O, you happy roots, branch and mediatrix (2020)
Two screen video, Hildegard von Bingen’s lingua ignotae and image recognition algorithm
Commissioned by Camden Art Centre, London for The Botanical Mind Exhibition, 2020 https://www.botanicalmind.online/
Coding: Isaac Clarke from Black Shuck.
Voice: Gretchen Egolf
Music: O Frondens Virga, by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), ‘O Jerusalem’, Sequentia, 1997
O Viridissima Virga, by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’, Emma Kirkby with Gothic Voices, 1981
Gameplay footage: Far Cry 5, (Ubisoft), by Clay Barnard Chodzko
Additional camera: Seth Barnard Chodzko
(11 minute version of O, you happy roots... on Vimeo)
O, you happy roots, branch and mediatrix (2020), a two screen video with image recognition algorithm, stems from Adam Chodzko’s memories of lying on the earth in a forest and looking up at the tree canopy with its perpetually shimmering back-lit leaves, breeze stirred, like a mass of flickering digits, and him sensing that there was, perhaps, a code being made, a signal, telling us something, that we were, as yet, unable to comprehend. But, perhaps, it would have been an invitation for the human to completely dematerialise, atomised, becoming the signal itself.
It is also a piece that evolved from Chodzko experiencing the inverse – another form of blocked translation – in the process of making previous works; the ability of plants and trees to apparently resist their representation through digital video; their shape, movement and tone always remaining too complex to be rendered in a way that feels true.
From not being able to see the wood for the trees, or, the trees for the wood, grows a desire for a deeper image recognition.
This new digital commission has been developed especially for The Botanical Mind exhibition at Camden Art Centre. Working with computer coders, Black Shuck, Chodzko has developed an algorithm that searches for ciphers from the Litterae Ignotae – a script devised for the Lingua Ignotae, a secret language (perhaps the first conlang), created by the 12th Century Christian visionary mystic Saint Hildegard von Bingen.
The image recognition algorithm scans footage of undergrowth, woodland and forest, both real and virtual, looking for the ciphers’ shapes that might be found in the dark, particularly in the shadows cast by, between and under the vegetation; a sur-real manifestation. Once located, the code proceeds to assemble any discovered ciphers to spell out (and murmur) plant names from the 150 plants she catalogued in the Lingua Ignotae as well as deviating to construct new hybrid varieties. Montaged images of these plant types and their hybrid forms surface through the algorithm, previous iterations receding behind them to generate an infinite ‘garden’; a mass of green – virga, viridity, chlorophyll.
Chodzko has assigned each cipher a sound, extracted as fragments from the opening phrases of Hildegard’s choral compostions: O Viridissima Virga (O branch of freshest green) and O Frondens Virga (O blooming branch, you stand upright in your nobility, as breaks the dawn on high).
Through O, you happy roots… Chodzko speculates that the sacred code Hildegard developed, as mediatrix, some 900 years ago, in order to create a channel between the earthly and the divine, might, in the present, be channelled by us (with the assistance of algorithms) as a visual and auditory incantation, a spell, to activate new forms of psychological and spiritual growth. Here language is detected in the shapes of darkness rather than light; a growth emerging therefore specifically within the unconscious or unknown. The work seeks to catalyse this germination through invoking an ecstatic, erotic and meditative relationship, vibrating between mind, bodies, plants, light, dark, desire and the acts of looking and naming. Together these elements combine as a shimmering hallucinatory vision or dream, constantly active and in a state of unfolding and becoming; a new form of human movement through a new form of garden, perhaps attempting to become botanical transformation itself, creating a path into an infinite Eden.
An installation version of O, you happy roots… was developed for Camden Art Centre using a live video feed from the gallery’s garden to allow the algorithm an infinitely variable environment of chance in which to detect the sacred code, generating, during the course of the exhibition, a multitude of Hildegard’s plants and their hybrids, through voice, text and image.
The ‘source’ footage:
The ‘source’ footage is an edit between a digital landscape from the game Far Cry 5, a jungle in Malaysia and an area of woodland close to where Chodzko lives, in Kent, where he attempted to record video footage that mirrored the mood, movements, light and environment of the other two locations. His younger son recorded the gameplay footage and his older son, the Malaysian jungle footage. Chodzko’s subsequent process of ‘looking’ that he recorded in the Kent woods is therefore an attempt to connect remotely, visually and emotionally with what his sons were perceiving.
The game environment of Far Cry 5 was chosen by Chodzko for the particular landscape it depicts and for the apparent love and sensitivity with which the vegetation has been digitally rendered. However, the game’s narrative also contains many plant references; The main story revolves around the Project at Eden’s Gate, a doomsday cult that has taken over the county at the command of its charismatic and powerful leader, Joseph Seed. Players control an unnamed junior deputy sheriff who becomes trapped in Hope County and must work alongside factions of a resistance to liberate the county from the despotic rule of the Seeds and Eden’s Gate. The footage used in O, you happy roots… however is a deviation from the game, a refusal to play and instead a wandering and exploration of its digital vegetation away from human events.
The Lingua Ignotae and the plant names:
Hildegard von Bingens’ Lingua Ignotae’s plant glossary, through its activation by O, you happy roots…, could be seen as a process operating in the present to return to a moment ‘in the beginning’, of language being created, pre-Babelian, a first act of naming (of plants), occurring before Adam’s naming of animals, described in Genesis 2:19.
From around 1000 words in the glossary created by Hildegard von Bingen for her conlang, 150 of them are the names of plants, all of which are potentially discoverable by accumulating ciphers in this work’s image recognition algorithm. These plants seem to be a particular choice of hers rather than a comprehensive list of common plants growing in 12th Century Germany (eg: Blackberry, Dandelion, Fennel, Rosemary etc are all curiously absent from her glossary).
The plant images:
The plant images are a montage made by Chodzko of the main elements of a plant or tree derived from an online image search for each of the plants cited by Hildegard. These pictures are useless as a scientific botanical representation, which traditionally separates these different features for clarity and analysis. Here they are intended to convey a whole experience or memory of the plant.
The image recognition algorithm:
The code (created by Isaac Clarke from Black Shuck) uses a Computer Vision program (built with the OpenCV library) that uses a Template Matching (aka Pattern Matching) algorithm to recognise and label the ciphers in each frame of a video stream, blending analysis with the ‘incorrect perception’ of pareidolia. It uses programming that can be contextualised within ALife Computing, and influenced by projects such as the Living Computation Foundation where computer architecture is based on the observation of living systems and pattern language. The code created for O, you happy roots… has both set functions and non-deterministic elements; each time it’s run it will recognise and choose elements differently, discarding information as it selects a focus. It is therefore a process closer to the reality of human perception.
The hybrid plants are created from the emerging ciphers by recognising elements of the names of any two different plants from Hildegard’s glossary. However, the exact composition of the name is randomly selected over millions of possibilities (eg: Apple gives Ap, App, Appl, pple, ple, le; Wheat gives Wh, Whe, Whea, eat, at, so the new hybrid name would combine different permutations of those: eg: Whap, Appeat, Wheapple… etc).
O, you happy roots… appears to show a process driven by a feeling body in tandem with a machine (a weaving machine; computers are still close to the textile looms they originated from, good at making and detecting patterns). The idea of the artwork ‘making itself’, appearing to become conscious through the viewer’s act of looking and beyond the control of the artist, has been a consistent theme in Chodzko’s practice.
The Litterae Ignotae cipher font:
Parts of bodies:
Although the imagery is mainly located within the botanical there are a few visual fragments of bodies within the work, both of the tips of feet (bare, or wearing sneakers, real and virtual) appearing in several clips of the source footage as well as bits of hand that became ‘snagged’ within elements of the plant images. But there are also hidden bodies, implied by the camera movements, the vocal fragments and the close intimacy of the voice that calmly names the plants. Hildegard von Bingen’s relationship to the body was multi-faceted; on the one hand, virginal, rejecting the profanity of the body and on the other full of desire, fascinated by bodily functions and how to heal the sick body. Her medical writing contains one of the first detailed descriptions of the female orgasm.
Hildegard von Bingen and Music:
Hildegard von Bingen believed music to be healing; a direct communication to the soul from God. Many of her verses are salutations about greenness (viriditas) and its complex procreative connections to both fertility and yet virginity (Mary’s, the Mediatrix, as well as Hildegard’s own), the divine nature of femininity and the loss of paradise (equating the Garden of Eden with Mary’s virginal womb, creator of all things). Her language often seems highly erotic and a number of her songs (eg; the two pieces of music used in O, you happy roots…) begin with the joyous greeting of a root, twig, branch or bough; a form of body, conduit and channel. Human and spiritual growth are seen as being analogous to creative botanical processes eg: the vigour of sap rising in a tree or the act of blossoming. Words are sung as melismatic chant; stretching out one syllable over multiple notes, somehow slowing down time and meaning and making language meld, deliriously, into pure sound.
O, you happy roots… continues Chodzko’s exploration of art as a potential catalyst for vision revealing the interplay between our desire to see (revelations) as well as to hide through disavowals. It also continues Chodzko’s interest in codes, secrecies, signals, image moderation, chance, mysticism, spells, science fictions, community and ecology.