This article introduces the concepts of nature and biodiversity through the lens of science and art as important producers of knowledge and public stories about the “natural”. By presenting the case study of ecoLAB (Gijón, 2011-2012), an artist run garden within a contemporary art centre, this paper tries to illustrate how art practices play a key role in sustainable development and safeguarding biodiversity. It analyzes ecoLAB as a particular garden from the perspective of Guattari’s three ecologies, and discusses and hypothesizes about its social and environmental meaning. Posing a few questions, such as: are these artistic approaches just another utopian fantasy ? Can we adopt them as a political tool in the praxis of social and environmental change ? The paper discusses the confrontation between artistic practices and environmental issues by comparing, through biological analogy, the vulnerability of cultural biodiversity and the uncertainty of the knowledge economy. Notice that this text was written before ecoLAB project ceased to exist.
This article is part of a research project developed at Universidad de Oviedo over 2011–12 at the History and Sociology departments, which is a socio-cultural and historical analysis of the processes of how contemporary artistic practices contribute to landscape cultural construction. From an aesthetic and ecological perspective, it studies the ideal and symbolic aspects of social action in spaces where there is a confrontation between artistic practices and environmental issues. The research is based on case studies of several artistic projects in Europe, that, having a garden as an experimental or laboratory space, work in the intersection between ecology, art and new technology. For this particular paper I will discus one of the case studies: ecoLAB (Gijón, 2011-2012).
Once upon a time there was “nature”, a concept that we understand partially through the filter of art and science. Throughout history, both of these discourses have been important producers of knowledge and public stories about the “natural”. On one side, scientific discourse often uses concepts such as biodiversity, sustainability and landscape when talking about “nature”. According to The Convention on Biological Diversity, Biodiversity or “biological diversity” 1 refers to the vast variety of living beings on earth and their natural patterns. It includes the numerous ecosystems and the genetic differences within species allowing the combination of multiple life forms. It is the result of millions of years of evolution of natural processes and human activity. The importance of biodiversity is primarily linked to ecological, economic and scientific aspects, and, in contemporary society, it is thought about in terms of services and resources for the development of life and its study.
Photo by Rubén Suárez
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recognized the need for the future preservation of biodiversity according to sustainable criteria. Therefore, in today’s world, talking about “nature” usually means talking about biodiversity and sustainable development, which are considered key factors for increasing the physical wellbeing of human beings. While biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms and genetic heritage of a given species, ecosystem, biome, or planet, paradoxically, sustainability is about the intelligent, efficient exploitation of natural resources, many of them part of that biodiversity. Both the preservation and measurement of biodiversity and the exploitation of natural resources take place through science and its progeny – technology. However this techno-science perspective is not an absolute understanding of biodiversity, sustainability, landscape or nature.
Arturo Escobar (1999) suggests that we study nature from the perspective of three regimes: organic nature through the anthropology of local knowledge, capitalist nature in terms of historical materialism and techno-nature from the perspective of science and technology studies2. Hence, organic nature, or biodiversity as such, encompasses local knowledge, integrating cultural biodiversity, or the cultural manifestations bonded to a particular ecosystem. The term is defined by Eugenio Reyes Naranjo as knowledge diversity, something that humans have developed through history based in their close relationship to biodiversity. It includes beliefs, myths, dreams, legends, language and psychological attitudes. That is to say: management, exploitation, enjoyment and understanding of the natural environment. This term helps us to understand biological evolution taking into account all aspects of human intervention. Looking into biodiversity through the aesthetic lens, artists, painters, sculptors and filmmakers have historically represented the feelings and meanings triggered by nature in a very wide range of ways. Normally, through historical depictions of the landscape illustrating the human-nature relationship. They often express man’s struggle for control over the natural world, and reflect social politics, which include beliefs about people and their position in the world.
photo by Lorena Lozano
Even today, the aesthetic categories that apply to nature are based on an idea of beauty related to the picturesque and sublime, archetypes of the natural and the wild. However, aside from the historical and classical representations of nature and landscapes, nowadays some art practices create new imaginaries for our relationship to nature, generating bio-tech hybrids while artists play the role of creators, social mediators, researchers and knowledge producers. Moreover, understanding artistic practices and studying creativity are becoming increasingly important in societies in which innovation and imagination are key elements for development. Just as biodiversity does not refer only to organic nature, but necessarily includes cultural biodiversity, sustainability does not only refer to the exploitation of natural resources, it also refers to the ability to adapt to change, which is a skill that characterises artists in the multifaceted uncertainty of the knowledge economy3. It is in the understanding of the natural environment and in the need to cultivate the appropriate technological attitudes that art practices play a key role in sustainable development.
When dealing with the subject of biodiversity4, some art projects stem from the hybridisation of practices that use new and emerging green spaces in the cities as their testing ground, or re-appropriate rural spaces for a range of purposes. As an example, I will discus the case of a garden run by artists in a contemporary art centre, ecoLAB project at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, in Gijón (Asturias, Spain). The project is defined as “an experimentation laboratory at the intersection between ecology, art and open electronics.” It aims to generate subjectivities and dynamics in relation to the biosphere and its ecosystems, through the implementation of eco-technologies (high-tech and low-tech). Patio Sur (the southern courtyard at LABoral building) is the hub for meeting and experimentation. It is an entropic space, one of those unnoticed places in which nature acts unchecked, which we tend to think of as inert spaces even though they form part of our daily lives. Nevertheless, it has a biotope consisting of brambles, climbing plants, snails and insects that move imperceptibly.
photo by Lorena Lozano
The beauty and casual richness of a non-garden is concealed beneath an apparent formal disorder. As ongoing activities, ecoLAB held regular meetings on the last Saturday of the month, they are open to anybody interested in collaborating on the maintenance of the non-garden and other activities. The indoor studio opens up as a hybrid space showing the processes, encounters, meetings, activities and means of the artists that have cooperated in the project. In the course of 2011, with the aim of visualising stories and secrets that this entropic space hides, the project focused on monitoring Patio Sur through a biodiversity inventory and the deployment of networked temperature, light and humidity sensors. The resulting map of the space creates a conceptual interpretation of Patio Sur in its natural, cultural and spatial aspects, and generates data that, when translated, offers the narratives of this non-garden. The design criteria is based on low-cost, easy installation principles and, as far as possible, on the reuse and recycling of pre-existing materials and the goal of autonomy in terms of energy usage. The aim is the optimum integration of the environmental, economic and social needs of the system. To this end, the team started to regenerate the Patio Sur biotope, through minimal interventions in the arable space.
Functional experiments were implemented in the use of eco-technologies (low – high tech) for the development of low-cost urban agriculture models : cultivation terraces, a system of rainwater collection, a pond and a simple composting system. During 2012, the team worked on three lines: the first, continuing with the aesthetics of need, was focused on making a series of improvements to the non-garden, including the design and construction of some basic furnishing elements. It was based on research and documentation of local and ancestral knowledge and processes that mix traditional with contemporary techniques and needs. Rubén Suárez led a low-tech monitoring architecture project inspired on the traditional Asturias “teitado” or mountain shepherd constructions. The second line was to reclaim new and necessary contexts for food, something eminently practical and subtly pleasurable. As the ultimate end of vegetables and herbs, food lies at the heart of ecology, and with this in mind ecoLAB invites an artist or creator to join us each month to design, plan and prepare lunch for group meeting.
photo by Lorena Lozano
It’s a fantastic way of making the best of the financial resources available, of activating content production that cuts across many areas, and promoting the convergence of botanical, natural, perceptual, technological and social elements. The third line was more sophisticated and tried to develop new ways to understand the sound of the biosphere. For doing so, .TAPE. (Daniel Romero), a musician in residence, developed the project “Sound Cultivation”, a mix between phonograph, granular synthesis and generative music. The sound is generated through the translation of atmospheric data. The result is an audiovisual installation as a work in progress in which many of the qualities that can be measured in the atmosphere become sounds. At the same time, sound nourishes a visual representation of leaves and stalks growth : filotaxis in a metaphor for living beings in continuous production of themselves.
To my knowledge, there are other art projects in Europe working along the same lines. As such, the following questions arise: are these artistic approaches just another utopian fantasy? Can we adopt them as a political tool in the praxis of social and environmental change? How do they deal with safeguarding biodiversity? Or a very simple question: what is a vegetable garden doing in a contemporary art centre anyway?
Photo by .TAPE.
In the case of ecoLAB it would be appropriate to consider the geographical and historical context and the very first starting point of the whole project. In Asturias region, as in many other parts of the Atlantic area, there is originally a very close connection between urban and rural zones. The last 150 years of industrialisation entailed a difficult transition from post-industrial and agrarian society to metropolitan, computerised society. LABoral forms part of what recently became the mayor headquarters dedicated to cultural industries in the region (Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura). This whole architectural complex was built in 1946, under Franco’s dictatorship, as a model school and asylum for the male children of dead coal miners. It evokes, still now, a strong post-war political, social and ideological meaning.
Within it, LABoral Centro de Arte opened in 2005 in the place where once was the unfinished workshops of the model school site, conferring some kind of historical continuity to the original project. Against this background, the ecoLAB adventure began in 2009 when Rubén Suárez, from the Asturias social movement “Huerta Guerrilla” devised a series of citizen participation activities linked to agriculture and sustainability for Patio Sur. Later on, in 2011, events began to be organised on a regular basis, coordinated by the curator Pedro Soler. From this slow gestation, ecoLAB project has found its place in a local, national and international context of groups and individuals who work along similar lines, sharing information, methods and techniques. Based on an applied observation of space and on bioregionalism5, it survived funded mostly by Gijón City Council and developed and grew under a very low budget. LABoral’s production, research and resources centre, Plataforma Cero, supports ecoLAB through the fabLAB (digital fabrication, electronic and free software laboratory).
photo by Lorena Lozano
Having described its activities and context, it would be possible to look at ecoLAB garden through the lens of Felix Guattari's three ecologies, and reveal how the social, mental and environmental aspects articulate within it. To start with, the perspective of environmental ecology, that is to say : exchange of matter and energy-biomass, genetic information as biodiversity reserve, environmental services and technological innovation, etc… ecoLAB as urban garden ; its fragile life and organic processes are not detached from the politics of space and life market (seeds, populations, cultivars…). However, a tiny garden can constitute a natural reserve in terms of a “nursery” in an act of passive reforestation6, able to restore a forest or to host a number of pollinators. It also functions as research and experimentation node to study nature in technological spheres.
Perhaps ecoLAB’s placement evokes the medieval recreation of the garden as a hortus conclusus. From its interior the surrounding physical context is imperceptible. It hints at the same approach of the life style of the erudite abbots, jealous guardians of their wisdom, who seek functionality and recreation in their enclosed garden so that, despite the vast knowledge on the natural resources and agronomy, it becomes an overlapping universe. From a second perspective, social ecology, the garden manifests military and social history, encompassing the times of social production and reproduction and power relationships. Social encounters articulate around it, bonding the physical garden with the social and feeds back the sense of place and identity. As an emergent project run by artists it transmits a sense of re-appropriation of the space combining community aims with a network weaving.
photo by Lorena Lozano
ecoLAB, is a space to be lived7 and it exists in the everyday realty, expressing its political and economical aspects in an infinite game of self-representation crossovers and disputes. The third perspective, mental ecology, is about individual subjectivities, the relationship between the subject and the body, life and death, existential territories, sensitivity, value systems in the core of everyday life, the individual, domestic, personal ethics and the different stories about commonalities. In this sense, as an art project it offers spaces and times to recreate the individual psychic instances, proposing new aesthetic identities and imagination resources that amplify the traditional range of images and sounds, smells and stories about nature. It produces new ways of representation, experiments and new scientific discourses. It plays with modes of representation creating conditions of possibility and its own mechanisms of representation. Relationships, information, communication, storage and interpretation of data are other ways to network the garden in terms of representations.
The garden is a physic reality and a perspective, digital and invisible alike. It is product, not only of a spatial articulation of net culture and its visions of daily nature, but also a sketch of a new hybrid world in which matter and information relate to each other in a new paradigm of perception, experience and interaction. From the sphere of contemporary visual and cultural creation, it questions the relationship between city and countryside and entails the reaffirmation of nature as something necessary to human existence, by recuperating and making visible hidden ecological structures. In the current scenery of generational dilemma, it boosts the transmission of knowledge and it establishes a dialogue between contemporary creation, landscape, identity and territory. Hence, a vegetable garden in an art centre talks about sustainability, biodiversity, technology and new narratives; the meaning is generated through the relationships that it sets up and the imaginaries that it produces.
photo by Lorena Lozano
But the questions laid out above remain without answer: Regarding utopian fantasies, all gardens carry a nostalgia of Paradise, the ideal or utopian place, mythical, faraway, a mirror of history. A garden is simultaneously presented and represented and expresses spiritual bonds to nature, belief systems, cosmos visions, art and its idealization, social metaphors…Paradise is a mythological dream of balance and agreement between humans and their needs, a dream of sustainable management in the language of science. In this sense, ecoLAB also carries utopian dreams, the founding members thought of the project as a system that applies the farming methodology of Permaculture8 to the sphere of social organisation. This methodology is similar to natural processes and to the primordial relationship that connects the human context with its surroundings.
Thus, teamwork is based on horizontality, transparency and the value of process, and it is inspired by hacklabs and self-organisation practices. It has a high capacity to generate uses and functions that resonate with the collective. On several levels of activity, it combines the intelligence of cutting-edge technologies with those of traditional forms of knowledge, sets up processes in search of autonomy in terms of resource and environmental management, and generates other narratives and imaginaries of the environment in which we live. It is anchored in three ecological registers – the environment, social relations and human subjectivity – searching for “transversal interactions between ecosystem, mechanic-sphere and the social and individual Universes of reference.”9 In its actions in time, the team reinvents the concept of the “andecha”, a kind of traditional rotating communal work in Asturias villages, in which everybody works for everybody according to crop cycles and the decisions of the assembly10.
photo by Lorena Lozano
Regarding art as environmental activism I would say that all historical moments and social conflicts have used art as instruments for political ideology propaganda aims. Nowadays, artistic work does not just create imaginary realities at a scale chosen by the artist. Rather, the modern world spreads the practices of DIY, recycling, the invention of the everyday and the development of time lived. Moreover, one of the artist’s roles is to help shape modes of rethinking the stories of who we are and to facilitate new cognitive experiences for understanding the present and the past. In Relational Aesthetics (2002), Nicolas Bourriaud talks about the potential of a relational art, which takes its theoretical framework from the sphere of human relationships and its own social context, rather than an independent, private symbolic space. He claims: “there is nothing more absurd than the assertion that contemporary art does not involve any political project, or than the claim that its subversive aspects are not based on any theoretical terrain.”11
So far, ecoLAB became transversally embedded in a contemporary art institution through the appropriation of a residual space (Patio Sur) and it is this appropriation that makes the project unusual and its future more uncertain. The biodiversity it generates, be it organic, technical or cultural, is as vulnerable as the multifaceted uncertainty of the knowledge economy. We could compare it to the fragility of a specimen of Broomrape that blooms every spring in Patio Sur, a small herbaceous plant growing beneath some ivy. It has absolutely no chlorophyll, remaining totally invisible aboveground during most of the year and being totally dependent on the ivy. In other words, it is unfairly called a parasite. Parasitism is a curious relationship, ménage à deux that has taken on negative overtones due to its potential to cause imbalances in agricultural systems and reduce human profit and productivity. Would it not be more optimistic to describe its parasitic relationship with the ivy as a kind of “evolutionary courtship”? – A metaphor for the first steps in a wooing that, in a geological timeframe, could lead to a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.
photo by Lorena Lozano
This chance encounter with the Broomrape could be the perfect excuse to start an exercise in biological analogy. The complex system of relationships that are set up in nature, its dynamic patterns, can be thought of not as mere gene-controlled organisms, but as hierarchical complex systems at all levels, including their dynamic, interrelated, non-linear aspects. Living beings swap matter, energy and information in such a way as to attain independence from external fluctuations. Going a bit further, and adding a further level of complexity – human and social relationships – we could attempt to identify a feasible dynamic for emergence: for example, the cultural dynamics of art, which, according to Pau Alsina, tend to become open, emergent and unpredictable12, our case study, lets say, a complex system such as ecoLAB. Why not see this cultural event as a conglomerate-cell-organism that introduces itself into another, larger and more complex organism – the cultural institution – generating innovative cultural and technological content ?
The two entities share the same space and manage their independence and autonomy by opening up content and resource production processes, adapting their politics and ethics to allow creative coexistence. Continuing with the biological analogy, and against a Darwinian conception of competence between the dynamics of living beings and the resources of the environment, we could even consider these types of practices as one of those singular, radical changes that Margulis talks about in relation to symbiogenesis: they become a semi-autonomous organism in which mutations and endosymbiosis are constantly producing other organic and non-organic organisms; a creative incubator, a laboratory for ideas and forms of coexistence with an enormous potential for communication and transformation13. The production of innovative techno-culture natures and cyberspace processes, comes very close to the utopian ideal of merging art and life, and engages with the idea of creation itself. The diversity generated at ecoLAB, happening in a geological timeframe but conscious of its historical time, the multiple natures produced, could be precursors to new species of organisms that will develop their own languages and techniques. Once they have been set in motion, these realities self-organise psychic content and bring about results that are impossible to predict, triggering 'emergence' in as far as these artistic practices change what we think and feel about the world14.
The work of ecoLAB during 2011-2012 was developed by Lorena Lozano & Rubén Suárez, together with many local artists and collectives who collaborated during the open meetings, helped on the documentation and supported the project in many different ways: Pedro Soler, Econodos, Huerta guerrilla, Zoohaus, Rens Willet, Nodalmode, Arquitectos Duque y Zamora, Manuel Carrero de Roa, Grupo de Medio Ambiente, Urbanismo y Barrios del 15M de Oviedo, Jaime Izquierdo, KRK Ediciones, .tape., Re.Colectivo, Andy Gracie, Hackteria.org, Paula Pin, Festival LEV, Refarm the City, Susanna Tesconi, Gaia y Sofía, Cova dos Ratos de Vigo, Iwona Pakula, Patricia Vergara, Nieves González, Finca el Noceu, Cristina Ferrández, Fiumfoto, Ignacio A. Sevil, Melania Fraga, OKNO, Yo-Yo Garden, Arteleku, Tabakalera, Fundación Municipal de Cultura de Gijón, Fundación Cerezales Antonino y Cinia, Fundación Cristina Enena, Miguel Fresno, Güevu y Lola, Román Fernández Crespo, Marcos Menéndez, Ana Barriuso, Nuria Rodríguez, Juanjo Palacios, José Luis Soto, Marianna Nieddu y Cyntia Mendoza.
Lorena Lozano was the Director of ecoLAB and one of its founding members. Graduated in Biology, specialised in Botany, Universidad de Oviedo, Asturias, Spain (1998) and BHons degree in Fine Art, specialised in Sculpture and Environmental Art, Mackintosh School of Art, Glasgow University, Scotland (2007).
PhD. on “Net Garden: Nature, Art and Society” at the Sociology Faculty in the Economy and Sociology of Globalization Program (Universidad de Oviedo, Asturias, Spain). She is a developer of the Econodos platform network in Asturias and is carrying out a project in the countryside called Herbarium (through Foundation Cerezales Antonino y Cinia, León, Spain).