Zero Park is a narrative installation that focuses on a fictitious landscape in northern California. Here, the flora and fauna have been restored to their natural state of wilderness, and the viewer is faced with nature’s beauty. Yet, the longer someone listens to the voice of the narrator, the more it becomes apparent that what on first glance looks like a natural landscape, may in fact be artificial.
The installation adopts the historical depiction of landscape as a diaphanorama, a nineteenth century device consisting of a transparent (or diaphanous) painting, usually of a landscape, that would appear to move or change before the viewer’s eyes. On the screen, we see an anthropogenic ecosystem. It has been meticulously designed to emulate natural wilderness, which hides its true intention and purpose — the private production of rocket fuel to be used to accelerate a small spacecraft beyond the gravitational pull of Earth. The narrator could thus be a naturalist, a synthetic biologist involved in the project, or the billionaire CEO of a technology corporation who is combining his ambitions as a conservationist with those of leaving the planet.
Juxtaposing the extremes of our current technological capability through the depiction of landscape — a seemingly old medium which has always been traversing the space between what we perceive as natural and the realm of the man-made — Zero Park explores key questions which will need to be addressed for synthetic biology to find its role in the world.
What do we, at this point in time, consider to be the natural state of an ecosystem? Where do we draw the line between natural and artificial, and what role do aesthetics play in our distinction between the two? What are the different human agendas at work in the design of nature and how will we harness flow of energy through the natural world for our goals in the near future?
The development of this work was largely inspired by the contemporary debate around the design of nature. I have a great interest in the plasticity of our notion of nature and our control over it, which at the dawn of synthetic biology is becoming an ever more important question. High-profile synthetic biology projects, such as the production of medicine and fuel, are as relevant here as the recent deextinction ambitions. The choice of the seemingly old medium of the diaphanorama was deliberate, and is meant to introduce a degree of confusion in the viewer on their first watch.