Scenic Overlook: Brian Bartz’s Techno-Plant Systems

New Takes

Scenic Overlook: Brian Bartz’s Techno-Plant Systems

By Maddie Klett November 6, 2019

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.


The George Washington Memorial Parkway runs for twenty-five miles along the Potomac River, beginning at President Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and continuing north through Virginia. I grew up viewing it from the backseat of my family’s minivan, and the parkway does not resemble other urban highways: in lieu of retail outlets and billboards, the route has flowering dogwood and redbud trees in manicured vistas that overlook Washington D.C.’s monuments. The parkway’s landscaping was the result of the Highway Beautification Act (HBA), a project instigated by First Lady Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Johnson and signed into effect by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. It encouraged scenic improvement of urban roads amidst the rapid expansion of the nation’s interstate highway system. Lady Bird believed that beautification could improve quality of life, and the HBA was one of the more visual manifestations of President Johnson’s Great Society—the social reform plan that implemented programs like Medicare and Medicaid in order to alleviate socioeconomic inequality.

Carol M. Highsmith, Spring tulips and dogwoods on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, McLean, Virginia, between 1980 and 2006. courtesy the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.

While the HBA incorporated what many would consider beneficial natural landscaping into cities, it also instilled in Americans expectations of what space should look like. Fast-forward six decades, Lady Bird could not have envisioned the cell phone towers that would eventually line America’s highways and, what many believe, sully their natural beauty. In recent years, companies that disguise structures as trees have grown in prevalence, and these “trees” preserve the scenic views central to Lady Bird’s project by camouflaging the country’s growing hybridization of built and natural environments.

Warren K. Leffler, Conf. for beautification of [Washington,] D.C. Lady Bird [Johnson] and Rockefeller, 1965, negative; film width 35mm (roll format). Courtesy U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection, Library of Congress. Photo: Warren K. Leffler.

With Antenna Tree (2019) artist Brian Bartz has fabricated a miniature version of these devices: a palm tree that stands a bit shorter than human height, whose top branches meet most viewers’ eyes. Like its full-scale counterparts, Bartz’s tower is a conduit for SMS messages. It receives and sends them from the small computer embedded on its leafy head to viewers who text the number etched on its side. The computer contains a folder of 90 images that depict the full-sized towers (upright palm and coniferous varieties are the most popular) and it messages out a randomly selected photo to every phone that messages it.1

With Antenna Tree and other recent works, Bartz places plants in the middle of technological systems. His recent research focuses on the history of cybernetics—a concept formed by American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) in the government-sponsored military research laboratories of World War II.2 Wiener’s techno-warfare projects transmitted information between humans, machines, and their situational contexts and proved that control could be systemically shared and altered between all three.3 Wiener’s systems-oriented, interdisciplinary projects influenced policymakers like President Johnson, who began building the interconnected social structures that would eventually touch most facets of a person’s life in the U.S. Wiener’s writings also impacted the internet’s popularization in the 1960s American counterculture movement. Inspired by his theories of feedback loops, figures like Stewart Brand, one of the founders of the virtual community known as the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, rebranded the internet as the ultimate equalizer, moving circuits of information between people rather than through the top-down command of corporate and political powers.

Taking Wiener’s theory as its title, Bartz’s Cybernetic System (2018) operates a feedback loop to autonomously water a plant. The sculpture is a wooden, cement-covered structure that holds a small amount of soil and radish seeds. It contains a microcontroller that executes a code to a sensor inserted in the soil, which continuously checks its moisture level. When the moisture of the soil drops to a certain threshold (pre-determined by Bartz) the microcontroller triggers a pump that dispenses water until it detects the soil is no longer dry. A grow light toggles on and off for ten-hour stretches, and these light and water processes continue as the plant grows.

For a work about technology made in 2018, Cybernetic System does not resemble the reductive design of today’s gadgets. Its wires and armature are fully on view and the sculpture’s cement-covered burlap looks like the draping of a messily configured pietà. It is important to Bartz that the work looks like this. He believes that the abstracting of complex processes with simple, sleek interfaces by today’s designers and engineers is a “fundamentally false sense of freedom” that creates a narrow base of people literate in what is going on underneath.4

Brian Bartz, Antenna Tree (detail), 2019. Styrofoam, plastic, concrete, and custom electronics; 36 x 36 x 75 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Cybernetic System and Antenna Tree suggest that the politics of this obfuscation are in plain sight. Both works raise the question of whether users want to know what’s going on underneath. After all, real life antenna trees exist to make invisible the mechanisms of connectivity. Looking through the images of the stick-straight towers that Antenna Tree messages out, it is clear that they are awkward and, contrary to their intent, obvious; they noticeably rise above their living counterparts.

Despite their failure to disguise themselves, Bartz believes that these towers are a physical manifestation of big tech’s illusion of erasure—a phenomenon best exemplified in the metaphor of the cloud. The propensity for dematerialization pervades Silicon Valley’s rhetoric, and obscures the fact that this privatized “cloud” consumes more energy than most countries. With Antenna Tree the artist takes a tower, makes it human-sized, and isolates it from other, real trees. The work points to how the act of disguising a cell tower mirrors the orchestration involved in hiding big tech’s infrastructure of labor, energy, and consumption, as well as the potential stakes in placing your data in its system.

Bartz’s work suggests that the history of systems is also a history of the instrumentalization of technology and nature by government and corporate powers. By rescaling or reimagining the machinery of our world, the artist visualizes how widely-assumed expectations of beauty and concealment allow for these powers to gain control over technology’s users.

Notes

  1. In some presentations, other small screens placed around an exhibition space randomly depict these images.
  2. Bartz pointed me to Fred Turner’s history of cybernetics in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, 2006.
  3. In his book, Turner speaks of Wiener’s wartime predictor project aimed to solve the problem of tracking and shooting down enemy airplanes—using feedback from pilots to program a plane’s machinery to anticipate shots from enemy aircraft.
  4. Brian Bartz, “Techno-Politics for Artistic Resistance: Apprehending the Present Towards a (Tentative) Future,” December 2018.

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