TREES OF TOMORROW (PART 2 OF 3: SOWING AGAINST SYSTEMS) :: MARGARETHA HAUGHWOUT :: FIELD NOTES
“What happens when the elements of an ‘ecosystem’ are reduced to information and plugged into algorithms meant to inform the market?” Author, activist, and Guerrilla Grafter Margaretha Haughwout asks this question in part two of Trees of Tomorrow, a Field Notes special feature where walking tours, speculative workstations, guerrilla gardening, community art projects, and conversations work in tandem to unearth the hidden politics of ornamental street trees in Flushing, Queens. In collaboration with Cody Ann Herrmann and Julian Phillips, Haughwout documents these efforts through photojournalism, philosophical critique, and experimental / inter-species ethnography, deepening the reader’s understanding (and sensitivity toward) these “unpaid laborers” — these non-human constituents of the living community. [2018 series editor: Adrian Silbernagel]
In the western herbalist tradition, we have an epistemological term called the “Doctrine of Signatures.” The Doctrine of Signatures says that the way a plant looks indicates something about the way it functions. Perhaps just a mnemonic device, this doctrine is nonetheless useful for pattern recognition, identification, and for mapping connections across diseases, plants, and humans.
The London Plane Sycamore appears ghostlike, haunting, bare, muscular. It perhaps is haunted by the Elm trees that once lived throughout the Eastern US, and that were wiped out by Dutch Elm disease, and by the late Robert Moses, the controversial urban developer responsible for New York City’s park system, and also for its highways and car culture. The London Plane was Moses’ tree of choice to replace the dying Elms — for the way it arches over car-riddled streets.
The London Plane, one of the most common ornamental street trees in New York City, and a hybrid between Plantanus orientalis and Plantanus occidentalis, appears bare and muscular perhaps because it is an unpaid laborer. According to NYC Parks website, an average London Plane removes 843 gallons of storm water a year, which they equate with a savings of $8.34. This tree conserves 714 kWh at a value established by NYC Parks as $90.18; it removes 1lb of air pollutants per year saving $5.57, and reduces 225lbs of CO2 each year, valuing at $.75 per year; Annual Benefits total at $105.59 per tree (tree-map.nycgovparks.org).
The quantification and subsequent monetization of ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, or storm water runoff, while problematic in that NYC Parks creates a seamless link between nature and unpaid labor, is fairly straightforward. Morgan M. Robertson, in his article “The nature that capital can see: science, state, and market in the commodification of ecosystem services,” published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, describes how there are more complicated, and less stable, ways that the state and the market are making ecosystems operate in service to capital investment. As Robertson points out, ecosystem scientists are beginning to analyze ecologies using “holistic measures … rather than the uncontroversial measures of weight, volume, or time.” Whether certain species are showing up in wetlands, for example, are now determining the value of certain areas for development, financial offsets, and investment. This can lead to complicated, hidden algorithms and the stifling of certain scientific debates such as botanical classification (Robertson 2006, 367–387).
Robertson argues that the work of evaluating ecosystem services is not a process that contributes to a totalizing system, but that there is a process of suturing between discrete disciplines and areas of knowledge production to render the value of an ecosystem for the market. However, when this process of suturing involves the reduction of all elements into data, and the introduction of algorithms that crunch that data into value that capital can understand, and when the market has merged all elements of society into a self-regulating system in service to itself, I wonder if this isn’t precisely the ‘cybernetic capitalism’ the French anarchist group Tiqqun warn of:
The Cybernetic Hypothesis is thus a political hypothesis, a new fable that after the second world war has definitively supplanted the liberal hypothesis. Contrary to the latter, it proposes to conceive biological, physical, and social behaviors as something integrally programmed and re-programmable. […] The most effective arrangement of a constellation of reactions animated by an active desire for totality — and not just by a nostalgia for it, as it was with the various variants of romanticism — the cybernetic hypothesis is a relative of not only the totalitarian ideologies, but also of all the Holisms, mysticisms, and solidarities…. (theanarchistlibrary.org)
Tiqqun argues that capitalist cybernetics has taken root in the entirety of our networked society. Cybernetics can be generally understood to be the “entire field of communication and control” as Norbert Weiner declared it. The ‘cybernetic hypothesis’ articulates the merging of capitalism and cybernetics in the 1970s in the interest of sustaining and expanding capitalism’s violent ethos, which includes the creation of, and then “integration” thus dissolution of difference. Tiqqun, to quote Alex Galloway, sees the cybernetic hypothesis as a “specific epistemological regime in which systems or networks combine both human and nonhuman agents in mutual command and control.” (Galloway 2014, 107–131) The cybernetic hypothesis assumes that biological, physical and social patterns can be tracked and adjusted through algorithms. Feedback activates protocological responses.
Interdisciplinary scholars like ecologist Gregory Bateson, biologists like Francisco Varela, and designers like Buckminster Fuller contributed to and built ideas from cybernetics during its ‘second wave’ in the middle of the 20th-century. Conceptions of self-governance, autopoesis, emergence percolate during this time, as well as the notion of homeostasis in nature, of nature as a system (ecosystem), often giving us problematic tools with which to understand dynamics of exchange and prospects for survival for humans and non-humans (these ideas of homeostasis, of nature in balance — ideas which have been discredited by contemporary science, still hold sway in the popular imagination). But practical whole systems design strategies such as permaculture, that utilize feedback and self-regulation, also emerged in part from the second wave of cybernetics and might complicate the ease with which cybernetic capitalism totalizes and thus disregards non-human lives and their labor.
Founding design principles for permaculture are based on feedback and self-regulation. The definition of feedback can basically be understood to be the routing of outputs of a system back into inputs — so on the holistic level, the system is either regulated or escalated based on what the feedback does/ how the system is set up. Elements within a system are analyzed in terms of their outputs and inputs; in order to create no waste, all outputs are channeled back into inputs.
What happens when the elements of an “ecosystem” (already a potentially problematic term — ecologies don’t really exist as closed systems) are reduced to information and plugged into algorithms meant to inform the market? While it might be useful to think of our engagements with nature in systems terms so that we can think creatively and sustainably about inputs and outputs — ways to turn waste into nutrient for example — the ways that nature is not a system might point to ways of sabotaging and retreating from totalizing systems of control.
Resistance, Nourishment and Evasion
At the end of Trees of Tomorrow: Branching Networks, I acknowledge how the London Plane Sycamore tree (Plantanus x acerifolia) might tell us about its politics through sensory engagements — how it looks, feels, and how it grows. When I interviewed the London Plane or our recent publication, I asked it about how NYC Parks casts its ‘ecosystem services’ in monetary terms:
London Plane answers in human language once, to offer the name of an ecological companion, Nettles (Urtica dioica), which often comes in tow with other ecological companions (indeed, whenever I grow Nettles from seed the pots and seed trays seem weedier than others, almost like Nettles are growing weeds with them).
London Plane might be suggesting something profound here. I wonder if this process of adding unexpected weedy companion species could challenge the ways totalizing, cybernetic systems operate in service to capitalism by constantly undoing, extending, evolving a whole system.
The Métis art duo FRAUD echoes the London Plane interview when, in a recent distributed conversation, they address the “necropolitics of the network.” Specifically, in discussing the incomputable reindeer lichen (a relational form comprised of algae and fungus) of Finnish forests, “an interesting tension between the incomputable, the uncapturable, as a method of resistance and survival, as well as disappearance/extinction from the network” emerges (lists.cofa.unsw.edu).
Donna Haraway works with the term ‘sympoiesis’ as a challenge to the stability and and self-creating systems that autopoiesis describes. Meaning “making-with,” sympoietic systems to Haraway have changing boundaries and leave room for unexpected ecologies (Haraway 2016, 58).
A companion species like Nettles offers nourishment and insectary protection to Sycamores (a relationship as a kind of payment, perhaps?), and is also potentially a host to and hosted by other weeds, potentially introducing unexpected difference. Nettles also sting when touched.
Could the process of continually introducing unexpected, weedy companion species that themselves have a penchant for attracting more weeds and other unruly companions flood a system with new “material”, but also create an environment for retreat?
According to Tiqqun, sabotage and retreat are options for resisting a cybernetic capitalism that seeks to totalize, quantify, and incorporate nature as an unpaid laborer:
The problem of force reformulated as a problem of invisibility thus becomes a problem of modulation, of opening and closing. It simultaneously requires both organization and spontaneity. Or, to put it another way, diffuse guerrilla war today requires that two distinct planes of consistency be established, however meshed they may be — one to organize opening, transforming the interplay of lifestyles/forms-of-life into information, and the other to organize closing, the resistance of lifestyles/forms-of-life to being made into information. (theanarchistlibrary.org)
As ecological artists interested in resistance, can we think-with ecologies as they can be articulated in ways that resist or evade commodification? What are the ways our interventions can support cross species collaboration and nourishment and evade this commodification and complicity? Can we think about collaborating with natures in a way to generate haze in the system, both confusing it and creating space to hide?
Short circuit and unplug, sabotage and retreat. Add nettles.
I suspect London Plane is on to something here with the introduction of unexpected ecologies and multispecies forms.
Galloway, Alexander R. “The cybernetic hypothesis.” Differences, Vol 25 no. 1 (2014), 107–131.
Haraway, Donna J. “Staying with the Trouble”, in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Jason W. Moore, 36–39. Oakland: PM Press, 2016.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. See esp. “Sympoiesis Symbiogenesis and the Lively Arts of Staying with the Trouble.”
Mollison, B. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tyalgum, Australia: Tagari Publications, 1988. See esp. Chap. 1 & 2.
Moore, Jason W. Capitalism in the Web of Life. London: Verso Books, 2015. See esp. chap. 2 “Chapter Two: Value in the Web of Life.”
Robertson, Morgan M. ” The nature that capital can see: science, state, and market in the commodification of ecosystem services.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, volume 24 (2006): 367–387.
Tiqqun. “The Cybernetic Hypothesis.” The Anarchist Library. 2001. Accessed 05/26/2018. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/tiqqun-the-cybernetic-hypothesis
Margaretha Haughwout’s personal and collaborative artwork explores the intersections between ideas of technology and wilderness, digital networks and the urban commons, cybernetics and whole systems permaculture — in the context of ecological, technological and human survival. Her active collaborations include the Guerrilla Grafters: an art/ activist group who graft fruit bearing branches onto non-fruit bearing, ornamental fruit trees, and the Coastal Reading Group: consisting of artists from different coasts who trouble the subjects of wilderness, speciation, humanness and ways of knowing through diverse engagements with non-humans. Haughwout and her collaborators at Hayes Valley Farm, an interim-use urban permaculture farm in downtown San Francisco, cultivated low input ecological systems and developed a unique lateral governance structure that was able to engage a range of different kinds of human input while still navigating complex politics with city agencies. Understanding practice to be the work of trying over time to make one’s engagements better, and survival to require flourishing multi-species cohabitation, mutuality and care, her expanded studio includes experimentation with both electrical and political power, interactive narratives, and the cultivation of biological systems.
Haughwout has been awarded numerous grants for community based work in San Francisco, and her personal and collaborative artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Haughwout received her MFA at the University of California Santa Cruz, her Permaculture Design Certificate from the Urban Permaculture Institute, and she has studied with numerous herbalists including Matthew Wood and Autumn Summers. She holds a certificate from the California School of Herbal Studies. In her classes as Assistant Professor of Digital Studio at Colgate University, she draws connections to legacies in conceptual art, new media art, and collaboration, in order to foster distributed, artistic approaches to the interconnected issues of our time/s.