‘Salting the Earth’
‘It is random discharges of this type, set off by the creation of anti-galaxies in space, which have led to the depletion of the time store available to the materials of our own solar system. Just as a super-saturated solution will discharge itself into a crystalline mass, so the super-saturation of our solar system leads to its appearance in a parallel spatial matrix. As more and more time leaks away, the process of super-saturation continues, the original atoms and molecules producing spatial replicas of themselves, substance without mass, in an attempt to increase their foothold upon existence. The process is theoretically without end, and it may be possible for a single atom to produce an infinite number of duplicates of itself, and so fill the entire universe, from which simultaneously all time is expired, an ultimate macrocosmic zero beyond the wildest dreams of Plato and Democritus.’
– J. G. Ballard, The Crystal World (1966)
Accommodating multiple shades of the colours red, green, and blue as seen by a computer; a salt fountain; chemical gardens; flint chips and silicon wafers; and the last tree on earth,Troika’s project Untertage, developed over several years, takes shape as an elaborate ecosystemic fiction. The focus of the project’s narrative shifts away from a human protagonist and towards a non-human actor who, here, is devised as the real hero of an aeonian drama of world domination. Flipping the traditional figure-ground relationship of narrative fiction in this way, we, the works’ audience, become aware of our own roles not only in the margins of the plot, but as the unwitting pawns, the would-be puppet masters, so narcissistically self-involved with our own teleology as to not even notice that for the past few millennia we have been helplessly entangled in somebody – something – else’s master plan. (Although it must be said that the idea of ‘world domination’ is, of course, itself a purely human trope, a testosterone-driven fantasy of supremacy which one might consider humanity’s most defining and simultaneously most unhelpful invention; summoned here to deliver the fatal blow to both the hero narrative and the organic world at large.)
Troika have decided not to make artwork about salt (the hero of the aforementioned drama), but under the pretence of happening for, with, and by the chemical compound. The crystal takes centre stage as the true agent of cultural evolution, the critical component for a number of tools without which human civilisation would not have developed as we know it. Panning back to the beginnings: flint, of the silicate mineral family and thus a salt, is not only the first tool used by man- and womankind to carve, cut, and dig, but is, more than thirty thousand years ago, also the first substance to be actively mined (an early indication of the circular spiral of our silicate dependency). Jump-cut to our present-day obsession with silicon and its uncanny valley: birthplace of the integrated circuit, the microprocessor, home and HQ of countless Fortune 1000 businesses, a lot of capitalism, and a growing hamlet of neural networks. The metal-oxide-silicon field-effect transistor, or MOSFET, was invented in 1959 and has since become the most widely manufactured device in our history, ushering in the Silicon Age. Now attach a knapped flint to a silicon wafer as Troika have done in their series Evolutionary Composite, and here you have a good-looking amuse-bouche of technological progress whose components neatly bookend the history of humanity’s tools.
Troika’s portrayal or vision of an empire of salt is not a benign one. Steeped in dysphoric (or is it rational) anxiety about a not-too-distant future in which our home planet has become unliveable, Troika have constructed a paranoid alternate reading of an all-too-apparent reality – namely, that humans have potentially orchestrated their own demise. In cynically subversive ‘denial’ of our species’ liability, Troika have retro-cast their protagonist into the role of a genocidal, ecocidal, and holocidal mastermind, the creator of a new geological epoch of anorganic intelligence and synthetic biology after all organic life has ceased to exist.
Representing a new kind of Eden, their photographic images of the beautiful Solid State Fiction become flowing silk veils, a curtain call for us maybe, but a genesis moment for whatever is to come. These images of submerged, soupy gardens look like painterly fantasies but are the result of chemical reactions. When dissolved in sodium silicate, metal salts can be observed to grow by osmosis as if alive or imbued with a life force, a phenomenon that once fascinated alchemists. However, by the late nineteenth century, the alchemists’ fascination with an inexplicable ‘divine’ vitalism ostensibly evidenced in these experiments had transformed into a more mechanistic view. In 1912, French biologist and pioneer in the new field of synthetic biology, Stéphane Leduc, published La biologie synthétique, étude de biophysique, in which he sought to rid his discipline of the mysticism that he still witnessed at the heart of it. Leduc argued that organisms consisted of the same substances as the mineral world – that both living beings and anorganic compounds are the products of different kinds of transformations and shifts in energy. So, unlike the alchemists, Leduc’s aim was not to recreate life itself but rather to imitate ‘individual appearances of life’, starting from simple structures, forms, and functions of organisms (i.e., in the fields of cytogenesis, histogenesis, and morphogenesis).
Interested in the morphogenesis of chemical gardens, Leduc set out to prove that plants follow the same patterns of osmotic growth as the compounds of his experiments. Over the course of four years, Troika have documented their own trials, resulting in a series of printed curtains – Solid State Fiction –as well as the images juxtaposed with nineteenth-century pioneer landscape photography from the American West published in the opening pages of this book. Seen from the perspective of the synthetic biologist as well as Untertage’s guiding character, Salt, these works beg the question: what distinguishes growth from life? With organic life literally out of the picture, do we need to adjust our narrative focus one more time and apply traditional values of aesthetic appreciation as well as feelings of nurturing care to these Twombly-esque smears and filigrees? Why do we care more for something that is (or can be considered) animate?
My only Friend, the End
Terminal Beach, a four-minute video, shows a forlorn and depleted landscape with a single tree – the last tree on Earth. A robotic arm covered in long, black, swaying fur is rhythmically applying an axe to the trunk of the tree, which shudders with each impact. Although the digital animation seems to be arrested in an eternal loop – no blow of the axe leaves a cut bigger than the one before – it becomes apparent that the scene takes place at the edge of time, at the precipice after which there will be no conscious, or at least carbon-based, entity marking a here and now. The digitally animated robotic arm, whose appearance is based on industrial KUKA machines used on assembly lines, was motion-capture trained by the artists themselves. Human engineers are thus doubly inscribed into the machine’s actions, resulting in a film whose metaphor is blunt: we are destroying the world that sustains us, and any acceleration of technological, capitalist, and industrial advancement is also an acceleration towards extinction.
The work introduces a more complex set of questions by shifting perspectives, both literally, i.e., visually, and by other means. In classic cinematographic style, the opening shot draws slowly closer to the robot and tree at (human) eye-level and then cuts to a drone view circling above (who is watching now?). In the next scene, the ‘camera’ seems to be attached to the furry robotic arm, and the visual quality of the colour filter resembles the greenish and pixelated hue familiar from digital photo sensors – we have adopted the machine’s view. The last POV places us at the top of the tree, looking down through a blurry fisheye lens and just faintly discerning the irritant presence below. Time here is decelerated, and the world appears in the red and pink colour spectrum of infrared photography – representing how photosynthetic plants absorb, and therefore ‘see’, mainly the long and short wavelengths of red and blue. The acoustic backdrop throughout the film doubles the uncanny nature of the robotic primate arm with its silky, camp fur; it resembles bird sounds, when in fact what we hear is a ‘geophony of lightning strikes, solar winds, and geomagnetic storms’ (Troika), recordings of space weather captured as radio waves by the British Antarctic Survey at its Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
Troika are working through and making accessible ways of seeing and sensing that may represent actual alterity: if the world (our world) is ending, how do we cross over and become alien? How do we invite the shock and the pleasure of alterity in view of our own annihilation? And if we can achieve this, how can we not empathise with both the tree and the robot, even the radio waves, the stars, and time itself?
Back to Earth
Both in the juxtaposition of the full-spread images of Troika’s chemical gardens within the first pages of this book and in the context of the sculpture No Sound of Water, Troika refer to an iconography of lakes and waterfalls familiar from nineteenth-century landscape photography. Here, the constant movement of water is recorded as a hazy, misty, blurry, dreamily suspended entity, due to the long exposure times typical for early photography. These now iconic images were often produced as albumen silver prints, which meant coating paper in an emulsion of egg white (albumen) and – you guessed it – salt. One of the landscape photographers active in North America at the time was Timothy O’Sullivan, whose large-format albumen prints as well as popular stereoscopic cards helped create an image of the US-American West and Southwest as an endless expanse of awe-inspiring and ‘untamed’ beauty. Part of a programme of economic expansion organised by the American Department of War, O’Sullivan’s expeditions through still mostly uncolonised and pre-industrialised parts of the United States served to create financial interest and attract travellers to these areas, which were rapidly becoming more accessible and interconnected through railway and telegraphy. In 1868, O’Sullivan took the first large-format photograph of the Shoshone Falls in Idaho, and, by virtue of the image’s dissemination, helped set in motion an invasion of settlers bringing with them irreversible change – and often destruction – to the landscapes he had documented. The gushing waterfall in his famous photograph is visible as a white mist, flowing like dry ice, reminiscent of the eerie miasma of so-called ectoplasm ‘captured’ in early spirit photography. The image of a world arrested at the crossroads, an embodiment of the sublime, a view that disrupts the mundane passage of time to reveal a supposedly more fundamental, more transcendent reality, one that predates and obliviously negates the arrival of the modern-day horrors of infrastructure, extraction, and touristic depletion.
But rather than being held suspended, time, as it is understood in the fiction of Untertage, takes the flinty shape of an arrow. It moves relentlessly away from an abject past into a desired future: this is also modernity’s mantra. Time is progress, conceived of as a constant and linear metric. According to this ideology, there is no time without progress, and, without time for progress, there is no hope for salvation (or is it salination). In Troika’s construct, this mantra assumes an ambivalent notion, as humanity’s illusion of ‘progress’ is revealed to be its damnation, instead serving the grand scheme of a wholly other entity.
The image of a linear, horizontal vector of time appears to stand in contrast to the vertical order of geological sediments, of strata, of the deep time of Earth’s formation. Breaking into this underground chronology by way of mining and extraction, or by the sheer force of an extra-terrestrial impact, blasting a passage, ejecting, and thereby overturning or reversing the order of strata, has the effect of undoing or rewriting the chronology of Earth. And indeed, time may be thought of in other ways, too: as an exile, a tragedy, a mere image of eternity (itself another kind of salvation), or else as a becoming, a growth, a process. Maybe it is not a continuum or a constant after all, but instead it might be an agent of shifting, splitting, stopping and starting, of inventing new dimensions as it goes along, or circling back, repeating, repeating, repeating.
Though this is not made explicit in Troika’s Untertage, subtle manipulations of time are in process in most of the works. Think, for example, of the large mechanical object delivering a constant torrent of salt, No Sound of Water, like a bottomless hourglass. It relentlessly conveys large quantities of table salt into the upper level of its framework and then rains a steady stream back down into its trough along its entire width like a waterfall. The structure itself is adapted from an industrial processing machine, a reference maybe to the extractive technologies that have contributed to the planet’s anthropocentric transformation. The elaborate construction is on constant duty, salt crystals always in motion and surely also, over time, increasingly uncontainable, spilling into the room, collecting in cracks in the floor, lungs, rolled up trouser legs, keyboards, and the lunches of gallery employees.
The romanticised pictorial tradition of the iconic waterfall shows up its industrial spine. No Sound of Water folds in a reference to early photography’s salt-based chemistry, and simultaneously illustrates the mise-en-scène of a metallic, machinic, wasteland cascade of posthuman folly. Maybe paradoxically, as a device of constant regurgitation and entropy, it also demonstrates what it means to generate a picture, especially a digital one: it is itself a Sisyphean image processor. Troika understand this as a transposition of the historic photographs and stereoscopic images into a physical structure that nonetheless simulates, by analogy, the waterfall: it is a virtual waterfall, in the sense of the term’s historic definition; not the thing itself, but the same thing in effect.
Rather than crystallising into pictorial stasis, its staged performance is in perpetual motion, a continuous current. But the term crystallisation, particularly in reference to making images, appears to be ambiguous. Does it describe a kind of petrification, a draining of life, change, and growth through the transformation of organic matter into frozen and lifeless statuary or imagery as described by J. G. Ballard in The Crystal World, or does it, on the contrary, point to a metastable field, full of potential energy? The crystal (as it is described in the work of Gilbert Simondon and Gilles Deleuze, for example) is indeed defined by its ability to grow from a seed as an energetic system. It is not possible to define the crystal by its shape at any given moment, but, rather, it is characterised precisely by its incompleteness and being-in-process, in the coexistence of its past and future forms, its fragmented present, its virtuality.
I Like to Think
Untertage includes a series of works titled Irma Watched Over by Machines. The series depicts images collected from publicly accessible web cams transferred onto canvas, of palm trees thrashing in hurricane gales. But what we see does not look like our home planet. A toxic greenish colour dominates the paintings, maybe because the original footage was recorded at night, or possibly because the hurricane had blocked out all sunlight? Troika explain that they have applied a Bayer filter, which breaks down light recorded by photosensors into a mosaic of colours but privileges the colour green in accordance with the sensitivity of human eyes. (The same filter is used in the machine vision scene in Terminal Beach). The closer you are to the paintings, the more their composition falls apart into grids of colour fields, equivalent to digital pixels, each square a hue of either red, green, or blue. Much less precise than the digital cameras of our age, Troika have reduced the shades of paint to sixteen grades per colour (in contrast to the two hundred and fifty-six shades of computer vision). In what must have been a painstaking, repetitive, robotic, or very Zen process – painting by numbers, or by milligrams of pigments – the Irma paintings slowly came into being. They illustrate both the composed reality of digital images and the melding qualities of our own perception, representing, in the eye of the storm, what an all-seeing electronic eye might recognise as the epitome of a planet in self-destruct mode. Depending on one’s position in front of the paintings, the colour fields on the canvases – their pixels – continuously shift between synthesis and dissolution, analysis and resolution. But, importantly, human viewers and computers seem to come at this spectrum from opposite directions.
The series’ title is a combined reference to the hurricane that wreaked havoc in the Caribbean in 2017, and the 1967 techno-utopian poem by Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Brautigan invokes an imminent era of blissful co-habitation on planet earth by humans and computers or AI: ‘I like to think (and | the sooner the better!) | of a cybernetic meadow | where mammals and computers | live together in mutually | programming harmony | like pure water | touching clear sky. […]’ From today’s perspective, it is quite hard to read the poem without irony or cynicism. And Troika’s appropriation, too, tends towards a darker reading: how better to intone a sardonic swan song to humanity’s sad vanities than in the form of a series of paintings, helplessly clinging on to mankind’s fondness for pictorial composition, for mobility on the secondary market, or even walls, for goodness’ sake.
The paintings Irma Watched Over by Machines are not only images in space but also in time, demonstrating their own virtuality as a continuous transformation or becoming. Each grid contains the potential to accumulate, to crystallise (in all senses of the word) into a picture. Each colour field acts on a multiplicity of dimensions. The series, as well as Untertage itself, is neither made entirely for human eyes nor for those of machines of loving grace, brought to life as it were by the agency of Salt. The body of work assumes different meanings according to your point of view.
Eva Wilson, ‘Salting the Earth’, in ‘Untertage’
1 ‘Dissolve some iron or copper in spirit of salt or oyl of vitriol, draw off the flegm, in which distillation none of the acid spirit will come over’, and these salt trees, chemical shrubs, and crystalline mushrooms will ‘shoot up and grow swiftly, so as the eye might perceive it grow.’ Johann Rudolph Glauber, Furni Novi Philosophici (1646).