Nature is a design in Next Nature’s Biggest Visual Power Show

How do we navigate through office landscapes, tree structures and recreational parks? Have motorways, airports and supermarkets become our natural surroundings? The organisers of the Biggest Visual Power Show thought it was time to redefine the meaning of the word ‘nature’. With VJ images as the glue connecting art, science and design, Next Nature examined the nature of the future last.

Statements from more than twenty image-makers and thinkers were presented in rapid succession. One thing was clear: our ‘next nature’ is not that championed by the World Wildlife Fund. Instead, nature is a human creation. From stacked landscapes to Dolly the cloned sheep, from ‘chewing out of a bottle’ to virtual tourism. One of the most extreme forms of new nature came from Taco Stolk, artist and head of a course in Genetic Design. Stolk presented a new type of plankton in the form of letters in what he called an Ur-Soup. Just like the vermicelli letters in your minestrone, his soup could fill the sea with unlimited literary potential. Another project, Blue Blood, focused on the development of truly blue blood cells for people of noble birth, which can be passed on by males only. A more painful example was a genetically manipulated dog whose vertebrae and joints develop to fit the perfect lap.

But art is not, as Goethe asserted, the most accurate reflection of nature. That honour goes to genetics, biotechnology and virtual software. For it is they that enlarge the arsenal of natural possibilities. The artist duo Driessen/Verstappen designed software in which an endless journey can be undertaken according to the laws of Darwin. In the pipe-shaped Tuboid visitors can enjoy an architectural space that continually changes form just beyond our field of vision. And the IMA Traveller allows you to infinitely zoom in on what looks like a galaxy created in ‘real time’. You can float in all directions (except backwards) without the spatial landscape reaching an end.

These are extreme yet real examples. Mankind is capable of adapting nature to suit our wishes. Or as Tracy Metz (author of Nieuwe Natuur, reportages over veranderend landschap and Fun, leisure and landscape) put it: nature has been ‘humanised’, has become a product. Next Nature is not a physical place. It just comes to you as ordered, scaled to needs – autumn in a scented candle, bird warbles for a ring tone, a stroll through a reserve. We can define nature as we want to and determine its rules. But nature must behave itself. It may not cause any disturbance – and certainly no flood! – and should cost no more than estimated. Put up a sign and build a fence around it: nature is tamed.

State landscape architect Dirk Sijmons has already nominated the Netherlands as the artwork of the century. After all, the country exists by the grace of a wonderfully designed prosthesis – the dike – behind which land was reclaimed by hard labour, digging and pumping. With the government policy paper entitled Space in his hand, Sijmons argued that Delta Metropolises like the Netherlands are the big design challenge for the future. Fertile, urban, but vulnerable too. And if we don’t succeed in mastering nature, then Next Nature is also the nature after and therefore without us, according to Sijmons.

All this shaping and making was too much for GroenLinks politician Femke Halsema. Present only in virtual form, she emphasised the importance of immediate, physical contact with real nature. Children will soon think that a chicken is a piece of packed meat on the supermarket shelf, that milk grows in cartons, and that landscapes are levels stacked in the building. Halsema argued that nature should again become part of our lives and that we should all see how a chicken is slaughtered. She then went on to condemn factory farming.

Nature stands as an illusion of the ‘real’ symbol of direct experience, and that’s what makes it such a desirable product now. It acquires meaning by supplying connotations, just as brand names do in ad campaigns. In her contribution How to grow an Orangina bottle, Debbie Mollenhagen expressed it succinctly thus: ‘Packaging redefines all areas of design and how we think of nature.’ But as a packaged product it’s also lifeless (literally) and harmless. And thus unreal, impersonal, one-sided. It’s the arrogance of Man who elevates himself above nature while he’s actually part of it himself. No doubt Mother Nature has more surprises in store for us yet.