Natalie Jeremijenko

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A-trees, 1999

Technologies: CO2 sensor, desktop plant, simulated Paradox clones

Keywords: artificial life data visualization, environment


Is the term "artificial life" an oxymoron? Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist trained in science and engineering, creates works that force us to examine the problematic consequences of digital and other technologies, such as cloning, robotics, and software. A-trees, for example, allows us to witness the growth of a synthetic tree on a computer desktop, as if it were an actual plant in soil. The tree is programmed to change gradually in size, thanks to a self-replicating growth algorithm. The tree's growth rate isn't determined solely by Jeremijenko's programming, however. Every upward spurt reflects the actual level of carbon dioxide in the air in the microenvironment surrounding the computer, measured by a real-time carbon-dioxide meter. More than mere renditions of a living tree, Jeremijenko's A-trees serve as aestheticized monitors of actual air quality and, by extension, global warming. They call into question the fate of real trees in a world whose environment is increasingly impacted by humans, as if to suggest that one day the only trees left will be digital ones. The work's title alludes to artificial life, commonly known as "a-life." If A-trees grow and die in response to their environment, are they in fact alive? Jeremijenko cleverly bridges the real and the virtual, both as a technical feat and as a conceptual gesture, encouraging us to question our understanding of life, and how we might work not only to recreate it digitally, but also to preserve it.

Jeremijenko's Stump (1999) involves what Jeremijenko describes as a "printer queue virus" that calculates how many pieces of paper a printer has consumed. When the printer uses the rough equivalent of one medium-sized tree's worth of paper, it automatically spits out a printed image of a ringed cross-section of a tree trunk. Eventually, a tree -- or at least a tree stump -- could be reconstructed by stacking these paper rings. Like A-trees, Stump encourages us to develop a personal relationship to environmental destruction. Both works serve as poetic reminders of how humankind is altering the natural environment. In 2000, Jeremijenko published both Stump and a version of A-trees on a CD-ROM for widespread distribution, and linked the two to a larger project, One Tree, which involved the planting of 1,000 clones of a single tree around San Francisco.

Jeremijenko's first arboreal art work was Tree Logic (1999), a public sculpture at MASS MoCA in which six live trees are permanently suspended upside down, inverting their natural orientation and challenging our notions of what is natural. Jeremijenko's tree projects bring to mind works by the late artist Robert Smithson, who often used trees as elements of art works that re-examined the natural landscape. Smithson's 1972 declaration, "I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation," could easily be applied to Jeremijenko's work, which investigates the relationship between technology and the natural world.

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