The Garden of Virtual Kinship

The Garden of Virtual Kinship

Stephanie Rothenberg's The Garden of Virtual Kinship (2015) resembles an aquaponics system, arranged in the shape of a world map, in a BioArt model of crowdfunding and microfinance. This map uses plants as substitutes for human lives. More specifically, the plants represent the borrowers in a microfinance transaction. The use of plants echoes the focus in microfinance on agricultural loans, as well as nodding to the common usage of sprouting plants in the logos of microfinance banks. The work reflects on geography and economics, mapping in real-time the flow of capital from more developed to less developed countries (admittedly questionable terms). Areas of the world that don't receive or require microfinancing loans receive no water and thus no plants grow. The areas of the world that do collect microfinancing funds grow green and verdant. In The Garden of Virtual Kinship, this movement of capital is represented by water that the plants receive or are denied. Monetary exchanges are recreated in Rothenberg's world map by a robotic arm that pivots to the location of a plant and squirts it with stream of water. Some of the water makes it to the plants, much of it overflows or never even makes it into the plants' containers. This excess water drips to a reservoir beneath the world map, containing a white styrofoam sculpture of an idealized island city. This process makes visible a circuit of exchange involving peoples in developing nations making requests for relatively small loans and paying interest and fees upwards of 50%. This situation is often not beneficial for the borrower, in fact they are often exploitative, but they always add to the pool of global capital that benefits the super-rich.

Microfinance and crowdfunding are both made possible by contemporary technologies, Garden of Virtual Kinship is an interesting reversal in its use of these technologies to critique their role in 21st-century cultural formulations.

Speaking about her process generally and Garden of Virtual Kinship in particular, Stephanie Rothenberg says:

“My artworks always begin with a vision that melds a theoretical idea or issue with a particular form. My last few projects were screen-based and I wanted to create something more tactile and visceral, to really underscore this relationship between the real and the digital, the organic and the cultural. ... The plant as a symbol for human life was also the perfect metaphor for the piece.”
Yuan, Juliette (undated) S. Rothenberg:

Through the use of plants, water, and growth Rothenberg establishes a sensory bond between the data, the ideas, and the audience. Rothenberg describes Garden of Virtual Kinship as “an homage to Telegardens” ( ) Telegardens was an early interactive BioArt piece in which the audience could take care of plants in a circular garden through commands in their web-browser. The project began in 1995 and continued through 2004. Whereas in Telegardens the audience is individuals anonymously caring for plants over the Internet, in Garden of Virtual Kinship the audience is more indirectly influencing what happens, and the events play out on a virtual world-stage through microfinancing and crowdfunding, rather than a contained garden environment.

Both works bring into question issues of the virtual, the social, and the organic as they relate to world communication networks and each other.

image courtesy  Venue

image courtesy Venue

Another project by Stephanie Rothenberg that is enacted through telematics and helps to give a better idea of her wider art practice is Laborers of Love, 2013, described as a collaboration with Jeff Crouse.

Beginning from this succinct description of the project:

“Laborers of Love by Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothernberg explores how online culture has transformed how we think of pornography in terms of production and consumption. Visitors are invited to create and commission their sexual fantasy using ... an internet application that hires anonymous online workers to complete micro tasks that still require human intelligence.”
unauthored, (undated) Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse – Laborers of Love

We can see a continuing concern for how the virtual/online community makes real-world actions that deeply effect the human lives wrapped up in these complex transnational networks. In Garden of Virtual Kinship the work centers around crowdfunding, Laborers of Love is based on crowdsourcing. In Laborers of Love the “anonymous online workers” - who are members of a diverse workforce and not sex workers - are hired to compile material depicting the customers' sexual fantasies. This material is finally turned into a video “mash-up” using a specially designed piece of software, creating something more chaotic and ridiculous than sexy. This process is all visualized in real-time on a world map (again drawing a formal parallel to Garden of Virtual Kinship) showing the global location of the human worker and the IP addresses of the digital sources for the video fantasy. Laborers of Love exists in an artistic space between performance (the workers), video, web-site, network, and installation (gallery projection of videos and data). This is very similar to the boundaries crossed and ignored by Garden of Virtual Kinship. Likewise, both of these projects continue a like of inquiry into social-media and micro-economies. Further, these projects, and much of Stephanie Rothenberg's work, is exploring the benefits, drawbacks, risks and complexities of the technologies we continually intertwine ourselves with and rely on.

Video courtesy artist Vimeo

Image of the “Affluent City” beneath Garden of Virtual Kinship

image courtesy  Streaming Museum

image courtesy Streaming Museum

Stephanie Rothenberg =


Reversal of Fortune: The Garden of Virtual Kinship


The Telegarden – Ken Goldberg


Laborers of Love





Mechanical Turk


Garden of Virtual Kinship exhibitions =

Version 03 featured in “Globale: Infosphere” at ZKM Center for Art & Media

Version 02 (wood frame) featured at the 2014 Echo Art Fair


Laborers of Love exhibitions =

Perspectives on Imaginary Futures
House of Electronic Arts, Basel, Switzerland

Time & Motion: Redefining Work Life
FACT (Foundation for Art & Creative Technology), Liverpool, England

2013 Transmediale, BWPWAP: Desire, Berlin, Germany

Technolust, Magic Lantern Cinema, Providence, RI


Telegardens exhibition =

ARS Electronica Museum in Linz, Austria