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Essay Who is nature?

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Who is Nature?
How visual narratives in art and design can overturn prevailing understandings of environment.
By artists' collective Satellietgroep, Lotte Bosman & Jacqueline Heerema
For Viscous Space North Sea Conference, TU Deflt 2018.

Please contact if you feel inspired by the following essay!


    On a summer day at 8:15 AM, a woman in a red suit walked into the North Sea. As soon as the water was up to her ankles she stopped and stood still, overlooking the water, or staring at the horizon. And as the tide came in and the water started to rise, she did not move. She hardly blinked. The sun was climbing higher into the sky and when it reached it’s highest point, it started to sink again, as did the sea. Children were playing in the water, birds flew over, and people were passing by. Apart from the buildings and pathways around the bay, the only static thing was that particular lady in her bright red suit.
    This was on August 15, 2015 at Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands. The woman is Sarah Cameron Sunde, a New York based theatre maker and performance artist, who came to The Netherlands as part of an on-going public performance with the sea and she stood in the water for almost thirteen hours, a full tidal cycle. The project started in 2013, after New York City got hit by Hurricane Sandy and the artist was startled by how ill-prepared the city is when it comes to climate change and sea-level rise. With Sunde’s durational performance with the sea she created awareness among a huge and extremely diverse audience. Moreover, she created a sense of community as people were invited to stand in the water with her. People that happened to pass by in the morning or early afternoon commented that it was a little ridiculous to stand in the sea for so long. But when they returned in the evening they had brought family and friends and while the sun was setting and Sarah walked out of the sea, a whole crowd had gathered around the bay and everybody was clapping and telling each other that it was something wonderful and even magical what they just had witnessed. People realized that they were in this together. That the sea is as beautiful as it is threatening.
    There are several elements in this work that demonstrate how art can work as a visual narrative that strengthens cultural perspectives of sea and land. The artist takes this aspect of the work very serious by performing the piece on each continent, thus pointing out that different cultures, different seas and different landscapes are all connected and all subject to change due to global warming. Now that people all around the world are slowly starting to rethink how people and planet are interrelated, new questions arise around the understanding of time and the perception of place. It’s not merely a technical or political challenge that we are facing. It’s a cultural one. This essay attempts to demonstrate how redefining climate as a cultural artifact through artistic practice helps us to break free from conventional attitudes in order establish new and essential perspectives. Our case study is the experience of nature on the Zandmotor, a temporary and artificial extension of the beach on the west coast of the Netherlands.

Sarah Cameron Sunde, 36.5 / a durational performance with the sea (2015); photo: Florian Braakman

The Zandmotor, image Rijkswaterstaat

    The Zandmotor is a human intervention in nature. It can be regarded as the largest cultural statement regarding the shifting relationship between people and water of this time. Here, a piece of land has been added that is meant to change under the influence of sea currents and sand drifts. By depositing 21.5 million cubic meters of sand on the foreshore, the Zandmotor is built to generate knowledge about future relationships between people and water. On the Zandmotor, all issues related to climate change around people and water come together: it is situated in a rising salty sea with an urbanized hinterland (the metropolis); bordering dunes where drinking water is extracted, while new dune formations enlarge the freshwater bubble under the Zandmotor. The existing ecology has been completely disrupted on site and is in the process of being rediscovered. We will be drawing from our own experiences and projects that were developed on the Zandmotor to illustrate our statement and to explain how we came to the question ‘who is nature?’

A dialogical space offered by art
    In an essay on environmental aesthetics and the work of Robert Smithson, Anja Novak refers to the American philosopher Arnold Berleant, who pointed out that ‘our environment is not simply the physical world that surrounds us (…) (1) but actually occurs in our perceptual and active involvement with the world’ . By taking people outside and offering them new experiences on a somewhat familiar site, it becomes possible to have a lasting impact that triggers new philosophies. Friedrich Nietzsche already maintained that one should not start with thinking, but with being outside and experiencing. That’s the thing that changes you (2). And a third philosopher that we want to plug in here is Helmut Plessner who claimed that ‘man not only lives and experiences his life. He also experiences his experience of life’ which means that people live in three worlds at the same time: the outer world, the inner world, and the shared world of culture (which Plessner calls ‘Mitwelt’). All three statements are telling us to leave our comfortable couches and climate-controlled offices, and to go outside and interact with people and with our environment. It is the first step towards revaluing and reconnecting to the space we inhabit in order to develop new narratives. Because it’s not in the way that the world is changing that makes us rethink how we live our lives, it’s in the stories we tell each other.
    When the designer duo Nadine Sterk and Lonny Ryswyck from Atelier NL came to work with Satellietgroep at the Zandmotor in 2016, they aimed at (and succeeded in) producing glass from the ‘wild sand’ that was deposited there in 2011.
The glass industry normally uses only pure white sands, which can only be found in a small number of sand quarries worldwide. In order to challenge the conventions of the contemporary conservative glass industry, since 2010 Atelier NL has been collecting wild sands from dunes, beaches and sandpits in various places all over Europe – thus constantly experimenting with this natural material, including studying geological time, particle size, chemical composition, microscopic imaging and related considerations.
Their project 'SandBank' reveals the potential of local, wild sands. The designers followed the path of ancient Roman glass traders, took samples of eighty sands, mapped and classified them, created special sand boxes and carried out over a thousand tests. Sands from different locations provide varied results because of their wide mix of minerals and other components that adhere to the grains, yielding various colors and textures. The research and development are time-consuming, but essential for the designers to be able to show the potential and value of raw materials. Atelier NL took up the task of revealing sand's full richness of distinctive elements.  
    In short, they are doing two important things here: pointing out the beauty of diversity and questioning the way in which people use natural resources for industrial objectives. Displaying the glass or drinking from it opens up conversation, which brings new stories to the table. Stories about the Zandmotor, where Atelier NL had collected the sand; stories about the North Sea, where the sand was before it got dredged; stories about the delta country we call the Netherlands where land was formed by sediments brought in from rivers and the sea, and shaped by people. But there are also stories within the work that reach far beyond the local. Their work and research brought the designers in touch with Denis Delastrac, who made the award-winning documentary Sand Wars. In his film it becomes painfully clear how big industries and building companies are responsible for the disappearance of a great deal of the world’s beaches only because of the seemingly insatiable need for concrete, which requires sand. By now we are facing worldwide problems such as the occurrence of an actual sand mafia. People are actually getting killed over sand. Then there are the countries that illegally dredge sand from other countries, which has already caused the disappearance of some Indonesian islands where people not only lose their environment, but also their livelihood as whole ecosystems are getting destroyed. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, we do believe that these are stories that need to be shared and by looking at Atelier NL’s sand glass, we can see global challenges from a local perspective. It addresses our sensitivity and imagination, thus bringing global changes closer to us. This sensory experience that art can offer through the materialization of concepts and data can help us exchange facts about the natural world and people’s interrelations with it, but more importantly, it can effectuate different ways of being and perceiving. How, for example, could we relate to the histories of the places we inhabit and exploit?

Atelier NL, Zandmotor ZandGlas (2016); photo: Teun van Beers

Simultaneity of time
    The sand of the Zandmotor can be understood as Pleistocene sand as it was dug up from the bottom of the North Sea in an area that 11,000 years ago was part of the main land (Doggerland) that connected Britain and continental Europe. This is unintentionally emphasized through the fairly big concentration of fossils among the sand. Artist Theun Karelse found a mammoth tusk when he was spending one late evening on the Zandmotor. Holding the piece in his hand brought him, without warning, back to a time in which The Netherlands as we came to know it, did not exist yet. When a geologist drills a hole in the ground, the drill goes through different layers of time. The deeper it goes, the older the soil horizon that it touches upon. On the Zandmotor, it is the other way around, since the top layer of the seabed was excavated first and the deepest part that the dredgers touched upon, ended up five meters above sea level. The artist wanted to share the incredible sensation that came with his realization and new understanding of time. He had found more fossils such as a mammoth rib and the tooth of a woolly rhino. Objects that date back to the last glacial maximum and are between 20,000 and 40,000 years old. Karelse wondered whether people today could still experience something of that old time through those bones (3). The result was a fossil soup that made everyone who ate it, one the first people in centuries to taste mammoth again. In the artist’s own words the project and the writing that came with it “contemplates the parallels and differences between the last climate change event and the current one, in terms of ecology and culture and it explores what a positive agenda for the future could mean” (4). Looking back and experiencing the deep memory that is stored in the ground underneath our feet can indeed help to us to develop scenarios for the future. A deeper understanding of place naturally leads to a deeper understanding of time and of the way in which we experience time. When thinking about the future, we should perhaps eliminate the linear way of thinking that is so deeply rooted in western thought and recreate a more symbiotic relation between people and nature. This is not plea in favor of those who believe that people nowadays should live more like our caveman ancestors, on the contrary. But we could learn a lot from different indigenous peoples that have passed on their skills and knowledge of the natural world over thousands of years. The Columbian-Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis has travelled to the most remote places on the planet and researched and worked with indigenous people from all over the world. He has noticed how many of them have the ability to ‘sense the world beyond their body’, meaning the ability to put yourself into a viewpoint and perspective of many creatures or objects – rocks, water, clouds (5). This requires a great deal of sensitivity and imagination but these are bodily and mental powers we all have and so we can more or less understand what is that they are doing or what Davis is talking about. He also states that for the wellbeing of our planet, cultural diversity is as important as biodiversity. The latter is something that is of big concern to us nowadays, while we hardly ever read or hear about the extinction of cultures and of languages. This is an important issue since the numbers are shocking: In the past thirty years, over 3,000 languages have died (6). Every two weeks, some elderly, someone who is the last person that speaks a certain tongue, dies. And with that person, not only a language dies, but also a piece of knowledge and of culture; a set of skills that has helped a people to evolve and develop a livelihood for thousands of years. Their stories are getting lost forever. One specific example we do like to refer to and that can help us to be more optimistic, is that of the people of the Marshall Islands, where the Dutch artist Esther Kokmeijer recently travelled to in order to learn about the way people there navigate and find their way in the Ocean. All navigators have their own individual ‘stick charts’ for wave navigation, constructed out of the way in which they feel the currents and waves when they are in their canoe. Esther had the opportunity to sail with the Okeanos. The Okeanos Foundation is a ‘German philanthropic non-profit organization with an US entity’ that aims at ‘fostering a renaissance in traditional Pacific boat construction, sailing and navigation’ (7).  People have always used and influenced sea and land, but by looking at how this has been happening in a sustainable manner, and is still a successful method that invalidates the need for large polluting industries, we could develop methods for the future by looking at current techniques that have a far deeper history than our western methods. Linear growth and expansion can even become rather ridiculous when you hear about the stories that these people have to tell. Esther Kokmeijer is bringing those stories to us through new visual narratives, bridging our cultures. Where the Okeanos Foundation is helping people in the Pacific to deal with challenges that come with climate change, the artist is helping to bring in perspectives that are new to us and other ways of being that could open up our minds when we look at the way in which we use the North Sea. She has done this once before on the Zandmotor in December 2015, when she wondered how climate-proof we are as people in the Netherlands. On a cold winter night, a group of people stayed with her in sweat lodge on the Zandmotor and dived into the ice-cold water. People shared their stories and experiences while Esther directed the activities and documented the body temperatures of the group. People can adapt to different and extreme circumstances and they adapt those circumstances in the process.
    Since people are biologically such a successful species that keeps on growing and expanding, the whole planet has become subject to cultural influences.  But the beautiful thing about most indigenous people, to come back to Wade Davis again, is that they’re not constantly talking and writing about global doom scenarios, despite the fact that they probably witness and suffer the most from the rapidly changing conditions due to global warming. They see systems change as a whole and immediately look for solutions. They see cause and effect in a material manner, not through counting species or developing mathematic models. They may not have the exact numbers, but they do see the exact change in every insect, mammal or flower, and in the way their own lives are changing as well. They react and display an incredible resilience through their ability to adapt and their enormous respect for the natural and spiritual world and we could argue that, if we are able to survive, the people of the future on this planet will probably be much closer to nature then most people are today, as the transition in which people want built with, instead of against nature, has already modestly started.

Theun Karelse, Fossielensoep (2015); photo: Florian Braakman

Esther Kokmeijer, Climate Experiment (2015); photo: Esther Kokmeijer

Beyond the natural or artificial: climate as artifact
    Culture as opposite to nature, male as opposite to female or the past as opposite to the future: we are beyond such black and white narratives. At the same time this dualism is so deeply rooted in our thinking that even our language is embedded in it. We lack words that do justice to the coexistence of land and water, of the constant and omnipresent interaction between people and nature. The Zandmotor is an artificial peninsula, but is branded as ‘nature’. The Wadden Sea is UNESCO world heritage and is described as a unique natural site as if there are no islands or dikes in that area, as if there haven’t been any people that have been just as dependent on that sea as the fish, as the birds, as the worms or the weeds. Moreover, people create new conditions where certain rare species can survive, while they wouldn’t have been there, if it hadn’t been for certain human interventions.
    We are talking about nature that needs to be protected, restored or maintained, since we seem to live in a world in which the influence of mankind is omnipresent and taking on immense proportions, causing irreversible damage. But isn’t the latter statement a cultural position? Humanity is changing ecosystems, causing mass extinction but also creating new conditions. This makes mankind a geological force and thus equal to nature. But do people see themselves as nature? People’s understanding of what nature is, is changing throughout time and new insights greatly influence people’s perception. After centuries of people ‘dominating nature’, we lately have been witnessing how nature is starting to ‘strike back’. We do not know what the effects of our actions from, let’s say the past 500 years, will be on the long term. But looking at a geological time frame, taking in all the ice ages and interglacial periods that Earth has undergone, it seems quite impossible for humanity to actually destroy the planet. The world as we have gotten to know it however, will never return. So what type of nature is it that we trying to protect nowadays? Does this consist of all the organic nature, all flora and fauna that are known to us? Are we also aiming to protect all inorganic nature, every mountain and every rock, iceberg, sandy beach; our oceans that we desire and fear? Are we in other words, aiming at conservation of the current state? It mostly looks like people have an idealistic idea or image in their mind of what nature is and what the world should look like, and slowly our environment is adjusted to fit that image. It becomes a representation of nature. If we continue in this line, going out to the North Sea might become like going out to the zoo (or to an aquarium of course). But we are nature as well and for as long as there have been people, the planet has been cultivated, making nature part of our cultures, and slowly turning the world that we live in, into an artifact.
    Our expanding cities have been named people’s largest artifact. But it was the Dutch landscape architect and emeritus professor (and co-inventor of the Zandmotor), Dirk Sijmons, who recently wondered whether by now the climate might be our biggest artifact. Defining people as nature and the climate as an artifact could just be a philosophical or linguistic exercise. It is what brought us to the question ‘who is nature?’ Redefining these concepts through art could be an essential task though, for this requires an intensive and constructive use of people’s sensitivity and imagination. Visual narratives and artistic actions that invite the public to go outside and perceive the world with a critical but open mind, could cause these valuable sparks that make a lasting impression. It helps us to bring abstract concepts or things that are seemingly beyond our control, closer to ourselves. Climate is a hyper object. We know that it exists, but we can’t comprehend it, as the British philosopher Timothy Morton stated (8). Materializing ideas through art and redefining climate as an artifact, as something we make, helps to increase our sensitivity and to see connections within the natural world and between our actions and our environment. In relation to the Zandmotor, this attitude requires that we tell the whole story. The Zandmotor is a pilot project to generate knowledge for future coastal protection. Despite what most people think, the Zandmotor is not built to protect the Dutch coastline, it is mainly a research site. Meanwhile it is mostly promoted as a place where people can experience and enjoy ‘rough nature’. Thus, people are excluded from what is actually happening in public space. As Stephen Mintern wrote, the Zandmotor is “the first of its kind”, which “means that the public have no preexisting idea of how to occupy the space, it is a space void of any memory, therefore allowing for new more singular interactions with the space.” (9) This means that we have to find new ways of interacting with our environment, thus creating new stories.
    During his Zandmotor residency with Satellietgroep, the artist Berndnaut Smilde looked into ways of imposing a natural phenomenon onto the surroundings. He was interested in the artificial aspect of the Zandmotor, in interfering with the location, and he looked into in the values that people project onto weather phenomena. He wrote:
    “Size and proportions are unreal on the Zandmotor because I no longer appear to be accustomed to (unused) emptiness. That's why I sometimes felt alienated and strangely enough I lacked a sense of overview. How do you relate to 21.5 million cubic meters of sand?”  Smilde then wondered what was ‘underneath’ the Zandmotor. What was on the exact opposite side of it? The antipode turned out to be a ‘meaningless’ coordinate in the ocean (somewhere near New Zealand). There wasn’t even a satellite image available of the exact spot. Then the artist realized that the same used to be true for the Zandmotor as well, and in the near future this will be the case again.
    Artists pose different questions and transform their wanderings into visual experiences or objects. That’s how we get to understand what our environment means to us. Or what it could mean. Smilde works with natural phenomena, which makes his work appealing but also extra confusing. Do we appreciate the natural phenomenon, or the fact that he was able to produce it himself? During his residency Smilde eventually continued to work on the idea of refracting the light of a lighthouse in order to project a rainbow onto the landscape. He turned a natural phenomenon into an artificial one that he could control, and project this on a man-made landscape. Ironically, the public still gets the sense that they are witnessing one of these small wonders of nature.

Building with nature, or, ephemeral constructions
    The Zandmotor exemplifies a shift in people’s attitude towards nature and towards the sea. Where dikes were meant to built ‘against nature’, the Zandmotor is an example of ‘building with nature’. It’s a cultural shift in which people acknowledge that it is one world that we are living in, which we have to work with nature and not destroy it. Nevertheless, it’s still building. And the manmade aspect was more or less ignored as soon as the Zandmotor was finished. The Dutch artist Maurice Meewisse made a good attempt to acknowledge this aspect of the Zandmotor when he performed his Coffee Break, in the summer of 2017. Meewisse wanted to stress the manmade aspect of the beach and the heavy labour that comes with land reclamation. Every workday he went to the Zandmotor, dug up some stools that he had made from driftwood, or drift palettes actually, and had his 15-minute coffee break, during which people were invited to join him for some small talk and a coffee, after which he buried everything again. It took him over three hours to have this short coffee break and Meewisse kept the work up for one month. At first sight, this might seem as ridiculous as standing in the sea for thirteen hours but just as with Sarah Cameron Sunde’s work that we discussed in the introduction of this article, it is much more than a funny metaphor. The routine becomes something of a ritual and the fact that all the work is done in order to have some time to rest and reflect gives weight to the importance of contemplation and conversation. Meewisse becomes a little like a contemporary Nietzsche, who had been going for five-hour walks, five days a week, for ten years. It doesn’t start with thinking, but with being outside and experiencing.
    But what if all there is left to experience on a specific site, is a memory? The Zandmotor can be regarded as a suicidal landscape (10). It was built to resolve. Taking into account that people had just witnessed the rise of a new type a landscape where there was “no preexisting idea of how to occupy the space”, a new landscape that offered new insights and produced new knowledge concerning coastal protection and climate change, a new landscape where people were confronted with times long gone, with the power of wind and sea, where people once again displayed their technical proficiency, and where we developed a new understanding of environment, a new understanding of who we are and where we stand, makes it rather difficult to accept that this too, is only temporary. How can we deal with an ephemeral phenomenon when it feels so solid and well researched? What does it mean to construct new narratives that do not correspond with prevailing concepts, whilst knowing that these ideas in the near future will not be backed up by the physical entity of the place where these ideas originated? In order to understand and deal with the cultural shifts and dilemmas that come with the construction of new landscapes, it becomes essential to get the humanities and social studies on board as well. People and cultures are part of changing climates and changing environments. Technical inventions or solutions can cause a cultural change. But most solutions aim at preserving the current state. In order to establish significant cultural changes that can help to develop a new narrative that is inclusive instead of exclusive, we need to acknowledge that people are nature and that nature has become culture.

Berndnaut Smilde, Breaking Light (2015); photo: Annnegret Kellner

Maurice Meewisse, Coffee Break (2017); photo: Jacqueline Heerema.

(1) Novak’s essay ‘Engaging Environments. The practice of Robert Smithson and Olafur Eliasson as an Instance of Environmental Aesthetics’ can be found in ‘Robert Smithson: Art in Continual Movement a contemporary reading’.  Edited by Ingrid Commandeur and Trudy van Riemsdijk-Zandzee. P. 21 Alauda publications, 2015.
(2) Quote from Henk Manschot’s lecture ‘Nietzsche als gids bij ecologische problemen. De verbeelding aan de macht!’, De Nacht van de Filosofie, April 14, Nest, The Hague.
(3) Theun’s reflections on the project can be found here:
(5) Quote extracted from an article by Jim Robbins. ‘Native Knowledge: What Ecologists Are Learning from Indigenous People’ April 26, 2018.
(6) Wade Davis,‘Cultures at the Far Edge of the World’, TedTalk.
(8) Roos van Tongerloo en Isabelle Veltman. ‘Als we het klimaat willen redden is dit onze enige reddingsboei’. February 6, 2018.
(9) Mintern. S. The Sand Engine as a Productive Void. Discussing the Spatial Value and Public Appropriation of the Sand Engine.
(10) Quote Jan de Graaf

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