Your Own Medicine

It is the sea­son for botan­i­cal gar­dens to light up. The lights are always get­ting bet­ter. LEDs that grade smooth­ly from any col­or to any oth­er col­or, cor­ri­dors of coor­di­nat­ed LEDs that shift in time to the music, spin­ning pro­jec­tions, plain old uplight­ing with gels, plain­er and old­er Christ­mas lights wound up the tree trunks. Since I am heart­less, it gets me down to see how read­i­ly peo­ple respond to this, where the plain brown-and-green gar­den leaves them unmoved; chil­dren, far from being crea­tures of nature, do back­flips over the illu­mi­nat­ed ver­sion of what­ev­er space they would oth­er­wise be drag­ging them­selves through. This is art with the com­mon touch, art that makes peo­ple feel good. Do I try to com­pete with that?

If the first response is to make the land­scape design unmiss­able, to make it raz­zle-daz­zle on rainy days and Mon­days, it is a hard response to sus­tain. Year in and year out, I show my stu­dents Har­g­reaves’ Har­le­quin Plaza, and they start back as they would from a joy buzzer. Fine, you’ve con­vinced me: 99 times out of 100, land­scape design is not about peo­ple shock­ing one anoth­er. The sec­ond response, then, is to reframe the qui­et and fea­ture­less feel­ing of being in the land­scape; it is heal­ing, it is refuge, it is safe. If it can­not be any­thing active­ly good, it is instead the removal of what ails you. This sort of nat­ur­al land­scape shares with its illu­mi­nat­ed coun­ter­part a com­mon sense of being obe­di­ent, of being pre­pared for you in advance, of com­ing to greet you instead of meet­ing you halfway.

The neat­est anal­o­gy I can find is with ambi­ent music. As ambi­ent music con­verges with what used to be New Age and what used to be Muzak, as it rolls out of the chill­out room and onto the playlist in a pair of head­phones, it becomes ever more fea­ture­less; all attacks and decays sand­ed off, broad sigh­ing gra­di­ents of orange and pink, stock images of waves and crick­ets. This sort of heal­ing has noth­ing very spe­cif­ic or insis­tent to it; it is a thick duvet; it is phar­ma in a gel­cap. It is far off from med­i­c­i­nal bark, stripped from a tree with a prayer and steeped.

Look care­ful­ly at well­ness dis­course and you will find two oppos­ing notions that, hav­ing emerged at the same time, are strug­gling to rec­on­cile them­selves: that heal­ing is a refuge from an unfath­omably cru­el world, and that heal­ing is a mat­ter of com­mu­ni­ty. The eas­i­est way to have both at once is to hope for what used to be sub­cul­tures, and now pass as mutu­al aid soci­eties, or cho­sen fam­i­lies, or what have you; my sense on the ground is that these for­ma­tions are as hard to find as they have ever been. If there is not enough of a rec­og­niz­able com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple around you may need to take recourse in oth­er forms of socia­bil­i­ty. That is, at least until anar­chy prop­er spreads far­ther, we may make do with arts that are wel­com­ing soci­eties in of themselves. 

If it is pos­si­ble for peo­ple to make obe­di­ent ser­vants, prone things, qui­et things, inert things – to say noth­ing of idols and over­bear­ing things – it is equal­ly pos­si­ble for peo­ple to make things that talk to you, that talk to you unprompt­ed, that talk back to you when you talk to them. They can per­sist for a very long time. They can stand as ances­tors, if you like; they can pass on mes­sages from long ago. Even more won­der­ful­ly, it is pos­si­ble for the spaces between things to speak with you. 

One sort of a land­scape is a wait­er, and is only val­ued for an hour. Anoth­er sort is an aunt, an old­er cousin, or even clos­er, and speaks to you, shows up for you, is like­ly not always what you asked or hoped for, but some­thing else instead. The land­scape is not defy­ing you and is not pam­per­ing you: it is talk­ing with you, and you do not know what it will say next.

Con­tra Hal­prin, a land­scape archi­tect can­not chore­o­graph peo­ple who do not con­sent to be chore­o­graphed; they can only lay out a field of objects in such a way that the cross-talk between peo­ple, plants, and stones becomes loud enough to be attend­ed to. From Nuno Canavarro’s Plux Quba to Lau­rel Halo’s Atlas, ambi­ent music can read as social, socia­ble, a col­lec­tion of voic­es; a fam­i­ly din­ner, a salon, a town meet­ing. The inter­est­ing ques­tion for some­one work­ing in the medi­um of land­scape: what ampli­fies the voic­es of its qui­et mate­ri­als, its ons and offs, its things and spaces? How do you know it is speak­ing with you in your sick­ness? I take refuge in any account of a land­scape with an unsayable mes­sage, one that makes you walk slow­er, one where the effect can­not be mea­sured through size or age. For that effect points to a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal design of spaces con­fig­ured through care­ful place­ment, inch by inch, through care­ful search for prop­er plants, through care­ful dos­ing of light.

(December 2023)