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Creating Ecological Corridors in Cities – review

author: Luc Steels, title: Creating Ecological Corridors in Cities, published in: the Transparent Beehive Notebook (2013) – ISBN 9789081898515

AnneMarie Maes is representative of a new wave of artists for which art is life and life is ecological.

This direction of work is of course not entirely new. It is the visionary 20th century artist Joseph Beuys who already in the nineteen sixties showed the need for a radically different kind of art. He argued forcefully against the wasteful use of natural resources and in favor of a social humanitarianism that tries to connect individuals back to their communities and to the ecosystems on which human life depends. Beuys lived this vision and translated it into a broad range of multi-media art works, performances, lectures, and community activism that still resonates today. Indeed, over the past decades, our society has veered even more strongly towards individualistic tendencies, partly under the influence of technologies that isolate us from the rest of the world. And the rest of the living world that used to dominate the planet and is crucial for our survival is even more under threat by massive industrialisation, sprawling cities, and the technological control of agriculture. In this context, it is questionable whether we need the kind of individualistic art currently celebrated by the art market. The revolutionary stance advocated by Beuys and practised by artists such as AnneMarie Maes is more than ever relevant.

AnneMarie Maes is totally absorbed with issues of sustainability in the way she lives and the way she works as an artist. Her engagement translates into the creation of urban gardens, the organisation of communities, protest against genetically modified foods and the lack of open green spaces in cities, the preservation and exchange of seeds for agriculture, and, above all, projects to understand and do something about the causes of the honey bee colony collapses that are now rampant in all highly industrialised areas of the world. Many of these activities take place through collectives of artists and scientists in Brussels, in particular OKNO (http://okno.be/) and So-On (http://so-on.be/). These collectives organise workshops that use Do-It-Yourself technologies to explore new ways to communicate, observe, and share observations of nature in the city. They push for societal changes through grassroots activism and interventions. These activities blur the distinction between art and life and their impact almost exclusively outside the narrow context of traditional art venues.

AnneMarie Maes structures her work through long term projects that generate a steady stream of interventions, experiments, community activities, and art works. One example is the Open Greens Project (2008-2012) that focused on setting up and maintaining urban gardens on rooftops in central Brussels. Creating an urban garden is a huge undertaking that requires solving a large range of practical problems: convincing owners of parking lots, getting soil up on the roof, building a green house, dealing with a steady supply of rainwater, selecting and planting seeds, dealing with birds and rodents, combatting weeds, harvesting and preserving produce from the garden, etc. Maes her art work flows naturally from the daily practice of dealing with these gardens and she has enhanced them with sensors and sensor networks to make the invisible visible and allow continuous monitoring through the web. The many visitors who have come to see this garden are entirely amazed and enchanted. They are not even aware that they see the result of an artistic practice.

Another example is the Politics of Change project (2007-2008), which is one of several projects driven by grassroots activism, eco-technology and networks of women to build integrated and sustainable relationships between people, their environment and technology. It involved an educational initiative called Barefoot College, located in Tilonia, Rajasthan (India) training solar engineers. The learning environment is open and decentralized. Knowledge is passed on in the collective from the bottom up using a hands-on approach. The village community selects which women will be sent on a 6 months solar engineer training, and every village family contributes a share in the remuneration of the engineers to set up and maintain the village solar system. Maes extensively visited the Barefoot College initiative, co-organised workshops there, and brought back information with workshops and programs of free discussion and dialogue, documented in multimedia archive-installations.

Another example project, that has provided the source material for the present book, is the Transparent Beehive Project (2010-2013). This project started as a natural continuation of urban gardening, because without bee polination it is not possible to cultivate a large majority of the fruits and plants on which we live. Engaging seriously with bees in cities has become urgent because the honeybee species is under threat in rural areas due to monoculture, urbanisation, pesticides, air polution, and several other factors. The project focused on building an observation hive with which it was possible to see, hear, and track the development of a bee colony. The beehive starts from an original transparent design based on the “leaf beehive” originally built by the blind Swiss naturalist Francois Huber at the end of the 18th century. The bees enter and leave the hive through a glass pipe opened to the outside world. The hive has been enhanced with cameras, contact microphones, and other sensors. AnneMarie Maes, who is an accomplished beekeeper and herborist, was able to initialise with young bees and a queen. From then on the bees took over, building the characteristic comb structure, collecting honey, pollen, and wax, and maintaining the life of the colony, including the regulation of temperature. Sadly, the hive was also attacked by waxmoth and dramatically collapsed into a useless ugly mess after performing well for a complete season. The fascinating development from birth to death has been seen by the many visitors who cam to see the installation at OKNO. They were often stunned when experiencing, often for the first time in their life, the remarkable activities of bees and bee colonies in such close contact.

Honey, wax and bees are the essential ingredients of Maes her art works, and it is no accident that this was also the case in the work of Joseph Beuys. The way a bee colony works is a symbol for the way a society can operate and bees have an intimate relation to the local environment because they go out foraging for food and thus allow observers to map out the ecological resources and the state of the environment around the hive. The bee colony creates remarkable hexagonal structures through collective action and a bee is an absolute wonder of natural engineering. Maes is in her heart a naturalist, in the 17th century tradition of natural history. She is carefully observing nature using her artistic eye to highlight the remarkable forms and structures found there and performing experiments – mostly without complex scientific equipment – that bring out the beauty and sophistication of the natural world.

The present book documents some of the objects and situations that came out of the Transparent Beehive Project. They form a cabinet of curiosities, as you would find in a ‘Wunderkammer’ of the early 18th century naturalists or in today’s natural history musea. We see the tools used by beekeepers to classify pollen based on color or an ingenious compas to map out where bees go foraging. We find pollen brought back by the bees to the hive and plant specimen that are the source of these pollen. There are fragments of the combs created by the bees, and fascinating close-up pictures of their skin and body parts, including remarkable images produced with a scanning electron microscope and using X-rays. All these objects are extraordinary and testify to the ingenuity of nature.

Other objects and drawings zoom in on the remarkable geometric structures created by Nature: the wings of a dragon fly, which has the geometrical structure of a Voronoi diagram, the sexagonal pattern of honeycombs, the seed structure of sunflowers, which can be described using a Fibonacci series, the remarkable spheres of pollen with regular pointed structures. Maes has also been working with wax as a basic material that envelopes objects and thus shows them in an entirely new light. She drips found objects in the wax extracted and purified from the Transparent Hive.

There are also objects and documents resulting from experiments and observations, occasionally in interaction with scientists. For example, genetic material (RNA samples) has been taken from living material on the bodies of the bees and sequenced to detect which viruses and bacteria were attacking them. There are the results of an analysis of the honey produced in the Transparent Beehive, made by a professional laboratory and showing that honey from the hive was less poluted and of higher quality than some of the honey collected in rural areas. Another amazing item is a design and a prototype of a battery based on honey and lemon juice. The cabinet contains a host of other objects: data sources, the schema for the sensors, graphs resulting from monitoring the hive, images taken from video streams recorded with cameras inside the hive.

All of this inspires wonder about the remarkable world of bees and admiration for the artistic engagement that AnneMarie Maes has developed over the years, particularly because this cabinet is showing just a tip of the iceberg of the many activities she has carried out around bees and beehives. Moreover the Transparent Beehive is just one aspect of the broader goal of trying to create Ecological Corridors in urban environments.

Ecological Corridors is a new medium of social sculpture, a Gesamtkunstwerk that relies on the creative participation of many. Corridors are ephemeral living structures in the form of green spaces connected through animal life [such as bee colonies]. They are set up and maintained by urban communities to regenerate areas of the city, particularly areas which are subject to social and urban stress. Corridors are here seen as art works that contribute to social cohesion and sustainability by raising awareness and minimizing resource waste. Artists create the safe spaces that enable the disruptive activities required to make corridors and they make the internal structure and activities of corridors visible through visual and auditory representations.

Luc Steels, Barcelona October 9, 2013