An agriculture beyond earth would not be obligated to retain the smooth geometry associated with extensive crop cultivation and domesticated animals. Instead of regularity and repetition, it might be altogether messier– less conjoined to political exigencies, an ecology as complex as a thriving garden yet steered by an intelligence that bears little resemblance to our own. If insight is the capacity to extract understanding, outsight rests on such questions of vision. To escape the programming of our shared history may require practices less like prescience and closer to hallucination.
There is a rich lineage of speculative landscapes and weird biochemistry associated with sci-fi and fantasy magazines, and post-pulp fiction cover art from the 1970s and 80s. As a general rule, these pieces were selected by art directors for publications they might “fit” but did not need to resemble. Thus the Berkley Medallion paperback edition of Stanislav Lem’s Solaris (1971) features a planetoid sculpture housed inside a mossy stone niche surrounded by sword-waving humanoids and a flock of birds. Similarly ambiguous illustrations by the artists John Harris, Jean Giraud, and Chris Foss belong to a tradition that opposed a view of interstellar travel devoid of color and awe. In the dreamlike paintings of Paul Lehr, there is no crusading spaceship but a roving eye that offers brief, murky glimpses of differently unfolding worlds.
The research project Black Almanac rests on the assumption that alienation will be essential to patch the many crises of our food system, a response to be embraced and not ignored. Just as we question whose imaginaries will shape human futures in space, we question the logic of going forward to come back. One means of achieving this is by adopting the toolkit of astrobiologists, peering back in time to understand how non-life became life (or non-food became food). Another is to construct a bridge in the shape of a distorted mirror – to catch a glimpse of ourselves as we are witnessed by machines.
In terms of both aesthetics and precariousness, the world of pulp artists resembles that of the communities on Deviant Art, Tumblr, and Pinterest, tagged mood boards plundered by creative directors and cultural aggregators, and the test case for the majority of existing NFTs. The legacy is also clear in video games. Where the city building sim Surviving Mars (2018) honours the amplifying effect of Scarfo or Davis, an engineering puzzler for the age of nostalgic terraforming, the inheritance of Foss and Lehr is more obvious in No Man’s Sky (2016), an open world game in which players drift through a procedurally generated universe of 255 star systems and 18 quintillion (1.8E19) potential planets.
The atmospheres, morphologies, organisms and technical systems in No Man’s Sky are algorithmically determined using random number generators calculated from a single seed. None of the landscapes are obviously making food, but given the importance of energy transfer to life as we know it, we should assume, as in Lehr’s paintings, that it exists to be uncovered. The same is true for the outputs of variable auto encoders fed with images and natural language prompts as in the current wave of digital art spurred by OpenAI models DALL-E and CLIP. In a speculative agricultural landscape generated by the latent spaces of hotgrits’s notebook (based on Adverb’s use of CLIP and VQGAN), our understanding of metabolism, sense, growth, edibility, and hierarchy is soon dissolved. Where close study of a photograph may unlock greater understanding, suddenly the process is reversed.
CLIP represents a novel use of everyday images captioned by humans and freely available online. It is a suite of human-AI collaborations that frustrates the association of rigid logic as a feature of technology rather than human will. CLIP is just one of many priceless engagements with a statistical mode of intelligence that appears more alien than human. When thinking about the future of food, departures from the present are also being nurtured in labs, startups, factories and kitchens. Estrangement and creativity will be core principles of any food system that is flexible not brittle, adaptive not static, delightful and not dull. Reclaiming the historic place of cooking as a fulcrum of our knowledge system will be a necessity for mealtimes worthy of a spacefaring species and the machines that help them see.
Other Gardens: Visions of Agriculture Beyond Earth Published 2021
The hallucinations accompanying this essay will made available as non-fungible tokens in three auctions on Zora beginning 26 November 2021. As they are minted they will populate the planetarium. Any profits will be reinvested in Black Almanac: a project about the future of food.