Ecological World-Building: From Science Fiction to Virtual Reality

Originating with science fiction and fantasy writers, the practice of creating imaginary worlds is one that has gone on to influence many contemporary artists today who are experimenting with advanced technologies to create alternate realities and new visions for the future. Here, Alice Bucknell draws a line from the otherworldly, ecological imaginings of writers like Octavia Butler and Ursula K Le Guin to the “digital gardening” practices of artists like Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Jenna Sutela and Ian Cheng.

Text: Alice Bucknell

“There is nothing new under the sun,” suggested Octavia Butler, the late African-American science fiction writer, in her unfinished book Parable of the Trickster. “But there are new suns.” Trickster was to be the final text in Butler’s Parable series: borne out of the 90s, it’s a disturbingly prescient vision of the 2020s, set in a crumbling California eaten up by wildfires amid the rise of American fascism. Its protagonist, a young Black woman named Lauren Oya Olamina, conceives of a new religious community — Earthseed — whose destiny is interstellar resettlement. Akin to the speculative practice of terraforming[1], Earthseedlings embark upon a spaceship for the next habitable planet. Yet the ship is christened The Christopher Columbus, suggesting that this cosmic colonialism will just repeat our Earthly mistakes. Slowly, Butler pokes holes in the techno-utopian fantasy of a “Planet B” for humanity, exposing the hubris and fallibility of this anthropocentric understanding of the universe.

Like the late speculative fiction writer and poet Ursula K. Le Guin, Butler’s brand of sci-fi ditches the jacked-up macho fantasies that characterize the genre to examine issues closer to home. Unlike the techno-dystopian cities dreamed up by William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, the violent intergalactic warfare envisioned by H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury, or the “hard science” fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, Le Guin and Butler use the world-building capacities of the speculative and science fictions as a cypher into the complex social, cultural, and ecological conditions of life here on Spaceship Earth[2]. In their work, Butler and Le Guin established a more empathetic kind of world-building, using the genres as a way to think critically about society in a political-ecological context while envisioning alternative futures.

These strategies have found their way into a new kind of art practice today. Utilizing VR and AR technologies, game engine software, and recent developments in artificial intelligence like deep learning, these artists augur digital environments and prototype more-than-human futures centred around collaborative strategies for ecological survival. Working across video, sculpture, live simulation, and interactive installation, Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Ian Cheng, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, and Jenna Sutela address the catastrophic damage of anthropocentric thinking while giving agency to nonhuman protagonists — from extinct Hawaiian songbirds to Martian bacteria and simulated shibas. The result is the creation and co-habitation of new worlds that work inside a field of expanded interspecies empathy — what theorist Donna Haraway calls the Chthulucene: an age of living with as opposed to living for oneself; an era where the human and nonhuman are inexorably linked in tentacular practice.

In 2016, Kudsk Steensen stumbled upon a Youtube video featuring the mating call of the last Kaua’i ‘ō’ō bird that existed on Earth. With half a million views and thousands of comments lamenting the lost animal, the video radiates a profound sense of shared grief but also a weird wonder, as today’s scientists talk of resurrecting extinct creatures with AI. Dissecting our complex relationship with these “ghosts of nature which haunt the present and influence the future,” in the words of Nils Bubandt and Anna Tsing, the artist reconstructed the bird’s island home piece by piece using archival material from the Museum of Natural History in New York, 3D satellite imagery, and his own travels. The result was RE-ANIMATED (2018-19), a VR installation that enabled visitors to encounter the Kaua’i ‘ō’ō and its natural ecology through embodied experience.

A similar project that takes particular aim at the impact of the global tourism industry upon local ecologies is Primal Tourism (2016). As a full-scale virtual replica of Bora Bora, the work’s fictive island is a cross-temporal mash-up of ancient ecosystems and future-dystopian abandoned resorts. Merging non-human narratives with drone’s-eye view footage, fetishistic Dutch colonial diaries, and holiday photographs mined from the depths of Reddit, Primal Tourism is a heady, cacophonous vision of a burnt-out planet caught in a kind of pandemic-era e-tourism. Rejigging the work to incorporate multi-player accessibility for the Artist Worlds event, Primal Tourism joins the ranks of Cao Fei’s 2009 RMB City in being as much of a social project as an ecological one.

Echoing Kudsk Steensen’s interest in the capacity of digital world-building to dilate and reshuffle our experience of time, Ian Cheng’s Emissaries (2015-2017) trilogy is a core tenant of this emergent practice. Each episodic virtual ecosystem of Emissaries houses a roster of animal and plant characters that exist indefinitely in the computer-generated simulation. Independent from their creator, the critters wallow in primordial swampscapes and bitter ice-blasted tundras; programmed with goal-oriented motivations akin to video game protagonists, these creatures evolve and take action in their own free will. Curiously, Cheng’s brand of techno-ecological storytelling loops with our own: Emissaries unfolds in the transfixing and tedious pace of real time.

Describing his practice as the “unnatural art” of Worlding, Cheng expands upon its political, ecological and existential potential in his 2018 publication, Emissaries Guide to Worlding. Washed in Internet-era RGB cobalt blue and brandishing the manic persuasion of a Dr. Bronner’s soap bottle, Cheng’s publication outlines the four steps to world-building: choosing a present, storytelling the past, simulating its futures, and nurturing its changes. The boundaries between Worlding in a virtual gamespaces and Worlding AFK[3] collapse, as Cheng equates the nurturing of Worlds to familiar acts of care. Worlding, he argues, happens as much in dredges of the Capitalocene[4] as alternative spaces of magic, from growing a garden to growing a family: “CEOs, gardeners, mothers, and shamans undertake this role so that their greater game may continuously flourish.” At once, the game engines of the old world — religion, commerce, and technology — run parallel to the automated worlds of Emissaries, whose “engine of ongoingness” is reminiscent of the early web movement of Digital Gardens.

First posited by Mark Bernstein in his 1998 digital essay, “Hypertext Gardens” and later developed by Mike Caulfield in 2015, Digital Gardens are an Internet-based labyrinth of communal spaces, ideas and experiences. Visitors can travel them in any order, resisting the techno-progressive linear data streams of sites like Facebook and Twitter. As a virtual community landscape that’s collectively cared for, digital gardens constantly grow and change, enabling the coexistence of various pages on the same topic. Digital gardens argue for a plurality of voices and nurture a heterogeneous, non-linear environment of mutual accountability, as their gardeners weed out broken links and tend to this shared knowledge network. And perhaps unsurprisingly in an era ripe with structural change, Digital Gardens are once again on the rise.

Kudsk Steensen references digital gardening in his practice as a type of restorative ecology: by bringing extinct species back to life and allowing them to speak for themselves, alongside his digitization of plants and other bio-material into algorithmically-accelerated virtual landscape. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Jenna Sutela take this application one step further, utilizing artificial intelligence and game engines to nurture interplanetary ecologies and lend a voice to more-than-human life on the Red Planet.

Unity simulation still from The Wilding of Mars, 2019. (Courtesy of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg)
In The Wilding of Mars (2019), Ginsberg presents a simulated growth network of cross-planetary wilderness. Seeded with Earthly flora, the Martian garden surges into being as millennia of growth materialize in a matter of hours; sub-Antarctic perennials and a desert cacti sprout from greenifying topsoil across a dozen screens as conditions grow more tolerable from the multiplying plants. Imagining a different kind of terraforming where the colonizing species is not human but plant-based generates new questions on other species’ right to space and an infinite array of more-than-human futures as multiple simulations collide inside Ginsberg’s virtual world.

As an AI-enabled attempt at interspecies communication, nimiia cétiï (2018) by Jenna Sutela feeds the computer a Martian tongue channeled by a nineteenth century French Mystic, while its neural network simultaneously tracks the micro-movements of a bacteria that could ostensibly live on Mars. The resulting triage is an experimental language form that sounds both human and otherworldly. White text tracing the bacteria’s motions appears across the screen like hieroglyphs while a worm’s-eye-view of a CGI Martian landscape establishes this video as an empathetic space for listening differently.

The cornerstone of techno-ecological Worlding is agency for non-human species, whether that’s a literal vocality (Sutela); actionable free-will (Cheng); or an inhabitable digital environment that imagines alternatives to anthropocentric narratives (Kudsk Steensen and Ginsberg). As with the Digital Gardens of Web 1.0, these simulated landscapes blur the boundaries between cultivated and ‘wild’ nature. In their hybridized, ever-fluctuating form, they puncture the pristine images of empty deserts and forests that Anna Tsing refers to as the tools colonial imagination — fabricated imaginaries that offer colonizers the justification for their capture.[5]

In Annihilation, the first of three books in the Southern Reach trilogy, New Weird[6] fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer augurs a sentient subterranean tower that’s part architectural, part ecological, and fully imbricated in the lives of the explorers that venture into Area X. Cited by Kudsk Steensen as an inspiration for his work, VanderMeer’s trippy fiction envisions a world where the human and non-human are quite literally bound up at their core, one cohabiting the other, blurring the boundaries between humans and non-human and extending the ideas of Haraway. Life in the Chthulucene isn’t easy, but building a collaborative, cross-species future is the only certain path for continuing life on this planet. The speculative ecologies shaped by these artists give us a glimpse into what these alternative worlds might look like, and the tools to imagine for ourselves what could exist under those new suns.

Notes:

[1] With its origins in mid-century American science fiction, Terraforming is the concept of colonizing other planets and transforming them to look like our own habitable Earth environment. After decades of being decried as a starry-eyed fantasy, the concept is back in vogue through outspoken, deep-pocketed proponents such as Elon Musk, who is at the helm of a new privatized space race that has identified Mars as a potential Plan B for post-Earth humankind.

[2] On a similar wavelength to Butler and Le Guin was Buckminster Fuller, an American architect and futurist whose concept of Spaceship Earth, popularized in the mid-60s, served as cognitive reboot of understanding of planet Earth: both in terms of our place upon it (along with all other species and ecologies) and where it was going.

[3] AFK, short for “away from keyboard”, is an alternative expression to IRL (“in real life”) that collapses the boundary between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ selves in a time where such a distinction is rendered obsolete. This concept is outlined by Legacy Russell in her 2020 manifesto Glitch Feminism.

[4] Defined in 2014 by environmental historian and sociologist Jason Moore, the Capitalocene is a type of ecosocialist critique which addresses the climate crisis as an extension of global capitalism, and acknowledges that environmental justice is precluded by the web of power and culture that define our current system of capitalism.
[5] Wark, M. (2020) ‘Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing: Friction in the Universal Joint’ in Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century. London: Verso, 113-125.

[6] The New Weird is a fiction subgenre that emerged in the 1990s and concentrates its efforts around the ragged edges of horror, science-fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Described by VanderMeer as “a type of secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy”, it draws heavily on pulp horror serials of the past including the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and is often ecological in focus.

(Published on: Serpentine )