Unnatural Selection - Catalogue Essay

Natural Selection…is a power incessantly ready for action, and is immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.1

Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species

The advantage humans have over animals, the theory goes, is due to the development of an opposable thumb allowing us to utilise tools creatively to shape our living conditions. This exhibition brings together works that utilise the latest of the tools—electronic and digital technologies—to make cultural objects inspired (some directly, some obliquely) by the workings of nature.

Though the classification “new media art” has come under scrutiny of late, it is maintained here since the works in Unnatural Selection differentiate themselves from much sculpture and installation by offering, through the use of recent technological developments, the experience of interactivity. Three of the works invite the viewer to actively engage, to touch, manipulate and affect the artwork as they too are affected. The other two use mediation—the re-presentation of the body through technology—to offer different perspectives on the relationship between human beings and their tools. It is this interrogation of the technology itself—through the experience of the work—that defines these pieces as new media art.

It could be argued that the resulting objects are sorely lacking when compared to the creations of nature. These artworks are never going to survive in an unmediated form. Free of human intervention, unassisted by electricity they can’t ‘live’, let alone propagate or evolve. So what is the point of their existence?

The answer is to be found in our uniquely human need to express ideas that transcend the day-to-day practicalities of survival; a desire to create objects and experiences that provide metaphor and meaning; cultural tools to interpret our experience of the world.

The title, Unnatural Selection, uses Darwin’s theories of Natural Selection (first published in 1859 in his Origin of the Species) as a point of departure. Through heredity, features and variations in plants and animals that are beneficial for survival in changing conditions are maintained. Failure to adapt can sometimes lead to the extinction of a whole variety or species.

While this principle is accepted as the basis of evolution and the development of humankind, Unnatural Selection engages with the idea as metaphor, particularly in the context of our modern, capital driven society where a widespread, crude, managerial version of the theory proposes that unless objects, forms and indeed people have an economically viable, self-sustaining function, they must eventually be overtaken by stronger more efficient, better adapted models. In this world, art would have no place at all. Art is rarely self-sustaining and the objects as we see here provide little practical or evident evolutionary function. What they do best is to encourage exploration, communication and contemplation of the relationship between the objects of our creation and the external world. In doing so they find their place, as part of a survival mechanism with which we test the world, and ourselves—art.

Matthew Gardiner’s Oribotics [Atom Generation] has a clear correlation with nature. Gardiner’s delicate floral creations open in response to our stimulus, tiny robotic arms revealing revisioned images of flowers. For a brief moment, the viewer controls the forces of nature, and is rewarded with a mediated vision of natural beauty.

Robin Petterd’s Moments of Grey is also directly inspired by nature. Like a shell washed up on the seashore, this small unassuming object exists to be stimulated by human touch, bringing delight in the sensory response, opening the doors to memory.

Jasper Streit’s Perceptual Screening III is an auditory environment that feeds on human interaction. It sees the viewer responding to the movements within the space, while the viewer sees through the objects of sound generation. What is it to affect your sonic space and how in turn does it affect you?

Daniel Green’s Experiments in Self-Amusement: Level 1- I, Toy, draws on popular culture. Utilising a tool of entertainment, Playstation 2, Green creates a complete world in which machines take inspiration from one another to perpetuate the game play. The use of the artist’s image raises questions as to how human and machine meld to make this isolated ecosystem.

Finally Melanie Foster’s Moving to the Virtual Matrix creates a domestic scenario with her security blanket woven from technological detritus inviting the viewer to question, as with Green’s work, the symbiotic relationship developing between human beings and their seemingly sentient technology.

Unnatural Selection defies those who would reduce Darwin’s vision to a mere competitive struggle for existence ignoring the complexities of a balanced ecology. This show offers an artificial microcosm in which the exhibited objects suggest likeness, difference and coexistence. Darwin’s own words might even propose a possible justification for such apparently futile activity:

No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained…if he makes due allowance for our profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all beings which live around us. 2

Perhaps it is the attempt to understand the subtleties of this inter-relation—this balance of life in its broadest sense—that is one of the primary functions of art. Hopefully the works collected here offer inspiration as well as insights into the mutualism of nature, the technological tools of our creation, and ourselves.

Gail Priest

GAIL PRIEST is a sound artist, writer and curator. In 2003/2004 she was co-director of Electrofringe, a national media art festival held over 5 days in Newcastle, NSW. In 2004 she was curator of dLux media arts sound component for d>art presented at Sydney Opera House Exhibition Hall. In 2005 she instigated e)scapes, an evening of audiovisual performances, screenings and installations happening seasonally.

Originally trained in the performing arts the core of her practice is in sound and composition, often working for dance and contemporary performance. She also performs live-laptop based pieces with highlights including a collaboration with Continuum Sax at the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney; ABC Radio National’s In the Night Air Audioteque; and Typhoon, an evening of sound at Artspace, Sydney.

In 2006, she will also curate What Survives: Sonic Residues in Breathing Buildings at Performance Space, Sydney and will launch a debut CD of her compositions. She is associate editor, graphic/web designer and advertising sales manager of RealTime/OnScreen magazine.


1. Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species, p49, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire, 1998.
2. Ibid, p6.