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ADS4: Legal Fictions

Dominic Oliver

[Proxy for an About]

Start with where you are from, write eerily in the third person as if someone else was introducing you. [Dom Oliver] was born in [Swindon], mention how this gives you a unique outlook on life because of [its proximity to the M4, the railway museum, and the railway museum]. Include something to mask your incredibly banal life, a surprising fact perhaps, that the area you grew up in has [the highest density of crop circles in Europe]. Now, an insincere quip that lets the reader know you are in fact, human. 

Explain how the intricacies of your practice were seeded in undergraduate degree at [University of Bath]. Express your employability by recalling your professional experience, working for [two] years at [Foster + Partners].

Flesh out your persona with your research interests, you must have interests. Pose some questions and throw in some neologisms with an increasingly urgent tone. Architecture in the age of something, anything. Towards a prediction, or maybe just a novelty? A [quasi-event] in a certain place, a pressing issue that we surely must address in the [prefix]-ocene.

School of Architecture Prizes 2021 Joint Winner of Head of Programme’s Prize - Architecture

The forest is 91 days old and will continue growing indefinitely. Within its infinite bifurcation, anything that can exist, will eventually exist. An endless accretion, the forest embraces its own fragile uncertainty. Reductionism becomes futile and moribund - challenging simplified models and aetiologies of mental distress, and their reflection in singular design solutions. Creatures are trained with reinforcement-learning to behave beyond deterministic code, generating the world around them as they explore autonomously. The forest is injected with proxies and life, ‘animated’ until it becomes a plural didactic tool, surpassing the control of its author. How might we approach mental distress differently, in this space of new and shifting logics?

Every day the forest grows, it slips further from my grasp and edges closer to autonomy. Perhaps the forest is speaking back to me - I become both forester and documentarian. What follows is not an explication of the forest into a single reading, but simply an attempt to document the ways of the forest so far. 

It’s much earlier and the forest has just begun. Who better to generate an endless forest, than Borel’s immortal monkeys? Wherever the monkeys walk, forest is procedurally generated around them. The forest is not a cure, not a singular design solution in which the critical and clinical converge, the forest is always growing and always changing… Reductionism becomes futile and moribund. The wind in the trees, the creaking branch, the fleeting shadow of a beast. The hallucinatory qualities of the forest are not pathologized or tranquilised. Despite relentless biological reduction, mental distress remains as unknowable and labyrinthine as the endless forest, the field fractured into myriad simplified models and aetiologies. How might we approach mental distress differently, in this space of new and shifting logics? 

The Numerical Forest Nursery — It’s only a few days later and I question how I can prevent the forest from becoming a paternalistic endeavour? To remove my invisible hand? I set up a forest nursery, and try training a dog to sniff out a target using Reinforcement-Learning. Every time it senses the correct one, it gets a numerical reward, do this enough times and the dog appears to “know” what it is doing, it appears to have a brain.
The Numerical Forest Nursery
The Numerical Forest Nursery — It is totally alien and yet strangely intuitive. Through a deluge of brute force random actions, the dogs experience a lifetime in a matter of seconds. This scares me, and yet I grow fond of them. Unlike conventional code, the creatures trained in the nursery behave beyond the deterministic instruction of the programmer, they are imperfect, they disobey, they err, they appear to be alive.

When creating a space in which everything will exist, how can I as a designer find agency? The forest is semi-autonomous, but also fragile. Positioning myself as the forester, I attempt to forge a methodology based on forestry techniques. While the forest can survive on its own, perhaps it is in some way dependent on my intervention. Yet these interventions are quickly engulfed in the overwhelming complexity of the forest. It does not resist my acts, it simply eclipses them. No longer methods of exerting control, I see my exploits as exploratory ways of interacting with forest, an attempt to speak its language. If I am losing my grasp on the forest, perhaps it is starting to teach me, a didactic tool in its own right.

— It’s some time later when a herd of cows inexplicably coalesce. Was this a freak event, or is it only a matter of time before the cows reassemble themselves in a ritual assimilation?
— The wolves seem utterly fascinated by what I have called Shakespeare’s Nile, after his belief that all snakes and crocodiles were formed by the sun warming its banks. The longer I watch, the closer I feel to grasping some sense of understanding, convinced the wolves are consumed by a frenzied attack, only for one to completely lose interest, as if they have just realised they need to go out and buy some milk.
— This forest can only ever be an imperfect representation of an endless one. As the monkeys walk further, the forest they generate is destroyed behind them. It ceases to exist, but if they double back on themselves the monkeys will find the forest exactly as they left it, as if someone has carefully yet instantly placed every tree back in its exact position. If the forest freely ebbs and flows into existence, are my efforts as Forester simply a portal? A lens pointing at something which was always there.
— If we travel the furthest reaches of the forest, we can see it floats in the abyss, charging into the void, like a mythical cosmological object suspended in nothingness. It is in these metafictional moments the forest reminds us that it is content in its ersatz nature, making no attempt to simulate a real forest. No perverse lidar death masks, sapping the render farms that slowly suffocate their physical counterparts. The forest is itself a kind of proxy, latent with life, not an etching of death. ‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎
— The trees are very kind, as I travel further from them, they lower their resolution so as not to trouble my equipment.
— There is clearly no larger meteorological system in the forest. The wind never seems to change, following a constant oscillation. Harun Farocki says, “In cinema, there is the wind that blows and the wind blown by a wind machine. With computer images, there is only one kind of wind.” But in computer images, there is no kind of wind. The leaves move themselves in a pattern that resembles wind, the vertices displaced according to two dimensional noise. In a sense, the trees are animate.

1000 Identical Trees — It’s significantly later. The more time I spend in the forest, the more difficult I find it to differentiate between things. There are infinitely many species between a sheep and a llama. ‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎
— I returned home and looked my dog dead in the eyes - I could no longer tell what she was. What I used to call dog, was now simply an arbitrary point amongst many spectra, floating somewhere between the equally meaningless labels wolf, fox, coyote.

There is a well-known problem in procedural generation of how to manufacture discernible difference. 1000 trees, each differing only by the placement of a single leaf, will appear indistinguishable to a human. Like a lazy copy, endless facsimile iterations. But perhaps this is a human problem. As I pass by tree after tree, from what I had initially seen as monocultural homogeneity, tiny details emerge, every tree appears fundamentally different, with its own unique physiognomy.  Does each tree now require its own name? 

— Soon after the forest began generating, I started to fill my home with physical proxy objects, attempting to acclimate myself for the inevitable actualisation of yet-to-exist creatures and objects. Intentionally amorphous and undefined, the proxy objects make no prediction, communicating only their lack of communication.
— As the absurdity of the forest becomes quotidian, the real world increasingly feels as banal as it does grotesque. At peace with the brutal and unknowable mutability of the forest, I’ve found I no longer need the calming effects of the proxy objects, choosing instead to live by the ways of the forest.
— At times I become frustrated with the vulnerability of the forest, anxiously protecting its running at all times. But I now believe that even if the forest is powered down, it will still exist. In a different form, a different mind, the forest will continue.