Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
201002 AE Collage

AGAINST HYPERNATURE

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.

INTERVIEW: ALICE BUCKNELL
ABWhat drew AMO to researching the countryside—both that physical space outside of city limits, as well as the cultural ideologies attached to it?
SBWe wanted to make a plea for the country- side to become part of our vision of the future—especially as architects and planners, but also to politicians and national leaders. In the last couple of decades, architectural discussion has focused almost exclusively on the city, galvanized by that statistic from the UN saying that humanity will inevitably be 100% urban. The idea that only two or three percent of the Earth’s surface will be housing 100 % of the world’s population, that everything outside will be transformed to simply serve this miniscule physical space, is incredibly strange and frightening.

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.

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ABAs urbanites, we are all so accustomed to, and in many ways inseparable from, the power of automation that governs our everyday lives: the click of an iPhone to order takeout, the algorithmic swipe of our next date. It took a literal pandemic to reveal that dependence to us firsthand.
SBWhat really brought us to this point was a total surrender to technology and markets. This dependency is fully enmeshed in our fight or flight response to contagion: with the threat of catching the virus, we skip the local bodega to order contactless food delivery, while the most affluent city dwellers seek shelter outside the city. There’s a paradox wherein we all realize we’re brought here due to our reliance on this technology as a way of life, but we also use it as an additional security blanket in times of crisis. Confronting this deep-seated dependence head-on in the past few months, you can see why people might say that this is the right moment to overhaul our current economic model and contradictory relationship to nature. I’ve been reading Solastalgia, a text by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who in 2003 coined the psychological phenomenon of the same name. It describes a feeling of homesickness to a place of landscape or time rendered unrecognizable by climate change and by corporate actions of the market. Seventeen years on, the feeling of solastalgia is even stronger, because you know there’s truly no way back, no proverbial return to the original state of nature. Ecosystems that have collapsed will take centuries, maybe even longer, to fully repair. We don’t even know the full extent of the damage. In this time, it’s easier to imagine a total collapse or demise of nature than to imagine a new political economic system to preserve it—again, to use Albrecht’s terminology, a Simbioscene rather than the Anthropocene.

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ABAs global politics, the economy, and our ecological future have grown more unstable in recent years, there’s been a parallel fixation with the apocalypse, from contemporary art and cultural theory to Hollywood blockbusters. But when we’re actually hit with an apocalyptic crisis like COVID, urbanites just want their next-day delivery and $20 frozen margaritas back. What to do in a world addicted to disaster capitalism?
SBThis is the exact scenario I’m witnessing in Amsterdam: after four months of silence, the tourists are back with their selfie sticks, parading around with their masks off, like we’re not still in the middle of a pandemic. It begs the question, if we are indeed “going back to normal, what kind of instability are we actually going back to?
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.

A21 Orbital Tightening
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Alta Wind Energy Center
ABWhat does a world rooted in a symbiotic relationship with nature look like? Where can we look for alternative models?
SBWhile undertaking research for “Countryside, The Future,” we travelled to Nevada, where we became witness to a post-human form of architecture: big buildings with less and less people; it was an architecture for machines. But this kind of organized hypernature used to be the land of Native Americans. We met with them in order to understand how they saw this economic and ecological “progress.” As urbanites, we tend to have these blinkers around ownership. Land exists insofar as it can be owned, traded, sold—in other words, exploited and extracted. But in other cultures, particularly indigenous cultures, ownership of something natural was impossible. You cannot own it, but only manage it.

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.

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ABHow could these ideas of non-linear production cycles and biodiversity scale up and out to larger agricultural production?
SBWhile traveling across North America and Europe or our research, we saw farms so big they needed external companies to help with harvesting. The effect of this expansion is that ecosystems built around the valuation of biodiversity are more or less non-existent.

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.

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ABDo you think more sustainable processes like pixel farming will ever be embraced by industrial agricultural producers?
SBThere’s a fierce market, and it’s only viable if it’s cheap—the reality is that we value economic conditions over natural conditions. This is the right moment to overhaul farming, but that requires a new toolkit of farming and harvesting equipment. That’s something we’re going to investigate next year with the Design Academy in Eindhoven. If you want pixel farming to be feasible, what equipment do you need to invent? Too often, technology overlays technical issues as a blanket solution. It’s strange to see we develop machines for everything, even while there’s natural equipment for it already.

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.

Almeria
ABThis hellish vision of techno-solutionism has me thinking about corporate ecology and the pastoral capitalism of Silicon Valley, like the mythic garden of Apple Campus: over 170 acres of private land in one of the epicenters of America’s housing crisis, and landscaped as a kind of primordial California, untainted by human presence.
SBThe Silicon Valley campuses you’re describing have attempted to replace nature with an RP nature: a version of nature that’s not actually wild or natural—an idealized version. What came across also in our research in some parts of Chile, we found that people from Silicon Valley and Hollywood were buying large plots of land in Chile because it looks pristine, beautiful, and untainted— as if you’re buying an IRL screensaver. This aesthetically perfect form of nature conceived by billionaires is a very neoliberal approach: you can only save it if you buy it. Once you travel to Chile, you find that the nature they buy isn’t the most pristine or rich in terms of biodiversity or ecosystem; it’s only bought because it’s aesthetically signalling that. There you see the kind of clash between ideologies, the disconnect between owning land and maintaining it. What alternatives could there be to
this model?
ABHow does that disconnect to the outdoors scale up to discussions on space exploration and colonization? How does this penchant for ownership over understanding find a parallel in the neo-colonial visions of Elon Musk and other protagonists of the privatized space race?
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SBWhen Musk first revealed his Mars plans, it was about how the Red Planet can be revived and terraformed to look like our own. The fundamental problem with this approach is that treats the current planet we’re living on as a lost hope. Does it mean the Earth is beyond saving,
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.

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Samir Bantal is the director of AMO, a research agency founded in 1999 by Rem Koolhaas that expands the architectural work of OMA into an articulated array of disciplines.

Alice Bucknell is a London-based artist and writer.

IMAGE COURTESY AMO/ REM KOOLHAAS.

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