Re-considering our Relationship with Nature: a Departure from Ignorance towards Curiosity-driven Involvement

Diana Petcov

FIBER 2021 — Talks programme Session 5: ‘There’s No Such Thing as Nature’ moderated by Katía Truijen (left), with speakers Leanne Wijnsma (right) and Monika Seyfried (online)

How do we define nature? Is there a tangible boundary between human’s influence on nature and natural environments? Can technology be part of ecological systems not only in a detrimental manner but also in a beneficial way? Such questions were brought up during Session 5 of FIBER 2021’s talk programme titled There is no such thing as nature: Towards a new understanding of interconnectedness. The talk aimed to inform the audience about the visible and invisible traces left by humans within ecological and digital environments, the connection between senses and microbes, as well as the potential of using plants in order to solve the current issue of ‘data warming’.

Leanne Wijnsma, the first speaker, is an artist, designer and researcher. Her interests lay in creating experiences for the senses, with smell, taste, soil and bacteria as the frontrunners of these explorations.¹ One thing transpired for me from the very beginning: Leanne’s focus on the senses becomes crucial when discussing our entanglement with nature. My curiosity towards our senses, as I recalled during the talk, was awakened in my teen years, while watching the film Perfect Sense (2011) — a romantic drama exploring the possibility of an epidemic that prompts the gradual vanishing of sensory perceptions. In the film, the olfactory sense, however, has been treated with less relevance than the ways in which Leanne’s practice approaches it. Soilbread (2020), for example, takes the shape of a microbial-bread made with soil and containing the earth’s bacteria, to be smelled and ‘consumed’. (see Fig. 1) During her presentation, Leanne mentioned that the earthly smell is there as a result of these specific microbes — the streptomyces — that have been demonstrated to boost adrenaline as well as the immune system. She emphasised: ‘This is why people love gardening [..] it (the streptomyces) can make you happier and fight depression’.

Figure 1. Leanne Wijnsma, Soilbread, 2020.
Screenshot from Leanne Wijnsma’s presentation, showing the wind wall of Europoort, Rotterdam

Furthermore, Leanne believes that ‘learning by doing’ is the best way of ecological engagement. In order to exemplify potential ways of getting in touch with our surroundings, she introduced the audience to a field trip she organised throughout the Netherlands, which was centred around the changes born at the intersection of nature, design and technology. For instance the wind wall (Europoort, Rotterdam) blocks 75% of the wind but also looks like ‘land art’ in the words of Leanne. Other examples are the lines in agricultural fields indicative of GPS tracing which by linking land and technology encourage a shifting manner of thinking and perceiving nature and the human activity within. (see Fig. 2) Such examples illustrate how we tend to overlook our surroundings and not question what is behind the surface and their functions thereof.

Figure 2. GPS farming

The second speaker, namely Monika Seyfried (co-founder of Grow Your Own Cloud) shared some insights of their artistic practises and ecology driven ideas. GYOC intends not only to facilitate new ways of approaching nature but also functions as a way to raise awareness about the data warming process and find more sustainable ways of storage. Monika stressed that Data centres represent 4% of CO2 pollution and that 80% of data remains stored in the cloud even after its use. Naturally, a question arises: How can something invisible, lacking any tangibility be stored in a more organic way? This type of question functioned as the driving force of their project which Monika defined as a “biotech venture”. GYOC proposes a green model of data storage by means of DNA data storage in plants. It functions by the principle of converting the binary language of data (0s and 1s) into the language of the DNA (A, G, C, and T). That way a reverse process is possible as well via synthesization, sequencing back and decoding. (see Fig. 3)

Figure 3. DNA Data Storage

It started as a speculative art project and took the shape of laboratories where people could mutate their digital data into a liquid DNA form that can be ‘ingested’ into flowers, plants with the potential to expand to a larger scale. After an increased interest in such methods of storage, GYOC is slowly shifting from an art project into a potential business. However, as such, these actions bring into question a number of ethical questions: What kind of things can we put out there? Do we need the plants’ consent? Can such actions be mutually beneficial? In my endeavour of understanding in what ways we can give back or be considerate towards plants and nature, I recalled the work of the Canadian composer, Mort Garson, who created Mother Earth’s Plantasia (1976), an album of “warm earth music for plants…and people who love them”.²

In a way, this early electronic album highlights the symbiotic relationality between plants and humans — an album made possible through technology, with melodic frequencies that are meant to stimulate not only an auditory experience for people but also for plants. Perhaps they can hear us and perhaps we should never forget to treat them with care. Funnily enough, the listeners of the album kept stressing that the album apparently enhances their plants’ growth. Whereas GYOC is still on its way of finding out answers to the ethical struggles of the project, works like Plantasia naively show that within such entanglements — reciprocity is key.

In the sense of reciprocity, a further comparison between Leanne’s projects and GYOC illustrates that the first approach positions humans as the entities that ‘take in’, in a literal manner, the bacteria or the ‘clues’ indicative of a co-existence of nature and technology form the immediate environments. With GYOC attempting to use plants as storage, humans become the ones that ‘give away’. Whether nature is willing to receive our data becomes ultimately the rhetorical question. Such a circular process reiterates yet again the holistic approach that artists working with nonhumans should embrace. Even with questions being answered and solutions being found, it is a never-ending voyage where more questions arise in the quest of reaching sustainable symbiotic existence.

However, in this continuous search, new practises could help us reconsider our surroundings as laboratories: fertile grounds for sensing, thinking and enforcing interconnectedness.

[1] Talk Session 5 ‘There is no such thing as nature’, min. 4:42

[2] Note on the album cover, https://www.sacredbonesrecords.com/products/sbr3030-mort-garson-mother-earths-plantasia.

Diana Petcov holds a BA in Art History from Univeristy of Groningen, and MA in Comparative Arts & Media Studies from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, with the specialization of intermediality in film. She is interested in the phenomenological aspects of contemporary art practices as well as in the intersection between emotions, the human and non-human and relationality.

Written by: Diana Petcov

Edited by: Rhian Morris