Nature, Technology, and the Human Attention Span

I’ve had this idea for a while now, and when we started talking about our final project in this class I thought it could fit in. Knowing me, I won’t ever get it done on my own without a clear deadline, so hopefully I can combine my idea with this class and I’ll actually do it!

I’m taking a painting class this semester, and I’d forgotten how much I loved it, so I was hoping to do a painting for this project. My major, though, is graphic design, and both my jobs are in graphic design, and pretty much everything else I do is related to technology. I spend most of my days in front of computers. At first it was hard for me to relate nature to what I’m surrounded by every day. The more I thought about it, though, and the more I read, I drew some connections between the two and how people interact with them.

I was really struck by the selection we read from Richard Grusin’s Culture, Technology, and America’s National Parks, especially this idea that “to establish a national park is to construct a complex technology, an ‘organic machine'” (page 3) that is created by humans to reflect the culture and our expectations of what nature should be. I’d never really thought about it that way before, but it seems to make a lot of sense. Those are the ideas that have stuck in my head throughout all our readings and discussions. Another place where I saw these ideas emerge was in William Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness. On the first page, he says that wilderness “is quite profoundly a human creation.” Like technology, wilderness and national parks were created by humans to serve a very specific purpose. They both are in one way or another for the advancement of the culture.

What I’m interested in though, isn’t the creation of these technologies, whether they’re national parks or the iPhone, but what happens when we’re done with them. Humans in general have an extremely short attention span in all areas of life, but especially when it comes to technology. I always wonder what happens to all the technology that we’ve discarded. Do people actually recycle it, or is it all gathering dust in attics, basements, and thrift store shelves?

We’re always looking for something newer and better, but I think we’ve gotten to a point with nature where we’re starting to realize that there might not be something newer and better out there. We need to be careful that we don’t keep developing this same sort of attitude towards the environment, because when we keep disposing of it or using it up, there’s not a new one to fill the void. But as people become increasingly dependent on technology, that mindset permeates our whole point of view.

For my project I was thinking about doing an acrylic landscape painting. I haven’t fully decided yet, but I was thinking of either doing an idealized view of nature such as Durand’s “Looking Down Yosemite Valley” (which I feel like I’ve referenced in every post, but I still love it no matter how many times we look at it),

or alternatively doing an image of nature reclaiming society such as Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire: The Desolation.”

Instead of just a simple landscape painting, though (not that these are simple, but they’re fairly straightforward), I have all these old floppy disks that I found when I was helping my parents move, and I was thinking about painting each of those either a solid color or a section of the work and mounting them onto a board to form the landscape. I’m leaning towards each being a solid color, to mimic the effect of pixels on a screen. It also reminds me of the painter Chuck Close, but it would be a little different, since he does more with pattern.

Chuck Close, “Self Portrait, 1997,” oil on canvas

I want to use the floppy disks because it’s something that’s completely outdated by now, but it really wasn’t that long ago that people used them every day. Now we just don’t even think about it any more, which I think is kind of sad. In our society of instant gratification, anything that isn’t immediately relevant is often forgotten. I want to juxtapose that idea with the image of nature, which has always been a constant in life, but also be a sort of warning about the throwaway culture that we live in, and that if we let that attitude permeate through everything we do, the constant of environment might not be so constant any more.

I don’t know the exact size of it yet, but it will have to be pretty large. As far as a plan of action, first I’d collect more floppy disks and also go searching for the landscape that I want to paint or a landscape like it and do some sketches. Then it would just take a lot of time to lay everything out, mix the right colors, and paint each one. After that, it would just be like a puzzle putting everything together from my sketch. I think I would attach them to a mounting board, foam board, or some sort of thin wood like particle board either with glue or wire.

I’m hoping to have all my supplies and be finishing up my sketches by the first week in November. Then, I would just be working on the project and writing an artist statement until the due date (or hopefully before)!

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About Hannah S.

I'm a Graphic Design student pursuing a BFA at the University of Montevallo with minors in Art History and Math. On the off chance that I'm not doing schoolwork, I love funny tv shows, serious books, most genres of music and all kinds of animals. I'm also interested in environmental issues, coding and programming and making lists for everything.

3 thoughts on “Nature, Technology, and the Human Attention Span

  1. This is a very interesting idea. I am reading through these trying to find inspiration for myself and this project immediatly caught my eyes. I love how you tied in the recycling of floppy disks in order to create a painting for your final project. I have an idea of what this would look like, but I am so excited to see how this will appear both in person, and on the blog.

    Good Luck!!

  2. Great ideas here. I encourage you to talk with Catherine Walsh about this project. She’s told me about a chapter by Rebecca Solnit that investigates some of these questions via old photography techniques. She observed people observing Yosemite and other parks and realized that they never even stayed in one place long enough to be photographed. Seems to connect with your ideas about contemplation and human attention in an era of social media and digital representation of reality. You might want to look into research in cognitive neuroscience too to see if it can supplement your project. This seems like a very interesting project!

  3. Thanks for the ideas! I’m still fine-tuning what I’m trying to say, so I’ll be sure to check those out and develop my idea more.

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