Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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WORDS: BENJAMIN H. BRATTON

It has been said that planetary-scale computation caused “the disappearance of the outside”: an act of spatiocide resulting in a monocultural globalism from which there is no escape. But perhaps instead it revealed that there never was an outside to begin with.
More specifically, it undermined a particular idea of the outside as the mysterious Nature on the other side of the border from the domesticated Culture. That border could be a fence, a wall or a door, but each similarly reinforced a notion of separation, with culture on the inside while nature remained “out there.” No more. We’ve come to realize that exteriority was a matter of perspective, and sometimes an illusion. A world made up of linear borders and horizons can be deceiving.
The dissolving of this particular outside/inside mythos has come from how the planet now senses itself, measuring its dynamics from the surface, underwater, in low-earth orbit and on the skins of things that populate it. How the world is perceived changes how we see what the world is. Just as the microscope forever changed how we see surfaces, and telescopes forever bent the horizon into the arc of a long curve, the development of a planet capable of sensing itself, sensing its own environment, calculating its past, present, and future, has and will continue to change how we (and it) understand planetarity, which is a very different thing than "nature.”
This planetarity has everything to do with climate change. In fact, the very idea of “climate change”—as in the calculation of a statistically significant shift in geochemistry and median temperature—is itself a direct accomplishment of planetary-scale computation. Without a big sensing and calculation apparatus through with the planet monitors itself, the current concept of “climate change” does not exist. In truth, the most important implications of planetary-scale computation may be epistemological and philosophical, not just technical. It changes not just how we think, but how the planet thinks through us.
The “question concerning technology” posed by the world-weary Heidegger held that an authentic relationship between “world’ and “Earth” could only come from resisting the frame of technology. We see it the other way around: it is only through the precious, mind-bending technical alienation from naturalistic intuition that the reality of a planet might come into view. Any “authenticity” comes from alienation. It is by getting outside of ourselves and our singular bipedal phenomenology that we can see what’s happening. For us, that is the real outside—but for the planet looking back at us, everything is happening in the great big indoors. No matter where you go, you are inside the little skins of clothing, buildings, cities, and ecological niches and atmospheres. In this sense, they are all “artificial”; we can and do remake them. Put differently, what is so provocative about directing our design attention “out there,” is that it is all actually “in here.” In this, there is both clarity and an invitation.

The research of The Terraforming think tank at Strelka Institute begins with this presumed planetarity, which becomes not just a frame of analysis, but also the basis for design. The terraforming we speak of is not the terraforming of other planets to make them viable for Earth-like life, but rather of ensuring that Earth will be viable for Earth-like life. It considers what is called the “Anthropocene” as a headless terraforming gone wrong. We are living in the structured debris of that terraforming. We recognize that whatever happens next, human culture will continue to terraform Earth and its ecologies. It’s not a matter of if, but of how. For us, “how” means, a reorientation to planetary thinking that is in contrast with those predicated on pre-Copernican hangover concepts of nature, ground, identity, and place. This is decisively different than “the global,” for which the planet is a static object for gridded overview. The planetary, by contrast, is multi-scalar and multi-temporal; it moves from atomic to atmospheric scales and back again without privileging the human-scale as the normative in-between point.
We accept the artificiality of terraforming and presume that the necessary response to anthropogenic climate change will need to be equally anthropogenic. We embrace our Three A’s—astronomy, artificiality, and automation—but define all three in idiosyncratic ways. Most of all, we recognize the need for a plan. As the post-’68 critique of verticality morphed into the post-’89 celebration of horizontality, individuality, and decentralization, we turn our attention to necessary alternatives—not simply the inverse of these (i.e., verticality, deindividuation, and centralization), but to different variables altogether.
We look at the shambolic response to COVID-19 as evidence of what not to do. Falling back on post-colonial citizenship as default mechanism to re-sort, re-divide, and encircle naturally mobile population swarms shows just how under-matched our geopolitical traditions are by the epidemiological reality of our shared biological circumstance. That rich countries would purchase vaccine supplies, that countries would be reduced to hacking one another for life-saving research data, and that waves of political populism would dissolve into 5G hydroxychloroquine conspiracy theories is so predictable as to defy humor. It is anarchy in the worst sense of term, and shows how the evangelically horizontal planlessness of the neoliberal era has failed. Ad-hoc community care networks are nice, and market-discovered vaccines will be going in my bloodstream as soon as the Illuminati decree it, but neither is a sufficient replacement for a viable and ubiquitous planetary-scale healthcare regime.

We realize that our initiative is swimming cross-current with the moment. We realize that intellectual habits will all-but-deliberately misconstrue what we say, no matter how clearly we say it. It is also why the work matters. The spectrum of design runs from terraforming, defined as the transformation of the planet according to plan, to what program faculty Helen Hester calls anthropoforming, the transformation of the human organism according to the planet. Each implies similar but not identical relations to what is “out there.” Both see the wide exterior as another interior in which (for which) we can design. Both see Homo Sapiens as a fundamentally migratory species. Our anatomy evolved in relation to our mobility and our relation to our tools. It is more relevant that you have opposable thumbs because your ancestors gripped tools than it is that they gripped tools because they had opposable thumbs. The body is the result of its engagement with technology, and humans have thus developed technologies for the body and for the environment in ways that leapfrogged the slow speed of natural selection. You already possess many custom exoskeletons: the fur coat, the ski boot, the scuba mask—all are artificial evolution in action. For architectural and urban-scale design, this process makes furniture, or individual rooms, or groups of rooms, or building envelopes, or urban amenities, interfaces, and infrastructures. They are all ways of accommodating the Great Indoors under the thin atmosphere.

Four of the thirteen group and individual projects from the first year of The Terraforming think tank at Strelka Institute are presented below by the researchers who developed them.

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Bury the Sky draws on our discussion and debates of “geoengineering” as a planetary design and policy framework. The term is in quotes because for it to be useful, it must refer to more than a portfolio of strange cloud manipulation tricks. For our program, geoengineering refers to a scale of design effect, one which includes both proactive and passive forms. The project addresses the pressing need not only to cut carbon emissions dramatically, but also to actively subtract existing carbon from the atmosphere. Direct carbon capture is one form of Negative Emission Technology (NET) that requires much more attention. Working back carefully from metrics that require billions of tons of CO2 removal to be successful, the project shows how to put existing extraction infrastructure in reverse, burying the carbon spewed into the sky back underground.

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Black Almanac draws the history of food—from early agricultural settlements to molecular gastronomy—as a history of artificiality itself. The almanac is an early form of database-driven agriculture, an open record of past and predicted climatic events, best practices and benchmarks. The almanac proposed by this project sets an agenda for the coming decades of food production as a terraforming process by which we make the matter that we ingest (and which thus becomes us). Instead of the skeuomorphic faux traditionalism of today’s kitsch cuisine, the artificiality of food is posited as the necessary means to a just and intensely heterogeneous planetary food culture.

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Cosmoplanetarity places each of us in the figure of the astronaut/ cosmonaut, encased in their life-support apparatuses, entangled with their ship, all given unfamiliar form by reduced gravitational pressure. The research braids anthropoforming into terraforming directly and tests the transformations of the creature (who is us) in relation to those limits. The protagonist in the larger story is the gravitational force that not only holds form in place, but that also gives form as things evolve to suit its weight, on- or off-planet. That is, even as those creatures are “freed” from gravity and liberated from form, that form had been given in the first place by the gravity that now squeezes them. On stage is the “creatureliness” of the astronaut and their craft as the two remake each other under conditions of extreme interdependence. The lesson of the work is that the experiment up there clarifies what is already at work down here, terraforming and anthropoforming making and remaking one another.

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In the original Cassandra myth, the daughter of the last king of Troy was less a futurist than someone uniquely sensitive to the implications of faint signals. Our namesake project, Cassandra, challenges the official futurism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scenarios of what may happen next, suggesting that they’ve overlooked key variables and important ways of articulating their implications. The very idea of “climate change” extends the past into the future in ways that are extremely difficult to come to terms with; in that its significance is understood in relation to its future effects, it also extends the future back into the present. This gives power to the model and weight to the scenario as genres of governmental media. This project demonstrates new ways and new voices through which they can and must be articulated. An informal motto of The New Normal, our previous program at Strelka Institute, was “the future has not been cancelled”—a rejoinder to Mark Fisher (one that he approved of) and a nod to Russian Futurism. But in the early 20th century, the future was something to be achieved; in 2020, the future as we know it is something to be prevented. One future must be rendered impossible so that another can be realized.

If the projects of The Terraforming speak to “speculative design,” then it is of a specific kind. It works with (and sometimes as) a cold realism that cuts through comfort zones, including our own. Rather than speculation that is whimsically creative in some pretend tabula rasa, it works so directly with the disenchanted constraints of the real that its outcomes seem obtuse or even alien. The research is hyperfunctional, and so seems outlandish and unlikely, which has the effect of making whatever is most likely appear absurd. The planet should be open, and the multiplication of species should continue. To be “outdoors” is not be outside of the larger inside. Doors are only one kind of shelter. Our project is to remake the inside—and be remade by it—in ways befitting this, the only planet within light years capable of hosting complex biological intelligence.

The Terraforming program will be running for at least two more years. Applications for year two will be accepted in Fall 2020 at theterraforming.strelka.com, where Bratton’s book The Terraforming is available to download.

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