At This Office, Your Landlord Is a Tree

Artist Natalie Jeremijenko wants to design 'mutualistic' systems, where humans actually improve the environment.

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May 21 2015, 11:00am

TREExOFFICE. Image: Natalie Jeremijenko

You're a good environmentalist. You ride your bike to work, you print on both sides of the paper, and you try to shop locally to cut down food miles. But however much you reduce your carbon footprint, you're still adding to it all the time. Wouldn't the eco-friendliest thing to do be to commit suicide?

That's the logic that several of Natalie Jeremijenko's students have brought to her over the years, and it's a perspective she's eager to change. An artist, engineer, and New York University professor, Jeremijenko proposes that we could actually benefit the world we live in—or at least forge a symbiotic relationship with it.

"The fundamental idea of environmentalism that we've inherited from the conservation, preservation movement is this one of 'do not touch, leave no trace,'" she told me in an interview after her talk at last week's Digital Shoreditch tech festival in London. She wants to change that—"to this really exciting design challenge of, How do we make it good? How do we actually seize the opportunity?"

Natalie Jeremijenko. Image: Rene Passet/Flickr

Jeremijenko calls her work "mutualistic systems design." This is a type of design that works for humans but also benefits natural systems. Rather than building urban systems that include a vague eco-friendly footnote by attempting to limit environmental harm, mutualistic design would actually aim to increase biodiversity, or air quality, other green factors.

She's setting up her latest example of such design in East London's Hoxton Square next month: the TREExOFFICE. It's what it sounds like, an office space centred around a tree. But while it makes a nice change of surroundings for office workers, it's designed to directly benefit the tree too. The tree is the landlord.

What this means is that any profit reaped by the office goes back into the tree. "The money generated through rental of the space goes directly to the parks department for Hackney Council but it's earmarked for spending in Hoxton Square, in and around the tree—by the tree, if you will," explained J.J. El-Far, an assistant producer of Artsadmin, which commissioned the TREExOFFICE work for the 2 Degrees Festival, running as part of the ParkHack program in the first week of June.

An earlier version of the tree office. Image: Natalie Jeremijenko/Flickr

Using the tree as a proxy means that money shouldn't go on things like drain pipes or bins, but to improve the natural systems that support the tree. Expand on that and you start getting into the idea of rights for non-humans, embodied by the likes of the Rights of Nature movement. "What if a river, if it is trashed by a mining company, could sue the mining company directly instead of trying to find a farmer whose income is damaged..?" suggested Jeremijenko.

But the artist is not demanding that users be entirely selfless in the service of the environment; the mutualistic benefit for humans and nature is the key. "Who wants to spend all day in climate-controlled office on Facebook and tweeting when that same technology can be used to facilitate working in the trees and wetlands?" she said. "I think the responsibility that the emerging generation has is to reinvent their work practices in ways they find compelling and interesting; to go beyond the ping pong table in the Google office and the open plan office and be adventurous in how we work."

Concept of the Hoxton tree office. Image: ArtsAdmin

The tree office is a simple example of a much broader outlook that requires quite a shift in the usual design paradigm. Urban systems are naturally usually designed largely in the service of corporate interests, their success measured by economic indicators. Jeremijenko concedes that's necessary—but not sufficient. For her, the best proxy of the common good is human health, and that's directly influenced by the broader health of the environment.

Her tree office will therefore also be used as a field office for her "environmental health clinic," usually housed at NYU. Here you can book appointments like for a doctor's consultation, except for patients leave with prescriptions to improve the health of their local environment, such as an urban farming kit.

It all comes back to that original concern, and the promise that we humans can perhaps be good as well as bad for the world around us. Maybe the Anthropocene doesn't have to be a disaster.

Jeremijenko took issue with the "ecomodernist manifesto" authored by a group of researchers who argue instead for a "decoupling" of humans from nature.

"It's depressing, right, to be 'How much can we reduce our impact?'" she said. "Instead of understanding that we have this incredible agency to design how we want to work. We want to work in a tree? Of course we can work in a tree!"