Between Laboratory and Garden: An Ecology of Values

Noah Laboratory - Front CoverNeither a work of nature nor one of art we get to know when they have been finished; we must surprise them in the process of being created so as to understand them to some degree.

Johann von Goethe

For a novelist, a given historic situation is an anthropologic laboratory in which he explores his basic question: What is human existence?

Milan Kundera

The Noah Laboratory is embedded in the public imagination as a ‘kind of material sentence’, an artwork designed to grow out of the social landscape, its expressive language springing up in the gaps between nature and culture. Newling’s creative experiments open up a new chapter in the ‘historic situation’ of material culture, evolving through a series of vital conversations between nature, environment and society. The Noah Laboratory apprehends the current state of human existence and develops a field of cultural exchange between the prevailing discourse of economy and the emergent one of ecology, ‘constructing its soil’ by transforming the familiar discourse of natural history into a material narrative of artistic composition. In this respect, The Noah Laboratory re-connects us with an ancient tradition in European culture, in which the sense of the word ‘book’ derives from the Germanic root of buch (book) and buche (beech), from the beechwood tablets used for the inscription of runes. Remarkably, the words biblos and liber, which give an early sense to the word ‘library’, first meant the ‘fibre inside of a tree’. In this poetic convergence of material and meaning, The Noah Laboratory binds nature and culture together in the work and substance of the cultural artefact, a reflection on the labours of human existence in the ‘anthropocene era’, and an aesthetic re-evaluation of their effects in the natural world.

The first situation of The Noah Laboratory is the artist’s garden, which opens up a space between an individual and social ecology of values, implicit in our desire to plan, design, tend, cultivate and control the natural world. These horticultural techniques work in harmony with the natural cycles of growth and decay, as an exercise in creative labour. Adapting his art to nature’s ‘intelligent material’ the gardener works in tandem with his immediate environment, developing a tacit knowledge of generation and decomposition. The word curator is derived from the Latin cura ‘to care’ and means to be a guardian or manager, usually of an archive or collection but also as the keeper of a garden. An early example of this affinity between art and nature can be found in Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789). White is considered by many to be England’s first ecologist in his modern sensibility toward the interconnectedness of nature, evident in the detailed observation of plants, birds and animals. Many of White’s observations were made in his own back garden and it is perhaps no coincidence that he was a curate, in awe of nature’s ‘grand design’. White employed the aesthetic conventions of the Picturesque to embellish his natural history, foregrounding the intricate beauty of nature in a manner that anticipates the Romantic disposition of the 18th Century.

It is in the 17th Century during the Age of Reason, over one hundred years before Gilbert White’s amateur ecology, that we can trace a desire to exert an excess of control over nature, as a basis for exploiting its material resources in the name of progress. The physical world is subjected to a mechanistic form of knowledge, which divides its component parts and transforms them into an arithmetical problem, with the purpose of rendering all things calculable. Andrew Marvell’s The Garden (1681), gives a benign and anthropomorphic face to the natural mechanism: ‘And as it works the industrious Bee, Computes its time as well as we’. In this early ‘time and motion study’, Rationalism prepares the ground for the political economy of the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular the partitioning of time into a working day, abstracted from its connection to the natural environment and re-organised into new forms of industrial labour. The ‘busy bee’ of industry emerges in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), as nature becomes a standing reserve to be exploited in the accumulation of wealth. ‘The great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts’ occasioned by the industrial division of labour, gives rise to a particular type of economic exchange, in which the quantity of labour expended in production becomes the constant measure of a thing’s value. A social and historical soil is constructed which for the next two hundred years will sustain the imperative of economic growth, premised on the maximisation of time, and with the sole purpose of accelerating the mass production and consumption of commodities.

The second situation of The Noah Laboratory moves from the gardener’s toil to the commodified form of industrial labour. The gallery becomes a place of manufacture, ‘time is out of joint’, the artist’s work is broken down, accelerated, and systematised through the exertions of the alienated craftsman. In this ambivalent state, Newling carves out a role for himself as the craftsman of assemblage, composing for us a critical image of economy, which at once divides labour and brings it together in the gestalt of the artist’s workshop. As Richard Sennett observes in The Craftsman (2008),

Most scientific laboratories are organised as workshops in the sense that they are small, face-to-face places of work. So, too, can workshop conditions be carved out of giant enterprises: modern auto plants combine the assembly line with spaces reserved for small specialist teams; the auto factory has become an archipelago of workshops.

The triptych of cages presents a face-to-face encounter with the abstract form of economic production, while at the same time circulating – in the newspaper – the possibility for the germination of new values. Newling carves out a piece of creative infrastructure and attaches it to the ‘giant enterprise’ of the wider social machine, working the artwork into existing channels of production, distribution and consumption. The newspaper circulates the intelligent commodity of the artist, the workshop of intellectual labour abroad in the world, the germ of an idea in what Marx described in Capital (1867) as the ‘social metabolism’ of exchange. The Newling Exchange is energised by the vitality of those who use it, the contingency of the cultural transaction is the mechanism and material form, which in The Noah Laboratory builds new perceptions of our relation to nature’s work in which we are both the process and product of Life. As Newling ‘configures a work that actually and symbolically constructs a soil’, a new ecology of values is metabolised in the emerging constitution of the anthropocene era.

This ecology of values requires an archipelago of workshops, extending The Noah Laboratory into Lincoln High Street, the Nottingham to Lincoln train line and Lincoln Train Station. The artist as news distributor provides an angle on the story, which is not reported in the traditional sense but remains investigative in intent. In the subtle shift from journalism to the journal of personal reflection the reader is met with a chance encounter, an opportunity to ‘look into’, and perhaps become a part of the situation at hand. Creative momentum is extended into the social infrastructure, ‘the news travels fast’, dispersing The Noah Laboratory along different lines, where it finds new platforms and shop windows as part of a sustainable growth in ideas. The gift of a ‘Play People’s Noah’s Ark Set’ is overlaid, in each case, with a cautionary question that implies a sense of urgency. There is really only one news story and it’s a green issue. What are we doing now about our impact on the environment, and how are we going to live responsibly? With global warming, rising sea levels, an increasing population and the depletion of natural resources, consumer capitalism is clearly not the answer. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market only toys with the problem and provides mere tokens – the ark is manufactured as a plaything – while it remains in denial of the environmental harm. In the artist’s exchange we are left with the uncertainty of the unresolved question ‘Is human purpose and existence contingent on Nature?’

There is a growing body of contemporary art practice, which like The Noah Laboratory questions our relationship to the natural world as it sets up a kind of osmosis between the environment and its historical condition. The work assumes the qualities of a living architecture, which in a psychological and physical sense transforms an aspect of the immediate vicinity. Simon Starling’s Mobile Architecture No 2 , commonly known as Shedboatshed (2005), represents the alchemy of form and function in the artist’s labour, the products of that labour, and their subsequent poetic use. The shed changes from a dwelling or a place of work in the case of the garden shed, to a mode of transport, which continues to accommodate the artist as navigator, and is in turn accommodated by the natural currents of the river. The cultural significance of the piece exceeds a quantitative measure of its value in terms of the labour expended in its production and transportation, and yet the poetic efficiency of the artwork is precisely that measure. In Starling’s aesthetic of ‘energy efficiency’, there is a minimal environmental cost in producing the artwork, with the added value of a greater appreciation of our dependency on natural resources.

Hinterland, conceived in 2006 by Nottingham based curator Jennie Syson, develops its own archipelago of projects, initially along the banks of the River Trent and nearby semi-industrial sites in the vicinity of Nottingham City Centre. The artwork has evolved over a three-year period like an open source platform for individual and collective projects, carefully researched and ‘primed’, prior to being introduced into the geo-history of their locations. As an offshoot of Hinterland, The Reading Room opened to the public in 2007, its remit to provide a platform for discussing the philosophical texts that inform contemporary art practice and related disciplines. Hinterland’s network of ideas, events, workshops and art projects, restores something of the Renaissance tradition of cultural enrichment to public life. In its entirety Hinterland unfolds as a composite artwork with a life of its own, the ‘intelligent material’ of knowledge, skills and experience, which over time beds down into the ‘soil’ of local history as part of its living architecture.

The concept of living architecture has been a long-standing feature of the Newling portfolio, most recently in Chatham Vines (2004-6), which forms part of a public regeneration scheme called the Thames Gateway. In a poetic rendition of the urban planner’s ‘regeneration scheme’, the artist created a living sculpture by growing vines along the isle of St John’s Church in Chatham, Kent. The artwork’s beauty is in its simplicity; there was no precedent for this type of sacred gardening, which re-constructs a new soil on the hallowed ground of the old. The project revived the life of the church and its local constituency, as though the building were transformed into a unique public greenhouse. In becoming gardeners, the local people invest their time, care and attention in the work of looking after the vines, a highly symbolic act for how we might safeguard our environment and in the process ‘construct a new soil’. The sense of place, of being, of connectedness to nature emerges from the substance of the ritual act, its history, its culture and above all its people. As Sharr observes in Heidegger for Architects (2007), an artwork like Chatham Vines reveals how every place inherits the ‘imprint of successive layers of dwelling’ and within its particular being contains the potential for new ones.

Newling realises this potential in his artwork, sensing the possibilities for material exchange, which at the same time gives rise to an alchemy of values. What emerges is the architecture of experience, the other places that exist as unseen and un-thought from within the same place, accompanied by the unique set of values that appear in the social ecology of that place. In this respect, Newling’s installation at Nottingham Market Square, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1991), has influenced the social ecology of The Noah Laboratory. The artwork consisted of six scaffold towers with floodlights, which illuminated the square at night with an intense white light. The work intervened in the spatial and temporal fabric of the Market Square, a place that functions as the City’s commercial and cultural hub. Time is re-calibrated in order to stretch the possibilities of the space. Night became day, routines were thrown out of synch, moods changed, people behaved differently. The intervention shifts the registers of both meaning and material, to the extent that a ‘clearing’ emerged of the philosophical kind described by Newling in The Noah Laboratory. In a physical sense the place was transformed, as walls of mist gathered around the edge of the square caused by the heat from the floodlights. In a psychological sense, a new experience of the individual’s relationship to the built environment is brought into being. Passers by see the square in a new light – Heidegger’s metaphysical ‘clearing’ has its root in the German word for light (licht). People begin to show up unexpectedly and instead of just passing through they make it a home, a dwelling, where one of the most popular activities turned out to be reading a book in the middle of the night, under floodlights.

The living architecture of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is a compound of nature/culture, brought together by technology and quickened by the artist’s expertise. The ‘know how’ of the artist, his palette of practices and skill in composition, enable the emergent place to be intuited but not known in advance. Nature’s tendency to self-organise in terms of the walls of mist and the social re-patterning of the square, are the contingent events filled with wonder that form part of Newling’s Art, and yet belong to us all. In The Noah Laboratory we are presented with a similar ecology of values, the various elements from which new clearings are created; experiments, intuitions and unknowns. As always, fortuitous moments occur such as the resemblance of the composting machine and the drum that holds the paper in an offset printing press. This coincidence of form echoes the substance of the Original books mentioned in the introduction. The breakdown of the newspapers into a fertile soil is the creative catalyst for the alchemy of meaningful material, a process intensified by light, as it speeds toward the possibilities for a new clearing. Time is once again ‘out of joint’ in the artist’s experimental workshop as it moves from the accelerated growth of economy to the sustainable growth of ecology. Adam Smith may appear on the back of a £20.00 note and Darwin on a £10.00, but in the long run the latter will retain the greater value in our efforts to live as keepers of the natural world. If there is a clearing in The Noah Laboratory it is the realisation that the gardeners are the garden and gardening is also, in every sense, the garden.

The Noah Laboratory: Constructing Soil – John Newling, The Collection, Lincoln.

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