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Dissecting the Roses: Understanding Sarah Meyohas's "Cloud of Petals"

Not Only RGB (Decentraland, October 2022-June 2023) is a MoCDA group show supported by Decentraland DAO featuring works created by Kevin Abosch, Matt Kane, 38‰ (Mattia Cuttini and Luca Donno), Sarah Meyohas and Mathieu Merlet-Briand. This is a critical text by curators Chiara Braidotti and Anastasia Pineschi.

Sarah Meyohas is a conceptual artist who investigates relationships between nature and technology, illuminating the often submerged rules that govern our lives. On display in the Not Only RGB exhibition, Meyohas’s Generated Petals Interpolation features AI generated rose petals which endlessly evolve, trapped in an infinite cycle of production and erasure. The algorithm for this work was trained on a dataset captured as part of another work, Cloud of Petals, which MoCDA had the privilege of screening on April 18, 2023 as part of the exhibition’s programming.

Staged in the former Bell Labs, Cloud of Petals captures Meyohas’s project to dissect over 10,000 roses into their individual petals. The film opens with a close-up on some digital images' RGB components, taken from a screen. The focus then shifts to the act of photographing and capturing such images. Rose petals. Another cut and a bright blue sky appears, then the roof of the building, crowded with antennas and satellite dishes. The artist is also present in this deserted context, adding a human element to the main protagonists so far: technology and nature.

Suddenly we find ourselves inside the building, hovering over sixteen desks carefully arranged in a big empty hall. Sixteen figures approach them, their arms full of roses. Roses: a symbol for love, youth; a great business as well. There's almost a ritualism to the scene, to the exact position of the working stations as to the men's movements - are we inside an abandoned tech hub or a cathedral?

Even if not in a religious sense, the former Bell Labs can be regarded as consecrated space as some of the greatest technological breakthroughs in telecommunications took place here over the last century. Here, where the first single-chip 32-bit microprocessor was invented, the artist stages the creation of a new Big Data archive.

Nothing is portrayed by chance. Details are strengthened throughout the film by frequent close-ups. For instance, we see the artist's fingers delicately balancing dead flies on some wires, perhaps referencing computer bugs, once caused by actual insects hiding in the bulky tangles of cables or circuits of the first computing machines. She will repeat this activity on hair tangles - can we humans be considered as some sort of algorithmic machine too?

The dichotomy between the abandoned stillness of the facility and life harboured by natural living things proves illusory. Besides dead insects, we see snake moults, severed roses, their petals: all elements that are somehow transformed and bound to come to life again.

The petals are not only photographed and stored eternally in digital format; they are also used as inputs for an artificial neural network to create new ones. Some flies land on these digital petals, perhaps mistaking the screen for an actual flower. A yellow python slithers on roses of matching colour and tangles of cables, mirroring the impulses that once travelled through the wires. Other animals seem to claim the space throughout the film, the boundary between life and death gets blurred as the building itself, with its bulky cable bowels half exposed, with its cracks and wide glass windows, is repopulated by the protagonists of the performance.

The sixteen workers dart in the space carrying all varieties of roses. They are busy collecting images of the flowers, petal after petal, in a repetitive, somewhat ritualistic manner. Each man has a precise computational task: to capture each petal's image for the digital archive and select the most beautiful one from each flower for it to be preserved in a physical archive. The sense of touch seems a key component of their acts, as their contact with the flowers is either delicate or almost visceral. One man goes so far as to caress the petals and smell them.

However they are treated, the 100,000 petals portrayed are used to digitally generate infinite new ones through AI. The acts of the men and the neural networks seem to mirror each other. The building itself is enhanced again, reminding us how the data we store in a seemingly intangible cloud actually occupies a physical space too. The digital sublime, this hyper object of Big Data, does not lack a physical dimension.

Calm, suspended moments are juxtaposed with frenetic ones. Some roses get destroyed while still in bloom, consumed by fire; others are abandoned; others get thrown from the upper floors down to the huge hall, now covered in petals. Unintelligible words are murmured like a spell. There is decay in the sacred halls of Bell Labs as there is life. Nature and technology, physical and digital realities, blend more and more in a climax that finally unveils the Generated Petals, an algorithmically-produced presentation of new petals generated using the dataset that has just been created. The roses are now pixels, bits of colour. We are once again left with the RGB founding element of the digital image.


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