TU Delft / OMA @ Manifesta12 Palermo – A Listening Ear (2018)

Research and Installation for Biennial Exhibition ‘Radical Gardening‘ (Video, Booklet).

Research statement:

Palermo, a city drenched in glorious decay, an attraction for a multitude of visitors. From traders to the Grand Tourists to cosmopolitans and migrants, various groups of people have intersected Palermo. Within the theme of Manifesta 12, Radical Gardening, a garden is a way to explain and tend to the commons and in this case, a way to explain or change the perspective on influential societal matters in Palermo.

When the Orto Botanico came to my attention as a possible subject of study, it never came to my mind that this part of the city could be so rich in stories and this intensely interwoven with the history of Palermo. During the first days of my stay in Palermo, I sensed my premeditated proposals change under the influence of the impressions I experienced in real time. The Orto Botanico, the botanical garden, could indeed be seen as a metaphor for the intersecting routes of people, in the same way as they have crossed paths from the age of Enlightenment and Colonialism up to this date. “Botanical gardens from all over Northern Europe sent plants to Palermo that would otherwise have perished in colder climes” (Frustrated Gardener). Understanding the upward battle of empiric science, and the obsession it created to classify and collect species in the founding years of the botanical garden was an important key.

This key helped to unlock the layers of acts against the plants or, as I will call them from now on, the citizens in the botanical garden. The Orto Botanico hosts many of these imported citizens: foreign seeds, rare plants, and pseudoindigenous species, who have been renamed and ordered in rigid assemblies, much alike blocks in a larger city. One neighborhood of this botanical city is the Linnaean section, one of the first areas to be constructed within the period of Enlightenment. Science in that time was the ultimate tool to understand the (new) world from the scale from Man. Other examples of clasifications within the Orto Botanico are the sections of Engler and the Useful Plants area. The classification of the botanist Carl Linnaeus formed the inspiration for the rigid structure of the Linnaean section designed by the monk Da Ucria. In the 18th century, Linnaeus formalized the binomial nomenclature.

The naming system introduced a new idea, which the names could be trivial and simply seen as a label, making them easier to remember. Da Ucria implemented the ideas of Linnaeus. By laying out the grid of this section with his system, he took us along in a dream of understanding and simplifying the unknown. The connection is made between Linnaeus as a botanist and Da Ucria as a botanist and designer, digging deeper into a need for simplicity in order. The act of displacing, formalizing, and renaming was the pre-condition of the later act of objectification, domination and colonization. The citizens in the Linnaean section were for example organized along a perfect grid. Over time, some original citizens within that section took over more than their designated terrain and some surfaced spontaneously. Others however could not make it to our current age (Cassandra Funsten). This process of eradicating their origin happened due to the will of Man to order nature and misunderstanding it along this path of reasoning. It shows the confusion and misplaced hostility towards foreign influences in the name of science.

With this project, I attempt to lay beside me the role of (pseudo-)scientist and take up the position of the architect as listening ear. Listening, conversing, and informing myself, without judging, enabled me throughout this journey to collect evidences for the acts against the citizens and to voice their current state.

By no means do I pretend to be a botanist either and some elements in the interviews signify the willingness to acquire more knowledge in this area. These conversations and observations have also shown me the fragility of Palermitan identity in general, of which the long need for the city to establish their own institutions and get recognition for these is a part of the fight.

The booklet accompanying the videoinstallation is built up as a diary of interviews, a diary of conversations even. The diary as a form of collecting anecdotes, or investigating, rose in popularity in the Renaissance, when the personality of the individual began to be stressed. In this diary, we begin with the inevitable histories to paint a picture of the triumph of science in Enlightenment and the interpersonal frictions of lost faiths. Then I found it necessary to make an overview of the diversity in the Linnaean section, a beautiful and tragic collision of identities. Afterwards, the sections of interviews give a glimpse into the various voices and opinions on this life in the Linnaean section. The booklet ends with stills from the video-installation A Listening Ear. Via the diverse viewpoints of protagonist and environment, we can ponder on proposing different perspectives of living in Palermo and finding root. To propose a different type of awareness in science and architecture. We can think about the triviality of naming and classifying citizens as objects, and with this change in perception my work is fulfilled.