As part of a research creation grant from the Canada Art Council, I am starting a blog to coincide with a major phase of development for my Dynamic Landscape Simulation software. This blog will outline my creative process and influences for a given subject, and will be written to share my thoughts in ecology, visual art and computer graphics. Each post will primarily discuss my approach to technical problems, but will also offer artistic insights and eco-cultural reflections.
Throughout this research creation project, I have created new projects to explore various interactions between the climate, oceans, watersheds, forests and human societies across large spatial and temporal scales. I have prototyped a number of new dynamic-interactive artworks and tested them for potential exhibitions in physical gallery spaces and on different digital platforms. Development for my Dynamic Landscape Simulation software is ongoing, so I will update and refine these articles over time.
Through various phases of development since 2017, I have created numerous software systems to approximate ecological processes, such as forest growth, wildfire and soil formation. These real-time simulations are created through an intuitive approach, rather than implementing physics-based math to model reality. The resulting art projects are aesthetically oriented, intended to convey principles of essential ecological relationships between landscape elements, rather than to create a scientific or predictive model. In creating these relational simulations, I strive to create expressive landscapes that evolve and change over time, and that feel alive with a degree of agency.
Within most artworks, video games and real-time simulations, landscape elements are relatively static. An ecosystem may be destroyed or modified, but it usually does not grow or evolve in response to actions from a user. A dynamic landscape would more accurately reflect our complex cultural relationships to nature, and can depict potential futures amidst changing climate conditions. There are a variety of ways that users could interact with a dynamic ecosystem, such as by changing landforms or extinguishing fire.There is further potential for users to cumulatively impact a digital ecosystem overtime, reflecting both our individual and collective relationships to nature. From sandbox applications to interactive installations, I have experimented with a variety of interfaces to explore the limitations and potentials of real-time simulation as dynamic-interactive art.
Real-time simulations can be leveraged to create Dynamic-Interactive artworks, where the aesthetics and behavior of digital elements fundamentally change with cumulative viewer interaction. Comparatively, most interactive artworks are simply reactive, where viewers may only superficially affect visuals or sounds.
Dynamic simulation is a unique digital medium, as it employs a specific set of creative tools operating on dynamic data structures in real time. As an artist, I am programming my own creative tools that I can experiment with to create specific artworks. Many components can be reused or repurposed between art projects, but I often develop new systems for each artwork. Generally, I consider my simulation artworks to be generative systems that continually produce unique results within a semi-random range. I strive to curate impactful aesthetics while also leaving room for surprise and unintentional emergent behaviors. My artworks can also be considered to be Artificial-life Art, especially as I draw from artists such as Laurent Mignonneau and Christa Sommerer, as well as Ian Cheng.
Aesthetically, I am creating representative landscapes to create accessible artworks that engage viewers with the implications of climate change and the anthropocene. With representational visuals as a recognizable hook, viewers can be drawn into the conceptual space of complexity, where they can make their own connections to critical ecological issues. Interactivity may further draw viewers into an artwork, ideally with an interface that is intuitive and not distracting or gimicky. Uncertain Associations was successful in this regard, balancing non-photorealistic visuals with a dramatic generative soundscape and an intuitive interface.
As a millennial who is extremely concerned with ongoing colonialism, pervasive industrialization and climate change, I struggle with art as a means to affect change in the short term. However, I do believe that art can contribute to cultural transformation over time, and that artists can curate thoughtful space to consider complex and nuanced issues. I believe it is critical to hold space for viewers to make their own connections to ecological issues, rather than be told how to think and act. Furthermore, I believe it is important to create animated art that embodies thinking on a multigenerational timescale. With my dynamic landscape simulations, interrelated cycles that occur on different timescales can be witnessed, allowing viewers to contemplate phenomena that are beyond individual perception in reality. These artworks can also foster thinking about our collective relationships to nature as well as cumulative impacts of industrialization and urbanization.
As an undergrad student, I was inspired to simulate ecosystems after experimenting with a cellular automata implementation of prisoner’s Dilemma, described by Melanie Mitchell in Complexity: A Guided Tour. In 2014, I created, Competition, an interactive system where white cells and black cells continually compete for space, and where the movements of viewers impact this system. This artwork was the basis for my thinking of cellular automata as a way to represent an ecosystem, and how live input can interact with this real-time simulation. True cellular automata systems usually represent discrete or binary values, and each cell updates its state based on its neighbors. A classic example of cellular automata is John Horton Conway’s Game of Life.
My approach is to encode continuous variables into 2D data structures that are updated based on previous values. These values can represent a range of variables, such as density of individual tree species, soil moisture, wildfire temperature, disease and water. Similar simulations exist, such as interactive fluid dynamic systems, but these are usually limited to represent single phenomena versus entire ecosystems. My technical implementation is further refined in this blog post.
My work to create digital ecosystems is informed by my rudimentary knowledge in ocean science, ecology, geology and climatology, but is primarily inspired by observation and my personal experiences in nature. I am very privileged to have both academic understanding as well as intuitive knowledge from exploring vital landscapes across the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest. I have been privileged to live in flourishing forest and coastal environments, and I balance my time programming with explorations in my home ecosystems. My recent work is heavily inspired by the urban landscape and ecosystems of Langford, BC.
To express a given ecological concept, such as succession or disturbance, I write code to change cellular values over time, based on inputs from related variables. For example, wildfire is dependent on heat, wind, vegetative fuel, moisture and terrain slope. Based on these values from adjacent positions, fire (heat) is increased or decreased appropriately. As fires burn, vegetation is consumed, reducing available fuel, which eventually will extinguish fire. These interrelated variables are updated at different timescales depending on the speed of the given process.
With much refinement and balancing, surprisingly convincing results can be visualized, where relationships of ecological behavior in reality can be expressed by crude approximations. Although these artistic models are not predictive or scientific, my work has proven to be effective in conveying principles of ecological relationships to stimulate imaginative understanding of viewers. My work leverages the power of real-time simulation to bridge conceptual art, science communication and exploratory education.
Generally, my work is inspired by studies of emergence, complex systems, panarchy and permaculture as well as general understandings of ecological processes. I also have learned a lot from workshops and conversations with local scientists, indigenous knowledge keepers, activists and gardeners living within the Salish Sea region.
I have observed extractive relationships between resource industries and forests while working as a tree planter in Wet’suwet’en Territory in Northern BC. Similarly, I have learned a lot about the complexities of urban development and ecological restoration while living in Langford, BC, adjacent to massive developments and flourishing wetland ecosystems. Through my work in creating dynamic landscapes, I strive to be open to an array of influences as I create experimental simulations.
In this blog, I will trace some of my influences as I share my technical process and analysis to engage with landscape issues.