18.06.2012 | Gardening

We the Gardeners, Cooks, Craftsmen, Action Thinkers – We the resilients?

The fifth edition of the Burning Ice Festival in Brussels, from June 5th to 9th at the KAAI Theater and around the city, questioned nature-culture relationships. Sacha Kagan followed the festival for Cultura21 Webmagazine and gives us a short review.

Foto: © BettinaF / PIXELIO

Von Sacha Kagan, Lüneburg

The 5th edition of Burning Ice, KAAI Theater’s yearly festival on art, ecology, sustainability (June 5-9 2012), was entitled „We The Gardeners“. Taking the title literally, several of the events proposed in the festival did indeed address current trends and issues especially around urban gardening and urban agriculture:

On the opening night, Carolyn Steel eloquently presented some insights from her book Hungry City. While being sympathetic to the current initiatives seeking to make cities more resilient, Steel encourages us to carefully look into the issue of feeding the multimillion inhabitants of megacities. Some, in architecture schools, are over-excited about new ideas such as vertical farms. Others practice permaculture. However, there is no single solution. The question remains open: Which mix of multiple approaches may allow future cities to secure food provision from their hinterlands? One thing is certain: The model of the global city hinterland, with mega-farms in Brazil feeding mega-cities halfway across the world, is not sustainable.
Steel’s book Hungry City, which was released in 2008, inspired further researchers and artists, as illustrated by another book presentation, also on the opening night: Food for the City, edited by Brigitte van der Sande, is a collective effort proposing 13 visions from a wide diversity of authors.

Alongside the festival, local food production was discussed, shown and tasted at the “Voorraad Brxl Réserve”. On the last festival day, a 4-hours bus tour was organized, with guided tours of urban gardens and urban farms, by the action researcher Maarten Roels. This was one of the highlights of the festival, as far as concrete initiatives and concrete issues around cities and farming are concerned. Maarten Roels highlighted both the challenges and opportunities for the transition of conventional farming in and around cities, toward organic/permaculture farming. He also stressed how the securing of long-lasting partnerships in regional “short circuits” (circuits courts) between the producers and the urban consumers, contributes to the emergence of an alternative economic model, vs. global food market volatility.

Some of the works presented at the festival propose less convincing visions or scenarios for city food production, such as The Why Factory’s City Pig, a video showing virtual reality 3D imagery of a supposedly “socially and ecologically sound pig farm in the city”. To me, the envisioned project felt more like a perverse mix of high tech jailhouse-tower and theme park (a much less appealing vision than for example Insa Winkler’s Accorn Pig project some years ago near Oldenburg, Germany).
Other works shown in the KAAI Theater were less problematic, and exemplified contemporary trends in many cities. For example, Annemie Maes (from OKNO) exhibited a video installation connected to the bee hives she is taking care of, and studying, on the roof of the theater. Annemie Maes is an encouraging case, one among a growing number of artists worldwide who are working at the local level, with human and non-human communities, for concrete, small-scale social-ecological transformations. Such artists are also often collaborating with diverse movements of urban gardeners and wider sustainability-seeking initiatives such as the “transition towns” movement.

However, not everybody at the festival, shared as much sensibility for the community of humans and non-humans. At the afternoon debate Gardening the Urban Fabric on Friday June 8th, linked to the Parckdesign 2012 event (running ‚till September in Brussels), none of the dozen speakers at the table did even mention other species than humans. They conducted a long, sometimes heated, debate on (re)defining public space and common spaces/commons. Some of them, especially Michelangelo Pistoletto and Jeanne van Heeswijk, while looking back on their activities at the Evento festival (in Bordeaux, France, last year), delivered some sympathetic, interesting arguments and analysis about the social dimensions of urban issues and about their work with communities. However, the absence of the other others, the non-human others, from their discussions, struck me. Also, the longish disputes on definitions of public space, with the re-activation of several well-known, little-relevant, arguments on public space, were hardly inspiring, despite the towering accumulated cultural capital of the dozen speakers assembled for the occasion…

More inspiring, and shorter, was the discussion conducted on the previous evening, Salon Time’s Up & Crosstalks. The talk was both about the boat trips and research on riverside-dwellers by the artist duo Time’s Up, and about the work presented in the book Bridges over Troubled Waters. For example, the Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets presented a project done in Brussels about the relationships of the green spaces of the city to the watersheds. This project, according to Smets, caught some high-quality attention in the city, both among decision-makers and in the public. I got quite curious about that work, but because of lack of time, I didn’t get to ask about the project’s potential qualities (or lack thereof) in terms of “biodiversity corridors”. Another interesting speaker was the landscape archeologist Dries Tys, who researched the deleterious long-term ecological and social consequences of the privatization and management of common lands/marshes by the Graaf van Vlaanderen, several hundred years ago.

Looking at the festival title “We The Gardeners” with a looser perspective, on the nature-culture relationships at large, several other insights were suggested by the performances shown at the festival:

At the opening night, Anna Mendelssohn’s performance/play Cry Me a River offered, though a 60 minutes one-woman-show, a kaleidoscope of discursive constructions of, and emotional responses to climate change. The fast succession of characters, in the whirlpool of Mendelssohn’s acting, evoked and reminded me of several scientists, politicians and others I heard in the past years, and, at one moment, even of myself – this was feeling then slightly like receiving a ‚tarte à la crème‘ in the face. The performance was giving a good sense of the multifaceted reality of climate change debates nowadays, and of their political, ethical and personal implications. It is then loosely left to the audience, to maybe find in this kaleidoscopic maelstrom some threads and knit them together, finding for oneself some lines of tensions and axes of interdependence. In my case however, it did not really bring me unexpected insights, and I was feeling rather slightly irritated by the actress‘ river of tears – literally, she cried for much of the performance.

At the Erasmus House, in the Southern part of Brussels, the artists duo Christoph de Boeck and Patricia Portela offered both an installation and a series of lecture-performances during the whole week, under the title Hortus. The lecture-performances included the reading, by guests from various horizons, of one from two texts written by Patricia Portela. The texts are short science/political fictions set in a near, or less-near, future (2020 and 2084). They are dystopian, and their readings stimulated interesting conversations afterward.
The outdoor installation, in the garden of the Erasmus House, consisted of texts by Portela and an interactive sound installation by de Boeck. The sounds to be heard were, mostly, the sounds of birds. Many birds. Water and wind captors, as well as motion detectors, determine the composition of the sounds score. For example, when there is much wind, some bird-sounds tend to be chased away and replaced by other birds. However, the installation also chases away most of the actual birds from the garden (apart from a couple of stubborn pigeons at the garden borders, high up in the branches). I felt this weird absence, walking through the Erasmus garden, with a cacophony of bird sounds but birds nowhere to be seen. De Boeck confirmed to me that this phenomenon systematically happened in previous occurrences of the installation. But the regular birds do come back soon after the installation is turned off. I was then thinking: The actual birds must ‚think‘ of this installation as some kind of madhouse, and be glad when the crazy bird-avatars are finally gone. In the meanwhile, some of the humans experiencing the installation might, like I did, miss the real birds while being surrounded by alienated bird sounds. A garden cleansed of birds – what a terrible feeling!

Some of the performances focused on specific ways of knowing and feeling the world, which I think constitute indeed a very important aspect of the cultural dimension of any meaningful investigation into the relationships between nature and culture: Mette Ingvartsen’s Extra Sensorial Garden invited the audience to experience a modified visual, auditive and tactile (heat) perception. For this, she and her team used a modified version of the Ganzfeld experiment – an experimental protocol in parapsychology to test the existence of ESP (extrasensorial perception, i.e. telepathy). Ingvartsen’s experiment, however, is less meant to induce telepathic receptivity, than to invite the mind to explore its inner sensory and symbolic universe, with the suggestive power of lights, heat and diverse sounds (birds, intense fire, pouring rain, etc. – instead of the white noise of the Ganzfeld experiment). After the experiment, the audience members were invited to discuss their subjective experiences, which allowed us to compare and contrast the different reactions, feelings and subconscious drives awaken by the situation.
Another learning-opportunity for ways of knowing the world, at the festival, was offered by the performer Nick Steur, in Freeze! In his piece, Steur is piling up irregularly shaped, natural stones, small and big, in the most incredible of ways. The piles get to the most extreme elegance and fragile balance made possible by a combination of Earth’s gravity, the stones‘ various shapes and Steur’s extremely careful, attentive, patient negotiation with the elements. This performance is not only a circus coup, a spectacle providing a Wow-experience (although it can be read at that level, providing a very entertaining but superficial moment of wonder and fun). The performance also conveys, in a strikingly evident and powerful form, the force and beauty of practical knowing, knowing-how-to-do, or in other words, what Richard Sennett described as the knowing of The Craftsman in his conversations with physical matter. Although physics is of course not the only basis for biological, ecological and social complexities, all these complexities are also incorporating the complexity of physical materiality. In his skillful and gracious dialogue with the stones and Earth, Steur demonstrates how attention can marry imbalance with balance and find peace in chaos.

The performance/play Robert Plant by Gaetan Bulourde was the humorous high ground of the whole festival. The performer and his team have put together a hilarious pot-pourri around the themes of obsessions and associative thinking. The main characters being a polar bear, a monstrous green plant, and a plethora of Roberts (starting with Robert Filliou). If one were not already satisfied with the sheer great fun of the show, one could maybe lament the postmodern vacuity of this kind of performance. But that would not be right, because the play also included, with a subtle intelligence, for example some key thoughts from French intellectual circles about the notions of landscape, and perspectives on the relationships of humans to nature, from the shamanic communion to the mundane de-realistic relationships of office workers to their “plante verte” (green plant in a pot). So, Robert Plant is not as innocent a play as it may seem as the first laughter sets in…

One of the plays performed at Burning Ice this year set itself the noble ambition of being a genuinely sustainable theater. Thus, for OCO2: En Entamant, the audience followed Alexander Nieuwenhuis on bikes. Each had to carry some of the props on her or his bike. (For example, I had to carry a heavy battery and a piece of foam on which I would sit down.) We eventually left the bikes behind, walked through some muddy fields (rainy weather), and finally arrived at the location for the performance. A very interesting place, on the site of a former train track, under a bridge, a fallow land of sorts. We then helped the performer build his inflatable tent. Alas, a catastrophe happened from the outset: The very strong wind, on that evening, literally ripped apart the inflatable tent. Nieuwenhuis did then play his piece, not in the expected setting but on the skin of the dead tent. The ’spirit‘ was not there, and the acting felt weak and amateurish. Maybe because of this difficult context, I could not properly appreciate the text of the story either – which (besides being in Flemish Dutch, which I only partly understand) felt, stylistically flat, and children-oriented. However, one inspiring element was that the tent, and the sustainable theater work of Nieuwenhuis in Colombia, were embedded as part of the story.

In the short program text of Burning Ice 5, We the Gardeners, the claim is made that „we now have to protect nature from culture“. The formula is rather unfortunate, as the discussions during the Resilients Salon on Vegetal Culture (on the last evening of the festival) highlighted. Whether we go for slogans à-la Tim Morton’s „ecology without nature“, or stress the complex unity, the “uniplurality”, of NatureCulture (as others did, including myself in the essay towards global (environ)mental change), what matters is that:

  • On the one hand, culture is deeply embedded in, transformed by, and transformative of nature, so that both are mutually constitutive while enlivened by tensions and dynamically balanced disequilibria.
  • On the other hand, a very specific cultural form, blooming in Modernity and deeply rooted in Western cultures, which divorced culture from nature, is endangering the evolutionary capabilities of our social systems. It is from that way of thinking and shaping the world, that we „now have to protect“, not only nature, but naturecultures.

To take part in the Resilients Salon, organized by FoAM, one had to bring a tomato as entrance price. With the tomatoes was cooked a very nice soup, which we all enjoyed, as participants had the very last conversations of Burning Ice 5 and slowly waved goodbye to each other…

The Burning Ice festival is an offspring of the deepening ecological engagement of the KAAI Theater over the past years, under the artistic direction of Guy Gypens. KAAI is a founding member of “Imagine2020”, a network of European theaters aiming to genuinely address the crisis of climate change. For Guy Gypens, sustainability is as much an artistic question as a question of theater management practices, a political and a philosophical question. Through his programming and through the several conversations I had with him over the past few years, I recognized in his work a careful and attentive balance of transformative hope and critical reflection, of genuine ecological sensibility and artistic curiosity. To use the terminology of eco-artist David Haley, Guy Gypens is someone who is practicing “question based learning” rather than merely seeking “problem-solving” answers ending into simplistic propaganda (as opposed to for example Harald Welzer’s interventions in the recent past, which heralded simplistic discourses and actions as the only way forward).
This is also a reason why, finding back in Gypens‘ work an embodiment of what I characterized (in the book Art and Sustainability) as a “sensibility to complexity” founding aesthetics of sustainability, I am eagerly following how the KAAI Theater was, is, and will be engaging, in diverse ways, with issues of (un)sustainability, (non)resilience and (non)emergence in our society.

I have heard that next’s year’s Burning Ice will have something to do with animals…

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