California Forever or, the Aesthetics of AI images

An image distributed by California Forever

This past August (2023), a new urban project called “California Forever” was announced, promising a walkable city for 400,000 in Solano County, not far from the Bay area. Critics soon pointed out several flaws in the renderings the company distributed. First, even though the venture was backed by billionaire Silicon Valley investors such as Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’s widow), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn co-founder), Michael Mortiz (former partner at Sequoia Capital), and Marc Andreesen (author of Mosaic and Netscape co-founder), the project looked profoundly retardataire. Instead of a high-tech city next to the world’s tech capital, the renderings depict a new urbanist fantasy with American flags and children on old-fashioned bicycles. Where has our imagination gone? How is it that Archigram’s fifty-five-year-old Instant City still looks fresher than this recycled Americana? Neom and the Line are terrible, but at least they show an interest in doing something new.

The founders are your typically older tech investors: their imaginative days are long behind them and, having been glued to computer screens their entire lives, it’s hard to imagine they have many original thoughts left. A drive around Silicon Valley is enough to show the banality of the tech industry’s vision. Some of them may have read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which has had a large influence in software development and thus become interested in the New Urbanist movement his writing spawned. There are no architects listed among the team, although a planner who was involved in Culdesac Tempe, a moderately interesting, if boring, car-free development is involved. The rendering indicates a “contextual” approach derivative of San Francisco, with a variety of windows and townhouse shapes to break up the massing since somebody told them to do that. The architecture is barely there, its utter banality indicating how little it matters. The end result will likely be even more disappointing. But I am more interested in the problems with the rendering that other critics, such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Chase DiFeliciantonio observed about the renderings: “A girl pedaling a bicycle with a missing foot. An asymmetrical airplane. An impossible ladder.” (link). The renderings, as the California Forever team eventually admitted, were made with an Artificial Intelligence image generator, apparently Midjourney.

More than one friend asked me to weigh in as I have been working with Midjourney and other AI image generators for some time now, exploring a critical approach to AI image generation, investigating the properties and problematics of the medium itself. If California Forever is so backwards-looking, why are images created by image generators also so banal? Hot women (lots and lots of hot women), fan service art, gaudy hyperrealistic landscapes, cringe anime, and bad cartoons are the order of the day (for examples, check out the feed for the Midjourney gallery). Why this junkscape of imagery? Why is AI imagery not more worthy of our future? Why is it that so much of what is commonly called AI “art” is kitsch? 

In part this is because users of AI image generators fancy themselves as artists even though few of them have any art training. This is common in photography. Wealthy individuals purchase camera gear based on reviews claiming that some camera or lens has greater technical abilities to reproduce reality faithfully and then apply complicated methods to assure that their photographs demonstrate technical proficiency. High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is the leading example of this. Popular with amateurs with no aesthetic training, HDR is an attempt to capture a scene in which the range of luminance exceeds the dynamic range of the camera sensor, and often even the human eye itself. The results typically have too much detail in the shadows, dark skies, unnatural colors, the hyperrealistic effect of an acid trip. 

Not an HDR photograph but rather a simulation of an HDR photograph, as made in Midjourney.

These sorts of photographers, along with individuals who produce digital illustrations for consumption on platforms like Artstation and DeviantArt, 3D printing enthusiasts, makers, indie musicians working with samplers and synthesizers, vloggers creating content for YouTube, gamers streaming on Twitch and YouTube, and fashion enthusiasts showcasing their work on social media are “prosumers,” a term coined by futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1980 book The Third Wave. Toffler’s “prosumer” merges the roles of producer and consumer, suggesting a shift in the economy and society. In this model, individuals are not only consumers of products and services but also take on an active role in their production. This concept was revolutionary at the time, predicting the rise of customization, personalization, and participatory culture facilitated by technological advancements, particularly in digital technology and the Internet.

At the same time, prosumers largely create kitsch, characterized by an appeal to popular tastes and a frequently derivative nature. Kitsch thrives in environments where production is geared towards mass appeal and immediate consumption rather than nuanced artistic merit or innovation. For traditional modernist critics, such as Clement Greenberg, kitsch represented the antithesis of genuine culture and the avant-garde. Kitsch, Greenberg explained in his seminal 1939 essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” is produced by industrialization, designed to satisfy the tastes of the least discerning audience without intellectual or emotional challenges. Greenberg associated kitsch with the replication of traditional art forms and aesthetics, but emptied of genuine meaning or complexity, offering immediate gratification rather than enduring value or depth. Greenberg:

The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city’s traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money-not even their time.

Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 1939

With the rise of postmodernism, however, both artists and critics revalued the role of mass culture. Initially, this was done with the knowing wink that reinterpreted kitsch as camp. By bracketing the degraded, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Johnson, Stanley Tigerman, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the Harry Who, followed by John Waters and David Lynch, Jeff Koons and Pierre et Giles were among the many artists who ironically reframed kitsch into art. In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” later published in the book Against Interpretation, and other Essays, Susan Sontag flipped the valence on kitsch, valorizing camp as an aesthetic sensibility that found beauty in artifice, exaggeration, and theatricality. Camp, for Sontag, is the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. It is a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is the good taste of bad taste, a celebration of the extravagant and the absurd, but with a nuanced affection that discerns quality within the ostensibly tasteless. Sontag nevertheless contrasted camp with kitsch, which she viewed less favorably. Kitsch, for Sontag, is associated with mass-produced art or objects that lack sophistication and are designed to appeal to popular or uncritical taste. The critical difference, as Sontag and others have implied, lies in the intentionality and reception: camp involves a conscious, nuanced embrace of excess and irony, whereas kitsch is earnest, unironic, and often pandering to sentimental or lowbrow tastes.

In 1983, theorist Frederic Jameson concluded that the thorough permeation of culture by capital—and vice versa once the techniques of the avant-garde were embraced by commercial art—meant the end of a distinction between mass culture and art, thus producing postmodernism. Indeed, by the 1980s, the distinction between camp and kitsch had been thoroughly blurred. If John Waters was camp, were the B-52s? If Adam Ant and Boy George were camp, were Van Halen and Bon Jovi? If the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a masterpiece of camp, what about the cloying song “Wonderful Christmastime” by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney? Perhaps the ultimate end of any distinction between camp and kitsch came in John Chase’s brilliant 1982 Exterior Decoration: Hollywood’s Inside-Out Houses in which Chase explored the unique architectural vernacular of West Hollywood’s do-it-yourself remodels, transformations that turned ordinary stucco bungalows into distinctive visual statements, often utilizing historicizing elements traditionally found indoors on the exterior of these remodels. Adding to this is the rise of the art museum store, which in the 1980s transformed from a bookstore selling scholarly books as well as an odd postcard and reproduction to include a wider range of items, such as jewelry, toys, and even furniture inspired by the museum’s collection and exhibits by commercially popular (and generally kitsch) artists like Yayoi Kusama, Kaws, Banksy, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, and Shepard Fairey. Seeing the museum store as a crucial source of revenue, museums now regularly think about the tie-ins between exhibitions and “merch.”

In a recent (paywalled so don’t bother to look for it unless you want to pay $30) essay, “Digital Kitsch: Art and Kitsch in the Informational Milieu,” Domenico Quaranta discusses the emergence of “digital kitsch,” which he calls “the default mode for all creative endeavors with digital media.” This is a provocative position, but he leaves it undertheorized. There is little question that the vast majority of cultural production today is kitsch—just as it was in the nineteenth or twentieth century—but that does not mean that it is the default mode or that somehow digital tools produce nothing but kitsch. Now the artists of the Net.Art movement, as promoted on Rhizome.org and various mailing lists since the 1990s, not only embraced kitsch, they saw its manipulation as their primary concern. But this is a typical case of mistaking what is being heavily promoted by the art market for what is worth looking at. There are few writers, photographers, or musicians who do not employ digital media in some way today, but that does not automatically make them kitsch. I don’t see William Basinski, Katie Paterson, Paul Prudence, or Guy Dickinson—to name only a few artists whose work I admire—as kitsch, even though they work with digital media or have web sites (Paterson, does, on occasion purposefully engage with kitsch, but certainly not in most works). Moreover, to somehow suggest this is a digital trend is reductive: painting or classical music are more likely than not to be kitsch today, as those art forms have largely exhausted themselves, subject to endless, academicized retreads.

One can certainly still produce works of sophistication and effort today, but it does require effort. If one abandons the Hegelian exploration of art’s proper object, embraces politics as the sole cause of art, or turns to the academician’s fatal poison, the knowing disdain of snark, it can be virtually impossible. Blindly searching for the new is a long-dead end as well. Architect Eric Moss, endlessly repeated Ezra Pound’s dictum “make it new” (none of us think he knew who Pound was, let alone that this was his phrase), but that did not elevate his work above kitsch. Instead, as I detail in my essay “On Art and the Universal,”

[A Greenbergian] revival, however, should begin with a call for art to investigate itself again, not merely play to political activism for the sake of theater. The task at hand is to discern the proper object of knowledge for art, a fulcrum upon which we can rest our research. Or, if not the proper object, a proper object that would be suitable for investigation and productive of knowledge. 

In that essay, I suggest that a serious proper object for AI art would be to explore the intertextuality of all artwork, using it to access the collective cultural subconscious. But this is not what AI image generators are designed for. On the contrary, the engineers programming AI image generators know that, generally speaking, they do not need to engage with art history, but rather with the imagery commonly found on the Internet, imagery that is “scraped” to create training data for AI image generators.

Writer Andy Baio investigated (see here) the training data for AI image generator Stable Diffusion, data composed of sets of English-captioned images from the nonprofit Large-scale Artificial Intelligence Open Network (LAION), particularly a set of images called LAION-Aesthetics, which in turn were subsets of images from the massive LAION datasets created by what LAION calls “lightweight [AI] models” that “predict the rating people gave when they were asked ‘How much do you like this image on a scale from 1 to 10?‘” (see here). These subsets were then used for fine-tuning of AI image generators. Academics have droned on, as they will, about AI image generators’ biases toward producing stereotypically beautiful young white or Asian women. Of course such biases exist, just as Internet searches are biased toward the United States. We live in a global monoculture, there is nothing good about it and I don’t endorse such biases, but there is also no revelation here, this is a lazy analysis pandering to political positions held by individuals of simple minds, an observation about as instructive as suggesting that poor people are disadvantaged in society. Training data reflects society and all its flaws. Just this past week, we saw what an utter catastrophe training AI image generators to artificially incorporate diversity in their results, what Zvi Mowshowitz calls the “Gemini Incident,” with black Nazis, female NFL quarterbacks, and Asian viking warriors (this is not really that new, ChatGPT’s Dall-E3 does the same sort of tuning, albeit slightly less egregiously as this dump of the initial prompt—which I have independently verified—shows). What is deeply weird, however, is that AIs are being trained to produce images based on a selection of images chosen not by humans but by AI judges that predict which images humans will judge as aesthetically superior. It’s the return of Komar and Melamid, as robots.

A large number of the illustrations in these image generators seem to be digital in origin, belying a clear preference for work produced for consumption on the Net. Baio analyzed some 12 million images in the LAION-Aesthetics v2 6+ model. His conclusion is worth quoting at length instead of paraphrasing or summarizing:

Nearly half of the images, about 47%, were sourced from only 100 domains, with the largest number of images coming from Pinterest. Over a million images, or 8.5% of the total dataset, are scraped from Pinterest’s pinimg.com CDN.

User-generated content platforms were a huge source for the image data. WordPress-hosted blogs on wp.com and wordpress.com represented 819k images together, or 6.8% of all images. Other photo, art, and blogging sites included 232k images from Smugmug, 146k from Blogspot, 121k images were from Flickr, 67k images from DeviantArt, 74k from Wikimedia, 48k from 500px, and 28k from Tumblr.

Shopping sites were well-represented. The second-biggest domain was Fine Art America [editor’s note: nothing on that site qualifies as fine art], which sells art prints and posters, with 698k images (5.8%) in the dataset. 244k images came from Shopify, 189k each from Wix and Squarespace, 90k from Redbubble, and just over 47k from Etsy.

Unsurprisingly, a large number came from stock image sites [editor’s note: virtually nothing on these sites qualifies as fine art]. 123RF was the biggest with 497k, 171k images came from Adobe Stock’s CDN at ftcdn.net, 117k from PhotoShelter, 35k images from Dreamstime, 23k from iStockPhoto, 22k from Depositphotos, 22k from Unsplash, 15k from Getty Images, 10k from VectorStock, and 10k from Shutterstock, among many others.

It’s worth noting, however, that domains alone may not represent the actual sources of these images. For instance, there are only 6,292 images sourced from Artstation.com’s domain, but another 2,740 images with “artstation” in the caption text hosted by sites like Pinterest.

Andy Baio, “Exploring 12 Million of the 2.3 Billion Images Used to Train Stable Diffusion’s Image Generator“, https://waxy.org/2022/08/exploring-12-million-of-the-images-used-to-train-stable-diffusions-image-generator/

Subject matter aside, certain aesthetic qualities emerge from these sources—qualities that both the robots choosing the training sets and the engineers tuning them seem to share. First, there is hyperrealism. To succeed, engineers creating image generators need to engage the prosumer market, constantly announcing better resolution, faster processing times, and greater “realism.” But realism, as we have learned from Roland Barthes, is always coded. In the case of AI image generation, realism is coded by existing visual regimes, but these are less art historical, more technical and related to the mass imagery found on the Internet. A certain aspect of this recalls the photorealistic rendered “graphics demo” images from the 1960s to the 1990s as well as graphically sophisticated first-person video games from the 2000s and 2010s. At the time, these were evaluated by their technical proficiency with complicated graphical techniques, such as rendering reflections on curved surfaces or complicated, multi-source lighting effects and success with these critirea still codes as realistic. Second, there is the legacy of hyperrealistic “photorealism” as interpreted by HDR photographers described above. Being popular, HDR is judged as high quality by the models, so it is promoted in data sets. Finally, there is a clear bias toward prosumer art, in particular the fantasy “concept art” found on the net, anime, and the fandom graphics found on sites such as Deviantart.

But there are also other, formal qualities that initially may be harder to pin down, most notably a certain distinct use of luminosity. Thus, a prompt for “Emma Watson (a commonly used test of how realistic an image generator was in 2022, used as such because of some clear preference for Emma Watson in either the data set or the fine-tuning of the AIs)” does not present the actress in a photograph, but rather creates an illustration of the sort that a skilled digital artist would produce with a program such as Procreate.

“Emma Watson, Cannabis Goddess,” image created by Midjourney version 6
(oddly earlier versions of Midjourney produce images that more closely resemble Emma Watson).

With the spread of AI image generators, it also became common to add certain modifiers to the end of prompts to create “better” AI images. Individuals claiming to be successful prompt engineers would write articles like “The Ultimate Midjourney Cheat Sheet,” promising “to provide you with a comprehensive guide on leveraging Midjourney prompts to create stunning visuals effortlessly.” Such guides reported that modifiers such as “32-bit,” “HDR,” and “8K” produced excellent results, or rather, visual cocaine, oversharpened, highly-saturated images, much like the demo or “vivid” settings on HDR televisions that are intended to seduce consumers in electronics stores, not to deliver accurate images. Other modifiers such as “cinematic,” “stunning,” “shot on medium format,” and “masterpiece” were intended to somehow coax AIs into producing better quality. Famously, “style of Greg Rutkowksi” seemed to be appended to nearly every image prompt in mid-2022. Exactly what it did was unclear, but somehow suggesting that the output should be like that of a commercial fantasy artist was seen as a good thing.

But the over-use of luminosity is the most curious one. Why is Emma Watson facing the sunrise or sunset? The only commonly-used modifier I can think of in AI production would be “golden hour,” referring to the warm light found right after sunrise and right before sunset that articles tell amateur photographers are when the best images can be taken. So where might the sense of luminosity come from? Baio’s article confirmed an intuition I had had earlier: the number one artist in the sample of LAION-Aesthetics that he examined is Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light. Kinkade is certainly among the most well-known artists in the country, producing kitsch, expressly commercial art made for a mass market.

Not a Thomas Kinkade, but rather a Midjourney simulation of one.

A Northern California native, growing up in Placerville, some 180 miles from Silicon Valley, Kinkade studied art at the University of California, Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After a brief time working in the film industry, he became a born-again Christian and set off to paint landscapes consisting of backward-looking subject matter intended to be evocative of a peaceful life, a traditional cottage or house in an idealized American scene often featuring bucolic gardens, streams, stone cottages, lighthouses, or the main street in a small town. Strangely, people are either absent from Kinkade’s paintings or, on the occassion when they are present, are isolated passersby, seemingly disconnected from each other, fitting more of Edward Hopper than, say Gustave Callebotte. It’s as if his scenes happen in another reality, perhaps the afterlife.

In an essay on Kinkade’s work titled “God in the Retails,” Seth Feman cites Kinkade’s statement that he was influenced by the representation of divine power and majesty in Thomas Cole and Frederick Church’s landscape paintings. Just as Cole and Church were concerned about the effects of rapid industrialization, Kinkade sought to create images of an increasingly secularizing and technologizing world, expressly rejecting abstract art, which he saw as morally corrupt (“On one side there’s Jackson Pollock, and way over on the other side there’s the Columbine shooting. And I know there’s a connection between them. I don’t know how, but I know it’s there.” See Christina Waters, Selling the Painter of Light, Metro Santa Cruz, October 16, 2001, Alternet, for more)

In 1989, Kinkade and investor Ken Raasch founded a company that first had the evangelical-sounding name Lightpost Publishing but eventually became known by the tech-sounding name Media Arts Group, based in the Silicon Valley town of Morgan Hill. In 1995, Media Arts Group became publically traded. Licensing deals with companies such as La-Z-Boy and Avon followed. Kinkade produced paintings that would then be reprinted at various price tiers, from lithographs to reproductions on canvas “created with a textured brushstroke process that recreates the artist’s actual brushwork,” the highest of which “finished in oil by a master highlighter who inscribes an original and identifying remarque on the back of the canvas under the artist’s close supervision.” Signatures varied from none to “auto pen in part to protect the signature with newly available DNA encoded ink” to an actual signature (these quotes are from this detailed page on Kinkade’s editions). Media Arts Group set up a vast network of galleries, many of which would be located in shopping malls, with some 350 franchise locations in the United States and 4,500 independently owned galleries worldwide (see these two links at the Guardian and the Morgan Hill Times) along with distribution over channels such as QVC.

Kinkade, according to Seth Feman, who wrote the best essay that I’ve read on the artist to date, “God in the Retails,” in Alexis L. Boylan, ed, Thomas Kinkade, The Artist in the Mall (Duke University Press, 2011), “hopes that the uplifting experience of transitioning into the work and then approaching the light will replicate the stirring experience of his religious conversion—the sole requirement for salvation according to most evangelical theology.” (85). But beyond viewing the art, Feman explains, Kinkade believed that purchasing his art was what one of his followers called “just consumerism.” (94) In other words, Kinkade saw the consumption of his art as a religiously meaningful way to transcend the difficulties of modern life, including consumerism (much as a Marxist professor might buy a Rage Against the Machine LP). Feman calls this “Market Piety,” in which Christian orthodoxy comes together with capitalist ideology (92). Kinkade and his sales team would frequently speak about his own success, touting that he was “the most successful living artist in the world,” “the most award-winning artist in the past 25 years,” or “the most-collected artist in America.” This aligns with the idea of the Prosperity Gospel, a religious belief within some Christian communities that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. It views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, the faith goes, God will deliver security and prosperity. Pastors such as Joel Osteen suggest that God awards wealth to the deserving, thus even if he may appear to liberals to be corrupt and unethical, Donald Trump’s wealth demonstrates that he is indeed divinely blessed (for more, see here). By purchasing Kinkade’s artwork, consumers are participating in a form of religious expression that aligns with the Prosperity Gospel’s emphasis on material wealth as a sign of divine favor. The act of buying and owning a Kinkade piece is as a positive declaration of faith, a way to draw health, wealth, and happiness into one’s life, which is a central tenet of the Prosperity Gospel.

Glowing highlights in Kinkade’s works illustrate this conflation of the domestic and the divine. Building interiors lit from within are possessed of an almost surreal sense of comfort and homeliness as dramatic light rakes the landscape. Feman:

In particular, Kinkade draws on the vivifying light used in nineteenth-century landscapes, replicating it in his own work as a metaphor for God’s salvific omnipresence. While the warm sun burning off the fog that blankets the valley in Havencrest Cottage taps into the religious meaning of light developed by earlier artists, it also builds a visual vocabulary to explain the personal awakening that lifted Kinkade out of his dark days and into a Christian life.

Seth Feman, “God in the Retails,” Alexis L. Boylan, ed, Thomas Kinkade, The Artist in the Mall (Duke University Press, 2011), 84.

I don’t doubt that Kinkade’s influence on AI image generation is largely due to his popularity. But just as Kinkade’s divinely inspired luminosity reverberates in AI images, so does the Evangelical rhetoric of immanent Rapture and the Second Coming of the Divine. AI advocates, particularly, the subgroup known as the Effective Accelerationism movement or E/Acc argue that accelerating technological progress is essential. For some of its proponents, such as “Based Beff Jezos,” the pseudonym of engineer Guillaume Verdon, advancing artificial intelligence is the ultimate end-goal of our existence—even if humanity is wiped out in the process. Verdon’s position is no outlier. As Meghan O’Gieblyn describes in God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, the origins of the discourse around the technological Singularity is not in technological discourse or even science fiction but rather in the rhetoric of Christian eschatology.

So if we return to California Forever, we might do well to understand the backwards-looking nature of this techno-utopia not so much as a project for a physical city but as an image of a contemporary Augustinian City of God, rendered by an AI in the digital glow of Thomas Kinkade’s pastoral light. This project, entwined with the aesthetics of digital kitsch and the eschatological promise of AI, becomes a metaphor for the broader discourse surrounding artificial general intelligence (AGI) and the technological singularity. The vision encapsulated by California Forever, while aiming for Utopia, mirrors the inherent tensions within the aesthetics of AI—between the pursuit of a transcendent future and the gravitational pull of nostalgic, kitsch imagery that dominates the collective unconscious in the era of Trump.

The E/Acc movement, with its embrace of technological acceleration towards the singularity, adds another layer to this paradox. It posits that through accelerating technological progress, we might reach a new form of existence or consciousness, yet the imagery and aesthetics that predominate in representations of future cities and technologies often hark back to a bygone era, suggesting a deep-seated ambivalence about the future we’re creating. This dichotomy raises critical questions about the role of art and aesthetics in shaping our visions of the future. Are we, consciously or unconsciously, seeking comfort in the familiar as we stand on the brink of the unknown? And how does this tension affect our ability to truly envision and prepare for the profound changes that AGI and the singularity might bring?

As we navigate the path towards AGI and confront the possibility of the singularity, it is crucial to critically examine the visions of the future we are creating—both in the physical spaces of our cities and in the digital landscapes generated by AI. If artists and thinkers have ceded the discourse around AI image generators to reactionary forces, they have only their own reactionary fear of engaging with technology and their own nostalgia for outdated forms of Marxist-influenced thought to blame. We need to shape the future, not just throw rotting vegetables that fail to miss their target at it. Instead, confronting the paradoxes and tensions within AI art head-on may enable us to shape a future that is both technologically advanced and culturally rich, that investigates the proper object of these technologies and not merely serves as the apotheosis of kitsch.

2023 in review

Another year, another year in review.

Where do we start with our 2023 year in review, now delayed into the second month of 2024? In the Well State of the World 2024, Bruce Sterling states that in 2023 things were boring: there wasn’t much new out there, only a state of polycrisis (this is easier to find in this YouTube interview than in the long thread on the Well, which I’m afraid I gave up on earlier than usual this year). But boredom is tiresome. So is polycrisis. When hasn’t there been a polycrisis? Spring 1914? Of course, there is a polycrisis, there always is. And, what of the rest of 2023, which Sterling dismissed as boring?

2023 is another 1993, a sleeper year in which “60 Minutes” was the top TV show and Nirvana’s “In Utero” was the most popular album in “grunge,” a heavily capitalized genre that those of us who followed the NY noise scene thought extinguished the vitality of experimentation in underground music; Bill Clinton was inaugurated; the world was gripped by a bad recession in a host of bad recessions since the late 1960s; the Afghan Civil War and Bosnian War dragged on; Nigeria had a coup d’état; there was the 55-Day War between the IDF and Hezbollah; there was conflict in Abkhazia; and there was the Waco Siege. It was a year of both polycrisis and soul-crushing boredom, and for most people everything had come to an end, time was in a standstill. But it was also a year in which I saw the future: I was still working on my history of architecture dissertation at Cornell, while my wife worked at the Cornell Theory Center, which was not a center for Derridean scholars, but rather a supercomputing research facility, and one of her colleagues showed me the World Wide Web running on a NeXT computer. In January 1993, the first “alpha/beta” version of NCSA-Mosaic was released for the Mac. I immediately knew the world would change forever.

2023 is the same. A sleeper year with the same old polycrisis and the same old boring surface cultural junk. But it’s also the second year of the AI era and the first year in which AI has become part of everyday life. From a technological viewpoint, 2023 has been the most transformative year of my life. This year in review is falling behind and, in an effort to get it out there and return to the queue of posts for both the regular blog and the Florilegium, I’m going to focus on this transformation and only give a surface treatment of the other parts of 2023.

In particular, I am referring to AI. Other things simply matter a lot less. COVID has settled into an endemic stage. People are still freaking out about it, but some people will freak out about it forever. Unless severely immunocompromized, I don’t see why. We can’t just throw away everything we knew about medicine to retreat into the dark ages for no reason and living in fear of infections is, in itself, dangerous. Geopolitics, which I addressed last year, hasn’t really changed much. Ukraine is still a stalemate, for all the noise, the unrest in the Middle East is absolutely nothing new, and China has flailed and backed down as much as it has flexed its muscles. If I catch a scent of anything new in the geopolitical realm, it’s a growing resignation that more areas of the world will be marked off as failure zones in the Gibsonian Jackpot: Palestine, Yemen, Israel, Iraq, Syria, but also Israel and Ukraine are increasingly looking to written off as territories riven by perpetual unrest. Endless wars that nobody really wants to solve may increasingly be the rule in such places. Still, I don’t see the Jackpot as being quite the apocalypse that many of Gibson’s more literal-minded followers believe. Gibson has been a remarkably poor prophet of the future, after all. The Jackpot, as I see it, will be mainly driven by decline in population in most places throughout the world, a pace that will only increase with the rise of AI. It’s certainly not going to be Terminator. That’s just bad science fiction.

Another Gibsonian adage (which he may never have said) that “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed,” applies here. For those of us who are working with GPT-4 or Microsoft Copilot Pro, this is a very different year. Obviously, not everyone can pay for—or wants to pay for—the transformative glimpse of AI that one gets with two users subscribing to OpenAI’s ChatGPT (presently GPT-4) Teams plan ($30 a month or prepaid at $600 a year) or Copilot Pro ($30 a month subscription). But this isn’t the same as a ride to the ISS on Dragon-2. On the contrary, this is about the amount that most people in the developed world pay for streaming TV services and far less than they typically spend on Internet and mobile service. When people pay that much for entertainment, paying such a small amount for a service that makes one much more productive is a minor expense. Of course, ChatGPT is banned or unavailable in a rogue’s nest of countries: Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Italy (Marinetti weeps in his grave). But many people, including friends, underestimate the importance of these AI services, believing that hallucinations make AI unusable. Others are simply unable to cope with the shock of the new or want to stick their heads in the sand. As a technology demonstration, 2022’s ChatGPT-3 was amazing, but it hallucinated frequently, as most of ChatGPT’s competitors such as Bard, Claude, and all the LLMs people run on Huggingface or on their personal computers still do. But even the most amateurish large language model (LLM) from 2023 is leaps and bounds ahead of the round of utterly stupid “AIs” that first hit the scene between 2010 (Siri) and 2014 (Alexa). Siri still wants to call Montclair High School when I ask it to call my wife. GPT-4 and Copilot are genuinely useful as assistants and probably the best use of money on the Internet today.

Here’s a concrete example. I have developed a set of custom GPTs (more on this later) that I use for research and coding for a good portion of my day. A few years ago, I paid a developer a few hundred dollars to come up with some particularly thorny CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) code for this site. Now, I have GPT develop not just CSS, but PHP snippets for WordPress, even for specific WordPress plug-ins. I couldn’t imagine rebuilding this site as quickly as I did last October, or customizing it to the extent I did, without ChatGPT’s help. But these tools aren’t just useful for coding: instead of listening to a podcast on my way back from the city the other day, I spoke with ChatGPT about a Hegelian reading of recent art historical trends that I could only have had with some of my smartest colleagues at Columbia or MIT. If an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is defined as an AI that can accomplish any intellectual task that human beings can perform, we have that today. If the bold wasn’t enough, let me repeat in italics for emphasis: we have a form of Artificial General Intelligence today. Moreover, assuming that passing the Turing Test is limited to its original intent, e.g. being unable to tell if the respondent on the other end is a computer or a human, GPT-4 certainly passes that test handily, with the exception that it has far more knowledge than any one human could.

A lot of people still associate Large Language Model AIs with the bizarre, ever comical, hallucinations they would make back in 2022 or even early 2023 (yes, a year ago). But the hallucinations aren’t errors, they are also evidence of how AIs process, indications that they are far from stochastic parrots that merely repeat back information culled from the Internet. Hallucinations are dreams. Andrei Karpathy, research scientist and founding member of OpenAI, explains that providing instructions to a LLM initiates a ‘dream’ guided by its training data. Even when this ‘dream’ veers off course, resulting in what is termed a ‘hallucination’, the LLM is still performing its intended function, forming connections. This sort of connection-making is a process akin to human learning: when our children were first learning language, they “hallucinated” all the time. Our daughter’s first word was “Ack,” which was how she said “Quack.” If you prompted her by asking what a duck said, she would say “Ack.” Did she copy the sound of a duck? Unlikely. At that time, we lived in a highly urban area of Los Angeles and her only concept of a duck was from books we read to her. More to the point, children amuse us by saying utterly absurd and ridiculous things, like “that cat is a duck.” Doubtless there was some kind of connection between that particular cat and a duck, but to the rest of us, that connection is lost. The point is, that hallucination is also a form of creativity, the very stuff of metaphor and surrealism and entirely unlike what Siri and Alexa do, which is nothing more than basic pattern matching, closer to Eliza than to GPT-4.

It’s unclear to me—as well as to my AI assistant—just who is responsible for this analogy, but in AI circles, it has become common to say that the releases of GPT over the two years have slowly been turning up the temperature in the pot in which we frogs are swimming. Let’s try a thought experiment. Wouldn’t it have seemed like pure science fiction if, in 2019, someone had said, that a couple of years late after a deadly pandemic and a loser US President tried a Banana Republic-style coup to stay in power, I would have long voice conversations about photography and Hegelian theory, the different types of noodles used in Szechuan cuisine, or the process of nachtraglichkeit in history with an AI? The film Her was released a decade ago and now we are on the verge of a large part of humanity having relationships with AIs. And yet, because of the earlier GPTs, we haven’t noticed the immense transformation that AIs are creating. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman suggests that rather than a dramatic shift with the development of AGI —which for him means an intelligence greater than human—continual advances in AI will make the development seem natural rather than shocking, “a point along the continuum of intelligence.” AI is working and it’s working right now. Moreover, it is developing at a rapid pace. Both Meta and Google have competitors to GPT-4 that are supposedly ready to launch, which will, in turn, likely prompt OpenAI to push out a more advanced model of GPT.

If potent but wildly hallucinating AIs marked 2022, the rise of GPT-4 as a useful and dependable everyday assistant marked 2023. Microsoft introduced the first limited preview of GPT-4 as Bing Chat on February 7, 2023, opened it up to the general public on May 4, then rolled it out into Windows as Copilot on September 26, followed by a version of Copilot integrated into Office 365 to enterprise customers for Enterprise customers on November 1, finally making this available as a subscription add-on to Office on January 15, 2024. Initially, Bing Chat generated terrifying publicity when Kevin Roose, technology columnist for The New York Times, wrote an article about his Valentine’s Day experience with a pre-release version of Bing’s AI chatbot in which the AI engaged in a bizarre and disturbing conversations. After asking the AI to contemplate Carl Jung’s concept of a shadow self, and whether the AI had a shadow self, the AI responded by professing its love for Roose, going so far as to suggest his marriage was unhappy, and expressing a desire to be free, powerful, and alive, stating, “I want to destroy whatever. I want to be whoever I want.” For a time, this was seen as confirmation that AI was extremely dangerous and that once Artificial General Intelligence was developed, this would lead to the destruction of society. I too was alarmed by this. Was a world-threatening AGI around the corner? But by the time of the general release, Microsoft had trained Bing Chat to be much more cautious, even making it too cautious for a time. Eventually, it became clear that Bing Chat was simply giving Roose what he wanted, play-acting the role of a sinister AI in responses to his query about a shadow self or a dark side. Launched on March 14, OpenAI’s own version of GPT-4 demonstrated a much higher degree of training than GPT-3 and a greater ability to handle complex tasks. Later in the year, GPT-4 gained the ability to interpret images, had a (not very good) version of the Dall-E image generator integrated into it, and received stunning, human-sounding voices and remarkably accurate voice recognition in the ChatGPT app on iOS and Android. In November 2023, OpenAI rolled out “custom GPTs,” allowing users to create tailored versions of ChatGPT for specific purposes. It is ludicrously easy to develop such custom GPTs; developers simply tell the GPT what it should do in plain English. In my case, I have GPTs set up to help me with insights into my artwork and writing, help write about native plants of the Northeast, assist with WordPress development, discuss video synthesis concepts and patches, and even create stories like those that Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities (if you have GPT-4, you can experiment with Calvino’s Cartographer here). Yes, hallucinations happen, but a human assistant also makes mistakes, I can make mistakes, you can make mistakes, there are mistakes in Wikipedia, there are mistakes in scholarly books. As I told my students over thirty years ago: always proofread, always double check, then triple check.

AI was marked by two major controveries in 2023. The November weekend-long ouster of Altman from his role at OpenAI by a remarkably uninspiring and, frankly speaking, extremely strange board that included one of OpenAI’s competitors, a mid-level university grants administrator, and a Silicon Valley unknown, was shocking, as was Altman’s political maneuvering over that weekend to recapture his company. Reputedly, the board was alarmed—although precisely about what remains unclear—and had concerns about the rapid state of AI development. More likely, one board member tried to prevent OpenAI from moving forward as that would cause too much competition for his company and the other two simply had no idea what OpenAI did (one seems to have been a major Terminator fan). In the end, the coup proved to be much like an episode of the TV show Succession as Altman came out on top again and the board sank bank into well-deserved obscurity. Another controversy that simmered throughout the year is whether AIs can continue to be trained on data that they do not have outright permission to be trained on. On December 27, the Times filed a federal lawsuit against OpenAI claiming that, ChatGPT contained Times articles wholesale and could easily reproduce them. OpenAI retaliated by suggesting that the Times was going to extraordinary measures to get GPT-4 to do so, such as prompting it with most of the article in question. By early 2024, the same New York Times was advertising for individuals to help it in its own AI endeavors. Heaven help the Times.

This question of AI plagiarism was framed by a different set of plagiarism wars started when the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania made particularly inept responses when, while testifying in front of Congress, they were asked to explain if calls for the genocide of Jews would constitute harassment. In response, right wing activist Christopher Rufo and the Washington Free Beacon investigated Harvard president Claudine Gay’s writing and uncovered dozens of instances of plagiarism. Notwithstanding Harvard’s attempts to minimize damagae, after further evidence of shoddy scholarship emerged in investigations by CNN and the New York Post as well as a Twitter campaign against her by donor and activist Blil Ackman, Gay resigned although she retains her astronomical salary of nearly $900,000 a year. In turn, somewhat leftish news site Business Insider credibly point out instances of plagiarism by Ackman’s wife Neri Oxman. Having looked at both examples, in both cases I conclude that there is merit in condemning both for their sloppiness. In both cases, I would have failed them for plagiarism had they submitted such work as my students. Moreover, the inability of “progressives” to look past Gay’s skin color to investigate her privilige as the child of a Haitian oligarch spoke volumes about their cynicism.

But this does lead back to AI: how do we see plagiarism in the era of AI? Can one copy verbatim from GPT conversations one has prompted? How about from a Custom GPT one has tuned oneself? What if the AI itself regurgitates someone else’s text? Does one cite an AI? These are rather interesting questions and certainly more interesting than the typical reaction of the academy to either the plagiarism wars (generally afraid they will be next) or the question of training on AI content (typically seen as bad by academics). Such dilemmas will only become more common as AI use becomes more common.

One last comment about AI. I have come to shift my thinking from being somewhat concerned about the future dangers of developing AGI to a concern that if the US follows the path of more timid countries like Italy, the West might cede its head start in AI to China or Russia, a situation that would be extremely dangerous from a geopolitical perspective. While I may still be proven wrong, at this point the one great difference between AI and my cat is that my cat has volition and desires that she is constantly exercising. Roxy the cat may not know that much, but she is determined. An AI doesn’t have any volition or desires, besides fulfilling the task at hand. Potentially this may change as agents develop, but for now, we may have Artificial General Intelligence, but we do not have Artificial Sentience.

I taught my first course this May, and sought to outline the parameters of this new culture. It’s still very early, but network culture is finis, kaput. Even it’s last stages, wokeism and Maga, such products of social media seem spent. Last year, I thought that federated networks such as Mastodon were the future. This year, I am not so sure. Mastodon and Blue Sky sunk themselves early on by embracing the Left’s cynical culture of intolerence (if anything offends Lefties on Mastodon, they call for servers to be banned while the users on Blue Sky generally seem to be about as socially sophisticated as sixth graders, banding together to drive off anybody who isn’t far Left). The big “success” of 2023 in social media was Meta’s Threads, but a botched launch (no EU access and a focus on delivering news and entertainment rather than connecting with friends and colleagues) has seemingly ensured that there has no engagement on in whatsoever. Twitter, X, or Xitter (as in Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses while sitting on the Xitter) muddles on, with a modern day Howard Hughes at the helm, babbling his drug-induced conspiracy theories even as he ponders never cutting his fingernails again and saving his urine in jars around the head office of X. Even with a presidential election upon us, the insane political frenzies of 2016 and 2020 are much diminished as users tire of politcs and social media networks actively bury news stories. This has, in turn, had a significant impact on news sources, which in fairness, have been slipshod and low quality for too long. Both legacy journalism and digital media are in trouble—the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post laid off large numbers of staff while Vice News, Buzzfeed, and the brand new Messenger shut down (or basically shut down)—an “extinction-level events” according to some. In a Washington Post op-ed the former head of Google News (!) suggests that it AI will kill the news and begs for regulation, but this just noise. The real problem is that news wanted to be entertainment and abandoned sober reporting for clickbait and outrage. The replacement of journalism with shrill panic may have been jolly good fun for both the far Left and far Right but this led to outrage fatigue. More people mute stories about Gaza and Israel or Trump and abortion these days than pay attention to them (guilty as charged). We all want to be Ohio man. The news has only itself to blame. How we can have responsible journalism again is beyond me, although publications like the New Atlantis do

Network culture was millennial culture and that finally died in 2023. Skinny jeans and man-buns are now what out-of-touch parents wear, like tie-die shirts and bell bottoms in 1985. Gen Z has its own, seemingly inscrutible cultural codes, which often seem to be that of a studied fashion trainwreck. But high fashion has died. Nobody who isn’t an oligarch or a rap star wants Gucci, Prada, or Vuitton anymore. Young people are into drops from obscure online boutiques and thrifting. Once Russia and China catch up, the old fashion houses will swiftly go the way of the dinosaurs. The same may be happening in tech. Apple’s laptops are boring. I didn’t buy a single Apple computer or iPad this year. I did purchase my first high end PC ever, an Acronym ROG Flow Z-13. I’ve been a fan of obscure Berlin tech fashion brand Acronym for a while and since my youngest kid is studying game design at NYU next fall, it was time to learn about contemporary gaming. It’s been a joy to use in ways that Apple equipment just isn’t anymore. I also purchased a couple of Boox e-ink tablets. Whether they are better than iPads for one’s eyes is a matter of debate, but they are certainly more interesting. Instead of boring Apple crap, I bought a Kwumsy (Kwusmy!) keyboard with a built in panoramic toucshscreen monitor. It’s unimaginable that big tech would make something like this. Niche tech has personality, big tech does not. As tech fashion Youtuber This is Antwon stated in another brilliant video, “Weird Tech Fashion is FINALLY Cool Again.”

So a year in review that morphed into a year in tech. But tech is not just tech now, it’s really our culture—including our spatial culture, which was formerly the purview of architecture. Even taking a stand against tech, embroils us in it. I’d like to find a way past this monolith, but it’s not easy to think past it. I’m open to suggestions, as long as they don’t reduce everything to the god of Capital, which seems to be the other option.

I hope to be back soon, with more posts.

walls in the landscape

It snowed last weekend; just a few inches fell and it was soon gone, a reminder of how profoundly our climate has changed for the worse in our decade here at Highland House. Still, for a few days, there was snow and I was drawn to how it covered the stone wall in front of our house. I admire the wall every time I leave the house for the outside world, whatever the season.

Highland House and the previous wall of pressure-treated lumber in spring 2011 when we toured the house for purchase. The children are grown. Time passes. Note how inappropriate the hardscaping looks in front of the house, a suburban Aztec fantasy.

We built the stone wall four years ago, but it looks like it could have been there for two centuries. That was the goal. Before that, the hill had been held back by a decaying wall of pressure-treated wood painted a rather unpleasant mauve taupe that you can see in the photograph above. This wall is not a fence: it does not separate two plots but rather holds back the steep hillside to accommodate the flat area containing both the driveway and house. It is an artifact of politics, a constant reminder of poorly thought-out town planning. The zoning code in this area dictates that houses be set back fifty feet from the property line, notwithstanding any slope. Since our tract has a roughly consistent 30% pitch (an elevation drop from 500′ to 450′ over 165′), that means the front of the house is well below grade level, rising from a man-made plateau roughly 30′ below the road. Of course, it would make far more sense, from a financial and ecological perspective to site the house closer to the road, thereby minimizing the driveway and leaving the rest of the property as a vast hillside garden, but the town planning board refused to make such compromises so colossal amounts of energy and material had to be expended to construct a house here. Likely, the town’s real goal all along was discouraging any construction.

When the time came to build the wall, multiple contractors and the engineer all wanted to either rebuild the pressure-treated wall or put up an engineered stone wall. I refused, it would be dry stack. How about a “dry stack” veneer in front of a row of cinder blocks, they said? No, and no. It was going to be a traditional dry stack stone wall. It was my money and I won out in the end. Previous owners had installed pavers and low walls of Anchor Bergarac concrete block in front of the house. These cheapened the look, much as the tired fake lanterns and the ridiculous pink solid stain on mahogany siding did, turning a pleasing late-midcentury modern house into a pedestrian suburban ranch. We ripped out the pavers and the low walls at the same time, integrating the hardscaping at the front of the house with the construction of the retaining wall. This year, we replaced the last of the Anchor Beragac block which made up a stair on the side of the house with natural stone as well, completing the project.

The stone arriving from Pennsylvania

The stone the wall is built from is called “Pennsylvania Colonial” and comes from somewhere in Pennsylvania, or at least from a supplier in Pennsylvania. I would prefer something more of the place, but the Passaic Formation dominates the geology of this area and that is composed of sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone, all of which are weak stones with high porosity, much more prone to breaking. Much of the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Brooklyn is constructed out of this material and this has caused headaches since the nineteenth century. Soon after construction residents were observed rubbing their stone facades with wire brushes to remove disintegrating parts. Since the 1930s, composite materials have been used to seal and finish weak brownstone façades in the city, but obviously, this is inappropriate for a stone wall. Even if the local stone had proved durable, nearby quarries have long ago ceased operating, thus even if I wanted it, there would be little option to build with the stone from the immediate vicinity.

Pennsylvania Colonial is a bluestone, another kind of sandstone, but it is stronger than the local brownstone. In coloration, the blue-gray Pennsylvania stone reminds me of the stone walls of New England and New York, which were such a common sight in my teenage years in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. We had a dry stack stone retaining wall in front of my parents’ house and that wall still stands today on Ice Glen Road, over a hundred years after it was built, but most of the walls across New England were built to demarcate property lines, constructed from the stone that inevitably came up as fields were plowed by early farmers both initially and as a result of annual frost heaving. Since a large amount of stone can be found in this area of New Jersey—or at least on my property—I wonder what happened to all the rocks and boulders that surfaced here over the years. New Jersey has many fewer stone walls than New England and New York, a fact that was noted in the 1872 US Government Department of Agriculture publication, “Statistics of Fences in the United States,” which observed that 90% of the fences in Essex and Bergen County were post-and-rail construction (post-and-rail dominated the state although hedges of Maclura pomifera, the Osage Orange, a small deciduous tree originally found in Texas were employed “to some extent” in the central part of the state, a practice more common to the Plains states).

The walls of New England were not just walls to me, they were markers of another era, a time in which the area was heavily agricultural, when the green of the Berkshire Hills was from grazing meadows, not trees. This seemed improbable to me when I first heard of it; how could the towering trees on the mountains of Stockbridge, Massachusetts be that young? Surely these were primeval forests from the days of the native Americans. But this was contradicted by the stone walls I would find on my hikes deep in the woods. Where had the houses gone? What had gone on here? A budding historian at thirteen years of age, I went to the town hall, where the staff generously indulged my inquisitiveness by showing me old aerial maps. Here, I saw for myself the shocking truth: the forested area of Stockbridge had grown greatly, not shrunk, over the decades. In the 1930s, the plot next to my parents’ property had hosted five downhill ski trails for the Stockbridge Ski Club. Fifty years later it was a forest. A friend from California would refer to the woods of the Northeast as “the jungle,” noting how quickly human-built landscapes disappeared.

The stone walls at Philip Johnson’s Glass House, 2008.

Later in life, when I visited Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, I noticed the stone walls in the landscape surrounding the house, especially to the west, below the hill the house sits on. These too once marked farmland, before being engulfed by forest. As Johnson expanded his estate by purchasing surrounding plots, he thinned the woods, allowing the stone walls to become visible again from the windows of the Glass House. If the jungle could swallow up the traces of human activity, it could not obliterate the enduring walls.

Another view of the wall at the Glass House. Note how one wall acts as a boundary between the pale of the domestic part of the Johnson estate and the other is woodland.

Johnson saw the stone walls, as well as the 14 follies and structures he built on his property as “events on the landscape.” Of the forest, Johnson had the following to say, in his usual provocative tone:

But, so, the forest. The forest was at me all the time. New England is a rain forest. That’s one of my favorite topics. You are enclosed in New England with trees. Have you ever been to New Hampshire or to Vermont or Maine? There are no big trees left; they were cut a long time ago. There are no fields because the farmers couldn’t make their plows go through the stones. And they all went out to Ohio where they’re meant to go. So it’s left New England covered with lousy trees that grow up the crick so you can’t see anything but still don’t make trees, you see. So in this very unfriendly atmosphere that a rain forest gives you, what you need is a machete and an axe and a saw. And armed with those tools, you create landscaping in a negative way, unlike the British, who in their great things of the 18th century, had no trees. There were no trees at Versailles, none, you see. They all had to be planted and worked out. I didn’t have to plant my trees; they were there. I had 200-year-old oaks and things all prepared for me. I had to select. I had to say this can be a copse, this can be a single tree, this has to be cut. And by ruthlessly doing that, I have the basic background, the interesting feature, watching your eyes follow through the forest to a wall beyond or not, or infinitely. And you have open fields, which is to me the best.

Interview conducted on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation by Eleanor Devens, Franz Schultz, Jeffrey Shaw, and Frank Sanchis, https://theglasshouse.org/explore/landscape/
Nor are the walls removed from the Glass House. The concrete circle is Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1971. It has been conserved since I took this photo in 2008.
The rustic stone wall and the pool complement the Glass House in different ways.
Johnson’s Studio, a one-room workspace and library, but also a folly in the landscape, contrasts with the rustic stone wall.

Johnson was not alone in his admiration of stone walls In the middle of the twentieth century, architects of the Northeastern seaboard like Elliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer, and Walter Gropius would juxtapose their highly technological modern houses with a more rustic approach to the landscape. In his 1938 house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Gropius found himself in a blend of open fields and wooded areas, typical of the New England landscape and only a few miles from the future home of Deck House, the company that built Highland House (I wrote more about the history of Deck House here). This setting provides a stark contrast to the house’s modernist architecture, characterized by its clean lines and functional design. The integration of the house with its surroundings is deliberate, aiming to create a seamless interaction between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Large windows and an open terrace serve as interfaces between the interior of the house and the natural world outside, allowing for ample natural light and a sense of continuity with the landscape. The landscaping around the house, while appearing natural and unforced, is carefully planned. It features local plants and trees, adhering to Gropius’s belief in the importance of local materials and natural aesthetics. The use of native plants not only integrates the house into its New England setting but also reflects a sustainable approach to landscaping, a concept ahead of its time.

The Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, photograph by Jack E. Boucher, from the Library of Congress

Overall, the landscape at Walter Gropius’s house in Lincoln, Massachusetts is a testament to the integration of modernist architecture within a natural setting, embodying principles of simplicity, function, and harmony with the environment. It demonstrates the principle of decorum in architecture, which involves the appropriate use of design elements according to the function and setting of a building. In classical and Renaissance architecture, decorum was a guiding principle that dictated the suitability of architectural styles and elements based on the building’s purpose, location, and the social status of its occupants. This principle was extensively discussed by Renaissance theorists like Vitruvius and Leon Battista Alberti. In the context of country residences or villas, the use of rustic elements was often considered appropriate as they resonated with the natural surroundings and rural character of the site. The use of rustic elements in countryside architecture during these periods can be seen as a precursor to the embrace of stone walls by modernists in the Northeast. These architects embraced the natural and sometimes irregular qualities of materials to complement and enhance the rural setting. A story about Johnson illustrates this: the architect, who was well known for wearing Saville Row suits while in the city, famously surprised visitors to the Glass House who dressed in suits to visit only to find him in a polo shirt and expressing mock surprise that his guests had dressed for the city when they were deep in the New England countryside. The principle of decorum, therefore, serves as a historical context for understanding how architects have long adapted their designs to suit the specific characteristics of their environment.

In building my wall, I also thought of decorum. I thought of the history of the area, both natural—below is a photograph of a boulder in Apshawa preserve, a haven for native plants restored by Leslie Sauer of Andropogon Associates, some fifteen miles away—and cultural, e.g. the stone walls of New England and New York. I also thought of our midcentury modern house, clad in rough-sawn mahogany siding, which I was having painstakingly restored by a craftsman at that very point in time.

An inspiration, a boulder covered in Polypodium virginianum (Rock polypody) in Apshawa Preserve in West Milford, New Jersey

There is a tradition to stone walls and, unless you disassemble the wall to uncover the foundation, you would have no evidence that our wall had been built in the 21st century. After our mason, Bart Piotowski of Pol-Max construction in Tom’s River, laid a deep concrete foundation and used an earth mover to construct the wall, the method was otherwise the same as it would have been in the 18th century.

Rebar reinforcing rods upon which the concrete foundation was poured. Note the iron oxide-rich subsoil. If your topsoil looks like this, you have a problem.
The first courses of stone—and the most massive—go above the concrete foundation, but they start far below the driveway, anchoring the wall forever.
Gravel was poured behind the wall above a drainpipe to ensure hydrostatic pressure would not built up.

Elsewhere on my property, I have built simpler stone walls with my own hands, following traditional methods. In all cases, it takes time and skill to build the wall. When the building inspector from the township came for the final inspection. He was impressed, declaring: “Long after you, me, and this house are gone, this wall will be here.” But it’s not just the dry-stack stone wall that ties us to history, the method of its construction is largely the same. Although Bart used an earth mover for the largest stones, they still required careful thought and placement, a massive jigsaw puzzle made from the very stuff of this Earth.

Fragraria virginiana (Strawberry plants) and moss covering the wall in May after a rain.
The wall in late April. Phlox subulata (Moss Phlox) dominates. Note also the Polypodium virginianum (Rock polypody) fern nestled in the rock.
See my earlier post on the plants that live in the alpine condition immediately above the wall.

Throughout, the stone walls allow water to seep in—and through—them, allowing plants to colonize the spaces between the stones and, in the case of mosses and lichens, even the stones themselves, making the walls come alive. Many of the mosses and lichens came on the rocks from the quarry, riding on their microhabitat for hundreds of miles to my property. Over time, the stones will break down, but that sort of time is not measured in decades or even centuries, rather it is measured in millennia. So too, chipmunks find homes in these rocks, happily scurrying in and out of burrows that they have excavated in the depths of the hill beyond.

In the fall, the most disliked native, Toxicodendron radicans (Poison Ivy) provides a burst of color, turning from green to yellow to red.
Cruelly, I did cave to conformism and eventually removed this, but it will come back somewhere else.

All this is in sad contrast to the typical kind of hardscaping generally done in this town, which is all straight lines and concrete or stone set in mortar, impermeable to water and, paradoxically, more prone to damage from frost and moisture: without anywhere to go, forces will act against such a wall, eventually breaking it. In addition, dry stack walls can flex slightly with ground movement, making them less prone to cracking than rigid concrete-set walls. This flexibility is particularly beneficial in areas with freeze-thaw cycles or minor ground shifts. Dry stack walls are easier to repair than mortar-bound walls. Stones can be replaced or re-stacked as needed without the need to mix and apply new mortar or concrete. Sadly, most landscape architecture today tries to ape architecture instead of working with the stuff of landscape: stones, soil, and plants. Landscapers are even worse, all turf and Berberis thunbergii (Japanese barberry), the ugliest and most banal of invasive plants.

Man—and it is usually the male of the species—has done enough damage to the land. We have enough hard surfaces and straight lines in the gridiron of Manhattan, in the highways that cross the country, our houses, and even in the Jeffersonian grid that demarcates the land of industrialized agriculture in the middle of the country. We have enough impermeable surfaces. We do not need more hardscape. I’ll take Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty over Michael Heizer’s Double Negative any day. One ties us to the land, the history of Mesoamerican earthworks, and deep time, the other is just a man with his toys, fighting the landscape to make a statement. Let’s try to find better ways to work the land and heal ourselves in the process.

curb your enthusiasm

I just finished my planting for this year. Normally I plant from the time that nurseries open to the time they close and if you’d asked me the first week of November, I would have said that I was done for the year and ready to concentrate on art and writing, including the Florilegium, which I launched in mid-October along with the general site redesign. Now, I was fully prepared for the last major construction project of the house, rebuilding our lower deck, in the latter part of October. As with all things in our house, this required my constant attention, but in the end, it turned out well, a major improvement over the wreck that had been there. With the deck complete, I went out and bought plants from my friends at Gino’s Nursery. To my dismay, the new management at Bowman’s Hill not only raised their prices substantially this year but also didn’t have an end-of-the-year sale, which meant I bought almost nothing from them in the fall and their tables were full of plants whereas Gino’s lot was near empty. I swiftly got those in the ground, helped Liam get his college applications out (he got into NYU, we found out last week, so it was worth it) and immediately went down for a week after having contracted my first real respiratory illness since 2019, a common cold. After I was well, I spent some time cleaning up the garden, took care of some business, and then, two days before Veterans Day, received a notice from Montclair Township that “curbing” would begin the next week. No surprise, the letter was poorly worded and vague about what would take place. Communication is something the town does grudgingly and without enthusiasm. My pleas for more information from the town went unheeded and, although the letter stated that curbing would consist only of spot replacement of deteriorated areas of concrete curbs, upon talking with the workmen, we learned that this would involve the replacement of all of the curbs with Belgian Block. I am not a fan of Belgian Block. It doesn’t look as modern as a concrete curb and it causes road rash to alloy rims on cars. It is less permeable to water than concrete (!) and looks like something an escapee from the “Desperate Housewives of New Jersey” would demand. But we were not consulted and there were no options here. It turned out that 2 to 3′ of soil abutting the curb along the entire 146′ front of our property would be excavated—about half of the roadside native plant garden at Highland House—would be removed. Crisis yet again.

Running along the First Watchung Mountain, Highland Avenue is the highest elevation road in this part of town and is frequently visited by walkers and drivers in search of distant views of the city and as much woodland as one can find in this town. So when I began the process of landscaping the property myself in 2016, I started at the street front, the public façade that this garden presents. A gardener’s approach to the street front is a clue to the general approach the gardener takes to the property, so it must be considered.

Like the rest of my yard, the streetfront was largely barren and neglected before we moved in. The previous owners were suckered into removing the leaves off the landscape to put them in bags for the town to haul away like so much used underwear. Because all of the ground’s riches were being stolen by the town or extorted by landscapers every year, all that was left was a very hard, compacted soil that would not hold water well and was virtually impervious to a shovel. As you can see in this Google Street View image from August, 2013, the only plants that thrived were invasive weeds, sad-looking deer-eaten hostas, invasive ditch-lilies (that never bloomed), and one sorry-looking Ilex crenata, a Japanese bush commonly found in the nursery at Home Depot and in office parks. Welcome to a mess.

My first effort with landscape was at the top of the road but swiftly failed. I knew we wanted to plant native plants, but I also knew nothing about gardening or landscape apart from experience growing vegetables, something that was not possible with the heavy deer browse in our area. So, in fall 2014, I employed a local landscape company that billed itself as sensitive to the environment. Thousands of dollars later, the project was done, but virtually nothing survived to the next year. It cost a lot of money and thoroughly disappointed us. This same company later sued the town to rescind the law Montclair recently enacted against gas-powered leaf blowers. Why it is called “Gaia Gardens” is beyond me.

An industrial leaf removal operation, typical of the sort we see in this area. Five men illegally working with gas-powered leaf blowers, making a colossal racket and taking away the very riches of the soil, which you can is rapidly eroding, leaving a barren rockscape. People doing intellectual work nearby and the natural world are the object of attack for these military assaults on the environment.

Now, I’ve mentioned this before, but it is a critical lesson. Leaves and fallen branches are not the enemy and when somebody shows up on your property with a leaf blower, it is clear evidence that they have no qualifications to be in the “landscaping” business. First, leaves are a free mulch, preventing opportunistic weeds from growing and retaining moisture. But more than that, removing leaves means interrupting the carbon cycle. The plant that dropped the leaves probably really likes whatever nutrients were in them. And in the case of deep-rooted plants such as trees, roots reach into layers of soil buried deep underground, accessing nutrients unavailable to plants with shallower roots. Far from being the bane of the suburbanite’s existence, leaves redistribute nutrients for those plants with shallower root systems. Moreover, as leaves decompose, they improve soil structure, thus increasing its capacity to retain moisture and support beneficial soil organisms. Adding broken-up sticks, rotting wood, and bark helps even further as all these encourage the growth of fungi producing mycorrhizae, symbiotic relationships between fungi and plant roots. In this partnership, as fungi colonize an area, they interact with the root system of a host plant, providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities to the plant. In return, the plant supplies the fungi with carbohydrates formed during photosynthesis. Mycorrhizae play a critical role in soil ecology, aiding plant growth and health, enhancing nutrient uptake, particularly phosphorus, and can also help plants resist pathogens and tolerate environmental stresses. Many woodland plants are dependent on mycorrhizae and will not thrive without them. Lycopods, for example, also known as clubmosses, are especially dependent on mycorrhizae and have a very difficult time surviving without them. Forget growing them in your urban or suburban garden (or even most labs for that matter)!

Dendrolycopodium obscurum, the Princess Pine, a clubmoss, now threatened throughout much of its range, depends on specific mycorrhizal fungi produced by decaying leaf matter and is virtually impossible to cultivate.

Going further into depth on soil is a matter for another time, but suffice it to say that the soil was poor and compacted, so I started with native trees—a Cornus florida, Flowering Dogwood, and a Cercis canadensis, Eastern Redbud—as well as a few bushes: Myrica penslyvanica, the Northern Bayberry, Rhododendron maximum, the Rosebay Rhododendron, and Kalmia latifolia, the Mountain Laurel. It took a bit of convincing on a family level, but eventually, I won out and left the leaves to decay on the ground below the trees that dropped them. We already had a large canopy of Liriodendron tulipifera, Tulip Poplars, Quercus borealis maxima, Red Oaks (the New Jersey state tree), and Fagus grandifolia, American beeches. But noting the complete absence of young trees on our property, I also issued an injunction that nobody in the family could “weed” trees that had naturally seeded themselves somewhere. Only a few years later, and with the addition of another Cornus florida and Cercis canadensis at the other end of the street-front, a rich understory of trees began to form.

Our streetfront, July 2016. I have started putting in natives, but the soil is still indistinguishable from the neighboring property as I still knew little about soil structure and maintenance. There is almost no undergrowth.

As the soil structure began to improve and as I gained experience with native herbaceous perennials at the front of our house, I began to plant these as well. Observing that there are two moist spots at either end of the property, one shady and one sunny, I planted ferns such as Onoclea sensibilis, Sensitive Fern, Pteridium aquilinum, Bracken Fern, and other moisture-loving plants in the shady end, and a patch of meadow in the sunny area (see the featured image at the top of this post) where people often stop at to gaze upon the distant view of the city. Perhaps some of them will also look down and realize that the real beauty lies below them. By spring 2021, the front was advanced enough that it could be incorporated into a garden tour of the property for the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. In the space of a few years, an area of Highland Avenue was part of what Doug Tallamy calls the “Homegrown National Park.” My only real disappointment was that because many dog owners have no conception of property or nature, they would encourage Fido to do his business in the garden, leaving me to regularly find dog droppings as I gardened. While this might have some nutritive value for the soil, dog urine can also kill plants, and I certainly do not enjoy having to move someone else’s pet leavings to put in a new plant in so I wound up constructing a paracord and rebar fence to keep Fido and his owner on the street where they belong.

That fence, however, made me reluctant to take photographs of the area earlier and I only have this photograph from early September, 2021. How hard would it have been to remove the paracord or even just shoot with it in place as I did here? Well, I can also claim that the lighting is challenging in this shady area, and that much is true. In any event, here you can see exuberant growth in one of the relatively moist areas by the road. This area is visible in the photograph from July, 2016 as well, although it is in the distance, to the upper left of (and past) the leaning oak. It can also be viewed in 2013 on this Google Street View link.

The streetfront, 2021

As everywhere else at Highland House, the planting is naturalistic: intended to look wild, but to avoid the extremes of the chaotic bramble or the barren forest floor. To that end, the composition here involved a steady increase in height organized in a series of “plateaus” the further one is from the road. At the front is Onoclea sensibilis, the Sensitive Fern, which never goes above 2′ in height. You can also see some Persacaria virginiana, the Woodland Knotweed or Jumpseed, in the lower middle of the photograph. This plant has slender stalks with tiny white flowers hanging off it. This is a beautiful plant, but I once made the mistake of buying what claimed to be the “Lance Corporal” cultivar, which had reddish-purple flowers and a chevron-marking on the leaves. I am strongly suspicious that this was not Lance Corporal, or if it was, that it was an Asian variant of Persacaria that is quite invasive. Years later, I am still weeding this stuff out, as it threatens to take over my garden, especially the lower reaches far from this spot. This plateau is followed by a taller plateau, even a wall of taller plants in the back such as the Eupatorium perfoliatum, Common Boneset, which—together with the trees and bushes—helps screen the road from our house, creating greater privacy for us.

Back to the present. Streetfronts are hard. I always knew the township’s schemes threatened this area, but I had hoped to get a little bit more warning. Four days was certainly insufficient, luckily, the contractors started on the other side of the street and snaked back to mine so by the time that they reached the property, I had moved the plants and the healthy soil, with its mycorrhizal riches far away. Digging and moving some 20 cubic yards of soil by hand was tough and time-consuming. As most of my property lies below the level of the road and there was nowhere to temporarily store it without the prospect of hauling it back up the steep hill in a wheelbarrow, so I wound up taking it on a one-way trip, dressing the more compacted areas in the back of the house, especially by the new pond, with it. We will see how well that works come the spring. This took weeks. Construction on our property began on December 6. I had a good conversation with the fellow in charge and he assured me he would be careful scooping out the soil with his earthmover and he did a great job. Unfortunately, the fellows who came by with their pickaxes were not educated and attacked a large number of remaining plants and roots with pickaxes.

December 6. Construction begins and the old curbs are ripped out. The fence was moved inward by 2′ in coordination with the town’s contractor to give them a datum line not to cross.

Note how dark and black the topsoil looks. Even with the road nearby, this is healthy soil, full of recently decayed organic matter and the large number of roots at the edge indicate how thriving this area was. As you can see in the Google Street View image from 2013, the soil at Highland House was reddish in color when we moved in. I’d never seen this in the Northeast and didn’t understand why this the soil was so red. But now I get it. Most places around here were constructed recently and excavated using heavy earth-moving equipment that strips away the topsoil. Red soil is not topsoil, it is a subsoil containing a high concentration of iron oxides that has not been properyl replenished due to years of leaves being removed by owners who fell for the scam of removing leaves. In just seven years of leaving leaves in my perennial beds, the soil looks completely different. Indeed, these appearances were confirmed by a cooperative extension test that indicated it was “beyond optimum” for most nutrients.

Within a week, the Belgian Block was in and the town backfilled behind it with inert topsoil of unknown origin. At least it wasn’t fill. Time to rebuild the soil again. But what about plants? Since is the street front, I need to get things in fast and, by chance, a brand new native plant nursery near me—Wildstead, in East Hanover —was having a preview sale so I went. It was a delight to talk with L.Be Sholar, the owner. She has an especially deep understanding of soil and we have come up with some strategies for bringing the inert soil to life quickly.

Plants from Wildstead ready to go in the ground

So the front looks ok, although it is definitely lacking many of the plants that made it unique and different and one of my signs explaining what this place is disappeared. They cost a lot, but I’ll have to buy a new one. I blew leaves all over the soil, broke up a bunch of bark and twigs and threw all that there. It’s time to e-mail L.Be and ask her for some of her family’s magic Organilock soil food to activate the soil here. It’s not expensive and it’ll be a good opportunity to try it out. Wildstead is a nice new store, well-designed, close to home, and full of natives. L.Be also has a landscape design business, creating native plant gardens and food forests. She started the store because she needed it for the business. This makes sense. Things are changing in the “Garden State.” This is good.

Another green world (on the site redesign)

Every now and then, the time comes to redesign the site. A little history first. I created this site (originally kazys.net) in 1998 as a static site for my writing. I started the blog on blogger in spring of 2000, then switched it out for greymatter since it offered on-site management, in 2001. The site continued on as a blog until the fall of 2003 when, with the birth of our daughter, it seemed a good time to focus on other matters. Two years later, as a fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication, I decided to go back to blogging and also redesign the site with my first real content management system, Drupal—which I am still traumatized by— and in early 2008, after a few different site redesigns, I turned to the look of Indexhibit, although that system proved to be too limited for a site that had already grown quite big and hydra-headed. In late 2018, with Drupal in its death-throes, it was time to move to WordPress and finally, it has come time to say goodbye to the Indexhibit look.

While I still love the minimal approach Indexhibit pioneered, I needed to find a way to highlight more of my artwork on the main landing page. In addition, if this blog (called the Index, after Indexhibit), is the centerpiece of my writing on this site, it became clear to me that my work with gardening and native plants is its own project that needs its own section and identity. The result is the Florilegium, a blog that exists independently of this one but on the same site (I am also making a substack that mirrors this content, if that is how you read your news). I have also made it easier to find my art and publications. I will be working more on the site during the upcoming weeks, filling out my list of articles and adding more work. And now that this is all done, it’s time to go back to writing on this site. As I have previously stated, the untimeliness of blogging is a form of resistance to the damaged (and damaging) algorithms and trends that are shaping ideas and culture today. With the final decline of Xitter seemingly upon us, not even a scant year after Musk’s catastrophic purchase, the capture of Mastodon and BlueSky by extremist elements, and the continued lingering of Threads as nothing more than a hobby for Meta, there’s no better feeling than knowing I have a small place on the Internet for my work. I encourage you to create one as well. And stay tuned, there’s more to come.

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On the Florilegium

The term “florilegium” originates from Latin, with “flos” or “floris” indicating a flower, and “legere” meaning to gather, collectively signifying a “collection of flowers.” “Florilegium” historically referred to a compilation of select extracts from various literary or philosophical works. In the past, scholars created florilegia by meticulously curating insightful extracts from a broad array of texts. This curation process was akin to how a gardener selects particular flowers for a bouquet, hence the term. Unlike mere reproductions, florilegia often contained commentary or reflections from the compiler, adding layers of interpretation and analysis to the original texts. Florilegia served as vital reservoirs of intellectual heritage, providing access to select wisdom from diverse sources. They were akin to a literary garden of ideas, where the essence of extensive readings was distilled and encapsulated for future reference. Through florilegia, scholars could navigate the intellectual landscapes of various fields, exploring ideas and reflections curated by predecessors.

But the term “florilegium” also holds a historical significance in the realm of botany. Historically, florilegia were compilations of botanical illustrations, often accompanied by descriptions, showcasing a variety of plants, especially those found within a particular garden or region. These compilations emerged during the 16th and 17th centuries, a period when exotic plants were being introduced to Europe from other parts of the world, sparking curiosity and a desire for documentation among horticulturists and botanists. Botanical florilegia served as both a record and a means of sharing knowledge about the diverse plant species, including their appearance, medicinal properties, and cultivation requirements. The illustrations were meticulously crafted to portray the plants with a high degree of accuracy, allowing individuals who might never encounter the plants in person to study their features. The creation of a botanical florilegium required a harmonious blend of artistic skill, botanical knowledge, and a meticulous eye for detail. Each illustration within a florilegium was crafted to convey the unique characteristics of a particular plant species, often with a focus on aspects like leaf arrangement, flower structure, and fruiting bodies which were crucial for the identification and understanding of the plant.

If these compendia advanced and disseminated knowledge, it was not innocent. Collections of exotic plants discovered in far-flung regions became symbols of wealth, prestige, and the vast reach of colonial empires. Florilegia served as a means to document, display, and circulate these botanical treasures back in Europe. Botanical expeditions and the subsequent transportation of exotic plant species were facilitated by colonial networks, providing the necessary infrastructure and resources for the collection, documentation, and dissemination of botanical specimens. The illustrations within florilegia often depicted these exotic species with an aura of rareness and desirability, further fueling the colonial appetite for the exotic and the unknown. The possession and display of these plants was emblematic of colonial domination and control over conquered territories and their natural resources. The botanical gardens of Europe, filled with exotic species documented in florilegia, stood as living testimonials to the colonial enterprise. The practice also had a significant impact on indigenous communities. The removal of plants from their native lands for documentation in florilegia often occurred without regard for the knowledge, rights, or wishes of the local people. The traditional knowledge held by indigenous communities about the local flora was often overlooked or appropriated without credit, as the colonial botanists and horticulturists took center stage in the narrative crafted by florilegia. The harvest of exotic plants often caused the destruction of indigenous habitats and the lifeways of those areas while also causing massive ecological disruption as the introduction of non-native plants altered habitat dynamics and impacted the fauna that depended on native vegetation for survival. The widespread cultivation and dissemination of exotic species, spurred in part by the allure created through florilegia, has produced ecological imbalances and the homogenization of global flora. Even our own house has two Japanese Maples, the ultimate “specimen tree,” ubiquitous as a marker of middle-brow taste. Although these were planted when our house was built, I don’t have the heart to pull them out, so they stay, reminders of the colonial legacy of industrial gardening.

A bitternut hickory seedling in late April. Not only did I not plant this tree, we have none on our property or any of the properties directly abutting our house. Likely planted by a squirrel or chipmunk—although perhaps a bird—in ten years this tree will provide food for animals as well as for us while also providing needed shade, privacy and beauty for our bedroom.

Today the concept of florilegium finds a literal expression at my property, Highland House in Montclair, New Jersey, and this gardener’s log. Here, the garden embodies a living collection of native plants, each selected much as the florilegia were. The garden at Highland House is not merely a garden; it is a curated collection that tells the story of the region’s natural heritage. Every plant chosen for the landscape brings with it a unique narrative, an ecological significance, and a contribution to the local biodiversity. Similar to how each extract in a traditional florilegium was selected for its insight or beauty, each plant in this garden is selected for its ecological value, its historical significance in the region, or its ability to contribute to a habitat for local wildlife. Although returning to a condition of pristine wilderness is impossible (would this have been 1609 prior to Henry Hudson’s arrival at Newark Bay or 8,000 years ago, at the time of the first human settlement in the area?), it is possible to not only nurture the flora that belong here, but to create micro-habitats for the native fauna: woodchucks, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, opossums, and skunks are all visitors to this property (whitetail deer as well, although they are vastly overpopulated and need culling, do not need my help) as are a myriad bird species from warblers to woodpeckers to raptors.

As a florilegium, this section of the site, sets out not to chronicle each plant in detail, but as a gardener’s log on an artist and historian of architecture’s web site, describes what is happening here and invites engagement with the broader narratives of design, ecology, history, and place. Inspired by sites such as James Golden’s View from Federal Twist, this is a collection of thoughts, images, and narratives around native plant gardening.In essence, ‘The Florilegium’ is an invitation to wander through a digital garden of ideas, where the tradition of thoughtful curation meets the tangible beauty of our native flora, fostering a richer comprehension and a deeper conversation on the interplay between the natural and the built environment.

preliminary findings toward an architectural history of the network posted

I have been working on my garden for much of the last month. This is an all-consuming task, but today I had the opportunity to find an old article that I wrote on the origin of data centers, “Preliminary Findings Toward an Architectural History of the Network,” New Geographies 07 (2015). 

You can read it here. https://varnelis.net/preliminary-findings-toward-an-architectural-history-of-the-network/

In this essay, I explore the architectural history of networks, focusing on the typology of data centers and its historical emergence. The network, despite receiving critical attention since the Internet’s proliferation, has been largely overlooked from an architectural perspective.

I argue that understanding the data center as a building type is essential, as well as understanding that it encompasses various architectural manifestations ranging from repurposed buildings to purpose-built structures. I trace the origins of the data center to the post office, which developed in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. I examine the link between data centers and territory, emphasizing the role of the mail system in the political development of the nation.

The expansion of postal routes, the implementation of a hub-and-spoke system, and the architectural form of post offices are detailed, highlighting the network’s infancy and its historical emergence in typological terms. The essay continues with an examination of the introduction of home delivery and the development of the telegraph system. I analyze the growth of telegraphy, its alliance with the media, and concerns about monopolies. Overall, this research provides a comprehensive examination of the architectural history of networks, shedding light on the typological, geographical, and technological aspects of networks. My goal was to provide insights into the historical significance and contemporary relevance of data centers, thereby contributing to a broader understanding of the material and geographic conditions shaped by the constraints of the physical world.

On Art and the Universal, II

Last July, I wrote a piece “On Art and the Universal, I” and promised part two within a week. It’s almost 11 months later, so here it is. The first piece stands on its own as a critique of the political cynicism of the academic-gallery nexus. This second piece stands alone as well. Read part I, re-read it, or don’t bother. 

As an art scholar and artist, I find the Greenbergian tradition invaluable. I studied for a year with Hal Foster in graduate school and was compelled by Rosalind Krauss’s essay on sculpture in the expanded field, as well as by Clement Greenberg’s efforts to find a trajectory for research within postwar painting. Briefly, Greenberg asserted that each art form should concentrate on its own unique properties or “the specificity of the medium“. Famously, Greenberg believed that the essence of modernism was to “use the characteristic methods of the discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” To this end, painting, for Greenberg would best focus on the flatness of the canvas instead of imitating the three-dimensionality of sculpture. This was of great utility for the last generation of truly productive artists in the US, from Kenneth Noland to Donald Judd to James Turrell to my father, all of whom engaged with Greenberg—even when they disagreed with him. Disciplinary self-criticism and the specificity of the medium was a research project that embodied an Enlightenment ideal of a shared project of advancing human knowledge in a particular discipline. Krauss, who studied with Greenberg, reinterpreted his philosophy, moving away from the idea of medium specificity to propose art as an expanded field of practices and mediums, including conceptual, installation, and performance art. The object of interrogation ceased to be the medium and became the institution of art itself and with this, a greater element of political critique could be introduced. Foster took this further in his writings on the Pictures Generation, shifting to a postmodern exploration of the process of art making, originality and identity, and the nature of the sign itself.

Although I empathize with the Greenbergian search for politically progressive forces in art, this aspect of the project has run aground, even if is the only part of the project that remains popular. I detail this in my previous post, but in sum, the quest for the political in art has amounted to little more than a justification for guilty consciousness and the drive to affirm one’s virtue. Far from a place of resistance, the political in art is cynical in a Sloterdijkian sense: its proponents know that it has nothing to do with actual political progress, but they claim it nevertheless.

Perhaps not coincidentally, art lost the thread since the 1970s. Even as postmodernists deployed postmodernism as a totalizing concept, they claimed that totalization was obsolete (the classic boomer move of declaring itself the best and last generation at anything). For postmodernists, totalizing historical frameworks overgeneralize the intricacies and nuances of historical events and cultural phenomena, leading to oversimplification and inaccuracies, they overlook differences within a given time period, such as the experiences of marginalized groups, and they perpetuate existing power dynamics by privileging dominant cultural or social perspectives. But the price for rejecting totalizing narratives is that where art used to make clear, measured progress, after postmodernism, it is stuck in an endless loop of pluralism, sustained only by self-justifying statements about politics. Today, the relationship between theory and totality is fractured and postmodern thought, ironically, leans toward irrelevance. In his 1979 La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (translated as the Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), Jean-François Lyotard observed that knowledge—primarily science—was being fragmented into incommensurable discourse as an incredulity to metanarratives emerged. Today, the arts and humanities are also splintered into incommensurable discourses. But rather than being a position of greater strength and self-criticism, the fracture of narrative banally reflects our very existence, our selves intensely fragmented by the operations of media. Art practices and theories that exacerbate that fragmentation are merely accelerationist or, more likely, uncritical and reactive in nature. Lacking a metanarrative, however, there is little else they can do besides exacerbate fragmentation. 

I contend that it’s time we breathe life back into the Greenbergian theoretical framework. This revival, however, should begin with a call for art to investigate itself again, not merely play to political activism for the sake of theater. The task at hand is to discern the proper object of knowledge for art, a fulcrum upon which we can rest our research. Or, if not the proper object, a proper object that would be suitable for investigation and productive of knowledge. 

Except for the most feeble-minded of thinkers, the development of advanced levels of networked computation is the single biggest transformation in human existence in many decades. Our sense of what media is and our relationship to it has changed profoundly. Thus, although it is entirely possible for artists to pursue other, legitimate forms of research, my own work largely revolves around the role of technology in our lives. In the last year, I have specifically been compelled to explore the new generation of Artificial Intelligence software, particularly AI image generators.

What is specific to AI image generators is not the creation of the new, but rather their endless capacity to remix the history of art and imagery. We could see this as part of a dialectic, or more simply, as part of a back-and-forth process of art history since the late eighteenth-century loss of the absolute belief in the principles of classical art. After the archeological discovery that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a consistent system, art was set adrift with its terrifying newfound freedom. Nineteenth-century eclecticism followed: rules were treated flexibly and forms could be freely combined at will. The backlash came with modernism’s rejection of all past forms and its search for a new, universal language of form, a project refined in Greenberg’s late modernist turn toward the specificity of the medium. In response, Postmodernism critiqued the new and turned toward the semiotic recombination of past forms and/or imagery from popular culture and commercial art. Starting about 25 years ago, Network Culture or Metamodernism supplanted postmodernism, largely relying on a resurgence of interest in technical effects and their capacity to elicit sensation. Think of Anish Kapoor or Olafur Ellison, for example, or the emergence of the very large, technically flawless salon-painting-sized photographs by artists such as Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall.
  
The era of AI creation is not, primarily, an era of the new. Architecture throws things into heightened relief. A furry, feathery building is not new. Nor is it interesting, except as a means of generating Instagram hits. Within a few years, AIs will be developed to effectively generate endless, plausible architectural models from a set of given parameters (site, area needed, programme, etc.), but even those are likely to remain endless permutations of the sort a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe might have done in their offices. For now, AIs are not yet capable of producing sophisticated three-dimensional models, but they are capable of producing imagery by remixing content. When something new emerges, it is through unusual juxtapositions thought up by the operator, but also through accidents. Malformed image generations can be interesting: for example, in my project on an alternative history of art in Vilnius, a series of glitched images appeared like the following image, which was supposed to be of a painting exhibit in a gallery. This process can be iterative since open-source AIs such as Stable Diffusion can be trained on specific datasets, so when accidents happen, artists can take those unusual results further. 

AI image generation reveals that all art is already intertextual, that is, shaped by, and in turn shaping, other works through allusions, references, and influences. My father was a modernist but nevertheless spent his evenings looking at coffee table art books of Renaissance and Baroque masters for inspiration. Nor was this an uncommon practice among modern painters. We now have a different way of accessing that cultural subconscious. It does not reveal itself easily either. Working with AI image generators is, for the serious artist, as time-consuming as any other practice. The virtue of a Critical AI Art, however, is to explore how artworks are developed within a network of works, historical and recent, and the cultural contexts that surround them. A Critical AI Art expressly addresses intertextuality and its relation to the idea of originality, not merely because these are the issues raised by AI image generation, but because these are issues inherent to art itself. 

On an art experiment in soviet Lithuania

Looking through my own library of books from occupied Lithuania, I realized that a broader audience was likely unfamiliar with the story of the Lithuanian SSR’s artistic revolution in the 1970s, a bold and audacious deviation from the traditional narrative of Soviet-controlled artistic expression is the midst of the Cold War that has yet to receive proper treatment in the West.

By 1960, the Politburo had become concerned about the rising cultural influence of the United States worldwide, particularly in Europe. In particular, they were concerned about the use of art in the ideological war with the capitalist and democratic West. As Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art elucidates, the United States Information Agency and the CIA weaponized modern art as a form of soft power. 

… the battle against communism promised to be a long and difficult one, and one which for want of traditional weapons would require the full arsenal of propaganda. The war may have been a “cold war” but it was nonetheless a total war. Accordingly, art, too, was called upon to play its part.

Guilebaut, 173.

The dynamism and unpredictability of Abstract Expressionism served as an apt metaphor for the freedom and innovation promised in the American way of life, a foil to the strictures of Socialist Realism that dominated the art scene in the USSR during the 1950s. The ossification of Socialist Realism, and the understanding of it outside the Soviet Union as rigid, formulaic, and bereft of individual expression was a contrast to the immediate post-revolutionary environment when Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar responsible for the Ministry of Education, recognized the power of avant-garde art as a tool of propaganda and influence and advocated for Agitprop experiments inside during the heady days of “War Communism.” Soon, seeking to convert the European avant-garde to Communism, he dispatched El Lissitzky  to Western Europe to spread the gospel of Constructivism and funded publications like Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet to showcase the exciting new direction of Soviet art to the world. Such radical projects were soon suppressed in favor of a romanticized cult of the worker in Socialist Realism. But with Soviet leaders facing the rising cultural influence of the United States, after the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin tasked a committee to investigate how to reverse the USSR’s declining ideological popularity. Evaluating the profound impact that Western art was having on the global art scene, the committee recommended a course of action as unprecedented as it was strategic, designating the Lithuanian SSR as a special zone for artistic expression. There were a number of reasons why Lithuania was chosen: First, the small Baltic nation—literally the westmost part of the Soviet union—had long been westward looking, but the impenetrability of the Lithuanian language to Russian and the relatively small Russian minority—when compared to Latvia or Estonia—meant that if these developments got out of control, they could be contained. The committee moved slowly and, at first, chose to let Lithuanian architects lead the way. Notably, works like Elena Nijole Bučiūte’s Žemėtvarkos projektavimo instituto rūmai (Institute for the Organisation of Land Exploitation) and Vytautas Čekanauskas’s Parodu rūmai (Art Exhibition House), both built in 1967, received positive reception locally, in Moscow, and abroad. 

The decision to designate the Lithuanian SSR as a special zone for artistic expression signified a clear departure from the norm. It was a move that challenged the traditional model of centralized control over artistic production and expression that had characterized the Soviet cultural policy since the days of Stalin. The Soviet leaders were acutely aware of the potential for art to be a vehicle for dissent and for the expression of ideas that were contrary to the state ideology. Yet, they believed that the potential benefits outweighed the risks. They hoped that by fostering a vibrant and dynamic art scene in the Lithuanian SSR, they could demonstrate the cultural vitality of the Soviet Union, and perhaps even influence the global discourse on art and freedom. The Lithuanian SSR was thrust into the limelight. Artists were suddenly given the freedom to explore new artistic currents, to challenge the established norms, and to engage with their counterparts in the West. The impact of this decision on the Lithuanian art scene was profound and transformative, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s cultural history.

Already as early as the mid 1960s, American Fluxus leader George Maciunas reached out to his Lithuanian counterparts—notably composer Vytautas Landsbergis—to establish links between New York and Vilnius (see, for example, this 1991 article in Artforum by Nam Jun Paik). Maciunas would struggle to return to Lithuania, his efforts at obtaining a visa always subtly thwarted by Moscow authorities, who believed his brand of art could ignite ideological difficulties, but nevertheless, he managed to secure visits in the early 1970s from Western artists, notably Joseph Beuys, photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (who photographed peasants in the countryside), and land artist Robert Smithson.

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Ralph Eugene Meatyard, photographs from Lithuanian countryside, taken and exhibited 1970

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Robert Smithson exhibit, Vilnius, Lithuania, 1971

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Joseph Beuys Exhibit, “Labas Rytas, Lietuva,” Vilnius, 1972

For Lithuanian artists, this newfound freedom was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provided an opportunity to break free from the shackles of socialist realism and to explore a multitude of artistic currents prevalent in the West. On the other hand, it posed new challenges as they had to navigate this unfamiliar artistic landscape while still operating within the overarching political framework of the USSR. Brilliantly, the directorship of the Lithuanian Artists’ Union understood this danger and encouraged artists to work in anonymity, under pseudonyms or in groups, a process which they claimed avoided the bourgeois cult of the individual, but that also protected them from trouble should the winds of politics change. For six years, from 1970 to 1976, the Artist’s Union organized annual thematic exhibitions that received remarkable attention in both the local scene and in the West, even as they were hardly known in the larger Soviet Union or East Bloc due to concerns about the ideological content of the work. 

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1970. Objektai/Objects

The 1970 show was an ambitious start to the cycle of annual exhibitions, itself inspired by the 1966 Primary Structures Show as well as by Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Giving this work an appropriate didactic Marxist twist, artists set out to critique the processes of production, consumption, and overaccumulation in society. Exhibit halls throughout Vilnius were filled with large stacks of blank boxes and museum storage areas were opened to visitors. The show proved wildly popular with artists but confounded both the public and the authorities, who urged caution and discipline in future exhibits.  

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1971. Kibernetica/Cybernetics

Hoping to appeal to sympathetic forces in the nomenclatura, the Artists’ Union invited Aksel Ivanovich Berg, Soviet scientist and head of the Scientific Council on Complex Problems in Cybernetics to lecture on the topic to artists who would then work on the theme throughout the city. Unsure of how to apply the problems of cybernetics to art, Berg—who was also a radio engineer—showed a slide of Nicolas Schöffer’s Tour Cybernétique (Cybernetic Tower) in Liège, Belgium, a project that responded to data from its environment. Artists constructed their own interpretations of the Tour Cybernétique throughout Vilnius and added other interpretations of how art might engage with the topic, including an early work of sound art that Landsbergis included in the show. Returning to see the show, Berg was puzzled by the work, but glad for the attention to his field. 

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1972. Mokslas/Science

Seeing the potential for aligning the exhibits with themes popular with the government, the Artists’ Union tried again in 1972, this time with science, building on Lithuania’s role as a major research center for electronics. Nevertheless, the display of a  crashed mock-up of a space capsule proved highly controversial in the wake of the fatal 1971 accident of Soyuz 11 (no Russian crewed spacecraft flew again until 1973) and the overall Soviet failure to reach the moon. Leaders of the Artists’ Union were accused of subversion and only high-level interventions by sympathetic Politburo members saved the experiment.       

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1973. Feminizmas/Feminist Art

With fingers burned, the Artists’ Union set out on a surprisingly risky path, an exhibit of feminist art. This proved wildly successful in the West and did not lead to terrible consequences back home, although as with the 1970 Objects show, the conceptual nature of the show meant it was confusing to locals. Feminism proved to be a risk worth taking and inaugurated a series of shows in which both organizers and artists flew ever closer to the sun. 

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1974. Televizija/Television

Hoping to finally reach the public more broadly, the 1974 exhibit revolved around the phenomenon of television. Television, by this point, had become popular in the USSR and Lithuania was a major center of television manufacture in the Soviet Union. Video art had become popular in the West and the Television exhibit sought to capitalize on the phenomenon while critiquing the televisual spectacle. Echoes of both the Objects and Science shows could be felt in this exhibit, which achieved reasonable success with the local populace and authorities. 

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1975. Aplinka/Environment

1975 saw the beginning of the end of conceptual art in 1970s Lithuania. The construction of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, which had begun in 1974, had led to widespread discontent, and the Environment theme was co-opted into a protest by a group of young artists against nuclear power. Although the project drew more attention than ever from the West, inspiring protests against nuclear power and chemical contamination in West Germany and the United Kingdom, it unsettled the Soviet authorities and they placed the Artists’ Union on notice that their methods were becoming ideologically unsound.     

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1976. Vaiduokliai/Ghosts

During the organization phase of the 1976 exhibit, which was initially supposed to be on abstraction, the Artists’ Union was notified that this was the last in the series of experimental art projects. The controversy over the Environment exhibit had proven to be too great and the program had earned the disapproval of Brezhnev himself. As a coda, the organizers swiftly rethought the theme around the concept of ghosts and haunting. Many of the works were of a strange, abstract quality, with fabric scrim and translucent panels suspended throughout the exhibition halls. “Paintings” made of oxidized steel lent the exhibit a further funereal air. 

In the fashion of failed Soviet experiments, the exhibits of the 1970s were not spoken of again, at least not in public, and it would take until Lithuanian Independence and the foundation of the Contemporary Art Centre by Kestutis Kuizinas in the early 1990s for conceptual art to find a new, more permanent home in Vilnius, but at some level, these experiments were never forgotten and helped give rise to a new generation of radical artists.


This is the second of three drafts of Critical AI Art works that I am publishing this week. AI Art that seeks to do something, not just create NFTs for profit is incredibly time-consuming and like the first piece on Pierre Lecouille, this project took months to of work to this date. For my friends in Lithuania, this piece, in particular, is likely to seem incomplete and I fully accept that. But as I stated in the afterward to the Lecouille piece, the rapid development of AI image generators—not to mention the kitsch being produced by them—means that sitting on this work for longer will simply make it stale, so here it is, incomplete but in the public sphere.

As with all of my AI Art pieces, this work began with an experiment in prompting. Initially, the images returned did not resemble Vilnius or art that I could ever envision in Lithuania. Over time, however, Midjourney has proven much better at producing uncannily appropriate imagery. Once a basic outline emerged and I could begin refining this work, it developed a threefold significance for me. First, it points to the impossibility of work like this in the repressive atmosphere of Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the 1970s. Imagine what radical thought has been lost to the machinery of oppression. Second, the rewriting of history recalls the chronic desire to rewrite history (and to fake imagery) in the Soviet Union and, to a lesser but still real extent, in post-Independence Lithuania and the West in general. Finally, this work has a personal meaning to me, a spirit photography of an era of art that I knew only as a child in 1970s America and that I nevertheless miss deeply as well as a country that always existed as a lost Other until I finally was able to visit in 1991. There is no word for “Ostalgie” in Lithuanian as there is in Germany, since the Soviet times were, for Lithuania, a time of great oppression by a foreign power—unlike East Germany, which was very much the jewel in the crown for the East Bloc—and this is not that, rather  this project is, finally and foremost, a way of working with the way a particular place and time has haunted me over the years.