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Landscapes of the Unstable

Landscapes of the Unstable

Ph. Pablo Gerson

I

In the last decades, the concept of landscape has been transformed and nourished through intersections with urban geography, architecture, urban planning, and even meteorology, biology, and science in general. In this process, certain criticisms of the autonomy of each of these fields, the obsolescence of modes for interpreting the environment in a modern key, and the communication without a defined or pre-established form are revealed.

Some sociologists talk about cultural landscapes while other philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, or Paul Virilio use geographical and natural terms, such as the plateau or the desert, to explain contemporary states. Musicians like Robert Fripp create soundscapes that, although based on iteration, are never repeated identically. Films like Electroma by Daft Punk or Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio work with pure image and music, communicating with the atmospheric and the sensed instead of with a traditional linear narrative. These are just a few examples of digital, artistic, urban, and visual landscapes, and many more examples could be added.

Ph. Pablo Gerson

The idea of ​​a purely natural landscape versus a projected and controlled one gives rise to more realistic and complex interpretations in which time, unpredictable factors, hybridizations, and a perspective of space that is always full of flows, information, bacteria, chemical compounds, moisture, or even feelings, among other things, qualify atmospheres that cannot be synthesized through traditional ways. In this dedifferentiation or continuity between the natural and the invented, a manifesto is constituted that opposes the unique, unequivocal, formalistic, closed, stable, and objective.

In this context, we can refer to Bruno Latour’s definition of Modernity, developed in We Have Never Been Modern, [1] in which culture and nature are characterized as two radically different spheres despite their interrelationships; both nature and culture are loaded with ambiguities and paradoxes in which we can find opposite but coexisting ideas. On the one hand, nature is not a human construction but something transcendent that exceeds us infinitely, and on the other, it is a hypothesis in which nature is our artificial construction and thus immanent.

Ph. Pablo Gerson

To describe the present, Latour gives the example of a contemporary reading of a newspaper as the indisputable sign of a cross-linking between these disciplines that at some point were constituted as independent strata, including, for example, news about the hole in the ozone layer, discussions about embryo freezing and contraceptives, articles on whales being given collars with radio signals, notes on ecological reserves formed as a consequence of labor exploitation and industrial waste, etc. He says, “For the others are multiplying, those hybrid articles that sketch out imbroglios of science, politics, economy, law, religion, technology, fiction. If reading the daily paper is modern man’s form of prayer, then it is a very strange man indeed who is doing the praying today while reading about these mixed-up affairs. All of culture and all of nature get churned up again every day.”

However, in what this French author has defined as the modern constitution, we can find a premise that implies that although we build nature, it is as if we did not build it.

Are we not ourselves part of that nature? Are our industries and cities, our devices and ways of life, not the expansion and material representation of what we are?

The conceptions of the landscape throughout history unfailingly link these two spheres of existence and require a rational-sensory commitment to interpreting perceptions of the environment. The landscape synthesizes and combines the formal with the perceptible and the haptic. In its representative possibilities and its atmospheric qualities, the axis of functionalism and the purest mechanism are fully overcome. In the landscape, there are intrinsic conditions of vital experience, of subjective views, and of an understanding of the public as a valuable cultural production. In these productions, the ideas of the individuals who think and live with the collective ambitions and customs of each period are coexisting.

II

Thus, the landscape idea is loaded with potential and, as James Corner explains, “it has the ability to critically compromise the political and metaphysical programs that operate in a given society.” [2] In this way, we do not only think of it as a cultural representation, but rather as an active instrument in the shaping of culture: “The landscape re-shapes the world not only for its physical and experiential characteristics but also for its eidetic content, its ability to contain and express ideas and thus reach the mind.”

Ph. Pablo Gerson

Art can anticipate and explain symptoms of historical transformations by proposing reverberations of the eidetic content that Corner refers to. The incorporation of the territory in artistic practices has left behind the specific interventions of the Folies style (the recreation of ruins, or the traditional modern labyrinths to release compositional references and to “denounce” a closed, objectual, and synthetic displacement) towards what could be understood as field conditions as defined by Stan Allen. [3] To put it in other terms, our interpretation of space and, furthermore, of landscape, is linked to the topology, it incorporates the uncertain and the unstable, it is not deterministic, it is open and fluctuating, it is subject to various senses and appropriations. Temporality is no longer incorporated as that fourth dimension of experience in modern phenomenological discourse but as an inherent and vital condition that implies transformations and resignifications.

The well-known artists like Robert Smithson [4] or Agnes Denes were pioneers in the manifestations of several of these changes. Sometimes their works came from the experience of space and territory and the incorporation of entropic systems, uncontrollable and uncertain, other times from a critique and search for awareness. Currently, cultural agents such as Olafur Eliasson, Christo and Jean-Claude, and Tomás Saraceno, among many others, work with the redefinition of the environment, the staging of the sense of space, atmosphere, landscape, the dissolution of the boundary between nature and culture, or questions around the meanings of the urban and the landscape with its varied network of signs.

Ph. Pablo Gerson

In the boundary between art and the disciplinary thinking of landscape architecture, cases such as Blur by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the experiments of Francoise Roche’s organizations with robotics, the visibility methods proposed by Spaniards such as Andrés Jaque and the office of political innovation or elli, the new ecosystems trends in Colombia, the uses and abuses of green façades, and the museum facilities with researchers such as Philippe Rahm indicate a change in the substance of projects as well as the essential transformation of architecture materials.

[1] Nunca fuimos modernos (We Have Never Been Modern). Ensayos de antropología simétrica. Bruno Latour. Ed Siglo Veintiuno. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2007.
[2] Corner James. “Terra Fluxus” in Ábalos, Iñaqui (Ed), Naturaleza y artificio, Editorial Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2009.
[3] Allen, Stan. “Fields Conditions, revisited.” Stan Allen Architect, New York, 2010.
[4] Robert Smithson (USA, 1938 – 1973) was a contemporary artist who was part of the Land Art movement.

This article was originally published in Spanish in a special edition 5 of PLOT in November 2015.

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