Burial Grounds

Blogger Andrew Ray of Some Landscapes recently re-read The Wind in the Willows to his son, stumbling on “an intriguing passage that I’d forgotten all about, concerning Badger’s large underground home.” It is a scene where “the idea of the city has been literally buried,” where, “civilisations decline but nature endures,” an underground world of ruined architecture and vaulted halls disguised as forests.

Agrirobotics

The USDA has announced a grant-giving program “for robots to roam farmlands,” Modern Farmer reports. It’s called the “National Robotics Initiative,” and it’s “getting $3 million to give in grants to robotics programs around the country to create robot-led agricultural advances.”

Dead Ringer

[Image: Mars’s moon, Phobos; courtesy NASA /JPL/University of Arizona].

Oh, to live another 40 million years… “One day,” Nature reports, “Mars may have rings like Saturn does”:

The martian moon Phobos, which is spiralling inexorably closer towards the red planet, will disintegrate to form a ring system some 20 million to 40 million years from now, according to calculations published on 23 November. Other research suggests that long grooves on Phobos’s surface may represent the first stages of that inevitable crack-up.

After that point, a red mineral ring will gradually coalesce from the dust storm, circling the planet in a desert halo.

In terms of human experience, 20-40 million years obviously dwarfs our anatomical and genetic history as modern Homo sapiens, and I am excessively confident that no humans will be around to witness this event. Nonetheless, it’s not actually that far off. The Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old; 20-40 million years is the geological blink of an eye. In a sense, we will just miss it.

For what it’s worth, Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel, Seveneves, is about a similar event—but set on Earth, not Mars.

“What if Earth’s moon suddenly and spontaneously broke apart into seven large pieces?” a review in the New York Times asked. “What would happen to life on Earth? It’s an intriguing premise, one that could conceivably go in any number of interesting directions. What would be the ramifications for every aspect of society, including economics, governance, the rule of law, privacy and security, not to mention even more fundamental matters like reproductive rights, religion and belief?”

In any case, read more over at Nature.

Computational Romanticism and the Dream Life of Driverless Cars

[Image by ScanLAB Projects for The New York Times Magazine].

Understanding how driverless cars see the world also means understanding how they mis-see things: the duplications, glitches, and scanning errors that, precisely because of their deviation from human perception, suggest new ways of interacting with and experiencing the built environment.

Stepping into or through the scanners of autonomous vehicles in order to look back at the world from their perspective is the premise of a short feature I’ve written for this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine.

For a new series of urban images, Matt Shaw and Will Trossell of ScanLAB Projects tuned, tweaked, and augmented a LiDAR unit—one of the many tools used by self-driving vehicles to navigate—and turned it instead into something of an artistic device for experimentally representing urban space.

The resulting shots show the streets, bridges, and landmarks of London transformed through glitches into “a landscape of aging monuments and ornate buildings, but also one haunted by duplications and digital ghosts”:

The city’s double-­decker buses, scanned over and over again, become time-­stretched into featureless mega-­structures blocking whole streets at a time. Other buildings seem to repeat and stutter, a riot of Houses of Parliament jostling shoulder to shoulder with themselves in the distance. Workers setting out for a lunchtime stroll become spectral silhouettes popping up as aberrations on the edge of the image. Glass towers unravel into the sky like smoke. Trossell calls these “mad machine hallucinations,” as if he and Shaw had woken up some sort of Frankenstein’s monster asleep inside the automotive industry’s most advanced imaging technology.

Along the way I had the pleasure of speaking to Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon and the author of Robot Futures, a book I previously featured here on the blog back in 2013. Nourbakhsh is impressively adept at generating potential narrative scenarios—speculative accidents, we might call them—in which technology might fail or be compromised, and his take on the various perceptual risks or interpretive short-comings posed by autonomous vehicle technology was fascinating.

[Image by ScanLAB Projects for The New York Times Magazine].

Alas, only one example from our long conversation made it into the final article, but it is worth repeating. Nourbakhsh used “the metaphor of the perfect storm to describe an event so strange that no amount of programming or image-­recognition technology can be expected to understand it”:

Imagine someone wearing a T-­shirt with a STOP sign printed on it, he told me. “If they’re outside walking, and the sun is at just the right glare level, and there’s a mirrored truck stopped next to you, and the sun bounces off that truck and hits the guy so that you can’t see his face anymore—well, now your car just sees a stop sign. The chances of all that happening are diminishingly small—it’s very, very unlikely—but the problem is we will have millions of these cars. The very unlikely will happen all the time.”

The most interesting takeaway from this sort of scenario, however, is not that the technology is inherently flawed or limited, but that these momentary mirages and optical illusions are not, in fact, ephemeral: in a very straightforward, functional sense, they become a physical feature of the urban landscape because they exert spatial influences on the machines that (mis-)perceive them.

Nourbakhsh’s STOP sign might not “actually” be there—but it is actually there if it causes a self-driving car to stop.

Immaterial effects of machine vision become digitally material landmarks in the city, affecting traffic and influencing how machines safely operate. But, crucially, these are landmarks that remain invisible to human beings—and it is ScanLAB’s ultimate representational goal here to explore what it means to visualize them.

While, in the piece, I compare ScanLAB’s work to the heyday of European Romanticism—that ScanLAB are, in effect, documenting an encounter with sublime and inhuman landscapes that, here, are not remote mountain peaks but the engineered products of computation—writer Asher Kohn suggested on Twitter that, rather, it should be considered “Italian futurism made real,” with sweeping scenes of streets and buildings unraveling into space like digital smoke. It’s a great comparison, and worth developing at greater length.

For now, check out the full piece over at The New York Times Magazine: “The Dream Life of Driverless Cars.”

The Drowned World

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

Artists Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton’s project Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime simultaneously explores the history of different geographic projections—including how these have been used to misrepresent and distort the earth’s surface—and at the future of that earth in an era of rising sea levels.

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

As Factum Arte explain, their chosen geographic projections offer “a way of engaging with the Earth from different points of view, and reflect historical ways of mapping the world from the Greeks to Google Earth.”

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

The projections are milled into beautiful 3D topographic models, with the vertical axis exaggerated to allow for changes in altitude to become visible.

The Andes, for example, become an abrupt spine of skyscraping pinnacles on the edge of an otherwise dead-flat continent, and deep-sea plains become spiky fields of underwater needles and pins.

[Images: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

As the artists write, “distortion was used because without it the globe’s surface would appear almost totally flat”—which interestingly suggests that representational distortion, with a great deal of irony, is actually central to giving our planet geographic legibility.

To map it or to know it, the implication seems to be, you must first alter it.

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

This is only half the project, however.

The artists refer to Terra Forming as “a cartographic response to the advent of the Anthropocene“—which is why the resulting topographic models are then flooded.

[Images: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

“The installation will mimic the passage of time as well as space,” Factum Arte write, “by flooding the world with water over several days, until we reach current sea levels; the world will then be flooded completely, leaving us with a drowned world, a prescient image for those parts of the world facing rising sea levels, as well as those such as parts of the Arabian Peninsula which is trying to reclaim land from the sea.”

You can watch a short video of the project’s gradual submergence on Vimeo—or embedded below.



And you can read much more about the project over at Factum Arte.

Landscapes of Inevitable Catastrophe

[Image: Illustration by David McConochie, courtesy of The Art Market, via The Guardian].

Last month, The Economist reported on the widespread presence of radioactive tailings piles—waste rock left over from Soviet mining operations—in southern Kyrgyzstan. Many of the country’s huge, unmonitored mountains of hazardous materials are currently leaching into the local water supply.

In a particularly alarming detail, even if you wanted to avoid the danger, you might not necessarily know where to find it: “Fences and warning signs have been looted for scrap metal,” we read.

Frequent landslides and seasonal floods also mean that the tailings are at risk of washing downriver into neighboring countries, including into “Central Asia’s breadbasket, the Fergana Valley, which is home to over 10m people… A European aid official warns of a ‘creeping environmental disaster.'”

Attempts at moving the piles have potentially made things worse, releasing “radioactive dust” that might be behind a spike in local cancers.

In addition to the sheer aesthetic horror of the landscape—a partially radioactive series of river valleys, lacking in warning signs, that writer Robert Macfarlane would perhaps call “eerie,” a place where “suppressed forces pulse and flicker beneath the ground and within the air… waiting to erupt or to condense”—it’s worth noting at least two things:

One, there appears to be no end in sight; as The Economist points out, the neighboring countries “are hardly on speaking terms, so cross-border co-operation is non-existent,” and the costs of moving highly contaminated mine waste are well out of reach for the respective governments.

This means we can more or less confidently predict that, over the coming decades, many of these tailings piles will wash away, slowly but relentlessly, fanning out into the region’s agricultural landscape.

Once these heavy metals and flecks of uranium have dispersed into the soil, silt, and even plantlife, they will be nearly impossible to re-contain; this will have effects not just over the span of human lifetimes but on a geological timescale.

Second, most of these piles are unguarded: unwatched, unmonitored, unsecured. They contain radioactive materials. They are in a region known for rising religious extremism.

Given all this, surely finding a solution here is rather urgent, before these loose mountains of geological toxins assume an altogether more terrifying new role in some future news cycle—at which point, in retrospect, articles like The Economist‘s will seem oddly understated.

[Image: Hand-painted radiation sign at Chernobyl, via the BBC].

Indeed, our ability even to comprehend threats posed on a geologic timescale—let alone to act on those threats politically—is clearly not up to the task of grappling with events or landscapes such as these.

To go back to Robert Macfarlane, he wrote another article earlier this year about the specialized vocabulary that has evolved for naming, describing, or cataloging terrestrial phenomena. By contrast, he suggests, we now speak with “an impoverished language for landscape” in an era during when “a place literacy is leaving us.”

As Macfarlane writes, “we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers—terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception.”

Channeling Macfarlane, where is the vocabulary—where are our cognitive templates—for describing and understanding these landscapes of long-term danger and slow catastrophe?

It often seems that we can stare directly into the wasteland without fear, not because there is nothing of risk there, but because our own words simply cannot communicate the inevitability of doom.

Immaculate Ecologies

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

“We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” So says the narrator of a nice piece of ecosystem fiction by my friend Scott Geiger published over at Nautilus.

This corporate spokesperson is building virgin terrain: “all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness.”

I was reminded of Geiger’s work when I came across an old bookmark here on my computer, with a story that reads like something straight out of the golden age of science fiction: a corporate conglomerate, intent on spanning vast gulfs of space, finds itself engineering an entire ecosystem into existence on a remote stopping-off point, turning bare rocks into an oasis, in order to ensure that its empire can expand.

This could be the premise of a Hugo Award-winning interplanetary space opera—or it could be the real-life history of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The Company was the first to lay a direct submarine cable from the United States to East Asia, but this required the use of a remote atoll, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, called Midway, not yet famous for its role in World War II.

At the time, however, there was barely anything more there than “low, sandy island[s] with little vegetation,” considered by the firm’s operations manager to be “unfit for human habitation.” The tiny islands—some stretches no more than sandbars—would have been impossible to use, let alone to settle.

Like Geiger’s plucky terraforming super-company, putting up the mountains and laying out the prairie, the Cable Company and its island operations manager “initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway.”

During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company’s legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.

Strangely, the evolved remnants of this corporate ecosystem are now an international bird refuge, as if saving space for the feral pets of long-dead submarine cable operators.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The preserved ruins of old Cable Company buildings stand amidst the trees, surely now home to many of those “millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.” Indeed, “the four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.”

It is a built environment even down to the biological scale—a kind of time-release landscape now firmly established and legally protected.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the constructed frontier lands of Scott Geiger’s fictions and the national park of curated species still fluttering their wings at Midway share much with the even stranger story of terraforming performed by none other than Charles Darwin on Ascension Island.

This is, in the BBC’s words, “the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.” It’s worth quoting at length:

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and [his friend, the botanist Joseph] Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens—where Hooker’s father was director—shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

It’s not a wilderness forest, then, but a feral garden “run riot” on the slopes of a remote, militarized island outpost (one photographed, I should add, by photographer Simon Norfolk, as discussed in this earlier interview on BLDGBLOG).

[Image: The introduced forestry of Ascension Island, via Google Maps].

In a sense, Ascension’s fog-capturing forests are like the “destiny trees” from Scott Geiger’s story in Nautilus—where “there are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road”—only these are entire destiny landscapes, pieced together for their useful climatic side-effects.

For anyone who happened to catch my lecture at Penn this past March, the story of Ascension bears at least casual comparison to the research of Christine Hastorf at UC Berkeley. Hastorf has written about the “feral gardens” of the Maya, or abandoned landscapes once deeply cultivated but now shaggy and overgrown, all but indistinguishable from nature. For Hastorf, many of the environments we currently think of as Central American rain forest are, in fact, a kind of indirect landscape architecture, a terrain planted and pruned long ago and thus not wilderness at all.

Awesomely, the alien qualities of this cloud forest can be detected. As one ecologist remarked to the BBC after visiting the island, “I remember thinking, this is really weird… There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened.” It was like stumbling upon a glitch in the matrix.

In the case of these islands, I love the fact that historically real human behavior competes, on every level, for sheer outlandishness with the best of science fiction for its creation of entire ecosystems in remote, otherwise inhospitable environments; advanced landscaping has become indistinguishable from planetology. And, in Scott Geiger’s case, I love the fact that the perceived weirdness of his story comes simply from the scale at which he describes these landscape activities being performed.

In other words, Geiger is describing something that actually happens all the time; we just refer to it as the suburbs, or even simply as landscaping, a near-ubiquitous spatial practice that is no less other-worldly for taking place one half-acre at a time.

[Image: A suburban landscape being rolled out into the forest like carpet; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Soon, even the discordant squares of grass seen in the above photograph will seem as if they’ve always been there: a terrain-like skin graft thriving under unlikely circumstances.

Think of a short piece in New Scientist earlier this year: “All this is forcing enthusiasts to reconsider what ‘nature’ really is. In many places, true wilderness vanished thousands of years ago, and the landscapes we think of as natural are largely artificial.”

Indeed, like something straight out of a Geiger short story, “thousands of years from now our descendants may think of African lions roaming American plains as ‘natural’ too.”

Through the Cracks Between Stars

[Image: Trevor Paglen, “PAN (Unknown; USA-207),” from The Other Night Sky].

I had the pleasure last winter of attending a lecture by Trevor Paglen in Amsterdam, where he spoke about a project of his called The Last Pictures. As Paglen describes it, “Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars.”

Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

Paglen ended his lecture with an amazing anecdote worth repeating here. Expanding on this notion—that humanity’s longest-lasting ruins will not be cities, cathedrals, or even mines, but rather geostationary satellites orbiting the Earth, surviving for literally billions of years beyond anything we might build on the planet’s surface—Paglen tried to conjure up what this could look like for other species in the far future.

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity’s long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans—yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

High above, seeming to move against the tides of distant planets and stars, would be tiny reflective points that never stray from their locations. They are there every night; they are more eternal than even the largest and most impressive constellations in the sky sliding nightly around them.

Seeming to look back at the squid like the eyes of patient gods, permanent and unchanging in these places reserved for them there in the firmament, those points would be nothing other than the geostationary satellites Paglen made reference to.

This would be the only real evidence, he suggested, to any terrestrial lifeforms in the distant future that humans had ever existed: strange ruins stuck there in the night, passively reflecting the sun, never falling, angelic and undisturbed, peering back through the veil of stars.

[Image: Star trails, seen from space, via Wikimedia].

Aside from the awesome, Lovecraftian poetry of this image—of tentacular creatures emerging from the benthic deep to gaze upward with eyes the size of automobiles at satellites far older than even continents and mountain ranges—the actual moment of seeing these machines for ourselves is equally shocking.

By now, for example, we have all seen so-called “star trail” photos, where the Earth’s rotation stretches every point of starlight into long, perfect curves through the night sky. These are gorgeous, if somewhat clichéd, images, and they tend to evoke an almost psychedelic state of cosmic wonder, very nearly the opposite of anything sinister or disturbing.

[Image: More star trails from space, via Wikipedia].

Yet in Paglen’s photo “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)”—part of another project of his called The Other Night Sky— something incredible and haunting occurs.

Amidst all those moving stars blurred across the sky like ribbons, tiny points of reflected light burn through—and they are not moving at all. There is something else up there, this image makes clear, something utterly, unnaturally still, something frozen there amidst the whirl of space, looking back down at us as if through cracks between the stars.

[Image: Cropping in to highlight the geostationary satellites—the unblurred dots between the star trails—in “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

The Other Night Sky, Paglen explains, “is a project to track and photograph classified American satellites, space debris, and other obscure objects in Earth orbit.”

To do so, he uses “observational data produced by an international network of amateur satellite observers to calculate the position and timing of overhead transits which are photographed with telescopes and large-format cameras and other imaging devices.”

The image that opens this post “depicts an array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit at 34.5 degrees east, a position over central Kenya. In the lower right of the image is a cluster of four spacecraft. The second from the left is known as ‘PAN.'”

What is PAN? Well, the interesting thing is that not many people actually know. Its initials stand for “Palladium At Night,” but “this is one mysterious bird,” satellite watchers have claimed; it is a “mystery satellite” with “an unusual history of frequent relocations,” although it is to be found in the eastern hemisphere, stationed far above the Indian Ocean (Paglen took this photograph from South Africa).

As Paglen writes, “PAN is unique among classified American satellites because it is not publically claimed by any intelligence of military agency. Space analysts have speculated that PAN may be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” Paglen and others have speculated about other possible meanings of the name PAN—check out his website for more on that—but what strikes me here is less the political backstory behind the satellites than the visceral effect such an otherwise abstract photograph can have.

In other words, we don’t actually need Paglen’s deep-sea squid of the far future with their extraordinary eyesight to make the point for us that there are now uncanny constellations around the earth, sinister patterns visible against the backdrop of natural motion that weaves the sky into such an inspiring sight.

These fixed points peer back at us through the cracks, an unnatural astronomy installed there in secret by someone or something capable of resisting the normal movements of the universe, never announcing themselves while watching anonymously from space.

[Image: Cropping further into “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

For more on Trevor Paglen’s work, including both The Last Pictures and The Other Night Sky, check out his website.

Architecture-by-Bee and Other Animal Printheads

[Image: By John Becker].

For thousands of years, animal bodies have been used as living 3D printers—or sentient printheads, we might say—but the range of possible material outputs is set to change quite radically. In fact, bioengineering is rapidly making this idea—that spiders, silkworms, and honeybees, to name just a few, are already 3D printers—more than just a poetic metaphor.

Those creatures are organic examples of depositional manufacturing, and they have been domesticated and used throughout human history for specific creative ends, whether it’s to produce something as mundane as honey or silk, or something far more outlandish, including automotive plastics, military armaments, and even concrete, as we’ll see below.

Animal Printheads

Researchers in Singapore discovered several years ago, for example, that silkworms fed a chemically peculiar diet could produce colored silk, readymade for use in textiles, as if they are actually biological ink cartridges; and other examples—in which animal bodies have been temporarily tweaked or even specifically bred to produce new, economically useful materials on a semi-industrial scale—are not hard to come by.

As it happens, for example, using bees as 3D printers is quickly becoming something of an accepted artistic process and its deep incorporation into advanced manufacturing processes will not be far behind.

Perhaps the most widely seen recent exploration of the animal-as-3D-printer concept was done last year for, of all things, a publicity stunt by Dewar’s, in which the company “3D printed” a bottle of Dewar’s using nothing but specially shaped and cultivated beehives.

[Images: Courtesy of Dewar’s, via designboom].

These pictures tell the story clearly enough: using a large glass bottle as a mold in which the bees could create new hives, the process then ended with the removal of the glass and the revealing of a complete, bottle-shaped, “3D-printed” hive.

As Dewar’s joked, it was 3B-printed.

[Images: Courtesy of Dewar’s, via designboom].

Or take the Silk Pavilion, another recent project you’ve undoubtedly already seen, in which researchers at MIT, led by architect Neri Oxman, 3D-printed a room-sized dome using carefully guided silkworms as living printheads.

[Image: Courtesy of MIT].

The Silk Pavilion was an architectural experiment in which the body of the silkworm, guided along a series of very specific paths, was “deployed as a biological printer in the creation of a secondary structure.”

The primary structure, meanwhile—the pattern used by the silkworms as a kind of depositional substrate—was nothing more than a continuous thread wrapped around a metal scaffold like a labyrinth, seen in the image below.

[Image: Courtesy of MIT].

It was at this point in the process that a “swarm of 6,500 silkworms was positioned at the bottom rim of the scaffold spinning flat non-woven silk patches as they locally reinforced the gaps across CNC-deposited silk fibers.” In other words, they infested the labyrinth and laid down architecture with their passing.

[Image: Courtesy of MIT].

The “CNSilk” method, as it was known, resulted in a gossamer, woven dome that looks more like a cloud than a building.

[Images: Courtesy of MIT].

What both of these examples demonstrate—despite the fact that one is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek media ploy by an alcohol company—is that animal bodies can, in fact, be guided, disciplined, or otherwise regulated to produce large-scale structures, from consumer objects to whole buildings.

After all, the very origins of architecture were a collaboration with animal bodies, and experiments like these only update those earliest constructions.

In both cases, however, the animals are simply depositing, or “printing,” what they would normally (that is, naturally, in the absence of human augmentation) produce: silk and honey. Things get substantially more interesting, on the other hand, when we look at more exotic biological materials.

Bee Plastic

For half a decade or more, materials scientist Debbie Chachra at New England’s Olin College of Engineering has been researching what’s known as “bee plastic”: a cellophane-like biopolymer produced by a species native to New England, called Colletes inaequalis.

These bees secrete tiny, cocoon-like structures in the soil—one such structure can be seen in the photo, below—using a special gland unique to its species. The resulting, non-fossil-fuel-based natural polyester not only resists biodegradation, it also survives the temperate extremes of New England, from the region’s sweltering summers to its subzero winter storms.

[Image: Courtesy of Deb Chachra].

More intriguingly, however, the cellophane-like bee plastic “doesn’t come from petroleum,” Chachra explained to me for a 2011 end-of-year article in Wired UK. “The bees are pretty much just eating pollen and producing this plastic,” she continued, “and we’re trying to understand how they do it.”

Bee plastic, Chachra justifiably speculates, could perhaps someday be used to manufacture everything from office supplies to car bumpers, acting as an oil-free alternative to the plastics we use today. In the process, it could perhaps even kickstart a homegrown bio-industry for New England, where the species already thrives, wherein the very idea of a factory needs to be fundamentally reimagined.

The most exciting architectural possibilities here come less from the bees themselves and more from the elaborate structures that would be required to house their activities; imagine a brand new BMW factory somewhere in the suburbs of Boston populated only by plastic-producing bees, and you get some sense of where industrial manufacturing might go in an alternate future. Not unlike Dewar’s bee-printed bottle, then, augmented cousins of Chachra’s plastic-producing bees could thus 3D-print whole car bodies, kitchen counters, architectural parts, and other everyday products.

But even this, of course, is a vision of animal-based manufacturing that relies on the already-existent excretions of living creatures. Could we—temporarily putting aside the ethical implications of this, simply to discuss the material possibilities—perhaps genetically modify bees, silkworms, spiders, and so on to produce substantially more robust biopolymers, something not just strong enough to resist biodegrading but that could be produced and used on an industrial scale?

Recall, for example, that the U.S Army, working with a Canadian firm called Nexia Biotechnologies, was successful in its attempt to genetically engineer a goat that would produce spider-silk proteins in its milk. Incredibly, those “Biosteel goats,” as they were later known, were eventually housed in old ammunition bunkers on a New York State military base, as if they were living bioweapons that needed to be held in quarantine.

[Image: Biosteel goats summed-up in one simple equation (via)].

The ultimate goal of producing these goats was to generate an unbreakable super-fiber that could be used in battle gear, including “lightweight body armor made of artificial spider silk,” and other military armaments; but others have speculated that entire bridges or other pieces of urban infrastructure could someday be woven by goats.

These possibilities become even more strange and promising when we move to materials like concrete.

Concrete Honey

As part of an ongoing collaborative project, NYC-based designer John Becker and I have been looking at the possibility of using bees that have been genetically modified to print concrete. We could call them architectural printheads.

[Image: By John Becker].

Initially inspired by a somewhat willful misreading of a project published under the title “Bees Make Concrete Honey,” John and I began to imagine and illustrate a series of science-fictional scenarios in which a new urban bee species, called Apis caementicium—or cement bees—could be deployed throughout the city as a low-cost way to repair statues and fix architectural ornament, even to produce whole, free-standing structures, such as cathedrals.

[Image: By John Becker].

In a process not unlike that used for the Dewar’s bottle, above, the bees would be given an initial form to work within. Then, buzzing away inside this mold or cast, and additively depositing the ingredients for bio-concrete on the walls, frames, or structures they’ve been attached to, the bees could 3D-print new architectural forms into existence.

This includes, for example, the iconic stone lions found outside the New York Public Library; they’ve been damaged by exposure and human contact, but can now be fixed from within by concrete bees. Think this as a kind of organic caulking.

[Image: By John Becker].

Yet tidy plots such as these invariably spin out of control and things don’t quite go as planned.

Feral Printers

Predictably, these concrete bees eventually escape: first just a few here and there, but then an upstart colony takes hold elsewhere in the city. They breed, speciate, and expand.

Within a few years, as the bees reproduce and thrive, and as their increasingly far-flung colonies grow, people become aware of the scale of the problem: rogue 3D-printing bees have begun to infest the region.

[Image: By John Becker].

They print where they shouldn’t print and, without the direction of their carefully made formwork and molds, what they produce often makes no sense.

They print on signs and phone poles; they take over parks and gardens where they print strange forms on flowers, sealing orchids and roses in masonry shells. Bizarre gardens of hardened geometry form on windowsills and ledges, deep in urban forests and along railways and roads.

[Image: By John Becker].

Tiny fragments of concrete can soon be seen atop plants and door frames, beneath cars and on chain-link fences, coiling up and consuming the sides of structures where they were never meant to be, like kudzu; and, of course, strange bee bodies are found now and again, these little concrete-laden corpses lying in the deep grass of backyards, on parking lots and rooftops.

[Image: By John Becker].

Their fallen bodies, augmented and extraordinary, thus dot the very city they’ve also beautified and improved—this place where they once printed church steeples and apartment ornament, where they fixed cracked statues, sidewalks, and walls.

Of course, other, more adventurous or simply disoriented bees make their way further, hitching inadvertent rides in the holds of planes and cargo ships, mistakenly joining other hives then shipped around the world.

The bees are soon found in Europe, China, and—for reasons never quite clear to materials scientists—throughout India, where, as in the sample image below, they can be seen adding unnecessary ornamentation to temples in Rajasthan. Swarming and uncountable, they busily speck the outside of the building with bulbous and tumid additions no architect would ever have planned.

[Image: By John Becker].

As the bees speciate yet further, and their concrete itself begins to mutate—in some cases, so hard it can only be removed by the toughest drills and demolition equipment, other times more like a slow-drying sandstone incapable of achieving any structure at all—this experiment in animal printheads, these living 3D printers producing architecture and industrial objects, comes to end.

A Bee Amidst The Machines

Most designers learn from the—in retrospect—obvious mistakes that led to these feral printers, returning to more easily controlled inorganic factories and industrial processes. But, even then, on quiet spring days, a tiny buzzing sound can occasionally be heard beneath someone’s front porch, out in the suburban gardens somewhere, deep inside National Parks, and even inside huge machines, where whole automobile assembly lines come shuddering to a halt.

There, within the gears, just doing what it’s used to doing—what we made it do—a tiny family of 3D-printing bees has taken root, leaving errant clumps of concrete wherever they alight.

(Thanks to John Becker for the fun. An earlier version of this post was previously published on Gizmodo).

Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach

[Image: The new plastic geology, photographed by Patricia Corcoran, via Science].

Incredibly, a “new type of rock cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals has begun forming on the shores of Hawaii,” Science reports.

This new rock type, referred to as a “plastiglomerate,” requires a significant heat-source in order to form, as plastiglomerates are, in effect, nothing but molten lumps of plastic mixed-in with ambient detritus. Hawaii with its coastal and marine volcanoes, offers a near-perfect formational landscape for this artificially inflected geology to emerge—however, Patricia Corcoran, one of the discoverers of these uncanny rocks, thinks we’ll likely find them “on coastlines across the world. Plastiglomerate is likely well distributed, it’s just never been noticed before now, she says.”

We’ve been surrounded by artificial geologies all along.

But is it really geology? Or is it just melted plastic messily assembled with local minerals? Well, it’s both, it seems, provided you look at it on different time-scales. After heavier chunks of plastiglomerate form, fusing with “denser materials, like rock and coral,” Science writes, “it sinks to the sea floor, and the chances it will become buried and preserved in the geologic record increase.” It can even form whole veins streaking through other rock deposits: “When the plastic melts, it cements rock fragments, sand, and shell debris together, or the plastic can flow into larger rocks and fill in cracks and bubbles,” we read.

It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that our landfills are also acting like geologic ovens: baking huge deposits of plastiglomerate into existence, as the deep heat (and occasional fires) found inside landfills catalyzes the formation of this new rock type. Could deep excavations into the landfills of an earlier, pre-recycling era reveal whole boulders of this stuff? Perhaps.

The article goes on to refer to the work of geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, which is exactly where I would have taken this, as well. Zalasiewicz has written in great detail and very convincingly about the future possible fossilization of our industrial artifacts and the artificial materials that make them—including plastic itself, which, he suggests, might very well leave traces similar to those of fossilized leaves and skeletons.

In a great essay I had the pleasure of including in the recent book Landscape Futures, Zalasiewicz writes: “Plastics, which are made of long chains of subunits, might behave like some of the long-chain organic molecules in fossil plant twigs and branches, or the collagen in the fossilized skeletons of some marine invertebrates. These can be wonderfully well preserved, albeit blackened and carbonized as hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen are driven off under the effect of subterranean heat and pressure.” Plastiglomerates could thus be seen as something like an intermediary stage in the long-term fossilization of plastic debris, a glimpse of the geology to come.

Ultimately, the idea that the stunning volcanic beaches of Hawaii are, in fact, more like an early version of tomorrow’s semi-plastic continents and tropical archipelagoes is both awesome and ironic: that an island chain known for its spectacular natural beauty would actually reveal the deeply artificial future of our planet in the form of these strange, easily missed objects washing around in the sand and coral of a gorgeous beach.

(Spotted via Rob Holmes. Vaguely related: War Sand).

100 Views of a Drowning World

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

I’ve mentioned the work of artists Kahn & Selesnick before; their surreal narratives are illustrated with elaborately propped photos that fall somewhere between avant-garde theater and landscape fiction, with mountain glaciers, salt mines, alien planets, utopian cityscapes, and, as seen here, the slowly flooding marshes of an unidentified hinterland.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

These images are from a new project, called Truppe Fledermaus & The Carnival at the End of the World, that opened at New York’s Yancey Richardson gallery last week. “Utilizing photography, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and performance,” the gallery writes, “the artists create robust mythic realities for each project, building imaginary, character-driven fictions from kernels of obscure historical truth.”

Kahn & Selesnick’s latest project follows a fictitious cabaret troupe—Truppe Fledermaus (Bat Troupe)—who travel the countryside staging absurd and inscrutable performances in abandoned landscapes for an audience of no one. The playful but dire message presented by the troupe is of impending ecological disaster, caused by rising waters and a warming planet, the immediate consequences of which include the extinction of the Bat, in this mythology a shamanistic figure representing both nature and humanity. In one sense, the entire cabaret troupe can be seen as a direct reflection of the artists themselves, both entities employing farce and black humor to engage utterly serious concerns.

The particular scenes shown here, all on display until July 3, 2014, are from a sub-series within the project called “100 Views of a Drowning World.”

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

Eccentric residents of a drowning landscape live lives indistinguishable from absurdist stagecraft, as they wander through seemingly wild landscapes that are actually ruins and that will eventually all disappear beneath the deceptively placid tidal flats flowing around them.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

These anonymous coastal dwellers simulate a nature that is already artificial—a kind of maritime grotesque of overgrown animal forms and humans buried beneath ropes and seaweed—and they set off on doomed expeditions through terrains whose original inhabitants have long been forgotten.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

Lone figures in boats look out into what will soon be sea, attempting to navigate land as if it is already an ocean.

[Images: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

And others attempt to escape into some new strain of Romanticism, witnesses of large-scale terrestrial change who know that this moment on the Earth is rare—though not unique—for the extraordinary transitions that lie over the horizon.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

In the end, then, the idea is not that these characters’ actions somehow represent or propose a new humanist response to climate change, or that the artists are offering us any sort of practical or ethical insight into what futures might face us in a drowned world, but that these absurd rituals and dreamlike antics instead simply illustrate “a world that is sinking into a marsh.”

It is, as the show’s title suggests, just a carnival at the end of the world.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

The Yancey Richardson gallery is on W. 22nd Street, over near the High Line; be sure to stop by before July 3. Here is a map and here are more images.