Roxy, a small life

Our cat Roxy passed away three weeks ago, early on Sunday, April 14. She had been ill for a while, but it was still a shock. Three of us were in Tokyo while our daughter Viltis was at Bard College, studying. We had put Roxy in the care of a wonderful veterinary nurse who works at the clinic where Roxy had been hospitalized twice since Christmas. She had some trouble during the week, but it seemed surmountable and she was at the hospital recovering on our last day in Japan. We were on the train back to Narita to fly home when a vet at the hospital called to say that she was dying. I authorized a transfusion so we could say goodbye.

Driven by friends from school, Viltis arrived less than 12 hours after the phone call while we arrived straight from the airport, hours later. I contacted two friends when I was on the plane and they kindly brought one of our cars to the hospital so we could all go home. We spent the evening with Roxy and she passed in her sleep overnight, nestled in bed between Viltis and myself. It was sad, but it was much better than having to ask our vet to kill her (I find “put to sleep” such an unpleasant euphemism). Roxy was a cat, she only lived 15 years, nine months, and three days. Compared to ours, it was a small life, but also an outsize one. Not every animal plays such a big role in people’s lives, but Roxy did. We are gutted and grieving. I started writing this soon after, but it’s been hard. I’ve done a lot of gardening since being in a catless home isn’t easy. I keep hearing noises, then realize it isn’t her. But I want to write something to memorialize her. Blogs are supposed to be personal. As a public intellectual, I often avoid the personal since it quickly becomes self-indulgence. But there are lessons in Roxy’s life and that’s what this post is about: her story and what she taught us.

Roxy in my office, keeping me company while I work.

First, the unknown. Roxy was born on 7/11/2007. The only thing of note I can find that day is that Lady Bird Johnson, champion of the beautification of the American landscape as well as the founder of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, died that day. Roxy did love the outdoors and had quite the spirit, so maybe there is some connection. Who knows. Still, her birthdate seems quite lucky, from a numerological point of view. But was she a lucky cat? We know nothing about her first seven years, but she must have been treated well as she was a lover of people, always outgoing and never afraid. By the end of July 2014, poor “Racy Roxy” was in the Bergen County Animal Shelter. Why anybody would give up such a loving cat is beyond me. People do give up their animals for no good reason, but I can’t see why anybody would have willingly given Roxy up. She was too great a cat. While she was with us—until her last illness—she would make a strange howl, a sort of mantra, something like meow-ow meow-ow-ow-ow meow-ow ow. Another friend of ours who is a veterinary nurse said normally that is a sound only animals in great pain make. Roxy wasn’t in great pain at the time and she usually made it in another room without people around. Another friend, who cat-sat when we were away, said she thought it was a lament for someone, perhaps someone who died. That makes sense to me. Roxy didn’t have much to do in the shelter and by March 2015, she had gained quite a bit of weight, enough that the shelter was concerned and had her undergo exploratory surgery. It turned out she just had a huge fat pad. Roxy stayed at Bergen County Animal Shelter until November of 2016—over two years after she arrived in the shelter—when the Montclair Animal Shelter took her and ten other cats. That November, a local family with small children tried to adopt Roxy but the husband had bad cat allergies and she had to go back. I imagine there was a lot of sadness for them and for her. So close, but no home.

Roxy at the Montclair Township Animal Shelter

I had been wanting a cat for a while, ever since our Daisy died. She had been born in 1995 and accompanied us from Los Angeles to New Jersey in 2006 but passed away on December 1, 2008. Our youngest was allergic to cats, but he wanted a cat as much as the rest of us and had been getting monthly shots at the allergist. January 2017 was a difficult time. It was the first month of the Drumpfenjahre (or Trumpenjahre if you want) and the pro-Russian creep who once kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside had installed himself in the White House. Teaching had become deeply unpleasant thanks to apathetic students both in the US and Ireland and because of the bureaucratic hell implemented by McKinseyite administrators in both countries. I had a recent brush with aging thanks to cataract surgery. I was in a bad mood. So I said, let’s go to the Montclair Animal Shelter today and look at the cats. The shelter had just closed, but they accommodated us. I thought we should get a kitten, but they were asleep in their cages. We saw two cats outside their cages, Alpha Alpha, a ginger tabby who could jump five feet into the air, and Roxy, an older cat who they had brought from Bergen County Animal Shelter along with ten other cats. Roxy just lay there but seemed friendly. Viltis wanted Roxy.

I said, to her, “That’s an old cat, don’t you want a kitten?” She said, “That’s the cat I want, she likes me.” “Ok,” I said, unimpressed by the sleeping kittens, but not much more impressed by Roxy, “we’ll take Roxy.” I love my kids and if that’s what they wanted, fine. Given her age, Roxy was a “Senior Special” for $50. Well, ok. With my cataract surgery, I thought I was rapidly becoming a senior myself, even though I wasn’t 50 yet. I wasn’t ready for thinking of myself as a senior and Roxy wasn’t either. Our love story began with Roxy screaming all the way to the car and most of the way home. Roxy screamed a lot in general. The shelter staff said, “let this cat out in one room and give her a week to adapt before letting her explore the house.”

We brought her home and I broke the rules right away. I had this thought that with all her wailing she was a pretty confident creature and I put a fuzzy liner from an old jacket out on the living room floor. “Let’s see what you think of this place,” I said as I let her out of the cat carrier. She didn’t lie on the jacket. Instead, she walked around the whole house calmly and looked at everything. Only then did she come back, lay down on the liner and let us know she was home.

Roxy had a great life. That was her gift. She didn’t gloat, she just enjoyed life. She loved to lie in the sun, inside when it was cold, outside when it was hot. She would often lie on her back, and she didn’t mind belly rubs. She would lie on the radiant floor in the bathroom. When I walked in, she would make a little chirping noise to let me know I shouldn’t step on her. Roxy loved to watch TV with the family. She didn’t really watch the television, well not most of the time, but she loved to be with us while we did. She might be in the bathroom or somewhere, but when the TV went on, she would dependably come out and choose a family member on whose lap she would sit. Roxy liked to be held. She’d often cry until my wife picked her up. It was a thing. She wanted affection. I think she also liked to be fairly high up for the view.

Roxy was not shy. When visitors came, she would greet them and stay with us. She quickly realized she was a member of the family and acted that way. Sometimes people said they didn’t like cats. Roxy made a mission to win them over. One friend had never understood cats, but after she stayed with us for some days, she dearly loved Roxy. She was an easy cat to get. There were never any surprises. Even when we went too far, Roxy would never hurt us. She’d give us a gentle little nip as a warning. But Roxy also sometimes seemed annoyed, emitting plaintiff cries. Still, it didn’t seem she was annoyed with us.

Rather, like the cat in the rather famous screaming cat meme, she was screaming at the world. That helped make her relatable. She was loving, but she knew the world could be a difficult place. We all wanted to scream in the Drumpfenjahre, which once again threaten to return, thanks to lunatics on both left and right who are falling victim to psyops. If it happens again, we will face another four years of hell without her to cheer us. I’m not sure what the answer to that will be.

Roxy and Viltis during lockdown, April 2020.

2020 was the worst of the Drumpfenjahre, due to the terror of a deadly global pandemic, total lockdown, and a bleach-injecting lunatic at the helm. Roxy, of course, didn’t have any idea what was going on and comforted us daily.

With the Drumpfenjahre and the nightmare of COVID-19 behind us, Roxy continued to bring us joy and was a model for living well. She met Diana Nausėdienė, the First Lady of Lithuania in September 2023, had her photograph taken by the presidential photographer and, unlike most cats, wound up appearing in most Lithuanian news outlets. Our routine was usually the same. In the morning, I would make a coffee and lie down on the couch to read and she would climb on top of me and sleep until I had to remove her to empty my bladder. With Viltis at Bard, Roxy would often come to my office and keep me company. Or she’d lie on the radiant floor in the bathroom, in the light of the sun, or near some other heat source. Roxy was aging and she had some degree of arthritis, so the heat helped.
She was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in October, but it seemed manageable, close to high normal. Unfortunately over the winter holiday, she entered stopped eating and went into a uremic crisis. We rushed her to the animal clinic where they took care of her over New Year’s. She recovered somewhat, but from then on, nausea would chase her, and she would have a tough time eating. In March we had an esophageal feeding tube implanted. I wish we had tried that much earlier as it made giving her medicines much easier and she could have the recommended amount of food daily. She enjoyed her feedings, which I’d administer as a sort of milkshake through a syringe, either sleeping through them or purring as her stomach filled. We discovered Tanya’s Comprehensive Guide to Feline Chronic Disease as well as the support group associated with it. These helped us wade through the confusing world of test results and myriad medicines. Roxy wanted to live. She was a fighter. Our last cat knew when she her time had come. Roxy said no, she wanted to be with us, to enjoy every minute she could. Unfortunately, for reasons that will never be known, Roxy suffered two seizures after her tube was implanted. Perhaps it was the tube, another medicine she was taking, or something else entirely. She wound up on anti-seizure medication which seemed to help. We thought long and hard about whether we should go to Tokyo but our friend was able to take care of her and we thought she had months or even years left. Unfortunately, she had another seizure toward the end of our stay and did not recover well, even with treatment at the hospital, which brings us back to the opening of this piece and her death. Three weeks later and none of us are over it yet.

Goodnight, sweet Roxy.

As readers of the academic and artistic side of this blog know, I have been researching AIs over the last two years. AIs have made it clear to me that reasoning and creativity can be generated by computers. But AI models aren’t conscious. They have no drive, desire, or ability to love. Or at least that’s the state of these systems now. Roxy was very much the opposite. She had drive, desire, and the ability to love. She couldn’t reason much, but she did know who to cuddle with, who to ask for hugs, who to ask for food, and who to nag for no reason. In that sense, she was pure consciousness. The cherry blossoms happened to be in bloom while we were in Japan and the phrase Mono no aware is associated with that time, a concept that refers to the beauty of transience, to the need to understand that the blossoms remind us of the impermanence of all things. So, too, Roxy’s short presence on this Earth reminds us that our own time is brief and we should make the most out of it, we should enjoy every minute, even if that does include periodically screaming at the world.

keeping a phenological diary

On the 26th of February, I was walking around the property and noticed the first flowers of the year. These were Crocus vernus, the Spring Crocus, native to the Alps, Pyrenees, and the Balkans. I did not plant these here. Judging from their location up on a hillside, I doubt that they were planted in that spot by previous owners either. Instead, they are naturalized and have spread here via seed. This makes me wonder what pollinator takes advantage of them. Recently I heard Thomas Rainer, a designer whose ideas always seem to make so much sense until—all of a sudden, they don’t, say that early spring exotics are essential for pollinators. That is commonly repeated pseudoscience, but something pollinates these flowers. A little research on the Internet suggests that Andrena, ground-nesting bees found in the northern hemisphere seem to like them. I wonder what they are really looking for this early in the season. I asked Sam Droege and he said that Apis will be out on any warm day over 60 and that Andrena will be looking for Acer rubrum, red maples, which bloom early. If you haven’t seen Sam’s amazing bee photography, check it out on Flickr. Apis mellifera, the honeybee, which is not native to North America, also seem to like them.

Crocus vernus, the Spring Crocus

Crocuses made their way to this continent via the British colonists. Crocus sativus, or saffron, is the most valuable of the genus, although it blossoms in the fall and is not found in the wild here. It has been cultivated for so long that any wild population is no longer extant. Saffron flowers in the fall, but it is a crocus, unlike the “Autumn Crocus,” which is native to Great Britain and Ireland as well as much of Western Europe. “Autumn Crocus” is Colchicum autumnale and is also known as Meadow Saffron, Naked Boys or Naked Ladies, but it is a member of the Colchicacae family and in the order Liliales (Lilies) whereas true Crocuses are in Iridaceae family and the order Asparagales (which includes not just asparagus, but orchids, agaves, aloes, and the alliums as well). Colchicum autumnale is extremely toxic, so just don’t try making saffron from it. In England, saffron was already discussed as a drug by the tenth century and was cultivated extensively there for some centuries. According to botanist George Maw (1832-1912), who published the remarkably thorough The Genus Crocus in 1886, Crocus vernus was found wild in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, suggesting it had been cultivated as a flower some time prior.

Hamamelis vernalis, the Ozark Witchhazel

With the crocuses blooming, I thought to check in on our other nonnative early bloomer, the Hamamelis vernalis, Ozark Witchhazel. This one I planted, having found it at a local nursery. I shouldn’t have done it, but what did I know? Still, it’s a healthy bush now and it’s probably harmless. Ozark Bill has an interesting post putting together information about Hamamelis vernalis and which pollinators might use it.

It’s a month after I first started writing this post and now other plants are blooming. Narcissus, planted on the property by previous owners, has been in bloom since the weekend of March 16th. Forsythia started by the weekend of March 23rd. I am not a fan of Forsythia. Its blooms are dull, the bush requires constant trimming, and after its brief burst of yellow, it becomes an ugly and unkempt plant for the rest of the year. We had some in the back when we moved in. I pulled it all out. The Forsythia we see on our property is actually a neighbor’s. I trim it aggressively when it goes over the property line. I suspect it may become invasive one day. Either way, I don’t like it.

I was much more excited to see my earliest natives emerge. Mertensia virginica, the Virginia Bluebell, which I first saw on March 10, is a fabulous plant that I have planted in front of the house—among other places. It is a delight to see it every year, it suggests to me that everything will be alright. Mertensia is a member of the family Boraginaceae and the order Boraginales. Once I looked that up, it made perfect sense as it does have a resemblance to Borago officionales or Borage, which we grow in a raised bed on our deck to put in gin and tonics. Where Borago lasts quite a while, Mertensia does not. By early June, it will have melted away and other plants will come to the fore. Mertensia, like Borage, can be eaten and apparently has an “aquatic” flavor. It has no relationship to the Common Bluebell of the British Islands, Hyacanthoides non-scripta, which is highly toxic. Mertensia is an easy plant to grow. You plant the rhizomes in the soil and you are ready to go.

Mertensia virginica, Virginia Bluebells in early May of 2022.

On March 10, I also noticed the buds in Packera aurea, Golden Groundsel or Golden Ragwort or, according to Wikipedia, “squaw weed, life root, golden Senecio, uncum, uncum root, waw weed, false valerian, cough weed, female regulator, cocash weed, ragweed, staggerwort, and St. James wort,” I have to say that the yellow flowers (asterlike, since Packera, the groundsels, is a genus within the Aster family, Asteracae) are not a big delight for me, they are fine, nothing special, but I do love the purple buds and the plant’s ability to spread makes it a good native groundcover, particularly in shade.

Packera aurea, Golden Groundsel, is a remarkable groundcover. If only its blooms were as purple as these buds.

By the twenty-third, three new flowers appeared. The first, which I planted last fall, is Hepacita actiloba, sharp-lobed hepatica. You will not find a plant as interesting as this among the exotics at the garden center. In his 1907 A Bunch of Herbs, English naturalist John Burroughs called hepaticas “the gem of the woods.” Ours are no less compelling. They are members of the Ranunculaceae, the buttercup family. I have seen them in the woods in Vilnius, not far from Antakalnis Cemetery, where my parents and my friend Valdas Ozarinskas are buried.

Hepacita actiloba, Sharp Lobed Hepatica peaks out from the layer of leaf litter it has been overwintering under.

We have three Salix discolor bushes, or pussy willows, also northeast natives. The male plants have fuzzy nubs, or catkins, that give the plants that name (katteken is apparently Old Dutch for kitten, or so the Brooklyn Botanical Garden says here). Salix blooms are rather peculiar themselves. The deer will eat these, so I am letting them grow quite tall. As they mature, I hope to be able to bring some into the house as cuttings, just as I did for my mother from our old property in Stockbridge, Massachusetts over forty years ago. It’s raining quite heavily and the blooms are quite high up so I’d need a ladder to take photographs.

Salix discolor, Pussy Willow blooms in early April rain

Certainly the oddest flower of these is that of Carex plantaginea, the Seersucker Sedge. What a cool plant this is. The leaves are pretty wild, broad, and textured, tapering to a point at the tip. In my garden, the leaves persist all winter. It’s a phenomenal northeast native that is easy to place in the garden. The flowers are strange little yellowish-green stalks with brown tips, like miniature cattails.

Carex plantaginea, the Seersucker Sedge

While they won’t bloom for another month, Podophyllum peltatum, Mayapples have come up and spread their umbrella-like leaves, soaking up the sun before the trees leaf out. Anyone who says one needs exotics to have interest in a garden has never seen this plant.

Podophyllum peltatum, Mayapples on a rainy day. Note the Rhododendron maximum that was a devoured by deer a couple of weeks ago. Rhododendron maximum is unhealthy for deer so they are eating it because they know they would otherwise die of starvation. Montclair is in desperate need of a deer cull and anybody who is a true animal lover understands that the overpopulation of these animals here is inhumane. The most prevalent other plant here is Stylophorum diphyllum, although these are not blooming yet.

Rounding out the March blooms, I spied the first Jeffersonia diphyllia or Twinleaf. This delicate-looking plant is a member of the Berberidaceae, the barberry family, but unlike the repulsive Berberis thunbergii it isn’t found in Home Depot garden centers across the land. With a major storm upon us, many blooms have closed up to await sunnier times so I don’t have any good photographs of the twinleaf flower this year, although here is what the leaves looked like in mid-April of 2022. You can see the flowers have become seed pods. Twinleaf is not a spring ephemeral as it keeps its leaves all year, although it is commonly associated with them.

Neither is th first plant to bloom this April—Stylophorum diphyllum, the gorgeous Woodland Poppy, not native to New Jersey, but found in the Ohio River Valley. Strict ecologists and botanists disagree, but I don’t mind planting a plant from a nearby state. It’s a far better thing to do than planting an exotic and, I suspect, a lot better than planting a cultivar of a native as well since it won’t pollute an existing gene pool.

All these blooms reminded me of something I have been wanting to do for a long time, which is keep a phenological diary, a detailed record of the timing of natural phenomena such as the first appearance of leaves, flowers, and fruits, migration patterns of birds, the emergence of insects, and other wildlife activities in relation to seasonal and climatic variations. Phenology, as the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life, is fundamental to understanding the effects of climate change on the environment from year to year. Keeping a phenological diary helps scientists, ecologists, and nature enthusiasts observe and document long-term trends in the environment, providing valuable data for research on climate change, ecosystem interactions, and the timing of agricultural practices. Such diaries can span over years or even decades, offering insights into the shifting rhythms of the natural world and helping to predict changes that might affect biodiversity, agriculture, and conservation efforts. Through meticulous recording, phenological diaries contribute significantly to our understanding of the natural world and the impact of human activities on ecosystems.

Phenology is arguably the first form of history. Ancient civilizations, from the Chinese to the Greeks and Romans, observed the recurring patterns of plant and animal life to guide farming practices. Drs. Michael Balick and Gregory Plunkett of the New York Botanical Garden have been exploring how the people of Southern Vanuatu traditional eschew solar-based calendar-keeping in favor of some 111 species of “calendar plants” to understand when to accomplish various tasks, from planting and harvesting crops to fishing for lobsters. Read more about their work on the NYBG site or listen to Thomas Christopher’s Growing Greener podcast. On rare occasion, we still do things like this, for example, applying corn starch to annual weeds in lawns is supposed to be done when Forsythia are blooming (better yet, get rid of the tired old lawn).

Our family is getting ready for a trip to Japan on Friday and while our visit is timed with spring break at our 18 year old’s high school, it happens that a late cold snap has meant that the sakura or cherry blossoms are going to be in full bloom when we get there on Saturday. You can follow the detailed forecasts on the Sakura Weather Map. Japan’s fascination with cherry blossoms (sakura) has been a significant cultural and scientific interest for centuries and is one of the most vivid examples of phenological events deeply embedded in a nation’s cultural traditions, symbolizing the transient nature of life due to the brief and spectacular blooming period of these flowers. Historically, the Japanese have maintained detailed records of cherry blossom flowering times, which date back over a thousand years. Apart from cherry blossoms, Japan also celebrates the flowering of other plants such as plum (ume) blossoms, which bloom slightly earlier than cherry blossoms and are also culturally significant, symbolizing perseverance and hope. The appreciation and celebration of these and other blossoms are reflected in numerous festivals (hanami) dedicated to viewing and enjoying flowers, indicating the societal importance of these phenological events. The phenological records are not only of cultural and historical interest but have also become valuable scientific data for studying climate change and its impact on plant phenology. The timing of cherry blossom flowering is highly sensitive to temperature changes, making it an excellent biological indicator for assessing the effects of global warming. Studies have shown that cherry blossoms in Japan are blooming increasingly earlier, correlating with rising temperatures. The oldest phenological observations, of the blossoming of sakura in Kyoto date to 705 CE and were referenced during the signing of the the 1992 Kyoto protocol.

As a scientific practice in the West, phenology got its start in 1736 when English landowner and naturalist Robert Marsham started keeping detailed records of 27 natural events in springtime. He called this his Indications of Spring, continued for over sixty years, a practice that his family kept up into the twentieth century. Do read more about Marsham’s work in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s “From Snowdrop to Nightjar. Robert Marsham’s ‘Indications of Spring’ (1789)“. Marsham’s initiative laid the groundwork for phenology to evolve into a structured scientific discipline. The term “phenology” itself was coined in the 19th century by the Belgian botanist Charles Morren. Morren derived the term “phenology” from the Greek words “phaino” (φαίνω) meaning “to show” or “to appear” and “logos” (λόγος) meaning “study,” essentially translating to “the study of what appears or happens.” It was not until the 20th century, with the advent of modern scientific methods and technologies, that phenology expanded significantly, incorporating more quantitative methods to study and predict the timing of natural events. Today, phenological records are invaluable for researching climate change’s impacts on ecosystems, demonstrating the enduring importance of these meticulous observations made over centuries.

I wondered how to close this essay. It has taken a month to write due to family emergencies and I admit some frustration that it constantly struck me that I had once again fallen behind in keeping a phenological diary as I had no idea where to do so. Excel? A paper notebook? A digital diary? Where? Ultimately, my record of this month at Highland House took place on this very page. But adding further observations in this post is not sustainable nor is it a model for others, but in finishing it, I was looking for more information on phenology as a practice and to my delight, I discovered the USA National Phenology Network and it’s Nature’s Notebook application which is available for smartphones. It requires a couple of hours of coursework, but this seems fabulous. I will update this post as I learn more.

On the Pictures Generation and AI Art

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The other day, I posted some AI images of land art that doesn’t exist on Instagram. I didn’t have a plan for these, but I liked them and wanted to share them. In the comments, my friend the photographer Richard Barnes wrote, “This is our new world which for the moment is totally reliant on the old one.”

Richard is absolutely right and there is a lot to unpack in that sentence. To take one obvious reading, AI image generation is based on datasets of images on the Internet. You can read my extensive take on this in my last essay for this site, California Forever, Or the Aesthetics of AI Images, but today, I want to tackle the issue of AI imagery and originality.

My desire to make these images was backward-looking, or more properly, hauntological. Hauntology, a concept that emerged from the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, later popularized in cultural theory by Mark Fisher, suggests that the present is haunted by the unfulfilled potentialities of the past, creating a sense of nostalgia for lost futures that were never realized. Fisher writes: “What haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate.” (Mark Fisher, “What is Hauntology?Film Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Fall 2012), 16, article paywalled by JSTOR). For Fisher, much of recent culture is permeated by this hauntological quality, exploring historical references, styles, and ideas that never fully materialized in their own time.

If this concept is unfamiliar, then take the show Stranger Things. Set in the 1980s, not only does it explore the aesthetic and cultural motifs of that era, it revisits the past in ways that underscore the absence of the utopian visions once promised by that time. This is evident in the show’s theme song by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon (a.k.a. S U R V I V E), informed by 1980s synthesizer music by musicians like Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, Jean-Michel Jarré, Vangelis, and John Carpenter and performed on modular synthesizers and vintage synthesizers from the 1970s. Through its retrofuturistic setting, supernatural elements, and cultural references, Stranger Things effectively embodies this hauntological sentiment, appealing to audiences by conjuring a collective memory of a past both familiar and lost, a space where the promise of progress and the fear of what lies in the unknown are in constant dialogue, thereby reflecting our contemporary longing for a future that seems increasingly out of reach in the face of technological stagnation and political paralysis. Throughout the series, an alternate dimension called “the Upside Down” functions allegorically as a manifestation of hauntology, representing the shadowy underside of progress and the hidden costs of failed utopias. This parallel dimension, while mirroring the physical world, is engulfed in darkness, decay, and danger, embodying the repressed anxieties not only of teenage sexuality—the familiar foundation of horror films—but also of the pursuit of advancement without ethical consideration. It can be interpreted as the tangible realization of the lost futures Fisher describes, a space where the dreams of the past are not just forgotten but actively twisted into nightmares. This allegorical realm underscores the series’ exploration of the impact of scientific hubris and the disintegration of the social fabric, issues that resonate with contemporary anxieties about technological overreach and the erosion of social bonds. Through the lens of the Upside Down, Stranger Things critiques the nostalgia for a past that never fully addressed these underlying tensions, suggesting that without confronting these spectral fears, they will continue to haunt us, impeding the realization of truly progressive futures.

Being born in 1967, I was in high school in 1983, the year in which the first season of Stranger Things is set, so I would have been older than the kids in Stranger Things, but the showrunners, Matt and Russ Duffer (the Duffer Brothers) were born in 1984. There is something about the era just before one is born and in the years before one forms lasting memories, that triggers the hauntological sense, particularly in regard to its relation to the Freudian uncanny (the unheimlich), which emerges not just as a theoretical concept but as a lived emotional reality, the encounter with something familiar yet estranged by time or context, generating an unsettling yet compelling attraction. The era immediately before one’s birth is fertile ground for the uncanny because it is inherently connected to one’s existence, yet it remains elusive and out of reach, shrouded in the fog of collective cultural memory rather than personal experience.

This is where my interest in Land Art, which thrived in the late 1960s and early 1980s comes from. It’s a mythic and heroic past, right outside the scope of my lived awareness. Land Art, moveover, is at a particular inflection in the Greenbergian history of modern art and one that brings us closer to our topic at hand. Art critic Clement Greenberg famously sought to distill the essence and trajectory of art through the modernist progression of self-criticism towards purity and autonomy, particularly in painting. Greenberg posited that art should focus on the specificity of the medium, leading to an emphasis on formal qualities over content or context. Specifically, Greenberg argued that modernist painters should embrace and explore the flatness of the canvas rather than attempt to deny it through illusionistic techniques that create a sense of three-dimensional space on the two-dimensional surface. He saw abstract expressionism and color field painting as driven by the gradual shedding of extraneous elements (like figurative representation, narrative, and illusionistic depth) that were not essential to painting as a medium. This process of reduction aimed at focusing on what was uniquely intrinsic to painting—its flat surface and the potential for pure color and form. This approach is distinctly indebted to Hegelian aesthetics, in which art is seen as a vehicle for the spirit (Geist) to realize itself, moving towards a form of absolute knowing or self-consciousness. The late 1960s projects of Minimal Art, Land Art, and Conceptual Art can all be seen as elaborations of Greenbergian modernism. Minimal Art, with its emphasis on the physical object and the space it occupies, pushes Greenberg’s interest in medium specificity to its logical extreme by reducing art to its most fundamental geometric forms and materials, thereby focusing on the “objecthood” of the artwork itself. Land Art extends this exploration to the medium of the earth itself, engaging directly with the landscape to highlight the intrinsic qualities of the environment and the artwork’s integration with its site-specific context, thus reflecting Greenberg’s emphasis on the inherent characteristics of the artistic medium. Conceptual Art, although seemingly divergent in its prioritization of idea over form, aligns with Greenbergian modernism by stripping art down to its conceptual essence, thereby challenging the traditional boundaries of the art object and emphasizing the primacy of the idea, akin to Greenberg’s focus on the essential qualities of painting and bringing art back to relevance as a philosophical discourse. Together, these movements expand upon Greenberg’s foundational principles by exploring the boundaries of what art can be, each pushing the dialogue about medium specificity and the pursuit of purity in art further.

Coming out of architecture and history, I find art without rigor frustrating and boring, so the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s is my north star and I am indeed something of a neo-Greenbergian (more on that here). But during the 1970s, the Greenbergian trajectory encountered significant challenges, marking a pivot away from these ideals towards a more fragmented, pluralistic understanding of art. Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” serves as a critical juncture in this shift. Krauss dismantles the Greenbergian barrier between sculpture and not-sculpture by introducing a set of oppositions that allowed for a broader, more inclusive understanding of sculpture. This “expanded field” theory challenged the purity of medium specificity by embracing a wider range of practices and materials, effectively undermining the modernist notion of progressive refinement and autonomy of the arts. Krauss:

From the structure laid out above, it is obvious that the logic of the space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material. It is organized instead through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation.

Krauss’s essay, well-intentioned though it was, did not offer a positive direction for research in art, encouraging the sort of lazy pluralism and market-oriented art that has defined far too much art production in the years since.

The one exception to all this, however, is photography. If, in my essay on the aesthetics of AI images, I lamented the obsession with technical proficiency at the cost of taste in amateur HDR photography, in the hands of the best photographers —from the New Topographics movement in the 1970s to the work of great living photographers today, like Hiroshi Sugimoto, Guy Dickinson, David Maisel and Richard Barnes—the technical nature of photography is used to explore the photograph as a medium. And photography, by its very nature as an index of reality, its inexorable relationship between the subject and its representation—aligns with the Greenbergian ideal of art that is true to its medium more effectively than other media.

Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), 43.

Few artists have interrogated the roles of authorship, originality, and representation as effectively as the Pictures Generation, a loosely affiliated group of artists—mainly photographers—named after Pictures, a 1977 exhibition at New York’s Artists Space curated by Douglas Crimp. These artists embraced appropriation, montage, and the recontextualization of pre-existing images, deliberately blurring the boundaries between high art and popular culture and questioning the notion of an artwork’s purity and originality. Not all of this work still speaks to us today. John Baldessari’s art has aged poorly and many artists, such as Richard Prince, have long ago stopped doing interesting work. But at the time Prince, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo (who admittedly also worked in paintings and charcoal, but in ways akin to the other four in this group), and Sherrie Levine produced compelling and rigorous work during this period. Crimp, on the name “pictures”:

To an ever greater extent our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. Next to these pictures firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial. While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality,it now seems that they have usurped it. It therefore becomes imperative to understand the picture itself, not in order to uncover a lost reality, but to determine how a picture becomes a signifying structure of its own accord. But pictures are characterized by something which, though often remarked, is insufficiently understood: that they are extremely difficult to distinguish at the level of their content, that they are to an extraordinary degree opaque to meaning. The actual event and the fictional event, the benign and the horrific, the mundane and the exotic, the possible and the fantastic: all are fused into the all-embracing similitude of the picture.

Douglas Crimp, Pictures (New York: Artists Space, 1977), 3.

For these artists then, the question of representation itself was fundamental, indeed the proper object for art. Crimp elaborated on this in a thorough revision to this essay, published two years later. This time, Crimp introduces the notion that these works demonstrate a postmodernist break with the modernist tradition:

But if postmodernism is to have theoretical value, it cannot be used merely as another chronological term; rather it must disclose the particular nature of a breach with modernism. It is in this sense that the radically new approach to mediums is important. If it had been characteristic of the formal descriptions of modernist art that they were topographical, that they mapped the surfaces of artworks in order to determine their structures, then it has now become necessary to think of description as a stratigraphic activity. Those processes of quotation, excerptation, framing, and staging that constitute the strategies of the work I have been discussing necessitate uncovering strata of representation.

Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), 87.

The astute reader might note that this is in the very same issue as the Krauss essay above. The issue, however, does not lead with either essay, but by a piece titled “Lecture in Inauguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, Collège de France, January 7, 1977.” The author is, of course, the semiotician Roland Barthes and he is the crux to the argument of this essay. Barthes’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France marks the acceptance of semiotics, the study of signs, in the university and sets out an agenda in which the field would not only attempt to analyze linguistic and literary matters but also provide a framework for decoding culture at large. Barthes is especially important to us in terms of his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” which was published in a widely read 1977 English collection of his works titled Image-Music-Text. In this essay, Barthes challenges traditional notions of authorial sovereignty by arguing that the meaning of a text is not anchored in the author’s original intent but is instead constructed by the reader’s engagement with the text. This radical shift foregrounds the role of the audience in creating meaning, suggesting that a work of art is a collaborative space where interpretations multiply beyond the author’s control. Intertwined with this concept is the idea of intertextuality, which posits that every text (or artwork) is not an isolated entity but a mosaic of references, influences, and echoes from other texts. Intertextuality underscores the interconnectedness of cultural production, indicating that the understanding of any work is contingent upon its relation to the broader network of cultural artifacts. Together, these concepts dismantle the traditional hierarchy between creator and receiver, emphasizing the active role of the reader or viewer in making meaning and highlighting the complex web of relationships that define the production and reception of art.

This perspective was crucial for the Pictures artists who frequently employed appropriation as a strategy, taking pre-existing images from various media and recontextualizing them in their art. This method directly engaged with Barthes’s idea by challenging the original context and intended meaning of these images, thus questioning the notions of originality and authorship. In doing so, they highlighted the idea that the creator’s authority over an artwork’s meaning is not absolute but rather shared with viewers, who bring their own interpretations and experiences to bear on the work.

Moreover, these artists applied Barthes’s concept to emphasize the fluidity and contingency of meaning. Their work often invites viewers to interpret images through their own cultural references and personal experiences, suggesting that meaning is not a fixed entity but a dynamic interaction. In critically engaging with the proliferation of images in contemporary society, the Pictures Generation explored how photographic and cinematic imagery shapes perceptions of identity and reality. This critical stance aligns with Barthes’s view of the text (or image) as a fabric of quotations and influences, further diminishing the role of the author in favor of a more collaborative and interpretive approach to meaning-making.

Crucially, this shift also led to a reevaluation of the artist’s identity. Rather than being seen as the singular source of meaning, artists of the Pictures Generation positioned themselves more as curators or commentators, utilizing the visual languages of their time to critique cultural norms and values. This reflects a move away from the modernist emphasis on the artist’s unique vision toward a recognition of the complex, contextual nature of art-making and interpretation.

Barthes’s idea—that the author’s intent and biography recede in importance compared to the reader’s role in creating meaning—parallels a shift towards viewing the artwork itself, and its reception, as central to its interpretation. This shift can be seen as aligning with Greenberg’s emphasis on the medium’s physical and visual properties as the locus of artistic significance, and Hegel’s idea of art revealing universal truths, though through a more contemporary lens focused on the viewer’s engagement.

But practices such as appropriation, pastiche, and intertextuality can also be framed as a mannerist lament, a response to a widely perceived exhaustion of possibilities within modernism. Compounding this, with the postwar rise of commercial art and Pop art, capital was thoroughly permeated by the strategies of the avant-garde and vice versa. Even shock, the classic technique of the avantgarde had been turned into a marketing tool, signaling the thorough co-option of avant-garde tactics by the very systems it sought to critique. The avant-garde‘s political validity was now deeply in question, something elaborated in the 1984 translation Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde. In this complex landscape, the Pictures Generation’s engagement with the visual language of mass media becomes a double-edged sword: a critique of—and a capitulation to—the pervasive influence of commercial imagery, reflecting a nuanced understanding of the impossibility of purity in an age dominated by reproduction and simulation.

If the Pictures Generation’s engagement already sounds like what Richard Barnes suggested in his comment, “This is our new world which for the moment is totally reliant on the old one” then perhaps this suggests a profitable route to investigate. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss’s student and Douglas Crimp’s contemporary (as well as my teacher at Cornell for a brilliant year) was a key critic for the Pictures Generation and his 1996 book, The Return of the Real, remains one of the deepest theoretical engagements with art from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. There, Foster introduces the concept of “Nachträglichkeit,” a term borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis, often translated into English as “deferred action.”

Nachträglichkeit refers to the way in which events or experiences are reinterpreted and given new meaning in retrospect, influenced by later events or understandings. It suggests that the significance of an artwork or movement is not fixed at the moment of its creation but can be reshaped by subsequent developments in the cultural and theoretical landscape. This recontextualization allows for a continuous reworking of the meaning and relevance of art, as past works are seen through the lens of present concerns and knowledge.

Foster applies this concept to the realm of art history and criticism to argue that the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, for example, can be re-understood and gain new significance in light of later artistic practices and theoretical frameworks:

In Freud an event is registered as traumatic only through a later event that recodes it retroactively, in deferred action. Here I propose that the significance of avant-garde events is produced in an analogous way, through a complex relay of anticipation and reconstruction. Taken together, then, the notions of parallax and deferred action refashion the cliche not only of the neo-avant-garde as merely redundant of the historical avant-garde, but also of the postmodern as only belated in relation to the modern. In so doing I hope that they nuance our accounts of aesthetic shifts and historical breaks as well. Finally, if this model of retroaction can contribute any symbolic resistance to the work of retroversion so pervasive in culture and politics today—that is, the reactionary undoing of the progressive transformations of the century—so much the better.

Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996), xii-xiii.

This perspective challenges linear narratives of art history that portray artistic development as a straightforward progression from one style or movement to the next. Instead, Foster emphasizes the recursive nature of artistic innovation, where contemporary artists engage with, reinterpret, and transform the meanings and methodologies of their predecessors. This is where a critical approach to AI imagery that explores the intertextual basis of all art might return to our narrative. In this light, Pictures anticipates a world in which imagery can be freely recombined, in which the role of the author is thoroughly questioned, and the status of the original is thrown into question.

Oversaturation. Reynisfjara, Iceland, 2023.

But more than that. Back to Instagram for a moment. Another phenomenon that we have to deal with—that the Pictures Generation did not—is the massive oversaturation of the landscape by user-generated content. This deluge of imagery created by the public—particularly while travelling—has transformed the visual ecosystem, challenging artists to find new methods of engagement and critique. The sheer volume of content complicates efforts to distinguish between the meaningful and the mundane, pushing contemporary artists to navigate and respond to a world where the boundaries between creator and consumer are increasingly blurred. This oversaturation demands a different reevaluation of originality, authenticity, and the role of art in reflecting and shaping societal narratives in the digital age. The are some 35 billion images posted on Instagram every year. These are not just private images, but images that are published in a way previously unimaginable—available to an audience of over a billion users. What does it mean to take a photograph today when the world is already oversaturated? What sense is there of taking a photo of a landscape or a street scene when the same image has been uploaded a thousand times? And what does it mean that serious artists and curators share—by choice or by necessity—work in that same milieu?

Most of the images on Instagram are already AI images. The reason an iPhone or a Pixel can take such an attractive photograph is that they possess highly sophisticated algorithms that create images that appeal to viewers. The iPhone, for instance, utilizes AI-driven features like Smart HDR and Deep Fusion. Smart HDR optimizes the lighting, color, and detail of each subject in a photo, while Deep Fusion merges the best parts of multiple exposures to produce images with superior texture, detail, and reduced noise in low-light conditions​​​​. The iPhone’s Neural Engine, part of its Bionic Chip, executes these complex processes, handling up to 600 billion operations per second, to deliver photographs that were unimaginable with traditional digital imaging techniques​​. Given the insane number of photographs taken at “Instagrammable” sites, and the ecological and social damage that such travel produces, one wonders if something like Bjoern Karmann’s Paragraphica camera might not be a better solution. Using various data points like address, weather, time of day, and nearby places, the Paragraphica then creates a photographic representation using a text-to-image AI generator. This isn’t to say that photography as art is extinct, but it is in peril thanks to oversaturation, which itself is so prolific it has become meaningless.

Another option might be to think of how Critical AI Art, distinguishing itself from the oversaturation of prevalent AI imagery might reflect on the profound shift in art’s interaction with technology and culture, revisiting themes central to the Pictures Generation—such as media influence and appropriation—through the lens of contemporary digital practices. By employing generative algorithms, this approach not only generates new visual forms but also engages critically with the saturation of images, probing the essence of authenticity, originality, and the evolving role of both artists and non-artists. This dynamic interaction underscores a broader, ongoing dialogue with the history of art revealing how artistic methodologies are shaped by the recursive nature of cultural and technological advancements. Here, a hauntological approach to AI Art be productive, such as the theory-fiction project I did last year, On an Art Experiment in Soviet Lithuania which reflects on the refusal of the avant-garde by the Soviet Union, the loss of Lithuania’s freedom to Soviet-Russian rule between 1945 and 1991, and art in the 1970s.

But there are other possibilities for using AI to make art. I’d like to conclude by citing one key artist from the Pictures Generation who I haven’t mentioned: David Salle. Curiously Salle is one of the only serious artists without a technology background to be publicly experimenting with AIs. Salle’s process has always been characterized by an innovative use of imagery and a negotiation back and forth between media, often starting with photographs he takes, which serve as the basis for his layered and complex paintings. Described in a lengthy New York Times article entitled “Is This Good Enough to Fool my Gallerist?” Salle’s method reflects a blend of the real and the conceptual, pushing the boundaries of narrative and abstraction in his work​​. Starting in 2023, Salle and a team of computer scientists worked on an iPad-based program trained on a dataset of his paintings and refined based on his input, showcasing an example of how AI can be employed to conceptualize variations of artwork, aiding in the brainstorming process for new paintings​​. Salle’s foray into AI art can be seen as an example of critical AI art, where the use of technology is not merely for the creation of art but serves as a commentary on the process of art-making itself. By integrating AI into his practice, Salle engages in a dialogue with the contemporary art world about originality, creativity, and the role of the artist in the digital age. Concluding the article, journalist Zachary Small lets Salle have the last word.

What will become of his own identity, as the algorithm continues to produce more Salle paintings than he could ever imagine? Some days, it seems like the algorithm is an assistant. Other days, it’s like a child.

When asked if the A.I. would replace him entirely one day, the artist shrugged.

“Well,” he said, “that’s the future.”

Can David Salle Teach A.I. How to Create Good Art? – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

A future, which is still totally reliant on the past.

One last point. As is my wont, in this essay I have focused on art from the 1960s onwards, but there are other models that might come to the fore again in this era. In particular, the Renaissance model of inspiration is an interesting one to reflect upon. Renaissance art theory was underpinned by the concept of imitatio (imitation), which was considered a noble pursuit. Imitation in the Renaissance sense involved studying and emulating the excellence of ancient art to grasp its underlying principles of beauty, proportion, and harmony. However, this process was not about mere copying; it was about surpassing the models from the past, a concept known as aemulatio. And that, very well, may be the future (of the past) in our art.

Vernal Pools at the great swamp

Morris County, New Jersey has it good. Unlike my own Essex County, which is bereft of well-managed natural areas, neighboring Morris County has some gems. In January, I attended the kick-off event for US House Representative Mikie Sherrill’s Building Habitat at Federal Facilities Act (this may be a good time to contact your local house representative and get them to support this bipartisan measure to help keep this country’s natural richness from disappearing) at the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center in Chatham.

While there, I took a brief hike around the area. I was quite impressed by the short walk, abutting the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge as well as by the naturalists and other employees the park employs.

Vernal pool at the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center, January 2024.

Over in Essex County, we have a few “reservations,” which I guess indicates what they are, bits of leftover land in which things are supposed to make do on their own. Invasive species abound, deer run rampant, and—generally speaking, the county just doesn’t seem to care at all. In contrast, some 35 minutes from my house, we have a healthy natural area with abundant wildlife habitat.

Worthy of Walter de Maria, these tubes put in by the Morris County Park Commission protect seedling trees from being eaten by deer or other animals. I like the way this looks and am going to do it on my property as well. The vernal pool beyond them is thawing after a deep freeze followed by a January rainstorm. This photograph is black and white because it is taken with a camera that has a monochromatic sensor. Monochromatic sensors have greater dynamic range and better resolution than equivalent color sensors. I do not like using software filters on my photographs as that is just throwing away good data.

Today it was nearly 70F, which is altogether too hot for March 3, but we took advantage of the warmth, by returning to the Great Swamp. I had the opportunity to bring some different cameras and captured a number of images of the vernal pools on the site.

This vernal pool was filled with the chorus of male Lithobates sylvaticus, Wood Frogs, which are obligate breeders in our ephemeral vernal pools. These wood frogs are “explosive breeders,” and mate in the course of a week. Males swim around the pool, making their crying sound, while females hide to avoid, as the Wikipedia link (and the naturalist we met) states, “to avoid sexual harassment.”

Vernal pools are seasonally temporary wetlands—”vernal” means spring—that play a significant role in the biodiversity. Confined wetland depressions, vernal pools hold water for at least two consecutive months annually without supporting breeding fish populations, but also dry out thoroughly​​ for at least a few days—long enough to kill any fish. The absence of fish is important because it creates a safe breeding ground for various amphibian species, which are highly sensitive to predation by fish on their eggs and larvae. These unique ecosystems support a rich variety of life, including “obligate” vernal pool breeders such as the Wood Frog, the emperiled Eastern Tiger and Marbled salamanders. These creatures can only reproduce in vernal pools and then depart, spending their life elsewhere.

This pond does not dry up in the winter, so it is home to creatures like the American Bullfrog and perhaps fish as well. There will be no Wood Frogs here as they would be eaten by the Bullfrogs or Common Snapping Turtles that dwell here.

Fish aren’t the only threat, the American bullfrog is a serious threat to other amphibians, although it does not like vernal pools and wants year-round water. Vernal pools are vital for the survival of several reptile species, providing them food in the form of amphibian eggs and larvae, with some species like the wood turtle and spotted turtle being highlighted for their dependence on these habitats​​. There are also “Facultative” breeders that can reproduce in either vernal pools or permanent pools​. Either way, our continued draining and destruction of wetlands is wiping out these creatures’ habitats.

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey emphasizes the critical habitat vernal pools offer for amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, migratory waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds, with all 18 of New Jersey’s frog species utilizing these pools for breeding purposes​​. Imagine: vernal pools are home to over five hundred species in our state alone. But, as the Foundation points out, climate change poses a significant threat to vernal pools, as altering hydroperiods—the seasonal cycles of drying and wetting—can severely impact the reproductive success of amphibian species that depend on these habitats. Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns can cause pools to dry prematurely or alter their seasonal timing, leading to habitat loss and potential reproductive failure​​.

Vernal pools under a power line running through the swamp.

Despite their ecological importance, vernal pools face numerous challenges, including habitat loss due to development, pollution, and the impacts of climate change. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect these unique ecosystems and the diverse species they support. New Jersey has an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 vernal pools, and we should have comprehensive protection and conservation strategies to preserve these vital natural resources, but the reality is they are vanishing fast​. Most other states are just as bad.

Symplocarpus foetidus, the Eastern Skunk Cabbage

Vernal pools also provide excellent habitat for moisture-loving spring ephemerals, such as Symplocarpus foetidus, the Eastern Skunk Cabbage. What you see in this photograph are the purple and yellow mottled spathes, poking up through the water. The plant’s flower consists of a spathe and spadix, which are characteristic of the Araceae family (which includes Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Wild Calla, and Duckweeds). The spathe is a hood-like structure, varying in color from deep wine-red to maroon, sometimes mottled or streaked with yellow or green. It encloses the spadix, a spike covered in numerous small flowers, which can range in color from pale yellow to dark purple. The skunk cabbage’s flower emits a skunk-like odor (or the scent of decomposing flesh) to attract its primary pollinators, carrion-feeding flies and gnats. This smell, combined with the warmth generated by the plant, can also lure bees, beetles, and other insects​​. This plant is thermogenic, meaning it can produce heat to melt its way through snow, allowing it to bloom while snow and ice are still present​. Never, ever eat the skunk cabbage. Do not even think about putting any in your mouth. I am unwilling to try myself, but as I understand it, after a minute or so, the massive amount of calcium oxalate crystals in the plant cause the sensation of being stabbed by a thousand needles in one’s mouth. After a while, nausea and vomiting starts, which might be a relief after that.

When I was constructing a vestpocket pond in my yard, I thought about making it a vernal pool. I discovered the website and books of Tom Biebighauser, who has restored thousands of wetlands across North America and elsewhere, and called him to discuss the project. Tom soon called back and I was so impressed by his knowledge and you-can-do-it attitude that I asked him to speak for the Native Plant Society of New Jersey‘s webinar series last month (I am now President of NPSNJ, but more on that later). Tom’s presentation was incredible. A highly-experienced restoration ecologist wrote me today and praised it, saying “I know a bit about vernal pools, but he schooled me bigtime. And you could feel his humanity coming through the screen.” At the same time, one doesn’t need any degree whatsoever to listen to Tom’s presentation. When you watch it, and you should, you will want to build vernal pools everywhere (and no, as he explains, they won’t lead to mosquitos).

If, in the end, I did not make it a vernal pool since half of my rooftop drains to that pond so it stays filled year round, but after watching this video, I am now eyeing my property and thinking about where else I can put in a vernal pool, or two, or three. As Tom points out, even a vernal pool the size of a desk can be big enough for amphibians to use for reproduction. I am very much looking forward to hearing the raucous sound of frogs instead of leaf blowers and heavy construction equipment here at Highland House.

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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