In this post, we spoke* with London-based digital artist Daria Jelonek, who explores the connection between technology and nature. In her work, Jelonek investigates »how humans will live with the increasing amount of technology and the degradation of biophysical nature« and what nature actually is to us. What is nature today and what is natural? Are these concepts interconnected? How many of us sleep with our smart phones? We are possibly turning into cyborgs, but one thing we know for sure: we developed past other species because our brain is able to adapt to the external environment. As Bruce Wexler  points out:
The most fundamental difference between the human brain and those of other mammals is the greater extent to which the development of its structure and function is influenced by sensory input.
Therefore, it is clear that the digital world will have an impact on the structure and function of the brain. As Wexler explains: »Brain cells require sensory input from the environment to maintain their vitality and functionality.«  This means that if we stop using some skills in our everyday life (e. g., drawing with a pencil), the neurons in our brain associated with that specific skill will die. For the same reason, new areas of the brain will be activated, as a consequence of the activity registered – new skills used (e. g., touching screens).
Every day we come across predictions about our fate in the technological era: robots will take over human activities and get our jobs and lovers. Artificial intelligence will replace biological intelligence. And so forth. But what exactly is the impact of technology on our lives?
Ludwig Wittgenstein has suggested in Philosophical Investigations  that words are somehow predominant in regard to images – that is to say that we only know the meaning of a certain image – say »apple« – because we learned its meaning (the fruit) as toddlers.
Thus, in the new virtual reality, how will images and words correspond? What about real and virtual events? Can we inhabit a virtual landscape? Does it feed our emotions? Or does the brain require some level of tactility/reality to function properly? What are the benefits of virtual reality in terms of science, medicine, and ecology? Can we sunbathe in a virtual landscape? Is it more ecological to travel online?
Ana Mendes: In your statement you say that you are researching »the future of human interactions with the changes of biophysical and technological environment. How do we want to live in the future with our changing landscape?« I thought that it was very interesting because I was researching Wittgenstein and he suggested that images are somehow dependent on words. So, you only know the meaning of an apple, because when you were a child, someone pointed to the apple and said this is the fruit. When you see the image of an apple, you know that it refers to the fruit. But now with the virtual communication, as you are doing, meaning is something that is built and born online. Sometimes it is disconnected from reality or we arrive at a point in which reality is no longer a reference. What will happen? Is reality going to start to be compared to the online world? We already have some activities, like farming, that depend on a virtual projection of what it should be. Sometimes figures like emojis don’t take reality as a reference. They start to be very alienated.
Daria Jelonek: Sometimes I talk about the term »second nature,« but I don’t mean nature just in the sense of biophysical nature. Trees are obviously nature for us, but for me nature is everything you don’t think about anymore. So every interaction that you don’t think about is natural. I also think that with the increasing amount of how we use technologies or the digital world, everything gets more natural for us. So, the more we use it, the more we call it our nature. What I am researching is actually nature in the time we are living right now; what is natural. I’m also interested in biophysical nature, which is every untouchable material around us or let’s say the tree, the water; everything that we perceive as real nature. I think that everything that belongs to us in everyday life, and that we get used to, let’s say our phone, our computer, is like a second nature for us, because we get more and more used to it.
If you think about it, these technologies are somehow also natural material. So, I am generally interested in this intersection. And when I was thinking about drawing, what you are looking at, it is even if I used to draw with a pen, like back in the day, but now, I am doing everything digitally. I draw in my computer, but also I think as we draw in different ways. For example, I showed you this augmented reality drawing, I think that it is actually how your brain thinks about lines in everyday life. So, let’s say if I’d look into this room, and create a new artwork about this room, I would think: how would I draw a line through this space? I wouldn’t take a pen and a paper and literally do it. I think that I would rather virtually create a line.
»I think that with the increasing amount of how we use technologies or the digital world, everything gets more natural for us.«
The tools used depend on every artist. So, for instance, I use a lot of 3D software. If I thought about doing a drawing in this room, I would think okay; what are the crucial points for me? What are interesting edges? Then I would think about how I would like to draw it in the virtual space. That’s what I said in the beginning: now it is natural for me.
AM: Why do you think about the line? Is this how you interact with space? When you get into a space, do you try to get the line of the space?
DJ: Yeah, even if I create 2D outputs like a video, I actually create 3D objects in the computer, so it is an interesting connection between 3D and 2D. I think that is why, when I am thinking about the drawing, I am not thinking about it as a 2D image anymore, but more as a 3D drawing.
AM: Some artists like Kandinsky perceived art in a way in which the dot is the beginning of every drawing. The dot, and then several dots are a line, and a line. Your perspective that everything is natural is a very interesting concept, because I think that it is somehow the way the brain works. The researcher Bruce Wexler wrote that the reason why we, as humans, developed past other species is because our brain has sensors that adapt to the environment. In this sense when we start to use technology, it becomes natural to the person you are. Neuroscientists say that, in the future, the brain – the structure and functions of the brain – will change because of this use of technology.
DJ: In my works, I am not only trying to show this is how it is, but also there is a new space emerging. If you know that you can somehow manipulate people’s brains, you can actually use it in a positive way. You can create new mindsets about topics. In my project Technological Nature I wanted to show – if you take technological devices, what is natural about them? I don’t want only to show what is natural about them, but if you understand them as new nature, then, maybe you are also not so wasteful with them. If you know how a cup or a phone is made, maybe you would not destroy it as fast. Let’s say an animal or a plant, which is actually something living, you will try to be good to it, and not destroy it. But, if you know how physical objects are built, maybe you create better relationships with them, because you know that there is something living.
»There are some thinkers that say our computer, our keyboard becomes part of our thinking process.«
AM: How do you conceive the durability or continuity of your projects? If I move to a new address, there will be some changes in the brain, because I will have to map the space on my brain and to create new routines. That will provoke some changes, but they are superficial and won’t change the way that I think or the way that I behave on a long-term basis. So, in your project you create these environments and these studies, and so what is the long-term effect, the continuity or the interaction with people or experience or how do you perceive, for instance, that nature will change in this virtual landscape?
DJ: I like to create discussions around my projects. It’s really a starting point for people to think about something, and to create their own opinion about it. The way that I deal with this is: first of all, nature is changing, we are changing, and I think that there will be always continuation in my projects.
AM: One aspect that we could consider deals with the fact that men destroy so much nature. Is it possible that by interacting with virtual landscapes, one reduces traveling – the virtual landscape could somehow be a substitute for the real one and help to create a balance; so, let’s say you don’t have to travel to Japan to see a Japanese landscape and there would be less spending in terms of resources.
DJ: First I think that there are ways in which we could use the virtual world to make people experience things that they can’t experience here. I read that children who grew up on a farm or in more remote areas are more attached to biophysical nature. They have a better understanding of things like climate change than children who grew up in large cities, like London, where you only have parks. But, I think that to not consume ten flights a year, it is possible to virtually experience that. For example, I tried an African virtual experience. It actually calms you down, once you travel through the landscape. So, it has a positive impact.
AM: In terms of neuroscience, you still have the landscape – let’s say Africa – as the real one. But, let’s say your children or grandchildren, if they grow up in the virtual world, they no longer will have the real landscape as a reference, but the virtual one. So, they will no longer miss the real one, because they never saw it. Through generations, that is how change will be processed, because you are no longer born with it.
DJ: What you really need is real materials; you need to touch real grass. So you may have virtual experiences but it is important to have some real materials that you touch. I think that touch is very important. If you think about drawing, the material is actually the most beautiful thing. If you draw by hand the material is wonderful. If you do virtual drawings, you could explore how to actually bring materiality into the process. Maybe you could feel the virtual drawing somehow through vibration.
AM: I know that children who learned how to read or to write using the iPad have fewer skills than the ones who went through the traditional process. But, again this is because we were born with it, so, we keep it as a reference. For future generations this will change. Another thing that I wanted to ask you is the connections with objects. How can I say, so, at the moment there are different thinkers, from biologists to philosophers, scientists … that perceive that objects have become part of our environment, or the way in which we think … There are other experiences, let’s say: your glasses became part of your body, because without them you cannot see. There are some thinkers, like Katheryne Hayles, who say that our computer, our keyboard becomes part of our thinking process. You no longer sit at your desk, and then stand up to pick up a book, you just use the keyboard. So, it is like thinking flows through your fingers to the keyboard of the computer. It is like the cloud in which we live. You work so much with technology; how do you feel that technology has became part of the way that you think?’
DJ: It is definitely an extension of ourselves. In my M.A. thesis, for example, I wrote that everyone is a cyborg; we carry our phones and our computers with us all the time. They are extensions of ourselves. So, this is again very natural. It is how humans evolved, and I also think that it is right. As long as you are still able to use your brain, and you are the owner of what we have created, and the owner of all those files, and you also stored all those files in your brain. I think of Donna Haraway; she also says that everyone is a cyborg. And it also starts with how we actually move, how we use the bicycle makes us technological people. What was your question again?
AM: How do you think that objects have become part of your thinking process?
DJ: I think that I am actually relying on software. Everything that I create now is through software. Because you have software but you also have pure code, which is also written words. If you are clever enough, you can write your own codes and not only rely on software. You can create your own words, your own tools. So, it is good that you have open codes and you can manipulate them. All my work relies on that. But, if I want to create something very new, I try to write this myself.
When you think about objects that help us to think about things, I am not only using objects because I work with them, but I also use them as a form for people to understand bigger issues. So, for example, in my project Technological Nature, I took everyday objects, like the fridge, the phone, lamps, the shower. I try to find everyday objects to explain more complex processes through them.
AM: So, these everyday objects show the connection between nature and technology as an idea in its initial state. And what you have in the virtual world is somehow an extension of this very simple idea?
AM: And in terms of representation or imagination, because when we imagine something to the screen or to happen only online is a way of imagining or representing, because the screen somehow flattens that reality. You are trying to represent something knowing that is going to be represented online; there is a sort of world or universe that is contained in itself. How does this affect your way of thinking, imagining as an artist?
DJ: I think, first of all, imagination happens a lot through the stories of your artworks, about taking two things that actually no one connected before – let’s say, the fridge and the Northern Lights. You put those two very different things together and it creates new imagination in people’s minds. You perceive something on a flat screen; it is about creating the imagination in people’s brains. So, that is one of the most important things. If you use the virtual space, let’s say, real a screen, you can still create depth through sound, visuals, and emotion. This is for me how to create imagination and depth.
AM: I think that what you are saying is that you create these virtual landscapes, but you see the real ones as a reference. Two worlds that somehow run in parallel. And you can be a person that can have the real experience and then have the virtual one; both of them are natural to you, in a different dimension.
AM: What I found very beautiful when I saw your video, is that it was really a virtual landscape that gives you a sense of nature, but happens online. You are not trying to represent the plants or the trees online, but it has the same ease, the same pleasure, sensibility of the real world in a complete virtual context. So, I can imagine that you could have this work in a gallery and it would feel as natural as the real one. How do you perceive it? Because that is how I felt it. Also because of the colors that you use, pink, which it really makes you think: what is nature, actually?
DJ: That is what I try to achieve. It’s so hard, actually. There is no right or wrong on what nature is; I think that it is to provoke people to think what it is actually to yourself because everyone has their own definition.
AM: You can create this new artificial nature that somehow doesn’t refer to the real one, nor tries to mimic it, but gives you another feeling of what it could be.
DJ: I have an upcoming exhibition and for that I am creating a new piece where I take materials like wood, metal, ceramics, polyester. Then I also try to create these materials virtually; and to explore their differences, how they move differently in the virtual space; another way of tactility and movement in the virtual space and then try to compare them to the real.
AM: Many times I see immersive experiences in new media that are super strong and somehow try to impress you. I thought that yours was very soft, a presence that was natural.
Daria Jelonek is a digital artist, designer, and researcher who lives and works in London. Her work is situated in the field of interactive design and immersive art installations, with a focus on the relationship between nature and technology. She graduated from the Royal College of Art in Information Experience Design in 2017 and has worked as a researcher with Microsoft Cambridge.
* This interview is a transcription of a recorded talk between Ana Mendes and Daria Jenolek, June 2018. It was not edited – except for minimal grammatical corrections – to retain the original rhythm of thinking. Likewise, although it is very tempting to rewrite the talk in a post-COVID-19 world, we decided to keep the original text, to highlight how we feel or used to feel regarding this subject.
All images unless stated otherwise: Daria Jelonek, film stills, Technological Nature or Growing New Landscapes, courtesy the artist.
- Bruce Wexler, »Shaping the Environments that Shape Our Brains: A Long Term Perspective,« in: Cognitive Architecture Designing Respond Environment, New York 2014, pp. 142–167.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, West Sussex 2009.