Introduction -Computational Ecologies:
1a. Orders are Orders
Once, while babysitting, I had to take my young daughter with me while I was busy with something else -somewhere where I was not very used to working. To keep her busy, I set her up with some drawing materials. After a while she asked me where the rubbish bin was. I said that I thought it was in the bottom left hand corner of the room -that she should go there to look for it -and if it wasn't there, then she should come back and tell me. After a while, I noticed that she was standing in the corner of the room, by the rubbish bin. When I asked why, she replied that the rubbish bin was indeed there -but I had only told her to return if it was not there....
It has been said that modern computers are extremely reliable and do exactly what one tells them to do. So if one has mistakes in ones programme, it is because one has instructed the computer badly.As an artist/programmer, this aspect of computing was one of the things that attracted me. Perhaps I was just a lousy programmer -but it was fun to tell the computer how to do something (like draw some shape and give it a certain colour) and then see what the machine actually did. Often it was like working with the mythical "Genie in the Bottle" -who obeyed ones every command -but often in totally unexpected ways -thus demonstrating that one had not quite mastered the fine details of the commands given.
It is also often said that opposites attract -and this certainly seems true of my love affair with computer programming: By nature, I am not at all nit-picking and precise: Indeed, more the opposite -lazy, slovenly and generally not very prone to following other people's rules or advice. However, over time, the experience of programming demonstrated to me the error of my ways -and I am very grateful to the machine for that.
On the other hand, I have still managed to retain many of my "bad" characteristics: I am still fairly impulsive and and not entirely devoid of anarchic tendencies.
1b. The Rules of Anarchy
So, how does one combine anarchic tendencies with the nit-picking precision of a logical machine?
Although my first experiences with the computer as an artistic medium came while still an under-graduate student at art school in England, I was later exposed to the analogue electronic music sound studio at the Institute for Sonology (then in Utrecht, Holland).
The analogue sound studio was a very inspiring but contrasting experience: Using wires to connect various pieces of equipment together to make complex circuits (and sounds) was fun -and much easier than using the more precise linear (and in those days, text based) computer. On the other hand, the freedom of the analogue studio also meant that it was much easier to make mistakes -because the little genie in the bottle wasn't there to tease and test your every command.
Being an outsider, coming from a visual arts background -I also made a rather creative mistake: It seems that (at that time) most people composing electronic music pieces, would record small fragments of sound and then mix them together in various ways -gradually building up (more or less by hand) complex sound structures from more simple fragments.Because I was new to the game, and possibly because I was already used to the idea of a fully automated computer system, my interest focused on trying to make fully autonomous machines that could produce sounds (hopefully somewhat musical in nature) indefinitely and without further human intervention.
Luckily, being young, I didn't let my lack of musical knowledge or experience get in the way.Artistically, the results might have been somewhat less than world shattering -but the problems involved were quite interesting I thought.
Basically, the systems involved a (minimum) number of rule based interactions between autonomous, self sustaining, sub-systems -each of which relied on a feedback loop to keep the system going -and some kind of internal clock that determined when a system variable was to change its value.
This latter meant that while the clock (and any resulting changes in the subsystem or its interactions) was deterministic within the sub-system -it was "random" in relation to other sub-systems in the whole circuit.
1c. The Pragmatics of Simulation
At some point in my research at the Institute for Sonology, I needed to have specialist equipment built in order to continue my work. Unfortunately, this also coincided with government austerity measures -and so I was told by the Institute that I would have to move back to the digital computer and simulate my systems there -because cost constraints did not allow the requested analogue constructions. In order to survive-I complied with their request.
For those trained to nit-pick, there is quite a difference between "Digital Thinking" and "Analogue Thinking": Digital thinking involves the (mostly linear) manipulation of strings of symbols -while analogue thinking involves interactions between physical entities.Luckily, this was not such a big problem -because the digital computer is widely known (or at least was widely known at the time) as being primarily a "universal simulation machine" -so that one can manipulate the strings of symbols in such a way that the results emulate almost any conceptual or physical machine (process) that one can possibly imagine....
I'll admit that I never managed to fully separate these two approaches.
My digital work therefore became a bizarre mixture of the two approaches -although it tends largely towards a simulation of the analogue.
1d. Simulated Ecologies
At some point, I left the Institute for Sonology and was able to buy my own (Amiga) computer so I could work at home. This accelerated my progress by an almost infinite amount.
Released from the constraints of an institutional framework -I was free to pursue my own obsessions -at my own speed.
During this phase of my life I became fascinated by the idea of creating automated art works that were basically simulations of autonomous non-repetitive image generating machines that all shared a common environment: The eternally changing image was created by each machine modifying its environment according to its own individual interpretation of that environment.
Unfortunately, the intellectual and cultural tides of fashion were against me.
2a. The Role of Chance
When skimming through Art Historical Biographies, one generally gets the impression that all went smoothly and each step was the inevitable consequence of some hidden force driving the artist towards whatever art historical role the historians have invented for them.
However, in real life, it is more likely that the artist was lost many times and confused and had no idea where they were heading. Quite often several accidental external events or circumstances pave their way: Their uncle owned a gallery -or other circumstances forced them to move in certain circles that proved to be very fertile for them.
2b. Taking the Chance
After many (somewhat frustrating) years I took the chance to leave Holland and settle in the Philippines. However, my wife and I wished to move out of Greater Manila and into a more pleasant environment.By chance, my wife Fatima, was asked to take photos for a project a friend of hers was doing in Baclayon on the island of Bohol. We liked the area and started looking for somewhere to settle down. Our first choice fell through -but we were later offered the opportunity to buy 2,000 square meters of land -complete with coconut, banana and papaya trees and a flimsy wooden (baptist) church -which would need to be demolished so we could build our own house there.
In May 2010 we bought the property -but we had to have the church removed and build a house before we could live here.
It was January 2011 before we finally moved in.
2c. Doing What Comes Naturally
My experiences with using a computer on the (then) outer fringes of the art world, taught me that if "programmed computer art" was to be of any real value in the art world -then there was a lot of work that needed to done. However, a lot of this essential work could not seriously be considered "art".
One could imagine the impossibility of trying to invent the violin, for example -while under the constraint that each and every step of (and note produced by) the development process had to be acceptable as a viable "Musical Expression" that was acceptable under the rules of the pre-violin era.Indeed, it seems that the development of radical new art media may require a kind of "Artistic Bodhisattva" who sacrifices their own entry into "Artistic Enlightenment" in order to pave the way for others. Under the current committee based art funding schemes intent on exploiting the potential of the next band wagon -the required support for such sustained fundamental artistic research (as is common in fundamental science) is very unlikely.
2d. Local Inspirations:
The area we had moved into was (at least to my eyes) an extremely rural part of a semi-urban municipality.
Poverty levels in the direct vicinity seemed much higher than anything I'd experienced in Europe. There also seemed to be some stigma attached to rural poverty -with high levels of social pressure encouraging young people to leave the land and train for high-status jobs abroad.
This seemed rather unfortunate to me -who. after all had moved into the area in order to enjoy the natural advantages I suspected it could provide.
As a result, it seemed to me that the real poverty was not "Financial Poverty" (in fact it was the prevailing economic system that actually made people poor): The real problem was the "Cultural Poverty" that somehow prevented people from appreciating the non-financial aspects of rural life -and living accordingly.
2e. Producing What Comes Naturally?
It seemed to me that life in a city required money -because one could not produce ones own food -and therefore one had to fully participate in the economic systemic in order to feed oneself and ones family.
However, if one could rely upon ones own natural food production -then the need for money was greatly reduced. In fact, in a self-sustaining, land based economy -the only real need for money would be to pay government taxes.....
2e. Real Ecologies
The image of the poor peasant working hard and sweating in the sun for little personal profit is fairly common.However, a lazy person like me will question that image -and ask: Is it is possible to develop a high density (natural) food production system with relatively little effort?
Could naturally autonomous organisms, if given the freedom and the right conditions. manage to reproduce themselves sufficiently to provide a reliable source of food for (lazy) humans?
Would this be possible in a low-tech manner -without investing great sums of money?
...and if so, could this be a solution to rural poverty?
2f. Art or Science?
Then one starts to ask: Where does one get the knowledge to do such things -especially when "conventional wisdom" seems to be diametrically opposed to everything that one wishes to achieve?
Could the techniques of "Art" solve these problems?After all.many artists have claimed that the work often produces itself -and the artist is merely the medium through which this happens....
Could "Farming" be a form of "painting" with living automatons?
2g. The Art of Production
Indeed, one can look at "Gardening" (and "Farming") as practical problems (How to make things grow and flourish)....But one can also look at them (and perhaps other problems too) as primarily "Aesthetic" questions:
Problems that are basically solved by looking to see what is wrong with the current situation and then changing it for something (hopefully) better than before.
Of course, these "improvements" are entirely subjective and perhaps more "emotional" than "rational".
So, instead of a great plan -one just goes around looking and changing things as one feels is needed. Adding something here, removing something there and sometimes moving something from one place to another -until one feels happy with they result.
A very intuitive process -which, of course, when imposed on living subjects, involves feedback from the organisms themselves: Does the animal or plant seem happier living under these conditions than under different conditions?
- Should one water or not water when the garden is dry?
- When and how much should one trim trees and bushes
- -and how does this trimming affect other plants and animals in the area?
- Can we include animals in the garden -and which animals would we like to try?
- -How can we integrate them best into the rest of the garden?
- How do we organize the space.....
- -How much should we organize and how much can we leave to "natural" (chance) development....
- How important (and achievable) are ones original aims:
- -How much emphasis should one place on "production" and how much emphasis on other aspects (such as ease of operation, and personal enjoyment)?
As one gains experience one gradually improves ones skills by seeing the effect of ones interventions.
3a. Are Our Aims Achievable?
After around ten years of (slow) development -the main aim seems to remain achievable -although we still have a lot of work to do in articulating the details....The creation of a successful garden does seem to work on alchemical principles: As we slowly but surely transform the garden -so the garden slowly and surely changes us: Physically, mentally and philosophically......
We still persist with an Integrated Systems Approach -not trying to make things look nice -but to develop and explore the relationships between the various elements in the garden, so they can work together to support a (self-) sustaining, complex, whole...
For example, a large papaya tree (with huge unripe papaya on it) has recently been chopped down. We shall make pickle from some of the unripe fruits, boil some others as a vegetable and feed the rest to the pigs..... The ripe fruits make a good desert..... So it is a very useful tree -and we are planting many of them..... Sometimes they even re-generate after being chopped down -and then the fruits are more accessible for a while on the shorter tree.....Coconuts also present a wide range of uses: Unripe ones provide a refreshing drink and a rather slimy, soft, "meat" -while the older ones can be fed to ducks, chickens and pigs -with the husks either being burnt (for cooking) or used as borders for plant beds. The problem is that coconuts are difficult to pick (tall trees) and hard to open. We use mostly windfall -but falling coconuts can be dangerous. However, the timber can be used for building and the branches (either fallen dry ones or freshly cut) can be fed to pigs, composted, or (when dry) used for firewood....
3b. Organic Anarchy
At first we started planting everything everywhere to see which plants liked to grow best in which places.... Then we gradually started planting similar things in similar places to where something was already growing nicely.....
However, the garden was not easy to make very productive: Climate (with heavy rain followed by periods of drought), soil (impoverished by an excess of hungry coconut trees) and shade levels were problematic.... The only thing that really seemed to grow were trees and weeds.....
Then we discovered that the Mahogany trees (which grow like weeds in our garden) were poisoning other plants (and not edible for most animals) -so it would be better to remove then and to encourage more environmentally friendly and productive trees.Then we realized that weeds and tree trimmings were useful supplies of animal fodder.... and soddenly the garden seemed much more productive and more encouraging.....
Now we have cut down several large mahogany trees, and we have improvedsed light conditions -and composted lots of organic matter from the debris.We are now trying to understand better how to exploit the patterns of light and shade in the garden. The light provides energy for many plants -but for others the shade provide a necessary relief from a burning sun.....
We have also noticed that the more vegetation there is (vegetable crops, decorative plants, bushes or even weeds) the less the soil dries out -and the more productive it is..... This is contrary to popular wisdom.
However, just as different plants like different degrees of sunlight -so do plants have different tastes with regards to moisture and other such conditions.....
Because my original focus was on food production -most of our plant based efforts went into growing vegetables (which was my area -while Fatima concentrated more on managing the animals).
However, animals are also food -and buying commercial foodstuffs also undermines the principle of self-sufficiency. So now we are moving towards a more conscious production of animal foodstuffs.
In this context, bananas (leaves, trunks and fruit skins) coconuts (flesh and water from the nuts, plus palm fronds, dried or green) and papaya (skins and over-ripe fruits, leaves and trunks) might form the basis for a more home grown animal diet.
We also grow sorghum for the chickens -and have even experimented with growing maggots too.
In turn, many of these plants provide the shade needed by other crops.... and waste vegetation can continue to be both composted -or used as part of an auxiliary animal diet.
However, protecting delicate young crops from free range ducks and chickens remains a problem.....
But there is also a great satisfaction in propagating our few successes throughout the garden -by planting either home grown cuttings or seeds.
The policy of trying to increase soil quality by dumping organic matter on it (composting in situ) -and to some extent, leaving weeds, continues....
3c. Cultural Decay
A garden is certainly an autonomous system: One can plant things like crazy -but its up the plants (and animals) to decide for themselves if they will thrive or not....One has to learn what works and what doesn't.
This happens mostly through experience -because the published information is largely based on large scale production in a western context.
As of writing, we are in a Codvid based lock-down. For many, this seems quite a stressful experience -but for us, life continues fairly normally as before.
Our life is full of activity in the garden -it is is also full of surprises -both pleasant and (sometimes) unpleasant. But it is also an intensely satisfying life -as one sees how things slowly improve under ones own hand. Under "normal" conditions, we only went out shopping once a week. So little has changed for us.
Presumably, many useful rural survival skills were practiced on a daily basis by our rural forefathers -however, an industrialised city life seems to have destroyed much cultural knowledge which enabled people earlier to survive in extremely rural conditions.If "art" is about learning how to do things -then indeed there is a lot of art in gardening and farming.....This loss of knowledge needs to be reversed.
4a. Documentation or Autonomous Expression?
The Garden Diary originally started as a documentation of our life in Baclayon, and the things we experienced as part of our new experiment in the countryside.in 2013 we imported various "Heritage Seeds" from an American seed company -and the Diary began to document our attempts to grow the newly bought seeds. Then, because so few seeds actually survived, the Diary became more of a "Activity Report" than a "Plant Report".
As our experiences became more complex, a separate section ("Country Life") was added for documenting our more complex local experiences. The first item, being the (2013) Earthquake which caused much destruction on the island.
However, for an artist there is perhaps a fine line between documentation and an autonomous work: A painter, for example, might consider a painting to be a documentation of something they had seen or felt, while the viewer might consider it to be an autonomous art work in its own right. The various sketches and studies made by an artist might also originate as a means towards an end, and yet also be valid as self-standing (autonomous) works in themselves.Indeed, many activities when performed by an artist often develop their own "aesthetic" (and dynamic) which is partly autonomous and partly constrained by the needs that drove the activity in the first place...
In the world of art -objects and actions can have multiple meanings and functions.
4b. Visible and Invisible
Apart from providing our own historical record of how the garden (hopefully) developed, the Diary was also, partly, intended to make our life visible to others (family, friends and outsiders) who lived far away and could not directly share in our experiences here.
However, the fictional Sherlock Holmes is supposed to have said that the best place to hide something is in full sight: So perhaps "visibility" is not the main element... People must also be able to recognise what they see....
......as well as knowing how to see it.....
Perhaps too, one shouldn't over estimate the "global visibility" of any website.
A website may be globally accessible, if one knows about it -but its "global visibility" (thanks to the Google algorithms) is probably virtually nil (unless it is trending at the time).
I suspect that for many of our neighbours, the Internet is probably more secluded than our garden.One also might also wonder just how far "outsiders" can see beyond an "exotic" and "romantic" life in the country: How much can they understand of the underlying pressures and problems -and the mental discipline sometimes needed to push through in difficult times (such as when all our breeding sows died shortly after each other last year).
So, it seems that things can be both visible and invisible at the same time.....
4c. The Aesthetics of Process and Progress
A "Documentation" involves not only the aesthetics of presentation -but also the aesthetics of what is presented and how it is presented: The aesthetics of story telling.
Apparently supporting Holmes' dictum -many alchemists (and mystics) left behind texts that were very confusing for those who could not understand them. Perhaps many alchemists themselves were confused by the texts they had read -so that their own writings demonstrate these confusions..... but maybe a few people were clever enough (from their own experiences) to unravel the confusions and thus progress to a higher level (following the metaphor of the maze).....
Or maybe the whole thing was just a hoax.....
Nevertheless, it seems that many early alchemists believed that the attempt to turn base metal into gold was a metaphor for (or perhaps acted in parallel with) the spiritual growth of the alchemist, who transformed their soul (or mind, or being) from an impure "base" state to a more pure "golden" state (of enlightenment?) through the alchemical work.....
In my view, "art" is an "alchemical process": It may leave clues for the skilled adept to follow -but it is not intended as an instruction manual for the public.....
Both the Garden Diary and the Alchemical Process apparently reflect an aesthetic which seems based on a kind of "work ethic" embedded in the process itself: Both demonstrate the belief in a procedural and integrated systems approach inherent in the work -allowing the practitioner to transcend their own base state through the physical practice of the work.
The Garden Diary therefore tries to reflect the procedural nature of the 'work" -including its repetitive (and perhaps ritual) nature: A repetition that is sometimes interspersed by the unexpected.....In normal country life "Time" is a very important (natural) element which cannot be bypassed or rushed (contrary to the artificial time experienced in city life). One cannot pick fruit from a tree -unless it was planted many years earlier.
It also takes a certain time to gestate a piglet -or produce an edible chicken.Hopefully, through the Diary, people can see how, in a natural system, one event paves the way for other events which occur much later.
Perhaps what many may see as the boring, repetitive, nature of country life and work are actually some of the more satisfying aspects of rural life.
4d. Telling Tales
The emphasis in the Diary is on (the experimental) "process" -involving repetition and ritual as well as the "effort" involved in doing work and the simple (technological) skills that underlie any activity.
Indeed, merely keeping the diary up to date involves quite a considerable degree of mental discipline.However, any documentation also brings its own aesthetics of storytelling, selection and presentation -expressed through the personal choices implicit in any personal selection created within a subjective frame of reference.
Most of my work is very abstract and conceptual -so the Dairy is perhaps the most representational and practical manifestation of my ideas.
But the autonomous nature of the "documentation process" has also evolved into being partly about story telling with images....
...and story telling is also a process that has multiple levels of meaning and sensory experience......