Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

A bit on art, meaning and gardens

Contemporary art has a lot to say about gardens.

Yesterday, at a seminar in the Performing Knowledge series at INHA (The National Institute of Art History, Paris, France), lecturer Pierre-Olivier Dittmar made some remarks about how medieval poets would write about going into a garden, hearing the singing of many birds, and writing a poem not only inspired by or abstractly in response to this birdsong, but as a direct reply to the birds. The garden, he suggested, was a space of interspecies communication. On the subject of medieval gardens and poetry, Martin writes “Like gardening, poetry is a careful selection and arrangement of elements designed to produce a profound effect on the beholder. Words of a poem are chosen as painstakingly as flowers in a garden, and both are arranged with care” [1]. In such medieval poems, lists of the flowers, fruit trees, birds, and so on contributing to the sensual enjoyment of a garden were often placed alongside lists of the luxury goods enjoyed by the people in the garden: wine and foods, fine cloths and furs, precious jewels and gold and silver, for example. The garden was a space where the elements of the abundance of nature were laid out and formed into a dialogue, a space of interaction, and enjoyment.

The notion of a picnic in the park is still alive and well: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/image/LON113869.html. But perhaps the garden has lost its meaning as a space of communication with the richness offered by nature. In its place, a supposedly unorganized, unchosen and unarranged nature of remote forests and National Parks has taken on the role of communicating the physical and spiritual abundance of life. Increasingly, Westerners turn to these places not as empty spectacles, but as places that are made through interaction. Thus, in this short film by some of my colleagues in Chile, the beautiful native forests of southern Chile are also made “by the stories we weave and put together” about them https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUqwjtm-K5k&feature=player_embedded. As we increasingly come to understand forests and other natural habitats as places with long traditions of human meaning-making, has the garden become a bit crass and banal, a fake wilderness without the deep spirituality that derives from the primordial self-organization and comings-together of many beings?

It seems to me that urban gardens might in particular benefit from seeing themselves as poems made from the elements of nature’s richness, and as sites of interspecies communication. In the midst of the material and technological abundances of cities, the poverty of interspecies relations is clear. Can we still understand nature as speaking to us, over the murmur of the traffic? Can we still speak to nature, in a garden?

Recent attention in the art and museum worlds to herbariums, plant collection, and botanical gardens, suggests a renewed appreciation for the sample or type plant as a witness to particular contingencies, or as a basic vocabulary in the formation of ways of knowing places. For example, the “Garden” Triennial at ARoS when Aarhus, Denmark was the European Capital of Culture featured the Flora Danica, a beautifully illustrated catalogue of Danish plants from 1761-1883. As Irina Schmiedel contextualizes it, botanical collections, gardens and illustrated catalogues served both to represent in microcosm the power, extent and richness of kingdoms, and to develop scientific classifying systems for the natural world [2]. The artist Sonia Levy writes about the cyanotypes of the seaweeds collected by Anna Atkins in the 1800s as mediations, impressions (both affective and physical), and Anthropocene ghosts [3]. Some of these beautiful white-on-blue images were present in the “Jardins” exhibition at Le Grand Palais in Paris in 2017, along with a wide range of other botanical collections, drawings and photographs. These old collecting techniques, and the collections themselves, develop new kinds of value as we rethink our relations to places and species, or seek data on historical biodiversity. They come to say new things to different people. Also part of the Garden Triennial at ARoS, the artist Ismar Cirkinagic’s work Herbarium is a collection of mounted plant specimens collected from mass graves in Bosnia-Herzegoniva [4]. Here, the plants are testimonials to death and transformation in a mode that is both detached and embodied (http://www.ismarc.com/portfolio/herbarium/).

A completely different approach to the meanings of plants was taken by Louis Caux and Margaux Limon in their installation as part of the Festival des Architectures Vives at Montpellier this summer, called U.S.I.N.E. (Unité Symbiotique Naturelle Efficiente) or “Natural Efficient Symbiotic Unit”, (spelling “Factory”). This work (see photo) suggests that plants can be combined in infrastructural units that carry out necessary urban environmental functions like filtration of water and air, energy and food production. The sign asks “..could this be a garden? No, it’s a micro-industry…” This new “alphabet” of plant meanings offers a new kind of boundless possibility of expression: the capacity to recycle enough clean resources to keep living. The relations between technology, gardens, and avoiding an Anthropocene apocalypse are themes that have been investigated and debated by many artists in recent years (e.g. [5]).

The artist William Bock writes about a different kind of natural alphabet that inspires his work: “The letters of the ancient Ogham [Celtic] alphabet are named after trees. They were read right to left and bottom to top, much like a tree grows. The seventh-century manuscript Auraicept na n-Éces beautifully compares reading the alphabet to climbing a tree:
Their orientations are: right of the stemline, left of the stemline, around the stemline, through the stemline, across the stemline. Ogham is climbed (i.e. read) as a tree is climbed, i.e. treading on the root of the tree first with one’s right hand before and one’s left hand last. After that it is across it and against it and through it and around it.
Originally eight letters of the alphabet were named after birch, alder, willow, hazel, pine, ash, yew and of course oak.” (from https://dark-mountain.net/beech-bark-book/)

How do we read and reread trees and flowers? Do urban gardens and parks speak in a rich language of abundance, or are they just empty spaces for picnics? Do they mediate between birds, butterflies, trees, ghosts, and humans? Do they form strange new words that magically bring to life different futures? What do we want to say in gardens? What do we want to say to gardens?

--Meredith Root-Bernstein
14 Dec 2018

[1] p. 95. “In Search of Paradise: Gardens in Medieval French and Persian poetry”, in Gardens and the Passion for the Infinite. 2003. <https://books.google.fr/books?hl=en&lr=&id=pdLoCAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg 8mdUviKT4WJsIr4IzDsPLk#v=onepage&q&f=false>

[2] p 87-94, The Garden, exhibition catalogue. 2017.

[3] p 82-89, Revue Billebaude. 2018.

[4] p. 242, The Garden, exhibition catalogue. 2017.

[5] T.J. Demos, Gardening against the apocalypse—the case of Documenta (13), p131-139, Moving Plants, exhibition catalogue. 2017.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein