Stepping into the Synthetic Forest with Andreas Greiner

Photo of Andreas Greiner, 2020. Photo by Paul Rohifs. Image courtesy of the artist.
Andreas Greiner, Reversion C, Stage II, 2020, in collaboration with Julian Charrière, glass, agar-agar, various germs. © Andreas Greiner. Image courtesy of the artist.
Andreas Greiner, Kalamität / Calamity, 2020,
2 recycled monitor screens, mac mini, spruce wood frames, CNC-carve of 50 Pfennig, Kulturfrau on spruce wood box, in collaboration with Paul Rohlfs 5 + 2 AP
each monitor 47 x 76 x 7 cm, box 25 x 25 x 7 cm. © Andreas Greiner. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Image courtesy of DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin.
Andreas Greiner, Jungle Room, 11 September — 1 November 2020, Dittricht-Schlectheim Gallery, Berlin. Installation view. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Image courtesy of DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin.
Andreas Greiner, Jungle_Memory_0010, 2019, fine art print on Hahnemühle photo rag, museum anti refective glass, dark alder wood level designed, frame with CNC-milled spacer, Image created with an AI trained on thousands of forest of images, programmed by Daan Lockhorst, unique, 
149.8 x 215.8 cm. © Andreas Greiner. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Image courtesy of DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

Nature and technology meet in the art of Andreas Greiner. His recent works with forests highlight ecological crisis, and have guided artificial intelligence to create virtual woods.

 

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM

How does artificial intelligence see life? What about mining an ancient forest for data, not wood or coal? How can an acutely carbon-aware artist operate in a global art world? Questions like these concern artist Andreas Greiner. “I don’t conceptualise my work with a clear message,” says the artist, when we met at his Berlin studio. Yet by opening up unexplored territory where nature, technology and art interplay, he provokes us to think. His latest show at Berlin’s DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM is called “Jungle Memory.” In it, he takes us into European forests which preserve ecosystems that can stretch back further than what we now call the Anthropocene era, and shows us these forests through the eyes of algorithms.

 

Photo of Andreas Greiner, 2020. Photo by Paul Rohifs. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Greiner’s work tends to be about life, in the biological sense of living entities. An earlier work, Reversion C, Stage III (2010), a collaboration with Julian Charrière, grew coloured microbe cultures in a reproduction of Piet Mondrian’s 1929 painting Composition 3, which dissolved across its rectangles. A nine-metre-high skeleton sculpture, Monument for the 308 (2016), was assembled from 3D printed parts based on laser scans of the bones from a broiler chicken. It looked just like a dinosaur, and indeed, birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, but the broiler chicken is an Anthropocene creation—bred just to eat. Aussaat (2018) presented electron microscope scan images, which floated the viewer over a field of JCVI-syn3.0 cells, with music by Páll Ragnar Pálsson. syn3.0 was the first synthetic life form, genetically engineered by J. Craig Venter. Greiner once asked him if he felt like an artist. Venter said no, but said “a similar type of creativity” is essential to science. It certainly applies to Greiner too.

 

Andreas Greiner, Reversion C, Stage II, 2020, in collaboration with Julian Charrière, glass, agar-agar, various germs. © Andreas Greiner. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

“Jungle Memory” brings all this together, but with the new element in Greiner’s practice—artificial intelligence (AI). Over 10,000 photographs from the forests of Harz and Goslar form the database, and data is the food that feeds algorithms. “[Previously] we’d worked before with small computers,” he says, but now the scale of the task had changed. Greiner wanted to create a “vision of what we commonly understand as nature” using AI. To train a neural network to statistically analyse his photographic archive and then render its own forest images, he needed top-level Silicon Valley technology. A start-up grant brought access to the technology of the company called Nvidia, the original inventors of graphics processing units (GPUs) and the programming language CUDA that Greiner runs.

The results are highlights of “Jungle Memory,” but the show is not all AI. A two-screen video Kalamität/Calamity (2020) made with Paul Rohlfs dips into forest cultivation history and shows deforestation, including how bark beetle destruction of spruce trees allows regeneration. There’s a beautiful framed abstract work that also represents the waldfuermorgen (Forest for Tomorrow) project, making a map of a future forest with different species’ seeds positioned where they will grow.

Greiner has spent time in various forests, which surface in different ways in “Jungle Memory.” In 2018, he started photographing Hambach Forest, an ancient woodland near Cologne that has been almost destroyed by mining for lignite, the dirtiest form of coal. He has also delved into Białowieża, a larger ancient forest where the battle is against Poland’s government-sponsored logging. It is not just human destruction that threatens ancient forests. Recently, bark beetles have been decimating trees in places such as Harz National Park in Northern Germany. Here too, Greiner amassed photographs, and in the nearby town of Goslar, he used drones to map the devastated woodland. As a result, the waldfuermorgen project will see seeds planted by schoolchildren along spiral lines on the site to create a new forest. “The spiral pattern will enable the kids to relocate the tree that they planted,” he explains.

 

Andreas Greiner, Kalamität / Calamity, 2020,
2 recycled monitor screens, mac mini, spruce wood frames, CNC-carve of 50 Pfennig, Kulturfrau on spruce wood box, in collaboration with Paul Rohlfs 5 + 2 AP
each monitor 47 x 76 x 7 cm, box 25 x 25 x 7 cm. © Andreas Greiner. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Image courtesy of DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin.
Andreas Greiner, Jungle Room, 11 September — 1 November 2020, Dittricht-Schlectheim Gallery, Berlin. Installation view. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Image courtesy of DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin.

 

The main room of “Jungle Memory” hosts a timber installation and an AI-generated film, accompanied by a soundtrack of a choir composition by Louis McGuire. Nine tree trunks from dead trees from Goslar, showing patterns made by bark beetle, were cut at Greiner’s Berlin studio in what was once Europe’s largest brewery. They give the darkly lit space a sense of being in the forest. But it is the film, generated from data from Goslar and Harz, that mesmerises. The trees are gently animated in shimmering light, their foliage materialising and dematerialising. Tree trunks can branch downward, like legs. Some even seem to move, silently. Forests can be eerie, but this virtual forest has a new, subtle strangeness.

The whole show is realised as ecologically as possible. Everything could be re-used. The monitors are second-hand. Crucially, the AI forest in “Jungle Memory” is film rather than generated in real time. “It consumes much less energy,” explains Greiner. He charts the project’s annual electricity usage in a “Change the system” graphic statement.

 

Andreas Greiner, Jungle_Memory_0010, 2019, fine art print on Hahnemühle photo rag, museum anti refective glass, dark alder wood level designed, frame with CNC-milled spacer, Image created with an AI trained on thousands of forest of images, programmed by Daan Lockhorst, unique, 
149.8 x 215.8 cm. © Andreas Greiner. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Image courtesy of DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin.

 

“I think the most important thing is to fight climate change,” says Greiner. “The art market is very anti-ecological. It could be way greener organised than now…So, a change in the art world will also feedback into the way we interact with each other and our ecosystem. It is very important to translate our thinking into new ways of acting.” He offers an example. When his work Multitudes (2014), in which a self-playing piano stimulates tanks of algae into bioluminescence, was included in the 2020 Yokohama Triennale, neither Greiner nor material travelled there. Instead, detailed instructions were sent to the curator and exhibition team for building the installation from local materials.

Greiner says that AI-generated environments “could potentially be a second, third or fourth type of nature in the future.” He has no fear that he has unleashed a monster. His synthetic forest “didn’t jump out of my computer and try to attack me.” I ask him what he thinks of the idea of Singularity, in which the exponential growth of AI will lead it to supersede human intelligence, after which humanity loses control? “No I don’t agree—but did humanity ever have control?”

 

Andreas Greiner: Jungle Memory
11 September — 1 November 2020
DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin,

 

 
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