. And if the lens notices a lot of variation, it will direct the laser to make a precise measurement of what’s there.

With a dread of powerful machines still in the back of my mind, I ask the artists if modifications like these will make the camera smarter. They find that word problematic, Maria Verstappen says in the duo’s Amsterdam studio. “We’re more concerned with autonomy than intelligence. A lot of so-called intelligent software makes decisions based on pre-established protocols. Chess computers simply contain all the human knowledge we have about moves, and they work out a series of steps based on that. There’s nothing intelligent about it.” For them, the point isn’t to compete with human knowledge but to bring about autonomous machine action. “We want it to become a being, almost a pet,” says Verstappen. I’m not reassured.

Viewing apparatus

And yet I'm beginning to understand the appeal of machines that act independently. Solid Spaces doesn't exactly derive its power from aesthetic beauty. At best, the gray objects can be called curious; they're not really attractive. I'm attracted to the work mainly because it does what a lot of good art does: it confronts me with my own way of looking. It’s able to do so only because in opposition to that it presents a way of looking and imagining that is truly its own, and actually autonomous. I’d always located autonomy in the mind of an artwork’s creator. But when I look at this work, it's clear that it’s a characteristic quality of this machine that’s showing me how my own viewing apparatus works.

My own eyes dart back and forth when given new information to process, in order to quickly figure out what they're dealing with. We see something and make an assessment: Can I trust this? Is it worth the trouble? Looking and interpreting take place almost simultaneously. Also, many of the things we see are already familiar in a way. When you look at a dome from the side, you imagine its unseen half. You understand that beyond a pillar, space continues. You’re able to do this because you’ve seen similar spaces before and learned how they work. That’s why it's so surprising when your appraisal turns out to be wrong – for example, when the dome you thought you were looking at turns out to be a trompe-l'oeil painting. The reason your eyes can be deceived in the first place is because of the internal database of existing spaces you carry around with you, through which you’ve learned to categorize visual input.

The Solid Spaces machine is troubled by none of this. As impassive as it is focused, it examines everything around it intently and from a constantly changing position. This is why the gray objects are more than just representations of the inside of a church. They accomplish something else: they activate different versions of what you are looking at at that moment. These other versions are what the Canadian art theorist Brian Massumi, following the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, calls “virtual versions.” His point is that the versions of the church made by Solid Spaces are no less real than the full-size church in which they are exhibited. At most, the gray objects are inferior in scale and legitimacy to the larger one, which happens to have a postcode instead of a plinth and is made of stone rather than plastic.

Virtual versions

Massumi argues for an art practice in which the virtual – that is, the possible, the potential – is given full scope. Every object, he says, is merely “an event, full of all sorts of virtual movement.” Art must try to effect as much virtual movement as possible. It is here, not in form, that aesthetic experience resides. This means architects, artists and other creative minds lose their position as autonomous creators. An artist can no longer retreat comfortably into what Massumi calls “an abstract space of Platonic preexistence to which he or she has inspired access.” Instead, he or she must enter into clever alliances with beings that have many virtual versions: a plant that can twist itself into infinite curves, for instance, or an ecosystem that can sprawl in countless directions, different every time.

Does this mean machines are destined to vanquish humanity? Must we accept that, if it comes down to machines versus people, the former have the broadest and thus perhaps the most “artistic” view? Fortunately not, if we can believe Massumi. According to him, the virtual is not a quality of the object, though objects can activate it to a greater or lesser degree. The virtual arises in the encounter during the act of looking. In the case of Solid Spaces, for example, the actual artwork does not consist of the three-dimensional prints or even the scanner that makes them possible. Rather, the work's epicenter lies in the gaze the viewer learns to adopt by projecting him- or herself into the device’s actions.

Perhaps we should reverse the roles and look closely at how machines imagine things in order to upgrade our own imaginations. Perhaps, rather than creating machines in our own image and then fearing them, we should try to be more like them.

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