My sister, Sue Thomas, has a new book coming out next week – Technobiophilia. Published by Bloomsbury, it proposes a totally new way of interpreting our relationship with both technology and biology.
Why are there so many nature metaphors – clouds, rivers, streams, viruses, and bugs – in the language of the internet? Why do we adorn our screens with exotic images of forests, waterfalls, animals and beaches? In Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace, Sue Thomas interrogates the prevalence online of nature-derived metaphors and imagery and comes to a surprising conclusion. The root of this trend, she believes, lies in biophilia, defined by biologist E.O. Wilson as ‘the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes’. In this wide-ranging transdisciplinary study she explores the strong thread of biophilia which runs through our online lives, a phenomenon she calls ‘technobiophilia’, or, the ‘innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology’. The restorative qualities of biophilia can alleviate mental fatigue and enhance our capacity for directed attention, soothing our connected minds and easing our relationship with computers.
Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace offers new insights on what is commonly known as ‘work-life balance’. It explores ways to make our peace with technology-induced anxiety and achieve a ‘tech-nature balance’ through practical experiments designed to enhance our digital lives indoors, outdoors, and online.
Sue’s challenge was to write the book, mine was to do some images for it – not as illustrations, but as chapter signifiers. To an experienced illustrator this probably sounds a cinch – read the text, do some images that relate to it and bingo, job done. Creating images of tangible, recognisable, familiar things requires artistic skills and thought. Doing the same for a new concept that is mostly about virtuality, which, by its very nature, does not physically exist as matter, is a bit more tricky.
For me, it was a new way of working with images. The process is a long way from my daily work in the art sector, but the content is not. It is very much about landscape. And place. And technology. All of which are important to me in my practice.
I have always enjoyed conversations with Sue about these things – her ability to untangle complex information and not only make sense of it, but also hypothesise new possibilities, is always inspiring. But how on earth could I make images that would support her thinking, point to it, but without being ‘illustrations’?
I decided to begin with other uses of chapter-plates in books that had inspired me. I was always very taken by the drawings of knots on each chapter of Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx; I love illumination in ancient and Celtic texts; and I remember fondly the tiny, postage-stamp-size lino-cut my father had done of a fox (our family name is de Vos, meaning ‘of the fox’), which he used as his letterhead.
I thought about metamorphosis and transitions, which some aspects of Technobiophilia reminds me of, so I looked at Escher. When deciding on the medium, it felt important to me that technological imagery must be hand-drawn, human-made, and that the nature-imagery must be technologically made. So I drew the laptops by hand with chalk on black paper, and used photographs from my own collection as the background landscapes. I then layered them, melding them together on the picture plane, morphing them into an image that had a blanket quality, yet was made from disparate things.
So that’s how they came about. I decided they must be square, because horizontal suggests landscape and portrait human – and these images had to depict both technology and nature as mutually embedded, neither taking priority.
This probably sounds very heavy and a bit over-complicated for half a dozen small drawings, but it was important to me to honour Sue’s book appropriately. I hope they work. The image below heads up the first chapter:
“A place so new that some things still lack names”.
I really enjoyed Sues article “When Geeks Go Camping, Finding California in Cyberspace” (available from Sage website), so it was a real pleasure to create this one. There’s an interview with Sue at Future Everything talking about it, where she refers to ‘creative truancy’, and how Cameron might benefit from going into the wilderness and eating witchety-grubs. (!)
It [the article] examines the hypothesis that cyberspace contains not only the cities and suburbs of cyberpunk but also the great outdoors, from rural landscapes to wildest nature.
The image is a digital collage (as they all are), created from photographs of places I have taken in the past year or so. The photo of the trees in this one is from a walk on May Hill with a friend on 1st January 2013; another pebbly beach image is from Dorset, when I worked on ExLab last year; another includes a photo taken at Tatton Park Biennial and another a view of Sue’s desk at her home in Bournemouth. They are of oceans, mountains, Walden Pond and meadows and bugs.
This is my story of this process and Sue is writing one herself. I’ll add the link when I have it – as with all sisters, we may provide very different perspectives!
Sue Thomas website
Order Technobiophilia on Amazon