The Natural and the Digital

The artistic production of simulated natural environments, in the form of virtual reality (VR) programs that “model and mirror an idealized nature”[1] and in that of wildlife photography exhibitions, in escapist literature and in Hollywood movies that see nature through “the romantic longings of the narrator”[2], appears paradoxical in the way it shows nature both as the product of civilization’s technological means and as the negation of such means through the absence of culture and society within it. In the process of re-creating nature, in fact, the producer often unknowingly presents it in terms that are highly subjective and culturally specific.

This condition has to be seen in the context of the current popularity of escapist-themed artistic production, such as fictional travel novels, Hollywood ‘backpacker-themed’ movies and wildlife documentary practice. Hannes Krehan’s exploration of the theme of escapism positions our current cultural condition where “the possibilities of retreat are endless and pervade every aspect of life”[3] in the context of new information technologies that have allowed “digital entertainment [to] become abundant and, ironically, almost inescapable.”[4] The superimposition of a newly-found desire of being immersed in nature with today’s everyday reality of being immersed in digital media produces the paradox that defines our current relationship with the natural sphere.

In this context, a variety of artists and cultural practitioners are trying to deal with these complications through the production of simulated versions of nature. Such practitioners present an elaborated version of “what Wark (1994) calls ‘third nature’ that is, the simulated natures of everyday TV and magazines […] which provide new, powerful means of manipulating nature as ‘information’.”[5] Further advances in the simulation of nature are increasingly blurring the boundary between the realm of art and science. As discussed by Andrew Evans in the book This Virtual Life, “the laboratories of the future will increasingly turn to modelling, be it computerised petri dishes growing digital life forms, or complex space research.”[6] An example of a virtual ecosystem containing artificial life forms is Tierra, a “computerised terrarium in which biomorphs […] grow and mutate, providing new insights into natural selection and evolution.”[7] Tierra is only one of the many examples of virtual ecosystems and artificial life forms that have been produced for both scientific research and artistic experimentation. The question then becomes how such advancements in the simulation of nature can help us engage in new discursive frameworks for investigating the image of nature in art.

Our daily interaction with an overabundant quantity of online visual data that deal with the natural sphere is what makes the discourse around nature into a discourse about representation. As discussed by Marx and later elaborated by Baudrillard, in order to maintain the illusion of an authentically wild natural environment, “nature is continuously appropriated – and remade – as part of the ‘species existence’ of humans.”[8] This evolutionary process of appropriation has become so imperceptible and embedded in our humanity as to contribute to the illusion of depicted nature being the ‘real nature’ out there, the escapist dream of a pure and untamed environment. In this context, could the immersion in an artificial simulation of nature be the way to finally realize its artificiality as “cultural construction”?[9] Could the simulated, the fake, the slightly kitsch, the ‘bogus’…set us free?



[1] Mitchell Whitelaw, Metacreation: Art and Artificial Life, (Boston, USA: MIT Press, 2004), p.100.
[2] Hannes Krehan,“Trust me – It’s Paradise” The Escapist Motif in Into the Wild, The Beach and Are You Experienced? (Hamburg, Germany: Anchor Academic Publishing, 2013), p.23.
[3] Ibid, p.1.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Noel Castree and Bruce Braun, Remaking reality: Nature at the Millenium, (London, UK: Routledge Publishing, 1998), p.16.
[6] Andrew Evans, This Virtual Life: Escapism and Simulation in Our Media World, (London, UK: Fusion Press, 2001), p.157.
[7] Ibid, pp.157-158.
[8] Noel Castree and Bruce Braun, Remaking reality: Nature at the Millenium, (London, UK: Routledge Publishing, 1998), p.14.
[9] Mitchell Whitelaw, Metacreation: Art and Artificial Life, (Boston, USA: MIT Press, 2004), p.186.