Control and Indeterminacy in the Atomic Garden
By Roy Cloutier
Edited by Miriam Ho
An earthen berm the height of a house recedes into the distance, curving gently away in a perfect arc. Halfway up its slope sits a chain-link fence adorned only with the occasional ominous placard bearing a yellow nuclear symbol. Straight ahead is a gate; behind it, a small control station nestled into the berm beside a large tunnel. As we approach, a guard waves. Gears whirr and a cable thrums in the distance as it is unspooled. After a moment, the all-clear sounds.
Passing through the tunnel, we emerge into a surprisingly mundane looking field of plants. At first glance, the only clue to the garden’s peculiarity is a large, circular platform at the center of the field with a gangly contraption perched atop it. Looking more closely, the plants are bizarre: sunflowers with turquoise-tinged petals, waist-high peanut plants, pear trees with misshapen nodules on their branches. Familiar plant species grow alongside their bizarre, mutated brethren; each concentric row of plants seems more unsettlingly not quite familiar the longer one looks. The plants in the innermost crescent are decidedly fried. Centered on the platform is a manhole cover bearing a warning in large, bold letters: “RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL INSIDE: USE PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT.” The rows recede in all directions until they meet the encircling berm in the distance: a cornucopia of mutants.
Atomic gardens—a form of agricultural engineering which developed in the early days of post-war nuclear research—are a bizarre mix of the mundane and the fantastical. At their simplest, these gardens are little more than a slug of radioactive cobalt-60 isotope used to irradiate wedge-shaped fields of different plants to speed up the natural process of mutation: “for evolutionary purposes, collaps[ing] a thousand years into one.” (1) Despite the relative obscurity of atomic gardening, the mutants it has produced have had a profound impact on the global food supply, with many familiar foods springing from mutations born of these irradiated fields (Star Ruby and Rio Red grapefruits, disease-resistant cocoa, premium barley for Scotch whiskey, and the main cultivar of peppermint currently grown, for instance).
Beyond their obvious charm as a retro-futuristic curio or an odd form of landscape infrastructure, atomic gardens act as a particularly potent cipher to interpret many fundamental questions surrounding the mediation of complex technological systems today. The method and ideology behind the atomic garden speak forcefully of an alternative attitude to control and intervention that has since gained force across society—and, in turn, within theories of architecture—even as atomic gardens themselves have largely faded into obscurity. Unlike its forebears, it is at ease with the aleatory, comfortable with indeterminacy and contingency, and yet highly precise and productive in its own indirect way. “ABSOLUTELY SAFE—COMPLETELY UNPREDICTABLE," as one 1950s ad boasted. (2)
“A Maximum of Opportunity for Accidents”
Societal change in the two decades following the Second World War was driven in large part by a dramatic renegotiation of our relationship to technology. Technocrats, social theorists, and architects alike increasingly turned their attention to sociotechnical systems—grappling with variance, differentiation, and self-determination while seeking new ways to build forms of openness into their respective systems. (3) Shared between these experiments was a desire to erode the directness and centrality of Modernism, disavowing it in favor of a deft indirectness and new forms of decentralized control. (4)
In this time period complex systems theory began to spread: the cybernetics theories of Norbert Wiener and his followers; (5) the rise of media theory with its examination of systems of communication; (6) the ecology movement propounding ways to view the Earth as a system; (7) and more. This era likewise saw the forefathers of neoliberalism—Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and others affiliated with the Mount Pèlerin Society (8) —begin their campaign for the delegation of decision-making control to what they viewed as the complex system par excellence: the market. Across many aspects of society, decentralization became a key locus of thought and exploration.
The creative disciplines were particularly affected by this zeal for decentralization. In Britain, Cedric Price would propose in his Fun Palace a model of architecture that sought to reject entirely the fixed, authorial vision of the moderns. (9) In North America, theorists from Denise Scott Brown (10) to Reyner Banham (11) to Ian McHarg (12) turned their attention to the ways that design is enmeshed within larger systems of culture, urbanism, and ecology, seeking out new, systems-shrewd ways of operating within larger forces. Music saw a similar questioning of isolated forms of authorship, particularly in the skirmish between chance composition (for example, John Cage’s use of the I Ching to semi-randomly determine the score of his Music of Changes) and aleatory music (in which the piece was left, relatively undetermined, to the performer and the observer to complete). (13) Likewise, in literature, the Oulipo group (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or the "Workshop of Potential Literature”) created structures of constraint and recombination to act as a generative tool for future works—for example, Georges Perec’s “story-making machine” used in the creation of his book Life: A User’s Manual. (14) In these and many similar examples of the time, the underlying shift is from an emphasis on the players to the playing field itself, so to speak—a focus on the structures that shape thought, action, and form.
As architectural theorist Douglas Spencer describes, thinkers of the era sought to develop “techniques based more on the steering, guidance and control of conduct than on the use of blunt instruments of discipline and the naked exercise of hierarchical power.” (15) Direct interventions were eschewed, instead seeking ways of modulating (16) systems indirectly by reshaping their underlying conditions. Present as well in many contemporary architectural and landscape projects, this modulation mentality sees designers understanding themselves less as creators of fixed and finished objects and increasingly as managers of complex systems. (17) These systems-savvy forms of ordering would go on to underlie both later forms of governance (neoliberalism) (18) and architectural/landscape-architectural theory (the many ‘urbanisms’ and ‘agency’-valorizing practices of recent years). As a strand of thought, it is easy to identify by its fixation on indeterminacy and emergence. Much like a gardener tending crops, this mentality works via tweaking inputs, altering probabilities, and harnessing outputs—“irrigating territories with potential,” (19) in one memorable formulation. As Hayek dramatically puts it his book The Constitution of Liberty, for thinkers in this vein “the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen.” (20)
“We Can Shake the Family Tree and Bring Down Almost Anything”
At its most basic, mutation breeding works by increasing the rate at which random mutations occur. In the case of atomic gardens, this is achieved by bombarding plants with gamma radiation. Developed shortly after the Second World War as part of the U.S. government’s Atoms for Peace program, atomic gardens use a slug of cobalt isotope to induce mutations in a circular field of plants, radially arrayed around the radiator. (21) As the cobalt atoms decay, they release a steady wash of charged particles. These in turn are able to penetrate the plant matter in the surrounding field, where they ionize (strip electrons from) atoms in the plants, causing changes to the DNA of the plants and eventually, changes to the plants themselves. When safe access to the field is needed, the radioactive material is simply lowered into a lead-lined underground chamber; little if any residual radiation remains in the field or in the individual plant specimens.
Each row of plants receives a varying dose of radiation based on its distance from the pole. In turn, each plant species occupies a zone within the circular field shaped like a partial wedge, situated based on desired radiation intensity. The plants nearest the radioactive pole receive a high dose in a short time (300,000 times the rate of background radiation, in one example), exhibiting higher rates of mutation and lower rates of survival unless removed relatively quickly—ideal for short-lived plants. (22) Most of the other plants receive a smaller dose of radiation, resulting in more beneficial mutations within a standard growing season. At the outer edge of the typically quarter-mile radius of the field, the plants receive little radiation (a mere 2,000 times the background radiation). These plants rarely mutate at all unless left for a significantly longer time span, a setup perfectly suited for trees and other perennials. Within this simple radial array, a surprisingly rich mix of conditions can be created by manipulating the variables of exposure time, distance, length of plant life, and length of growing season.
Despite this tweaking of parameters, the outcomes of the mutations are never fully knowable in advance. The mutations are inevitably mixed—some beneficial, some harmful, some bizarre, some fascinating, some beautiful, and many utterly inconsequential. The method simply acts to generate variation, free of previous intent. In this sense, there is a world of difference between the “hammer” of the atomic garden’s randomized approach to genetic modification and the “scalpel” of today’s CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing, which targets specific sections of an organism’s genetic material. As the early atomic garden scientist Dr. Walton Gregory puts it in a fittingly-blunt yet apt metaphor, "with radiation we can shake the family tree and bring down almost anything we are looking for." (23)
After a selected amount of time, the plants are harvested and their seeds—now entirely benign and radiation-free—distributed to a network of citizen-scientists to plant and grow. One part peaceful use for the then-novel technology of nuclear radiation, one part outreach strategy for the nuclear industry, the atomic gardens caught the imagination of the American public shortly after their introduction in the early 1950s. Home gardeners flocked to Walgreens and similar retailers to buy “ATOMIC-ENERGIZED” seeds of many varieties, keen to take part in what the seed packets boasted to be “a large and widespread experiment.” (24) While the gardens that produced the seeds were on the grounds of national laboratories, the identification and propagation of “successful” mutants was designed to be run in a massively distributed manner—an early example of both crowdsourcing and citizen science. Gardeners would raise multiple generations of the mutants, identify noteworthy specimens, then report their observations back to the research laboratories where particularly interesting specimens were propagated for further study. Similar atomic-gardening programs soon appeared in the USSR, followed eventually in other parts of the world including Japan and the Philippines where they persist to the present day. In virtually all cases, the gardens depend on some sort of distributed citizen-science component.
Atomic gardens provide a model of science that departs drastically from normative practice in at least two illuminating ways. The first is the embrace of generativity and the rejection of predetermined intention in the process of genome editing. By “shaking the family tree,” the scientists operate within a realm of possibilities without knowing exactly what the outcome will be, opening the process to contingency and placing a wager on beneficial unexpected outcomes. Compared to CRISPR, in which intention is known beforehand, the aleatory nature of the atomic garden is both frustrating for its imprecision and thrilling for its capacity to exceed our initial desires. It is generative in the truest sense of the word, in that it generates a blossoming forth of diversity that would otherwise be unlikely to occur in normative practice (or, at least, survive funding proposal reviews).
The second departure, distribution, is the way that this relative imprecision is redeemed: that is, by moving to a high-throughput, low-stakes, massive, multiple, and decentralized model. What it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in volume: atomic gardens have learned to fail faster. In this sense, atomic gardens and their network of citizen-scientists prefigure the mode of intervention into complex systems that Sanford Kwinter describes in his essay “Wildness: Prolegomena to a New Urbanism.” (25) Drawing from research conducted by the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complexity, Kwinter suggests that “extremely intricate systems can most effectively be built up messily, in steps and layers, from approximate rather than finished and perfect parts, and incrementally over time, rather than in one fell swoop of assembly.” (26) He calls for the innate wildness of indeterminacy and contingency to be considered as the cornerstone of design’s engagements with complex systems, arguing for the creation of systems that “capitalize on accidental successes, store them, and build upon them,” (27) a mode of operating reminiscent of the citizen-scientists of the atomic garden diaspora. In both atomic gardens and Kwinter’s description, one can see a clear conceptualization of and approach to distributed systems: building from the small, multiple, and contingent.
Open Work, Open Order
In 1965, Umberto Eco published his seminal book Opera Aperta (The Open Work), theorizing on a then-nascent form of art that sought to speak by “organizing its forms in a particular way, not by making pronouncements with them.” (28) As he went on to argue, "in every century, the way that artistic forms are structured reflects the way in which science or contemporary culture views reality.” (29) Counterposed to medieval and rationalist art, he described an aesthetic and methodology of openness that he saw as emerging in the art of that time—one that embodies “the discarding of a static, syllogistic view of order, and a corresponding devolution of intellectual authority to personal decision, choice, and social context.” (30) These works he described with the term open: “susceptible to a whole range of integrations” and providing a “structural vitality” that “admits of all kinds of different conclusions and solutions for it." (31)
Strange as it may seem, this attitude—so laden with the language of openness, with associations of freedom—in turn harbours its own novel forms of control and order. Control persists even in decentralized systems, (32) despite much rhetoric to the contrary—taking on new, distributed forms that suffuse control throughout the entirety of systems. In both the case of atomic gardens and in the broader history of modulation, the shift is from a direct, centralized form of control to a more indirect form of control that operates via probabilities and behaviours, manipulating the conditions of possibility. (33) In the words of complexity theorists Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, “chance, or probability, is no longer a convenient way of accepting ignorance, but rather part of a new, extended rationality.” (34) The aleatory (a)rationality of the atomic garden supplants and supplements the linear rationality seen in examples like CRISPR gene-editing. Modulation instead creates a playing field for aleatoric processes, as opposed to a merely mechanical translation of human wilfulness: “they exercise novel forms of control that operate at a level that is anonymous and nonhuman, which is to say material.” (35)
While speaking of the regulation of gene-expression in the same breath as the regulation of human behavior may seem incongruous at first, the crucial component is the mentality underlying both: an embrace of the indeterminate, coupled with control that operates indirectly by changing parameters to manipulate self-determined behaviour. This ideology, which has been separately described in its many facets by numerous theorists since then, (36) has spread throughout contemporary governance, technologies, architecture, and landscape architecture alike—permeating contemporary discourse yet remaining peculiarly inscrutable.
At the heart of modulation heart lies a tension and an aporia. As philosopher Rosi Braidotti describes, "the bio-political cuts both ways … [producing] a multi-faceted vision of power as both restrictive or coercive (potestas) and empowering or productive (potential).” (37) Decentralized systems are far from inherently liberating (as its proponents would have one believe), yet neither are they inherently oppressive. Rather, the design and evolution of these systems is a complex and deeply political challenge (38)—one that requires a critical, considered engagement. The task before us, then, is “to discover, or invent, a politics, a mobility, and a conviviality . . . capable of giving full expression to the emancipatory potential that remains latent and unrealized in our networked technologies,” as urban theorist Adam Greenfield argues. (39) Modulation is a form of governance that operates via an environment—in turn demanding new ideas of agency, subjectivity, and politics.
Atomic gardens—with their curious mixture of Space-Age technologies and everyday rituals of plant tending—hold a great deal of base allure simply from their incongruity. Yet they also operate on the level of politics and subjectivity: they gesture toward a way beyond both the simple exercise of linear reason that preceded them and the complex exercise of probabilistic, modulatory power that followed them. They sit at a unique pivot point at which the exploration of complex systems was done as an earnest, honest attempt at letting go—learning to bracket linear rationality, accept the finitude of human knowledge, and simply collaborate with things, taking their own internal logic and agential power as drivers in the evolution of the system. The gardens’ embrace of the aleatory and the generative points toward a novel approach to complex systems—one in which every act of human rationality is transgressed by the agency of others, in the process exceeding it and becoming something more, something wild: an open order.
(1) Harland Manchester, "The New Age of 'Atomic Crops'," Popular Mechanics (October 1958): 106–110, 282–288.
(2) Peter Smith, "How Radiation is Changing the Foods You Eat," GOOD (2011), https://www.good.is/articles/how-radiation-is-changing-the-foods-that-you-eat
(3) Jordan Crandall, “Operational Media,” CTHEORY Journal (2005), http://mmduvic.ca/index.php/ctheory/article/view/14535/5382. See also N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 84–112, and Peter Galison, "The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Weiner and the Cybernetic Vision," Critical Inquiry 21:1 (1994): 228–266.
(4) James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).
(5) Norbert Wiener, “Cybernetics,” Scientific American 179, no. 5 (November 1948): 14–19.
(6) See Mark Wigley’s writing on the post-WWII interactions of media theorist Marshall McLuhan with spatial theorists Constantin Doxiadis, Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, Siegfried Giedion, Buckminster Fuller, and others related to the World Society of Ekistics. As Wigley puts it, “McLuhan’s influential discourse about networks during the sixties was exactly paralleled by that of experimental architects during the same years.” Mark Wigley, "Network Fever," Grey Room 04 (2001): 86–112.
(7) Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister, "Ecology and Design: Parallel Genealogies," Places Journal (2014), https://placesjournal.org/article/ecology-and-design-parallel-genealogies/
(8) Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds., The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).
(9) Stanley Mathews, “The Fun Palace as Virtual Architecture: Cedric Price and the Practices of Indeterminacy,” Journal of Architectural Education 59 (2006): 39–48.
(10) Not only to the seminal Learning from Las Vegas research studio and book with Venturi and Izenour, but also earlier urbanism courses taught by Scott Brown at Penn and UCLA. See Denise Scott Brown, “Studio,” ARPA Journal 04 (2016 ), http://www.arpajournal.net/studio/. See also Nicholas Korody, “Learning from 'Learning from Las Vegas': in conversation with Denise Scott Brown, Part 3: Research,” Archinect (2016), https://archinect.com/features/article/149977368/learning-from-learning-from-las-vegas-in-conversation-with-denise-scott-brown-part-3-research
(11) In different ways, many of Banham’s writings fit into the above characterization; see in particular Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969). See also Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).
(12) Ian McHarg. Design with Nature (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1969).
(13) Gerhard Nierhaus, Algorithmic Composition: Paradigms of Automated Music Generation (New York: Springer, 2009).
(14) David Bellos, Georges Perec: A Life in Words: A Biography (Boston: D.R. Godine, 1993). See also Georges Perec, Life, a User’s Manual, trans. David Bellos (Boston: D.R. Godine, 2013 ).
(15) Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 32.
(16) Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 3–7. See also Yuk Hui, “Modulation after Control” in New Formations 84–85, On Societies of Control (2015): 74–91.
(17) Conspicuous here is the recasting of architecture by STS theorists Bruno Latour and Albena Yaneva, who see “a building as a moving modulator regulating different intensities of engagement, redirecting users' attention, mixing and putting people together, concentrating flows of actors and distributing them so as to compose a productive force in time-space.” Bruno Latour and Albena Yaneva, “Give Me a Gun and I Will Make All Buildings Move: An ANT’s View of Architecture,” in Explorations in Architecture: Teaching, Design, Research, ed. Reto Geiser (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2008), 87. Quoted in Kiel Moe, Empire, State & Building (New York: Actar, 2017), 19.
(18) William Connolly, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
(19) Rem Koolhaas, “Whatever Happened to Urbanism,” in Small, Medium, Large, Extra-large, ed. Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau (New York: Monacelli Press, 1998), 969.
(20) Hayek quoted in Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 62.
(21) Helene Ann Curry, Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). See also Nicola Twilley, “Strange and Beautiful Seeds From the Atom,” Edible Geography (2011), http://www.ediblegeography.com/strange-and-beautiful-seeds-from-the-atom/
(22) Amir Raina et. al., “Role of Mutation Breeding in Crop Improvement: Past, Present, and Future,” Asian Research Journal of Agriculture 2 (2016): 1–13.
(23) Manchester, New Age, 284.
(24) Helene Ann Curry, “From garden biotech to garage biotech: amateur experimental biology in historical perspective,” British Journal for the History of Science 47 (2014), 539–565. See also Alexander Trevi, “Atomic Gardens. Interview with Paige Johnson”, Pruned (2011), https://pruned.blogspot.com/2011/04/atomic-gardens.html
(25) Sanford Kwinter, “Wildness: Prolegomena to a New Urbanism” in Far From Equilibrium (Barcelona: Actar, 2007), 186-191.
(26) Kwinter, “Wildness,” 187.
(27) Kwinter, “Wildness,” 188.
(28) Umberto Eco, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989 ), 142.
(29) Eco, Open Work, 13.
(30) Eco, Open Work, 14–15.
(31) Eco, Open Work, 20.
(32) Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 7–9.
(33) Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
(34) Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 155.
(35) Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 5.
(36) For instance, see discussions on modulation (Gilles Deleuze, especially as interpreted by Yuk Hui), protocol (Alexander Galloway), asynchronous control (Mike Pepi), psychopolitics (Byung-Chul Han), data-behaviourism (Antoinette Rouvroy), and algorithmic control (Matteo Pasquinelli and Luciana Parisi); in architectural theory, managerialism (AGGREGATE, Curtis Roth, and Douglas Spencer, among others), disposition (Keller Easterling), and infrastructuralism (John J. May, Stan Allen, Kazys Varnelis).
(37) Rosi Braidotti, “Generative Futures: On Affirmative Ethics” in Critical and Clinical Cartographies: Architecture, Robotics, Medicine, Philosophy, ed. Andrej Radman and Heidi Sohn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 288–308.
(38) For more on this, refer to recent discussions in philosophy and architectural theory on the post-political; for a more directly-related reference, see Jason Royce Lindsey, The Concealment of the State (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). See also Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, The Instruments Project, 2019, http://we-aggregate.org/project/instruments
(39) Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (New York: Verso, 2017), 647.
Roy Cloutier is a researcher and educator based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is a designer at Patkau Architects, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, and the co-founder of Contingent, a multi-disciplinary design and research collective.