Investigating the role of media and processes of mediation in the Blake Garden

Posted on by Surprise Highway
Filed under: Education, Media

Text by: Erin Despard -- May 25, 2010

What does it mean to think of a garden as a medium, or form of media? This is the question I have spent the last four months investigating, as a visiting researcher at the Berkeley Center for New Media, and for which I have found much inspiration at the Blake Garden, especially in conversation with the people working there. One thing it is interesting to observe in relation to this premise, is the way different media forms tend to interact, and how this interaction may change the way both are used. Thus, while I would argue that the garden itself—the way it is laid out, the content and style of its planting, the degree of its maintenance and so on—has a mediating power, particularly in relation to what people notice or understand about the local environment, it is also true that there are other forms of media at work in the garden. One form of media which most public gardens contain (sometimes very prominently) are signs which present information to visitors in the form of maps, historical narrative, botanical nomenclature and so on. All this serves to mediate, or influence, the kinds of experience visitors are likely to have in the garden. While such ‘mediation’ of the garden experience can be enriching and educational for visitors, and may even be expected in some contexts (such as botanical gardens), what has fascinated me about the Blake Garden is the relatively modest number of signs and labels. From my perspective, this has the effect of bringing more subtle, non-verbal forms of mediation more strongly into operation. Such mediation is necessarily more open-ended in its effects, creating outcomes which have more to do with provocation and inspiration than education. In other words, a visit to the Blake Garden raises questions rather than providing access to information. That said, the answers to those questions are often easily discovered—for example by speaking with one of the many friendly people working in the garden, or by visiting the garden website. More interesting, however, from my perspective, is how such questions may, before they are answered, encourage exploration and a closer attention to the garden and its inhabitants, as well as the unique characteristics of its environment. This is in my opinion precisely the kind of activity which is desirable in a garden whose mission involves the development and promotion of ecological landscape design practices. I have therefore found the Blake Garden to be an interesting site for exploring more subtle forms of mediation, forms which are perhaps also present in other gardens, but are less obvious or clear in their intention. I present here just one example of a feature in the Blake Garden that has a strong mediating effect, but whose effects are more subtle and open-ended, and therefore, I think, encouraging of a more active engagement with the garden. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="Photo: Erin Despard"]The Seep[/caption] Mediating water sources Here is a structure one encounters while descending the path from the upper lawn to the recently restored wetland below the South Creek Lookout. Simple yet elegant in its construction, and producing the pleasant sound of running water, it draws the attention in a non-intrusive manner. ‘What is it for?’ one might ask, and be encouraged to examine the entire arrangement more closely, taking note of the small pipe extending only an inch or so out of the hillside, and the trickle of water and bright green algae that emerge there. This is the underground spring which feeds the wetland below, a habitat to which frogs and birds are currently returning. The short trough makes this water source visible to visitors by extending its run above the ground, and audible by causing it to cascade into a small urn placed at the end of the trough. Following the trajectory of the trough, one can see that the overflow continues downhill, eventually irrigating the wetland. This small apparatus, artfully but simply composed, brings attention to a vital but often overlooked aspect of the garden’s existence. It may not explicitly educate visitors, but it provides them with the means of developing a deeper understanding of the way the garden is inextricably linked to the well-being of its greater environment. In the context of both growing public awareness of water issues in the Bay area, and the presence of numerous water-saving practices elsewhere in the garden, such an intervention acts to enhance perception, or to remind visitors of an ongoing situation, rather than to persuade them of a particular program. Without instructing them to do so, it has the potential to inspire visitors to pay greater attention to their surroundings, and perhaps to notice other aspects of the garden and its environment. Together with ongoing restoration projects, such custom-made structures found throughout the garden demonstrate an approach to garden-making and ecological stewardship which is both creative and accessible. It is a garden which clearly displays both its logic, and the tools of its making. Although as a whole it is made possible by the considerable talent and expertise of the people working there, the openness and simplicity of many of its projects suggests that one need not be an expert to intervene in a positive way on behalf of the environment. Note: On May 7th Erin met with us at the Garden for a "Garden As Media" Salon. Many thanks to her for writing this follow up article.