Moss and misunderstandings

I have not been unhappy for ten thousand years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

—Leonard Cohen, from I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries

Some days I stare at a screen and some days I stare at the sea. I’m spending most afternoons programming A House By The Water, a digital projection of houses falling into the ocean, as part of an artist residency at The Rooms. I’m programming in Processing, which is pretty old-fashioned as far as computer graphics go – no fancy lighting engines or physics libraries. The computer talks in rectangles. I’ve written a program that draws houses out of boxes. Each box has a roof, which is eight rectangles and two triangles and a texture. Each box has a chimney. Some of the boxes have windows and doors. The boxes don’t know each other exist, so each house is full of vestigial chimneys that don’t reach the roof, and falling houses pass through each other like ghosts. I spend an entire evening failing to calculate shadows.

The computer talks in rectangles, but it breathes in loops. Loops are its essence. A rectangle is a loop if you untangle it enough (one, two, three, four sides). I write loops for stacking boxes into houses, loops for the choppy vector mesh that simulates the water’s surface, loops for the effect of gravity on a falling house, loops to control the translucency of shadows. Each loop is a set of instructions that repeats itself, slightly differently each time. Some iterations are faster than others. I spend hours rewriting code and the scene looks almost exactly the same as before, but the movement is smoother, or I can generate more houses at once without affecting the framerate.

The work so far, although it does not contain language, is very textual: I’ve made a video of little house-shaped points of light washing up on a shore, and the lights read almost as letters, the house shapes suggesting something different when singular or clustered. Similarly, the projection of falling houses is composed out of code, a kind of language. Making the art is mostly an act of writing.

So the computer and I communicate, often misunderstanding each other. I accidentally instruct it to draw the 2D background in the same three-dimensional space as the houses, and the scene collapses like a theatrical backdrop, houses tumbling into an empty grey aether. Or I forget to erase between frames and each house is drawn again and again as it rotates, spinning into itself like a ball of yarn.

On the weekends I get my eyes away from the machine. It’s been a soft summer, the city muzzled by clouds, more fog than I remember from last year. Frost warnings in July. I have been photographing moss, and I want to know more about moss, perhaps even grow some in the studio. A couple of friends have a moss garden, and invite me to visit. They’ve taken a worn-out corner of the backyard and reupholstered it in different mosses collected around St. John’s. The garden is a dappled tapestry of colour and texture, with dozens of different varieties: stubbled pool-table baize, spiky tufts tinged in orange, sturdy toothbrush-like bristles. A few rusty patches. The mosses they’ve found in the city seem to thrive, while others, collected from rocks higher up on the Southside Hills, don’t seem to like living downtown.

After the garden, we go moss collecting. In the part of the park furthest from the city, landscaped paths narrow into threadbare trails between trees. The ground is soft and damp, and the grass gives way to shrubs and bog. On either side of the trail, rocks and roots are lush with moss. We find a good-sized patch of the species that seems to do best in the backyard, a riot of tiny leaves in enthusiastic chartreuse. It’s like tearing up carpet. You just kind of lift the edge and slide your hand under, and it all comes up in a clump. We fill a garbage bag with miniature islands.

What I like about moss is that it is unnoticeable. It keeps a low profile, doesn’t draw attention to itself. Moss is a squatter, colonizing any overlooked surface. It thrives in the in-between places, the damp pockets, the shadows. It lurks behind trees. It’s given up frivolities like roots, flowers, seeds. At the same time, it has a humble hospitality. It offers a seat, a place to think. It obliges visitors but isn’t much of a conversationalist, doesn’t know what to say besides hello. It mumbles a bit, repeats itself softly, likes to mull things over. It’s a welcome mat gone feral.

We walk home through the drizzle. My mind is amorphous, making connections that don’t make any sense. I think: maybe moss is a kind of software. A series of instructions on how to generate more moss. A fuzzy green code, writing itself into the world. Maybe I’m just an interface between the moss and the screen. I breathe and walk in loops: one, two, three, four. My body follows unknowable instructions, cleans and repairs itself. I’m not sure how, but I think I’ve learned something about how to calculate shadows. On Monday, back in the studio, I will have so much to tell the computer.