Topic: LandscapesIgnorance is Bliss

Big tech companies have long used 'green' imagery to serve their own ends. In this article, Charlotte Rickards explores the green rolling hills and blue skies of Microsoft's 'Bliss', one of the most viewed images in history. She finds an unexpected, ironic story of globalism gone awry; a curious chapter in a long history of natural images divorced from the world they so casually claim to depict.

By Charlotte Rickards
An Image of the Microsoft Bliss Hill today
A more recent image of the Microsoft Bliss landscape, 2017.

It’s 2006. You’re on your way back home from school. As you’re leaving, your friends ask if you’re going to be online tonight, to which you reply with an emphatic ‘yes’.

You sit down at your family computer, then press and hold the ON button. An image on the screen glows in front of you. A gentle hill rolls, soft white clouds pleasantly drift, electric-green grasses ebb along the currents of an easy breeze. Microsoft titled their now-famous 2001 default wallpaper Bliss. It was a futuristic eden, offered up in pixels, every time you booted up the family computer.

The Bliss wallpaper is one of the visual markers of a mid-2000s aesthetic design trend now back in fashion, called Frutiger Aero. Bliss, along with translucent surfaces, impossibly blue skies, glassy MSN avatars, dew drops, and the odd tropical fish – has recently retaken the internet by storm. There’s over 270m TikTok views under the hashtag, subreddit threads spiking 400% in interest, and hours-long soothing YouTube videos, and Spotify playlists intended to calm us down. ‘I miss frutiger aero so much,’ a tweet reads. ‘Frutiger aero was the last time I felt hope,’ says another.

But after the warm nostalgic fuzz, the internet discussion stops, with much left unsaid. Like, why did we decide that a glorified sterile lawn was the perfect representation of ‘bliss’ in 2001? Why are there no seasons in Frutiger Aero? Where are all the people?

As a wallpaper Bliss says a lot about attitudes to the natural world back in 2001. The original photograph was actually the product of an accident involving a hapless insect. The only reason this hill was covered in a seemingly infinite carpet of grass was because Napa Valley in Northern California (where the picture was taken) was ravaged by an epidemic of a micropest called phylloxera, making it impossible for the land to be used as a vineyard, as it previously had been.

The phylloxera epidemic was rooted in careless globalised ecological meddling – in part, a result of historic experimentation, with Europeans using American vines and plants in their soil. Many vine varieties were imported without regulation, and the possibility of pest transfer was ignored.

Napa Valley had spent most of the 1990s trying to stop the spread of the micropest, which had decimated 50,000 acres by the time it had run its course, costing wine growers half a billion dollars. Yet to professional photographer Charles O’Rear, who was actually off duty at the time and driving to see his partner – it was the perfect shot. If you go and see the landscape today, it’s a vineyard once again, with grey skies, brown leaves, and lines of vines etched along the hills.

In Bliss, the labour relations bound up in the land – the wine growers and their crops – are rendered invisible. What we see instead is a landscape that’s easy on the eye: the land is infinite, happy, and empty.

Bliss is far from anomalous in this regard; the precedent is well established in the landscape painting canon. The 18th Century Picturesque movement, for example, sought to depict the rural idyll. Yet in the rare case agricultural workers are represented, it’s in works like George Stubbs’ Haymakers and Reapers (1785), where anonymised Lancashire workers jubilantly fluff hay without breaking a sweat, or marking their white cotton clothes or shiny-buckled leather shoes — despite the realities of poverty, exhaustion, and the encroaching Enclosure Acts, which put increasing demands on agricultural workers of the day.(1)

We also see this in Victorian landscape painting. Humphry House argued that the exaggerated schmaltzy sentiment of these works arose from a desire to restore man’s self esteem, shattered by recent scientific discoveries. Bliss, in 2001, freshly pricked from the dotcom bubble burst where 100 million individual investors had lost $5 trillion in the stock market, carries similar sentimentalities.

Even well into the 20th Century, when telegraph poles were a standard fixture of the British countryside, artists turned a blind eye. There was even a running joke that J. McIntosh Patrick, a celebrated Scottish landscape artist, had been gifted with the inability to see electricity pylons.

We don’t like facing the reality of our impact on the landscape. We put our head in the sand, we harken back, we become nostalgic. Sound familiar?

And yet, the landscape still has to work overtime for us, the viewer. We see the landscape as a space that needs to be empty enough to hold our own projections, our own emotions. It’s why Microsoft’s image is titled ‘Bliss’ – to evoke a feeling within us, but not a feeling about the natural world itself.

This ties into how Western audiences have been educated to look at plants, flowers and landscapes right from the Mediaeval period: we are taught to hear their symbolic voices, but rarely to consider their reality. White Lilies can’t be lilies, for example – they’re a symbol of virginity in the backdrop of a Madonna and Child altarpiece. This runs through a litany of landscape genres: The shepherd happy Arcadian idyll in the Italian Renaissance, the frothy Fêtes Galantes in 18th Century Rococo France – nature’s role is the conduit in order to express something deeper about ourselves. Just think of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea Fog (1818). It’s always: How can I use the landscape to say something about me?

Even the word ‘landscape’ itself derives from painterly artifice. We think it refers to the land, when historically it actually refers to paint, the word originates in Holland first from the 16th Century Dutch landscape paintings; it only referred to a particular region later in the 18th Century.

Think about how our eyes move around Bliss. It’s easy, unobstructed; there’s a sense of the infinite; it's perfectly framed. Nowhere is this more obvious than with ha-ha optical illusion design used in landscaped gardens and parks in the 18th Century, where the viewer is given an illusion of an unbroken, continuous rolling lawn, whilst still providing boundaries for grazing livestock, where no fence is required. Historic houses in the UK like Harchood, Warwick Castle, Audley End, Boward, Chatsworth, Richmond Park – all of which required the removal of a hamlet or a village to create their sprawling, unobstructed landscape views.

We are cushioned by images, and so prevented from connecting with the natural world. 20th Century British art theorist John Berger says that ‘all art, which is based on a close observation of nature, eventually changes the way that nature is seen.’ Which, he says, only becomes more prevalent in increasingly globalised societies that serve to further disconnect us from nature:

'Until recently a whole cultural process was involved; the artist observed nature: his work had a place in the culture of his time and that culture mediated between man and nature. In post-industrial societies this no longer happens. Their culture runs parallel to nature and is completely insulated from it. Anything which enters that culture has to sever its connections with nature. Even natural sights (views) have been reduced in consumption to commodities.’

The artist duo Goldin+Senneby, spent months researching Bliss and explain that the Microsoft branding team liked the image because ‘the green grass and the blue sky fit perfectly with the two main colors in the branding,’ as told by Artsy.(2)

At its core, Bliss is ultimately a branding exercise; one so successful that it continues to bear fruit today. And yet Bliss also embodies a peculiar irony. While the image was designed as a soothing escape from our increasingly globalised lives, hiding in plain sight were the consequences of globalism gone awry – an incident resulting from the carelessness of a globalised plant trade, beamed onto a billion computer screens and counting.

1) Olivia Plender, Olivia Plender on George Stubbs Haymakers and Reapers 1785, Tate, 2023

2) Abigail Cain, The Story Behind the World’s Most Famous Desktop Background, Artsy, 2017

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