laboratoire écologie et art pour une société en transition

Verger de Rue

Verger de Rue is an artistic, co-creative, urban ecology and arboriculture project created by artist Thierry Boutonnier together with least. Residents of Geneva, with the contribution of scientists and professionals, will be involved in the design, creation and monitoring of street orchards according to their preferences and the specificities of the neighbourhood. The exchange of know-how, experiences and methodologies through dialogue and workshops will foster cultural and generational integration, paving the way for a form of community-based eco-design.

The orchards will provide a free and accessible food source and will combine classic arboricultural structures with outdoor sports amenities, e.g. trees supporting a football goal or basketball hoops hanging from tree stakes. These amenities will go beyond traditional performance-focused machines, while the structures will accommodate the trees’ growth and vulnerabilities, shifting the focus towards inclusivity and “robustness”, i.e. a sense of resilience, strength and adaptability.

Verger de Rue provides new visual dynamics and reinvents our relationship with urban spaces. Working with woody plants (trees, shrubs, etc.) implies a long-term vision (3 to 5 years). Vegetal time goes hand in hand with the time required for the relationship between the project’s guardians and the artist to develop, for the former to integrate the project and for them to appropriate it.

What we’ve done

The first phase of the project was devoted to in situ research in the Onex region, while involving local residents in a community-based eco-design project. Brisolée (a traditional meal based on fire-roasted chestnuts), seed collection, and the creation of shoots ran through the autumn and winter of 2023. In the spring, during our Olympic/”Crossfruit” Games, the shoots were playfully transported to the future orchard.

What we’re doing

We are currently in the process of co-creating the next stages of the project, such as designing a plant palette and arboricultural structures and stakes focusing on robustness, and organising tree-growing activities together with the local community. At the same time, young filmmaker Simon David is working on a series of videos about the Onex community and its relationship with the territory.

 What’s next

Over the summer, we will engage in activities to support plant growth, taste the produce and celebrate together with the local community: sign up to the newsletter to keep up-to-date and get involved! Later in the autumn, the first structures and the tool shed will be built. At the same time, we will be planting shoots and building a new sprouter. In winter, we will organise participatory pruning and tree care programmes, and then start again with new activities to support the life cycles of the plants in Onex.


Experiencing the Landscape

The complexity of the term ‘landscape’ can best be understood through the concept of ‘experience’.

Listenting to the Sourdough

An interview with the artist and scholar Marie Preston on cooperative practice and including the more-than-human.

The Gesamthof recipe: A Lesbian Garden

The Gesamthof is a non-human-centred garden, a garden without the idea of an end result.

Wild Bread

An essay about the experience of hunger in Europe in the modern age.

Intimity Among Strangers

Lichens tell of a living world for which solitude is not a viable option

A Sub-Optimal World

An interview with Olivier Hamant, author of the book “La troisième voie du vivant”.

Learning from mould

Even the simplest organism can suggest new ways of thinking, acting and collaborating

Putting Off the Catastrophe

If the end is nigh, why aren’t we managing to take global warming seriously?

Experiencing the Landscape

In everyday language, the term “landscape” encompasses a variety of notions: it can refer to an ecosystem, a beautiful view, or even an economic resource. However, the complexity of the term can be better understood and approached through the concept of “experience”.

Experience is something that brings us into contact with the outside, with otherness: in this context, the landscape is no longer seen as an object, but rather as a relationship between human society and the environment. An experience is also something that touches us emotionally, that moves and transforms us. Viewing a “landscape” as such helps us realise how much it gives meaning to our individual and collective lives, to the extent that its transformation or disappearance leads to the destruction of sensitive markers of existence in the lives of its inhabitants. Experience can also be seen as a form of practical knowledge or wisdom. It is the kind of knowledge that is acquired by living in a place, which makes the people who inhabit a landscape its experts. Finally, experience is also a form of experimentation: this is the active aspect of our relationship with the world, enabling us to discover and create new knowledge and to bring to life what is yet only potential.

We might take these reflections a step further and argue that human beings live off the landscape—a statement that may seem hyperbolic, but that makes sense if we pay close attention. Indeed, the landscape is the source of our food: we live in the landscape and the latter activates representations and emotions within us. Our relationship with the landscape is dynamic: by changing it, we also change ourselves. It is therefore impossible to avoid entering into a relationship with the landscape. The very choice of ignoring and not ‘experiencing’ a landscape can have practical and symbolic consequences.

It is on the basis of these observations that Jean-Marc Besse wrote La Nécessité du Paysage (the Necessity of the Landscape): an essay on ecology, architecture, and anthropology, as well as an invitation to question our modes of action. In it, the French philosopher warns us against any action on the landscape: an attitude that places us ‘outside’ the said landscape, which, as mentioned above, is simply not plausible. Acting on a landscape means fabricating it, in other words starting from a preconceived idea that ignores the fact that the landscape is a living system and not an inert object. “Acting on therefore involves a twofold dualism, separating subject and object on the one hand, and form and matter on the other.”

So how might we escape this productive yet falsifying paradigm? Besse suggests a change of perspective: moving from acting on to acting with, recognising “that matter is animated to a certain extent” and envisaging it “as a space of potential propositions and possible trajectories”. The aim, in this case, is to interact “adaptively and dynamically”, to practise transformation rather than production. Acting with means engaging in ongoing negotiation, remaining open to the indeterminacy of the process, and being in dialogue with the landscape: in a word, collaborating with it.

Georg Wilson, All Night Awake, 2023

Acting with the soil
The “abiotic” dimension of soil is addressed, among other disciplines, by topography, paedology, geology, and hydrography. However, from a philosophical point of view, soil is simply the material support on which we live. This is where we construct the buildings we live in and the roads we travel on, and it is the soil that makes agriculture possible, one of the oldest and most complex fundamental manifestations of human activity. This “banal” soil is therefore in reality the focus of a whole series of essential political, social, and economic issues, and as such it raises fundamental questions. What kind of soil, water, or air do we want? The environmental disasters linked to the climate crisis and soil erosion or the consequences of the loss of fertility of agricultural and forest land call for collective responses that draw on both scientific knowledge and technical skills, as well as many political and ethical aspects.

Acting with the living
The landscapes we inhabit, travel through, and transform (including the soil and subsoil) are in turn inhabited, travelled through, and transformed by other living beings, animals and plants. In his essay Sur la Piste Animale (On the Animal Trail), philosopher Baptiste Morizot invites us to live together “in the great ‘shared geopolitics’ of the landscape”, by trying to take the point of view of “wild animals, trees that communicate, living soil that works, plants that are allies in the permacultural kitchen garden, to see through our eyes and become sensitive to their habits and customs, to their immutable perspectives on the cosmos, to invent thousands of relationships with them”. To interpret a landscape correctly, it is necessary to take into account the “active power of living beings” with their spatiality and temporality, and to integrate our relationship with them.

Acting with other human beings
A landscape is a “collective situation” that also concerns inter-human relations in their various forms. A landscape is linked to desires, representations, norms, practices, stories, and expectations, and it draws on emotions and positions as diverse as people’s desires, experiences, and interests. Acting with other human beings means acting with a complex whole that includes individuals, communities, and institutions, and drawing on the practical and symbolic—in a continuous process of negotiation and mediation.

Acting with space
Considered through the tools of geometry, space is an objective entity: its dimensions, proportions, and boundaries can be satisfactorily described. However, the space of the landscape cannot be reduced to measurable criteria. In reality, it is an intrinsically heterogeneous space: “locations, directions, distances, morphologies, ways of practising them and of investing in them economically and emotionally are not equivalent either spatially or qualitatively”. Interpreting the space of the landscape correctly therefore means remembering that “numerical” and “geometric” measurements are necessarily false, and that the set of geographies (economic, social, cultural, or personal) that make it up are neither neutral, nor uniform, nor fixed in time.

Acting with time
When we think of the relationship between landscape and time, the first image that springs to mind is that of the earth’s crust and the geological layers that make it up, or that of archaeological ruins buried beneath the surface. In short, we imagine a sort of tidy “palimpsest” of a past time, with which all relations are closed. The time of the landscape, however, should be interpreted according to more complex logics: we need only think of the persistence of practices and experiences in its context, and the fact that landscape destruction is never total: rather, it is transformation. What’s more, the time of the landscape also includes non-human time scales, such as geology, climatology, and vegetation. They are temporalities to which we are nonetheless closely linked. Thus, in reality, the landscape remains in constant tension between past and present.

“Our era,” Jean-Marc Besse concludes, “is one of a crisis of attention. […] Landscape seems to be one of the ‘places’ where the prospect of a ‘correspondence’ with the world can be rediscovered […]. In other words, the landscape […] can be seen as a device for paying attention to reality, and thus as a fundamental condition for activating or reactivating a sensitive and meaningful relationship with the surrounding world”, in other words, the necessity of the landscape.

Listenting to the Sourdough

An interview on cooperative practices and how to include the more-than-human with Marie Preston, artist and lecturer at the University of Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis (TEAMeD/AIAC Laboratory). Her artistic work takes the form of research aimed at creating works and documents of experience with people who are not necessarily artists. In recent years, her research has focused on the practice of baking, open schools, and libertarian and institutional pedagogies, as well as on women working in the care and childcare sector.

How do co-creative practices compare with political or social participation?
According to philosopher Joëlle Zask, participation in politics should be a combination of taking part, contributing and receiving. Cooperative artistic practices open up spaces where experiences and opinions can be shared, something which is also common to politics. However, political participation aims for an explicit goal, unlike many cooperative artistic practices which are “indeterminate” at first and whose objectives can change through various encounters. This is very much the plastic dimension of the relational forms that are invented in these practices.
Then there is the fact that these shared experiences are expressed in an artistic, tangible form, which is obviously a key difference compared to exclusively political or social participation. However, there is also another distinctive feature: groups are heterogeneous, and the practice only really works when the singularity of each voice in the collective emerges and reflects the group’s complexity. This is a real asset compared with other forms of participation.
Why did you choose the term “cooperative practices”?
Co-creation is a form of participation in which participants, who form a collective, run an artistic project in a cooperative manner and define from the outset what they are going to do together. The artist does not play a specific role in defining the action, whereas in cooperative practices, the artist is at the origin of the project even before the participants’ subjectivities are involved. In reality, however, it is never that simple: the two modes of participation are closely intertwined.
Given that these are processes that unfold over a long period of time, with different levels of involvement, there are phases where the artist is in charge of the project and others where the group acts autonomously, and vice-versa. There is a form of mobility between the different levels of participation.
Hence, I talk about cooperation, which allows the various voices and subjectivities to come to the fore at different times, rather than co-creation, which leaves less room for positions and functions to change and evolve.
How does the recent awareness of more-than-human communities and subjectivities influence cooperative practices?
Let us take the example of “Levain”, a collaborative research project in which I am involved as an artist and which brings together scientists, peasant bakers, craftspeople who do not produce their own wheat, and bakery trainers.
Our group met to identify the impact of the environment and the history of bakery on sourdough biodiversity. We already knew that the sourdough produced by peasants and bakers was biologically rich, and that this richness was fuelled in particular by the tools and hands of the bakers who handled it. This is a truly sympoietic relationship, to use Donna Haraway’s term. The research consists of finding out how far the sourdough feeds to acquire this important microbial diversity.

Fournil La Tit Ferme, 2022 © Marie Preston

In the course of this research, did the question arise of how to gather the voice of the sourdough?
Absolutely. However, before that, there was a whole process of reflection on how to build a common language between scientists, peasants, bakers, and artists, each of whom have their own specific vocabulary. After that, we tried to define how we related to this living entity. We were all aware that it requires special care. However, we soon realised that sourdough also takes care of us, i.e. that without sourdough, the bread we eat would not have the quality it has. Reciprocity – mutual care, as it were – is therefore very important.
Then we realised that we could not make the leaven talk – it cannot actually speak. Instead, we tried to project ourselves: if sourdough were an animal or a plant, what would it be? In answering this question, each of us tells the story of how we see our own sourdough. The examples given reveal very different relationships: domestication for some, cohabitation or friendship for others. Projecting oneself also leads to forms of anthropomorphisation, which in a way reduces the distance between the person and the sourdough, even if this may appear problematic in certain respects.
Finally, there is the question of how one listens and observes. In the animal world, we talk about ethology as the field of zoology that investigates the behaviour of non-human animals, but we can also speak of plant ethology, which in this case involves paying particular attention to how sourdough reacts. This type of listening focuses on the practice of living things, in this case the practice of baking. The scientific work consists of setting up experimental protocols to understand what some bakers know intuitively. In other words, our aim is not to get the leaven to talk, but to actively include it in our research.
Is the growing interest in participative or co-creative practices linked to the need for new imaginaries? In a changing world, what is the role of co-creative practices?
Cooperative artistic practices enable us to tackle societal and political issues in a different way, to open up our imaginations and to do so collectively. This collective act also helps to combat the feelings of anxiety that are generated when one is alone at home worrying about the climate crisis or the extinction of a species, and to become an actor rather than just an onlooker.
What about the interest shown by institutions?
Institutional interest in these practices is quite present in the criticism of cooperative practices, in that they might be said to contribute to legitimise the disengagement of the State from public services.
The associations or art centres that support these practices can offer a response to this question of instrumentalisation that might help minimise or even prevent it by suggesting that the group itself should be in a position to “invent institutionally”.
In other words, we can work on it by coming up with “counter-institutions”. I believe that cooperative artistic practices – because they are constantly reflecting on their own relational modalities – can also act on the structure that allows them to exist, if they have the will to do so.

Image: Bermuda, 2022 © Marie Preston

Public support for participatory practices, judged in ethical rather than aesthetic terms, is often justified in terms of social impact. What are the underlying risks of this approach?
In 2019, we coordinated a book, Cocreation, together with Céline Poulin and Stéphane Airaud, in which we dedicate an entire chapter to the question of evaluating these practices. Just because a project is funded with the aim of having a social impact or to be exclusively artistic does not mean that it should only be assessed through this filter. Of course, artists are going to want to create art, researchers are going to want to find scientific answers, people in civil society are going to want to have fun, make art, or find scientific answers: it is essential to find ways of evaluating these practices with regard to the implications of the people who make up the group, i.e. ultimately, the evaluation takes place downstream and not upstream. Once again, this raises the question not only of the indeterminacy of the project itself, but also the limits of its instrumentalisation.
Given your experience, what do you think are the important questions to ask yourself at the start of a cooperative practice?
Pedagogue Fernand Oury used to say that the first question to ask yourself when you join a group is: “What am I doing here?” Cooperation puts your own vulnerability to the test: are you ready to question your habits, your ways of doing things, to be challenged by the collective and by all the affects that the collective will bring? Are you prepared to let yourself be carried along by what is going to happen? To accept improvisation? To let go of the control you sometimes feel the need to retain when a subject is close to your heart or when you are emotionally involved in the artistic project?
How can one set up a co-creative practice in a community or territory other than one’s own?
I am very interested in reflexive anthropology, i.e. a form of anthropology that questions its own methods of investigation and its relationship with the people it meets, and above all, that incorporates the subjectivity of the researcher. The most important thing, when working in a new place, with people whose practices you do not know, is to listen, observe, be with the people, and be respectful of their differences, ethically and scrupulously.
Finally, you have to get involved and accept contradiction, which goes back to what we said earlier about the questions you need to ask yourself. I also think it is important not to arrive empty-handed: you have to be generous in your involvement and in every way you can.

The Gesamthof recipe: A Lesbian Garden

Hedera is a collective observation of the overlap between postnatural and transfeminist studies.
Each volume gathers insights related to these topics in the form of conversations, essays, fiction, poetry, and artist content. Hedera is a yearly publication, and its first volume features “The Gesamthof Recipe: A Lesbian Garden” written by artist Eline De Clercq.

The Gesamthof is a non-human-centred garden, it is a garden without the idea of an end result and it is about working towards a healthy ecology. This recipe shares how we garden in the Gesamthof.

Rest, observe.
Start with ‘not a thing’, it is the quietude before one begins. Rest as in ’not to take action yet’. I find this a good begin, it has helped me many times. When I plan to work in the garden I put on my old shoes, take a basket with garden tools and the seeds to sow, and I open the gate and step into the garden and - stop. Not to act at once, but to wait a moment before beginning gives me time to align myself with the soil, the plants, the temperature, the scents, images and sounds. I look at the birds, the snail, the beetle on a leaf. I walk along the path and greet the plants and stones. Like me, in need of a moment, they too need to see who entered the garden. I know the plants can see me because they can see different kinds of light and they grow towards light and they see cold light when I stand in front of them casting my shadow on them. They can see when the sunlight returns and I moved on. This is the first connection with the garden: to think like a gardener-that-goes-visiting. Donna Haraway writes about Vinciane Despret who refers to Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy; ‘She trains her whole being, not just her imagination, in Arendt’s words “to go visiting.”’ all from the book Staying With The Trouble (see the reading list below). Sometimes it is all I do, and time passes, for an hour and more I feel truly alive with listening, feeling, scenting and seeing. I can taste the season.

Your senses & your mind.
To feel as well as to think along with nature. This is perhaps the hardest to explain, but this is the way I learned to garden from when I was helping as a volunteer in the botanical garden in Ghent. While there is a lot to learn and to remember: you can look it up most of the time. There are plenty of books on what kind of plant likes to live in what kind of conditions. Those facts are easy to find. For me, the rational explanation comes in the end, like a litmus test to see if a theory works. I like to begin with experiencing things: feeling the texture of a leaf, noticing the change in temperature when it’s going to rain, comparing soil by rubbing it between your fingers, smelling soil, plants, fungi and so on. Senses connect us to all kinds of matter in a garden and they help one to become part of the garden. Donna Haraway writes about naturecultures, an interesting concept to rethink how we are part of nature and how the dichotomy of nature and culture isn’t a real contradiction. It is an argument to stop thinking as ‘only human’ and start becoming a layered living togetherness. It’s in our best interest to feel nature again with our senses. At the same time, be aware that many plants are poisonous and/or painful, they might hurt you so don’t trust your instincts too much without consulting facts.

Gesamthof, a non-human-centred garden.
The patch of soil I consider as the shared garden, the Gesamthof, is part of a planet full of bacteria, protista, fungi, plants and animals and all of these enjoy being in the garden too. I try to give the fungi some dead wood to eat, and I don’t use herbicides and pesticides while caring for the plants. This is kind of obvious, it’s basic eco gardening, but it also concerns the benefit of the entire garden. The important question is: who is getting better from this? When I count in birds, insects, plants and fungi and the needs they have to survive in a city, then a small garden is for the benefit of all of these and the ruined artichoke isn’t much of a disaster, many big and small gardeners enjoyed being with the artichoke, drinking the nectar, eating the leaves, weaving a web between the dried stalks. Thinking of all us gardening together changes the purpose of the garden, it’s no longer focused on humans only. Often I see a seedmix for bees in the garden centre, but every garden has a different relation to bees, sometimes with solitary wild bees living of a single plant species not having any interest in a human selected seed mix with a colourful flowers display. The question “Who is getting better from this?” stops me buying things for my pleasure and teaches me to be happy when a healthy ecology is establishing.
Thinking like this has made me question the situation of indoor plants. If they could chose between living inside a house in a cold country or being outside in a warm location, wouldn’t they prefer to sense the sunset and feel the wind in their leaves? Am I keeping plants in the house for my own benefit? Would plants grow in my house if I didn’t water them and look after their soil? Should I put plants in places where they naturally wouldn’t grow? I have decided not to buy new plants for in the house, I will care for the ones I am living with as good as I can. Does the garden end at the door? Or do I live in the garden too?

The diversity of city life in a garden.
The opposite of local wild nature is not a foreign plant, but a cultivated plant. The garden combines native plants from many continents, I grow African lilies next to stinzen flowers and local wild plants; they get along well. I’m not a puritan who wants to grow only one colour of flowers or only authentic plants, I see the garden more like a city where we arrive from all corners of the world. Plants don’t know borders, they don’t care for nations, if they like the place they’ll grow happily. But humans don’t always know what they are planting and we build so much & take away so many plants and replace the green in our gardens with other varieties, often cultivars that don’t interact with local species. A cultivar is the opposite of a wild plant, a cultivar is selected for a quality liked by humans but not always in regards to the ecology with other species. Some cultivars are great plants, they are strong and beautiful and interact in symbiosis with the rest of nature. But some cultivars blossom at the wrong time to attract insects, or they don’t provide anything for the others to interact with. In other words, they are planted to be pretty and not to take part of a wholesome nature. Because of these cultivars we are rapidly losing authentic genomes of plants that are important to preserve nature. When you have a garden that is designed and planted with only these kind of cultivars you don’t invite nature in. You might just as well have plastic flowers. The opposite is to care very much for the diversity of ‘pocket’ nature, what was growing in this pocket of the world, and to try to find old species specific for this area that have been around for thousands of years, and have become an important sustainable link within the local ecology of insects, plants, fungi and other living beings. I let the weeds grow in the garden to support the network of insects needing those plants, and birds needing the insects, and local plants needing these insects and birds as well and so on and so on. The gardens in a city are like corridors, they connect insects, plants and fungi into a greater network that is necessary to sustain these species. While we see walls and hedges around a garden, and we might think of it as our island, it is part of a larger green archipelago where plants, birds, insects and others are not hindered by walls. Every city has only one garden made up of all these green islands just a few streets apart.
We shouldn’t break this chain of connected nature by losing our interest in local wild plants, often seen as uninvited weeds and taken for granted, they are very important in a diversity that expands with every living species. Since we’re living in a time of mass extinction & losing multiple species every day, all the things we can do count and in a garden we can let nature in. Sometimes I buy organic local plants from small nurseries to support their effort for conservation. But there is very little money involved in the Gesamthof. When I started to work in the garden I got many plants, seeds and cuttings for free and in return I also like to give away sister-plants so the Gesamthof lives on in other gardens. This is how plants from all over the world became part of the Gesamthof, and they all are very important in the diversity of the garden. There are Spanish bluebells and a Chinese Wisteria that were planted by the monks from the monastery a long time ago, they survived decades of neglect, there are Evening Primroses that most probably arrived on the wind from neighbouring plots and there are colourful tulips, both wild and cultivated that attract all kinds of human and non-human visitors.

The garden will help you.
This is the strangest thing, but since I’m working in the Gesamthof, plants have arrived from all kinds of places, they have often been given to me for free. Also garden materials, pots & books seem to come without much effort. They arrive from lots of generosity from others. I work in the garden, but not to create ‘my garden’, I see the garden as its own entity and I’m ‘the one with arms and legs’ who can help where needed. Many other living things help as well. Wasps have been eating the aphids, Cat’s Foot (Glechoma hederacea) is keeping my path free from weeds and the Titmice eat the spiders that make a web on the garden path (thank you, I don’t like walking into spider webs). I’m one of the garden critters (a word I borrow from Donna Haraway, critter isn’t as attached to creation as creature is) and I love seeing the other critters thrive at their work. I’m not doing this alone. While I do put in a lot of work, I see it as a part of my artistic practice. Gardens are often not seen as an artwork, but to do research, to add a different perspective, to engage with the soil, water and living beings, to build a different kind of place and share this as a public work is very much how I see art work. Art can be more than making and showing things, it can be interaction, awareness and sharing too. The Gesamthof works without a financial set up, it is thriving by generous neighbours who share their plants, seeds, helping hands and advice. This garden is giving more than it costs.

Don’t make a garden design.
This might sound counter intuitive, but being in the garden very often, one should know what the garden needs and that should be enough of planning. The usual garden plan is often seen as to give shape to the idea of an ideal garden, with a sketch of what to plant where, what colours to combine, where the path should be and in what material and so on. It would mean to put oneself above all else as the creator, and it means setting oneself a goal to work towards, with in the end a ‘beautiful garden’. I don’t think gardens should be ‘made’ beautiful, just like women shouldn’t be judged on a scale of beauty. It’s a binary opposition, a way of thinking that leads to a lot of suffering both in and outside of the garden. Instead let the garden take the lead and follow in its steps. You find a plant that likes a sunny area, put it in the sunny part of the garden and it will thrive. Do you have a lot of bare soil in the shady area and you don’t know what to do with it? Look up shady plants, find a nice variety and let it grow in your garden. Do you need a path between the plants? Add the material that works best in that place (for instance a forest kind of material would be tree bark, and recycled materials also make excellent paths). This way you’re growing a cultivated wild garden that will be beautiful all by itself just like nature is. Use creativity in how you arrange stones along a path, in how you support plants that will fall over, in how to add water and feeding stations, in creating fine labels, in making drawings that will later on help you to remember what you planted where… there is lots of room for creativity.

Intersectionality & botany.
The connection between botanical classification systems and people classification systems illustrates how the same mode of thinking is applied to both our gardens and us as people. Botany is full of anthropocentrism and it is not bad to be aware of this, the lesbian garden reframes this use of gardens. Suddenly the invisible norm of who usually benefits from gardens is no longer in place. ‘Lesbian’ means nothing if it is not connected to racialized people, to class differences, to living with disabilities, to age and all the other aspects gathered in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional theory. To put intersectionalism into practice means asking the ‘other question’: who benefits from this garden?

  • Bees opens up the discussion on native plants, their genomes and diversity in gardening.
  • Plants opens up the discussion of the colonial past, systems of economics, and who has a ‘right’ to extract.
  • An audience that visits art spaces (the Gesamthof is accessible trough the Kunsthal Extra City) opens up the question of class, inviting the ‘other’ in, lgbtqi+ friendly spaces etc.
  • Me opens up the question of access & responsibility that comes with privilege.

To ask the other question means that we are aware of others. Is the Gesamthof appropriate for children? Should it be? Should we take out all the poisonous plants, the pond, the bees hotel etc if we want children to be safe? There is a fence around the Gesamthof to keep wandering people out, because the garden is certainly not safe for everyone and not everyone is safe for the garden.

Atemporal gardening.
Every place carries a past into its future. The past is not a distant island, it’s very much with us in this thick present (again Donna Haraway’s words, the thick present is like a composted layered presence). In my garden I don’t want to be blind for what is present from the colonial past. It takes effort to find out how all of this is linked, how the history of botanical gardens is woven into to the need for classifying. It is hard work to learn about colonialism and gardening because it’s not as clearly visible as for instance plantations and slavery are linked to cotton and coffee. A garden is often more like a collection of plants bedded into a designed space and the colonial past is not a comfortable topic in garden programs. It takes visiting the past to find out what is here today. For me it meant going to the botanical garden in Meise and looking at the plants brought back from colonies. It also meant digging in the past of the Gesamthof’s location in the monastery, who was gardening here before me? How can I work with ecology towards a better understanding?

Note: People suffer from plant-blindness (J. H. Wandersee and E. E. Schussler, publication ‘Preventing Plant Blindness’ from 1999), it means we don’t see the plants that we don’t know and by giving garden tours one can share the awareness of this cognitive bias. In a lesbian garden the cognitive bias rings a bell, without representation people have a hard time discovering what is different about them. Many lesbians don’t know that they are a lesbian when they grow up, and they see themselves through the norm of a heterosexual society while a part of who they are remains empty for themselves. Like plant-blindness, this abstraction of a norm can be countered by looking at the differences as positive characteristics.

Ongoing change.
A garden is a nice form of art & activism, it is a healthy activity that helps to relieve stress and anxiety. It is working towards change by educating one’s self and each other, it is becoming aware of nature and changing our way of thinking. It is pleasant: the scent, the view, the touch, the sound, it’s a nice place to be. I become very aware of the moment when I sit in the Gesamthof. Time passes differently for all the inhabitants and visitors, and some of us spend a lifetime in this garden (most of the pigeons do) while for me it is very temporary. I will miss the Gesamthof when the new owners arrive in the monastery. But it doesn’t make it less worth it, on a larger scale gardening means ongoing change, and we can enjoy every moment of it. Never is a garden a fixed thing, it is never finished and there is no ‘end’, it just moves into different places.

Stills from Gesamthof: A Lesbian Garden, Annie Reijniers and Eline De Clercq, 2022.

Wild Bread

Il pane selvaggio (Wild Bread, 1980) is an essay by Italian philologist, historian and anthropologist Piero Camporesi about the experience of hunger in Europe in the modern age. Hunger in the Global North may appear to be a distant issue, but access to adequate, healthy and affordable food is still affected by profound inequalities both across the world and within single communities.

The “wild bread” to which the title refers describes the bread of the poor, who, to cope with grain shortages in times of famine, began to grind flour from roots, seeds, mushrooms—anything that could fill their stomachs and could be gathered freely on the limited non-private land available. The end product was stale, toxic and non-nutritious bread, which often also caused hallucinatory states.

The educated, rich and powerful men who reported the history of famines had the option of neglecting the experience of the most fragile people. Camporesi has therefore traced the accounts of those who could never aspire to a piece of white bread on their table in folk literature, as in the 16th-century song Lamento de un poveretto huomo sopra la carestia (Lament of a Poor Man Over Famine).

A bad thing is famine
that causes man to be always in need,
fasting against his will,
Lord God, send it away…

I sold the bedsheets,
I pawned the shirts
such that now my uniform
is that of a rag-pedlar,
to my suffering and greater distress
only a piece of sackcloth
covers this flesh of mine.

And even more it pains my heart
to see my child
say to me often, from hour to hour,
‘daddy, a little bit of bread’:
it seems that my soul leaps out
at not being able to help
the little one, oh terrible fate!
A bad thing is famine.

If I leave my house
and I ask a penny for God
all say ‘get some work’,
‘get some work’; oh proud destiny!
I don’t find any, despite all efforts
so I stay with head bent low,
oh fortune, cruel and evil
A bad thing is famine.

I have no more covers in the house
the pots I have sold
and I have sold the pans;
I am clean through and through…

Often my bread is made from
the stems of plants,
In the earth I make holes
for diverse and strange roots
and with that we grease our snouts:
and if there were enough for every tomorrow
it wouldn’t be so bad
A bad thing is famine.

Image: Luca Trevisani, Ai piedi del pane, 2022.
Oplà. Performing Activities, curated by Xing, Arte Fiera, Bologna.

Intimity Among Strangers

Covering nearly 10% of the Earth’s surface and weighing tons—more than the entire ocean biomass—they revolutionised how we understand life and evolution. Few would probably bet on this unique yet discrete species: lichens.

Four hundred and ten million years ago, lichens were already there and seem to have contributed, through their erosive capacity, to the formation of the Earth’s soil. The earliest traces of lichens were found in the Rhynie fossil deposit in Scotland, dating back to the Lower Devonian period—that of the earliest stage of landmass colonisation by living beings. Their resilience has been tested in various experiments: they can survive space travel without harm; withstand a dose of radiation twelve thousand times greater than what would be lethal to a human being; survive immersion in liquid nitrogen at -195°C; and live in extremely hot or cold desert areas. Lichens are so resistant they can even live for millennia: an Arctic specimen of “map lichen” has been dated 8,600 years, the world’s oldest discovered living organism.

Lichens have long been considered plants, and even today many interpret them as a sort of moss, but thanks to the technical evolution of microscopes in the 19th century, a new discovery emerged. Lichen was not a single organism, but instead consisted of a system composed of two different living things, a fungus and an alga, united to the point of remaining essentially indistinguishable. Few know that the now familiar word symbiosis was coined precisely to refer to this strange structure of lichen. Today we understand that lichens are not simply formed by a fungus and an alga. There is, in fact, an internal variability of beings involved in the symbiotic mechanism, frequently including other fungi, bacteria and yeasts. We are not dealing with a single living organism but an entire biome.

Symbiosis’ theory was long opposed, as it undermined the taxonomic structure of the entire kingdom of the living as Charles Darwin had described it in On the Origin of Species: a “tree-like” system consisting of progressive branches. The idea that two “branches” (and, moreover, belonging to different kingdoms) could intersect called everything into question. Significantly, the fact that symbiosis functioned as a mutually beneficial cooperation overturned the idea of the evolutionary process as based on competition and conflict.

Symbiosis is far from being a minority condition on our planet: 90% of plants, for example, are characterised by mycorrhiza, a particular type of symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a plant. Of these, 80% would not survive if deprived of the association with the fungus. Many mammalian species, including humans, live in symbiosis with their microbiome: a collection of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract and enable the assimilation of nutrients. This is a very ancient and specific symbiotic relationship: in humans, the genetic difference in the microbiome between one person and another is greater even than their cellular genetic difference. Yet the evolutionary success of symbiotic relationships is not limited to these incredible data: it is the basis for the emergence of life as we know it, in a process described by biologist Lynn Margulis as symbiogenesis.

Symbiogenesis posits that the first cells on Earth resulted from symbiotic relationships between bacteria, which developed into the organelles responsible for cellular functioning. Specifically, chloroplasts—the organelles capable of performing photosynthesis—originated from cyanobacteria, while mitochondria—the organelles responsible for cellular metabolism—originated from bacteria capable of metabolising oxygen. Life, it seems, evolved from a series of symbiotic encounters, and despite numerous catastrophic changes in the planet’s geology, atmosphere and ecosystems across deep time, has been flowing uninterruptedly for almost four billion years.

Several scientists tend to interpret symbiosis in lichens as a form of parasitism on the part of the fungus because it would gain more from the relationship than the other participants. To which naturalist David George Haskell, in his book The Forest Unseen, replies, “Like a farmer tending her apple trees and her field of corn, a lichen is a melding of lives. Once individuality dissolves, the scorecard of victors and victims makes little sense. Is corn oppressed? Does the farmer’s dependence on corn make her a victim? These questions are premised on a separation that does not exist.” Multi-species cooperation is the basis of life on our planet. From lichens to single-celled organisms to our daily lives, biology tells of a living world for which solitude is not a viable option. Lynn Margulis described symbiosis as a form of “intimacy among strangers”: what lies at the core of life, evolution and adaptation.

A Sub-Optimal World

Olivier Hamant is a transdisciplinary biologist and researcher at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE) in Lyon, and is engaged in socio-ecological education projects at the Michel Serres institute.
His book “La Troisième Voie du Vivant” envisions a “sub-optimal” future to survive the environmental crisis: in this interview, he promotes the values of slowness, inefficiency and robustness, and invites us to embrace a certain degree of chaos.

Authors and philosophers have always been inspired by the observation of nature to speculate about reality and society, but often with an instrumental approach. You too are inspired by nature, but from your point of view as a biologist, you come to some conclusions that challenge our prejudices on how nature works. How did your questioning begin?
During my PhD I worked on plant molecular biology, looking at genetic control and information. It was a clear example of an industrial framework transposed to biology: we used organigrams, we drew cascades of genes, we discussed “lines of defence,” “metabolic channelling” … Such semantics implied that life is like a machine. When I finished my PhD, I decided to try out a more integrated and interdisciplinary approach to get a more systemic view of biology. This confirmed that what I thought I knew was wrong: I’d been polluted by the concept of living beings as machines, and that’s where I started to deviate.

The book is, in fact, a real lesson in “unlearning,” as you overturn some contemporary concepts that may seem positive but ultimately aren’t, such as “optimisation.”
Optimisation is the archetype of reductionism: to optimise, you first need to reduce a given problem in order to solve it. When we solve small problems, we usually create other issues elsewhere. Take the Suez Canal for example: that’s a form of optimisation, of sea transport here, that makes us very vulnerable. A single boat gets stuck across the canal, and that’s it, you can’t send anything between Asia and Europe.

What about “efficiency”?
Photosynthesis is probably the most important metabolic process on Earth: it has existed for 3.8 billion years, and it’s the root of all biomass and civilisation. The “performance” of photosynthesis is usually less than 1%: plants waste more than 99% of solar energy. They’re really, really inefficient. Plants are green because they don’t absorb all the light; they absorb the red and blue sections of the light spectrum (the edge of the spectrum) and reflect the green part. Why do they waste so much energy? It’s now recognised that this is a response to light fluctuation. Light isn’t stable and capturing the red and blue sections allows plants to face such fluctuations. Plants manage variability before efficiency. They build robustness against performance.
Today, we see that the world is unstable, and it will become more so in the future: we shouldn’t be focusing on efficiency but on robustness. When we look for inspiration from biology, we often focus on circularity and cooperation. It’s a good start, but if we overlook robustness, it won’t work. For instance, if we come up with a form of efficient circularity, we won’t have enough wiggle room for extreme events, and we’ll exhaust the available resources anyway. If we make cooperation efficient, the win-win result will be counterproductive, and some will be left behind. Thus, robustness is the most important principle because it makes circularity and cooperation operational.

The most substantial criticism in your book concerns performance, drawing a parallel between violence against the environment and burnout.
Performance generates burnout—it’s a typical effect. Burnout applies to a person or an ecosystem. The path towards burnout is sufficient to condemn “efficiency at all costs,” but performance is also counterproductive in many other ways. A typical example is sports competitions: you want to be number one, you’ll do anything, including doping or cheating. That has nothing to do with sport and it’s detrimental to your health and career.

You also take concepts we interpret negatively and explain how they are actually positive, such as slowness or hesitation…
Slowness and hesitation are the keys to competence, as might be illustrated by stem cells. Biologists have focused on these cells for a long time because they’re extraordinary: they can renew all kinds of tissues. For a long time, we thought this was all controlled by a tidy organigram. It turns out that one of the key elements is that they’re slow: they hesitate all the time, and because they hesitate, they can do anything. Delays give some breathing space. I would actually go one step further: slowness is an essential lever for transformation. To change, you first need to stop. It’s like being in a car at a crossroads; if you want to change direction, you need to stop, indicate and turn. If you don’t stop, you won’t change.

Change is the keyword here. Hard science, numbers and prediction systems often lack the ability to consider contingencies or change, giving us the illusion that we have some form of control over reality.
Thankfully, we’ve made progress and now we use numbers to understand the unpredictability of the world (instead of using numbers to control it). For instance, in the lab, we’re working on the reproducibility of the shapes of organs. In a tulip field, all flowers look alike. You could think of an IKEA-like process: building things in the same way also makes them replicable. But this isn’t the case for living systems: when a flower emerges, some cells divide, others die, molecules come and go… Basically, it’s a mess. In the end, the miracle is that you get a flower with the same shape, colour and size as the neighbouring one. We showed that the flower uses and even promotes all kinds of erratic behaviours, precisely because they provide valuable information, to reach that reproducible shape. Once again, they build robustness against performance.

So, a certain degree of chaos should be embraced?
Sociologist Gilles Armani once told me a story about how to deal with impetuous rivers. The Rhône has all these swirls: if you don’t know how to swim through them, you might get trapped and drown. When people were used to living with rivers, if caught in the water flow, they wouldn’t fight it: they’d take in some air, let themselves be taken down by the swirl and the river would then let them out somewhere else, until they reached the shore. In a fluctuating world, the aim is no longer reaching one’s destination as quickly as possible, but rather viability, something which should be based not against, but on turbulence.

Image: Boris Artzybasheff.

Learning from mould

Learning from mould

Physarum polycephalum is a bizarre organism of the slime mould type. It consists of a membrane within which several nuclei float, which is why it is considered an “acellular” being—neither monocellular nor multicellular. Despite its simple structure, it has some outstanding features: Physarum polycephalum can solve complex problems and move through space by expanding into “tentacles,” making it an exciting subject for scientific experiments.

The travelling salesman problem is the best known: it’s a computational problem that aims to optimise travel in a web of possible paths. Using a map, scientists at Hokkaido University placed a flake of oat, on which Physarum feeds, on the main junctions of Tokyo’s public transportation system. Left free to move around the map, Physarum expanded its tentacles, which, to the general amazement, quickly reproduced the actual public transport routes. The mechanism is very efficient: the tentacles stretch out in search of food; if they do not find any, they secrete a substance that will signal not to pursue that same route.

We are used to thinking of intelligence as embodied, centralised, and representation-based: Physarum teaches us that this is not always the case and that even the simplest organism can suggest new ways of thinking, acting and collaborating.

Putting Off the Catastrophe

If the end is nigh, why aren’t we managing to take global warming seriously? How can we overcome the apathy of our eternal present? The following article is taken from MEDUSA, an Italian newsletter that talks about climate and cultural changes. Edited by Matteo De Giuli and Nicolò Porcelluzzi in collaboration with NOT, it comes out every second Wednesday and you can register for it here. In 2021, MEDUSA also became a book.

There is no alternative was one of Margaret Thatcher’s slogans: wellbeing, services, economic growth… are goals achievable exclusively by doing things the free market way. 40 years on, in a world built on those very election promises, There is no alternative sounds more like a bleak statement of fact, a maxim curbing our collective imagination: there is no alternative to the system we’re living in. Even when we’re hit by crisis, in times of unrest, exploitation and inequality, the state of affairs finds us more or less defenceless. There’s no escape – or we can’t see it: our room for manoeuvre has been fenced off.

Why can’t we take global warming seriously? Because it’s one of those complex systems that operate, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams affirm in their Inventing the Future, “on temporal and spatial scales that go well beyond the bare perceptual capacities of the individual” and whose effects “are so widespread that it’s impossible to exactly collocate our experience within their context”. In short, the climate problem is also the result of a cognitive problem. We are lost in the corridors of a vast and complex building in which we see no direct and immediate reaction to anything we do and have no clear moral compass to help us find our way.

It was to pursue these issues further that I decided to read What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming (hereafter WWTAWWTNTAGW) by Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes, a book I’d been putting off reading for some time for a series of reasons that turned out to be only partially valid. First of all, there was my vaguely scientist prejudice: despite being interested in the issue, I find that the back cover of WWTAWWTNTAGW sounds more like front flap blurb for some self-help publication rather than for a serious work of popular science. I quote: “Stoknes shows how to retell the story of climate change and at the same time create positive, meaningful actions that can be supported even by negationists”. Then there was the title, WWTAWWTNTAGW, a cumbersome paraphrase of a title that is already, in itself, the most ferociously paraphrased in the history of world literature. And lastly — still on the surface only – there was the spectre of another book by Per Espen Stoknes, published in 2009, the mere cover of which I continue to find insurmountably cringeful: Money & Soul: A New Balance Between Finance and Feelings.

Laying aside, for the moment at least, the prejudices that kept me away from WWTAWWTNTAGW, I discovered a light-handed book that raises various interesting points. In short: why does climate change, our future, interest us so little? Why do we see it as such an abstract and remote problem? What are the cognitive barriers that are sedating, tranquillizing and preventing us from having even the slightest real fear for the fate of the planet? Stoknes identifies five, which can be summed up more or less as follows:

Distance. The climate problem is still remote for many of us, from various points of view. Floods, droughts, bushfires are increasingly frequent but still affect only a small part of the planet. The bigger impacts are still far off in time, a century or more.

Doom. Climate change is spoken of as an unavoidable disaster that will cause losses, costs and sacrifices: it is human instinct to avoid such matters. We are predictably averse to grief. Lack of practical solutions on offer exacerbates feelings of impotence, while messages of catastrophe backfire. We’ve been told that “the end is nigh” so many times that it no longer worries us.

Dissonance. When what we know (using fossil fuel energy contributes to global warming) comes into conflict with what we’re forced to do or what we end up doing anyway (driving, flying, eating beef), we feel cognitive dissonance. To shake this off, we are driven to challenge or underestimate the things we are sure about (facts) in order to be able to go about our daily lives with greater ease.

Denial. When we deny, ignore or avoid acknowledging certain disturbing facts that we know to be “true” about climate change, we are shielding ourselves against the fear and feelings of guilt that they generate, against attacks on our lifestyle. Denial is a self-defence mechanism and is different from ignorance, stupidity or lack of information.

Identity. We filter news through our personal and cultural identities. We look for information that endorses values and presuppositions already inside our minds. Cultural identity overwrites facts. If new information requires us to change ourselves, we probably won’t accept it. We balk at calls to change our personal identities.

There are obviously hundreds of other reasons why we still hold back from a strategy to mitigate climate change: economic interests, the slowness of diplomacy, conflicting development models, the United States, India, sheer egoism, “great derangement” and all the other things we’ve come to know so well over the years. But Per Espen Stoknes empirically suggests a way forward. Catastrophism and alarmism don’t work. We need to find a different tone to dispel the apathy of our eternal present.

Image: The Grosser Aletsch, 1900 Photoglob Wehrli © Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Graphische Sammlung und Fotoarchiv/ 2021 Fabiano Ventura – © Associazione Macromicro.