As a fellow of Het Nieuwe Instituut, Sascha Pohflepp advised on the Garden of Machines exhibition. This essay examines the conflict between artificial and natural in the context of the Anthropocene. Now that humans have become the principal cause of geological and biological transformation, concepts such as ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ are becoming increasingly blurred. What then does ‘artificial’ – the classical polar opposite of ‘natural’ – mean today? The garden is an example of a classic artefact in which the notions of artificial and natural are not opposed. The Garden of Machines, then, could be seen as a possible metaphor for the world as a whole in the age of the Anthropocene.
The text below was written by Sascha Pohlflepp, who asked Arjen Mulder to add his own comments and annotations from his own professional perspective as biologist and media theorist. Mulder was also part of the advisory team that helped shape the Garden of Machines project. Arjen Mulder’s comments are shown in italics.
The garden is possibly one of our most ancient cultural techniques. A place in which the humans who started practicing agriculture approximately 10 millennia ago “found a way of letting nature do what they wanted it to do.” They did so by hedging in a part of their environment, in the sense of Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt, in order to use to grow food, by populating it with domesticated animals in order to harness their bodies as a source of work for cultivating the land, as a source of meat or other materials, but also for aesthetic considerations. Many of the environments we now consider ‘natural’ have in fact been cultivated or at least fundamentally altered in the course of this deep history. There are, for instance, virtually no forests in Western Europe that were not planted by humans. They are Kulturlandschaften, an “actualisation of what city dwellers consider nature to be, organised wilderness.” Within it, many of the “industrial organisms”, plants and animals alike, have transformed, often beyond recognition. This happened through selective breeding on the part of humans, but also through the very act of domestication that entered them into a co-evolutionary trajectory with us, producing subspecies and cultivars, bonded to each other by our respective needs.
[Arjen Mulder, AM] Is it really co-evolution you’re talking about? Did the human body change in the last 12.000 years as a result of the way we breed certain plants and animals? Apparently all the major evolutionary changes that were needed to produce Homo sapiens were in place some 150.000 years ago and nothing changed very much in our bodies. But what evolved was our relationship to nature. Organised, sedentary agriculture was the first method humans found to let nature do what they wanted it to do (within certain parameters of weather, pests, grazers etc.). Agriculture enabled the rise and fall of cities and what has been called 'culture' or even 'civilisation'. The city produced another kind of tools and technology than agriculture, including machines (starting with the human Mega-machines needed to build city walls, palaces and pyramids). A garden is an actualisation of what city dwellers consider nature to be, a garden is organised wildness. It's not a dense forest or a swamp, but fields and trees and winding paths. In gardens one finds species that are indeed co-evolving with the human species. When horses, cows, dogs, cats, chickens and certain other animal species decided to go for domestication, they took another evolutionary trail and let themselves be diversified into a broad array of subspecies, races and cultivars. Some plants bonded strongly with humans: grains as food, grasses as food for their meat machines, flowers as beauty, herbs as psychedelic 'wisdom of the plant'. That's co-evolution all right. The relationship between man and nature has been one of theft and plunder. As the Exxon CEO explained: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” That's not garden, fracking is not garden. Indeed we live in the Garden of Machines, but outside the walls, in the real world, nature has decided (according to James Lovelock) to evolve in yet another direction and reduce mankind to around 600.000 people. They who will live in Gardens of Machines, communicating through a probably cable-based network, in a devastated world that needs just a few million years to recover from evolutionary experiment Homo sapiens, the creature with consciousness.
Much later came the machines. Mechanisms produced at the dawn of industrialisation were “solid parts that work together” in such a way that they could drive other things such as pulley systems or water pumps, vastly amplifying the ability of humans to shape their environment into new configurations. Such increased power required energy, and to provide the hungry machines we dug back to the fossilised forests of the past, beginning to set free “the energy [...] bound up due to the sunlight of earlier times, putting [it] back into circulation again”, as Heinrich Hertz had already remarked in 1885, possibly with a hunch of the global predicament of a warming planet this would come to cause.
The evolutionary trajectory of those inanimate machines was often marked by innovation that originated in imitation. The body of the horse, one of the prime movers of the original garden, was for instance what James Watt had in mind when he designed his steam engine in the late eighteenth century. He quantified the previously qualitative work a horse could do with surprising accuracy (1 horsepower equals lifting 75 kilograms by 1 metre in 1 second) in order to make animate and inanimate work more comparable as well as more compatible. Perhaps this is how we can “understand only those aspects of nature that we have been able to reproduce mechanically”, biologist Arjen Mulder says.
[AM] I was quoting Adrien Turel. But yes, once you can build an airplane you start to understand not just how swallows fly, but also bats and butterflies. Technology is a practical method that allows science to conceptualise natural processes.
With the gradual discovery of DNA in the first half of the twentieth century and the ensuing growing understanding of how genetic information is encoded and expressed, our powers of manipulation over the living substrate have been increasing by the minute, giving rise to whole new fields such as synthetic biology. Through such efforts, mechanistic views on life like those embodied in the steam engine are feeding back into it. Vast resources are presently being devoted to make organisms compatible with the information engines called computers in the belief that life, on its most fundamental level, is also a molecular information processing process. The dream that seems within reach is that of the truly living machine, running on information and energy, able to produce or become almost everything, bound by the laws of nature, rather than by its mechanical constraints.
Such machines have long been with us, for instance the genetically engineered E. coli microorganisms that have produced human insulin since 1982. Not a mere imitation of a body, but instead designed bodies themselves, they incorporate both the dynamic complexity and the peculiar driving forces of life. As such they operate very differently and are “more loyal to evolution than to human aspirations”, a realm where probability, the nemesis of accountability, which the engineers of industrialisation thought to have banished forever from technology, looks set to make a comeback.
Already around the time of the discovery of DNA by Francis Crick and James D. Watson, French philosopher Georges Canguilhem stated that a living machine would be far less “bound by purposiveness and more open to potentialities, [because] life is tentative in every respect.” It will take information machines such as computers to understand and create those much more fluid artefacts, which is another, maybe the most striking yet aspect of co-evolution and ecology in this new age. In this combination of living matter, probability and emergence, as well as its computational understanding and design, the future garden is likely to thrive.
[AM] I was afraid you’d make this point. Living machines. Remember Lewis Mumford, who claimed that the only reason why scientific concepts and procedures fit onto humans is because science considers humans to be machines in the first place. Science is about objects in the world seen as machines. The new steam-driven, coal-munching mechanistic machines of the Iron 1800's produced the modern science of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Science ia a conceptualisation of engineering. Today, indeed, we live in the other age, no longer just the age of information but also of bioengineering. Monsanto corn is a bio-machine that feeds on Monsanto toxics, killing everything in the neighbourhood, including humans. Bioengineering is the new technology that, when studied carefully, allows for a new set of concepts and procedures, a new kind of science. Timothy Morton calls it 'ecology without nature'. I disagree, nature is not gone, and that’s precisely the problem when it comes to global warming and 'ecological sadness'. Nature is everything outside the control of humans, still. I subscribe to the idea of One Nature, our planet as seen from the outer space. Technology is just another form of nature, mechanically constructing with dead materials instead of constructing with living matter as Nature does in species design and ecosystems construction. We're children of the Earth System. Has humanity simply turned stupid? Blinded by an abstract value called money? Hidden behind screens most of the day? Ta-da-da, enter Nature in the persona of Climate Change. The living machines are taking revenge. Gaia tries to kill parasite H.s. and risks dying in the effort.
What isn't an artefact...
This raises the notion of artefact and artificiality. In experimental science an artefact is the trace of the human, the mark of technique, an error that disturbs the true image of nature. Yet in other fields that consider themselves closer to human imagination such as art, design or engineering, the artefact is that what is desired, the rarefied fruit of human ingenuity and industriousness. For all we know so far, the garden of machines is likely be populated with entities that will share aspects of both definitions, but what kind of artefact do those new machines constitute? Our clear notion of the artifice is blurring when genetic code is injected into a semi-solid, not yet fully understood, supposed information machine such as it was the case with J. Craig Venter Institute’s microorganism “Synthia”, a Mycoplasma capricolum organism which proceeded to transform itself into the digitally synthesized M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. But would the species that have co-evolved with us in those past ten millennia by that definition then not also be artefacts, evolutionarily marked by our presence as they have been?
A simple approach could be to extend the notion of nature itself to such “products of imagination, each piece fulfilling some final purpose or design that at one time was only imagined or dreamed of; they are thus the direct or indirect products of a technical activity that is as authentically organic”, as Georges Canguilhem had already proposed in the 1950s. Yet it seems as if the artefacts in the garden of machines are a new type of object, which may be better described by the hereditary techno-cultural context that they emerged in. Indeed, according to biologist and complexity researcher Manfred Laubichler, such relationships are increasingly being considered when “the avant-garde of evolutionary biology [is] trying to figure out evolution as a transformation of complex networks, rather than simply the calculus of variation within population, [...] it becomes more historical and more connected.”
... in the Anthropocene?
And this process encompasses more than just manipulating living entities. Mining, manufacturing and shipping have created a vast global system in which matter almost engages as if it were information, in the process “spreading materials all over the world [and] creating new niches for evolution.” We seem to have produced “a wave that is carrying us along”, one that has a direction and while it is something that we unintentionally created, we are slowly beginning to give it a name to mark our own authorship and possibly responsibility: the Anthropocene. And what about the Post-Anthropocene, the age that is already being put forward by theorist Benjamin Bratton, which, on a planet that has a few billion contingency filled years left before it gets inevitably destroyed by an inflating Sun, is more than likely to follow. Will we be remembered by the thin layer of the rare materials that we have dug up and processed in our technologies, akin to the “tiny layer of iridium left by [the asteroid that caused] the Fifth Extinction Wave”?
[AM] Yes, the Anthropocene. It sounds like victory. We have changed the Earth in a process absolutely new in paleontological history. One species tries to take control over all the rest. Goes into eco-engineering, geo-engineering, gene tech. Decides who is to survive and who will die in the Sixth Extinction Wave. Is able to spread one species of sorghum or potato all over the world, no matter what the local conditions are. And we're a planet of chickens; there are over 19 billion chickens on Earth. Chickens got that power by their allegiance to the human species. Okay, the living conditions for the productive workers are lousy, but that's what you get with humans. The chicken and cock aristocracy seems to do very well in its bio farms dwellings. So Chickenocene or whatever that would make in real Latin, makes as much sense as Humanocene. We're the first extinction wave with a biological origin. No erupting super-volcanoes or smashing comets this time, it's just you and me. We're causing a massive extinction wave that will probably be as destructive as the one that ended the Perm, 256 million years ago, when some 90 per cent of all the species in the oceans died and over 40 per cent on the landmasses. When the comet hit Yucatan 65 million years ago and killed all the dinosaurs it left a thin layer of the rare metal iridium all over the planet as a marker of the end of the Cretean Age, the boundary to the Pleistocene. How long will the Anthropocene last? One gets the impression that the evolutionary process goes so fast that within, say, another 10.000 years Homo sapiens will have vanished or split into some six post-human species that do not interbreed. Maybe humanity will become extinct in such a short geological time frame that instead of a proud Anthropocene we will end as the tiny layer of iridium left in the Fifth Mass Extinction Wave.
While biology is a quasi-solid, it is able to retain a vast amount of information. We have long been gradually inscribing own our history into the unbroken chain of life, and the better authors and facilitators of exchange of such information we become, the more of what nominally is still nature will grow part of this so-called “technosphere”. In the common imaginary of the ’Internet of Things’, today’s actors operate at an anthropometric scale, while future inhabitants of the garden, potentially enabled by the technological descendant of the enormous address-space of the IPv6 communication protocol, may be talking across vastly different scales. Arjen Mulder remembers a slogan on a wall in early 1980s Berlin: “‘Once humanity is over, things are going to really kick off’ (“Wenn's mit der Menschheit zu Ende ist geht's erst richtig los"), suggesting not “new kinds of knowledge but also a new kind of organism, a new dimension.” Maybe one that is more similar to the almost incomprehensible molecular speed and spatial complexity that is the reality of those cells we are attempting to engineer today.
A cultural re-evaluation of our notion of artificiality may also come to have other, more political implications in the human realm, since notions of evolution and ecology are often employed as frameworks of reference, with the former being assigned a competitive, conservative position and the latter a more politically progressive, inclusive and harmonic one. Yet it is of great importance to mark the fact that those are anthropocentric narratives, assigned to complex and contradictory realities populated mostly by non-human actors. In order to reconcile our imaginary of such systems, the contemporary scientific view them and our own role within them, it may be crucial to attempt to first become more aware of our own projected narratives which appear to be rooted in Continental romanticism as much as the utopian and apocalyptic visions of the 1960s. Stances which Benjamin Bratton identifies as “part of the texture of a moral community, [a] reactionary and deeply conservative disposition.”
[AM] Life has been going on on Earth for 3.7 billion years, in one unbroken chain of tiny organisms giving their life to others, reproducing, carrying life along through billions of years of slime, and making all the biotechnological inventions that would produced the entire chain of evolution up to the present. Every living body, not just ours but of every plant, tree, bird, quadruple, bacteria, is connected in unbroken chain with every other living body that ever lived here on Earth and lives here today. Evolution tells the story of the ecologies that Gaja came up with in the course of 580 million years of multicellular, eukaryotic life. All those wonderful worlds of Mosses and Ferns and Equisetales and pine trees, and at last in the Neocene the tropical jungle and the forests of deciduous, broad-leaved trees - and not one observer who enjoyed watching the days go by, just Life doing the Dance, playing the Game of Evolution. This planet was a rather nice place to live until the monkeys got out of control, as a psychedelic, intergalactic mushroom remarked when Terrence McKenny asked him why they had chosen to settle on Earth. Until we humans came along, invented technology, it took only 12.000 years to build the rockets that went into space and landed on the Moon. And there Neil Armstrong lifted his head and the dark glass on his helmet, and saw in a dark night sky the blue planet. The Whole Earth. Gaia had created a tool to get a picture of herself from the outside, as seen from a distance. The Goddess wanted to see herself as one living body, One Nature, instead of just being these creatures full of hidden joys and pains called living beings, not just living machines. There is a spiritual aspect to both evolution and ecology. Hegel was onto something when he talked about history as the process of self-realisation of der Geist aka the Absolute. Why are we, human beings, necessary in the process of evolution at this particular moment in time? What is our answer to the 'Know Thyself' of the Absolute Spirit? Consciousness comes from self-stimulation of our sensory system with external means: language, hierarchies, houses, customs, culture, plants and fellow animals, architecture, means of communication, ritual, physical touching, images, touch screens. Consciousness is the result of mediation. Technology always comes first. One person drums the tam-tam and another decodes the message. It's only through mediation that information gets meaning. We are Gaia's medium. We human fucking beings. What is the message? That's what at stake when it comes to the arts, to design, to literature and the other 'creative' efforts, or what I prefer to call the work of the imagination. If there is no God, no Outsider, no Help without or within; if it is just matter and us, matter with its forces and physical laws, and us with our immaterial consciousness / technological drive / information systems / feeling desiring machines; what are we defending? When we do art or science or theory or curating - what are we trying to carry one generation further in the evolution of, well, the living spirit? Life is fragile yet resilient. Consciousness can blossom and die in just a few years. The Middle East is one big graveyard of decapitated, formerly immortal gods. What's at stake? What's the message? Which songs does one sing in the Garden of Machines these days?
Artefacts as features of life
A hypothesis – what if the state of artifice is not a product of humans but a feature of life itself? What if there is no difference between the first chemical information exchanges within the vesicles that may have enclosed inanimate chemicals, us and the new machines with which we will be populating the garden of the future? What if, as Arjen Mulder continues this thought “it is just matter and us, matter with its forces and physical laws, and us with our immaterial consciousness/technological drive/information systems/feeling desiring machines; what are we defending?” Now the image of the garden, this intrinsically artificial space that is yet co-inhabited by a variety of agents, also makes more sense.
Georges Canguilhem, albeit read in a re-imagination of his own argument of everything-as-nature: “Considering technology as a universal biological phenomenon and no longer simply as an intellectual operation to be carried out by man [it] allows man to live in continuity with life, as opposed to a solution that would see humankind as living in a state of rupture for which we ourselves are responsible because of science.”
To re-consider artificiality, towards which the acknowledgement of the Anthropocene seems like a first step, could mean to gain a new perspective from which to regard our own agency, both in deep time and from a somewhat post-ideological position as in timeframes of ten millennia and more such all too anthropocentric considerations fade into the mist of time.
We don’t know what the first gardeners believed in, yet the genetic information they helped create is still with us. Visit a grocery store, pick up an ear of corn and you will be touching its material expression. It appears as if embracing such a view could make us – that is our level of evolved consciousness – more resilient, by demonstrating both the power and potential, but also the thin ice which we are advancing on towards the age to follow the Anthropocene, be it in another ten millennia or much further off.
 Jakob von Uexküll, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds, Springer, 1934.
 In James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia, Santa Barbara (Cal) 2006.
 Heinrich Hertz, On the Energy Balance of the Earth, 1885.
 See: Adrien Turel, Von Altamira bis Bikini, Die Menschheit als System der Almacht, Zürich 1947/1987.
 Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg in Synthetic Aesthetics, MIT Press, 2013.
 Georges Canguilhem, “Machine and Organism” in Incorporations, Zone Books, 1992.
 Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilisation, Chicago 1934/2010.
 Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature, Cambridge (Mass.), 2009.
 Manfred Laubichler at the Anthropocene Campus, HKW Berlin, November 2014.
 Armin Reller at the Anthropocene Campus, HKW Berlin, November 2014.
 Peter K. Haff at the Anthropocene Campus, HKW Berlin, November 2014.
 Benjamin H. Bratton in conversation with Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Amsterdam February 2015.