3. pointcloud.garden

An interview with Clement Valla

Can you tell us about your latest project pointcloud.garden and its inner mechanics?

pointcloud.garden is a collection of cyborg gardens composed of point clouds gathered from 3D scanning gardens.   

This series came from an interest in how contemporary digital pictures of nature are constructed. Gardens seemed like an ideal subject both for their prominent, and in some ways banal place in the history of picture making, but also because they are technological/human/nature hybrids themselves.   

The 3D scanning process is an interesting one. To “scan” something is to closely and carefully look at all its parts over time. In my case I’m using a photographic camera, slowly moving around the gardens, and taking sequences of hundreds of photos. In these sequences, the photos are taken very close to each other in time (mere seconds that add up to minutes or hours) and space (mere inches that add up to large spaces). I’ve taken some videos of myself doing the scanning and if I speed them up it looks like I’m doing a strange contemplative dance. The scanning process forces me to move through and observe the garden in a very particular way.   

Software then analyzes these photos, finds points that exist across multiple photos, and uses triangulation (and other mathy stuff) to place these points in space. The scan produces spatial (XYZ) coordinates and color (RGB) information in the form of data points. These points are the abstract building blocks for 3D digital reconstructions. They are the most basic computational unit of a 3D model. Taken as a whole they form a point cloud, and give an impression of the gardens. Like a cloud, they are filled mostly with empty space. In some ways, these scanned gardens are characterized by what’s missing, by the space between the points. They are made up of discrete units that unfold in space.

How did these images come to be?

I was in the early stages of playing around with gardens, 3D scans, and point-clouds when the pandemic hit. The pandemic intensified two aspects of my life: firstly, the time I spent outdoors in parks and gardens, simply observing nature. There wasn’t much else to do, so “going out” meant going outdoors. Simultaneously, the pandemic intensified my screen use — it was the only way to connect with friends and family for a while. So it’s these two seemingly contradictory tendencies that were amplified, and I thought it would be interesting to try and collide the two competing emotional states of being on screen and being outdoors.   

One clear difference is the way in which a screen demands attention but a garden does not. And yet I can spend much more time observing a garden than I can on-screen without feeling completely drained, and tired, and often slightly buzzed and annoyed. It’s an interesting challenge to try and make an on-screen image that suggests casual observation rather than demanding attention. A quiet kind of picture that just is.   

The pictures are therefore very self-consciously pixelated. If the (XYZ RGB) points are the basic units of the 3D scans, the pixels are the basic units for digital pictures. So these images are generated at a somewhat low-resolution. The pixels are just barely visible to the naked eye, and produce a kind of shimmer. In some sense, these pictures are very low-resolution and contain very little information. This produces an ambiguous sense of scale and of space. I also used axonometric projection (as in traditional Chinese painting) rather than perspective (as in traditional Western painting) to create an endless kind of depth. The depth, ambiguity and emptiness allow the viewer to enter into the pictures, and open up the pictures to the viewer’s imagination, rather than filling it up with too much information.

Did you have a sense of what this project would look like beforehand or was it a process of discovery?

I had absolutely no idea! I hardly ever do. Do I make pictures? Do I discover them? Or isit more complex? I tend to think it’s more emergent. I am responding to and following the systems/software and materials I work with, and trying to divert them in directions I want.  

Gardens appeal to me because they reflect a way of working, a way of engaging with technology. Sun, wind, rain, soil, minerals, ground conditions, plants, and animals form complex ecosystems within which the gardener must work. Gardeners pay close attention to this ecosystem, immerse themselves in it, feel it out, and then try to seed a whole bunch of different things, tend to these seeds as they grow and see what emerges. I work with pre-existing software and digital apparatuses, connected to sensors, fabrication and printing technologies, each of which have their own processes. I think of them as super simple ecologies when they are combined together.   

I see my work more like gardening. What I do is try and seed these processes with different things and see what happens. Some things grow completely fine on their own and need no intervention from me at all — I’m simply left to discover really interesting forms. Some things need more work in tending to — pruning, pushing in particular directions. But I am following or flowing with all the nonhuman elements that participate in the creation of the artwork.   

In other words, I invert the relationship between artist, machine, and the “subject” of the machine’s gaze which is nature. I try to see how the subject pushes back against the machine, or how the machine mediates nature for me. The arrows of who is acting on whom point in all directions and swirl around in a complex mess. Recognizing and valuing the radical difference between the human, the machine, and nature and integrating a human-machine-nature hybrid opens up entire new possibilities of picture making.

The relationship between how computers and humans see the world is a theme you explore in much of your work. How has pointcloud.garden developed your understanding of the relationship and idiosyncrasies between the two modes of vision and their often more sinister uses?

I’ve never felt particularly “creative” or “original.” I’ve always stressed about where good ideas come from. I grew up thinking ideas come from inside the human creator and flow out to get imposed onto the world. That’s our western, colonial, antiquated idea of the genius of man and of human exceptionalism.   

What I like about computer vision is its strangeness, its uncanniness. It doesn’t align with human vision, and it’s the gaps I find interesting. They spark ideas, emotions, and reactions within me, rather than vice-versa. Computer vision acts on me much more than I on it. In that sense, the different modes of computer vision I play with are much more responsible for the artwork, as both originator and form maker. I like thinking I’m just a guide of sorts.   

In terms of the larger discussion about computer vision, there’s really great work being done about the sinister, socio-political and military basis for these technologies. They’re used to surveil, control, market, indoctrinate, repress, and wage war on individuals. Hito Steyerl, Trevor Paglen and Elisa Giardina Papa come to mind here, among others. These artists do a really good job of looking at the larger forces at play with these technologies. My own work can’t aspire to these rigorous approaches. I’m sadly terrible at research, and my process relies heavily on intuition and experimentation. I try to work from within the systems I play with. My modest focus is on my own relationship to these technologies, how they work on me, make me see, feel and apprehend the world differently. By extension my hope is that these ways of bridging the gap between my subjectivity and that of the machine can extend out to others, and can become aesthetic sparks for ways of reconsidering our human relationship to the world around us, and of decentering ourselves to the benefit of the planet as a whole.   

In the words of Donna Haraway, “We must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.”