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This post originally appeared on Volume

Ja Natuurlijk (Yes Naturally) is a collaborative art manifestation that is taking place at GEM,Fotomuseum and Gemeentemuseum in The Hague until August 18, 2013. Yes Naturally embraces the increasingly ambiguous space between our ideas of nature and society. The exhibit teases at this contemporary ambiguity, linking the diversity of works on display to two essential questions: What is natural? And who or what decides?

With Artistic Direction from Ine Gevers of Niet Normaal, Yes Naturally showcases international artists’ perspectives on the merging of natures and cultures, making its mission to “not distinguish between human[s], nature and technology.” Establishing at the outset that nature and culture are highly intertwined phenomena — more connected than discrete — the exhibit swiftly departs from old-school Western notions of society as wholly separate from nature, diving into a highly experimental realm between the fields of art and science. The viewer must quickly accept these basic principles –  that there is no such thing as artificial, that nature and culture are one in the same, that cities are ecosystems — or else be left out of the logic and insight provided by the exhibit.

Ja Natuurlijk

While the pieces that make up Yes Naturally range from the silly to the serious, they are all undeniably full of humour. Onslaughts of laughter are inevitable, and will lead to moments of clarity and a deep understanding that humanity and technology are indeed a part of, not apart from a broader terrestrial ecology. The jocularity of Yes Naturally brings with it hilarious and liberating cognizances.

While taking the traditional form of an art exhibit, Yes Naturally is more of a hybrid-species: an art-gallery meets science-museum meets fun-house. The exhibit is spread within the museum, with installations spilling over the walls and spread throughout the museums’ stately grounds. Visitors are first greeted to the exhibit by playful sculptures made from discarded plastic materials, adding colour to the museums’ ornamental pools. These large, floating artworks by Filipino artist-duo Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan are made up of thousands of waste materials that have been ritually transformed into fetishized objects made to protect species and places in nature.

Within the museum’s walls, Finnish artist Antti Laitinen’s video installation Bare Necessities is a humorous critique of the highly romanticized ideal of ‘going back to nature’. Laitinen takes this idea to its bitter end, and shares his experience of going into ‘the wild’ without supplies. Along with capturing humorous images of Laitinen, stark naked and struggling to make a fire, the videos include more solemn moments where the artist, staring blankly over the tree-topped horizon and into space considers the brutish and unforgiving reality of a life ‘back in nature’.

Bare Necessaties

Further into the exhibit, Bio-artist Egied Simons’ works are small aquatic ecosystems, complete with water, flora, and microscopic water-insects, and neatly contained within three aluminum boxes. The lids of the boxes reflect and magnify their contents, creating a luscious and fine grained pattern that looks like a romantic landscape painting when viewed from afar. Simons brings microscopic subject matter typically relegated to the realm of biology and life sciences to a wider audience. His work allows the viewer to gaze into the scientific/organic world of the micro, offering a powerful experience of the incredibly small beating hearts of snail embryos. With his highly contained ecosystems, Simons explores how science and magnification “makes the small tangible, instantly endowing it with significance and emotion”.

Egied Simons

Also making use of ‘living art’ but with a decidedly more political tone, Simon Starling’s Island of Weeds is a refuge for plants. Responding to the Scottish government’s regulation of the growth rhododendrons — introduced from Spain in 1763, and thus deemed a non-native species to be eradicated — Starling has constructed a safe asylum for the offender-organism. In doing so, Starling deconstructs the flawed concept of a ‘native’ plant species. In the context of a highly globalized world — where plant life need not yield to human-defined borders — Starling renders the Scottish government’s policy cruel and ridiculous.

Island of Weeds

While the humorous tones of the exhibit range from hopeful visions of the future, cynical critiques of the present, and appeals from social and environmental activists, Yes Naturally is above all an exercise in absurdity. Within this absurdity, its tricky and ambiguous subject matter is given room to breath, allowing its radical principles to be more readily accepted by its viewers. At the end of the exhibit, gazing over a sun-baked mass of plastic – a piece of the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch retrieved by Maarten vanden Eyed, the viewer is mentally prepared to accept  that plastic from this horrid pollution is natural, a sort of 21st century formation of coral. And while plankton are adapting to this new nature-culture rapidly, physically incorporating the plastic’s nutrients into their metabolism, so should we – conceptually.

Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch

As the visit to Yes Naturally comes to an end, visitors get a chance for final reflections with Finnish artist Tea Mäkipää‘s Petrol Engine Memorial Park. Lining the museum’s western wall, abandoned, rusty cars have been ornamentally transformed into large garden beds. Set in the near future, the installation’s plaques playfully proclaim the end of the ‘age of oil’. The car-garden beds triumphantly embrace an unmentioned new world order, fanciful flowers and plants grow organically upwards, embracing the sky – the antithesis of a world of pollution, petrol and plastics. As today’s cars rumble by on the busy city streets, the viewer can contemplate how a change in the order of things — from petrol-economies to something more sustainable, perhaps — necessarily must grow out of the old world order. Shedding the skin of the petrol age, this new age will take up its refuse and trash as resource, and make new out of it.

Petrol Engine Memorial Park

Petrol Engine Memorial Park

Many more works make up Ja Natuurlijk (Yes Naturally), each exploring how culture and nature can reinforce each other and in the process creates conditions for a better world. The exhibition, at the GEM Museum for Contemporary Art, Fotomuseum and Gemeentemuseum, is open until August 18.

The program for Yes Naturally consists of several events and exhibitions at several locations in The Hague. Be sure to take a look at the agenda since there’s a lot to do, see and explore.

When I’m living in Halifax, I’ll often walk up and down Fuller Terrace. It’s a beautiful street in the city’s North End – one of my favourites –  and many friends live along its wood-sided, leafy sidewalks.

A house I pass on these walks features a nice landscape architecture feature. It’s something I’ve noticed in other places since, and one I’d like to share with you.

Grass grid

A concrete grid, that allows grass to grow through it.

Regular readers will get why I like this approach to designing surfaces: it is a thought provoking union between artificial concrete and natural grass — though of course, concrete is as natural as grass is human-influenced.

The concrete-grass grid reminds me of some thoughts I had while exploring Tempelhof park in Berlin.

tempelhof 1Formerly an airport, now a park.

Formerly a Nazi-era airport, Tempelhof has since been transformed into a gigantic park in the middle of the city. The defunct-runway provides an immense open space with site lines that run undisrupted along the city’s horizon. It provides quite a contrast to Berlin’s otherwise densely populated landscapes.

Templhof

Templehof

Now that Tempelhof airport is a park, some of its features have transformed to reflect that.

Beyond the obvious appearance of park goers and picnic benches, I noticed a more subtle transformation: the runway’s asphalt is slowly yielding to wild plants. When it functioned as an airport, the tarmac would have been tirelessly kept weed free. Now, the asphalt is slowly incorporating itself into a non-monocultural system. Grass is spreading over concrete, much like the above mentioned concrete-grass grid – which I think is quite a nice landscape architecture feature.

Town-Tuin

In Dutch, the word for garden is tuin. I had a suspicion that tuin was etymologically related to the English word town.

With a little research, I discovered that town comes from the Old English tun: an “enclosure, garden, field, yard; farm, manor; homestead, dwelling house, mansion”, which later referred to a “group of houses, village, farm”. Town, does indeed have the same proto-Germanic origins as its Dutch counterpart.

Dutch cities are surrounded by tuins – extensive allotment gardens that range from the simple to the elaborate. Passing through the country on a train, it’s common to see structures of every shape and complexity, “garden sheds”, populating the tuins quite densely. The tuins on the outskirts are their own sorts of towns – each with its own culture, but each neatly organized around a microcosm of canals and roadways.  

It’s certainly a nice thought, that town and garden have the same etymological roots. Perhaps this thought can inspire/invigorate contemporary efforts of biomimicry, and the use of permaculture principles in urban planning.

Halifax

I am pleased to present to you a sampling of clips/animated GIFs from my presentation Everything is Everything (Urban Political Ecology: Politicizing Urban Natures). The animation is based on a body of academic literature and my thesis work at McGill University. It is a playful visualization that is multi-disciplinary, informed by history, philosophy, geography, ecology and geology.

I am continuing to develop the presentation, and am currently expanding it by animating poignant examples of urban-nature from my native Toronto. The examples there are abundant, and the results will be inevitably whimsical.

I will keep you updated with my process, but for now enjoy clips from Everything is Everything as presented at the 2011 Fuller Terrace Lecture Series‘ evening of talks themed “The Nature of Things

Enjoy:::::

Though trees and modernist buildings seem diametrically opposed, they are both the result of the processing of material from the earth. Both their designs are repetitive, and logically follow from basic units:

Tree-Building

Our cities are built on top of and out of the earth. The quintessential wood paneled houses of Halifax are made from the trees that used to cover the Peninsula. The glass and steel that compose the city’s skyscrapers, though from farther away, are too the result of natural processes:

Halifax

As human populations (i.e. western imperial societies) grew and spread over the surface of the planet, so did their systems of reason and rationality. At first, Nature was conceived as terrifying, something to be revered and despised. But as untouched Nature began to become scarce, receding in the face of increased population and technology, it became something to be desired, enjoyed, conserved. Nature is a fluid concept:

Nature

The world is complex, and it’s often hard to draw a line between where the natural ends and the artificial begins:

Complex

Like the bees, we gain our energy from fruits and vegetables, which stem from flowers. The bees use their energy to build their hives, and we, our cities:

Same-Same

I read a lot of online blogs and magazines about cities. This post is part of a new series of quote-shares from my internet travels: 

▶▶ URBAN GEOGRAPHER QUOTE-SHARE  ◁◁

url

As you’ve read before, my undergrad thesis at McGill University was to focus on urban agriculture, using the concepts of Urban Political Ecology. UPE is a post-structuralist, Marxist body of literature that seeks to unfix the false dichotomy of nature and culture in order to understand the power structures that determine the winners and losers of our inevitable impact on the planet.

As your Urban Geographer, I have continued to research, write about and explore this artificial nature-society binary. Through my activities, projects and art I have sought to offer poignant examples where the constructed borders of nature and society meet. Cities, as you can imagine, offer infinite examples of such.

As I have recently applied to be a speaker at OCAD’s 2013 Urban Ecologies conference, I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some quotes that will clarify the project of Urban Political Ecology to you, my readers, but also to me! I found these quote boxes on Understanding Social Science – a useful blog that puts otherwise esoteric concepts into clear, accessible language.

Enjoy::::

main-idea-1

main-idea-2

main-idea-3



capitalism

I am excited to announce that I have applied to be a presenter at OCAD’s upcoming Urban Ecologies conference in Toronto this June.

My proposal is to do a presentation similar to the lecture I gave during Halifax’s Fuller Terrace Lecture Series’ 2011 season. There, for an evening of talks under the theme “The Nature of Things”, I spoke about the history of the concept of nature, and society’s entrenched nature-culture binary which works to obscure the questions that matter most in contemporary environmentalism: who are the winners and losers of humans’ inevitable impact on the planet.

Tree-Building

Clip from “Everything is Everything” – an animation/presentation about nature and cities.

For the lecture, I created a whimsical animation as an easily accessible version of the concepts of Urban Political Ecology – the body of literature that informed my undergraduate thesis, which in turn inspired the lecture. I used examples from Halifax to illustrate these concepts and relate them to the audience’s day-to-day experience of the city. Indeed, cities are places where the supposedly natural and non-natural come together most poignantly.

Halifax

Halifax, as animated for the presentation.

I present to you my proposal for the upcoming Urban Ecologies conference at OCAD. The base of the presentation will remain similar to that which was presented in Halifax – but the examples will be customized to my native Toronto, where instances of nature-culture are abundant: the Don Valley Brick Works, the system of ravines that run through the city, the “re-naturalization” of the Don River, and the Leslie Street spit.

Enjoy – and whether I am accepted or not, see you at the Urban Ecologies conference in June!

Daniel Rotsztain Presentation Written Abstract Proposal Daniel Rotsztain Visual

I’m a gardener too —

— slowly accumulating knowledge, tips and tricks each summer of urban agricultural experience. A garden is a wonderful thing. It provides an incredibly calm environment to absorb the wisdom of horticulture, philosophize, sit quietly and think about the world and us and eternity.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about beans and their trellises these days.

I love what they say about the relationship between people and the rest of the world, the rest of nature.

We plant bean seeds and then we build trellises that will soon support them. Trellises are often made of thin string or twine, and can be built in many ways. The beans need a trellis — they rely on having something to grow up-on to thrive, to ensure they don’t suffocate themselves, to give room to the flowers and eventual beans that pop out periodically from the vine.

String-trellises give a gardener an opportunity to trace the route that the beans will grow up-on; the beans will inevitably follow that route. Unrolling a ball of twine and building a trellis is determining the shape of the future plant.

Like a magic finger tracing lines in the air, we point at the sky and lead the future bean-vines upwards.

An “artificial” infrastructure is the frontier of a living system, and, is not apart from that living system.

Are the cities we build for ourselves not similar?  We pave a path, and life inevitably follows. We trace a route over the hills and into the sky, and a city sprouts.

I guess this is an opportunity to meditate on the quality of roads — traced-then-fulfilled life-paths, in an era of premeditated urban plans. Living in Halifax makes this especially pertinent, where new roadways are typically of the highway and subdivision varieties.

A street is a necessity to a thriving, diverse eco-city-system. When we build them, let’s take this into consideration, and hope — know, almost — for the best, that good streams of life-force will follow.

In my last year of my undergrad degree in geography, I was all excited to write a thesis based on some radical geographic theory: a body of literature called Urban Political Ecology.

But, because my prof adopted a baby, she couldn’t be my supervisor, and I didn’t end up writing my thesis. And i’m glad I didn’t — because if i did i would have spent a year wading through some pretty inaccessible academic jargon — prose, that through a body of technical language had seemed to lost its connection to the very subject matter it was dealing with.

And since i’m a pretty impressionable guy, after a year of research and study, I probably would have started speaking like this and lost my ability to genuinely engage with the content. But there was definitely some good stuff in there – so this post, first presented as a part of the Fuller Terrace Lecture Series, is inspired by what my thesis was going to be on, presented, in what I hope to be a more accessible, and poetic way.

But instead of calling it was going to be the many-subtitled name of my thesis:

Urban Political Ecology:

The Politics of Urban Nature and Urban Metabolism:

Urban Agriculture in Montreal:

The Politics of Food, Nature and Community

I’m going to go ahead and call it:

Even though it often doesn’t feel like it, it’s important to remember that cities are natural things.

Our popular culture has a very specific definition of the word natural, and, as a result, we tend to think of cities as the polar opposite of nature: which is to mean nature as pristine, untouched, isolated wilderness.

But, human activity cannot be viewed as external to the earth’s ecosystem, and cities are the natural outgrowths, physical manifestations of human energy and culture.

Put simply, cities are built out of natural elements from the earth, transformed through socially mediated processes into resources like building material and electricity.

As we can see from this brief history, there is nothing unnatural about halifax —

The city, atop a rock

which used to be covered in a natural forest of trees

the trees felled by human activity

and made into lumber

a forest of houses sprouted where there used to be a forest of trees,

houses built out of the wood of those trees

and though from farther away — the cranes that were erected

and the buildings of glass, concrete and steel that followed,

they too are built out of natural elements from the earth, used as building materials by humans.

Though spring-time is still far off in Montreal, the snow is rapidly melting from the warmer day-time temperatures.

The silent streets and muffled city of deep-winter are stirring.

The sound of water – dripping, rushing, splashing – grows louder.

Though this is the city – concrete and man-made – we are not disconnected from the cycles of nature. The street-side rivers flow through the forest of buildings and traffic lights. We are agents within an urban nature.

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“As a state of mind, true wilderness exists only in the great sprawling cities” – Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia