Rootkit

[Image: Work by Diana Scherer, used to promote an event coming up on December 14th, in Wageningen, Holland, where the artist will be speaking].

The work of German-born artist Diana Scherer explores what she calls “the dynamics of belowground plant parts.” She uses plant roots themselves as a medium for creating patterns and networks, the purpose of which is to suggest overlaps between human technological activity and the embodied “intelligence” of living botanical matter. “This buried matter is still a wondrous land,” she writes.

The results are incredible. They feature roots woven like carpets or textiles, imitating Gothic ornament with floral patterns and computational arabesques underground.

[Image: “Ornament with Thistle” by Daniel Hopfer; via Wikimedia].

Compare Scherer’s work, for example, to traditional Gothic plant ornament—that is, geometric shapes meant to imitate the movements and behaviors of plants—but here actually achieved with plants themselves.

Scherer calls this “root system domestication,” where, on the flipside of an otherwise perfectly “natural” landscape, such as an expanse of lawn grass, wonderfully artificial, technical patterns can be achieved.

[Images: All images by Diana Scherer, from “Harvest: Exercises in Rootsystem Domestication”].

The idea that we could grow biological circuits and living rootkits is incredible, as if, someday, electronic design and gardening will—wonderfully and surreally—converge.

You simply step into your backyard, exhume some root matter as if harvesting potatoes, and whole new circuits and electrical networks are yours to install elsewhere.

[Image: From “Harvest: Exercises in Rootsystem Domestication” by Diana Scherer].

After all, the soil is already alive with electricity, and plants are, in effect, computer networks in waiting.

Scherer’s work simply takes those observations to their next logical step, you might argue, using plants themselves as an intelligent form-finding technology with implications for the organic hardware of tomorrow.

For more images, click through to Diana Scherer’s website, and, for those of you near Wageningen, consider stopping by the artist’s live Q&A on December 14th. Someone please commission a landscape-scale work from Scherer soon!

The Dam Industry’s Chernobyl

There’s an alarming new piece up at The New Yorker looking at two potential dam failures, in Iraq and Zambia, and the extraordinary effects these disasters would have. The collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam, for example, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calls “the most dangerous dam in the world,” “could drown as many as five hundred thousand people downstream and leave a million homeless.” The collapse of Zambia’s Kariba Dam, meanwhile, and the resulting megaflood would be “the dam industry’s Chernobyl”: “three million people live in the flood’s path; most would die or lose their crops or possessions. About forty per cent of the electricity-generating capacity of twelve southern African nations would be eliminated.” (Spotted via @waltonwater)

Hot Rock, Lost Rock, Router

21012003800_7a51bd2882_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

This past summer, Aram Bartholl installed a project called Keepalive in the woods of Neuenkirchen, Germany. Keepalive was a hollow boulder that contained “a thermoelectric generator which converts heat directly into electricity.”

Visitors are invited to make a fire next to the boulder to power up the wifi router in the stone which then reveals a large collection of PDF survival guides. The piratebox.cc-inspired router which is NOT connected to the Internet offers the users [an opportunity] to download the guides and upload any content they like to the stone database. As long as the fire produces enough heat the router will stay switched on.

First, a chamber was cut into a large rock; the router was then installed inside it.

21189727272_1053f18340_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

Next, the chamber was sealed with a piece of metal, and the rock itself was strapped to a delivery truck, to be dropped off in its new home in a wooded meadow.

21173830066_8ef1158b1a_z21012179148_aa5be0090e_z[Images: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

Finally, a small campfire was started—and, lo and behold, the secret documents made their electromagnetic way to a nearby iPhone, as if conjured into digital existence through the most primitive means of a campfire.

It’s a kind of library in waiting.

21208073201_85db419959_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

While the actual, technical realization of the piece leaves something to be desired—by which I simply mean that there is just a large metal plate hiding the cavity inside of which the router is stored, which is visually disappointing—I love the idea that a better-hidden version of this might actually serve a real survivalist purpose someday.

Out on the remote periphery of the city, where you and your family agree to meet should there ever be an earthquake, a hurricane, or an act of terrorism or war, a cached collection of digital files waits utterly hidden from view, sealed inside a boulder with no visible exterior signs. When the Big One hits, out to your hot rock you go.

Of course, in real life, you’d doubtless lose track of the thing and spend two agonizing weeks lighting fire after fire after fire under every boulder in the region, desperately checking your dying phones to see if the digital documents appear… and they never do…

Think, for example, of the genuinely weird—and seemingly half-fictional—story of “Rocky II,” artist Ed Ruscha’s lost geological sculpture in the California desert.

As the Guardian explains, “Rocky II” is a “little-known and unexhibited work by the American artist Ed Ruscha: an artificial rock made out of resin and named ‘Rocky II’ after the Sylvester Stallone movie. A BBC crew filmed Ruscha during its creation for a 1980 documentary, which also captured him depositing the work somewhere in the Mojave desert, where it has apparently remained ever since, indistinguishable from all the other rocks around it.”

Ruscha’s rock is apparently more than just forgotten, it is seemingly nonexistent: “‘Rocky II’ is so mysterious it neither appears on the call for information about missing artworks listed on the artist’s website, nor in the catalogue listing all his known works—almost as if its existence has been intentionally obscured.”

21189756822_ca095d0c0d_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

In any case, surely Bartholl’s Keepalive could also be used as an interesting geological tool for espionage, merely a different kind of spy rock, tucked away at a campsite somewhere, waiting for a foreign agent to come along and light a fire.

A few minutes later—invisibly, unexpectedly to anyone but the agent—a tiny router inside the rock whirs to life in the heat and an electromagnetic cache of classified files begins streaming.

(Originally spotted via @curiousoctopus).

Electronic Plantlife

[Image: A rose-circuit, courtesy Linköping University].

In a newly published paper called “Electronic plants,” researchers from Linköping University in Sweden describe the process by which they were able to “manufacture” what they call “analog and digital organic electronic circuits and devices” inside living plants.

The plants not only conducted electrical signals, but, as Science News points, the team also “induced roses leaves to light up and change color.”

Indeed, in their way of thinking, plants have been electronic gadgets all along: “The roots, stems, leaves, and vascular circuitry of higher plants are responsible for conveying the chemical signals that regulate growth and functions. From a certain perspective, these features are analogous to the contacts, interconnections, devices, and wires of discrete and integrated electronic circuits.”

[Image: Bioluminescent foxfire mushrooms (used purely for illustrative effect), via Wikipedia].

Here’s the process in a nutshell:

The idea of putting electronics directly into trees for the paper industry originated in the 1990s while the LOE team at Linköping University was researching printed electronics on paper. Early efforts to introduce electronics in plants were attempted by Assistant Professor Daniel Simon, leader of the LOE’s bioelectronics team, and Professor Xavier Crispin, leader of the LOE’s solid-state device team, but a lack of funding from skeptical investors halted these projects.
Thanks to independent research money from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in 2012, Professor Berggren was able to assemble a team of researchers to reboot the project. The team tried many attempts of introducing conductive polymers through rose stems. Only one polymer, called PEDOT-S, synthesized by Dr. Roger Gabrielsson, successfully assembled itself inside the xylem channels as conducting wires, while still allowing the transport of water and nutrients. Dr. Eleni Stavrinidou used the material to create long (10 cm) wires in the xylem channels of the rose. By combining the wires with the electrolyte that surrounds these channels she was able to create an electrochemical transistor, a transistor that converts ionic signals to electronic output. Using the xylem transistors she also demonstrated digital logic gate function.

Headily enough, using plantlife as a logic gate also implies a future computational use of vegetation: living supercomputers producing their own circuits inside dual-use stems.

Previously, we have looked at the use of electricity to stimulate plants into producing certain chemicals, how the action of plant roots growing through soil could be tapped as a future source of power, and how soil bacteria could be wired up into huge, living battery fields—in fact, we also looked at a tongue-in-cheek design project for “growing electrical circuitry inside the trunks of living trees“—but this actually turns vegetation into a form of living circuitry.

While Archigram’s “Logplug” project is an obvious reference point here within the world of architectural design, it seems more interesting to consider instead the future landscape design implications of technological advances such as this—how “electronic plants” might affect everything from forestry to home gardening, energy production and distribution infrastructure to a city’s lighting grid.

[Image: The “Logplug” by Archigram, from Archigram].

We looked at this latter possibility several few years ago, in fact, in a post from 2009 called “The Bioluminescent Metropolis,” where the first comment now seems both prescient and somewhat sad given later developments.

But the possibilities here go beyond mere bioluminescence, into someday fully functioning electronic vegetation.

Plants could be used as interactive displays—recall the roses “induced… to light up and change color”—as well as given larger conductive roles in a region’s electrical grid. Imagine storing excess electricity from a solar power plant inside shining rose gardens, or the ability to bypass fallen power lines after a thunderstorm by re-routing a town’s electrical supply through the landscape itself, living corridors wired from within by self-assembling circuits and transistors.

And, of course, that’s all in addition to the possibility of cultivating plants specifically for their use as manufacturing systems for organic electronics—for example, cracking them open not to reveal nuts, seeds, or other consumable protein, but the flexible circuits of living computer networks. BioRAM.

There are obvious reasons to hesitate before realizing such a vision—that is, before charging headlong into a future world where forests are treated merely as back-up lighting plans for overcrowded cities and plants of every kind are seen as nothing but wildlife-disrupting sources of light cultivated for the throwaway value of human aesthetic pleasure.

Nonetheless, thinking through the design possibilities in addition to the ethical risks not only now seems very necessary, but might also lead someplace truly extraordinary—or someplace otherworldly, we might say with no need for justification.

For now, check out the original research paper over at Science Advances.

Subterranean Lightning Brigade

[Image: “Riggers install a lightning rod” atop the Empire State Building “in preparation for an investigation into lightning by scientists of the General Electric Company” (1947), via the Library of Congress].

This is hardly news, but I wanted to post about the use of artificial lightning as a navigational aid for subterranean military operations.

This was reported at the time as a project whose goal was “to let troops navigate about inside huge underground enemy tunnel complexes by measuring energy pulses given off by lightning bolts,” where those lightning bolts could potentially be generated on-demand by aboveground tactical strike teams.

Such a system would replace the use of GPS—whose signals cannot penetrate into deep subterranean spaces—and it would operate by way of sferics, or radio atmospheric signals generated by electrical activity in the sky.

The proposed underground navigational system—known as “Sferics-Based Underground Geolocation” or S-BUG—would be capable of picking up these signals even from “hundreds of miles away. Receiving signals from lighting strikes in multiple directions, along with minimal information from a surface base station also at a distance, could allow operators to accurately pinpoint their position.” They could thus maneuver underground, even in hundreds—thousands—of feet below the earth’s surface in enemy caves or bunkers.

Hundreds of miles is a very wide range, of course—but what if there is no natural lightning in the area?

Enter artificial military storm generators, or the charge of the lightning brigade.

Back in 2009, DARPA also put out of a request for proposals as part of something called Project Nimbus. NIMBUS is “a fundamental science program focused on obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the lightning process.” However, it included a specific interest in developing machines for “triggering lightning”:

Experimental Set-up for Triggering Lightning: Bidders should fully describe how they would attempt to trigger lightning and list all potential pieces of equipment necessary to trigger lightning, as well as the equipment necessary to measure and characterize the processes governing lightning initiation, propagation, and attachment.

While it’s easy enough to wax conspiratorial here about future lightning weapons or militarized storm cells—after all, DARPA themselves write that they want to understand “how [lightning] ties into the global charging circuit,” as if “the global charging circuit” is something that could be instrumentalized or controlled—I actually find it more interesting to speculate that generating lightning would be not for offensive purposes at all, but for guiding underground navigation.

[Image: Lightning storm over Boston; via Wikimedia/NOAA].

Something akin to a strobe light begins pulsing atop a small camp of unmarked military vehicles parked far outside a desert city known for its insurgent activities. These flashes gradual lengthen, both temporally and physically, lasting longer and stretching upward into the sky; the clouds above are beginning to thicken, grumbling with quiet rolls of thunder.

Then the lightning strikes begin—but they’re unlike any natural lightning you’ve ever seen. They’re more like pops of static electricity—a pulsing halo or toroidal crown of light centered on the caravan of trucks below—and they seem carefully timed.

To defensive spotters watching them through binoculars in the city, it’s obvious what this means: there must be a team of soldiers underground somewhere, using artificial sferics to navigate. They must be pushing forward relentlessly through the sewers and smuggling tunnels, crawling around the roots of buildings and maneuvering through the mazework of infrastructure that constitutes the city’s underside, locating themselves by way of these rhythmic flashes of false lightning.

Of course, this equipment would eventually be de-militarized and handed down to the civilian sector, in which case you can imagine four friends leaving REI on a Friday afternoon after work with an artificial lightning generator split between them; no larger than a camp stove, it would eventually be set up with their other weekend caving equipment, used to help navigate through deep, stream-slick caves an hour and a half outside town, beneath tall mountains where GPS can’t always be trusted.

Or, perhaps fifty years from now, salvage teams are sent deep into the flooded cities of the eastern seaboard to look for and retrieve valuable industrial equipment. They install an artificial lightning unit on the salt-bleached roof of a crumbling Brooklyn warehouse before heading off in a small armada of marsh boats, looking for entrances to old maintenance facilities whose basement storage rooms might have survived rapid sea-level rise.

Disappearing down into these lost rooms—like explorers of Egyptian tombs—they are guided by bolts of artificial lightning that spark upward above the ruins, reflected by tides.

[Image: Lightning via NOAA].

Or—why not?—perhaps we’ll send a DARPA-funded lightning unit to one of the moons of Jupiter and let it flash and strobe there for as long as it needs. Called Project Miller-Urey, its aim is to catalyze life from the prebiotic, primordial soup of chemistry swirling around there in the Cthulhoid shadow of eternal ice mountains.

Millions and millions of years hence, proto-intelligent lifeforms emerge, never once guessing that they are, in fact, indirect descendants of artificial lightning technology. Their spark is not divine but military, the electrical equipment that sparked their ancestral line long since fallen into oblivion.

In any case, keep your eyes—and cameras—posted for artificial lightning strikes coming to a future military theater near you…

Branch

[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

There are a few projects by the young South African photographer Dillon Marsh that seem worth a look.

[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

The first are his photos of “electricity pylons… criss-crossing the landscape around the city of Cape Town,” called “Means to an End.”

[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

Marsh is by no means the first photographer, artist, writer, architect, etc., to look at electricity pylons, but the resulting images are pretty stunning.

Meanwhile, Marsh has a variety of other series available for view on his website, but another one I want to feature briefly here is called “Limbo.”

[Image: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

In Marsh’s own words, “‘Limbo‘ is a series of photographs showing trees that have died, but not yet fallen. All these trees were photographed in various suburbs of the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, including Bridgetown, Bonteheuwel, Ruyterwacht, Windermere, and The Hague.”

The results perhaps recall the “Rise” filter, as well as the square format of Instagram, but, for me, that doesn’t take away from their visual or conceptual interest.

[Images: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

Oddly, these actually remind me of the trees in Hackney, a borough of London where I briefly lived more than a decade ago; the branches of almost every tree along the streets that I walked each morning to the local bus stop had been cut—or hacked, as it were—by the Council, apparently out of a mathematically impossible fear of liability should the branches someday fall and hit a car, a pedestrian, or a baby in a stroller, lending the neighborhood an even drearier feel of grey-skied Gothic horror than it would have had already on its own.

[Images: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

Somewhere between portraits and landscape photography, these two projects of Marsh’s go well together, depicting the starkly exposed branching peculiar to these two types of structures.

They are also both in Marsh’s “Landscape Series” of photographs, a series that, in his words, seeks “to find things that are out of the ordinary, picking them out of the landscape where they might otherwise blend in. I choose objects that can be found in multitude within their environment so that I can depict a family of objects in a series of photographs. By displaying each project as such, I feel I am able to show both the character of the individual members, and the characteristics that make these objects a family.”

I’ll do one more quick post about Marsh’s work, showing my favorite series of all.

The Archigram Archive

[Image: From an “ongoing speculative proposal exploring the implications of cones of vision and their interaction with an existing neoclassical ‘temple’ on the River Thames in Henley, Berkshire,” by Archigram/Michael Webb].

As of roughly 16 hours ago, the Archigram Archival Project is finally online and ready to for browsing, courtesy of the University of Westminster: the archive “makes the work of the seminal architectural group Archigram available free online for public viewing and academic study.”

The newly launched site includes more than 200 projects; “this comprises projects done by members before they met, the Archigram magazines (grouped together at no. 100), the projects done by Archigram as a group between 1961 and 1974, and some later projects.” There are also brief biographies of each participating member of the collaborative group: Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb.

[Image: “Proposal for a series of inflatable dwellings as part of an exhibition for the Commonwealth Festival, located in the lodge of Cardiff Castle,” by Archigram/Ron Herron].

Even at their most surreal, it feels as if Archigram did, in fact, accurately foresee what the architectural world was coming to. After all, if Chalk & Co. had built the things around us, there would be electricity supplies in the middle of nowhere and drive-in housing amidst the sprawl; for good or for bad, we’d all be playing with gadgets like the Electronic Tomato, that perhaps would not have given the iPhone a run for its money but was a “mobile sensory stimulation device,” nonetheless. We might even live together on the outer fringes of “extreme suburbs,” constructed like concentric halos around minor airports, such as Peter Cook’s “Crater City,” an “earth sheltered hotel-type city around central park,” or “Hedgerow Village,” tiny clusters of houses like North Face tents “hidden in hedgerow strips.”

There would be temporary, inflatable additions to whole towns and cities; pyramidal diagrid megastructures squatting over dead neighborhoods like malls; dream cities like Rorschach blots stretched across the sky, toothed and angular Montreal Towers looming in the distance; plug-in universities and capsule homes in a computer-controlled city of automatic switches and micro-pneumatic infrastructure.

At its more bizarre, there would have been things like the Fabergram castle, as if the Teutonic Knights became an over-chimneyed race of factory-builders in an era of cheap LSD, reading Gormenghast in Disneyworld, or this proposal “for technology enabling underwater farming by scuba divers, including chambers, floats and tubes for walking and farm control.” After all, Archigram asked, why live in a house at all when you can live in a submarine? Why use airplanes when you can ride a magic carpet constructed from shining looms in a “‘reverse hovercraft’ facility where a body can be held at an adjustable point in space through the use of jets of air”?

[Image: “Speculative proposal showing use of the ‘Popular Pak’, a kit of architectural parts for ‘tuning-up’ existing buildings, applied to an invented suburb,” by Archigram/Ron Herron].

It might not be architects who have realized much of this fever dream of the world to come, but that doesn’t mean that these ideas have not, in many cases, been constructed. Archigram spoke of instant cities and easily deployed, reconfigurable megastructures—but the people more likely to own and operate such spaces today are Big Box retailers, with their clip-on ornaments, infinitely exchangeable modular shelving, and fleeting themes-of-the-week. Archigram’s flexible, just-in-time, climate-controlled interiors are not a sign of impending utopia, in other words, but of the reach of your neighborhood shopping mall—and the people airdropping instant cities into the middle of nowhere today are less likely to be algorithmically trained Rhino enthusiasts from architecture school, but the logistics support teams behind Bechtel and the U.S. military.

Another way of saying this is that Archigram’s ideas seem unbuilt—even unbuildable—but those ideas actually lend themselves surprisingly well to the environment in which we now live, full of “extreme suburbs,” drive-in everything, KFC-supplied army bases in the middle of foreign deserts, robot bank tellers, and huge, HVAC-dependent wonderlands on the exurban fringe.

The irony, for me, is that Archigram’s ideas have, in many ways, actually been constructed—but in most cases it was for the wrong reasons, in the wrong ways, and by the wrong people.

[Image: Proposal “fusing alternative and changing Archigram structures, amenities and facilities with traditional and nostalgic structures,” by Archigram/Peter Cook].

In any case, what was it about Archigram that promised on-demand self-transformation in an urban strobe of flashing lights but then got so easily realized as a kind of down-market Times Square? How did Archigram simply become the plug-in units of discount retail—or the Fun Palaces of forty years ago downgraded to Barnes & Noble outlets in the suburbs? How did the Walking City become Bremer Walls and Forward Operating Bases, where the Instant City meets Camp Bondsteel?

Archigram predicted a modular future propelled by cheap fuel, petrodollars, and a billion easy tons of unrecycled plastic—but, beneath that seamless gleam of artificial surfacing and extraterrestrial color combinations was a fizzy-lifting drink of human ideas—as many ideas as you could think of, sometimes imperfectly illustrated but illustrated nonetheless, and, thus, now canonical—all of it wrapped up in a dossier of new forms of planetary civilization. Archigram wasn’t just out on the prowl for better escalators or to make our buildings look like giant orchids and Venus Flytraps, where today’s avant-bust software formalism has unfortunately so far been mired; it wasn’t just bigger bank towers and the Burj Dubai.

Instead, Archigram suggested, we could all act differently if we had the right spaces in which to meet, love, and live, and what matters to me less here is whether or not they were right, or even if they were the only people saying such things (they weren’t)—what matters to me is the idea that architecture can reframe and inspire whole new anthropologies, new ways of being human on earth, new chances to do something more fun tomorrow (and later today). Architecture can reshape how we inhabit continents, the planet, and the solar system at large. Whether or not you even want inflatable attics, flying carpets, and underwater eel farms, the overwhelming impulse here is that if you don’t like the world you’ve been dropped into, then you should build the one you want.

In any case, the entire Archigram Archival Project is worth a look; even treated simply as an historical resource, its presence corrects what had been a sorely missing feature of online architecture culture: we can now finally link to, and see, Archigram’s work.

(Note: Part of the latter half of this post includes some re-edited bits from a comment I posted several months ago).

Shining Path

One of many things that we’ll be looking at tonight in the Blackout seminar that I’ve been teaching over at Pratt in Brooklyn is organically generated electricity—things like virus batteries, biogeobatteries, sediment batteries, and more.

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige (2006)].

By way of getting there, though, we’ll be taking a very brief look at Christopher Nolan’s under-rated film The Prestige—specifically the scene in which we see a hillside covered in giant incandescent light bulbs, none of which appear to be plugged into anything but soil and all of which are powered wirelessly by a generator located over 12 miles away.

The geological form of the mountain plateau becomes a shining grid framing our two featured characters.

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige (2006)].

Although The Prestige does not suggest that this is what’s happening in this scene, what if the soil itself was powering these light bulbs? What if soil could be turned into a landscape-scale, distributed electrical device?

Awesomely, as Nature reported just two months ago, there is growing evidence to back up “a suggestion within the geophysics and microbiology communities that bacteria can grow tiny ‘wires’ and hook up to form a biogeobattery—a giant natural battery that generates electrical currents.”

[Image: From Popular Science].

Then Popular Science picked up on the story:

Scientists have known that bacteria can create electricity when mixed with mud and seawater, and have even built microbial fuel cells around the little buggers. Now they have begun figuring out just how bacteria create electrical networks that serve as long-distance communication, at least on the microbial scale—the distances ranged up to 2 centimeters. Yet those few centimeters equal roughly 20,000 times the body size of individual bacteria.

Imagining soil itself—the ground all around us—as a giant electrical transmission network is astonishing. And, again, while there is no mention of anything like biogeobatteries and their ilk in The Prestige, the very idea that perhaps someday we could plug light bulbs directly into the soil—an organic battery coextensive with the living surface of the earth—amazes me.

[Images: From The Prestige (2006)].

And biogeobatteries are not even the only option here; there are also virus batteries.

MIT reported back in 2006 that a team of researchers had “harnessed the construction talents of tiny viruses to build ultra-small ‘nanowire’ structures for use in very thin lithium-ion batteries. By manipulating a few genes inside these viruses, the team was able to coax the organisms to grow and self-assemble into a functional electronic device.” The resulting virus batteries are tiny, but they could vary in scale “from the size of a grain of rice up to the size of existing hearing aid batteries.”

The future design possibilities are bewildering. Could deposits of virus-impregnated soil be used as electricity-storage devices in rural, off-the-grid areas?

[Image: From Nature].

After all, bacteria might already be “wiring up the soil,” Nature suggested three years ago. Indeed, “bacteria can sprout webs of electrical wiring that transform the soil into a geological battery,” meaning that “the earth beneath our feet might act as a gigantic circuit built by microbes to power their metabolic systems.” And you can build a soil battery yourself:

The researchers filled plastic columns with wet sand infiltrated with a nutrient compound (lactate), and allowed S. oneidensis to grow in this “fake soil.” Only the top of the column was in contact with air. Electrodes inserted at various heights up the columns revealed that, after about ten days, electrical charge was coursing up the column… threaded by a web of filaments between the bacterial cells.

I’m reminded here of the work of Philip Beesley, which often uses self-fertilizing yeast-packs, gels, and seeds to create living geotextiles. In fact, a Beesley Battery doesn’t seem at all very off: a living mat woven through the soil, generating and storing electricity based on pre-existing bacterial activity in the ground.

You infect the soil with a genetically-modified virus patented by MIT and electrical currents start to flow…

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006)].

Perhaps someday, then, we could simply show up somewhere, in the middle of the night, surrounded by pine forests and hills, and just crouch down, push a light bulb two or three inches into the earth—

[Image: From The Prestige (2006)].

—and watch as everything around us starts to glow.

Blackout

[Image: From The Night the Lights Went Out by the staff of the New York Times].

I’ll be leading a research seminar at the Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture this coming spring. I’ve decided to post the general course description here, simply because I think it might be of interest; I’m really looking forward to exploring this more in the spring.

BLACKOUT: Failures of Power and The City

In this guided research seminar we will look at blackouts—the total loss of electrical power and its impact on the built environment. From the blackouts of NYC in 1965 and 1977 to the complete blackout of the northeast in August 2003; from the “rolling blackouts” of Enron-era California to the flickering electrical supplies of developing economies; from terrorist attacks on physical infrastructure to aerial bombing campaigns in Iraq and beyond; loss of power affects millions of people, urban and rural, worldwide.

[Image: From The Night the Lights Went Out by the staff of the New York Times].

But how do blackouts also affect the form, function, social experience, and even ecology of the city? What do blackouts do to infrastructure—from hospitals to police and traffic systems—as well as to the cultural lives of a city’s residents? While blackouts can lead to a surge in crime and looting, they can also catalyze informal concerts, sleep-outs, and neighborhood festivities. Further, how do such things as “dark sky” regulations transform what we know as nighttime in the city—and how does the temporary disappearance of electrical light change the city for species other than humans? This raises a final point: before electricity, cities at night presented a fundamentally different spatio-cultural experience. That is, the pre-industrial night was always blacked-out (something to consider when we read that, according to the International Energy Agency, nearly 25% of the global human population currently lacks access to electricity).

We will look at multiple examples of blackouts—internationally and throughout history—exploring what caused them, what impacts they had, and what spatial opportunities exist for architects in a blacked-out city. On the one hand, we might ask: how do we make the city more resilient against future failures of electrical power? But, on the other: how might we take advantage of blackouts for a temporary re-programming of the city?

The Bioluminescent Metropolis

[Image: “Lightning Bugs in York, PA,” by tom.arthur, courtesy of a Creative Commons license].

While traveling last week, I managed to re-read W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn.
At one point, Sebald describes two entrepreneurial scientists from the 19th century, who he names Herrington and Lightbown; together, we’re told, they had wanted to capture the bioluminescent properties of dead herring and use that as a means of artificially illuminating the nighttime streets of Victorian London.
Sebald writes:

An idiosyncrasy peculiar to the herring is that, when dead, it begins to glow; this property, which resembles phosphorescence and is yet altogether different, peaks a few days after death and then ebbs away as the fish decays. For a long time no one could account for this glowing of the lifeless herring, and indeed I believe that it still remains unexplained. Around 1870, when projects for the total illumination of our cities were everywhere afoot, two English scientists with the apt names of Herrington and Lightbown investigated the unusual phenomenon in the hope that the luminous substance exuded by dead herrings would lead to a formula for an organic source of light that had the capacity to regenerate itself. The failure of this eccentric undertaking, as I read some time ago in a history of artificial light, constituted no more than a negligible setback in the relentless conquest of darkness.

Sebald goes on to write, elsewhere in the book, that, “From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.”
But it’s the idea that we could use the bioluminescent properties of animals as a technique of urban illumination that absolutely fascinates me.
In fact, I’m instantly reminded of at least three things:

1) Last month I had the pleasure of stopping by the Architectural Association‘s year-end exhibition of student work. As part of a recent studio taught by Liam Young and Kate Davies – which, incredibly, included a field trip to the Galapagos Islands – a student named Octave Augustin Marie Perrault illustrated the idea of a “bioluminescent bacterial billboard.”
From the project text: “A bioluminescent bacterial billboard glows across the harbour… We are constantly reminded of the condition of the surrounding environment as the bio indicators becomes an expressive occupiable ecology.”

[Image: Bioluminescent billboards on one of the Galapagos Islands, by Octave Perrault].

In many ways, Perrault’s billboards would be a bit like the River Glow project by The Living… only it would, in fact, be illuminated by the living. These bioluminescent bacteria would literally be a living window onto a site’s environmental conditions (or, of course, they could simply be used to display ads).
Liam Young, the studio’s instructor, has also designed a version of these bioluminescent displays, casting them more fantastically as little creatures that wander, squirrel-like, throughout the city. They pop up here and there, displaying information on organic screens of light.

[Image: Bioluminescent billboards by Liam Young].

I’m genuinely stunned, though, by the idea that you might someday walk into Times Square, or through Canary Wharf, and see stock prices ticking past on an LED screen… only to realize that it isn’t an LED screen at all, it is a collection of specially domesticated bioluminescent bacteria. They are switching on and off, displaying financial information.
Or you’re watching a film one night down at the cinema when you realize that there is no light coming through from the projector room behind you – because you are actually looking at bacteria, changing their colors, like living pixels, as they display the film for all to see.
Or: that’s not an iPod screen you’re watching, it’s a petri dish hooked up to YouTube.
This is what I imagine the world of screen displays might look like if Jonathan Ive had first studied microbiology, or if he were someday to team up with eXistenZ-era David Cronenberg and produce a series of home electronic devices.
Our screens are living organisms, we’ll someday say, and the images that we watch are their behavior.

2) As I mentioned in an earlier post, down in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales is a tunnel called the Newnes Glow Worm Tunnel. It is a disused railway tunnel, bored through mountain sandstone 102 years ago, that has since become the home for a colony of glow worms.
As that latter link explains: “If you want to see the glow worms, turn off your torch, keep quiet and wait a few minutes. The larvae will gradually ‘turn on’ their bioluminescence and be visible as tiny spots of light on the damp walls of the tunnel.”

[Image: A map of the Glow Worm Tunnel Walk, New South Wales].

Incorporate this sort of thing into an architectural design, and it’s like something out of the work of Jeff VanderMeer – whose 2006 interview here is still definitely worth a read.
I’m picturing elaborate ballrooms lit from above by chandeliers – in which there are no lightbulbs, only countless tens of thousands of glow worms trapped inside faceted glass bowls, lighting up the faces of people slow-dancing below.
Or perhaps this could have been submitted to Reburbia: suburban houses surviving off-grid, because all of their electrical illumination needs are met by specially bred glow worms. Light factories!
Or, unbeknownst to a small town in rural California, those nearby hills are actually full of caves populated only by glow worms… and when a midsummer earthquake results in a series of cave-ins and sinkholes, they are amazed to see one night that the earth outside is glowing: little windows pierced by seismic activity into caverns of light below.

3) Several years ago in Philadelphia, my wife and I went out for a long evening walk, and we sat down on a bench in Washington Square Park – and everything around us was lit by an almost unbelievable density of fireflies, little spots of moving illumination passing by each other and overlapping over concrete paths, as they weaved in and out of aerial formations between the trees.
But what if a city, particularly well-populated with fireflies (so much more poetically known by their American nickname of lightning bugs) simply got rid of its public streetlights altogether, being so thoroughly drenched in a shining golden haze of insects that it didn’t need them anymore?
You don’t cultivate honeybees, you build vast lightning bug farms.
How absolutely extraordinary it would be to light your city using genetically-modified species of bioluminescent nocturnal birds, for instance, trained to nest at certain visually strategic points – a murmuration of bioluminescent starlings flies by your bedroom window, and your whole house fills with light – or to breed glowing moths, or to fill the city with new crops lit from within with chemical light. An agricultural lightsource takes root inside the city.
Using bioluminescent homing pigeons, you trace out paths in the air, like GPS drawing via Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
An office lobby lit only by vast aquariums full of bioluminescent fish!
Bioluminescent organisms are the future of architectural ornament.

[Image: A bioluminescent tobacco plant, via Wikivisual].

On the other hand, I don’t want to strain for moments of poetry here, when this might actually be a practical idea.
After all, how might architects, landscape architects, and industrial designers incorporate bioluminescence into their work?
Perhaps there really will be a way to using glowing vines on the sides of buildings as a non-electrical means of urban illumination.
Perhaps glowing tides of bioluminescent algae really could be cultivated in the Thames – and you could win the Turner Prize for doing so. Kids would sit on the edges of bridges all night, as serpentine forms of living light snake by in the waters below.
Perhaps there really will be glowing birds nesting in the canopies of Central Park, sound asleep above the heads of passing joggers.
Perhaps the computer screen you’re reading this on really will someday be an organism, not much different from a rare tropical fish – a kind of living browser – that simply camouflages new images into existence.
Perhaps going off-grid will mean turning on the lifeforms around us.