Life on the planet has reached a turning point. Natural resources’ depletion, soil degradation, air and water pollution manifest how the body of Earth-with its habitats and ecosystems-is affected. As human and more-than-human worlds suffer the consequences of the climate breakdown, vulnerable areas are being abandoned and species are going extinct. The planet is going through radical changes and the increasing use of technological systems in contemporary life plays a great role in this. This is exemplified by the mining for minerals used for the manufacturing of electronic devices and physical computers, the consumption of fossil fuel power needed for their production and operation, as well as the toxicity of the e-waste being produced. The sovereign technological world accelerates environmental deterioration. At the same time, acknowledging the critical condition of the planet, advanced technological research together with science aim to offer strategies and responses for a more sustainable future. With the use of planetary infrastructures, sensory networked systems, and environmental robotics, solutions are being proposed for the management, restoration and optimisation of earth’s ecosystems. The role of technology in the era of the climate crisis, is therefore, although ambivalent to a great extent, to propose answers to the problems that its abusive use has created.
The Reprogramming Earth exhibition discusses technology’s two-fold character in relation to the environment, addressing the interconnection of culture and nature, of the human and the surrounding living world. At its core, lie the problematics of the belief that the planet is an object that be endlessly used, programmed and controlled. As Jennifer Gabrys writes pointing to McLuhan, the Earth first became programmable with the appearance of planetary infrastructures-the satellite systems-that made possible its observation from a distance.1 From then until now, technological networked systems have been used to render its life-worlds legible, sensible and manageable. The Earth with its ecosystems and organisms has unfortunately become “a pilotable machine” as Frédéric Neyrat states, which is considered possible not only to control, but also to re-construct and remake; when programming the planet is no longer enough, in other words, then the goal is to “repair, to reprogram, to reconstruct” it.2
What are the costs, though, of programming and even reprogramming the Earth? How does it become possible? Which are the territories profiting from it and which ones are affected? How does the contemporary way of living and thinking relate to this? Would it be possible to re-engineer habits and beliefs instead of living worlds?
The exhibition Reprogramming Earth responds to these questions through the works of artists that critically engage with environmental issues, shedding light to the dark sides of the shiny connected world.
With his new map project and accompanying manual , Vladan Joler depicts contemporary forms of exploitation related to connectivity and networked infrastructures. New Extractivism: Assemblage of concepts and allegories (2020) presents together ideas, things and people that manifest how extractivism happens nowadays-from the mining of data to the mining of natural resources, and respectively from human to earth labour. Special attention is paid to the geological process that power the engines of the new extractivism. Lisa Rave connects neo-extractivism to neo-colonialism, examining the long-established relations of culture, and ecology. EUROPIUM (2014) tells the story of the rare earth element of the same name which is found in the deep waters of the South Pacific. Used to provide the brilliance of color to screen based culture but also to banknotes, Europium (Eu) exemplifies the impact of the technological progress on the body of earth as well as on the human bodies that suffer its consequences. EUROPIUM as well as the map of New Extractivism remind us how capitalism organises what is called ‘nature’ or cheap nature as Jason W.Moore has expressed,3 discussing ongoing forms of exploitation between cultures, populations, lands and territories.
The earth and its geological strata provides the affordances for technical media to operate,4 but it also offers the ground for the ending point for the remains of today’s ephemeral and disposable digital culture. As Parikka and Hertz have noted “media never die but remain as toxic waste residue.“5 They constitute a “natural history of electronics” as Gabrys has put it,6 a term that Rosemary Lee also turns to, while referring to her work Molten Media which is hosted in the show. Molten media (2013-2018) discusses the material side of apparatuses which litter the earth, forming mountains of e-waste. Featuring the decay of an old Macintosh computer, the work exposes the side that is usually left unseen when it comes to the immaterial culture of connectivity, which is also a throwaway culture. Rosemary Lee as well as Benjamin Gaulon with his work Broken Portraits (2017-ongoing) underlines the problem of planned obsolescence; this is the capitalist logic of manufacturing devices that are purposed to become obsolete after a certain period of time, of building machines that are made to break with systems not easy to run, of introducing a design that will soon be considered unfashionable and replaced by the next generation. Gaulon presents a series of broken screens magnified and reproduced with plexiglass, pointing to the aesthetics and futility of planned obsolescence.
Matthias Fritsch with his video Soil Farmers (2018) discusses the problem of soil degradation caused by industrial agriculture. He turns his attention to the invisible nonhuman labourers that grant life to the ground and sustain soil as a bioinfrastructure and a living organic web.7 In a period when terraforming-a term once associated with science fiction to refer to how other planets could become habitable-has started being used to refer to earth itself, Fritsch underlines the need to re-terraform the ground, by making it again fertile and healthy and acknowledging its living organisms. Gil-Fournier and Parikka with their work Seed, Image, Ground (2020) also address the problem of soil degradation discussing past and current seed bombing techniques used for environmental restoration. In the case of seed bombing, biodegradable containers filled with seeds and soil nutrients are dropped from flying aircrafts to the ground. Gil Fournier and Parikka are specifically interested in the role of the images that capture, predict and simulate the changes on the ground, and examine how these images are involved in the reprogramming of earth and strategies of environmental management.
Hanna Husberg with her work Often people ask how birds are affected by air (2017) discusses past and current aerial imaginaries in relation to the datafication of air. She looks into the case of Beijing, China and the problem of wumai-of dusted polluted air,-she comments on the management of it as well as on the impact that it has on people’s everyday lives while drawing connections to different examples of weather modification. A memory, an ideal, a proposition by Karolina Sobecka (2017) also explores the impact of intentional intervention on the climate system, and examines the feelings that such practices evoke. Sobecka’s work looks specifically into the challenges of geoengineering, and presents the recreation of three different clouds from three different periods of time and environments, referring to their effects on a social and geological level. Sobecka and Husberg both seem to agree with what Holly Jean Buck notes, that in the case of weather or atmosphere modification one should rather pay attention not to he beginning the project, but to its ending; one needs to ensure that “what comes after geoengineering is liveable,“8 taking mind different populations, territories and more-than-human worlds.
The JI (2020) film by John Butler and Lina Theodorou speculates about the climate future of the Mediterranean. Embracing the sci-fi genre, the story refers to a situation where the sovereign technological system is a living quantum computer supported by jellyfish intelligence. Jellyfishes, according to the story, are attracted by and feed upon human experiential data stores in undersea servers, and hold the key to biological immortality. JI is a work about the controversies of beliefs like the ones found in transhumanism which focus on the enhancement of human intellect and ignore an otherwise dying planet. Papamargariti with Precarious Inhabitants (2017) imagines new forms of symbiosis, sympoiesis and transformation between human and nonhuman, organic and synthetic bodies. The work speculates about the future of habitats and ecosystems. It depicts uncanny beings and hybrid forms of life and questions the promises of a machine-led world. Turning purposely to imagination and exaggeration, Pamargariti, Theodorou and Butler aim to offer an understanding of elusive changes and transformations that the engineering of the planet might bring.
Discussing the impact of neo-extractivism, e-waste as well as of technologies that aim to modify the planet’s atmosphere and ecosystems, the Reprogramming Earth exhibition aims to go beyond common progress narratives. The works presented try to find perspectives from within the planet’s life-worlds, and to expose already existing challenges and limitations. They highlight that when it comes to any form of remaking, one needs to start from the reimagination, recreation and recomposition9 of human and more-than-human worlds taking in mind and wishing to change the existing asymmetries and forms of exploitation. It is the relationship to the environment that first and foremost needs to be reprogrammed and not the planet itself. It is the broken bonds that have to be restored10. Then, hopefully, the soil, the air and the water-as living infrastructures that they are-might be repaired. Not much can happen before that…
- Jennifer Gabrys. Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet. Minneapolis, University Minnesota Press, 2015. 4.
- Frédéric Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation. Trans. Drew S. Burk, New York, Fordham University Press, 2018. 1-3
- Jason W. Moore. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London/New York, Verso, 2015.
- Jussi Parika. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015. 13
- Jussi Parika. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015. 48
- Jennifer Gabrys. Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2011.
- The reference comes from Puig de la Bellacasa’s work on soil. María Puig de la Bellacasa, "Encountering Bioinfrastructure: Ecological Struggles and the Sciences of Soil," Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 28.1 (2014): 26-40. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2013.862879
- Holly Jean Buck. After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair and Restoration. London/New York: Verso, 2019, 26.
John Butler & Lina Theodorou, Matthias Fritsch, Benjamin Gaulon, Abelardo Gil-Fournier & Jussi Parikka, Hanna Husberg, Vladan Joler, Rosemary Lee, Eva Papamargariti, Lisa Rave, Karolina Sobecka
Curator: Daphne Dragona
Coordinator: Helene Black
Artistic Director: Yiannis Colakides
Curator statement video: Nicos Avraamides
Photographs: Helene Black
VR capture/editing: Yiannis Colakides
Main Funder: Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture
Support: Medochemie, AlphaMega