Understanding the “outdoors” as a scalable term far beyond bucolic landscapes, AMO’s director Samir Bantal discusses their research into alternative farming practices in a post-pandemic landscape—stemming from the countryside to explore the relationship between nature and technology, ecological knowledge and ownership, corporate environmentalism and the future of space travel.
Currently, two percent of Earth’s surface is urbanized; the rest is what we have termed “the countryside.” We are already seeing that the latter is serving the former. When more and more people move to the city, what does it mean for this ever-shrinking group who are left behind? Will they have the economic and political power to keep this countryside alive and conserve it for future generations? Will we have resources in the countryside to make enough food? Or are we doing everything in subservience of an urban future?
Our research stems from the belief that when we talk about the future of cities, it should also be about the countryside. When we opened “Countryside, The Future” at the Guggenheim back in February, COVID-19 was already making its way to Europe and the United States. We were wondering, should we take more action than just observing and pointing fingers? How do we prepare ourselves? What eventually happened was an exposure of the fragility of our urban life—you could almost watch it collapse week after week. Every big city had to go through it, simply be- cause no one was prepared for an invisible threat coming from the outside world, with no real strategy for defeating it. The pandemic revealed an urban arrogance that had been stimulated over the years: a false sense of security and comfort that cities and their inhabitants exist in. COVID very swiftly disrupted that fantasy by revealing. Tourism, travel, retail—all of it was put on hold. We felt that the Guggenheim show actually became more relevant during this period. We felt there was much more to uncover in some of the themes we researched. So rather than those eight statements we published with the exhibition, this was a new beginning, a start of something to explore further.
I’ve seen videos recently going viral on social media of people wheeling suitcases and slugging bags on their treadmills at home, to simulate the feeling of travel in lockdown. It’s an adjacent psychology to the “nature is healing” mantras that came out earlier in quarantine. We are addicted to the feeling of a quick fix and to the fantasy of returning to normal, when our condition of “normal” was the planet in crisis.
If humanity is to survive in the long-haul, we need to come to terms with our relationship to nature to effectively do the work to heal it. We are used to thinking in short-term, five-or tenyear programs—every country has its own environmental visions for 2025 or 2030—but this is a multi-generational problem that has a much longer timeframe. There are basically two main schools of thought in terms of possible solutions. The first is the Half-Earth strategy, proposed by biologist E.O. Wilson, which suggests preserving one-half of the Earth in its natural state and doing what we want to the rest. The other strategy argues that the only way to survive is to re-introduce ideas that are more symbiotic in nature—by using, for example, more indigenous knowledge on how to treat nature and configuring ways to combine that with modern life.
Our current thinking is leaning too much towards
the former and creates a polarized system that’s like the
half-Earth divide, with the climate activists on one end
and corporate interests on other. It’s a world that we frontline with virtue-signalling Paris Accords and letting all
hell break loose in the back; corporate capitalism prefers that option. But the truth is that the ecological effects of one side of the world can’t be contained—it’s a shared experience. There is never the neat boundary that’s proposed in sci-fi visions of the future.
That realization was really important. If we start to treat land as something that you cannot trade or exploit, but only manage, then that immediately changes the incentives. Once you change the incentives, we’re not looking for short-term profits, but rather those that last for much longer. Even in a large area, the ancestors would move from one to another area, using only what nature provided during a certain part of the year. Winter would provide berries and fish, but by spring, you’d move to another area for different food resources. Following the natural cycle of nature, it was able to replenish and provide for the year after. It means we need to look at nature from a cyclical point of view rather than a linear one.
But homogeneity is a biological weakness: if you have only
one crop for miles and miles, a certain bug will not go
there, so a certain bird will not go there, and the soil
will lose its nutrients. What we saw was the illusion of an incredibly efficient farm field that was built upon a natural desert. We worried, is this the only future soil for agri- culture, or is there something else? We started looking at different experts at Bahrain, who studied something we called pixel farming. The best way I can describe pixel farming is the combination of something natural with something artificial. It’s taking the logic of strip farming—lines of crops
in long strips—duplicating it, and turning the second layer ninety degrees to create a kind of grid, or “pixels.” These pixels originally started small—50 × 50 cm—with a single crop. But the tests showed that biodiversity increased dramatically from this close congregation of different crops, which drew different pollinators into the same space.
We teamed up with them and will work with AI to
calculate the best way to plant these pixels. It’s like looking for the source code of nature! This is an interesting way
of using smart technology to enhance a natural
process—for something that would take decades to figure
out, to do it much faster. The only issue is harvesting. Harvesting one field with one machine is much more efficient and cheaper than lots of different squares.
Take greenhouses, for instance: sun appears as purple LEDs; soil becomes paper pulp; rain is simulated as an irrigation system. These are all super-efficient apparatus, but they can’t replace pollination. In one of the giant green- houses we visited, there were moth-killing drones flying around. It was a dystopian scene, the total replacement of nature with a kind of techno-solutionism. You look at it and think, can’t we do it differently? We must be able to do something more intelligent, working with nature than against it.
or is it not beyond saving? In total, we would need around $300 billion to save the Earth. I can think of quite a lot of rich people who can easily dislodge several billion toward saving the planet. Is it because it’s too easy to do it that it’s not appealing to them?
If we were ever to settle on Mars, it’d take decades, possibly even longer. Why not use that same effort to halt the harming of the Earth? I wonder if the billionaires we’re seeing now the last of their kind, with their neo-colonial view of the world and galaxy. It seems to me that the younger generations are not as interested in looking to other planets as they are preserving our own. As a child, I was always interested in space travel, in exploring unknown territories in far-off pockets of the universe. But back on Earth, we’ve only explored a small fraction of our oceans, of which over 80 % remains unknown. Almost every decade, we find a new tribe hidden away in total wilderness. There’s still a lot to explore, uncover, understand, and preserve on our own planet before we start to wander off to others.
In the ’90s, AMO designed a Prada campaign loosely themed around space exploration. We were using it as a metaphor for encountering the unknown—it’s a very generative topic with broad appeal. In the ’80s, NASA spoke about space exploration as a very science-based field; it was a project of knowledge expansion. But the kind of space exploration we’re seeing now is so incredibly market-driven that it immediately makes getting to know Mars and our galaxy our secondary question. They are already looking at a rock that’s 90% gold on Mars; whoever gets to it first will be the richest person in eternity. We are heading from space exploration to space exploitation.