Article, Volume #35

Nature through the Windshield

— by and

For more than eight years artist Koert van Mensvoort has been working on a project to redefine our concept of nature. Through his platform Next Nature he has published books, held talks, ran workshops, maintained an active blog, and even developed a hoax, all in effort to communicate that there is no absolute nature, but that technology and nature are deeply intertwined; a biosynthetic nature so to speak. Can the development of a Gillette razor be considered in Darwinian terms of evolution? Is the fake nature of an indoor ski slope any less legitimate than the Alps? By fundamentally shifting the way we conceive nature, he believes we will be better able to cope with the oncoming climatic and environmental challenges ahead.

Brendan Cormier: How did the whole Next Nature project get started?
Koert van Mensvoort: In 2004 I wrote an essay called ‘Exploring Next Nature’; it basically lays out this whole new way of looking at the relationship between people, nature, and technology. Nature is enveloped in culture, seemingly opposed to technology, but at the same time our technology becomes so complex, so present, autonomous, that we start to see it as a nature of its own. That’s the Next Nature dynamic. When you think about this dynamic in such a way then a whole landscape opens up, a new way of viewing the world.
The Marshall McLuhan quote about people looking in the rearview mirror inspires me; that they have the concept of the past as they drive into the future. The goal of the Next Nature project was to try to look through the front windshield and share it with other people.

Photo: Jeroen Broekmans

Photo: Jeroen Broekmans

Agata Jaworska: Let’s talk about misperceptions. A lot of the ways we feel and act towards nature is irrational. For example, European Parliament’s ban on the import of seal products seems to be driven more by our aversion towards killing the seal than the impact of the hunt on the seal population and the economy. How do you deal with our misperceptions and irrational attitudes towards nature?
KvM: We were one of the first to lay down the question: should we talk about saving nature and restoring a balance to it, or should we talk about what our image of nature is and how it’s created. What’s the role of image construction and image consumption? There’s this cuteness of course with the seals, and with certain animals that are threatened, which get our attention because they look a little bit like human babies. Whereas viruses or mosquitoes, we think of differently because we don’t have that empathetic relationship with them. That’s a very dominant part of this image construction. We have a term for it: biomimicmarketing. It’s the use of nature images to market things Through biomimicmarketing, a certain image or idea of nature is promoted, and it’s quite naïve.

BC: So we’re branding an authentic image of nature and selling it to the masses. Is there room for corporations to look to Next Nature as a brand?
KvM: The image of the artificial is still very negative, so it’s still an inferior brand. But sometimes artificial phenomena become naturalized, like the mobile phone for instance. In the beginning, no one thought they would need a mobile phone, but now no one can imagine their life without one. We still cling to this Christian notion, that people have been kicked out of Paradise, and everything we touch we spoil, because we’re the sinners. When this mindset changes, maybe companies can brand Next Nature more easily.

BC: Do you use the Next Nature project as a tool to change perceptions? Is that one of the main mandates?
KvM: I think it’s very important that we change our perception of nature. If we don’t change it we won’t be able to solve important issues like global warming, overpopulation, or genetic modification, and deal with them in a grown up way. If you don’t have the right perspective on these issues then you can only say ‘stop, stop, stop’. Which is not going to happen anyhow.

BC: Next Nature takes a position of relativity. There is no pure nature; nature and the human effect on nature are co-mingled. How do you solve problems if there’s no benchmark of pure nature?
KvM: The system changes regardless of our presence. It’s not the first time that the climate changed. It’s just that we weren’t involved in the previous changes, and now we play a major role. Change is not a problem, only how we relate to it; whether or not we can be flexible. And politics are involved, because you have winners and losers. We need new ways of dealing with change that are not in line with the modernistic urge to know and fully control a system. We should try to guide growth rather than control it. We should embrace complexity rather than try to simplify it.

AJ: Can you give some examples of current issues that Next Nature helps us deal with?
KvM: If you look at genetically modified organisms, currently the discussion is about whether we should intervene into nature or not. Once you have the Next Nature perspective you know that altering our environment is inevitable. The question isn’t whether we should do it, but rather how do we do it and for what purpose. I’m not against genetic modification of species, but I am against companies like Monsanto engineering seeds so that farmers can only use them for one season, making farmers completely dependent on this corporation. With Next Nature you get a more nuanced discussion.

One major takeaway from Next Nature is that we need to domesticate our technology again, because our technology is growing wild. Typically we have always been domesticating our natural environment and we use technology to do that. So it begins with building a roof to shelter you from the rain, or putting cattle behind a fence. That’s domesticating the natural environment, in order to free ourselves from it. But while we were doing that our technologies themselves have become, to a certain extent, autonomous and have a dynamic of their own, which is not necessarily geared to the well being of people.

AJ: Are there new tools and methods for designers in this Next Nature reality?
KvM: I think designers could still learn a lot from farmers. There are long traditions of how people deal with complex ecosystems and climates. Farmers know what they can control, but they know they are dependent on the ecosystem and that they don’t have total control. That’s different from the typical modernistic approach.

AJ: Do you think there’s a new kind of poetry that we could reach in controlling systems? For instance, electronic data is now being stored in DNA, and I think that’s poetic because it’s a simplification. As design gets more sophisticated, it can also become simpler and more poetic, even invisible. 
KvM: We’re living in a time when design becomes invisible. We’re designing at the scale of atoms and genes, and it’s quite different than designing a coffee machine.
Designers are used to working and dealing with complex issues, where you don’t know all the details. You find ways to cope with this lack of knowing. Engineers come from a different tradition, but they’re also starting to do that, because they have to. Look at computers in the seventies and computers today. Computers in the seventies were like a simple hut that one person could build and understand, and the computer today is like a skyscraper. One individual can’t completely understand that structure, that system. That’s the moment where systems become autonomous, and it’s happening all around us.

AJ: Next Nature mixes real, fictional, potential, and emerging designs and presents them at the same level. What’s your strategy in mixing all these formats?
KvM: Every new technology or vision starts with an idea. Arthur C Clarke invented the telecommunication satellite and it took over a decade before the first satellite was out there. Envisioning what could happen is underestimated.
It helps to already have a framework once things actually happen later on. It also directs and steers what will happen.

BC: We were given some warnings by people, when working on this issue, not to focus on vaporware – products that are announced for various reasons but are never actually released. The Rayfish Footwear project, where you created a fictional shoe product made of stingray leather, and developed a whole campaign around it, was deliberate vaporware. What was your aim?
KvM: The Rayfish Footwear project started with the question: How is it normal that I can click on a shoe by Nike or Puma on a computer screen, and I think I have this personalized shoe, when in reality it’s made in Vietnam by small children, and I have no clue about the history of that object. We think it’s normal because it’s the world we live in. However, if you propose a surrealistic alternative, it might disclose the surrealism of the world we live in today. I think if the Surrealists would look at the world today, they would say: “Yeah, we were right, Surrealism is being implemented right now.” My method is to add something surrealistic that becomes more normal or natural than the current reality.

AJ: Do you see a potential business model behind your stunt, in testing different potential realities? Are there people interested in your method – the scientific or the political community for instance?
KvM: Perhaps, but I am not developing it with that objective. Much of what we do starts with a fascination and an urgency to do it, and then we also try to pay the bills.

BC: Maybe we can discuss the model of Next Nature – the platform, the books, the labs. Do you see it as an art project? How would you label it?
KvM: It’s a movement. It certainly stems from an art project in the sense that it’s about visualizing new, obscure sensibilities that are not yet common. But looking at how it should mature and develop further, the Next Nature project is now in an awareness stage in the sense that it’s become a lot easier to talk about it, and you also see other initiatives starting up that are also doing the same thing. But there is still a lot of work to do. When I look out the window I see that these buildings and trees have not been designed from the Next Nature perspective. But it might become mainstream, and then the whole world might look different.

BC: It seems there is a lot of work being done in product and industrial design, but almost no one is approaching architecture from the Next Nature perspective. Why do you think that is?
KvM: Right now institutions are categorized in different disciplines. There is a Next Nature lab in the industrial design department at the Technical University of Eindhoven. It’s a coincidence; it could have been the architecture department. At a certain moment I would like to move to the architecture department. For me there is no difference. These classical disciplines are not the answer to the questions we have now. If we are going to talk about how we will perceive our environment in a different way, how we are going to think differently about the meaning of technology, and how it transforms nature into Next Nature, then it’s neither an architectural nor an industrial design question. It goes beyond that.

BC: Economy and nature have always been linked, traditionally via resource extraction. How would you characterize the economy for Next Nature?
KvM: I think one major problem we have is that we have a world of natural resources, and we have a world of finance, and they are treated as separate spheres. People drag resources from the resource world, which have independent value but it is not articulated, into the economic sphere to make money. A simple example is the rainforest in Brazil. We all know it has great value for mankind and the world, but if I am a farmer there and I have a piece of the rainforest, I can choose to let the rainforest be, or I can choose to grow soya there. If I burn the rainforest down and put soya plants there, I make money. But if I do nothing, I do not make money. I am destroying something valuable, but this destruction is not articulated in the economic sphere.
Typically there is a moral incentive to keep it, but I think there should also be an economic incentive. But that means monitoring the rainforest and that’s a taboo discussion because the rainforest is pure nature. This technosphere and the financial system both interact with the biosphere. We should become more aware of that interaction, and start to design it, rather than just deny it.

AJ: What’s Next Nature’s stance on environmentalism, and how do environmentalists see Next Nature?
KvM: Traditionally they are very critical of the Next Nature point of view. Environmentalists typically think of themselves as progressive people but there is something deeply conservative in environmentalism in the sense that it tries to stop everything.
BC: What could a ‘Next Environmentalism’ be then?
KvM: It’s about poetic, elegant interventions in our environment, for the benefit of mankind. I think that would be the new environmentalist, to be a guardian and a steward in how you tweak your environment, because you have to make decisions on how to act.

AJ: As you tinker with nature, you also need to tinker with legal, ethical, and social frameworks. Are you formulating new moral codes, for instance? Are they emerging?
KvM: From the start of the Next Nature project, there was a deliberate decision not to take a moral approach, but to search for a different way of looking at things. But as the topic becomes more mature, new morality also has to be developed.

AJ: Earlier you were talking about the evolution of Next Nature. What’s next for Next Nature?
KvM: Now that we see the world from the Next Nature perspective, how are we going to design it? How are we going to build it and live in it? What is a good way of designing the world, so that the moral aspects also come into play? I believe that in thirty years or so, when people use the word ‘nature’, they will mean something different with it than today.  Next Nature is a philosophical, reflective term that will eventually vanish as it will be incorporated into a new understanding of nature itself. After that there might even come a day when we will see its limitations. Then we have to react to it again, which will be fun as well.