a project by Holly Veselka


How do technologies such as 3D-scanners, modeling software, and artificially intelligent nature apps depict the ecological world? Mostly in varying degrees of abstraction with poetic outcomes. This is nature through the eyes of a machine, an emergent observer learning to name what it sees.

Emerging technologies are currently capable of interpreting only certain aspects of the physical world. Fei Fei Lee, the Director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, describes these limits in a New York Times OP-ED titled How to Make A.I. That’s Good for People:
“… in my lab, an image-captioning algorithm once fairly summarized a photo as “a man riding a horse” but failed to note the fact that both were bronze sculptures. Other times, the difference is more profound, as when the same algorithm described an image of zebras grazing on a savanna beneath a rainbow. While the summary was technically correct, it was entirely devoid of aesthetic awareness, failing to detect any of the vibrancy or depth a human would naturally appreciate.”

These impediments become even more pronounced when technologies observe 3-dimensional space (instead of the 2-dimensional photographs used in Dr. Lee’s lab.)
The images to the left are point clouds and meshed STL files of 3D-scanned spring flowers. While beautiful in color and form, they lack the complexity needed to recognize the flowers as individual species. These images represent a generalized nature, the essence of spring.

Emergent Observer is a conceptual art project that focuses on technology’s struggle to interpret the natural world. Designed by humans for humans, these technologies may lead to a general intelligence capable of an autonomous existence. How will this intelligence encounter the interconnected web of life that is Earth? 

In a world that is increasingly observed, analyzed, and constructed by computers, it is important to understand the limits of our technology. Natural history—the study of plants and animals—is a pursuit concerned with observation. Because of their limits, the technologies of today would make for terrible naturalists. Could we design a more livable future if we redirect the gaze of these technologies, program them to perceive the intricacy of life, biodiversity, endemic ecosystems?


San Marcos, TX
Spring 2019

Emergent Observer is a project by Holly Veselka, a conceptual artist based in central Texas. Using the Edwards Aquifer artesian zone as a test site, Emergent Observer assumes the role of a technological naturalist. Characterized by clear water springs in an otherwise harsh climate, this area has been inhabited by humans for an estimated 20,000 years. Following the 1830 Indian Removal Act, the springs were dammed—used for industry, municipal water supply, or recreation. Endemic species became endangered or extinct. Many springs were contaminated or dried up. Some remain but their loss has been foreshadowed. How can digital collection tell the story of this area’s natural history?

“Neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean. Country is compact of all its past disasters and strokes of luck–of flood and drouth, of the caprices of glaciers and sea winds, of misuse and disuse and greed and ignorance and wisdom–and though you may doze away the cedar and coax back the bluestem and mesquite grass and side-oats grama, you're not going to manhandle it into anything entirely new. It's limited by what it has been, by what's happened to it. And a people, until that time when it's uprooted and scattered and so mixed with other peoples that it has in fact perished, is much the same in this as land. It inherits.”

John Graves, Goodbye to a River

The images to the right are of textures collected from field work around central Texas’ springs.  Like these natural areas, the images are beautiful and precious, fragmented and broken, fading in color and context.


Chicago, Białowieża, Berlin, Gamboa
Summer 2019

“Nature is…animals, trees, the weather…the bioregion, the ecosystem. It is both the set and the contents of the set. It is the world and the entities in that world. It appears like a ghost at the never-arriving end of an infinite series: crabs, waves, lightning, rabbits, silicon…Nature.”
Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics

The images on the left are 3D printed objects in PLA, a biodegradable and sustainably sourced bioplastic.

... Chicago...
The images to the left are preliminary test prints from data collection in Texas. They are works in progress, moving toward a printed curiosity cabinet. This cabinet will be exhibited at Chicago’s ACRE Projects from May 31–June 23rd, 2019.

In June 2019, Emergent Observer will collect from the Białowieża Forest—the only surviving piece of old-growth forest that once stretched from Siberia to Ireland. On the border of Poland and Belarus, it's been mostly left-alone for 7,000 years, a preserved relic of the past.
Unlike managed forests—ones that are sustainably logged—more wood than not is decaying, laying where it falls on the forest floor, hosting immense biodiversity. Its rivers are wild, not diverted for recreation or municipal use instead of dammed springs, it hosts bogs and soggy wetlands. It is one of the only natural forests remaining in an otherwise altered landscape of Western civilization. Białowieża is a counterpoint to the springs in central Texas, a natural area so impacted by humans that you cannot separate  natural from human influence. 

In August, Emergent Observer will participate in the Digital Naturalism Conference (DINACON), an alternative conference exploring natural environments through technology. International scientists, technologists, and artists will gather in Gamboa, Panama to utilize a maker space in the jungle. Gamboa is marked with extreme biodiversity and, because of the Panama Canal, extreme human intervention. It is also home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.