Belgian-Tunisian artist Naziha Mestaoui produces monumental and interactive digital works that reconnect urban man with nature. Presentation.
Creating experiences between human beings and nature
As an artist and an architect, I have always been passionate about the idea of questioning the reality we live in order to imagine its future, with three goals in mind: to be proactive, to help broaden the scope of possibilities and to inspire through my creations. In this approach, science and technology are at the heart of this quest. Moreover, I have always felt deeply bound to nature, so it was quite natural that I developed a keen interest in quantum physics (1), which proposes to call reality into question.
Our Western culture takes part of a materialistic vision of the world. But since the scientific revolution, which quantum physics has brought us one century ago, we know that our world is mostly immaterial. Everything around us, including our bodies, is made mostly of emptiness and energy. Everything is interconnected. This vision of reality may seem to be counter-intuitive, but it is intuitive for some civilisations. The civilisations and societies I wanted to observe and understand from within, not with a theoretical and intellectual approach, but through my senses and experiences. It was this lengthy research work into quantum physics that took me to Amazonia in 2011.
After this extraordinary experience, I started to incorporate this environmental conscience into my artwork. Over there, I could see and feel that everything is interconnected and that every plant, tree, animal and human being is part of a network, where they are all important and interdependent. This is why I create experiences that bond people to nature, ourselves to others.
Digital technology at the service of individual action
Digital technology and tools are important in my work, because they represent a modern technology that can create ties with ancestral cultures and build the future, not in opposition to the relationship between human beings and nature, but, on the contrary, in harmony and symbiosis.
We always talk about “saving the planet”, but what we are really trying to save is our place on Earth, not the planet itself, which, in my opinion, would easily cope with our disappearance. Given that, in the West, people spend more than 2 hours per day on their smartphones, proposing mobile apps that can, in the end, incite everyone to take action makes sense. My projects are a means of sharing my approach with people who do not have the opportunity or who are not used to taking action to protect the planet and its wealth.
The audience is involved in my artwork in a different way. I want to turn individuals into actors and be part of the solution, without making anyone feel guilty. This is what I had in mind when I created my monumental work One Heart One Tree, which transformed the Eiffel Tower into a virtual forest at the opening of the COP 21 in Paris. The goal was to show that a different relationship with nature and living things is possible. Nature is not just a mass of inanimate objects at our disposal. A tree is much more than wood and a means of capturing carbon. It is another living being with its own sensitivity, a form of intelligence.
With One Heart One Tree, the spectators’ heartbeats gave birth to another life, to a tree. In concrete terms, when the participants place their finger on the photographic cell of their telephone, an algorithm analyses the micro-changes in the colours caused by the blood flowing in the finger, producing a 3D tree in real time. And for every virtual tree, a real tree was planted. Thanks to more than 1.4 million people who logged on, more than 100,000 trees were planted via five great reforestation programmes all over the world, from the Amazon, to Senegal, India, France and Australia. For example, mangrove trees were planted in Casamance, Senegal, in collaboration with hundreds of villages, in an effort to restore this fragile ecosystem and to protect the coast and marine species.
I think that we will move faster in the right direction by inviting people to question their lifestyles and by making them want to build something better, rather than by forcing changes upon them. I believe that art in general is an essential means of getting this message through. One of my latest projects, called One Tree One Planet on the theme of genetics, was created with American scientists.
We share around fifty genes with all other living things, from bacteria and plants, to mammals. These genes were sequenced, and the sequences of amino-acids that make them up were transformed into music, in a symphony of living things. It is an interactive work, where everyone can connect to another species by navigating in a “tree of life”(2) that brings together a multitude of species. They also learn that we share 60% of our DNA with bananas, or that a little plant called the Paris japonica is the organism with the longest DNA. One Tree One Planet makes us feel that we belong to a network, where every species has its own place.
© Naziha Mestaoui
Taking power over technology and remaining humble with nature
It is also important to rationalise digital tools and their usages in order to limit their impact in terms of pollution. In an ideal world, which may not be that far away, I can see digital technologies fuelled by solar or wind energy and made of materials that do not rely on extracted earth or heavy metals. Machines will be created according to the principles of the circular economy and without any programmed obsolescence. Quite a programme!
We have to change and to design our technologies differently, so that they benefit the environment. If we are in reliance (3) with nature, then we will humbly develop ingenious technologies in an approach to nature that is symbiotic, not domineering. Ants population represents between one and two times the weight of mankind, yet they have a positive impact on the planet. Maybe, one day, we will become as smart as they are! Our technologies can be used for better or for worse. We have to find out how we can use them wisely in order to reconnect with nature and living things, and to repair what we have destroyed. Our future belongs to us. We are all invited to contribute to it.
(1) A set of theories describing the behaviour of atoms and particles. Quantum physics has brought about a conceptual revolution reaching as far as philosophy, because it questions determinism. Quantum physics is known for being counter-intuitive and for confronting “common sense”, because the quantum world behaves very differently from the macroscopic environment were are used to.
(2) Inspired by the “Samauma”, a tree with millennial growth, the identity pillar of certain peoples and home to countless animal and plant species.
(3) A concept proposed by Roger Clausse in 1963 to refer to a state of bonding, an interpersonal relationship.
This article was published in the fifth issue of open_resource magazine: “The resource management in the digital age”