Dissident Gardens, Dissident Designs

How are Mars/Planet B, techno-agriculture or biomaterials inspiring us about the future? The exhibition ‘Dissident Gardens’ dives deep into these projects and their meaning, to provide us with clues as to how to articulate the designs of the future, including what they tell about our new nature and our relationship with nature.

Dissident Gardens, Gardening Mars / Het Nieuwe Instituut / Photo Johannes Schwartz

Since Adam and Eve, since the medieval Hortus Botanicus, or through a story like The Black Tulip, the garden has symbolized the human species’ mastery and inventiveness (intelligence) over the natural elements that lie on the other side of the fence of this hortus. Indeed, the etymology of hortus refers to the fences enclosing the garden, protecting it from the wilderness. The garden is in fact one of the most effective motives used to illustrate the paradigm of nature versus culture in the Western world, a determinant concept in Occidental societies.

With the advent of the Anthropocene, the new epoch, nature as a whole, in its broadest possible definition, is now being shaped by the human species. The fences of the garden have been extended to the wildest forests, to the tiniest molecules and to the depths of the oceans, and what they now encompass is the domain of man. The paradigm of culture versus nature, which motivated this expansion of human activity through innovation in science and technology, has now lost its meaning, for true nature no longer really exists. Moreover, the wonders of gardens, beautiful and clever human inventions transforming nature to its optimum, now threaten humanity itself: they are called DDT, pesticides, radioactive waste or climate change. They undermine humanity’s faith in innovation, technology and science.

The exhibition ‘Dissident Gardens’ opens with this dark and complex observation. Two large grey boards, bearing diagonal titles expressing the urgency of the subject as well as a text of passionate reflection on the course of innovation in terms of nature and our environment, introduce this ambitious quest: How can design dissent from our conventions about nature and culture (‘sit apart’, from the Latin dissidere)? What are the loci of hope for new inventions, new imaginations and dreams for the future?

The exhibition introduces us to new dissident ‘gardeners’, through four perspectives of contemporary clashes between nature and culture: the far-reaching rationalization of the agricultural landscape, Mars as an Earth-like utopia, the evolution of the designer as farmer, and the holiday park as the outcome of a changing relationship between landscape and city.

Dissident Gardens, Smart Farming / Het Nieuwe Instituut / Photo Johannes Schwartz

The Farmer – Smart Farming
Since the Netherlands is the nation that has probably most challenged the concept of nature, through its history of man-made land, its agriculture and its forerunner role in agricultural innovations, this ‘new agriculture’ had to be an important research theme at Het Nieuwe Instituut.

In the exhibition, far from the rustic image of a farmer on his tractor in a vast green field, agriculture is manifested through rows of hydroponic cultures, mirrors reflecting ad infinitum the artificial neon pink lights that nourish the crops of the future. The ideal of techno-agriculture, as a completely automated process independent of external factors (human labour, pollination, weather, etc.) also implicitly calls into question what is to become of the present farming landscape, its fields and its farms. In addition, such imaginings raise the spectre of a completely urbanized world, the Anthropocene becoming synonymous with the annihilation of natural dynamics. The Smart Farming exhibition is part of the long-term research initiative ‘Automated Landscapes’, which produced, among other things, the exhibition ‘Garden of Machines’ for the 34th Universal Exposition in Milan in 2015. There, the story presented a positive Anthropocene, in which technological development would serve the logic of humanity as well as of nature in an ecological-technological coalition.

The Architect – Pleasure Parks
Presenting house materials from the archives of Het Nieuwe Instituut, the Pleasure Parks offers a chronological vision of the evolution of Dutch ‘holiday home’ architecture since the beginning of the twentieth century. Simple wooden house featuring views of water and fields (Van de Broek and Bakema), holiday parks designed to reproduce the feeling of nature with a curvaceous masterplan (W. Wissing and F. Maas) and organic houses merging with the landscape (Ro+Ad architects and H+N+S landscape architects), as well as drawings and models offer a valuable insight into the evolution of society’s expectations of its holidays, for its getaway from the everyday landscape of the city.

Marrying objectives of immersion into the landscape with sustainability and optimization of space and costs, could holiday home architecture be a model for the architecture of the twenty-first-century city itself and fulfil the increasing demand for more liveable housing environments? Here, the reintroduction of utopia into housing design provides a refreshing look into how landscape and architecture can work together to create our habitats of tomorrow.

Dissident Gardens, Smart Farming / Het Nieuwe Instituut / Photo Johannes Schwartz

The Designer – Biotopia
Living organisms and materials as the new medium for product designs is explored through a collection of living mycelia tiles, seaweed structures, bacteria-processed inks. Dying colours, instable materials, evolving shapes: the mysterious beauty of the collection emphasizes the creative potential of these new materials as well as the necessary research and experimental processes in which the designer engages to create the materials of the future.

The Utopist – Gardening Mars
How are designers inventing the future life of the human species on Mars? Creating utopias and visualizing the dream are the first essential steps in the conquest of this new ‘Wild West’. The exhibition displays the various tools and attributes used on Earth to simulate and picture life on Mars, and the red sand of the Martian soil invades the sites.

The promise of a new virgin territory, to replace an exhausted Earth, is actually revealed to be a striking, impossible and foolish mission mostly driven by an appetite for challenge and expansion.  The paradigm of nature versus culture is definitely still operating, motivating NASA and various investors from Silicon Valley to conquer this wilderness, at a time when all efforts and research ought to be concentrated on the threat of the loss of our liveable environment here on Earth. And as the exhibition concludes, ‘Go home!’

All the designers in this exhibition somehow relate to the Biblical idea of God’s work over the seven days of Genesis: creating the homes, the food, the environment and the objects of the human being, they are reinventing his ever-changing natural environment. Whereas the Biblical God had an apparently precise idea of what he was creating, humankind is continuously redefining its natural environment through dreams, fears, myths, traditions, innovations and experiences. And this is precisely the strength of this exhibition: connecting the wealth of research conducted by Het Nieuwe Instituut with workshops from other parties, collectives and artists (through the Thursday night workshops, Gardens broadcast and the Terraforming Earth Lab), the exhibition ‘Dissident Gardens’ gathers and comments upon a broad spectrum of projects in order to reflect on and discuss new relationships with nature. Serving as a general introduction to the latest issues and reflections on the paradigm of culture versus nature, the exhibition gives us the vision and imagination to picture perspectives for designing dissident gardens – and liveable futures.