Written as part of Ada Lovelace Day 2009.
Jane Prophet is a UK-based artist whose practice explores contemporary technological processes while retaining distinctly classical referents. Loosely speaking, she could be described as a sculptor, though one whose investigative drive and spectrum of interests leads her through radically fresh terrain with each new project. Working with cutting-edge materials and practices — from CD-ROM and early net art in the 90s, through to recent explorations of fractal-based machine fabrication and stem cell dynamics — the process through which her work is produced is often equally as rich as the end product.
One of her most widely-known pieces is the pioneering online environment TechnoSphere (1995), an immersive, real-time 3D virtual world which was amongst the first major net-based artificial life simulations. Developed by her and a small team of programmers, this world constituted 16 km2 of fractal-based terrain, populated by creatures designed and constructed by visitors to the website. The result was a stunningly complex ecosystem, in which the creatures could grow, eat, fight and mate, with digital DNA giving rise to a degree of evolutionary potential. Over the project's lifespan, more than 3m distinct creatures were created by over 100,000 visitors.
More recently, she has been working with a research group here at Goldsmiths, University of London on the ongoing Net Work (2005-), which takes simple models of stem cell behaviour and translates them into cellular automata: grid-like structures which portray the interactions of discrete cells. These behaviours are translated into a 100m2 web of illumated fishing buoys and floated in a river or lake to create a simple but compelling public artwork, whose intention is to accessibly highlight processes of self-organisation to a wider audience.
(Trans)Plant (2008) is another large-scale public sculpture, duplicating the fractal structures of cow parsely (akin to Lindenmayer systems) in a dynamic installation which expands and contracts in the same manner as the familiar childhood push-button collapsible animals. This, like Net Work, is the product of an interdisciplinary team of designers, biomimeticists and engineers, which serves not just as a work in itself but as a document of a process.
Her adoption of new technologies is far from a case of techno-evangelism, however. Works such as The Internal Organs of a Cyborg (1995) pose questions about identity and the limits of humanity via bodily augmentation, and the potential that this has for fracturing our ideas of selfhood (see Lacan's "fragmented body"). Likewise, Decoy (2002) explores notions of beauty and artifice via synthetic landscape images, referencing the Arcadian dreams of English nature painters and the modern-day drive for atmospheric perfection via regeneration and landscaping.
In a 1998 interview, she discusses her ambivalent relationships with technology.
I'm really drawn to the technology because of the debates that it threw me into, I think, and the questions that I had to ask about what it meant in terms of authenticity of images, what it meant in terms of the physicality or the reality of an image or of a body of work.
But primarily, when I think about the work I make with new media technology I see very little difference between it (other than hopefully it's more mature) and the work I made when I worked in installation and performance when I was a student and the reason for that is that for me at the center of any piece is the idea, is the concept.
As one with an avid (and vested) interest in current tech trends, I'm always keen to explore the latest Vimeo images of bleeding-edge whizz-bang triple-mip-mapped developments. Arguably more crucial, however, as computational advancement continues to accelerate, is a critical engagement and reflection on the meaning and consequences of these technologies. This is perhaps why I find Jane Prophet's work so consistently compelling.
The Lovelace Connection
This piece was written as part of Ada Lovelace Day 2009, a drive to highlight the work of women in technology. I imagine that, even in the age of computational ultra-saturation, Lady Lovelace would be particularly thrilled at the work of Prophet and her peers in the sphere of media art: one of her most imaginative yet accurate foresights was the prediction that computers would not be restricted to the boundaries of logico-arithmetic computation, but could be used to generate new sound and images, reaching out into the realm of creative practice.