What Happens if the Earth Gains Consciousness? The interactive art pop-up The End of You


By Michael Calore

I can't say I’ve ever been tempted to merge with a tree. Well, maybe once in college, at a time when I may or may not have been on drugs. (My mother is likely reading this, so let’s just say I was not.) But as a woo-allergic atheist adult, the urge to willfully commingle my DNA with that of my tall leafy brethren had not crossed my mind.

Or, it hadn't until last week, when I found myself peering into the pulsing touchscreen of something called the RegisTree and being asked to determine my fate. The RegisTree—a knotty trunk with a computer, camera, and printer embedded in its sapwood created by the artist Romie Littrell—presented me with options: aqua, digi, mycoverse, bee, seedling. “Choose a collective you’d like to merge with,” it commanded. I tapped a picture of a dewey leaf, and the RegisTree’s screen superimposed a glowing green network of xylem and phloem over the image of my face. Something in one of the limbs clanked and hummed, and a keycard came spitting out. One side showed a photo of the new and improved plant-me, flashing my tinted green grin at the tree’s low-res camera. The other displayed some ominous words, written in rainbow-colored block letters: “This Will Be the End of You.”

Ominous, yes. But it's not a mantra; it's the theme of the interactive art pop-up The End Of You, currently showing at Gray Area's Grand Theater in San Francisco. That name might sound doom-and-gloom, but it's also a reminder that every end is also the beginning of something new. By asking visitors to imagine what life would be like on an Earth that has attained consciousness, the show—a collaboration between all the artists involved—is inviting them to view the current environmental crisis through an oddball transhumanistic lens. It's asking people to imagine how they'd interact with plants, animals, rivers, and oceans if they were them—or could be. If the natural world became sentient, would that be the end of humanity or the first step toward saving us from ourselves?

Answering that question is largely up to the visitor. At least one of the show's exhibits, Yulia Pinkusevich's The Luxuriant Prolific Undying, left me less than hopeful. In it, the viewer is invited to step onto a corner of the floor covered in rock salt, sit under the hovering root ball of a cedar tree, put on some headphones, and participate in a guided meditation hosted by an unnamed entity (Mother Nature? Some alien hive mind?) that refers to itself in the second-person “we.” Over the course of a few minutes, I went from feeling relaxed and mellow to becoming anxious that the root ball was trying to suck me into its consciousness like some terrible, bark-covered Borg.

There are also places to chill out, like under the polyhedric dome. There, you’ll see a piece called Terminal Blurring. For it, artist Orestis Herodotou fed macro images of biological lifeforms and satellite images of rivers and mountain ranges into a neural network. He then let the trained machine take its best shot at generating its own images of natural formations. The results are then projected on the dome’s panels, where they blend and morph together in an ever-changing blur.

Meanwhile, the most fun part of the show is Stephanie Andrews’ massive installation at the back of the room called An Immersive Game of Life. True to its name, it's a 60-foot-wide grid projected onto the floor, where each square serves as a cell in a large-scale edition of Conway’s Game of Life. As you walk around on the grid, life springs up around each of your footfalls. If your patch of life (represented delightfully by dancing mushrooms and waving sea kelp) grows enough to reach the edge of the board, then it continues up onto the 20-foot-tall video screen that wraps around the room. It’s silly fun—and yes, I posted a video of it on Instagram.

Oh yeah, about that. When it's not busy posing existential questions, The End of You, which runs through March 1, also serves as one of a growing number of experiential art shows, like the Museum of Ice Cream, that are practically made for Instagram. The difference with End of You, though, is that it's more conceptually challenging than sparkly backdrops and rooms stuffed with pink ping-pong balls. The show takes up Gray Area’s entire space, and, like many of the organization's events, its ties to the Bay Area freak scene are evident. Gray Area might be in Instagram's backyard—an old movie house in San Francisco's buzzy Mission district—and the show might be ideal for sharing on social media, but its environmental and underground themes are also juxtaposed to the industries changing that landscape. To that end, some of the exhibits in The End of You are quite sobering, like Kevin Bernard Moultrie Daye’s sculptural illustration of the public health effects caused by the radioactive contamination in Hunters Point, a former naval shipyard that’s home to one of the regions’s most marginalized and disadvantaged communities.

There's even more cause for self-reflection in The Archive of Human Nature, by artists Celeste Martore and Jonathon Keats. (Keats is a frequent WIRED contributor.) Exhibited there are various material examples of human consumerism, all labeled and arranged on shelves like some ersatz Target store. Ice cube trays, an iPod 30-pin cable, paint swatches, curling irons, Tamagotchi, a six-pack of Fort Point beer, a Crock-Pot, a pair of rubber dildos. It’s supposed to give you a sense of how an alien race visiting our long-deserted planet would attempt to understand humanity centuries from now, but it can just as easily leave you feeling queasy about all of the unnecessary crap people produce, sell, collect, and throw away.

The End of You's most refreshing piece, though, makes its point not by imagining some possible future but instead by telling an inspiring story about the present. Kelly Skye’s Room of Revelations is a video-heavy installation that documents the worldwide movement to award natural spaces the same rights enjoyed by human beings and, in some places, corporations. Next to a group of screens showing projections of natural landscapes, you can browse a collection of printed news articles from around the globe about rivers, mountains, and sacred lands that have been elevated to personhood by local courts. Makes sense. I mean, if we’re going to merge our bodies and minds with the rocks and trees, we should probably give them equal rights.