An Ongoing Experiential Laboratorium of Technology Resonance and Non-Human Agency
Installation view: Visitors laying down on the ground, among the digital matters of their failed resonance. By the end of a session, if a Ghost Flower has formed - it does not need the energy from the visitors voices any more.
In mediaeval times, tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes were believed to be subject to human misconduct. The irony is that in our époque, the so-called Anthropocene, a relationship has been proven between humanity and so-called natural disasters.
In an ongoing experiential laboratory around technology, resonance, and non-human agency, Garden of Ghost Flowers proposes a collaboration with the public inspired by the experiments and exploration of the 18th Century Garden.
By posting an artificial lifeform, modelled after an endangered flower, as an explicit mediator of human relations who learns and reacts to its visitors, the encounter between the humans in the garden's biosphere also involves meeting 'the more than human' in the technology itself.
VIDEO : Excerpt from a session of Garden of Ghost flowers, STRP Eindhoven, 2022
Software: The in-headset experience is made in Unity, and the genetic algorithm is built in Unity. Node.js server. Hardware: 15 Oculus Quest 2 ( shifting to HTC Focus 3) , server computer, a Wifi router, and subwoofers. Wetware: Visitors' body and live voice, scent
Visitors are Invited Into a Biosphere,
an Environment Framed By Technology
- where the relation and interaction between hardware, software and wetware, between body, experience and data is interdependent
Inside the biosphere runs the life cycles of a mixed reality object powered by a genetic algorithm: a Ghost Flower that feeds on the resonance of those who visit it.
As a preparation, we invite you not to use your voice for one hour before entering the biosphere. One life cycle of the flower lasts for 20 minutes, but visiting the biosphere also requires time for preparation and reflection.
It is the visitor's voice and their bodies that become the instrument producing the source of energy of which the Ghost Flower lives. The relations and intra-action between visitors, groups of 10 - 20 people mediated by VR technologies, form a biotope for the flower to grow in.
Unlike how museums isolate objects from their original context, the components of this installation - its visitors and the AI system of the digital life form, are embedded parts of the Garden’s biosphere. Visitors must involve themselves with the artwork that unfolds as a process. Each lifecycle of a Ghost Flower is a unique reflection of the relations and interactions of its own group of visitors.
Each visit leaves the biosphere in a state from which the next group starts to create a new cycle of the Flower. Neither the artists nor the programmers that made the algorithms that form the Ghost Flower organisms know the outcome of each visit inside the biosphere.
By posting an artificial lifeform as an explicit mediator of human relations who learns and reacts to its visitors, the human encounter in the biosphere also involves meeting 'the more than human' in the technology itself.
Installation view: Garden of Ghost flowers, STRP Eindhoven, 2022
and a Sociological Concept
Two things inspired the Garden. Firstly, the sociological concept of resonance (Endnote l) is defined by sociologist Hartmut Rosa as a mode of interacting with the world that is not based on control but rather an attitude of open listening through which one can be genuinely affected by the other. Secondly, it is modelled after the traits of the ghost flower Monotropa Uniflora (EndNote ll), commonly known as the ‘ghost flower’, a plant that abandoned photosynthesis survives in darkness and feeds on the fungal web in the earth's soil.
Monotropa uniflora (Monotropa – one turn; uniflora – one flower)
The digital Ghost Flower feeds on networks of human qualities, such as listening, caring, and adapting, expressed through and between the voices of the visitors. It is uncertain if the virtual Ghost Flower is symbiotic or parasitic. Neither the artists nor the programmers that made the algorithms that form the Ghost Flower organisms know the outcome of each visit inside the biosphere. Each visit leaves the biosphere in a state from which the next group starts.
Drawings of sprites for resonance
( Monotropa – one turn; uniflora – one flower)
The artwork oscillates between two modes or states:
- the garden as a laboratory
A session in the laboratory is what makes the dormant Flower come alive.
Commissioning laboratory sessions' in the Garden means an organisation can invite the public into the Biosphere for one-and-a-half-hour sessions for a few days.
When visitors are inside the biosphere, feeding a new lifecycle of the flower. The distinction between the artwork and those that visit it is blurred. The Biosphere consists of 10-20 VR headsets connected to a local server that channels all the data through a custom-built genetic algorithm.
A guide assists visitors in taking on their headsets. At the beginning of a lifecycle, the screen is black. Only when visitors start to use their voice do they see particles and cells coming out of their mouths and the other visitor's mouths, resembling mycelium webs, building blocks for the biotope from which a Ghost Flower grows.
The audience's voice is transformed into different types of cells depending on pitch, volume and proximity. If the conditions are right, their voices distort and mutate, crystallise and become visible cellular material, forming tangible extensions between them. Membranes are created, forming an organism of a unique ghost flower. The organisms' survival depends on how the group interacts with each other and with the life they make. The data produced as a group also manifests in procedurally generated audio.
However, because there is no receipt for resonance, the visitor's ability to adapt to the feedback from the system that produces the Flower is vital. If they do not adapt, the cells fall dead as soot onto the floor.
Each stage in the Ghost Flowers cycle generates different scents: the overproduction of resonance created a smell of electricity and burned servers involving the scent of Mitti Attar (stone and minerals). Building up to a state of resonance gives a scent of petrichor ( water on soil ) and full resonance the scent of Flouve (overripened fruit, warm, vetiver, earthy ).
Representation of seening another person interacting with a ghost flower through the VR headset's see-through mode
- the garden as an exhibition
When no one visits the Garden, the biosphere is dormant.
The exhibition has shifted state, and visitors can see the most recent Ghost Flower slowly decomposing on a large screen. Visitors can also observe an immersive archive of the artificial ecosystem in up to 15 PC-VR headsets.
The experience creates a strange and ghostly presence of the collective of people that made the flower, which is no longer there; only their voices and attempts to resonate with each other are stored inside the game engine. No recordings of visitors are captured in this view, only the cells erupting like volcanoes in the dark. We see their voices as clusters of particles touching, occasionally binding into large membranes of the Flowers' body - falling as ash to the floor when failing to bind. Layers after layers of groups of visitors entering the room leave traces of their failed resonance on the ground, building up as formations of virtual sediments.
Future exhibitions also focus on analysing the algorithmic data of the system in combination with interviews with visitors and observations made by staff and guides of the Biosphere ( that facilitated each visit between people and the digital life-form )
Drawings and descriptions defining different states of resonance juxtaposed with several time-lapses and images of the Ghost Flowers membranes from those states highlight the unique knowledge gained from these encounters and the language for naming these new experiences and relations.
Below: A ghost flower created at STRP, Eindhoven, 2022. Like the mycelium web feeds the digital Ghost Flower's biological counterpart, each visitor group contributes to a particular cycle of the flower's digital existence. Ownership and value are intertwined with the visitors' ability to form a group. The deal is settled via a contract of decentralised ownership, which reflects the collective form of the artwork and the visitor's relation to the Ghost Flower. Participants who create the Ghost Flowers own their data and have voting power to democratise its value.
Above: Three monitors outside the Biosphere running a real time streaming of a test session within the Garden of Ghost Flowers.
Value & Responsibility
The visitors, the flower and the biosphere, are each interdependent components of the Gardens ecosystem - based on the interaction between hardware, software and wetware, between body, experience and data. When a Flower is created, it exists as a collectively owned object; each value it generates also comes with a responsibility.
When a museum or other private or public collection acquires the Biosphere, it is responsible for securing the preservation of that particular evolutionary stage of the biosphere to be a container holding a specific time slice of the Ghost Flowers' life to be experienced in its original manifestation. It also gives the museum the right to the Immersive Archive of a specific stage of the artificial ecosystem containing X amount of life cycles of the flower, which can be exhibited in up to 15 PC-VR headsets. In this state of the Garden, no interaction with the flower is possible. Making a clear division between the Biosphere and the Archive, the visitors can see the most recent Ghost Flower slowly decomposing on a large screen in the exhibition, along with a classification system with photographic prints of different states of different states resonance produced inside the biosphere.
Like the mycelium web feeds the digital Ghost Flower's biological counterpart, each visitor is one of the parts that contribute to a particular cycle of the flower's digital existence. Ownership and value are intertwined with the visitors' ability to form a group. The deal is settled via a contract of decentralised ownership, which reflects the collective form of the artwork and the visitor's relation to the Ghost Flower. Garden of Ghost Flowers facilitates an internal economic ecosystem where the participants collectively create the artwork through their resonance with others, democratically deciding if they wish to sell their creations ( the timelapse in the above image ) and monetize the results of their collaboration.
Visitors experiencing works of art do traditionally not contribute to the value of artworks. Ownership and values are governed by state-owned museums, private collectors and the art market. The mainstream NFT markets see the artist as an individual or a group separate from the audience who can interact with an artwork merely as observers or/and investors.
Experienciencing the immersive internet will produce valuable data likely gathered and traded unknowingly to the participants.
With Garden of Ghost Flowers, we experiment with alternative data ownership structures hoping for a better future. Participants who create the Ghost Flowers own their data and have voting power to democratise its value. We also experiment with examples of hybrid ownerships shared between visitors (that have made a ghostflower) and the museum (that collects and maintain the biosphere that holds it).
Cosmologies of Technodiversity
Making the artwork available only through an interface of augmentation using AR and VR technologies where the relation and interaction between hardware, software and wetware, between body, experience and data is interdependent, we wanted to initiate a conversation on how these technologies make us.
Immersion has often been associated with a non-critical approach and with "experience-based economies" where individuals' consume' experiences isolated from each other and their environment and where intentions of care quickly can transform into desires for control and ownership. Modern technology is primarily used to control our world and to reduce our resonant relationships to simple, streamlined experiences over which we exert total control. At the same time, technology has the potential to open up vast new areas for us to find resonance.
No tool Is neutral. The human Umwelt limits human ability or pre-condition to developing technologies. Current industrial-technological progress is based on only one particular cosmology i.e. one view of the world and the human, leading to a philosophical monoculture underpinning technology. Media philosopher Yuk Hui calls for techno-diversity: not diversity within technology, but a diversity of technologies.
When we started working on the project in 2021, no wireless headsets had LBE features. Oculus VR headsets are considered interfaces into the Metaverse - but have no built-in feature to connect between headsets in a shared physical space, forcing different individualistic use of their technologies and platforms.
When we created the Garden, we wanted to introduce a collectivistic principle of the idea of the Metaverse. So we 3D printed/welded a headset alignment stand so that we could synchronize and network people's experiences in physical space so they could relate to the same digital objects. Rather than taking visitors to a virtual place elsewhere, the virtual reality technology in the garden is more similar to a microscope or other measurement equipment, revealing layers of the world where we stand, which lay outside our perception spectrum.
Steered by the flower towards fundamental aspects of care rather than control, inside the Garden, visitors may experience a radical perceptual shift away from the 'acceleration of time' prevailing in neo-liberal societies.
In the encounter, they might find hope and distress. Their desire for a reparative relationship with their environment is met by a new ecological system, where digital objects and artificial entities blur the boundaries of life and death.
“Without techno diversity, we only have homogenous ways of dealing with nonhuman agencies and the world itself—as if homogeneous equals universal.”
Creating and interacting with a ghost flower in a pair
Past l Future
Manchester International Festival (MIF) and CPH: LAB have funded the project's initial R&D. The Garden has undergone an extensive first round of back-end development and production. As part of winning the ACT AWARD commission in the spring of 2022, a few cycles were shown at STRP in Eindhoven.
From the early stage of the conception of the project, the Garden has continuously been in a ‘Work in Progress' format in a program running at Magasin, and we continue this format for future commissions in 2023. Together with the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Other Minds, we got a chance to unpick some of the project's core questions about consciousness and how it may or may not be limited to organic life forms with metabolizing cells.
See the conversation with Peter Godfrey-Smith at Magasin lll here
Using voice to create new cellular materail required for the growth of ghost flowers
Endnote I Resonance
The sociologist Hartmut Rosa uses the term resonance to describe a mode of interaction between humans and the world that is not based on control, instrumentalisation, or extraction but rather on listening, adaptation, and interaction. He borrows the term from physics, where resonance describes a relationship between two vibrating bodies who both affect and stimulate each other, but with the addition that the objects in his framing speak with their own voice. A resonant quality in a relationship is thus something akin to a conversation or a dance, where all parties affect and are affected by the other parties.
For Rosa, the term is an attempt to approach the question of what constitutes a good relationship with the world as free from cultural connotations as possible. A resonant relationship is by no means a permanent state but a momentary departure from a default mode of silent instrumentalisation. It cannot be systematically or artificially created, as it is reliant on mutual listening and speaking that cannot be predefined.
Qualities of resonance reveal a fundamental contradiction of modernity, which opens new areas for humans to find resonance in a while at the same time reducing the resonant qualities of these areas by subjecting them to human domination. Contemporary technology is largely used to control our world and to reduce our resonant relationships to simple, streamlined experiences over which we exert full control. At the same time, technology has the potential to open up vast new areas for us to find resonance.
Endnote II Monotropa Uniflora
Monotropa Uniflora, also known as ghost plant, ghost pipe, Indian pipe, or ghost flower, is a flower that does not gain its energy from the sun. It lacks chlorophyll, which gives it a translucent, ghostly white colour, sometimes fading towards pink or reddish, and commonly with black flecks. It ranges from 10 to 30 centimetres in height and is found across temperate regions of the Americas and Asia, although it is rare and appears only under the right conditions. Due to its independence from sunlight, it can grow in complete darkness. It is one of the few species of plants that do not photosynthesise, meaning it has abandoned the process of turning light energy into chemical energy. Instead, it is a mycoheterotrophy, a plant feeding on underground fungal networks that live in symbiosis with trees. It is not known if the relationship between the flower and the fungi is parasitic or symbiotic or what the Ghost Flower gives back to those it feeds off. This gives it a trickster-like quality, a being that abandoned the common ways of energy production, hacking its way into the nutritional weave that underpins life. The plant is used in herbal medicine as a remedy for pain, anxiety, nervousness, psychosis, irritability, and restlessness. It does not remove the sensory experience of these ailments but rather changes how they are perceived. The Ghost Flower puts the one who ingests it beside the pain, so they can see and deal with it. It was the favourite flower of Emily Dickinson, who called it “the preferred flower of life”.
Lundahl & Seitl live and work in Stockholm. Their immersive solo projects reinterpret the medium of the exhibition as interpersonal processes via choreography, matter and time. Presented around the world, notably at the Royal Academy of Art in 2014, Gropius-Bau in 2016, and Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2017. Group Exhibitions include the 8th Momentum Biennale of Nordic Contemporary Art 2015 (NO), 'An Imagined Museum' Centre Pompidou Metz 2016-2017 (FR), the 3rd Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016-2017 (IN), and a recent commission: Echoes of Alternative Histories at Staatsteater Kassel, which coincided with Documenta Fifteen. In the fall of 2022, the duo was visiting artists at the ACT Programme at MIT.
The duo Lundahl & Seitl have developed a method and an art form comprising staging, choreographed movement, instructions, and immersive technologies, juxtaposed with material objects and the human ability to organize perception into a world. Notions of freedom, autonomy, and what is real, imagined, and perceived are negotiated in an investigation of virtual reality, not as a form of technology but as an ability or sensibility to a relationship with surroundings, with increased insight into how technology makes ‘us’ and lays the ground for ‘our’ human umwelt – how it connects and disconnects us from each other and other life forms and processes.
Untold Garden is a London and Stockholm based art and design studio exploring how technology can catalyse interpersonal relationships and enable alternative human experiences. By creating participatory systems, they urge the audience to question who controls our online presence and speculate on how we might interact in the future. Their experience-driven systems use cutting-edge machine learning technologies and scalable networking infrastructures to unearth new types of ecologies created in the ever-accelerating technological maelstrom. In their projects, they aim to go beyond the distinction between tools and objects and instead see each object as a potential platform to enable new ideas. Their works include physical installations, virtual sculptures, interactive performances, artificial natures and experimental social networks.
In the past, they exhibited their work at events such as BFI London Film Festival and STRP. They are currently working on a cross-country augmented reality exhibition that will be simultaneously displayed in over 300 cities and towns in Sweden from May 2023 until the end of summer.
Lundahl&Seitl: Christer Lundahl & Martina Seitl
Untold Garden: Max Čelar, Jakob Skote, Kamlaker Dev Singh, Michael Brewster
Dramaturg: Rachel Alexander
Composer: Hara Alonso
Biosphere fabric-structure: Maria Lindqvist & Johanna Mårtensson
Manchester International Festival
Ongoing Research Programme
Magasin III ’Work in Progress’
Kulturbryggan - Swedish Art Grants Committee
Swedish Arts Council
City of Stockholm
Nordic Culture Fund