‘The Vegetable Garden’ at MoMA, 1972: An Eco-Survival Device for the Anthropocene

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Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“The soul is as mortal as the body. But the knot of causes in which I am entangled recurs and will create me again. I myself belong to the causes of the eternal recurrence. I come again, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent – not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: I come back eternally to this same, selfsame life, in what is greatest and in what is smallest, to teach again the eternal recurrence of all things.”[1]

God has been dead a long time. It all comes down to a question of survival. How can human beings survive in a world which is beyond any hope of control? In the Anthropocene, not only God is dead. Nature, humans, and technology as distinct entities have ceased to exist. In this landscape the journey doesn’t go from A to B.

According to the scientists who coined the term over a decade ago, the Anthropocene is “a new phase in the history of both humankind and the Earth, when natural forces and human forces become intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.”[2] As this formulation suggests, the Anthropocene requires us to think together what have usually been understood as distinct orders of being. However, in this definition something is overlooked—forgotten or hidden from sight—an element which, according to Martin Heidegger, is constituted by its ability to be forgotten and thus merges with human beings, namely technology. The understanding of the Anthropocene does not just entail an intertwined understanding of human beings and nature—yet another element is a part of the entanglement. The geological concept of the Anthropocene must be understood as an ontological concept where nature, technology, and human beings become so intertwined, so that none can survive without the other.

Although the scientific term ‘The Anthropocene’ was coined in the year 2000, I will argue that the ontological concept of the Anthropocene was displayed—or unfolded—many years before; it happened through the acknowledgement that technology, nature, and human beings could not be understood as distinct orders of being. This acknowledgement was displayed at the MoMA in 1972 through a design proposition called “The Vegetable Garden” by the Italian design collective Gruppo 9999 [image 1].

“The Vegetable Garden” exhibited at MoMA in 1972 displayed the entry to a new reality, the point where our old models, or modes of thinking were discarded and the uncertainty of being—beyond any hope of control—occurred. Through a series of five collages made on graph paper the Italian design collective presented a proposal for their design of a room, or a living machine, for the future. The design collective proposed a new living environment, more specifically a bed located within a vegetable garden. Although a prototype of “The Vegetable Garden” was built in a discotheque called Space Electronic in Florence in 1971, the proposed design was never actually built and the project existed only on paper which was displayed at MoMA as a part of a groundbreaking exhibition on Italian design called “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.” [3]

Immersed by nature the human being were to rest their body on a stream of vertical upward flow of air enabled by some unknown technological innovation which was not specified in the design [image 2]. The human being was suspended above the earth, floating beyond it, but still close to it. In this living environment the human being was in direct contact with nature and technology, that is, we follow its recurrence. As in the words of the designers: “Man, himself a product of nature, participates in the cycle of the seasons, in the variations of the stars.” [4] The artificial flow of air enabled the human being to rest in a cyclical state of flux. The Italian design collective described their proposed living machine as an “eco-survival device.” The Eco-Survival Device both enabled and constituted an entirely different direction—or mode of thought—a mode where we slide toward the edge, unable to slow down or to return. In the ontological Anthropocene, human beings are not the only thing needed to be saved. Also nature needs to be saved—and as I will argue in the following, technology. In order for man, nature, and technology to survive beyond the catastrophe, they need to stop existing as autonomous entities and instead they must be acknowledged as ontologically entwined in a cyclical relation. Together they form an Eco-Survival Device, that is, the thing that will save us all.

In his most recent book Dorsality: Thinking back through technology and politics David Wills writes on the relation between humans and the technological. Wills shows how humans are not distinct from technology nor does technology serve as a passive recourse available for humans to utilize. Wills argues that the animal, or specifically the human body, should be understood as an articulation of both the “natural” and the “artificial”; our conception of the human as an intact natural entity that subsequently comes into contact with inanimate forms of technology does not account for the ways we in fact operates in the world. Wills argue for a symbiotic account of the human-technology relationship, which cannot be reduced to a strictly instrumental one. Technology is not a raw material; it is not an available resource available for humans to exploit. Wills argues that by being a human being we always turn towards technology, we turn because it is hidden ’behind’ us, and by the fact that it is hidden—or withdrawn—we assume that it is something we must look for. The technology in the Garden was deliberately concealed, as described by Gruppo 9999: “The technology used is simple and tested. But its physical aspect is hidden from sight, and this is essential for the project.” As in Wills’ theory of the human-technology hybrid, the technology in “The Vegetable Garden” is hidden behind us. The body is held up, floating on a stream of air enabled by some unseen technology. It comes from behind, and when human beings rest in the garden bed—it is beyond our perceiving perspective. When resting on the flow of air the gaze is directed away from the technology, it is unseen—hidden from sight—in Wills’ words: “A technology of the human itself, a technology that defines and so produces the human cannot be a part of the human self-image; it comes at the human from behind, is already at its back. Or indeed, in its back.”[5] As the human being rests upon some technological solutions beyond our perceiving perspective, we come to realize that technology is in our back; it is holding us up and was always there. Unnoticeable, it constitutes us, we depend on it for holding us up—it’s in our backs and thus constitutes our survival. In “The Vegetable Garden” the technology is concealed—or withdrawn in nature and by the fact that the techno-garden is “a resting place for thoughts” emphasizes the non-instrumental understanding of the relationship between humans and technology. As Wills puts it: “The human is, […] understood to become technological as soon as it becomes human to be always already turning that way.”[6] He develops his idea in accordance with Heidegger’s early writings on technology, namely his notion of readiness-to-hand.

Briefly put, Heidegger notes that humans exist in a world of objects through which we act. The objects have two modes of being, or two ways humans (or more correctly Dasain) relates to entities within the world. The mode of present-at-hand is when an entity exist passively, ‘besides’ humans—and in which humans observes and theorize about them. They are in a passive relationship. The mode of ready-to-hand, however, entails an active relationship where humans ‘uses’ objects to achieve something. At first, Heidegger’s notion of ready-to-hand may seem like a contradiction to Wills theory. It may seem like the relationship then becomes an instrumental one. But the key point in which Wills draws on, is that in order to achieve the goal the human and tool synthesize and in a way, become one. This notion echoes the opening statement for “The Vegetable Garden” project: “Up until now, technology has followed a completely autonomous path, one, we might say, in conflict with nature […] Our project is an attempt to pursue a direction entirely different from the one followed up to now. [This] allows us to formulate hypotheses and new spatial models that no longer follow the one-way route of present-day systems of technology.”[7] “The Vegetable Garden” at MoMA rejected the instrumental one-way route relationship between humans and technology, a relation they claim are in fact in conflict with nature, and articulated that they, in a sense become one. Summed up with philosopher Kevin Rae words: “Heidegger’s notion of readiness-to-hand can be read as indicating that the human being’s ex-sistential survival is dependent on its use of tools to achieve the projects that allows it to exist in the world. […] Humans do not choose to use technology, human embodiment is immersed in, constituted by and symbiotically related to technology.”[8] There is, in other words, a symbiosis between the human being and technology; they synthesize into a technohuman hybrid that was always already there.

Turning back again to the graphic design collages it becomes clear that human being’s existential survival is not only dependent on the use of tools. It is not only a survival-device; “it is an eco-survival device.” The eco-survival device explicitly displays the synthesis between the three essential, perhaps we can name them ontotechnological, concepts: nature’s ecosystem, human beings’ strive for survival and technology’s eternal device. The collages exhibited at MoMA displayed—or unfolded—this synthesis. Important to note, however, is that they not only exist in a synthesis, the relation is recurring. The Italian design collective described how their design proposition is thought “…in accordance with the principles of the recycling of recourses.” As such, “The Vegetable Garden” could be understood as a physical manifestation of the concept of recurrence. Summed up with their own words: “Our project seeks to offer a solution based on new cyclical relations among man, nature and technology.”[9]

Before reaching the conclusion, I will turn and do a detour. At the 1993 NASA conference Vision 21 the mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge presented a short paper entitled “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.” Drawing on previous ideas, for incanse by Alan Turing, Vinge predicted a forthcoming point in time in which artificial intelligence entered the realm of human capacties—and where technology was beyond any hope of control. If humans were to survive the Singularety, we needed a new understanding of ourselves. He wrote: “From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules […] I think it’s fair to call this event (the) Singularity. It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules.”[10] He elaborated: “The problem is not that the Singularity represents simply the passing of humankind from center stage, but that it contradicts some of our most deeply held notions of being.”[11] In other words, Vinge foresaw that this technological moment in time would have vast ontological implications; a new reality where humans could not be understood as a distinct order of being. Although futurists envisions the singularity to occur somewhere between 2030 and 2050, it could be argued that it has already occurred. If we follow Wills line of argument, the Singularity was always already there. It is not a point to come, “it comes at the human from behind, is already at its back. Or indeed, in its back.” If we look at it this way, the Singularity occurred when technology, human beings and nature were all acknowledged as part the same entanglement, that is, the point when they needed to depended on each other in order to survive.

In the Anthropocene nature permeates technology and is permeated by it; technology permeates human beings which is also permeated and constituted by technology; and finally human beings and nature have entered an entanglement. The Eco-Survival Device was a survival mode for the future. It displayed the Anthropocene—which, as I have argued, not only refers to a point in time when natural forces and human forces become so intertwined, that one can survive without the other, but also reveals that technology is in our backs and that our existential survival depends on it. Technology and nature are both a part of us: we are also an eco-survival device. In order to save us from ourselves, to save nature and thus also technology we needed to construct this techno-human-garden. In order to survive, we have to become more like them and less like what we are now. The Italian design collective holds that the eco-survival device “will be a sacred place for a new religion”. “The Vegetable Garden” displayed a new ontology, the Anthropocene, or in the words of the designers a new religion. As described by Zarathustra: An eternal recurrence of the same.

  1. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, III, 13, 2.
  2. Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The New World of the Anthropocene”, Environmental science & technology 44, no. 7 (2010), 2231.
  3. The Italian Avant-Garde, 1968-1976. Ed. Alex Coles and Cathrine Rossi (Berlin: Steinberg, 2013), 97-106. 
  4. Text written by Gruppo 9999; Giorgio Birelli, Carlo Caldini, Fabrizio Fiumi and Paolo Galli. In Emilio Ambasz, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape: Achievements and Problems of Italian Design (New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, Conn., 1972), 277.
  5. David Wills, Dorsality : Thinking Back through Technology and Politics, vol. 5, Posthumanities (Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 4.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ambasz, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, 1972, 277.
  8. Rae, 62.
  9. Ambasz, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, 1972, 277.
  10. Vernor Vinge, “The coming technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era”, NASA. Lewis Research Center, Vision 21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace, 11-22.
  11. Ibid.
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