Garden of Machines: compos(t)ing kinship in contemporary next nature

All earthlings are kin in the deepest sense.

Donna Haraway

Imagine your fridge suggesting what to have for dinner, communicating with the orange tree in the orchard and informing you when fruits are ripe and ready to be caught. Imagine it providing food for various animals also, monitoring that they really eat from the bowl of food intended for them.
Meanwhile, Zebro, the six legged robot from the TU Delft Robotics Institute, in communication with the compost heap measuring soil acidity, provides it with the required amount of fruit peels.
Besides, on a global scale, dressed up with special collars equipped with cameras, GPS and speakers, cats use the Internet of Animals for sharing videos of theirs hunts, and young birds are protected by repelling other animals within a four meter radius of the nesting box.

zebro Zebro, 2010 | TU Delft Robotics Institute

Until now it were mostly humans that benefited from machines, which take over difficult tasks. But what if plants, animals and ecosystems could also take advantage of new technology? What would the world look like?
Beyond an instrumental approach to technologies, and rather fostering a viral exchange and a trans-species encounter among bodies and figures of contemporary socio-cultural scenario, Garden of Machines – a collective exhibition recently concluded at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam – wondered about and explored the possibilities of (re)creating worlds in our next nature: a composite dynamic reality both here and yet to come.
In fact, what I found in the different habitats reproduced in Garden of Machines was based on existing developments, products and research that is being done now, but arranged in such a way that people would be offered a glimpse of the future. After all, that’s been the purpose of capitalism in World Expos through centuries: proudly showing itself to an international audience with its technological mirabilia, as well as in its aesthetic virtuosities nestled in urban worlds in feverish expansion. In the context of the 34th World Expo on show in Milan from May 1st to October 31st, Garden of Machines offered a radical vision of the future: one that problematizes neo-colonial anthropocentric entanglements and announces the emergence of a potential ecosystem in which technical and organic bodies learn to live together.

Galeries des MachinesInside view of the Galeries des Machines, 1889 used for the World Expo 1900 | Brown University Library. Collection: Paris Capital of the 19th Century

Grand Palais ParisSalon de Locomotion Aerienne, 1909 Grand Palais Paris | Photographer Unkown - Science & Vie, 2009

American PavilionAmerican Pavilion at Expo 1967 in Montreal, Quebec | Photo by Della Charlton

Italian PavilionItalian Pavilion at Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy | Photo by Dirk Verwoerd

Within contemporary globalized context, where the circulation of people and goods ‘re-runs’ the accelerated rhythms of the digitalization of bodies and data, and the developments of bio-sciences and technologies blur the borders between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’, the relationship among earth, humans, animals, and machines emerges and unfolds as a molecular contamination.
OGMs and bio-food. Drugs. Medicines. Animal testing and lab experiments. The Internet of Things. New forms of warfare entailing the use of remotely controlled technological weaponry. Technologies resting on the neocolonial extraction of geophysical resources. Within contemporary technocultural scenarios, figures, that is where the biological and the literary or artistic come together with all the force of lived reality, are becoming increasingly blurred. (Haraway 1997, 8-11) They emerge as Life’s Artefacts, transcending the opposition between natural and artificial, and offering new perspectives on contemporary contestable worlds. Embodying what experimental sciences would envision as the disturbance of the true image of nature, as well as what arts and design would rather shape as a desire, technological artefacts emerge as figurations, sites of trans-species encounters, thresholds to many possible worlds. (Pohflepp 2015) As biologist Arjen Mulder says, we can “understand only those aspects of nature that we have been able to reproduce mechanically”. (Mulder 2015) Then, on the boundaries of art, science and philosophy, machines are collective experiences of a naturecultural world in intra-action with the multiplicity of organic and inorganic forces inhabiting the planet. (Wark, 2015)
Exhibition curator Klaas Kuitenbrouwer and designers Wikke van Houwelingen, Roel Huisman, and Rudy Guedj address the issue of the relation between technology and nature by resorting to the figure of the garden, a body that reinscribes artificiality at the very heart of nature. Intended as “an actualisation of what city dwellers consider nature to be, ... [as an] organized wildness”, the garden reveals itself a technological form of nature. (Mulder 2015) As such, it embodies – and thus allows the understanding of – a collaborative viral concept of evolution as well as a mobile character of ecology: the former being intended as a mortal critters’ dance of encounters rather than their competition (Haraway 2015, 160), the latter substituting the notion of a stable, balanced, harmonic equilibrium with an endless movement “from one position of instability to another” (Bateson 2000, 498).
Thus, the exhibition outlines the space of what landscape architect Gilles Clément would call a ‘garden in motion’. Originating in the physical displacement of life on the grounds, due to seed dispersion provoked by wind, animals, and humans, the phrase ‘garden in motion’ refers to those pieces of land where "the existing sources of energy do not encounter the obstacles usually set up to oblige nature to yield to geometry, to tidiness, or any other cultural principle." (Clément 1991) Rather this vital energy encounters a gardener who attempts to shape it to his/her advantage without altering its dynamics. Then, the response-able inhabitant of the garden in motion would be the one doing as much as possible for and as little as possible against it, in order to maintain and increase biological diversity, a source of wonder, a guarantee for the future. (Ibid.) That’s exactly the case of Garden of Machines where the artists and researchers involved in the project propose a sustainable experimentation and recreation of possible worlds, within the context of the Anthropocene, the geo-cultural conjuncture we’re in now, that in contemporary critical debate is dominantly presented as

a new phase in the history of the Earth, when natural and human forces become intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other, ... a series of metabolic rifts, where one molecule after another is extracted by labor and technique to make things for humans, but the waste products don't return so that the cycle can renew itself. The soils deplete, the seas recede, the climate alters, the gyre widens: a world on fire. (Wark 2015, XIV)

Faced with the catastrophic scenario of a planet disappearing in slow motion, Garden of Machines elaborates a multiplicity of responses to the melancholy paralysis that the contemplation of such announced extinction often produces. (Ibid., XIII-XX) In fact, the cooperative work of artists and curators seeks to configure a collection of umwelten: experienced habitats where resilient bodies, both natural and artificial, learn to be response-able, to respect each other and live sustainably together. (von Uexküll 1934) As ‘third landscape’ of a planetary garden in motion, that is as a marginal place full of “indefinite spaces, devoid of a function, to which it is difficult to give a name,” this inventory of habitats constitutes a refuge for diversity. (Clément 2003)


The Kitchen kitchen Garden of Machines | Photo by Johannes Schwartz

Up until now, the only task of a refrigerator was to slow down the decay of organic materials. This workload will expand greatly. In scenarios on the Internet of Things, the refrigerator invariably always orders the groceries itself. But a refrigerator can also gather information on all in-house processes that deal with food, and can ensure that everything fits neatly together, exactly on time.

City Park - Internet of Animals internet of animalsDelFly, since 2005 | TU Delft Robotics Institute

Cats were the first animals that started to use the Internet on a massive scale. They share videos of their hunts, tune into cameras in nesting boxes they cannot reach themselves and play classic cat games. Other animals have also find their way to the Internet. Collars for different species of birds, dogs and other animals are equipped with small cameras, GPS and speakers. This has given rise to a number of services for animals.

Urban Agriculture urban agricultureGarden of Machines | Photo by Johannes Schwartz

A lot of agriculture takes place in the vicinity of the cities. This makes a huge difference in the costs and energy consumption for logistics and cooling. It also ensures that more fresh food is available in the cities, where food consumption is highest. To have enough space urban argiculture is organised vertically, in towers. And on the roofs or facades of buildings. Growing food remains a lot of work, but the tasks are divided between humans, animals, and machines. Bees and butterflies provide for dissemination of pollen, but robot bees can also take over this task. Delfly can smell when a fruit is ripe, and report this to the refrigerator, which can send out its human or activate a machine.

Container Ship containerGarden of Machines | Photo by Johannes Schwartz

Container ships carry goods all over the world. Animals and plants often unintentionally ride along with a transport, disembarking the ship when it is being unloaded. There they must then obtain a place within a strange ecosystem. Could the containers on these ships also deliberately be used as a cold storages or greenhouses? Vegetables or mushrooms could be grown during the travel and be freshly harvested when the ship arrives at the port. Satellite communication makes it possible to keep track of the situation on board along the way, as well as the most actual prices that are being paid on the shore for the goods. This way, container ships can constantly monitor the best trading conditions. Because our cities are becoming more crowded and the sea level will continue to rise for a while, some people decide to live in floating cities. It is not only the rich who can afford this. If you do not have a lot of money you can live on a container ship, because containers are good homes. Container ships have thus become sailing miniature cities where species from all over the world live together in the strangest combinations.

The Highway highway Garden of Machines | Photo by Roberta Colavecchio

Autonomous or self-driving cars provide the transport of humans and animals on highways between cities. Big cities have become bigger while smaller cities have shrunk further. Agriculture increasingly moves towards the city. Between the cities, plants and animals are getting more freedom, resulting in a landscape that starts to resemble the old nature... But there is a difference. Just like the cars, some trees and animals have gone online as well. They indicate where they are and what they are doing. This way cars know exactly what is happening around them and can respond better to other traffic, but also to overhanking branches, or hedgehogs, toads or deers who plan to cross the road. Because the cars do not need to be controlled, humans and animals can do whatever they like while they are travelling. A ride between two cities becomes a kind of safari.

The Operating Room operating roomGarden of Machines | Photo by Johannes Schwartz

It is increasingly difficult to define the boundary between living beings and machines in the operating room. The machines in the operating room already have been learning to take car of living beings for a long time. They can take over the function of kidneys, heart or lungs during an operation. And they can be implanted in the body or connected to it. This is the case with humans, but also with many species of animals, and even plants. Such composite beings can break down and then need to be repaired. In such cases the doctor must have a good knowledge of electronics, and have the right equipment.

The Skin skinGarden of Machines | Photo by Petra van der Ree

On and under the skin, a new microscopic society has been created. Bacteria that have always been quietly going about their business there are joined by new species with specially designed characteristics. They can, for example, filter UV radiation from sunlight, thus protecting the skin from sunburn. In addition, they are able to process the UV light into useful enzymes. Fast microbots swarm in between the cells. They can recognize abnormalities in tissue and intervene when, for example, cancer cells are threatening to become active.

As a collection of in-organic bodies or living machines, the exhibition can be considered an inventory: an accumulation of matters and information scattered and interconnected within the space of the museum, that opens up to a system of objects “arranging itself in composition with as yet unknown combinatorial potentials.” (Fuller 2007, 14) Therefore, Garden of Machines is “a way of bringing a virtual or suppressed text into emergence through the accumulation of details.” (Ibid.) In fact, as the curator highlights, the
habitats (which I renamed ‘refuges’) reproduced in Garden of Machines embody new stories, in which man takes a less central place than we are usually accustomed. Together these stories paint a world where animals, plants and ecosystems have the same advantages from technology as humans. (Kuitenbrouwer 2015)
As remarked by Donna Haraway, faced with the dystopian scenario of the Anthropocene, that is in the light of current destruction of places and times of refuge for people and other critters, "it matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts. Mathematically, visually, and narratively, it matters which figures figure figures, which systems systematize systems." (Haraway 2015, 160) That said, the habitats in the Garden of Machines can be seen as ‘worlds worlding worlds’: gathered complexities which edges have been kept open and greedy for surprising new and old connections.
Approaching these worlds from a Harawayan compost-ist perspective can be of help for containing current thriving rhetoric of extinction: the refuges recreated by the artists would be new worlds built out of the ruins of the old ones. Assembled from existing developments, products and research that is being done now, residues of an endangered planet, the apparatuses on show at Het Nieuwe Instituut act like composting machines opening planet Earth and all its critters up to new possible futures. That is a good news story in current times of dithering, of indecisive agitation.
“How long will the Anthropocene last?”, Sascha Pohlflepp wonders in Life’s Artefacts, his theoretical contribution to the exhibition. Nobody knows the answer, but anyone hopes it will end soon. The refuges with-in the Garden of Machines are practical methods, active attempts, molecular practices in response to the global scope of the Anthropocene: they are the act of circumscribing, of reframing what is recounted as an epoch into a boundary event, a transitional mo(ve)ment towards unpredictable epochs to come that can replenish refuge. Therein organic and inorganic bodies, the planet and the machines will be reconciled into a sustainable co-habitation. (Haraway 2015, 160) As Bifo remarks:

The relation between things and words is no longer based on an affective bond, on a corporeal sharing, rather it is reduced to an operative function. Therefore human beings are no longer able to be brothers. (Berardi, 2015)

And sisters.
If within current context of digitalization humans have remained Without Mothers, that is unable of the affective bond between bodies, devoid of that sensibility corporeally reconnecting living beings, and reconciling the organic and inorganic forces co-evolving in the endless dance of encounters that shapes Life on Earth, then what Garden of Machines does by exposing the audience to new worlds assembled from existing developments, products, objects and researches which are next to us, is a kind of mammalian job: the recompos(t)ing of a new kinship, one that, resting on ‘logical relations’ rather than on ‘family ones’ – as the original meaning of ‘relatives’ in British English recalls – (Haraway 2015, 161), reconstitutes the affective bond among the multiplicity of critters becoming-with(in) the planet, and announces the possibility of a sustainable next nature. After all, Deleuze was right thirty years ago, even more he is now, in current times of dithering:

A little of possible, otherwise I suffocate!


Bateson, G., 2000 (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

Berardi, F. (Bifo), 2014. “Senza Madri”, Commonware – General Intellect in Formazione

Clément, G., 1991. Le Jardin en Mouvement, Paris: Pandora

— 1999. Le Jardin Planétaire: Reconcilier l’Homme et la Nature, Paris: Broché

— 2003. Manifeste du Tiers Paysage, Paris: Éditions Sujet/Objet

Fuller, M., 2007. Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture, London: The MIT Press

Haraway, D. J., 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_ Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience, New York: Routledge

— 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin”, Environmental Humanities, 6, 159-165

Pohlflepp, S., Mulder, A., 2015. “Life’s Artefacts (in the Ten-Thousand-Years Garden)”

Uexküll, J. von, 1934. A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animls and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds, New York: Springer

Wark, M., 2015. Molecular Red. Theory for the Anthropocene, London & New York: Verso