Maya Lin on Systematic Naturalism

Maya Lin, celebrated artist, architect and environmental advocate, discusses the concerns of generative art with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony), including her recent foray into the practice, an unexpectedly natural step in her highly awarded and celebrated career.
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Maya Lin, Ghost Forest Seedling #10, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Pace

Maya Lin on Systematic Naturalism

Maya Lin, celebrated artist, architect and environmental advocate, discusses the concerns of generative art with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony), including her recent foray into the practice, an unexpectedly natural step in her highly awarded and celebrated career.

Peter Bauman: Can you walk us through how you decided to venture into the realm of generative art for Ghost Forest Seedlings? How does the project align with or diverge from your previous artistic endeavors, such as your Out of the Earth series?

Maya Lin:
As we were deinstalling Ghost Forest, I started thinking about creating a more permanent presence of the work. Since Ghost Forest was a temporal artwork, the idea of creating an offshoot of the work in the ephemeral realm of the internet was very intriguing to me.

Peter Bauman: Issues like permanence and seriality are key elements of generative art. How does Ghost Forest Seedlings engage with this concept of seriality and what role does it play in the generative process compared to your earlier projects like Storm King Wavefield and Ghost Forest?

Maya Lin: In trying to mimic a natural growth pattern with each artwork, Ghost Forest Seedlings is in effect not so much creating a serial iteration, but instead, creating unique artworks that, similar to organic systems, create completely unique structures. What Seedlings does have in common with all my artworks is a need to ground oneself in fragile and natural systems. Revealing the hidden beauty of a tree’s root structure was a genesis for the work.

Peter Bauman: You mention unique artworks rather than serial iterations, which raises questions of "objectness" in generative art. In your book Boundaries, you mentioned that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial allowed the wall to dematerialize, letting names become the object. Generative art has similar ambiguity in terms of the art object—be it a print, NFT or process. What do you see as the object in Ghost Forest Seedlings?

Maya Lin: With Ghost Forest Seedlings being a multi-dimensional work—one that exists in three connected, but separate, states as a print, an NFT, and a video—I was able to experiment with notions of “objectness.” Linking the physical realm to the virtual realm as well as the temporal realm was one of my objectives while creating this work.

Maya Lin, Ghost Forest Seedlings #391 (Print). Courtesy of the artist and Pace

Peter Bauman: Linking the physical and virtual requires an embrace of non-traditional artistic tools. Over 15 years ago, you described your first love as “science, nature and the environment. I’m always trying to reveal in my art a little bit about nature that literally is invisible to us.” How does Ghost Forest Seedlings contribute to revealing aspects of nature, especially considering the intersection of science and computers in the generative process?

Maya Lin: The seedlings quite literally make you see the complex and intricate root structures of trees or plants—things that are otherwise invisible to us. We are a very visual species and often we ignore what we cannot see or worse, we let it be degraded by our practices. With climate change, Ghost Forest not only strived to make the viewer aware of how forests around the world are dying off from climate change but also aimed to focus attention on how nature-based solutions to climate change—such as rewilding, reforestation, and reforming our agriculture, forestry and ranching practices—could protect biodiversity as well as our habitat. These natural solutions could potentially reduce emissions by allowing the soil and the complex food network of fungi, soil, insects and roots to absorb and fix significant carbon within living soil. Through this work, I want to emphasize that this beautiful, intricate, and vital living system could potentially aid in mitigating climate change.

Peter Bauman: You mention that the algorithm behind Ghost Forest Seedlings generates artworks with growth patterns as varied as naturally growing organisms. Can you shed light on the conceptual framework and the uniqueness of this algorithm compared to more common geometric or fractal patterns seen in generative art?

Maya Lin: We started with L-Systems, or Lindenmayer-Systems, but ended up building a completely custom algorithm in order to introduce the randomness and irregularity you would find in nature. Fractal and L-system algorithms generate patterns that are very regular, repetitive, and inorganic. Our algorithm imitates nature in its perfection as well as its imperfection. Seed root patterns consist of branching structures that radiate from a central point. To mimic this in code, we employed a recursive algorithm that gradually creates root segments until the roots are fully developed. Each root is composed of multiple line segments with a random length, angle and bezier curve. With each new segment, the line width gradually decreases and fades in opacity. The traits combine to make each seedling look organic and lifelike—truly like something you could find in nature.

Peter Bauman: Nature itself can also be thought of as generative. How does the generative aspect of Ghost Forest Seedlings contribute to the overall meaning or message you wish to convey, particularly in relation to the climate crisis and Earth's vulnerability?

Maya Lin:
As I mentioned previously, by revealing the complex underground root structure of trees, plants and grasses, I am trying to focus attention on how the soil itself, if restored, could potentially fix significant amounts of carbon within its living network of fungi, roots, insects, and soil.

I wanted to create a work that would not be energy-intensive in its NFT state. The project took longer as we waited for the Ethereum network to have its energy-efficient design implemented. We originally began this project in 2021 or early 2022. From the start, it was critical that we didn't use a lot of energy to produce these works. We knew we were going to wait for Ethereum to move to a proof-of-stake system, which would reduce energy usage by 99+%.

Additionally, the prints are printed on 100% bamboo at a paper mill known for its sustainable and water-efficient processes. 

Peter Bauman: You've
mentioned that your world has always existed on the boundary between opposites. In what ways does generative art, with its inherent dualities of order and chaos, align with or challenge this tension you've explored in your previous works?

Maya Lin: When we started thinking about trying to capture the randomness of nature through computer programs, the focus as we worked with the programmers was to add in randomness at each iterative growth level. The goal was to create a mathematical growth pattern that you have to break from and then add in randomness. Otherwise, it would have appeared too perfect, too symmetrical, and therefore too artificial.

Peter Bauman: As you mention, randomness plays such a critical role in generative art. Reflecting on the generative process, how do you see the relationship between randomness and intentionality in Ghost Forest Seedlings? How does this dynamic contribute to the aesthetic choices in the project?

Maya Lin: Generative art and code-based works really challenged notions of control and perfection, which in a lot of ways is the experience of nature as well. We developed the code with a set of parameters and created the conditions for them to grow but ultimately, you don’t know precisely what the expression of the code or outcome of the growth pattern will be. Once I felt the code was producing growth patterns that I felt were natural, letting the algorithm surprise us became a large part of the final works.

Peter Bauman: You talk about assessing the algorithm. How did you approach aesthetic decisions within the generative process of Ghost Forest Seedlings and how did this differ from your approach to creating more traditional artworks or architectural pieces?

Maya Lin: It started with a very deliberate, hand-drawn idea. I hand-drew a cartoon-based growth pattern for the team to look at for inspiration in the programming. The programmers systematized this natural growth pattern at every iteration growth segment. I asked for random variability and the rate of growth between the seeds, as well as the boundary limits as each seed grew. In addition, I chose colors that were based on nature’s color palette.

Peter Bauman: How did this hand-drawing translate into the digital realm? Were there specific elements of a digital aesthetic that you considered during the creation of Ghost Forest Seedlings? How did this consideration shape the visual and conceptual aspects of the project?

Maya Lin: I was not trying to create something that had a digital aesthetic, so to speak. In other words, I was trying deliberately to fight an obvious growth patterning or a fractal or geometric sequential growth.

Maya Lin, Ghost Forest Seedling #57, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Pace

Peter Bauman: So much must have been new in this process. What were the most significant challenges you encountered while working on your first generative art project? Did the generative process lead you to explore new artistic avenues or perspectives?

Maya Lin: I had to familiarize myself with this media realm. I am frankly pretty analog, so familiarizing myself with the medium and its aesthetic possibilities was important.

Since so much of my art focuses on natural processes, I am intrigued by further systematizing natural phenomena. For instance, trying to simulate an ocean wave or a cloud moving across the sky in an algorithm would be very interesting to me.

Peter Bauman: Your previous work, as you say, has long systematized the natural. How do you envision Ghost Forest Seedlings fitting into your overall artistic legacy, considering its unique place at the intersection of generative art, environmental activism and technology?

Maya Lin: Ghost Forest Seedlings follows my interest in incorporating science, data, and technology in looking at the natural world. I could see myself exploring this further.

Peter Bauman: Given your exploration of generative art, can we expect more generative work from you in the future?

Maya Lin: Maybe.

Peter Bauman: Two years ago, when speaking about Ghost Forest to WSJ, you said, “Can I arrest your assumption of what you’re looking at, for a minute, so all of a sudden you experience it and relate to it?” Does this statement apply to your digital generative work as well, which can also come with certain assumptions, especially regarding NFTs?

Maya Lin: Yes, I believe so. It’s possible you will begin to think about what lies beneath the soil and how beautiful and vital these natural root structures are.

Peter Bauman: Finally, artist-engineer collaboration has a long history going back at least to the Fluxus traditions of the 1960s, including Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver's original Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T). Can you share your experience collaborating with NearForm and E.A.T_Works on Ghost Forest Seedlings? How did the use of technology impact your creative process compared to more traditional forms of art creation?

Maya Lin: Both NearForm and E.A.T_Works were great to work with. It was a very collaborative process. As they took the idea and created the first programs, I would then give feedback that would begin to create a more natural and less mathematical growth pattern. The entire process took over a year. They were extremely understanding and capable of reprogramming to create these works.


Maya Lin is an artist, architect and environmental advocate, seamlessly integrating science and art. Lin is recognized for her groundbreaking environmental artworks and memorial designs. Graduating from Yale University in 1981, she gained prominence with her winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Lin's extensive career embraces a fusion of art and architecture, with a focus on memory works addressing critical historical issues. Her art explores the intersection of landscape, history and language, while her architectural projects showcase a commitment to harmony and sustainability. Represented by the Pace Gallery in New York, Lin's works are featured in prestigious collections worldwide.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.