“What escapes the eye is the most insidious kind of extinction – the extinction of interactions”
~ Daniel H. Janzen
4004 is a new project, commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, as part of its Digital Programme. It continues both my artistic and personal concern with the devastating, yet relatively unexamined impact of technology on climate change and biodiversity – especially the impact on essential ecosystems, the destruction of which are playing havoc with the environment and natural order.
Despite the widespread and urgent focus on what we might do to mitigate climate change, there seems to be little attention given to the impacts that the explosion of technological advances is having on a global scale. I don’t believe that we can separate the tech world from the organic world. The materials being used to ‘feed’ the digital realm are inevitably extracted from nature and by association, we should therefore regard technology as a predator.
The Intel 4004 marked a new era in technological development and the emergence of a new techno-capitalism.
The project’s title, 4004, is taken from the name of the first commercial microprocessor, created 50 years ago in 1971, for the Intel Corporation, but I also liked the circular nature of the number configuration – a numeric palindrome, if you will. Heralded as the most advanced integrated circuit design ever undertaken, the Intel 4004 marked a new era in technological development and the emergence of a new techno-capitalism. I wanted to make explicit what I see as the direct link between the exponential growth of the microprocessor and the alarming decline in both number and diversity of essential species – in this case insects, with reports suggesting that a quarter of insects could be wiped out within just a decade.
By drawing parallels between the internal anatomies and dynamics of these two seemingly unrelated components, I hope to show the crucial and consequential roles of each within the larger systems they uphold – namely, the development of one, resulting in a destruction of the other.
Like microprocessors, insects are also central to the structures they are part of.
The development of the Intel 4004 created the most advanced integrated circuit design ever undertaken at that time and was heralded as offering a new era in integrated electronics. Microprocessors form the central unit in every computer, often including tiny components that work together in an integrated circuit to perform calculations and perform the instructions sent by the programmes. Likewise, despite their tiny size and lack of visibility, insects are also central to the structures they are part of. Insects pollinate plants, disperse seeds, maintain soil structure and fertility, control populations and provide food sources for other living organisms. They are the most common animal on the planet, creating the biological foundation for all terrestrial ecosystems.
Presented on the gallery’s Media Wall as well as viewable online, 4004 is a durational project that begins with a dense series of images of insects that completely fills the screen. Over the two and a half months of the exhibition, the insects are gradually and generatively superseded by images of microprocessors. The subtle but continuous replacement of one species with another reflects not only on the cannibalisation of ecologies, but also on the problematics of representing climate change – especially in an artistic context. As an artist, I am consistently challenged by how I might visibly manifest the scale of erosion and the impact of techno-capitalism on the environment, as the time frame required to evidence such interrogations doesn’t necessarily fit into the traditional practices of image making.
While differences to the ‘artwork’ will be hard to notice on a day-by-day basis, the change overall will be dramatic. Key moments in the work will be highlighted through accompanying notifications, for example where the release of specific microprocessors can be connected to a piece of contemporary research or news around insect ecologies.
Through this project I wanted to interrogate the real cost of Silicon Valley’s striving for constant growth, and to question how we process and understand the mass of data that is created by these technologies.
4004 forms part of a year-long exploration by TPG’s Digital Programme, Imagin(in)g Networks. Joana Moll’s previous works, including C02GLE and The Hidden Life of an Amazon User explore the hidden ecological costs of the internet’s most used tracking services.
Imagin(in)g Networks is a programme exploring the existing and potential networks that use images to enable human and machine interactions. Over the course of a year, the social, political, technological and environmental impacts of image networks will be examined through artist commissions, texts, workshops and events.
The influence that images and visual information have had on the way we live and our understanding of our surroundings has grown exponentially. Since the birth of the photographic image in the 19th century, images have had a dominant role in our lives right up to modern day communications from news to entertainment. Digital technology, and in particular, the Internet has further accelerated this process. At a time when visual data accounts for most of the total online traffic, the Internet has radically altered the affect and position of images.
Notes on biodiversity
Nature crisis: ‘Insect apocalypse’ more complicated than thought (BBC)
“Two years ago, it was reported that the biomass of flying insects in German nature reserves had fallen by three quarters. What’s more, just last year one team found that ground insects in Puerto Rico had declined by 98%.” (Natural History Museum)
Chronology of microprocessors
“Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit (IC) doubles about every two years.” (Wikipedia)
“In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal-use led to the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that, contrary to common intuition, technological progress could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption.” (Wikipedia).
Basically, making something more efficient often increases its use so that it is used more and the saving in efficiency is eclipsed by its increase of use.
All images are early production stills.
© 4004 (Production still). Image courtesy Joana Moll, 2021
This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.