Moments from A Contemporary Archeology of Nature in New York City
We are used to—no, we demand—the idea that our street trees conform to the image we already have of them; that they live for our pure aesthetic pleasure.
As city-living is often considered a solution to sprawl and related environmental concerns worldwide, some ambitious NYC urban initiatives—such as Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 for parks and public spaces (2007) and The Design Trust for Public Space’s High Performance Landscape Guidelines (2010)—are being replicated in cities around the world. Yet this blanketing of urban greenery often screens the more subtle social, economic, and philosophical implications of designing nature in the city. Using the Million TreesNYC initiative as a contemporary cue, we start with the story of one tree and expand our lens to the image of a future of a million trees. Will this spectacle become a specter? Is it all arboreal ether? We take a critical pause to see the reflection—how we frame and evaluate—through the mirror that is nature.
It is easy to segue to the eternal riddles of “What is nature? What is a city?” But that is not the point of this study. Using Michele Foucault’s definition of the archeology of knowledge, it tackles the contemporary image of nature. Not to create a worldview, but rather, a way of seeing. Knowledge, as defined by Foucault, is not only found in demonstration, but also in fiction, reflection, narrative accounts, institutional regulations and political decisions.
As one of the leading architects and thinkers in environmental and sustainable design, Mitchell Joachim, emphatically said in an interview that he does not use the term “nature” saying that “The term ‘nature’ is a seventeenth-century construct that is way outmoded philosophically.” He prefers the term, “socio-ecological”, explaining that it is more appropriate because “it includes the human agenda and the drama of the human will that would influence how we think about ecology.”1 His thoughts reflect how today’s discourse about nature has anthropocentric leanings where “man is being reconsidered as the most significant entity of the universe.”2
But is there something that we miss when we discard the nuanced history of the word nature. In doing so, perhaps we are forgetting our own history—that of how nature and man are intertwined. I see a warning sign from twenty years ago, reading the environmental historian, William Cronon’s introduction, where he states, “Nature becomes our dogma, the wall we build around our own vision to protect it from competing views. And like all dogmas, it is the death of dialogue and self-criticism. This is its seductive power. This is the trap it has set for us.”3 Indeed, it is hard to argue against nature.
Matthew Gandy, a scholar in geography and urban studies at the University College of London, studied nature of New York City through the lens of its infrastructure. He is shaped by Cronon’s views but gives pragmatic advise in that “it is because of the innate ambiguity of nature and its ability to provide ideological veneer to almost any argument that we need to critically examine how changing meanings of nature have intersected with wider debates about urban change.”4 It is in this Moebius-like twist, in this changing meaning of nature that we can begin to critique.
Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation said during a public dialogue, “I was in Mexico and they’re copying the playbook from New York. You’re seeing cities competing effectively in terms of upping the game on sustainability and quality of life. They’re not doing it because they’re green or good on the environment. They’re doing it because it’s an economic and development strategy.”5
Dare we ask what happens during an economic downturn? Or unspeakably worst, when we do not deeply think of nature beyond just a development strategy? Will it be 1922 again? Against the backdrop of the Roaring twenties, a period of economic prosperity where “the few trees that survived on Manhattan’s streets appeared to be shackled escapees from Central Park.”6
Imagine seeing a tree trunk and branches seemingly bursting through a circular frame of a naturally stained bentwood chair. Its creator was student artist, Kelsi Anderson, who installed it on an empty tree pit along Second Avenue on Eighth street. She called it Street-Tree-Chair, and it was her way to express how she felt about the Million TreesNYC project. She was critical with the way the project objectified trees. She had spent a day following a NYC Parks forester around Staten Island who was tasked to find sites to plant trees. “They were told to plant as many trees as possible in order to hit that number,”7 Anderson recalled. It was a temporary spectacle, however, dissapearing in two weeks.
According to art critic, Hal Foster, defines the spectacle in contemporary art as “to Foster, “spectacle operates via our fascination with the hyperreal, with “perfect” images that make us whole at the price of delusion, of submission. We become locked in its logic because spectacle both affects the loss of the real and provides us with the fetishistic images necessary to deny or assuage this loss.”8
Breaking down Foster’s definition, he first contrasts spectacle to representation. I posit that Street-Tree-Chair is more spectacle than representation. A representation is based on reality, for example, the logo of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation is symbolized by a leaf. In contrast, Street-Tree-Chair functions as a hyperreal version of two things, a real tree and the act of tree planting. As Foster explains, the resulting “fetishistic image” is so strong that it negates what is real—in this case, that Street-Tree-Chair is just a bunch of sticks and branches.
In other words, we are used to—no, we demand—the idea that our street trees conform to the image we already have of them; that they live for our pure aesthetic pleasure. The imagined image can be so overpowering that we do not see what is really in front of us. Street-Tree-Chair is also an important critical artwork because it forces us confront and question an integral part of nature. As Anderson states on her website, “In nature, death and decay are natural occurrences where the afterlife of an object goes back into the ground to nurture new life.”9
The image of nature in the city is devoid of the most integral aspect of nature: death. We often deny nature its right to die, regenerate, and nurture new life.
- Joachim, Mitchell. Interview by author. Phone interview. New York, July 3, 2012. ↩
- Dictionary and Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Online. ↩
- Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.), 52 ↩
- Gandy, Matthew. Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 13. ↩
- Sadik-Khan, Janette. “Public Spaces, Public Good: Building the Livable City,” Lecture, Urban Dialogue Series from Fordham University, New York City, October 10, 2012. ↩
- Page, Max. The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 194. ↩
- Anderson, Kelsi. Interview by author. Phone interview. New York City, January 27, 2013. ↩
- Foster, Hal. Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, (Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1985), 83. ↩
- Anderson, Kelsi. “Street-Tree-Chair.” Kelsi Anderson, n.d. http://www.kelsianderson.com/streettreechair.html (7 January 2013). ↩