Alice Bucknell is an artist and writer based in London, UK. Her work uses video game engines and speculative fiction to explore the interconnections between ecology, architecture, and non-human and machinic intelligence. Bucknell’s recent works Swamp City (2021), E-Z Kryptobuild (2020), and Align Properties (2020) are artificial promo videos for imaginary development companies that parody the language and aesthetic conventions of real estate advertising. These pieces take a tongue-in-cheek approach that critiques architecture, luxury property development, and lifestyle capitalism. Swamp City debuted last May at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale in the Russian Federation Pavilion, on view until November 21st, and is also part of FREEPORT for Epoch Gallery, an artist-run virtual experiment.
In this conversation, Alice and I discuss her inspiration for Swamp City, and the associated legal controversy with the Oppenheim Group (of Selling Sunset fame), the difficulties of using non-human characters, Bucknell’s home state of Florida, and how parafiction—a term coined by Carrie Lambert-Beatty to describe the blending of facts and fiction—is a necessary strategy for coming to grips with apocalyptic themes. We think through the ways that Swamp City and E-Z Kryptobuild have moved beyond the art world to develop a relationship between art—a discipline rife with criticism and parody—and the worlds of architecture, real estate development, and speculative finance.
Bucknell’s earlier work, High from Miami Beach (2019), considers the lasting impact of the 19th century concept of “the tropics” on Florida, and Miami in particular—a site of eternal vacation that attracted the international Art Basel festival. In her most recent project, New Mystics, Bucknell develops a collaboration on magic and ritual. She brings together twelve artists, including Zadie Xa, Lawrence Lek, Joey Holder, Zach Blas, Jenna Sutela and others, on an online platform, that incorporates three-way texts between Bucknell, the individual artists, and the neural net GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer)—a more creative iteration of the earlier GPT-2.
We covered exciting topics in this interview, touching on the interlacing themes of ecology, tourism, climate change, architecture, artificial intelligence, the history of the Everglades, libertarian escape fantasies, and our slow environmental apocalypse. Although we look at some of the bleakness that makes up our world, Bucknell shows us how to find humour in the darkness. She asks, how can artistic exercises in world-building be integral to reimagining the present, and possible futures?
I'm always thinking about this future in which the world is literally uninhabitable, where the only places that sustain human life will be these architectural luxury utopias, similar to Swamp City. Using humour in my work while navigating this world is a helpful way to not terrify people with this vision of the future.
Angel Callander: Let’s start by talking about Swamp City, which opened with the Russian Federation Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale on May 22nd. It’s accompanied by your essay “Future Fiction Engine: A World-building Manifesto,” where you discuss a series of works by artists using game engines for world-building experiments that centre non-human experiences rather than being necessarily anthropocentric. Does this essay set up what you're exploring in this video by using non-human narrators? Can you talk a bit more about the work?
Alice Bucknell: With Swamp City, I want to preface by saying that the time leading up to its release had been really weird and intense. In tandem with the development of the project, which was happening all throughout lockdown, I was spending hours and hours inside of a video game engine software called Unreal Engine, building this world that mirrors the Florida Everglades, the place where I grew up. Originally I wanted to have a multimedia approach with video recorded from inside of this simulated world, splicing it with real-world footage taken in the Everglades, but I couldn’t travel home. It was quite an interesting experience to be making this emotionally intense work while not being able to go to the place that it was about. It's a sequence of feeling disembodied, abstracted, and removed somehow, but that fed into the structure of the work—just existing and surviving.
When compared to my previous works, like E-Z Kryptobuild, the pacing of Swamp City is a lot slower and more ethereal. The work is very critical and attached to reality in some ways, like real developments happening in Florida, but also, as you mentioned with the non-human characters, there was an element of fiction and an animalistic point of view. The irony of that is that any project involving the construction of non-human characters, even if you're interested in giving agency or creating a space for those perspectives, can never get past the fact that you are human and will always inflect certain anthropocentric understandings of whatever you're critiquing, whether it's climate crisis, luxury development, or lifestyle capitalism. I wanted to borrow from and expand—and maybe fantasize a little bit about or with—some of these Floridian characters, like the massive bald cypress tree that I use as a narrator. It was a 3500-year old tree that I saw a lot as a kid, called The Senator, and in 2014 it got torched.
It happened when a 24-year old was trying to light up a crack pipe, but it was raining and she found this tree for shelter. Bald cypress trees are incredibly prehistoric; their trunks are essentially hollow, and their entire root system is pressed towards the outer edges of the tree. In a big tropical rainstorm, a massive, ancient, hollow giant is the perfect place to go. She went inside and tried to light up but she fell, and the tree caught fire, burning out from the inside. There was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
I became really interested in the testimony and judicial process. How do you even take someone to court for this, what kind of crime is this? Her whole defense was almost a confession of semi-religious horror; she kept saying, “I can't believe I killed a tree that's older than Jesus.” It was fascinating to me that the only way for her to understand the gravity of what she had done was looking at it through this religious lens. After the tree had been declared deceased, there were plenty of theories going around that it wasn't the real tree, it was a clone of the tree, or people have said they've seen saplings at the base, which come and mysteriously disappear. Maybe they're growing another one in a lab.
I was absorbing all these different perspectives—the angle of the person who burned it down, the angles of these backwater conspiracy theories—and extrapolating the idea of a point in the very near future where the fetishized, marble landscapes of cities like New York and LA, and icons of American ecological diversity and environmental splendor like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, are one day suddenly gone, underwater, or on fire. I thought about the Everglades being eventually commercialized in the same way that other national parks have been. The end result of this was Swamp City, set at a time in the future where the Everglades could be marketed as a return to nature and the millennia-old environment and ecology that hasn't changed.
I like imagining that in this near future scenario, the things that people find gross or scary about the Everglades—the really intense flora and fauna, the Sawgrass, algae, gators, and pythons—are the precise reasons it's become so exotic or idealized. How might a developer and a real estate agent join forces to turn it into a luxury ecotourist retreat? It's just an extension of the ways that architecture and tourism are operating now, and how they’ve pivoted more to focus on lifestyle in the last five or ten years. It goes pretty hard, especially the first couple of minutes, on this pseudo-corporation that is offering these too-good-to-be-true packaged tours for a spiritual reawakening in nature.
I'm stuck on what you were saying about creating non-human characters, that even if you really want to avoid an anthropocentric viewpoint, we're still human at the end of the day. “The Cyborg Manifesto” had its moment years ago, then “Tentacular Thinking” was published in e-flux, so mainstreaming Donna Haraway naturalized the idea of thinking with multispecies environments in art discourses. Like you said, trying to legislate for this or initiate a judicial process for someone burning down a tree still uses this lens of manmade justice. How do you really do environmental justice for one tree when you're dealing with something that's actually so much bigger than that? You can’t legislate for that without completely overhauling the entire system you're using to do it. We haven’t overcome that paradox.
I feel like this is always a massive problem in general, and in anthropology specifically, of preservation. Fighting for the preservation of a landscape or something that has been destroyed, like the bald cypress tree, lacks any legal infrastructure that's not evaluating it from an extremely limited human standpoint. There is an uptick of interest from artists wanting to create these simulated environments and give a voice to a non-human understanding of the ways that we're irreversibly destroying the planet.
While making Swamp City, I struggled with this a lot. That’s where speculative fiction comes in for me, creating layers with elements that are iconic and recognizable, whether it's buildings that exist in the world or real estate corporations that we know of, woven into a story with completely unfamiliar elements. The art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty invented the term “parafiction” around 2008 when the financial crisis was happening—which is an interesting parallel—about the ratio of fiction to facts in storytelling. It blends those two worlds to hopefully create a scenario that feels recognizable and real, but fantastical at the same time. I think this is important because, whenever you're making work that is either speculating on a future scenario or imagining a sort of apocalyptic game, it can be really scary.
I'm always thinking about this future in which the world is literally uninhabitable, where the only places that sustain human life will be these architectural luxury utopias, similar to Swamp City. Using humour in my work while navigating this world is a helpful way to not terrify people with this vision of the future. The ultimate goal of parafiction or speculative fiction is to create a temporal reshuffling or a moment of contraction. There is a tendency for this siloed view of the environmental crisis as a product of neoliberal thinking, that everyone's out for themselves. The language of corporations is like, “You, too, can save the world by paying 2 extra Euros to offset your carbon footprint on your budget flight.” This essentialization of a systemic problem into this purely individual understanding forces the consumer to shoulder the burden of climate change through a more extreme version of capitalism, rather than zooming out and tackling the structural problems that caused this disaster in the first place.
It's a very cunning and smart technique that's been developed. It also means that people are accustomed to thinking on a very small, day-to-day scale, so we have a much harder time grappling with scary concepts collectively and holistically. I think parafiction, or speculative fiction, is great for disrupting that way of thinking, getting people to zoom out to see both the past and a potential future at the same time. Breaking it up and making it more digestible through humour is a strategy I use in my work to make people feel slightly more welcomed into this hellish landscape. Thinking in a slightly altered state or listening to an alternative narrator, whether that's a talking alligator or a resurrected bald cypress tree that's being controlled by an artificial intelligence system, the ultimate end game is some form of empathy.
What fascinates me about this, and E-Z Kryptobuild as well, is not only the humour/seriousness dichotomy, but also how the reality/fiction dynamic plays out. What is funny about Swamp City, E-Z Kryptobuild, and Align Properties is directly taking all of these conventions of 3D-rendered development promos with peppy voiceovers doing the same soft capital word salad. They seem so real and sincere on the surface, and if you're in on the joke, they are hilarious and harrowing at the same time.
When you add another layer, like hotel chain owners asking you how they can invest in E-Z Kryptobuild, it brings into sharp relief that those who are the targets of these critiques take everything seriously and at face value. There is only a single lens of investment opportunity. If we can talk about the Oppenheim Group, they threatened you with a lawsuit for your use of their logo in the first version of Swamp City. It was funny just to hear about it, because that's exactly where the on-screen hyperreality of Selling Sunset is turned off and steps back into our reality. It feels really strange to be reminded that these are people who still inhabit the same world as us when they're not being filmed. All I could think about was how much I wanted to see the on-screen version of this drama where everyone is confused about an artwork.
It almost feels like an extension of the project in an interesting way, and it is notable that both E-Z Kryptobuild and Swamp City have had similar reactions; they walk this tightrope between fact and fiction. It never snaps like that in the art world, people are very aware of the joke. Like you said, there are certain buzzwords in the work that we recognize immediately as parody because we are trained to do that.
The further you stray from a discipline where that criticism is baked in and satire is a recognizable, critical strategy, the more you move into the field that it's critiquing—architecture, design, real estate, tourism. The more you move into those areas where forces of fantasy have been monetized and used as a business strategy for years, decades even, it is as if the critical armour of these works melts away. It’s irrelevant to these people, they don't see it as any kind of parody. It is either a compelling business opportunity, in the case of E-Z Kryptobuild, or they see it as threatening their own business enterprise because it so closely mirrors it, as in the case of Swamp City. They see it as defamation by association.
With the O Group, they were basically accusing me of defamation, or misappropriating their likeness and conspiring to confuse members of the public that they were involved in my shady swamp development. With E-Z Kryptobuild, in addition to having high-net-worth individuals—owners of airlines or hotel chains—really clamouring for a piece of this apocalyptic dystopia, there was also kickback from some of the architects that I was using in the videos, specifically the resurrected AI ghost of the late Dame Zaha Hadid.
What happened there?
I wanted to bring her back into this accelerated shitshow of a luxury survival strategy, or exit strategy for a dying planet, and have her returned spirit or presence haunting the very last building she designed before she died, which is in Sharjah and owned by the Bee’ah Corporation, basically the UAE National Waste Service. They have a lot of delusional utopian ideas surrounding green design and artificial intelligence, and they were super proud that the last building Zaha designed was the first building in the Middle East powered by artificial intelligence.
I visited the building, and later spoke with the head of Bee’ah’s technology strongarm and the architects that work at Zaha Hadid Architects. When they speak about the project, they talk in these really hushed voices. It was as if they thought this project with the AI component was the essence of Zaha and the ultimate sublimation of all her interests; as though if she were brought back it would be the complete fulfillment of everything she was striving for in her life's work. So I was very keen to have a character in E-Z Kryptobuild who was able to transcend and point out the many ways that architecture is an incredibly messed up, sexist, racist industry, but who was also trapped inside of it. I imagined her character in the work as the software of the building, as though she's the soul of it, but is also charged with all of the mundane stuff of turning the lights on every morning and making people's coffee when they arrive—all the tasks the real AI does.
Whereas the “speculative investors” of E-Z Kryptobuild were really into the concept of this project as being a genuine investment scheme, the ZHA staff were much more concerned with the intellectual property rights of Zaha. They weren't mad about me bringing Zaha back from the dead and having her be this stealthy critic of contemporary architecture, they were more concerned that I was destroying her aura. It was a much more conceptual, ideological problem they were having with the work. Architecture is kind of adjacent to art, so maybe there would be a more conceptual hang-up or way of looking at work and critiquing it, but for any kind of real estate or business CEO it was very much an immediate belief in the authenticity of this thing and then taking it from there.
There's something that you said in your interview with Image Breakers, that architects are entirely too image conscious to let themselves slip into that critical territory, anything that might defame their brand identity.
Yeah, and in a way that does conflate with The O Group, too. When I first heard from them I was like, “I don't know if this is performance art.” It was full of typos and made these vast, canyon-sized logical leaps. For them, it was so black and white: I put their logo on this project, therefore I must have been trying to convince everyone they were involved in SC, not parodying them. There was no space for questioning whether Swamp City was even real in the first place. To them it was definitely a targeted attack alluding to their involvement with a scam of a company.
It really drives home that criticism does not exist to these people. It's just not a part of their world. Another funny moment in Swamp City is the voiceover at the beginning where you see the avatar, and she says in an energized voice, “As rampant wildfires eat up what remains of California, and New York is reclaimed by the earth’s rising tides, Swamp City invites you into an enhanced relationship with nature.” Like, Florida is our new frontier when we can't rely on these coastal cities as playgrounds for the wealthy anymore, despite Florida being the butt of so many jokes. It’s also widely accepted how likely Florida would be one of the first places in the US to be underwater as well.
Florida is an interesting beast; it has always been incredibly polarized geographically. There's this idea that the coast is where all the art and culture is, which is not saying much, but it’s where you get the vibe that Florida is one big white sand beach on permanent spring break. Once you go inland, there are plenty of cattle ranches, orange groves, and golf courses. It is a real patchwork layout with a mode of mutual toleration where a lot of people live in a lot of separate bubbles.
The Everglades is an interesting exception because the development of Florida could only happen around the invention of air conditioning. As soon as AC became mainstream, there was a massive influx of people moving down south, and a lot of government schemes to try to get people to settle down there by giving away plots of land. They gave away too much land by overcalculating the size of the state, but it had already been a state for nearly a century, so how do you get that wrong? The wetlands were drained in the early 1900s to make way for malls and casinos and stuff. Walt Disney developed a lot of the modern infrastructure of Florida. Its highway system, like the Florida Turnpike, was entirely built around how to get to Disney World, so it has always been structured and developed in a monopolistic way; it's always been a playground for the rich.
When I talk to most people from the United States, they have no interest in the Everglades, they think it's a gross, mosquito-ridden, swampy place. It’s unsexy, gross slush. Europeans, however, have an interesting fixation on the area, kind of in the ways that I riff on it. While making Swamp City, I mentioned it to a few people in London, where I live, and it turns out that other than going to Disney World, going to the Everglades is the thing to do if you're a foreigner in Florida. There is a lot of interesting architecture and design, very DIY solutions that people who live in Everglades City have for managing the large number of European tourists who rock up through the area every year. One of my favorites is the airboat, which is just a piece of fiberglass usually, but it can also be wood or shoddily welded aluminum, with a giant fan on the back and a Beachcomber deckchair nailed to the floor.
Tourism has basically spawned this Frankenstein's creation that allows tourists to be ferried through these incredibly intricate mangrove tunnel systems. Beginning to embark on this project, I was interested in understanding how people in Everglades City live. It's like a pop-up town, with one long road of huts on twelve-foot stilts; the entire town is designed like they're expecting the apocalypse, with the assumption that the water is going to rise very fast and very soon. I tried talking to some of them about climate change, the water levels rising, and the salinization of the Everglades, and yet so many of them don’t really care. All they know is that, with the emergence of ecotourism, there are Europeans coming who are hungering for this swamp experience; they want to see a gator, or zoom through a mangrove tunnel on an Airboat. Everglades City residents see it as giving people what they want, but without thinking of how this global tourism movement is related to climate change, or even how their own practices—like the airboat services, motels, and all the developments happening in Everglade City—are fueling the desire for these lifestyle experiences.
It also shows my own bias. These are “born in Everglades City, die in Everglades City” kind of people, and in my mind, they were probably sick of all the tourists coming to their town. It's a conflicting standpoint they have, where they love and revere this environment, but at the same time they have such little interest in keeping it alive beyond its current utilitarian value as a great source of income. While Swamp City is scaling up and addressing multispecies entanglements or non-human agents in this world through new technologies like game engines, I think the problem that it's exploring isn’t fabricated or new, it's a conflict deeply rooted in the real landscape.
you know what the architecture of neoliberalism looks like; it's like porn, you know it when you see it. It might have a different biophilic shape it’s trying to conjure in its design, maybe the “green wall” is made out of algae instead of moss, but it's the same delusional, nonsensical escapist premise.
Are the houses on stilts that you mentioned part of the inspiration for the raised pods you use in Swamp City?
Yes, and there's a real company that makes these as well, called Ocean Builders. I’ll show you the commercial, it’s called “Butterfly Effect.”
It looks like an art project, almost like it’s just something you made. [both laugh]
That’s like what I was saying before, how your videos seem so close to the “real thing.” They share the same aesthetic conventions, 3D rendering, inoffensive commercial music. It’s not a real development proposal but you have to somehow give the idea that it could be.
It is like a work of art, it’s very funny. I was very inspired by these. I call them life pods, but they’re like luxury micro-cabins. Basically they were developed soon after the seasteading movement got the final nail in the coffin a couple of years ago. Someone decided to take all of the things people like about seasteading, like the libertarian ideals of radical self-reliance, decentralization, and immersion in a hyper-nature, and put these pods on stilts nailed into place in the ocean. The life pods in Swamp City are directly borrowing from this permanent seastead typology that emerged out of the complete failure of the movement as a nomadic thing, similar in the sense that it's supposed to be in international waters where you would avoid paying taxes, voting, and having a government.
Whenever I see a pod the alarm bells go off in my head, since we're on the precipice of manufacturing the consent for the individualist climate change strategy that convinces poorer people to move into smaller and smaller spaces, like pods, to decrease their carbon footprint while the rich just keep doing whatever they want. It’s very nefarious yet very clever how things like tiny houses have been marketed over the years, insisting that less space is actually desirable, almost in preparation of this very thing.
When the pandemic first hit I remember hearing about an ironic twist of fate where the people with the most social mobility—which often translates into literal mobility—who had responded to the lockdown by buying cruise tickets, or having their own boat and escaping onto the open seas, got stuck out there with no one willing to let them dock on their land. These luxury retreats ended up becoming a festering, hellish environment where everyone was trapped and catching Covid. So there was this moment pretty early in the pandemic where these libertarian dreams consumed themselves and got turned completely inside out by the virus. I don’t think by any means that coronavirus was a great equalizer because it's actually done the exact opposite; it's made the conditions of inequality and systemic injustices a lot more transparent, and accelerated them in many ways that I wish it hadn't.
I take that anecdote with a grain of salt, but it was a nice moment to see tax-dodging billionaires with their mega-yachts trapped in their own delusional state of exceptionalism. I like what you're saying about shuddering anytime a pod-like structure crops up. Even if the seasteading movement failed and was never able to realize the Bjarke Ingels-designed goals of a new community out at sea, I still feel like when they’ll come back with another similar design, then another; it’s amazing how cliched these “revolutionary” architectural proposals have become. . I think that you could see that as a metaphor for libertarianism, seasteading, luxury tourism, or ecotourism: they all entertain the fantasy that decentralization is inherently radical or that they're disrupting something, when actually they’re replicating fucked-up systems, just talking about them with new language.
Ultimately they replicate the exact same power structures and systems of exclusion they already benefit from, twisting the physical format, but aspiring to the same exact result. As much as they try to convince themselves otherwise, you know what the architecture of neoliberalism looks like; it's like porn, you know it when you see it. It might have a different biophilic shape it’s trying to conjure in its design, maybe the “green wall” is made out of algae instead of moss, but it's the same delusional, nonsensical escapist premise.
When you start thinking of climate change as an eschatology and you get into the isolationism of the pods and seasteading, or just the escapism of terraforming and things like that, I think of this phrase from the Heaven's Gate cult film that the leader made, which has been stuck in my head for a really long time. He says, “This is your last chance to evacuate planet Earth before it is recycled.” I don't know why I keep thinking of that, maybe there is similar imagery to terraforming and Spaceship Earth, in my mind. There’s a relationship between this capitalist individualism and the yearning for community by alienated people that somehow culminates in the death cult a lot of the time; you can add the enthusiasm for billionaire space travel in the face of climate catastrophe to that, too.
It’s as if the people with the cash reserves to ensure they will always have a Plan B are the ones that get to indulge the hardest in the apocalyptic wipe-out fantasy. I tend to discuss E-Z Kryptobuild as a response to the past five or ten years globally as a slow apocalypse, which sums up the mood of harrowing existentialism as things are getting worse every year. The planetary instability from politics to natural disasters has become a new normal, but it's playing out in a slow, ungratifying way. There’s no Hollywood-grade disaster scene of total annihilation.
Which is religious in a way… people are expecting a Revelations-style apocalypse package.
Yes, people want something sexy. To me, it feels like the last decade or so in Hollywood has seen a resurgence of interest in apocalyptic narratives. Disaster movies have become a titan of a genre [again]. To an extent it's coupled with huge evolutions in CGI and very convincing end-of-the-world visualizations, but there were movies about the world ending long before Cinema 4D was around. I think the current interest isn't so much from a new level of technological finesse in the post-production industry, but because things are getting worse in a dilated timeframe, generating its own cycles of anxiety and depression. The idea of the end of the world coming quickly and suddenly is very attractive, or at least better than the situation that we're in right now, which is an unbearably slow wind-down to human civilization.
On the other hand, you have these extreme proposals by Elon Musk and Richard Branson of terraforming other planets like Mars - suggesting we need a Plan B, or Planet B. Inherent in that is an incredible siloing of resources into this post-Earth survival plan: ways we can terraform Mars to be able to sustain human life; when Earth is charred to a crisp, we can just hop into these bespoke luxury satellite homes. It feels like the vanity project of people that have the socioeconomic wealth to fantasize about that and contort it into their reality.
That was how I felt being approached by CEOs about E-Z Kryptobuild. It's something that you or I find a horrifying, if sardonic take on accelerationism, but to them it’s an amazing investment opportunity—the solution they've been waiting for with everything handed to them on a silver platter for one gigantic fee. Terraforming and escapism for the One Percent is, to them, the immediate, obvious solution. I'm hoping to start a new project about all of this quite soon. Why is the default option to make this new planet as another version of the things we already have? We’ve let down the earth, and isn't the same thing going to happen again? There’s no other planet in the solar system that we could colonize.
It feels like Florida as well. If you took all that capital and focused on ways to curb climate change or prevent the earth from being destroyed in ways these people seem to think is unavoidable, we wouldn't even need to entertain this interstellar colonization fantasy. We could just stay here on Earth. It reminds me of the Everglades: the amount of money, time, and effort that's gone into making it a habitable place comes up against the sheer ego of destroying this ecosystem many times over. To then come back and offer it to tourists as a slice of pure nature, a place to encounter the unadulterated natural world, is an exercise in delusional, anthropocentric thinking around who the environment is really for and how it can be monetized.
That was one of the things I thought about when I watched your video High from Miami Beach—I like the description of the work as “a speculative letter to Miami and its self-assigned destiny as a tax-free haven for the international art glitterati.” As an outsider, and not being American, Florida is bandied about in the cultural imagination as some sort of glitch in the simulation where anything goes, when really it has been a site of systematic dismantling and monopolistic development, which ultimately isolates people into different bubbles within one place, like you mentioned.
There’s a part of the video where you talk about Alexander von Humboldt playing an integral role in the fetishization of the tropical landscape, how Florida plays into that, and how it is transformed into a slice of “authentic life” that makes it attractive to a festival like Art Basel. The description of “the tropics” by Humboldt as symbolizing the origins of civilization has fed the powerful aesthetic impression of tropical landscapes in cultural imagination. In your voiceover you mention how Art Basel perpetuates the perceived exoticism of Miami, keeping it afloat economically, using its “consumer kitsch” of Art deco architecture, neon, pastels, and “washed-out Americana,” which is another description I like.
I think this fetish of “true” nature is an epicenter of neoliberal thinking about the environment. Swamp City is essentially an indirect critique of this sort of environmental policy, called the Half Earth theory. It was proposed in 2012 or 2013 by an environmentalist with questionable right-wing politics, suggesting there is a way to solve the climate crisis and mass erosion of the earth's natural ecologies by cutting the Earth in half with a neat line down the middle. One half would turn into neoliberal industrial agriculture: monocrop fields as far as the eye can see, drones spraying pesticides, doing the best we can to eliminate all the natural pollinators of the world. That half becomes an uber-efficient hyper-nature where we have twelve crop cycles a year. The other half of the earth would be left wild, almost like Noah's Ark, where all animals would be moved with no regard to natural separation or how real ecosystems function. Nature will fix itself because that's what nature does, right? This was put forward as a solution to the climate crisis, but it is the death of multispecies environments. Shockingly, this idea got a lot of traction at the time.
Back to High from Miami Beach and this fetish of a pure or exotic landscape, in the case of Florida, Alexander von Humboldt understood it as this untainted slice of the natural world and all of its vibrant, heterogeneous agents. The irony is wanting to have that while also wanting to market and homogenize it, taking the very aspects that make it so dynamic and resilient and flattening them into a palatable tourist narrative, like removing all of the spikes and sawgrass in Everglades National Park to put in the asphalt strip of Alligator Alley. In Miami's case, the nasty settler colonial complexes fostered a deeply misunderstood and misappropriated idea of nature as a globalized commodity for a very bored art world in need of some winter sun and palm trees.
I was interested in developing a new kind of art writing that is a collaborative and collective offering of these practices, that acknowledges the interests, ideas, and belief systems flowing throughout the work. Ultimately every artist has a very different take on what magic, mysticism, and ritual can be.
Can we talk about your newest project, New Mystics? Over the past couple of years you've been moving along this trajectory of dealing with themes of luxury real estate development, climate change, and speculative fiction. At first glance astrology and mysticism don't seem to have any relationship to those things, but you've put those pieces together and shown how they are related under an umbrella of capital, when it comes down to business and marketing strategies, like in Align Properties. I feel like that's something I intuitively get, but not in a way that I can articulate.
New Mystics really is a pivot, I’m excited about the project. You're right, a lot of the work I've done by myself looks at this more insidious, neoliberal underpinning or hyper-capitalist commercialization of New Age virtuality, but alongside that there's an element of Swamp City that leans into slightly more magical or abstract thinking. Using the technology of game engines as a testing ground for a more imaginative and maybe less critical space, having these non-human characters and mythological extensions of real-life forms, like the bald cypress tree, brings them into this speculative environment to imagine what they would say if they could.
A lot of artists who are also interested in non-human agency or multispecies entanglements are using magic, mysticism, and ritual as something that is more generative than critical. Rather than a critique of capitalist superstructures, it's about imagining an alternative future environment. New Mystics is a collaborative project as well, between humans and AI, which is a new move for me. It involves twelve artists whose work combines magic and technology into a world-building practice in different ways.
For instance, Lawrence Lek creates these beautiful, soulful stories about aging pop stars and satellites that fall in love, transgressing or moving through a non-linear cycle of time. Zadie Xa is interested in Korean mythology, storytelling, and folklore. Her recent work uses non-human characters that lead you through new narrative takes on Korean creation myths that she's used as the skeleton and fleshed out either with personal stories or narratives surrounding climate change. Joey Holder and Zach Blas are probably the closest to my own work in terms of critical approach. Both of them also work with fake companies or characters that are based on Peter Thiel or Cambridge Analytica, for example.
What was your main premise for the concept and choosing these artists? How is it going to look?
I was looking at how these artists use game environments, simulated worlds, artificial intelligence, neural nets, and allowing the machines to make mistakes. For instance, training a neural net but not completing the training cycle or not feeding it all of the information, which forces it to generate its own images or jump to conclusions that are not as prescriptive or anthropocentric as we would expect. Jenna Sutela uses game engines and historical artifacts to imagine Martian bacteria and how it would sound. She uses a 19th century recording of a French mystic who believed she could speak Martian and trains a neural net on it, and the neural net learns the language. All the interdisciplinarity that so many artists are trying so hard to develop or use as a strategy, AI can just do it on its own. But I think the interesting thing that happens, which is referred to in machine learning as the “black box effect,” is that we ultimately don’t fully know how the AI is making those decisions. Taking data and translating it across multiple mediums produces a degree of abstraction that becomes poetic and kind of apart from the human-made nature of neural nets.
The project is a website based around a series of texts that I wrote in collaboration with the neural net called GPT-3. Like its predecessor, GPT-2, it's trained on everything that was ever published on the Internet, but it has more creative free will. I have a conversation with each artist and feed the transcript to GPT-3, then I start asking it questions, like, if music was a form of consciousness, what would it sound like? If you set the “creativity index” to the full amount, which is one point, it responds with much shorter answers, but at point nine, which is 90 percent freedom, it comes back with pages and pages of responses. The texts are really a three-way collaboration between the artist, myself, and GPT-3.
The whole project is timed around solar celestial happenings and the lunar cycle, it was launched on the summer solstice and three new artist texts are released every full moon, so it'll technically be over by the autumn equinox. But it will stay online forever. I was interested in developing a new kind of art writing that is a collaborative and collective offering of these practices, that acknowledges the interests, ideas, and belief systems flowing throughout the work. Ultimately every artist has a very different take on what magic, mysticism, and ritual can be. Bringing together all these different perspectives in a way that's not prescriptive is supposed to be open-ended and have a weird energy to it, where it’s hard to tell which parts were written by whom and what is true or what is made up by the neural net.
It sounds fantastic, I look forward to seeing how it evolves.