Essay: Next Nature Interview
For the Venezuelan Magazine Platanoverde, Gabriela Valdivieso y Lope Gutiarrez-Ruiz interviewed artist/scientist Koert van Mensvoort and discussed some of the idea’s behind Next Nature and their implications on art, design, sex, religion and what it means to be human.
Who are the creators of Next Nature? Who is behind the project nowadays?
Sometimes I wonder. We are explorers, inherits of the courageous of the past, who sailed through unknown oceans, climbed mountains, or rocketed themselves into space. We are exploring Next Nature. Our project took off in 2004 with an essay I wrote in which I argued our established view on nature had become problematic and proposed the concept of culturally emerged nature. In the last few years together with designer Mieke Gerritzen I’ve organized various events in the Netherlands and Germany on the topic of Next Nature. We also created the -now outdated- Next Nature pocket book. Later we initiated the website www.nextnature.net which functions as a place to gather materials, ideas and examples. Currently the core people involved besides myself are, Arnoud van den Heuvel, Rolf Coppens, Hendrik-Jan Grievink, Mieke Gerritzen. For the coming year we are planning on organizing an event in Los Angeles in cooperation with the Art Center school of Design, Pasadena, which focuses on the question how we should design for Next Nature. We actively seek to discover how people from other countries and cultures perceive the theme and its consequences on how we design, build and live.
How would you define Next Nature: A theory? A position? An interpretation of reality?
It is a way of looking; an interpretation of reality.
What authors or artists have inspired the Next Nature concept?
Some philosophical inspirations came from Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality (the idea that our world is filled with simulations of things which never really existed). If one thinks through the implications of hyperreality, one automatically arrives at something like hypernature or nextnature. Another influence is the unavoidable Marshall Mcluhan, whom I consider as a nextnature thinker avant la lettre. In respect to historical art movements, it was once suggested we are establishing a synthesis between the Modernism of artists like Piet Mondriaan and the Dadaism of Marcel Duchamp. I have to say I appreciated that suggestion. Many contemporary artists, designers, architects and thinkers relate to the topic. We try to feature their work on the website nextnature.net. Some names: Hyungkoo Lee, Driessen & Verstappen, Dunne & Raby, Tinkebell, James Auger, Henk Oosterling, Wim Delvoye, Lars Spuybroek, Kevin Kelly, Joep van Lieshout, Rijks Waterstaat, John Zerzan, Mathew Barney.
According to your criteria, What are the most important events in history that caused the shift from “old nature” to “next nature”?
Indeed next nature presents itself in phases. Some of the events that I feel are of importance during our human existence:
-Human control over fire.
-Written language, printing press.
-Bio, Nano, Info technologies
Understanding that the “emerging cultural nature” is the one springs out of men itself and its culture, What is the nature that is eclipsing or disappearing?
First we have to consider how we perceive ‘nature’. Some time ago I was walking with a girlfriend in the dunes, near where I live, when we saw a strange looking tree standing out among the other trees. When we went to take a closer look, we discovered, it wasn’t a tree. It was a GSM antenna mast, disguised as a tree! Of course, this mast is not nature: at best, it is a picture of nature. It is an illustration, like a landscape painting hanging over the sofa. Do we have genuine experiences of nature any more? Or are we living in a picture of it?
In our current society, most people tend to look at nature as something that’s threatened or already lost. Thus, nature is almost by definition seen as that which is eclipsing or disappearing. Nature is presented as a lost world. It is associated with originality, yet appears only once it has disappeared. Our experience of nature is a retro effect.
The next nature movement is aimed at finding a more profound understanding of nature. The nature of the 21st century will be culturally emerged nature.
Why Next Nature instead of New Nature?
The urgency to redefine our relation with nature is relatively apparent in our time in history – we are basically living in a time in which the made and the born are fusing – so it is no surprise this way of thinking gets in to focus now. Nevertheless, speaking of ‘New Nature’ would be naÃ¯ve, like it is something that is happening only in our time and we are the witnesses of a unique event. I don’t think this is the case. The term ‘Next’ much better describes that we are witnessing a continuous process that goes on for centuries; time after time, we plant a new habituation, a new instinct, a second nature, that causes the first nature to dry out. What is now being experienced as a first nature has once been a second nature and every conquering second nature in the end becomes the first nature. The term ‘next nature’ signifies we should not see nature as a static, but rather as a dynamic force that changes along with us.
For you, What can be considered a loss in the shift from “old nature” to “next nature”?
There are many losses. Every moment a next nature emerges, another nature dries out. Probably one of the most radical changes in the past has been the introduction of agriculture. Somewhere round 9500 BC proto-farmers began to select and cultivate food plants with desired characteristics. What might seem like a small change in our relation with our environment had in fact enormous impact. Agriculture amplifies specialization, enables increased division of labor, establishes the material foundations of social hierarchy, and initiates environmental destruction. Priests, kings, labor, warfare are a few of its fairly immediate consequences. Before agriculture we were hunter-gathers, chasing the direct acquisition of edible plants and animals from the wild. What was lost here we can only begin to imagine. Some researchers have suggested the end of hunter-gatherer life brought a decline in size, stature, skeletal robustness and introduced tooth decay, nutritional deficiencies, and most infectious diseases. I don’t want to romanticize the hunter-gather life, which must at times have been cruel in its very own way. It is in fact a completely different life altogether (in the mind of a hunter-gatherer, we contemporary humans would be considered ‘post-human’). But that’s long gone now, with no route back.
Now consider the next nature arising in our own time. We are currently in a process of appointing ‘information technology’ as the most important cornerstone in our existence. The mapping of human genome is one example, but it surely isn’t the only thing we are ‘mapping’. Our current longing is to fit everything we are aware of in a computer database. Whereas In the past our world consisted of physical things, now it consists of ‘information’. Through RFID tagging, physical objects become informational objects. Soon the information is no longer an attribute, a label, connected to a physical object, but the physical object will be a label along with the informational object. “Not entered in the system? Don’t have the right papers. Then it doesn’t exist!” What is lost as a result of this shift to this next nature of informational entities? Well, an awful lot; basically, everything that can not be made explicit (and thus doesn’t fit in some database), is marginalized, convicted to the supernatural, not of our world. Although this surely isn’t the first and will probably not the last ‘upgrade’ of human existence, it represents a huge change of which we aren’t capable to oversee the consequences.
What is the role of the “Old” Nature in the current world?
When speaking of ‘Old’ Nature, we mean the part of nature that already existed before man emerged and is still untainted by human influence; the part of nature that is not next nature. Think about deep sea, the South Pole, the moon.
If we look at things from a small perspective, like from the perspective of a small country like the Netherlands, where I was born, there seems to be no old nature left. In my country, every square meter of ground is a man-made landscape: original, old nature is nowhere to be found; it’s all highways, supermarkets, theme parks, farming land, office buildings and airports. The Netherlands lies below sea level, so we always had to fight the sea and build dykes to sustain the country. The French intellectual Voltaire once said “God created the earth, except for the Netherlands, that the Dutch created themselves.” We have been doing everything we can to live up to this pronouncement. Today, we even actively design and build ‘nature’ in the Netherlands. Land is bought from farmers where prehistoric forests are being planted: our image of Nature is being carefully constructed in a recreational simulation (a ‘regeneration of our lost heritage’, as the nature-builders call it themselves). The locations are designated by bureaucrats. Traditional cattle breeds are even being placed in these man-made environments. The original wild ox unfortunately became extinct in 1627, but the Scottish Highlander is an acceptable alternative. These cattle know what they’re supposed to do: graze, under orders of the forestry service. Thanks to them, the landscape stays clear instead of becoming overgrown (we find this attractive, as it reminds us of famous 17th-century landscape paintings). In theory, the animals are supposed to look after themselves, but in winter the forestry service is willing to give them a bit of extra food. It also removes dead animals, lest walkers be offended by a cow rotting on the footpath. Of course this whole phenomenon isn’t nature, it is a creamed up version of what we think old nature must have been like. It is in fact, culture.
In my country, people worry more about mortgage interest deductions or a collapse of the financial markets than about hurricanes or floods. Next nature plays a bigger role than old nature. But, if we look at things from a bigger perspective, like the planet, or even bigger, the universe; all human cultural activity is no more than a bit of scratching on the earths surface. Relative to the scale of the universe, only tiny part of nature can be considered next nature.
For all we know, maybe man is a masterplan or experiment invented by nature, in order to develop and extend itself to unprecedented materializations and complexities. Does nature want old nature to become next nature? Well from my everyday perspective it sure looks like it! But then again, what do I know? Unlike most superstring theorists and quantum physicists I don’t expect nature is wholly humanly-comprehensible; long before that, our tiny brains would just explode. So here is my answer to your question: It depends on from where you are looking.
What is your opinion of the current efforts to protect the environment? Are they meaningful?
Seeking a balanced relation with our surroundings is of importance. Also diversity is something to cherish. So, thumbs up for that. Still, I have to say I do get itchy when I hear people say we should ‘protect nature’. I find the idea that nature needs protection not only naÃ¯ve, but also arrogant; overestimating the human power over nature. We are not protecting nature, we are protecting ourselves! It is a widespread misconception that nature is always calm, peaceful and harmonious: genuine nature can be wild, cruel and unpredictable. Romanticized images of old nature are consistently used as a propaganda and marketing tools. Think of all those cute animals we try to save from extinction. Natural organizations rarely call for the savior of some poisonous spider or bug. Typically, cute seals, dolphins and panda bears need to be savored. Why? Because they look like babies and it is easy to project ourselves upon them.
Another big thing is the global warming problem, which is not a natural disaster; it is a political and bureaucratic disaster. No surprise it was so aptly put on the agenda by former politician All Gore. Nature doesn’t care about global warming. Global temperature has fluctuated throughout the ages. In 10.000 years, long after the global warming of the coming centuries, another ice-age is expected and the sea level will decrease again. Will we be ready for that? My point is perhaps that the current efforts to ‘protect’ the environment focus entirely on minimizing our influence on the environment. But that’s just one side of the coin. The other side of a balanced relation with our environment is about being flexible towards changes that are occurring within the environment. I mean, where are those self-sustainable solar/wind powered floating houses and cities? Where are they?!
What are the dangers inherent to the Next Nature?
There are lots of them! Biotechnology, nanotechnology, augmented reality, ambient intelligence, these are just some of the young emerging research fields that come to interfere with our everyday life and radically change our notion of ‘what is natural’. While Max Weber aptly depicted the 19th century process of modernity as a demystification of the outer world, we currently seem to be entering a magic garden that may take us by surprise and enchant us, and that may also knock us down or be kindly disposed to us. It is really not sure if the human race will live through these developments or that we will outsource ourselves somewhere along the way. At the end what’s at stake here is everything: our own existence.
Another, more short term danger would be a confrontation between groups of people that live in different natures. Once you realize that nature changes along with us, it becomes apparent that not all people at the same time live in the same natural sphere. The differences between people might become so big up to a level where conflicts are unavoidable. If you look at the global tensions visible since the attacks on 9-11, this can already be considered as a clash between people that live in fundamentally different natures. On the one hand, the Western world with its democracy, consumer culture, secular nation states, and addiction to oil. On the other hand Al Qaeda with its anti-nationalist ideology, containment of women, religious dogmas and hyper-tribal structures including internet and satellite phones.
That’s just one contemporary example, related encounters are colonialism, or the classical polarity between the city and the countryside (the number of people living in cities is expected to exceed the world’s rural population by 2008). Clearly, our upcoming nano- bio- info- future might easily lead to a situation where people come to be living in such fundamentally different natures, up to the level where they don’t recognize each other as human beings anymore. I hope in time, we realize that we inhabit one world.
If it is accepted that man is the creator of the Next Nature, how are religions left? What role can they play?
First a disclaimer regarding the word ‘creator’ in the question, since this may lead to misunderstandings. Indeed, man caused culture and thus caused culturally emerged nature (next nature). But causing is a less strong term than creating, which implies a deliberate intention. Although we caused the emerging of Next Nature, we are absolutely not in control. Who is in control then, if men isn’t? Well I’d say Nature is in control, but others may very well call that ‘God’.
I surely don’t expect religion will go away anytime soon. It will continue to play a role providing people with a compressed framework on how they should give meaning to their lives and how they should act morally. The institutionalization of religions will obviously change. Currently you see a lot of people shopping from different religious frameworks. Maybe customized religions could be the thing for the future? Myself, I am not and atheist, but also not religious. I’m, what’s called, an agnostic person. I feel our minds are just too small to cope with such a thing as God. I don’t feel competent to make any statements about whether a Grand Designer exists or not and what would go on in its mind. Nonetheless, I am a nature loving person. As I see it, finding a balanced relation and understanding of nature is a profoundly spiritual activity.
Historically speaking, the notions associated to sex have changed. Inside the transition that you propose, What could happen to sex? How will it change?
True, there have been significant changes in the notions associated with sex. What was first done out of necessity, later became a form for amusement. In the end it becomes a joke? The whole industry around sex is -in a sad way- comical. Young girls nowadays willingly undergo plastic surgery to obtain a clear cut designer vagina, also referred to as ‘playboy vaginas’ because they are modeled after the photoshopped vagina’s featured in playboy magazine. Various clinics for cosmetic surgery offer the so called vagina rejuvenation technique providing women with a hypernatural vagina. Although a slightly diminished sexual sensitivity is a known complication of the surgery, girls seem to prefer the visual power of a clear cut vagina above their own sexual arousal. I wonder if a modernistic painter like Mondrian could have imagined designer vaginas? But seriously, while the sex organs of these young girls are reduced to nothing, what happens to sex? Is it obliterated along? Or has man become the sex organ of the machine world just as the bee is of the plant world, permitting it to reproduce and constantly evolve to higher forms? I am not sure.
How could art, literature and other forms of creation be affected by this shift?
We see an important change in artistic material. Today design starts at the level of bits, atoms, neurons and genes. Virtual realities, nano- and biotechnology are increasingly influencing our aesthetics and providing new construction kits for our reality. The extent to which these developments are intervening in the constructive, material, aesthetic and social practice of everyday life can hardly be underestimated. But not only the material, also the way we design changes. Creative people increasingly realize the things they create, always function within a bigger context over which they have only limited control. In the past artist, designers and architects were fairly unaware of this and tended to deliver clear cut final design solutions (which of course, in practice didn’t work quite as expected).
If we look for example at your city Caracas in Venezuela, where -if I understand things correctly- more than four of its six million inhabitants live in self built constructions in the barrios, at the outskirts of the city, where only the laws of the strong rule. The officially constructed part of the city houses a minority of the Caracas citizens, which could not live the life they live without support of their servants, taxi drivers, housemaids who generally live in the anonymous barrios. This schizophrenic situation wasn’t planned, it isn’t optimal. It is the result of a top-down professional approach, colliding with a bottom-up amateur approach of people who build their own houses at the outskirts of the city. Now how can we learn form this? What could a term like ‘user generated content’ frequently used in the digital domain of web-design mean for architecture in Caracas?
Once we realize that culture can become nature, we understand that the things we create can grow beyond the horizon of what we planned them to be. Already, this leads to a meta-awareness of creation, which is more focused on creating infrastructures open for improvisation, instead of fixed systems; manipulating growth instead of clear-cut construction.
In the manifesto you explain that the systems created in the Next Nature can surpass us and become inaccessible, and hence, you suggest that in order to retain control, men must re-cultivate the systems. What do you mean with “re-cultivate”? What examples are to be found?
Long ago man started creating technology to protect himself from the dangers of nature. Nowadays, the technological world has become so complex that it has become a natural world of its own. This next nature can be very cruel and dangerous for humans, up to the level that we start building technologies to protect ourselves from technology. That’s what I mean with a re-cultivation. I am calling for humane technology, although honestly, I am not exactly sure what that means.
Would you believe that after the dawn of “post-modernity” the name that will arise for the next historic period could be related with the changes in biology and genetic technology?
Ever since 17th century -at least in the western world-, nature is perceived as something that can and has to be conquered. This eventually leads to modernism, and its trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape the world. Post-modernism signifies the limitations of modernism, but as I feel it, it is only a rejection, not a well formulated alternative vision. I’ve never seen ‘post-modernity’ as a satisfying term describing our time and I don’t think the term as such will turn out to be sustainable. Indeed, I believe the most important shift of our time relates to our changing perception of nature. No longer, we see nature as something that can and has to be conquered. We come to realize that nature changes along with us. Installing more systems and technologies will only lead to more culturally emerged nature. Excuse my overconfidence, but yes I do believe next nature is the true historical answer to modernism.
Do you conceive a variation in the human values after Next Nature?
Yes. As described earlier, some changes we went through during our human existence -like for instance human control over fire and the introduction of agriculture- already radically changed what it denotes to be human. In our current age the emerging bio-, nano- and information technologies, are expected to have huge impact. We basically have to find our role in the whole scheme of things, again. We have to explore what it means to be human in this next nature.
In this future scenario that you propose, What would be the motivations or the sense of living for men and humankind?
Unlike other animals, which are equipped with specific organs, skills and reflexes that enable survival in their specific milieus, man is not adjusted to one single environment; by nature, man is a cultural being. With our culture we eventually give rise to next nature. Thus, as a mankind, we have some freedom and responsibility in where we want to go. Where that will be? I have no idea. But I am sure of one thing. We will get the next nature we deserve.
Inspired by the renaissance philosopher, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who with his essay Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) gave rise to renaissance humanism, I see man as a being with a freedom of choice in what he is to be. Pico della Mirandola describes man as a being capable of imitating any existing creature. When man philosophizes, he would ascend the chain of being towards the angels. When he fails to exercise his intellect, he vegetates. According to Pico della Mirandola, only human beings could change themselves through their own free will, whereas all other changes in nature were the result of some external force acting on whatever it is that undergoes change. Understandably for his time, Pico della Mirandola lets man choose between vegetating like a plant, living an animal life or ascending towards the angels. Nowadays I feel our choice is different and lies between living the life of an animal or that of a machine. Some people live like animals, pleasure seeking from lust to lumber, without a plan, without reflection, enslaved by their own sentiments. Others live as machines; goal directed, efficiently structured, in control, but without feeling of life. Whereas animals will always stay within the animalistic, and machines are confined in the world of systems, every human being walking the face of the earth has a choice. Unlike Pico della Mirandola, who encouraged humans to ascend towards the angels, I deem the place a human being should aspire lies exactly in the middle, between the animal and the machine. As I see it we, humans are system-animals. Finding a balance between our animalistic and our systematic qualities is as close to an angel we can get.