The Bell Works, formerly known as the Bell Labs, in New Jersey was the birthplace of information technology and data theory as we know it. The complex was completed in 1962, one year after the death of its architect Eero Saarinen and features a dramatic Josef Albers-inspired atrium which, in the summer of 2016, played host to an in-situ data collecting ritual of over 10,000 roses by French-American artist Sarah Meyohas.
The idea for the performance art piece was sparked by a dream says Sarah. Having read Giuliana Bruno’s Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media and Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just which discusses flowers as objects that have long fascinated artists, she dreamt of “petals, and pixels. Petals as pixels. The dream was rudimentary, but once I chanced upon the Bell Works, the dream got bigger.”
As a result, Sarah hired 16 men from a temporary work agency and filmed them over the course of several days painstakingly plucking the petals off each rose. They were instructed to select the ones they felt were most beautiful – as a means of embedding their subjectivity into the data set – photograph and then preserve them. The fruits of their labour: a data set of 100,000 unique rose petals that would define the foundation of an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm capable of analysing this data in order to create new, unique petals forever.
The piece was performed by men in order to create a tension between the “male hands and female rose petals,” but also as a nod to how we more often than not refer to computers as women. In this instance, the machine-like archiving process was performed exclusively by the opposite sex.
The project is now on display at Red Bull Arts New York as a large-scale exhibition and virtual reality (VR) experience entitled Cloud of Petals. 3,289 of the petals are presented as a mosaic installation and the artist’s 30-minute film, of the performance art piece shot on 16mm at Bell Labs, plays on loop in an auditorium.
In the main gallery, Sarah has installed four large sculptures (panels and switchboards from the Bell Labs) all undergoing a “ritualistic software update,” as well as an infinity mirror – a device she uses throughout her work but also a replication of the Bell Labs which featured the biggest mirror in the world when it was designed.
Lastly, visitors can engage with a VR component, an element that replicates Sarah’s initial dream of the petals. There are six different screens and headsets – in a room filled with a customised rose scent – which are all gaze-activated to manipulate the AI generated petals. For example, in one headset petals explode into pixels as soon as you set your eyes on them.
Cloud of Petals is a fascinating exploration into how AI and VR can be utilised in the art and design world to draw meaningful conclusions. The project, while engaging purely because of its narrative also allows technology to “play god,” challenging it to replicate the beauty found in nature. In turn, acting as a memorial or possible replacement for a nature we have all but destroyed. The exhibition is on until 10 December 2017 and you can watch a clip of the full film, which premiered on Nowness last Friday, below.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.