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INTERVIEW: Natalie Jeremijenko - the artist and engineer bringing a landlord office tree to Hoxton


2 Degrees Festival, now in its fourth year, comes to London’s East End bringing to the fore climate change, art and action. The festival is located in an area at the edge of bankers’ world, shaped by clashing interests: business investors; the clutch of bearded hipsters; long-standing locals, independent businesses and artists (the latter three, an ever dwindling sight). Organised by Artsadmin, the commissioned projects include a late night chat show, a roving banner asking if capitalism works and TREExOFFICE – the UK’s first landlord tree.

Natalie Jeremijenko, who conceived of the project (and is Run Riot’s Guest Editor) worked with artists Shuster + Mosely and architects Tate Harmer. She is a force of nature working at the sharp edge of art, engineering and invention. One of the top young innovators in MIT Technology Review and awarded VIDA Art and Artificial Life International Awards Pioneer Prize last year, her performance installations have ranged from One Trees, the cloning of 1,000 trees, to Ooz - a zoo without cages. TREExOFFICE has toured to NYC, Berlin and arrives in Hoxton Square June 1. She is inviting Boris Johnson to participate.

Run Riot: TREExOFFICE will be the UK’s first eco landlord tree. Can you tell us about it?

Natalie Jeremijenko: I frame my work in the context of the environmental health clinic of xCLINIC because the climate crisis reveals a more insidious crisis: the crisis of agency, in other words: What do I do? Re-using your shopping bag is necessary but radically insufficient. What can I do to improve my own local environmental health? My air quality? My food systems?  My local biodiverCITY?  As far as I am concerned, anything goes, as long as it improves shared human and environmental health. This is best proxy for the common good.  The environmental health clinic ‘xCLINIC’ provides a place/context to develop ideas in which each of us can draw on our limited time and personal resources to do something compelling, delightful and important: to aggregate small actions into collective actions.

Contemporary environmentalists advocate a services approach as a way to give nature an explicit value; and incorporate this into the accounting and balance sheets we use to run our cities and local government. So cities around the world take the environmental commons and value it terms of the services it provides, and urban forests and street trees are part of that. In London, an urban tree is valued at £342. A New York City street tree is valued at about $400 for 80 years of service. Faced with the carbon sequestering, storm water retention, air quality improvements, energy savings from shade, habitat provisions et al (in fact most of the urban forest valuations do not account for the reduced hospitalization of cardiovascular impacts), that’s just not consistent with the actual value of a tree. What would you value your favorite tree at?

Laptops, tablets, and cellphones abound, yet this has not substantially changed where/how we work. Why are we still tied to a desk when we don't need to answer a phone there? Why work in Starbucks when we don't need to “plug in”? Why are our green-spaces so choreographed as leisure spaces when they are actually, in many respects, the most productive of spaces for thinking, discussing and working? These are a few of the things coinciding that make the TREExOFFICE the current xCLINIC field-office, and co-working space of choice.  

Run Riot: Hoxton Square, the home of TREExOFFICE, has seen many publicly funded, cultural organisations disbanded over the last ten years in favour of soaring rents and property development. How do you think the installation will rub up against commercial interests?

Natalie Jeremijenko: This is precisely the issue we need to address imaginatively and boldly: the privatization of public space, the excision of cultural activity in favor of economic activity that maximizes profit over cultural value. How do we change that? It is not inevitable.  The TREExOFFICE recognizes/realizes both the value of the commons -the sensuous pleasure of feeling the breeze, the cacophony of shared activities, the stimulating visual context of passersby and the strangely stressed-out squirrel impersonating them (which makes one calm by contrast)—and our capacity to monetize this asset—the tree— for the common good, rather than private profit.

TREExOFFICE defines and creates additional space that is NOT visually enclosed nor climate controlled, nor private, nor lockable.  And so doing makes work an experiment and a performance. People will surely ask: what were you doing working in a tree?  Why?

Run Riot: Do you think the locals around Hoxton Square – the office workers  - will use the space based on how the project has been received in New York and Berlin? You write that “the tree [will] assume its own voice and exert its independence”. Has this happened previously?

Natalie Jeremijenko: We will see, but in my experience, working in a tree is an instantly recognizable opportunity. It’s a delightful idea even if you do not actually do it. It invites your consideration to entertain other possibilities: why not work in the company of dragonflies at the wetland center, as long as there is good Wi-Fi.

I am prescribing a day working in the TREExOFFICE those who need to experience this, namely: the Major.

Run Riot: Has anyone used the tree improperly?

Natalie Jeremijenko:In the NYC TREExOFFICE I went through similar discussions about the concern for safety, lockability, yada yada. It was there for 6 months and it was used in the crisp mornings mainly by quiet writers. Around 3-5pm the local highschoolers co-opted it to do their homework. They worked hard in that noisy and convivial manner that teenagers have (as a parent of teens I would rather them at the TREExOFFICE than in isolated rooms in that stealth social mode, facebooking, snapchatting and “yes, I’m doing my homework”). The aerial yoga teacher was paid by the tree and hosted yogis doing upside down tree poses. Perhaps the most gratifying moment was when I held a surprise birthday party for a lovely Londoner, Usman Haque. I had invited a small number of friends and we were accessing the park closed after dark via slightly shady means. When I got there to set up, there were a couple of powerfully smelling drunks enjoying the peace and soft office chairs and swigging out of brown paper bags. I gasped audibly, surprised to see them in the dark, and I almost turned and skedaddled, but instead I explained that I had a small celebration in a few minutes for a very special person, they tipped their hat, wished me a happy birthday, Merry Xmas and Easter too and left with a conspiratorial smile, no doubt to some other wondrous place. The point is that yes… misused, and yes, unpredicted hanky-panky. But transparency and open accountability promotes the best behaviour. And social interaction and polite negotiation around a shared resource is always and already required. TREExOFFICE works well to recognize and re-instantiate the human capacity in each of us: the drunk, the yogi, desperate dissertator, the rowdy highschooler…each of us can share in the delight of the TREExOFFICE, a uncommon experience in the commons. It works.

Run Riot: The Non Human Rights project set up in 2007 by Steven M Wise for conferring ‘personhood’ on animal species has some overlap here with regards the non human having protected rights. Is this your intention and do you think we are witnessing a new legal line of enquiry?

Natalie Jeremijenko: Extending rights discourse to nonhumans makes sense to me. In the current legal regime, a river trashed by a mining company has to find a farmer or human who can prove their livelihood has been sufficiently compromised and perhaps to win compensation sufficient to address the environmental remediation and restoration work. If a river had a legal personality, it could sue on its own behalf.

In the US, the TREExOFFICE is an executive of the company OOZ. In this way the personhood of the corporation is extended to nonhumans.

Run Riot: How do you think strategies of activism can be mobilised in effective ways as we become more policed and space becomes increasingly under a policy of ‘care and control’?

Natalie Jeremijenko: Signing petitions, holding placard, marching are not the only forms. Using our own work practices to explore what we can do, what it is like to have a tree as landlord is a productive generative form of activism, that explores and instantiates the alternative.

Aside from Ecuador, other countries may not have signed onto the Bolivian Rights of Earth approach, but if the TREExOFFICEs works, and many people are involved in instantiating and enjoying it, frankly whether international negotiators sign a paper is neither here nor there. This is the form of creative activism I promote.

Run Riot: You’ve won some incredible accolades: last year’s VIDA Art and Artificial Life International Awards Pioneer Prize, for example. Your work encompasses engineering, invention and art. What diverse strategies / methods do you employ?

Natalie Jeremijenko:That was a lovely prize, not only that Laurie Anderson was the only other awardee so far but for the many other great people under consideration. There are very diverse people and practices in this art-science-tech world, but each of us treat technology as an opportunity for social and environmental change. Technology can be a profoundly conservative social force, or we can exploit the unintended consequences—that social media gives voice and agency to non-humans for instance. The blind hand of the market may not determine our life choices. I’d argue that we can exercise creative agency to explore, build and create a desirable future. I have been fortunate to be part of a community of artists, engineers, scientists, activists, curators, lawyers. It is this creative capacity to re-imagine our lives and our collective relationships to natural systems.

Run Riot: Trees are a symbol in your work. Can you talk about this?

Natalie Jeremijenko:There is a work at MASSMoCA: an avenue of trees planted upside down that has been performing slow gymnastics for the last 14 years. There is a five story prosthetic trunk for a Plane Tree; there are tree balances. Trees are the icon of knowledge datastructures, trees of life. They are dynamic adaptive networked structures from which we can learn and they make great company.

Run Riot: Deep ecology is gathering ground, as people become more aware of green issues. What are your views on Deep Ecology and the work of Joanne Macy and the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess?

Natalie Jeremijenko:My own strategies are to do with public experiments, transparency, and using convivial engagement to explore possible futures with the material conditions, technical opportunities and what we can actually design. Where we do have agency? Not the turn to mysticism. Design distributed local power for the TREExOFFICE, for example, and figure out waste to energy processes that build soil here, now, and you are better able to design for other contexts. This is not individualistic—the benefits are enjoyed by anyone with whom you share the air and water quality, waste systems, soil health. The common good.

The specific academic field I have developed is called socio-ecological systems design or xdesign. Deep Ecology may work for some people to make sense of irreducibly complex natural systems. But my forthcoming book draws explicit knowledge from the mutualistic systems design approach I’ve developed. Based on the lesser-known idea that most of the world’s biomass is in that subset of symbiots we call ‘mutualists’ —where the organisms involved benefit. We hear much more about competition, predator-prey relations, et al, but I have not met any educated person yet (aside for a handful of ecologists) who know that more than 90% of the world is constituted of mutualists: flowers pollinators, most terrestrial plants, corals … on and on. Mutualism is the structure of natural systems, and the systems design implications of this are important, revelatory even.

Run Riot: How do you use ‘art’ in your work – as a concept or as method?  How have you developed this way of working with engineering and invention?

Natalie Jeremijenko:Art as a framework, and cultural space particularly addresses the public imagination, captured in the adage: I don't know much about art but I know what I like. To present something as science, although public knowledge, has a certain authority. Most of us feel we are not expert enough to have an opinion. That “crisis of agency” that concerns me is partly that we don't feel qualified to act. Science we trust … but art. No. You will never hear a news report: “artists say that sea level rise is predicted to be …”. An artist is only as believable as their work. Is it interesting to have a tree-as-landlord reminding: “I’m not going anywhere till you pay your membership dues”? Does a tree-as-landlord make sense to me?” People don't really care about an artist’s credentials, and simply don't trust them. If an artist can get an office in a tree … then anyone can. They stand in for the everyman.

Run Riot: There’s optimism and a sense of play in your work. What drives you?

Natalie Jeremijenko: Wonder. It is my favourite of human emotions. Diverse people, of any class can be engaged by the fascination with natural systems. In the OneTrees project, I learnt from the construction supervisor, Troy Martinez, who explained how foundations changed after the 1911 earthquake so that the difference in trees on Valencia and 21st were probably to do with foundations. The arborist and soil scientists with whom I had discussed this were as flummoxed as I was by their extreme divergence. I also learned from the bird who preferred one slightly sheltered tree over its clone, something a middle school student had suggested I pay attention to. It is the diversity of human intelligence, observations and creative ideas that thrills me, not the prerequisites and standardized ranked forms of knowledge. I am up for the Hoxton TREExOFFICE as a collective call to figure out what works, to explore.  Much to wonder about.


From 1st June

Hoxton Square

The tree has its own Twitter: follow the landlord @HOXTONxTREE

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