Could Humans & Plants Co-Create the Post-Industrial Cities of the Future?

“Geomerce” proposes a future where plants naturally de-contaminate and reconfigure our post-industrial town- and landscapes.

At its most basic level, Geomerce–an installation of potted plants, pretty graphs, and elegant hydroponic tank stands–is a mining operation. The plants, you see, are extracting metals from the solutions in which they sit, metals which can then be extracted from their leaves for human use. On a grander scale, however, Geomerce is a remarkable design-cum-biology experiment. It proposes a future scenario in which contaminated lands, those left by mines or factories, are re-populated with plants that have evolved to naturally extract these metals— thus allowing nature to take its course and reconfigure our post-industrial town- and landscapes.

The traveling installation was most recently on display in Slovenia as an associated exhibition of the 25th edition of BIO (Bienale Industrijskega Oblikovanja). This year the title of the industrial design biennial is ‘Faraway, So Close,’ and, as explained by curators Angela Rui and Maja Varjdan, it explores the relationship between the urban and the so-called alter-urban: something at once separate from, yet coexisting with, the built environment.

It was the perfect arena for the Geomerce project, which was first initiated by Gionata Gatto and Giovanni Innella in 2014. The installation comprises three hyperaccumulators (the plants capable of growing in soils with very high concentrations of metals) set up in hydroponic containers. Each plant extracts metals–zinc, nickel and copper–from the water solutions. This mining is documented in real-time on circular plotters via mechanical arms. Simultaneously, the live fluctuations of the price of each metal on the London Metal Exchange is also marked onto the plotters, bringing the human construction of mineral value and the natural processes of the plants into direct conversation.

Inspired by the work of multispecies ethnographer Anna Tsing, Gatto and Innella’s project illustrates overlaps in human and vegetal life: how they define one another and might work collaboratively in the future. “When we think of understanding non-human beings we need to get rid of this idea of perfectionism and control that we want to have over the things we do,” Gatto explains amidst the bubbling hydroponic tanks and whirring mechanical arms of the installation. “And understanding multispecies relations really means being curious about this knowledge that the non-human shows us.”

The installation comprises three hyperaccumulators, or plants capable of growing in soils with very high concentrations of metals, in hydroponic containers.
The plant’s extraction of metals is documented in real-time on circular plotters. Other plotters mark the live fluctuations of the price of each metal on the London Metal Exchange.

With each iteration of the project, so far in Milan, Stuttgart and Ljubljana, plants have been sourced from the locality in collaboration with farmers and biologists in the area—in Slovenia a Thaspi Praecox performed the work. “Contamination for us is often a reason for concern, but it’s interesting for us to see how plants can see it as a reason for survival instead. I think this project doesn’t necessarily project a sort of dystopic future, or even a sort of utopic opportunity, it really aims at mobilising a local context and local audiences.”

While industrial automation is often discussed in sociologically catastrophic tones, there is something inescapably satisfying about the interaction between plant, machine and algorithm that Geomerce displays. Through this project, the idea of automation itself is reframed as an entirely natural process; the evolution of species emerges as the ultimate reflexive algorithm, one that atones for ecological damage inflicted by human activity. “What’s interesting here is to provide a representation of the way plants react to the settings where they live,” says Gatto.

As with many of the projects in the biennial, Geomerce designs processes and relations, as opposed to objects. The team behind the project thus emerges as much as scientific researchers as designers. They work not on a finished product but towards new possibilities for hybrid environments. As performance and proposal, Geomerce brings these environments of the imagined Faraway, ever closer.

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