A Conversation on the Nature and Culture of Xochimilco with Laboratorio Lacustre
Written by Irene Xochitl Urrutia. Published on…
Plants have a longstanding place in art. Almost every culture has represented plants in various art forms, and for centuries, many artistic materials such as paper and pigments have been made from plant-based ingredients. Nevertheless, today plants feature in contemporary art, design, and artistic research projects in surprising new ways. Within the non-human turn in art, the life of plants opens fascinating new possibilities for artistic research. Vegetal life is inherently rooted in the place it grows and vegetal bodies gather and connect all kinds of environmental energy and matter (sunlight, soil, gases) and cross both biological, social, and economic systems. How precisely can plants help us study local issues and contexts through art?
In this article, I explore this question in conversation with Laboratorio Lacustre, a contemporary art, design, and knowledge-sharing collective focused on plants and plant materials. The project was established in 2019 in Xochimilco, a borough in the Southern periphery of Mexico City, one of the largest urban centers of the world today. The “lacustrine laboratory” that the group uses as their base is a mobile hut made of plant-based materials. Here, Laboratorio Lacustre makes objects, paper, and woven artifacts out of local flora. They research, experiment with, and teach a range of techniques, from processes involving organic ingredients to variations on traditional weaving, as well as investigate local plant knowledge. Their approach is open-ended and experimental: historical methods coexist with storytelling and speculation, and the objects they make combine design and visual art. Indeed, the project’s complex nature reflects the diversity of its members: Rodrigo Ocaña and Lola Juárez are designers, Eduardo Moreno is an anthropologist, and Leonardo Guerra is a visual artist and painter. In this way, Laboratorio Lacustre can perhaps best be described as a hybrid project characterized by interdisciplinary artistic research.
I am drawn to the work of Laboratorio Lacustre because we share a mutual interest in the relationship between landscape, territory, plants, and plant materials. My curiosity is both academic and personal; my father’s family originated in Xochimilco, and it was in this setting that I began working in contemporary art. To understand the importance and potential of Laboratorio Lacustre’s work with plants, it is worth digging first into Xochimilco’s relationship with the past, present, and future.
Xochimilco, Landscape, and Plants
Before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Xochimilco was an independent city, established on the edge of a lake system that was home to the Aztec empire. The inhabitants of the area erected a city on the shores of Lake Xochimilco and built an agricultural landscape of chinampas in the water: fertile islands for farming made by piling up mud from the lakebed. For this reason, Xochimilco, like the rest of the Valley of Mexico, boasted a complex landscape of canals, boats, and waterways in the 16th century.
However, things changed after the Spanish conquest in 1521. Over the next centuries, the lakes and waterways were gradually drained to make way for the colonial city. Today, Xochimilco is home to the last remaining canals and chinampa islands in a vast web of pavement and concrete. The area, in some ways, is caught between worlds. It was only about 80 years ago that Xochimilco was integrated into the metropolis due to urban expansion. Many families gave up farming and those who continued largely replaced traditional techniques with the use of greenhouses and agrochemicals. Nevertheless, Xochimilco still hosts a unique (if endangered) landscape, and its people share a particular history expressed in various local traditions.
Working in contemporary art in Xochimilco today is a most interesting combination of circumstances. For me, it seemed to be natural to choose this route because it was my neighborhood and community in 2016 when I began to participate in the independent contemporary art scene. But it is also a peripheral area and stands somewhat removed from the more popular and affluent cultural centers of the city. What about the members of Laboratorio Lacustre? How did they come to base their work in Xochimilco?
Leonardo, the visual artist in the team, explains that his location-inspired process grew from curiosity about a particular plant species. “When I got into this landscape, it was, first of all, a material interest in water hyacinths [Eichhornia crassipes],” he explains. He began painting plants and found that they could not be contained on a single canvas. “A water hyacinth is a landscape in itself; it has a rhizome, a root, a structure; and inside the bulb, which is called a peziolo, there is a whole structure. Its smell is also a landscape. And it said to me: ‘Hey, something is wrong with the water in Xochimilco. Why does it have this smell? Why are there so many of these plants?’ These questions… that’s how the landscape grew out of the water hyacinth.”
Today, many of Xochimilco’s canals are completely covered in a carpet of green leaves. Rodrigo, an industrial designer by profession, explains the problems surrounding this species: “Back in the day, people would quarrel over the water hyacinths, because they could be used as fertilizer for chinampas. Everything was ultimately re-used,” Rodrigo says. “Traditional agricultural methods have been largely replaced by greenhouses and they produce plants in a different way. They don’t use the hyacinth anymore… So, there it is, constantly spreading in the canals. The government goes and drags it out of the water, and they leave it on the side of the road next to the canals. And it rots there, generating flies and smelling bad. It releases gases like methane. The government spends resources, and no one ever does anything with it.”
Tracing the changes in Xochimilco’s green scenery, then, can help us understand its situation; it functions as a kind of living archive. But how can the plantscape help us reconfigure our understanding of its present problems and how to solve them?
From Endemic Species to Environmental Regulators
Because of the water hyacinth’s prevalence, and because it is not an endemic species to Xochimilco, it is commonly referred to as an invasive species or weed. This label catches Rodrigo’s attention. “The government of Xochimilco and UNESCO say, ‘We have to clean the canals of Xochimilco of harmful weeds.’ And that view is passed on to the population. But there is no reflection, no one knows why exactly it’s ‘harmful’. It’s not. Or [at least] it depends on how you look at it.” Rodrigo admits that there are, of course, certain consequences to an imbalance of plant species, but ultimately, he says, “That doesn’t mean they’re bad. They’re plants, they’re just there.”
Laboratorio Lacustre proposes a different perspective: “We define those [water hyacinth] plants as ‘under-used’. Because they are not useful like they used to be, traditionally and sustainably.” This is an interesting proposition. In a way, coming from the artistic sphere, judging the usefulness of a plant strikes me as rather utilitarian. Vegetal life is very different from human life, of course, but treating other species as mere objects or resources is arguably at the heart of many of today’s ecological problems. Is it not worth rethinking the “value” of different species’ lives, even plants?
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the notion of usefulness helps convincingly challenge a paradigm of essentialist classifications such as “invasive” or “endemic.” Such terms judge whether or not a plant “belongs” in an environment based on a kind of hereditary purity—a tricky notion that asks us to tread a fine line between empowerment and xenophobia. And although it is important to respect and honor the uniqueness of Xochimilco’s history, today it is practically impossible to cut ourselves off from global flows of value, matter, and environment. In this sense, focusing on “under-used” plants invites us to ask how they are participating in the ecosystems which are currently in place, and how we as humans interact with them.
Indeed, Leonardo frames the work he does with Laboratorio Lacustre as a type of intentional interaction. He suggests that by experimenting with plants as materials, we can change the roles we play in Xochimilco’s ecosystems. He explains, “There is a fly in Brazil that is the original predator of the water hyacinth. It consumes and destroys its structure, and in that way, it weakens and naturally regulates it. There are always these kinds of processes of interaction in ecosystems… so I wanted to relate to the landscape and become a regulator for the hyacinths. It was my way of being an active agent in this ecosystem, doing what the fly does.”
This idea motivated Leonardo to explore different ways of reusing the excess plant matter from water hyacinths. The artist now works with starch-based bio-acrylic materials to create paintings and biodegradable objects. He also gives free workshops to teach local inhabitants how to make their own bioplastics from water hyacinths. In this way, not only does he himself become fly-like by interacting with plants, but this role also allows him to further broader networks of ecological and social action.
Plants and Time as Materials
As we dig deeper into the particularities of using plants and organic materials, several questions come up. As Leonardo puts it, “Biodegradable, organic, bio-plastics: these are terms that are popular now, but what do they really mean? What is a material, and what is something organic? And what even is natural? Even the most ‘artificial’ thing comes from nature and has been transformed from nature. We have never created matter out of nothing, never. They are just transformations, a kind of ‘creation’ which we’ve done through chemical and physical processes.”
Leonardo’s words resonate with contemporary discussions in academia on the meaning of the term “nature.” Authors such as French theorist Bruno Latour have pointed out that, from the Enlightenment onwards, “nature” has largely served to separate and objectify certain material beings from “culture” supposedly unique to humanity. In this sense, it is no longer enough to continue examining our “connection” or “relationship” to the natural world—both in society and in artistic practices. Rather, we must critically reflect on how the concept of “nature” operates in our society, and how it might change. As Leonardo points out, the nature/culture division does not hold up long when we begin to examine the material flows of cultural practices.
This is one reason why I find working with plants and plant materials so fascinating: by recognizing plants as complex, living beings, seemingly passive “natural” components are revealed as active participants in art. Whereas plants have often been depicted in art as objects, or as backdrops to human or animal subjects, they also have their own agency and behaviors. They are organic creatures, either growing or decaying according to complex life cycles. Ultimately, it is these processes that form the shapes and structures that we harness when we use plants as materials in art or design.
Lola, a designer by education, is especially aware of this. She has specialized in a particular plant technique in her work with Laboratorio Lacustre: weaving. Lola says, “[The Laboratory] has given me the opportunity to learn a lot of processes that deal with textiles, and now this work with plant fibers… it has also allowed me to experiment.” Whereas Leonardo’s bioplastic mixtures transform plants into substances with new properties, Lola’s weaving preserves many of the unique forms and structures of plants. She explains that this makes working with plants very different from weaving with string, which is far more flexible: “That’s why for me it was very interesting… you have to take certain care and use certain methods.”
As Lola observes, Xochimilco’s time, matter, and life are wrapped up in the structure of its vegetal bodies, making them both delicate and expressive. Indeed, in his book “Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life,” Michael Marder points out that plants externalize the passage of time in their bodies: you can read days, weeks, and years in the width of tree trunks and leaves, just as you can read seasonal cycles in the expanse of water hyacinths covering the surface of a lake. There is a constant rhythm, reproduction, and regrowth in a living plant. It is a flow that can also be interrupted and changed, such as when a blade of grass is woven into something new, or irreversibly torn and cracked. Thus, as we interact with plants through art and design, different times of Xochimilco are revealed and intersected.
Territory, Conservation, and Processes
As we speak of weaving, it seems to me that tradition and innovation also intertwine in our conversations about Xochimilco; not quite as opposites but overlapping in a multitude of directions. In such a context, does it make sense to say that Xochimilco’s culture could be “conserved,” and to what degree? What should the future hold? These are truly pressing questions, Rodrigo explains, “We realized that people long for the past in Xochimilco. It’s almost a sickness. You go to neighborhood fiestas [community festivals, often religious] and there are always exhibitions with old photographs of what Xochimilco used to be like… There is an absolute melancholy about the past. And we ask, is that everything that we have to give? Is that where it ends?” For Laboratorio Lacustre, Xochimilco is not just about the past; instead, its history should feed into the present and the future. “We have to learn to configure a new kind of identity in this territory. To know what once was, but also to know what we have now and what we can do with it, and in some way to conserve what is left.”
Throughout our conversation, I am struck by a specific concept that Rodrigo uses to describe Xochimilco: “Territory: cultural territory, environmental territory, identity.” However, “territory” is not understood as a fixed space. Rather, in the framework of Laboratorio Lacustre, it is the starting point for several processes: territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization. These are, according to Rodrigo, “processes, becomings, things that are going on.”
This is, for me, a game-changing proposition: there is nothing static to preserve in Xochimilco. I am reminded of Tim Ingold’s book Making, in which the author talks about understanding objects, buildings, and landscapes not as unchanging objects, but as material configurations behaving in certain ways. A mound of earth, Ingold explains, can be better understood not as an object but as a “mounding”: a process in which earth, plants, animals, and matter are continually being deposited in one space, and sinking into the ground, becoming earth. In a similar way, a building is never finished but is always a material configuration that unfolds as a process of building: this includes construction, but also decay, leakage, repairs, and habitation. The elements of a landscape are not best described by nouns, but by verbs.
In this sense, I agree with Rodrigo that it is crucial to understand Xochimilco not as a landscape or archaeological ruin that stands still, but as a living community and ecosystem. Like any territory, it is a series of pathways, actions, movements, and rhythms, which can be given continuity—or not. “I think that’s the intention of this project… we’re not going to judge what is right or wrong about what is going on; we simply want to understand why it’s happening, how it’s happening.” With this kind of understanding and knowledge, Rodrigo explains, conservation can take place. But if territory does not stand still, then, “conservation isn’t just leaving things the way they have always been. It’s about understanding processes, and then to ‘conserve’ them, so to speak, through a kind of plan or idea.” What kind of process, what kind of verb is Xochimilco? And how do we carry it out with non-human companions? These are the questions that Laboratorio Lacustre invites us to explore—in and as part of a living archive of plants, humans, and environment.
Tim Ingold: Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London/New York Routledge 2013.
Bruno Latour: Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Polity Press Cambridge 2017.
Michael Marder: Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. Columbia University Press New York 2013.
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A Conversation on the Nature and Culture of Xochimilco with Laboratorio Lacustre