The city is striated into manifold ordered grids that similarly control our movements. The Nevada desert on the other hand, one of the locations Lilah Fowler explored for her show at Assembly Point, has no such boundaries and borders – it has an order more in common with a modulating weather system than any Cartesian geometry. If the city is a grid, the desert is like the tumultuous psyche of its inhabitant, so, maybe, they are not that different after all.
The desert swallows up boundaries, and in many ways this makes it appear like a material embodiment of the immateriality of the digital world. Positioning it on this liminal threshold between natural and artificial conditions is at the epicentre of Fowler’s work. In the desert there is no line separating earth from sky, that most primitive of spatial borders. It all just blurs into one. There is no intermediate distance, no perspective or contour. Visibility is limited and yet there is an incredibly fine topology that does not rely on grids, points or objects but on multiple sets of moving relationships – on winds, undulations of sand and the sound of it cutting through air, and the constant movement of grains like free-floating pixels that perennially reform the environment in a polyvocity of directions. Which is all similar to the shape shifting flux of the digital world.
It is perhaps for its lack of distinct frontiers that the desert has been a test site, a place for testing the limits of what is possible and pushing the comprehensive boundaries of nature; such as the experiments with the first atomic bombs (which Michael Heizer, who made his home at the edge of its test site – replete with atomic blast shields – said was ‘the ultimate sculpture’). In a similar way Fowler uses the desert as a site to test the frayed edge between the natural and man-made, between material and digital, to ultimately redefine contemporary natural as ‘nth nature’. Because, like all things which appear natural at first glance, the desert is not: it has been radically sculpted by human presence despite the invisibility of their interventions which get subsumed into its flux. And it’s this ambiguity that is the crux of ‘nth nature’.
The exhibition is swathed in fabrics striated into abstract geometric maps and glyphs that look like Nazca lines of the future. But these maps are tactile, we can feel their weave and weft, they have also been draped over metal grids, giving them three-dimensional contours and they have been laid on the floor so we can traverse them again; the dichotomies of the map (the abstract representation of reality) and the territory (the ground on which we walk) have been collided together.
The textiles may seem anachronistic in relation to the glitched subject matter but the loom too sits on the threshold between the merging of material and digital worlds. In 1809 the Jacquard loom was invented, allowing for the automatic production of unlimited varieties of pattern weaving. The loom was controlled by a series of holes punched in cards, which became the precursor to modern binary code.
So we created these patterns to control production and they are the same ones that bleed into our lives now. We can be manipulated by the illusive nature of such codes – as we have seen in recent headlines – it packages us into discrete blocks of data that can be manipulated. The pixel, the visualisation of such code, was made to allow us to communicate and represent ourselves; it portrays us but we also mimic it as well. The pixel works as a collective to form an image, it may imbue a pixel next to it with some colour variation but there is no direct interaction, it essentially does its job alone – much like our increasingly individualistic culture. The boundaries then, between material and digital, between natural and man-made, like those in the desert, are constantly smearing into one.