How the tumbling meadow in Linda Tegg’s ‘Infield’ installation for ArkDes suggests reforesting cities, looser urban landscapes, and replanting meadows at home.
At ArkDes, the Swedish national centre for architecture and design, the Australian artist Linda Tegg’s installation Infield creates a meadow in Exercisplan, the concrete car park outside the museum’s front doors. Intended to be shared by thousands of visitors over the summer, the Covid-19 crisis has meant that the space was largely populated by geese instead, at least at the start of the summer. As the geese have had the place to themselves, with an apex predator removed, they spent a few weeks slowly fraying the edges of Tegg’s meadow, much to the chagrin of irate local curators. They raised their goslings in and around it before the call of nature took them all elsewhere. (Though apparently, Tegg, managing the installation remotely from Australia, rather likes the geese’s intervention—as do I, for what it’s worth.)
In effect the geese are completing this tableau, unwittingly exploiting Covid-19 to suggest a ‘re-wilded’ sketch of an environment after humans, or at least after the humans of the Great Acceleration. Yet Tegg’s installation was not meant to suggest this disappearance, but to foreground an engaged and care-ful more-than-human relationship. Her artist statement describes how the choice of plants was meant to evoke Sweden’s traditional infield meadows. These are not gardens but pre-modern agricultural forms, positioned in-between human settlement and farmed fields, serving as a kind of fallow buffer “where intensive human plant interactions can be seen as positively associated with biodiversity. An infield sits between worlds. If abandoned it returns to forest or lost to the processes of industrialisation and urbanism.”
Infield is hardly abandoned, even under pandemic conditions, but the quantity of human-plant interactions are significantly fewer than was imagined when the piece was commissioned. The situation is unfortunate for many reasons, but as a space intended to be framed by meaningful human-plant relationships, Infield suggests a form of nature that is not pitched as an alternate to spaces of people. Timothy Morton has described that form of othering as locating nature “over there, over yonder”, away from us, something separate.
This distinction makes no sense. There is no separated ‘over there’, of course, as everything is connected. And formally, the environment is not that different anyway: as if we are human, and that is nature. As Nicholas Crane points out in The Making of the British Landscape, no location in the UK can truly be thought of as natural, for example. The land has been worked for so long that this hybrid landscape is human and natural combined to produce something new. In a good overview for Foreground, Cecily Maller describes the value in more-than-human thinking and practice, but also notes that “is not easy to shift the binary language that separates humans and nature, and renders other species as passive.”
Yet this more-than-human, or human-and-nonhuman, approach offers possibility rather than a handwringing sense of loss. For example, in a quite different ecology to Stockholm, the Los Angeles River may be at its most interesting in the tangle of weeds that are absorbing and slowly reclaiming the knots of plastic bags and wire fence, set into the pockmarked and crumbling concrete. It creates some new form of biodiversity of that river system, romantic in its own way, as a form of what Gilles Clément calls “clandestine nature”.
We have to do work to make this synthesis positive, however. Wildlife cannot compete with careless life, no matter how tough Barnacle Geese can be. Regarding birds specifically, the artist Jenny Odell, writing in The Atlantic, describes our impact in the starkest terms:
“Some birds in urban areas have ramped up nighttime singing in response to increased daytime noise, and birds living in loud places have shifted the pitch of their songs higher in order to be heard. Of course, behavioral flexibility can go only so far. In September 2019, Science published findings that North America had lost close to a third of its birds in the past 50 years. One of birds’ broadest responses to human behavior, it turns out, has been to vanish.”—Jenny Odell
The lockdown, and the slowdown, removes this competition with cars, allowing us to imagine public spaces such as Exercisplan as a place for birds, as well as culture. Inadvertently, the geese performing at Infield are drawing this out for us.
And although Infield is deeply rooted in historical research, it is not looking backwards to some pre-Acceleration Arcadian vision. Kieran Long, ArkDes director, suggests that it is asking different questions of public spaces, as environments that could “work with nature instead of against it, making space for non-human species and sharing the city with them.” Indeed, Tegg notes that due to these intensive human-plant interactions, “Sweden’s remnant infields are among the most species rich plant communities in on Earth.”
Our challenge is to live well amongst such species-rich biodiversity, as one of these active species; not by placing nature ‘over there’, cultivated across agricultural infields or lying fallow in outfields, but in public space, in urban space, amidst the infield equivalents in our One Minute Cities. Creating gardens and meadows that are curated, cared for and owned by residents is a powerful act, particularly given that the current context of streets and spaces regulated and maintained by abstract others. Outside of activism, today’s streets offer little opportunity for meaningful participation. In fact, such shared gardens and meadows necessitate engagement. They require care. This creates a pull on people, which can only be fulfilled by reorganising the way we live, by flattening time and power relations, by slowing down.
In that flattening, we learn not only to live with nonhumans, but as humans too. Paraphrasing Richard Sennett, the point of cities is to learn to live well with people who are not like us. Now we know we must learn to live well with nonhumans too. Morton again makes clear how all these patterns are entwined when he says “we make a thin, rigid and untenable distinction between the human and the nonhuman. And the big reason for that is racism.”
Through the traditional lenses of disciplines and institutions, it unlikely that we immediately connect an art installation in a car park about a Swedish meadow to the Black Lives Matter protests on the streets. Yet this is the powerful idea in Morton’s thinking: that all of these false separations, and ‘over yonder’-ing, and othering, are forms of racism, essentially. They deny a basic truth about our relationships. With other ways of seeing, we can look to the decisions and actions we take about gardens, meadows, streets, and neighbourhoods as continuous interconnected tangled systems, the matter in which the otherwise intangible dark matter is played out. (The first of Büscher and Fletcher’s suggested ‘convivial conservation’ actions in The Conservation Revolution is “Historic Reparations”, both material and non-material.)
Given our tendency to move on from crises — in fact, often to move backwards — we must keep putting these issues onto the table, keep searching for new ways of seeing, keep looking for clues in the environment around us, and in that work that we make.
One of the joys of Olelekan Jeyifous’s drawings, for example, is that nature is not “clandestine”, just as infrastructure is not invisible. Culture, whether of the Caribbean or of code or of both, is to the fore too. The nonhuman, whether root systems or robots, is entangled with the humans and vice versa.
The insights from Tegg’s Infield include a sensation of something looser, more open, foregrounding the experiential, infrastructural and cultural at the same time. As an installation, and as a garden or meadow, it demonstrates a process, a way of acting, a set of behaviours, as well as attitudes to nature, time, production, public space, urbanism, ownership and collective decision-making. Despite its smallness — or perhaps because small is beautiful — it stands for the necessary everyday struggles and contests will we face in this shift of gears from acceleration to slowdown.
Meadows over lawns
I visited Infield many times, during project meetings for Street, and got to watch its progress unfold. In July, visiting with my children, we got talking to one of the ArkDes curators, who described the struggle that Infield itself had gone through. Initially, the production was derailed by corona, with Tegg coordinating the work from Australia and leaning on the Swedish crew 10,000 kilometres away. Then, when installed, a series of existential challenges, as if foregrounding the changing climate: first, an unusually late very cold period, with frost through to late-May. Then a week later, intense heat with 35C+ days on the tarmac through to late June. Then … the geese! Then huge amounts of rain during July; warmish rain, but gallons of it, in continuous downpours. Who knows what next. The curator was clearly quietly impressed by the meadow’s resilience, fond of how it was facing these challenges and still thriving. (If Tegg were around, perhaps she might invoke the Australian colloquialism ‘little battler’.)
The curator then did a wonderful small thing. We’d described how my son and I cut the grass on our lawn at home to deliberately leave a couple of small squares of un-cut meadow. Doing so was my son’s idea, actually, though after some gentle nudging from me (in fact, one of my favourite old Fabrica projects was Project Meadow, which is a story for another day.) Listening carefully to my son, the curator led my kids over to a clump of flowering grasses (Lotus corniculatus, often known as ‘Egg and Bacon’ in English) and kneeling down, she began to describe how the kids could also help pollinate, like a bee.
After feeling her way through a few of the grasses with her fingers, she carefully plucked a couple of seed pods and pressed them into my son’s hand, saying we could simply pop them into our small ‘meadows’ at home. She was quick to add she was an artist, not a botanist, and that it might not work — but it was worth a try “as an experiment.”
This is the gently radical thing about gardens (remember the word ‘radical’ derives from the Latin rādix, meaning pertaining to roots) — it something you can do, right now, as gardens, at the scale of plant pot or a balcony or a car park or a park, are accessible to most of us, somehow.
There is a sense of agency to growing things: it is not only open, but teaches practices of slowness, learning, experimentation, adaptation, care, companionship, maintenance, optimism, aesthetics, multiple forms of value, of participation, of interconnectedness between the local of a few centimetres and global systems, between the scale of my son’s preciously closed palm, a glass jar, Tegg’s Infield let loose into street meadows, Jeyifous’s and Sorkin’s Brooklyn rooftops, pixel farming, the East Kolkata Wetlands …
“The garden is a place that brings us back to the basic biological rhythms of life. The pace of life is the pace of plants; we are forced to slow down, and the feeling of safe enclosure and familiarity helps shift us to a more reflective state of mind.” — Sue Stuart-Smith
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