Planting my digital art garden

How and why I began tending a digital garden for creative exploration.

Posted on Aug 9, 2021
The internet can be a real bummer of a place. But ocasionally, you find an idea that lets some light shine through the dark void of chaos streams and hot takes. Something that feels warm and hopeful and honest. In this case I'm talking about [digital gardening]( It was only a matter of ~~time~~ algorithms before I stumbled on this concept. As someone immersed in tech by day (software engineer), interested in longform expression (artist), and skeptical of technology systems run by companies with job titles such as ["design ethicist"]( (an anti-capitalist, privacy-conscious, etc. human), I am honestly a bit surprised it took this long for the algos to surface the idea. This post will be a starting point for me to flesh out *why* I am so interested in the concept of digital gardens as a practice in creative cultivation, and *how* it can be applied in the general pursuit of art (in most cases, music). Ideally this can act as a roadmap for how I want to use my own site, as well as a [learn in pubilc]( example for others. ## What's great about a digital garden? I'm not going to explain the concept of digital gardening from scratch. For that, see this great [historical/cultural explainer]( by Maggie Appleton. For now, I'll just quote an original piece from the digital gardening community briefly from Joel Hook's post ["My blog is a digital garden, not a blog"]( > *I’m convinced that paginated posted sorted chronologically fuckin’ sucks. What makes a garden is interesting. It’s personal. Things are organized and orderly, but with a touch of chaos around the edges. Just like plants in the garden I’ve got posts that are in various stages of growth and nurturing. Some might wither and die, and others (like this one you are reading) will flourish and provide a source of continued for the gardener and folks in community that visit 👋.* This is my understanding and interest in the practice of digital gardening: - It is for me. You are welcome to explore and look around my garden at the wild things growing. It is not content (marketing). It is not blogging (monetized). - It is inherently messy. It better reflects how our brains think and create webs of thought. Timeslines, news feeds, and grids are bad at this. - It is anti-[premium mediocre](, a term originally credited to technology writer Venkatesh Rao (for another link to on the term, see [here](,downward%20mobility%20with%20sincere%20anxiety%E2%80%A6). I also highly recommend diving into the rabbit hole of premium mediocre's Gen Z push back: [domestic cozy]( Though imperfect, premium mediocre it's a useful catch-all critique of the social anxiety inherent in performative social media use. A race to the bottom in an effort to appear effortlessly cool. Things must be "on brand" to publish. They must match your other "content". What's your *angle*. Digital gardens reject these terms. I could find more reasons, but other people in the community explain it best. And I think that's a final reason: there is an actual community of people talking about this on the internet. Not in a performative, "buy-my-e-book and join my newsletter" way; but in Whatsapp groups, Telegram chats, Mastodon instances. This feels like the early days of the internet you often can only read about now: a network of distributed individuals coalescing around shared ideas and expressing them in weird and wonderful ways. ## Gardens as acts of resistance I am fresh off of reading [How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy]( by Jenny Odell. Naturally, resisting the urge to mindlessly scroll/post/shout into the void is on my mind. Cultivating a collection of digital notes, ideas, inspiration, and projects seems like a good way to slow down. To resist the urge to produce, ship, share, promote. Instead, I see a digital garden as a way to *tend* to these ideas. Some will bear fruit, and otheres may not. This brings to mind the idea of maintenance over production. Here's a quote I loved from Odell: > *Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.* The digital garden also brings to mind the role of physical gardens as acts of resistance. I remember during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic (yes, there have been two now) seeing a lovely piece about people starting [victory gardens](, a movement started during World War I & II in an effort to provide a more localized food economy. A physical garden thrives when a diversity of plants and species grow together. This provides the right mix of nutrients to the soil, and creates a [permaculture]( And it can be so with digital gardens. In fact, to place a wealth of different ideas in a single place, regardless of the connection to a personal brand or angle or selling point, is resistance in itself. Consider this from Odell again: >*When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to “be yourself,” what it really means is “be more yourself,” where “yourself” is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital.* Modern advertising and social media rely on algorithms that much prefer homogeneity. They encourage it. You clicked on shoes? You must love shoes. You will now see 143 different ads for shoes across 18 different websites and 4 different devices. I like that a digital garden can be messy. That it can house ideas that relate, or even that do not relate at all. Personally I have alwas struggled with this concept of what I'm starting to call the *segmentation of the self*. A quick google with the word "segmentation" will suggest terms that assume you want to learn about *market segmentation*: *" segmentation is the process of separating a market into sub-groups..."* Advertisers do this all the time. But sublimnially, we segment ourselves too as a result. In an effort to preserve a personal or professional brand, we share this post *here* but not *there*. An example: for the past 5+ years, I have used [my Twitter]( almost exclusively for professional purposes. I tweet about research and stories in the field of data visualization, connect with other professionals, share work that I find interesting. By contrast, [on Instagram]( I have been sharing music and art that I have created. At times it relates to my day-work (data visualization) but often times not. In an effort to "take advantage" of the benefits of each network, I have neglected to bring my whole self into my work (professionally, creatively, etc). The image I project is in fact so far from the interwoven identities and passions I hold. Odell argues for a different view of self, one that I think digital gardens can be uniquely suited for cultivating: >*Ultimately, I argue for a view of the self and of identity that is the opposite of the personal brand: an unstable, shapeshifting thing determined by interactions with others and with different kinds of places.* This is what I hope to create space for: the kind of swirling, shifting growth that is so native to humans we don't even see it happening. ## Cultivating creative soil More specifically, I'm interested in how tending a digital garden can nurture creative expression. As a musician and visual artist, I think a lot about making art. New technology and spaces for sharing or discovering music (Instagram, TikTok, etc) have created opportunities for artists, for sure. But I also worry about what these streams are doing to shape the art that we create. In the world of pop music, [songs have become shorter, more repetitive, and more hook-focused]( Of course there are many reasons behind this. But a leading one is undoubtedly our [shrinking attention spans]( To stick with the music example, on the other side of the spectrum you have virtuosic pieces of music: entire albums, discographies, box sets. These can take years to create. They move at an entirely different pace to our "chaos streams" of social media. But the danger here is that the work never gets shared due to a self-imposed perfectionism. I find an illustration from [Maggie Appleton's piece]( especially helpful here. On the left, you see the chaos streams: everything is shared, very little is edited or refined. Next to the streams you have private notes. And on the far right, you have the "cultivated performance" of things deemed ready to be shared: ![Spectrum of digital gardens](,w_1600/v1593765637/ Digital gardens sit somewhere in the middle. These examples work well for the writer or intellectual. But I'd like to explore what this looks like as applied to art and music. In my own musical practices, I tend to cram things into two of the above categories: "private notes" and "classic blog posts/books". In this case, that translates to "voice memos and/or demos" and "published songs". Between these two categories there is a vast void of editing, mixing, mastering, re-mixing, adding a new instrument, cutting a vocal part, re-mastering, and then eventually saying *fuck it* and sending it off to Spotify. I have decided this process actually sucks. The ideas I get most excited about hardly ever see the light of day. The ideas that do end up "published", I often feel detached from. I think that applying the digital garden concept could breathe new life into this practice. It also has the potential to liberate my own self-segmentation of musical genres. For example, if I have a concept or melody that I like, I put it down regardless. But when it comes time to work on it, I don't know where to put it: *well, this is cool, but it doesn't sound like my other stuff*. Before I even give the idea a chance to take root, I am assuming a market/segment/audience for it. That fucking sucks. Some people will say that "marketing" is just a necessary part of promoting art, but I don't want it to shape the art that I make. I reject those terms. I want a place to put my ideas even when they don't fit into existing categories. I want to give them a chance to grow. ## Some gardening guidelines I will need to expand on this more as I start the process, but here's what I'm thinking to start: ### Topic In a conscious effort to reject the idea of personal brand, I am allowing myself space to explore all the topics I am interested in, because they all make up me, Ben, the human. They currently include: - songwriting - ambient music - shoegaze/experimental - generative/procedural art made with code - DIY synthesizers - climate change and activism - local food systems This list will likely change, just like me! ### Growth status Each post will have a growth status to indicate what kind of idea or state it is in. Currently they will be: - **🌱 seedling:** this is an idea that has only just taken root. It could be a demo, a melody, a short video. Maybe it's the beginning of a "blog" type post (although I'm coming to cringe at the word blog). Seedlings show promise of something bigger. - **🌿 growing:** this is an idea that I am actively spending time cultivating. My hope is it will grow into a 🌳 tree. Growing things are nice to look at, but they don't have anything you can take away with you yet. - **🌳 tree:** this is a self-sufficient thing. It is most likely finished. Examples could be a song, a live performance, a standalone generative art piece. Trees produce fruit, which are meant to be consumed and enjoyed. - **🌳🌳🌳 forest:** this is a larger piece of work. I will probably not produce many forests. Forests are entire albums, websites, immersive works, code packages, etc. ### Confidence I'm including a "confidence" tag for posts with words or claims to certain ideas as recommended by Shaun Wang's [Digital Gardening Terms of Service]( Basically, this has to do with "epistemic disclosure", or how sure I am about knowing what I know on this topic. In short: >* I will report how strongly I hold my beliefs, always reserving the right to be wrong and change my mind.* This won't always apply (art and music cannot be right/wrong) but I'll do my best when applicable. I'm using a 5 point scale for now: - **almost certain:** I have read and thought very deeply about this issue. Though still possible, it would take an equally if not more well researched opinion to persuade me otherwise. - **high:** I am highly confident in this idea, based on multiple different sources and examples. I have read about this topic and saved multiple links from reputable sources for future reference. - **confident:** I am confident that this is a good idea and am actively implementing or pursuing it. - **curious:** I have read about this idea and see some promise in it. I am curious to learn more, but not staking a firm personal claim to it quite yet. - **hesitant:** I am wanting to learn more about an idea from a community but I do not claim to know much at all about it. I am in listening mode. Those are the terms. In the future I'll likely update and edit this list, upon which I will include an authors note of what changed. Until then, time to start planting.
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