Koert van Mensvoort is an artist, technologist and philosopher. It is his aim to better understand our co-evolutionary relationship with technology and help set out a track towards a future that is rewarding for both humankind and the planet at large. Van Mensvoort is director of the Next Nature Network in Amsterdam and gives presentations worldwide.
Economology connects ecology and economy. Typically we see ecology as something out there – nature, untouched by people, whilst the economy is our market. Right now it is quite urgent to connect these two. With our team we are working on a project called the ECO Coin, which aims to connect Economy and Ecology. Hopefully in the future we will have a word for that.
Since 2007, over 50% of people live in cities. It is a huge moment in human history, because we are nearing the time when it becomes natural for humans to live in cities. How do we guide their growth? How do we co-evolve with them? I think we can see a new perspective emerging that moves away from the idea of making blueprints for cities and embraces the complexity of their structures and guiding their growth.
We live in a world of screens. Everybody is looking at their screens and information is gradually jumping out of it and into our environments, also into the city - but who wants a city full of screens? We want patterns in the city. There are many patterns around us, often decorative ones, that we consider beautiful. If we combine them with information, we can start to read them. Human beings have not evolved with media, however we have had to read our environment, the weather, the tracks of animals in order to hunt them down. Information decoration is about showing patterns in our environment in a way that resonates with our senses.
Shared traditions define how we live together. I often sense strong longing for going back in time, even though it can never happen. The future is ahead of us, we can only go forward. Yet we can learn from tradition. We can be nostalgic, but we have to do it in an innovative way by looking at our nostalgic feelings, our traditions, our intuitions and transform them into something new.
This project is about the role of vocabulary in cross-disciplinary collaborations. Do you think it is worthwhile establishing a common language today and how do you think this could happen?
Establishing a common vocabulary is extremely important because 80% of the issues between people are not about content, but about communication. When I say a word I mean something, I have a certain intention, but you might interpret that word in a completely different way, because you make different associations or because of the context – this is the source of many problems. So, to sit down and say: ‘When I use this word this is what I mean, do you get it? Are we on the same page?’ is extremely important and relevant.
Have you ever been a part of a collaboration where the dissonance between how you understood things resulted in either a funny or a problematic situation?
My team and I are constantly in this situation because what we are doing at Next Nature is trying to change the meaning of the word ‘nature’.
I think the common idea of nature is rather naive. People see nature as beautiful, harmonic, inherently balanced, giving a good quality of life. We try to re-evaluate that and talk about how the image of nature is changing. We are in an intermediate situation where some people have made the shift and see the new notion of nature, others not yet. We are constantly engaging in this negotiation. It is actually our strategy, because we realize that it will take thirty to forty years before our understanding of nature will have changed and we will have finished. Until then there will be a lot of misunderstandings, but hopefully also in a good way.
How does the notion of Next Nature change our current understanding and relation to nature?
The notion of Next Nature helps to bring people back into nature again, because we still typically see it as something outside of people: once people touch it, it is not natural anymore. This dead end is not going to help us solve urgent issues such as global warming, population explosion and deforestation. We have to acknowledge that we – human beings – are here on the planet and we make our mark. But how can we do it in a good way? How can we find a path that is rewarding not only for ourselves but also for the biosphere as a whole, and I would say also for the technosphere. Our new notion of nature, does not see nature and technology as opposites, as black and white. With technology we try to free ourselves from the forces of nature, yet when we do that we also transform it and turn old nature into next nature. This next nature might be wild and unpredictable as ever and that is the new way of looking at it. It is quite abstract, but of course we try to make it concrete through projects. When it comes to vocabulary, it is fascinating that some words have become so mainstream that we hardly ever explain them; and once we want to change their meaning we need a lot of words and philosophy. Then the meaning of the word can actually change and, you don’t need these words anymore, but for now, we are in the intermediate phase.
Why next nature and not new nature?
It would be an option to call it new nature, however, that would imply the change only happens once. The notion of next nature tells us that nature is dynamic. It is changing along with us, time after time. One could say that 10,000 years ago, when agriculture was invented, it was also a radical intervention in the natural environment. It was the next nature of that time. Today we have new areas of knowledge like biotechnology and nanotechnology that form the next nature. If we use the term new nature we imply that this is happening now.
Both in the ECO Coin project you mentioned earlier, as well as in other projects such as the Data Fountain, you address the question of how value can be represented and contested through the use of different media. Do you think that technology can help us find balance between different perceptions of value?
There are a lot of opportunities to refine the notion of value. To me, it is still a miracle that I can walk into a shop and buy a piece of bread by handing in a piece of paper. Money has this value because we all believe in it. One could say money is the most successful virtual reality that we have created. However, it is detached from biological values creating a mismatch in how we denote value. This is something we try to solve with the ECO Coin project, where we say “Hey, wait a minute! Wouldn’t it be better if you could not only earn money by cutting a tree, but also earn money by planting a tree?”. It’s a big project, because it is basically trying to change the whole financial system and that won’t happen overnight, but it starts with the awareness of different values.
THE IN VITRO MEAT COOKBOOK
by ‘Koert van Mensvoort & Hendrik-Jan Grievink’
You use very diverse media to communicate your message in your work. What comes first for you, the medium or the message?
We always start with the message. For me, and I think also for the whole team, it is a celebration that we can pick the medium according to the concept that we want to work on.
Does this create any practical challenges?
When your work is not medium specific and you can use any medium you want – we make books exhibitions, fountains, movies – your skill is not in the medium, but in the concept and vision behind it. At Next Nature, we build a team for every project and sometimes we involve people who have mastered a certain medium that we need at that moment. A few years ago we made a book with future visions of in vitro meat where we worked with Silvia Celiberti – an illustrator, who made beautiful drawings inspired by the concept we envisioned.
Being able to build a team depending on the medium you want to work with is a joy, because you are surprised all the time by the different things you can do. There is also a risk that you may be naive with the medium you use. I have great respect for people who are experts in a certain medium, like painting, making a certain type of music or playing an instrument – they have a clear expertise. For us the expertise is concept and vision based, and we always have to find the medium.