Conversations with Amanda Yates and Fleur Palmer

Susie Cho
Madison Christian

Susie

Tell us a little about your practice Amanda?


Amanda

I’m really interested in the way that we currently tend to not think about the city very much in terms of ecologies or ecological systems. We still have quite a machina approach to the city. I think both Fleur and my thinking is very much influenced by a Māori kind of framework, a kind of cosmogonical model, which is a model of origins—you know—how did the world begin? which is a very much eminent order. We are of the earth, we are the descendants of the earth and the sky, and we are related to all the other kind of entities in the world, and it’s a very different position to those more transcendent philosophical frameworks based on an idea of a creator who is outside of the world, and who is already present and creates the world and creates us and his likeness. Because that kind of transcendent or outside of the world thing; it’s very subtle but it can be also quite determining of the way and the assumptions that we make about how we operate in the world. Whereas when you consider how your actions and your operations from a sort of more eminent ontology, where you recognise that you are of the world, it just intrinsically we are embedded in an intricately connected to the world, then that suggests a much more ethical practice. So that’s the kind of thought structure that I am really interested in. And then I am interested in how that can affect our actual on-the-ground practices in 2015 at AUT, or in the city. And it can be really difficult to bring those two together but it’s a really interesting challenge. And particularly in terms of AUT, both Fleur and I run studios which address urban ecologies or ecological urbanism, how to rethink the city in terms of ecological systems. I run a small sort of research lab, Emergent Ecologies. That’s a range of things working with undergrad and postgraduate students, often with other groups, like council, but also this PhD work that’s done within that and other sort of research that’s conducted around those issues.


Maddi

What about yourself Fleur?


Fleur

I would say that my approach aligns in a very similar way. I think since the Enlightenment that the Western World has developed a way of working with the environment, or thinking about the ways in which we construct environments in quite an exploitative manner. That’s why I really am interested in indigenous ways of thinking in terms of how we relate to our environments in a much more connected way and once you start thinking on that sort of level you become very mindful of every action you take because everything you do has an impact, from the mountains through to our atmosphere. We are seeing the impact of the way that we’ve been operating under our scientific paradigm that’s been very exploitative; we are seeing the impact of that way of operating now with global warming. And so if you take a step back and start rethinking how we can be working in a more ethical and considerate manner and really think about what is the impact of what we do when we live in the world, that shifts very radically what we do and how we design things, and how we interact and work with all other things. This way of operating is not necessarily just focused on human interest as well; it’s always thinking of other things, other entities. So it’s thinking about our rivers, thinking about the impact on our indigenous species of what we do. Especially in the New Zealand context, we have got more endangered species living here—especially bird species—than many other places in the world. And we have had a lot of adverse impact on our local environments in the last 150 years. I think cities and the way we populate our environments in an intensive manner is very important if we are to address adverse impacts elsewhere. I see urban ecologies, city environments as being vital to finding our solution to the problem.


Susie

I believe so too, the overwhelmingly rapid development of urban communities seems to have created a sense of alienation between city dwellers. It is so important to counteract these exploitative environments and by offering these kinds of papers for students it is another step in instigating change and encouraging ethical practice within urban ecologies. What about yourself Amanda?


Amanda

Because we are now an urban species, at a certain point some few years ago, statistics said that a vast majority of us now live in urban, smaller towns. Like New Zealand, many people live in small towns rather than this very large urban conglomeration. But you know, that’s a significant shift that we are now urban dwellers as a species and it really, as Fleur says, it really emphasises the need to think more effectively and to be more initiative around the urban condition. And I think the anthoposing—they are reviewing the term the anthoposy at the moment—which is a naming of a geologic epoch around the human—acknowledging our actions over the period of the industrial revolution, are now actually geographically, geologically indexed in the soil in the strata of the planet. That’s things like the kind of pollution, the micro pollution, the plastics, its radioactive nuclear tides scattered throughout. There’s a whole range of ways of whereby we are marking the planet, and global warming is a very good example, (or really a ‘bad’ example) of that. For me the term the anthoposy is a useful lever to remind me that our impact is planetary, it’s enormous, and it’s really past time for us to rethink how we operate.


Fleur

I think it’s especially a concern if our population, the planet’s population, is going to double, I think it’s within the next twenty years. So what is the impact of that on the future? How do we make more for all things within this sort of environment? How do we access food? How do we access other resources and how do we share the planet in a meaningful and non-exploitative way? And the risk is that we won’t do that. And there will be more inequity and there will be more devastation of local ecologies.


Amanda

Both Fleur and I are doing PhDs at the moment, and around these kinds of issues are sustainability or ecological frameworks for thinking in the world, which also becomes an ethical framework for thinking and being in the world. The moment you start to think about ecological systems and the way that everything is kind of interrelated and interconnected, it requires an ethical injunction to take care of those systems and take care of the multiple organisms that are relying upon that system or framework you’re engaging with. So my work is focused around questions of design thinking in relation to ethical frameworks, ethical practices, sustainable practices, and doing a number of installations or small scale tests that explore those ideas. And Fleur has been doing amazing work up north.


Fleur

I’ve been working with local communities in the country’s Far North. These are communities that are remote communities; they are very isolated. So we’ve been looking at how we are operating within these environments, how we can assert different ways of developing regionally these areas, thinking of land versus practices. In the past 150 years we’ve developed quite monoculture land practices, which has had adverse effects on our environment, our local economies, and social and community wellbeing. It’s just thinking… rethinking other ways that we might tackle this problem and so it’s been really fun. A lot of my work at the moment is to do with food—food security in the Far North because we’ve lost a lot of the ways we used to access our food sources. My ancestors, they were quite long-lived people. One of my ancestors lived until 102 and that was during pre-European, pre-colonisation periods. But now for Māori communities, the life expectancy’s dropped a lot lower and much of that is connected to how we are accessing our foods. And that’s why I’ve been running a studio project all about food production in the city to consider whether it’s possible to be actually growing our food locally and in a sustainable way. And with the festival in the Far North, they did a karingutu festival in Parumu and I grew a lot of food, which I took up to the festival, and when we had our lunch we had food grown at AUT. All our salads were grown up from AUT and we had oysters that we harvested locally up in Paramu and Kawanowo. Part of those sorts of activities is thinking about where we are accessing food from and also thinking about how we might be able to developing communal gardens, and getting more motivation within our communities. Because it can be quite hard and in Māori-owned areas you’ve got multiple owned land and a lot of politics that surround processes of colonisation, which has actually paralysed our communities, and they are dying. That’s why we have this huge need to rethink what we are going to be doing.

 

Amanda

And I’m really interested in, as I know you are too, the idea that with urban agriculture and the local food production model, none of these things are singular, but they’re part of a kind of building a relational system and so it very much creates a social network as well. You get a lot of social wellbeing out of that—from eating fresh vegetables—and you’ve got the wellbeing from being connected to part of a group and you’re learning from others. It’s a rich system. I did some student projects around that in Massey in Wellington and did a number of pop-up gardens in the city, working with the Wellington City Council. It’s amazing what kind of enjoyment it brings to people; it’s a real source of pleasure. There’s also a kind of generosity there about having abundant, edible food in an urban environment. It creates a sense of social connection that I think is interesting. The council was interested in the idea of that as a city, what it could mean to be a city that considers producing food for it’s population. There’s a kind of generosity to that which is really nice.


Fleur

Connected to that, with the studio I was running this semester we were having shared lunch every week. The ethos behind those shared lunches is that we weren’t going out buying chips or a packet of biscuits at the dairy, our idea was that we were really thinking about where that food came from. There was a whole social pleasure, social connection that drives those sessions, which was really important.


Susie

We heard about that space where you had the shared lunches, and it was a big conversation starter within the community. We’ve started having urban ecologies intergrated into our university life, there are research labs going on and for us two the Minor programme we’ve taken on has opened up a whole new consideration of the city as a living, breathing network.


Maddi

Without taking the paper on Urban Practices, I would have never considered the implications of what I do in a city and how everything is operating around us. It is daunting and in some ways depressing, but it is really eye opening to consider the city as living and breathing.


Susie

An important idea for me, that was brought up by the lecturer Andrew Douglas, was that we don’t always appreciate everything we have around us, the complexity of the networks that make up our world and how the simple act of looking up shows us a whole new perspective on our city.


Fleur

A lot of it is education, and also making this way of thinking cool, I think about when I was at school the people thinking this way were hippies; it was very fringe-based. I think that this ecological thinking has been on the fringes for a long time. But there is a shift, there is a paradigm shift happening.
Especially in areas like our food. There is a simple, yet concious effort to eat more ethically. Local inner city cafés who are growing their own. And people recognise eating there as a good gesture.


Susie

There is something just satisfying about growing your own produce too, let alone eating it to show you are conscious.


Fleur

Yes, I love going out into the garden, especially when I’ve got people coming around, and picking fresh lettuce and ingredients; it’s fantastic. But the truth is not everyone has the luxury of having a garden. So I think it is really important to think of ways in which we can do this in different contexts.


Maddi

Like community gardens. We walked past this one downtown and it was in such an unsual place, a really weird industrial setting for a garden of little planter boxes.


Susie

A really unexpected place, but it worked and everything grew.


Fleur

One thing that does always astound me is plants’ drive to grow. In a seed there is a lunchbox. And in that lunchbox is all the plant needs for its lifetime. So when I talk about my garden being quite plentiful, there really is so little effort to produce all that food, and the plant is so generous back. It always amazes me: that abundance and the will to live. Plants will grow anywhere if they’re given a chance. All you need is a little patience.