A/D/O by MINI | Force of Nature

Force of Nature

Exhibitions around the world are simultaneously spotlighting the importance of nature in future design solutions.

The inventions of the past decade feel like a sci-fi vision of the future made real, through buildings grown from corn and mycelium by The Living, silkworms that are injected with coral and jellyfish to produce Tranceflora’s glowing silk, and a robotic fish called SoFi deployed in deep-sea research exploration. Whether experiencing climate crisis and contamination first-hand, or understanding it through distressing climate reports, grappling with how to survive and mitigate the environmental pressures we are facing has initiated a radical boom of ideas and innovations. 

Public appetite for both physical and emotional tools to comprehend what is happening on our Earth is proven by the myriad of current museum shows on the topic of “nature”. Among them: Eco-Visionaries, which will be occurring simultaneously in Basel, Gijón Lisbon, Madrid, London and Umeå; the Milan Triennale Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival; the Taipei Biennial: Post-Nature – A Museum as an Ecosystem; and the Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial, Nature: Collaborations in Design in New York and the Netherlands.

The Tranceflora garment on show at the Cooper Hewitt's Nature exhibition. Photograph by So Morimoto

In a departure from the traditional content they exhibit, many museums have expanded their definition of design to create a platform for biologists, designers, and ecologists who examine the relationship to human ecosystems. For some, the idea of nature includes biomimicry, and for others, nature evokes climate catastrophe. Together the exhibitions act to archive strategies and artifacts, to develop new language around the conditions for change, and to set a substantial precedent for what is to come. The ethos of these shows and the frameworks they lay out aim to provide hints of the future.

One conceptual thread running through many of these exhibitions is the need to abandon an anthropocentric outlook, to stop placing humans at the center of design. Instead the relationship of a person or an object should be considered within a web of systems. This is seen as critical if we are to continue forward as a species. Karin Ohlenschläger – the artistic director at Laboral in Spain and one of the curators of Eco-Visionaries – described this shift as ecosystemic thinking: 

“Our way of life has had a huge responsibility in bringing about ecological disaster, while the ecosystemic perspective implies a change in the relationship between humans and non-human agents,” she told The Journal. “Ecosystemic thinking means net-based, non-hierarchical thinking, in the sense that everything is related and connected to everything else, from the sun to seeds and cells in a metabolic circle.”

Infinity Burial Suit by Coeio and Jae Rhim Lee is packed with mushroom spores (also main image)

To illustrate ecosystemic work, Ohlenschläger gave the example of Bee Agency – a project by ecological artist Anne Marie Maes, who works with bees to create beautifully sculptural yet functional hives that also sense pollution. Other projects take a less anthropocentric stance by trying to reintegrate into the ecosystem, such as Jae Rhim Lee’s Coeio – a severe burial suit that allows mushrooms to consume a dead body. Sam Van Aken’s project Tree of 40 Fruit aims to conserve stone fruit varieties by grafting them onto a single tree, creating a striking image where one tree safeguards species diversity.  

Caitlin Condell, one of the curators of the Cooper Hewitt Triennial, expressed a similar interest in systems and noted that the majority of practitioners showing work focused less on climate change and more on holistic ways of “treating nature with more reverence.” Condell’s co-curator, Andrea Lipps, even found herself avoiding the term “climate change” so that the work, “doesn't get so bogged down in political rhetoric” and might be more readily received, since it leads with a solution rather than a problem. These distinctions in language serve as a simple yet notable change of approach.

Chitosan, cellulose, pectin are among the materials used for Aguahoja by MIT Mediated Matter Group

Using the word “reparations” to invoke the language of war and slavery, Paola Antonelli of MoMA – one of the curators of Milan’s Broken Nature exhibition – took a more bold stance on the way to restore connection between humans and their environments.  She proposes reparations to the Earth for the trauma humans have caused the planet. Part of that involves reframing the relationship so that it is no longer predicated on violence towards non-human actors, and is based on active coexistence.

Creative work that is mindful of natural ecosystems is not a new practice. What is new are the collaborations that are taking place between scientists and designers, the urgency with which these works are being circulated, and how once disparate practices are now addressing shared concerns. From speculative projects, to restorative systems and tangible tools, designers are translating scientific findings into systems that capture the public imagination. 

Some of these collaborative projects provide small but systemic alternatives. For example, scientists from Air-Ink capture PM2.5 pollution from air and then transform the waste product into an ink. The Mediated Matter group at MIT have developed Aguahoja – a rigid material made from ground-up waste shells, bones, and twigs – and even 3D-printed a series of sculptures to show its capabilities.

The Substitute involves a CG animation of an extinct white rhino. Image copyright Cooper Hewitt

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg collaborated with a team of synthetic biologists on her project Resurrecting the Sublime, in which they analyzed the components of an extinct flower and formulated a synthetic perfume based on what it would have smelled like. She told The Journal: “I’m not trying to give a solution to any problems, we are trying to make emotional connections between all of us to remind us to think about what we value.” Rather than an object for straight utility, it is a poetic tool to instigate emotions. Resonating with a wide range of audiences, this piece has been shown in four of the nature-related shows conducted in the last year. It showcases the capabilities of a science that is otherwise distant from the public. “Design is a good platform to say, these are the questions we need to be thinking about,” said Ginsberg.

If these ideas make you feel hopeful, consider Antonelli’s existential provocation for Broken Nature: “We will become extinct, [so] we might as well design a really elegant extinction.” Landing somewhere between despair and hope, this statement frames climate and environmental design in apocalyptic inevitability. Recognizing these changes as inevitable, while maintaining a drive to temper them, is instigating a new paradigm of questions and actions.

After Ancient Sunlight by Charlotte McCurdy is a plastic jacket made from algae

Interdisciplinary designer and researcher Charlotte McCurdy, whose piece After Ancient Sunlight – an algae-based raincoat and book advocating against fossil fuels, noted: “Climate change is already here, it's coming, it's going to hurt. But it does give us a way to help create a space where people can, instead of just being trapped in fear and disempowerment and lack of agency, [...] create a way to invite more people to engage seriously, with climate change as something they can act on.”  

There isn’t a neat and tidy way to understand what is happening. There isn’t a single fix. Instead there is a network of practitioners, taking responsibility for redefining the way they work and what they are working towards. As these projects continue to be generated, and as more people connect with the complexities of the climate crisis, the more likely it will become something our species can understand and, crucially, act upon.

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.