CultTech Media

A Garden for Everyone

I've never thought I would be contemplating whether I should have a garden in the middle of an art exhibition. Yet, here I am, surrounded by plants, mostly flowers; I'm sitting in front of the computer, trying to figure out what kind of soil there is in Berlin. Loam? Chalk? Luckily, there's an explanation note on the website. It says that I should run the soil through my hands. Clay soils, for instance, tend to be compact and sticky to the touch when wet and can be rolled into a ball.

The website I'm using is called — part of the «Pollinator Pathmaker» project, created by a London-based artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. It's not just about gardens — it's about helping the bees pollinate. «Not just bees. Also, moths, beetles, wasps and butterflies», — Alexandra corrects me. You could label her project as eco-art, but she prefers to call it an «interspecies artwork» — because both insects and humans enjoy it. «What would a garden look like if it were designed from a pollinator's perspective rather than ours?» — this is the question that Alexandra is trying to answer with this project.

We meet at the Ars Electronica Festival, where the Pollinator Pathmaker is being presented in the S+T+ARTS Prize program. Alas, the garden in the exhibition pavilion is not a living one — but it's impossible to plant anything like this indoors. However, there are several actual gardens that Alexandra has already created, and with the Pollinator. art mentioned above, everybody has an opportunity to design a bee-friendly lawn for themselves. And it doesn't have to be a lawn — a couple of flower pots on a balcony would also do.

Pavel Yablonskiy from CultTech Association talked with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg about how to plant these gardens and how she got into bees.
Your first garden was originally commissioned by the Eden Project in Cornwall. But how did you get into bees in the first place? Because that seems like a very peculiar field, to be honest.
«Pollinator Pathmaker» is not just bees: this work is also about moths, and some beetles, and wasps, and butterflies. These are all pollinating insects that we rely on for ecosystems to survive. Lots of plants need insects to reproduce, to have sex — because they can't do it on their own. These are complicated patterns of co-evolution, where plants and insects have evolved together. The work was originally commissioned to be a sculpture to bring attention to the crisis facing pollinating insects. For instance, in Germany, around 75% of flying insects had disappeared over the last 30 years. This is a crisis.
I read an article in the New York Times about the bee situation the other day. If I remember correctly, there are lots of endangered bee species, but humans are only helping the species that produce the honey.

I'm not a scientist, so I only have amateur knowledge. But what you describing is the focus we have on honeybees. We hear about colony collapse and all of these frightening effects with the populations, the plummeting. But many kinds of bees, bees, bumble bees, and solitary bee species don't live in communities like the beehives we think of.

And they are all essential to different communities. I didn't know anything about this when I started this work, but as I learned more, I understood how some of the flowers cover the specific pollinators; maybe only one pollinator visits that plant, and that pollinator only likes that plant, which means if that plant disappears or if that pollinator disappears, it's all gone to extinction. Whereas some flowers, like the daisy, are very accessible for lots of different insects to reach the nectar and pollen.

Could you guide us through the stage of creating this work? After you first thought it would be nice to work with this topic — where did you go next?

I went down a three-year rabbit hole to where we are now (laughing). So, initially, the work was commissioned at the Eden Project to be a sculpture. It was meant to be a site-specific sculpture to bring attention to the pollinator crisis. But I thought there was a more interesting way forward: to make a sculpture for pollinators, to use the resource given to the structure instead of just planting something.

And that opened up a question: what is a sculpture for pollinators? I started to research how these insects experience the world. So we think of a garden looking like a garden. And what we see in my work is an interpretation of how an insect sees it. So bees, for example, can't catch the colour red, but they can see UV — a completely different colour spectrum. The bees can only see a few centimetres in front of them, but they have a different flicker threshold — so the way new frames are coming into their eyes is different. We would go past a field of flowers, and it's a blur to us, but bees can see things more individually and more specifically.
Did you do any tracking on the bees? To see where they go and which kind of flowers they prefer.

I worked a lot with scientists who advised on this project, like Professor Lars Chittka at Queen Mary University in London. He spends time tracking bees — which I can't do (laughing). He puts a little radar on them to follow how they navigate. This leads to how this artwork functions: it uses an algorithm to design the planting.

If I were to design a garden, I would make it how I like it to look. Instead, I wanted to use technology here, but in a different way: to think about how it can benefit other species, not us. The algorithm is optimized for pollinator diversity to serve the maximum number of pollinator species possible over the year rather than how I like it to look.

And now anybody who happens to have a garden can just go on your website, put in all the necessary details — and get a blueprint of the bee-friendly garden they can plant. Or how does this work?

Yeah. I made the algorithm available so people can plant in a private space or get in touch if they want to contact a school or a community space. So just go to the website and put in the garden coordinates. We've got a lot of Europe covered with the plant palette, as I call it. We've selected 190 plants, looking at which pollinators they serve and when they bloom. And then you get your garden designed.

And though I keep calling it a garden, it's actually an artwork. That's a really important distinction I want to make because what I'm saying is let's look at nature as an artwork. And what you get on the website is instructions to fabricate your artwork. It's a plant. And you have to you have to realize the artwork yourself.

How many gardens have you done so far?

We've got three large commissioned gardens. The first is at the Eden Project in Cornwall. The second one is near the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park in London, and the third is planted in Berlin in front of Museum für Naturkunde, with the LAS Art Foundation. These gardens in Berlin and Cornwall are about 700 square meters of planting each.

And the idea is that these act as hubs to get people excited to plant DIY additions locally. In Berlin, we've got lots of schools and community groups getting involved, and more than five schools.

So, there are probably loads of tiny gardens you don't even know about.

I hope that's a message for everyone. Just plant the gardens. It's about mutual flourishing, not about a limited edition of an artwork.