So the LORD God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. - Genesis 3:23
The Eden myth, found in various forms in the ancient culture of the Fertile Crescent, tells of a painful transition from a life of plenty to one of toil. It resonates with the changes we see in the archaeological record, a dramatic shift from small bands of hunter-foragers dwelling in rock shelters to vast city-states fed by a centralized infrastructure of domestication. However, it is implied in the Eden narrative that the garden is situated within a larger, untended landscape. We know very little about the culture of prehistory, and yet it far outruns the timeline of the written record. There is little clarity about how we perceived nature: How our perception may have evolved, regardless of changes to our conditions or modes of subsistence. Is this dichotomy between human culture and natural wilderness a byproduct of the agricultural revolution? Or was the Neolithic city-state essentially an analogue for the cave, each a bulwark against the world beyond human control?
In 2015, I wrote a script that reads the pixel values of images from global real estate listing services and then renders an exposure-adjusted average of those images. The output is an impression of a universal human dwelling (with a shade of idealization). It resembles a rock shelter: A central hearth illuminating curved walls, spotted with pictorial markings. Painted under our contemporary conceptions of shelter is an indelible image of the cave. We found our way out of the trees and plains and into lifeless rock for a reason, likely due to struggles with environment and wildlife. This may have been the first stage of our separation from the Magna Mater.12
The cave perhaps provides comfort by reenacting the memory of the womb, but this structure alienates both the human body and perspective from the world. Its opening serves as an aperture, through which nature is to be reconciled. The International Space Station is a drastic extrapolation of the same schema. Its structure protects inhabitants from an extremely hostile environment, and its single aperture is dedicated to highly technologized observation of the external world.
This protection from, and sensing of, environment is fundamental to aerospace design. The devices can be seen as a contemporary extension of the cave, shelter for our seekers in the wider realm of space and the conduit through which we negotiate with nature. They are the caves of the Anthropocene, framed on expansion and intervention, creating perceptual information through peripheral sensors.
Meanwhile, mysteries remain in our terrestrial, unaided experience of nature. Despite the reach of our peripheral sensors, we still feed the information into our sensory systems which are effectively unchanged since prehistory. These experiences become increasingly costly, and site specificity limits access, but the richest experiences still come from our direct encounters with nature. James Turrell’s “skyspaces” frame the atmosphere, Donald Judd’s boxes frame the land, and Dan Graham’s glass frames the sun.
Karwas and I look to extend this work. We are adopting methods and materials used in the design of observation satellites, spacecraft, and landers to create new Earth-viewing experiments. The first of these is a study of the Atlantic Ocean.
The high dunes of Truro, Massachusetts shoulder an unbroken perspective of the Atlantic. From miles off the mainland coast and high above the surface of the water, the ocean surface is an unbroken plain. Still, I find it difficult to avoid cultural interpretation of the landscape. The ocean, in its iconic simplicity of form and distinct otherness to the human world, has been so packaged for us as a symbol for nostalgia, media, promise, or reflection. I want to examine the ocean without these overtones. The oceans are in fact a profound wilderness, an environment nearly devoid of human presence, and so require an open minded study.
The result is meant to resemble the image seen on the ground glass of a field camera. Like the door of Étant donnés, this “camera” puts the viewer in an active role as transgressor and image maker.
In her film Disappearance at Sea (1996), Tacita Dean packages the alienation and spatiotemporal dislocation felt during observation of the ocean, but it is wrapped in seafaring mythology and cinematic experience which come between subject and observer. In a similar way, the textural architecture of Turrell’s spaces fills the mind with associations.
We work to limit these distractions by placing the observer at the position and orientation of the sensor plane, surrounding them with a featureless black surface in the interior, and using a white, insulated external cladding to reflect light and sound from the object’s environment. The resulting device behaves like a human-scale camera, and provides the relative objectivity of such a tool. It is a lander on a terrain foreign to itself, in which we become alien to the world.
Participants reported several perceptual shifts. They sensed alterations to time, such as reduction or increase of wave frequency. They also noted that the frame objectifies the subject for them, making the view into a picture, that allows immersion into study of the subject. This effect is an inversion of the cinema, where the frame turns picture into view, and their conscious awareness of it undermines the influence of allegory. The changes to their mode of viewing caused new awareness of surface features, events, conditions, scale, and temporality. From this machine we seek other faces of the nature outside ourselves.
The anthropologist and historian of science Loren Eisley saw the indeterminate perspective of prehistory as an unmatched condition for insight:
It is unlikely, however, in our present comfortable circumstances, that the pace of human change will ever again speed at the accelerated rate it knew when man strove against extinction. The story of Eden is a greater allegory than man has ever guessed. For it was truly man who, walking memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world, sat down and passed a wondering hand across his heavy forehead.3
- Gabriel Winer