The concept for Cloud of Petals came to Sarah Meyohas in a dream about roses and pixels. Could a computer program be trained to create digital rose petals more or less indistinguishable from real ones?
With the help of a generative adversarial network, she embarked on a large-scale art project that challenges the viewer’s perception of digital and organic objects. In an abandoned research facility outside of Manhattan, she hired 16 people to photograph 10,000 fresh roses. The workers were told to select ten petals from each rose that they thought looked the best. This process happened over a period of four days, and Meyohas filmed the whole thing.
She also recorded the process of generating the digital petals from the images of the real ones. The result, an analog short, acts as a standalone film just as much as a documentation of a performance. Cloud of Petals screened at Independent Régence in Brussels this summer, and the project is also on show at Red Bulls Art New York from October 12 to December 10, 2017.
“I could have faked so much of the film,” Meyohas says over Skype, from her eponymous Upper East Side gallery, which doubles as her apartment. “The workers could have just been there for an afternoon of filming, rather than four full days. I didn’t have to collect 100,000 pictures, and didn’t have to actually do a generative adversarial net. I could have faked it with animation. But it’s real.”
Meyohas says that the process of photographing the roses was inspired by Google Books, Google’s attempt to archive as much printed material as possible via scanned images. “It’s the same process. But instead of opening a flower, you’re opening the book, and scanning the page.”
Despite its documentary nature, Meyohas’ film Cloud of Petals is dreamy, very unsettling, and ends up creating more questions than it answers. She says, “Creating petals that never existed—it’s this attempt at creating nature. Using technology to emancipate ourselves from biology. What are the repercussions of that?”
Meyohas’ art practice runs a wide gamut from performance to photography. She is perhaps best known for her 2015 digital project Bitchcoin, in which she created a digital currency backed by the value of her own artwork. “It’s a bet on Sarah Meyohas with no expiration,” the Bitchcoin website states. Using her degree in economics, she has also explored the semiotics of finance in Stock Performance, a piece that manipulated the stock market and charted the live results on canvas. Cloud of Petals brings Meyohas’ disparate interests—bodies, economics, digital technology—together.
But why roses? “The rose,” Meyohas says, “has become a symbol of beauty and love, and it’s also a super commercial and easy to grow flower. It’s the flower that can grow in Africa and South America and Europe, and we’ve bred it to grow in tons of different color groups.”
Roses, which are millions of years old, have been cultivated in gardens for an estimated 5,000 years. In ancient Rome, the rose represented the goddess Venus, and in early Christian societies roses symbolized the Virgin Mary. It was also the national flower of Tudor England. Despite its romantic connotations, the rose has a long history as the symbol of some of civilization’s most powerful forces. It’s a flower of contrasts: love and commerce, religion and government, pixels and petals.
Discussions of digital life are always fraught with dichotomies: IRL versus online, friendships versus Facebook, journalism versus fake news. Digital technology changes so fast that it can feel impossible to keep up with all the different ways it mediates our lives. We create parallels like these ones to preserve the fantasy of a reality that exists outside of the internet, unaltered by digital technologies, a pure world free from the perils of Snapchat and facial recognition software and politicians’ tweets.
With Cloud of Petals, Meyohas is challenging this idea, breaking down the artificial boundary between the digital and the real. The computer-generated rose petals in her film are no less real than the spiders and flies that hover in front of the camera—or the snake that also makes an appearance. It’s a thick yellow python that slithers through the tangled wires of the abandoned warehouse as easily as if they were vines on a forest floor. The Biblical symbolism here is no accident. Just like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the snake in the video disrupts what seems like the natural order of things. Cloud of Petals points out that the natural order is already nothing more than a fantasy.
Meyohas says that the project has drawn comparisons to the work of Taryn Simon, who’s known for her carefully constructed archives. However, the archival process in Cloud of Petals is haphazard, more organic than organized. After all, despite its digital nature, the point of machine learning is to imitate the imperfections of life outside the screen. Unlike Simon’s archives, which often work to preserve a time and place, Meyohas’ archive is a form of destruction.
“The flowers are all going to die, they’ve been picked, they’ve been cut,” she points out. “This whole thing is about death.” The real roses used in Cloud of Petals will eventually wilt, and the images of the digital rose petals will be deleted or corrupted or otherwise rendered illegible by the onward march of digital technology. But imperfectly archived inside Meyohas’ film, it feels like they could exist forever.