The Hudson River Bonsai Project

he Unnatural Selection Project Group is investigating the relationship be­tween the construction of nature in 19th Century Hudson River School painting and in modern biotechnologies. Inscribed in both of these practices flows an ideology of Manifest Destiny and the Sublime. Through this project we tease out these relationships and make them evident. We are asking the ques­tion, if gen­et­ics and genes were "plastic" in the way that paint is, would artists manipulate genes instead of paint to create landscapes? How does aes­thet­ic desire play out in the realm of the construction of genetically designed animals and plants? What are the repercussions of the biotechnological struct­ur­ing of nature?

This project’s manifestation is a computer based robotic "bonsai" installation piece. This work will use common trees – a Fichus Benjamina in this case – whose branches are strung with wires attached to computer controlled motors. A computer algorithm will control the motors which pull the wires and control the position of the tree’s branches. In the installation there will be a large computer video projection of a Hudson River School painting. The image is fed into the computer and analyzed by an algorithm, which will look at trees within the image and convert the location of the branches and shape into coordinates. The coordinates are sent to motors that control the branches of the fichus tree. The system will attempt to bend the tree to mirror a tree selected from the painting.

The Mechanics


The tree’s movements are controlled by monofilament attached to its branches. The monofilament runs horizontally be­tween the two walls of the install­ation’s enclosure. There are two sets of con­troll­ing mechanics inside the walls, each with a motor with an attached rubber wheel on one side of the en­clos­ure and a corresponding pulley on the opposite side. The monofilament was stretched in a loop between the motor’s wheel and the pulley’s and attached to a branch on the tree by a small piece of tape. The motor, controlled by an h-bridge circuit, could rotate clockwise or counter-clock­wise for a predetermined period of time and control the position of the attached branch.


The Installation

An enclosure was constructed on-site to darken the screen sufficiently to allow the projected images of the tree to be visible in the brightly lighted room.

A video projecter was suspended at the top of the enclosure to project the image onto the screen behind the articulated tree. It was placed high enough to prevent the tree from casting a shadow onto the projected image.

The ground below the tree was covered with shredded bark. The side walls were covered with black cloth. The top of the enclosure was made from 3mil black plastic.

The installation was presented at
UCSC's Art Department's quarterly

Open Studios

Friday, March 16th, 2007


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