Tag Archives: UCBG “Natural Discourse”

A Texas shoe story as told by Ronald Rael (Prada Marfa)

A person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way.
narrator – storyteller

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Way back in January I breezily announced “ambitious plans to produce transcripts of the lectures” given by the illustrious group of artists and scientists who participated in the “Natural Discourse” symposium hosted by the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, curated by artists Shirley Watts and Mary Ann Friel. In the interim I’ve learned that verbatim transcripts are lifeless things, so I’ve been trying to carve off small segments of the lectures that can most clearly be supported by whatever photos I have or can easily find. (The first in this contemplated series was “cochineal.”)

To set the stage for an excerpt from the lecture by Ronald Rael, of Rael San Fratello Architects, first a few photos of the source of inspiration and instigator of this natural discourse, the botanical garden itself.

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The yuccas dotted throughout the botanical garden are major characters in our story.

As I wrote here, much to the surprise of all involved, the work that Rael San Fratello Architects created for Natural Discourse, (using discarded photovoltaic tubes engineered by the bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra), was the unlikely fuel for a media firestorm that was enthusiastically fanned into partisan flames by local and national media.

Mr. Rael addresses the Solyndra controversy later in the lecture. For now, the following is an excerpt on Prada Marfa from the presentation by Mr. Rael on January 11, 2013, entitled “Material Provenance.” Just as with the Solyndra/Sol House project, Prada Marfa took a series of unforeseen and bizarre twists and turns.

My name is Ronald Rael. My partner’s name is Virginia San Fratello. I teach at Berkeley and she teaches at San Jose.
And one thing that we discovered when working here is that one of the fundamental ideas behind the garden itself is that all of the plants have this kind of provenance as well. Each of these little name tags tells where the plant came from and what date. So as you walk around the garden, you realize that these plants, they just don’t exist here. They have a story behind them. And that story is what we think is incredibly meaningful. And it’s the story today that I want to tell you about in a handful of projects.

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Image found here

The first project I want to talk to you about is called Prada Marfa. It’s a project that we did in 2004. When we started this project, I actually didn’t know what Prada was. I knew what Prada was, but I didn’t really know what Prada was. And I don’t know if all of you know about Marfa, but Marfa is a small town in the West Texas desert that was made famous partly by artist Donald Judd, a minimalist artist.

“When we began working on this project, another thing that I discovered about the region is that there was a traditional shoe made out of the yucca plant. And the yucca thrives in this environment, in the West Texas desert, but that tradition of making these kinds of shoes doesn’t really exist anymore. But what exists is a kind of culture of people moving across the desert, traveling north in search of a better life. And we built this project about 20 miles from the U.S./Mexico border. And so during construction, we often saw helicopters pick up people traveling in the desert. And one thing that we learned is that, people traveling in the desert, shoes wear out after traveling hundreds of miles, and they stuff their shoes with yucca plants. And so there was this strange juxtaposition between the wealth that existed in the region, the poverty that existed in the region, the disappearing traditions, and they all came together at this weird border between these two worlds.

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And so the project is partly based on a very famous photograph by Andreas Gursky called “Prada.”

“So when we constructed this Prada, we said, well, the traditional building material in the region is mud, and so let’s construct this version of Prada out of mud to kind of heighten this kind of juxtaposition between these two worlds. So we fashioned this installation of a fake Prada store in the middle of the desert, which is one of the most expensive clothiers in the world, out of one of the most inexpensive and humble materials.

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And the construction of the mud, we didn’t put it in a mud mortar, but we actually based it in a cement mortar. And this was something that Donald Judd used. And, again, it’s a juxtaposition between the industrial and the non-industrial worlds, conflating it at this very moment, with the idea that in time the building would erode and expose these kinds of juxtapositions even in its decay.

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So this is the building, and it holds a 2005 line of purses and shoes. And even in its construction, these kinds of dichotomies were present in the workers that would come from Ojinaga, Mexico, to build the project and then in the photo shoots of the professional photographers that chose this particular person in Boyd Elder, who is a fifth-generation rancher, who lives closer than anybody else to the Prada Marfa store.

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But even Boyd had an amazing provenance. What we learned about Boyd is that in the 1960s he left his family ranch to go to LA to be an artist and hang out with the Eagles, and he’s the painter for the original Eagles’ covers. And so it’s the provenance of stories that makes projects interesting.

“So the New York Times wrote a quote from one of the funders of the project, Yvonne Force: ‘We loved this proposal for many reasons. We loved the idea of the piece being born on Oct. 1 and that it will never again be maintained. If someone spray-paints graffiti or a cowboy decides to use it as target practice or maybe a mouse or a muskrat makes a home in it, 50 years from now it will be a ruin that is a reflection of the time it was made.’

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“And so there was this idea that we just let it go. We had this grand party in the middle of the desert. A band came and played. There was wine, cheese. Even members of Prada Foundation flew in to see this.

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image found here

And the next morning we all woke up, and someone had tied a chain to the front of the facade, pulled off the facade, and spray-painted “dumb” and all these things on it. It immediately went into preservation mode. And people now today peel-out on it and shoot it and do all sorts of strange things, but immediately it’s been fixed again in kind of this perfect state. So, again, there’s this irony between the intentions of the work and what actually happens to the work.

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image found here

Another amazing thing that’s happened to the work is it’s become a shrine for left-over shoes. And it’s so far away from anything, but when people are driving out there they decide to leave their shoes as some sort of effigy on the project. And so they are also cleaning up hundreds of shoes constantly on the project. Boyd Elder, the cowboy, he’s the official caretaker of the project. And so today it’s perfectly preserved.

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This is the most recent photo, with Beyonce jumping in front of it, and it’s become kind of an icon in the middle of the desert, whose image we can’t let go of.”

Lili Singer’s Thursday Talk with Isabelle Greene

Sixteen years ago I was writing only prose and what I consider now traditional garden writing for magazines. And then one day I was in my office looking at a landscape architecture magazine, turned the page, and there was an image that had an enormous physical effect on me. I had a sense of utter physical certainty and determination that I would do whatever I had to do to stand in that place. I don’t know quite how to explain it, but it was nothing to do with my thinking. It had absolutely a physical kind of jolting experience.” — Poet Hazel White on Isabelle Greene’s Valentine garden, Natural Discourse lecture 2/10/12

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Isabelle Greene’s Silver Garden at Longwood Gardens, photo included with kind permission of Fleeting Architecture

I’d resolved to attend as many of Lili Singer’s Thursday lecture series as the workweek allowed, which turned out to be not very many, but the 2/7/13 talk with legendary landscape architect Isabelle Greene was definitely not one to miss. Ms. Greene exudes every bit of wisdom and playfulness you’d expect from someone who has practiced an art that has continuously absorbed and replenished her astonishing creative energies for 49 years. She grew up steeped in a tradition of architecture that celebrates and integrates climate and landscape into a design vocabulary, the Arts and Crafts movement. Henry Greene was Isabelle’s grandfather. (Greene & Greene’s masterwork, The Gamble House in Pasadena, is open for tours.)

Ms. Greene’s speaking engagements are rare, so the turnout filled every seat, where we balanced notepads on our knees and scribbled away, taking notes as she coaxed and cajoled the audience through a garden design brainstorming session. The talk drew quite a few professional designers, and much of its focus was the designer/client relationship, but there was inspiration enough for both professional and layperson. Overall, Ms. Greene exhorts us to “listen to the site, the floor of everything.”

Continue reading Lili Singer’s Thursday Talk with Isabelle Greene


Under the seams runs the pain.”
― Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

I’ve been going over my notes the past couple months from Dr. Alejandro de Ávila’s remarkable lecture “Blood on a Fountain,” which he gave this past January at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley’s final “Natural Discourse” symposium, trying to shape the notes into digestible bites for the blog. Now going on three months, with still nothing to show, you can see how much success I’ve had. As founding director of The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca (Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca), anthropologist Dr. de Ávila covered vast amounts of historical, political, geological, cultural, social and botanical ground in his introductory lecture on the creation of the garden, all of it suggesting intriguing avenues for further exploration. For the moment, I’ve decided to focus on the story of cochineal, which on its own illuminates quite a bit of the site’s evolution from Dominican monastery to military garrison to now the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca.

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Alejandro de Ávila, founding director, Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca
photo from Garden Design

The title of Dr. de Ávila’s lecture, “Blood on a Fountain,” suggestive as it is of past crimes against indigenous peoples, instead speaks more to the powerfully creative interplay between culture and landscape.

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In particular, the “blood” on the fountain alludes to the remarkable story of the domestication of an insect and its host cactus from which the coveted red dye cochineal is extracted, a red dye far superior to any in use at the time in the Old World of the 16th century.

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scale insect on opuntia pad

From their first awestruck encounter with cochineal in the rich, deep reds of the garments and art of the people of the New World, the Spanish conquistadors were determined to paint Spain in this new technicolor hue. For the next 300 years, the voyages of countless Spanish galleons were launched because of an inexhaustible demand for a tiny insect with transformative, alchemical properties, Dactylopius coccus, a scale insect that preys on the prickly pear, Opuntia ficus-indica. And only the Indians knew the secrets to unlocking those sanguineous properties.

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collecting cochineal

The laborious, painstaking methods involved in raising, protecting, and then harvesting the scale proved to be the Indians’ salvation, exempting them from the harshest aspects of colonial rule. Slave labor, something the Spanish were not morally averse to, was not economically feasible in the production of cochineal for many reasons. The slow, meticulous work was mostly accomplished by women, children and the elderly, and the costs of feeding the workers was too high balanced against profit. As a fortuitous result, instead of slavery, the land was granted to the indigenous people. Thanks to cochineal, today Oaxaca is the rare exception in Latin America, where instead of state-owned land, 70 percent of the land is owned by the indigenous communities.

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If you squeeze this scale between your fingers, your skin will stain red. The scale exudes carminc acid, which is very stable chemically. Varying methods of killing the insects and extracting the dye were employed. Indians domesticated the insect, selecting traits for properties conducive to making the dye, such as minimizing the insect’s natural waxy coating. Likewise, the cactus was domesticated, showing an understandable preference for thornlessness.

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Upon its export back to the Old World, cochineal was responsible for coloring crimson the robes of powerful clerics, electrifying the paintings of, among others, El Greco, and putting the vivid red in the Red Coats of the British Empire. It became second only to silver as the most valued export from the New World. And the center of cochineal’s production was Oaxaca. Oaxaca became the richest city in Mexico based on its export of cochineal. A Dominican monastery was built on the garden’s current site, paid for by the wealth generated from the cochineal trade, which the Dominicans encouraged. Thus was another strata of influence, the religious, incorporated into the multilayered story of cochineal.

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Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán
photo from Garden Design

By the late 1800s, synthetic dyes were invented, and the market for cochineal vanished almost overnight. In time the Dominican monastery came to be used as a military garrison. After 100 years as a garrison, one of Mexico’s best-known living artists, Francisco Toledo, successfully lobbied the government to evict the garrison. There were differing opinions about the best use of the 5-acre site. De Ávila’s asked: Why sacrifice a privileged site next to a historic building, when you can integrate a much more significant discourse? He proposed a living museum that would depict the whole of human experience in Southern Mexico, from hunter-gatherers to transnational modern migratory workers. De Ávila wanted the botanical garden to not just contain beautiful plants but to elucidate the links to the surrounding landscape that account for the shaping of this specific cultural history. Francisco Toledo ultimately supported de Ávila’s vision.

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The now-iconic image of the rows of organ pipe cactus, Stenocereus marginatus, refers to their use as barriers, enclosing and protecting the opuntia and its precious symbiotic cargo of scale insects from marauding cattle, chickens and turkeys.

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photo from Garden Design

Clues to cochineal’s importance to Oaxaca are repeated over and over at Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, most dramatically in the fountain designed by Francisco Toledo. Four trunks of the Oaxacan giant tree Taxodium mucronatum, the Montezuma cypress, were used for the fountain. The shimmering coating is mica, a locally mined mineral chosen for its geological significance as well as its importance as a commodity traded by the pre-Columbian people of the ancient Oaxacan city of Monte Alban, credited as being the first true city of the Americas. A network of tiny canals was perforated through the four slabs so water would flow evenly. The fountain runs red, the color of cochineal. The stepped pyramid and meander design similar to the Greek key is carried over into the various structures and layout of the garden.

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photo from Garden Design

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photo from Garden Design

The design of the garden flows from its history. No landscape architects were consulted.

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photos from Garden Design

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via desire to inspire

In another twist of history, the suspected carcinogenic properties of synthetic dyes are bringing about a small resurgence in the production of cochineal. Now that I’ve learned of the ancient story of cochineal, I’m suddenly finding it referenced everywhere, like in this color study by artist Helen Quinn. And Amy Stewart mentions cochineal in The Drunken Botanist.

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Thanks to both Dr. Alejandro de Ávila and UCBG’s Natural Discourse for this introduction to the making of the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, “Blood on a Fountain,” a botanical garden I can’t wait to visit.

UCBG Natural Discourse: Form and Function 1/11/13

The final event in the unique, year-long collaboration that the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley undertook with “artists, architects, scientists and poets in the garden,” Natural Discourse, was held Friday, January 11, 2013. As co-curator Shirley Watts explained at the beginning, “This is my dream symposium. So I just said, Who do I want to hear?”

What we heard was an extraordinary series of lectures, a “natural discourse” that drew from the disciplines of anthropology, art, botany, design, science, politics, engineering, including: The transformation of a sheep ranch in Sonoma County into a world-class, Richard Serra-containing, outdoor art installation (I must see this some day*); the inception of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire (I must visit this some day); the making of The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca, Mexico (I MUST go here some day); the role of cellular structure, its actual physical shape, in furthering understanding of stem cell biology (I may benefit from this some day). And, of course, the juicy back story behind the creation of and ensuing national controversy surrounding one of the Natural Discourse exhibits, SOL Grotto, which utilized the discarded cylindrical tubes from the bankrupt solar cell manufacturing company Solyndra (written about previously here.) My magpie brain happily gorged on the lectures, and I was able to dart into the garden, hummingbird-like, when opportunities presented. A dream symposium indeed.

In between lectures, the garden, which hasn’t experienced a frost yet, was ours to explore, so I’m interspersing some of the photos I took during the short breaks and lunch. I didn’t explore too far beyond the conference area. The one time I did, I was late for a lecture. Shades of college all over again.

Agave strictahedgehog agaveucbg 1/11/13
Agave stricta

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Euphorbia cooperi var. cooperi
Euphorbia cooperi var. cooperi, South Africa

Aloe sabaeaYemen
Aloe sabaea, Yemen

Aloe sabaea bloom
Bloom of Aloe sabaea


Agave species, Mexico

Depending on sound quality, I have ambitious plans to produce transcripts of most of the lectures — they are simply too wonderful not to share — but there may be unforeseen technical challenges ahead. For now, below are the opening remarks by Paul Licht, Director, UCBG:

It’s a pleasure to see this many people interested in what I think are very important parts of our lives. I’m Paul Licht. I’m the director of the garden, and so I get the great pleasure of opening what’s going to be an exciting day.

“And I’m not supposed to say this, but if you get a little tired of sitting, there’s a lot of other things to see out here. In fact, there are 34 acres. We describe it as 34 glorious acres, which houses one of the biggest, most diverse plant collections in North America, and it’s unequaled in many ways.

UCBG 1/11/13, Beavertail cactusOpuntia aff. prolifera
Opuntia aff. prolifera, Beavertail cactus (note searchable database)

“I’m not going to give you the whole spiel, but you’re in a very special place for many things, one of which you’re going to hear about the rest of the day. But just to orient you, it is a 34-acre garden. It’s part of the University of California, but we are one of the few really public entities of the University of California. There are other museums, but they are not public. They are mostly research. We have a plant collection that’s unequaled not only in its diversity, that is, the number of different kinds of plants — we have roughly 12 thousand different kinds of plants growing here. They are from all over the world. But they are unusual in that they are almost all wild collected, and no other garden has this kind of collection. And it’s hard for people to believe that right here in this little town of Berkeley we have this incredible resource. That’s what it’s supposed to be, a resource for you. It’s a public garden. It’s your garden as much as anyone’s.

Puya venusta, Chile

“What we’ve tried to do over the past few years is to make people more appreciative or better able to discover the garden by appealing to a lot of different senses that I think should be part of the garden, and one of them is art. Art and music, I think, go together. Now, I’m very much of the belief that if you did nothing in this garden, it is still a piece of art. It’s an artwork. Any landscaper, any gardener, will tell you that no matter what it looks like, whether it’s just a bunch of flowers or very natural looking, it’s artificial. It’s created by people, landscapers and gardeners and people who love these living things. So I would argue that it’s all a piece of art that you’re sitting in the middle of right now. Everything is intentional. Well, not everything. We do have some weeds. But most of what you see here has been done intentionally. And if it doesn’t look like a formal garden to you, that you’re used to, like rows of beautiful plants, that’s intentional. We’ve tried to recreate nature in the middle of nature. But we’ve created it in the way that we think sends out a message.


Aloe capitata
Aloe capitata

“So we started from the point of view that we think we have a lot to offer to the art world, and then we began to explore more — I won’t say traditional, but things that I understood better. Simple things, like botanical illustration, was clearly related to the garden. So next week in this room, next Saturday, is the opening of a botanical illustration exhibit, where we’ll have a whole group of several dozen botanical illustrators that have worked here, displaying their things.

“And then when I thought I sort of had it all under control. Mary Anne Friel and Shirley Watts came with another idea, which kind of stretched my imagination a little bit. What they put together was an exhibit they called Natural Discourse. And to this day, it is so rich and varied that when people ask me what is it, it takes a long time for me to sort of articulate it. And I think it’s much better done by seeing it than talking about it. So I hope in the course of this talk you’ll have the opportunity to get out and really experience it firsthand. And if it’s brought in people who haven’t been to the garden before, then it really succeeded because that’s the whole goal of it.

Euphorbia grandialataSo. Africa
Euphorbia grandialata, South Africa
(window shade coverings, very faint in this photo, are vellum-burned “spiderwebs” by Gail Wight, exhibit entitled “Under the Influence,” inspired by 1960 experiments of feeding psychotropic drugs to spiders.)

“And it’s very different from the traditional artwork in that it is very much part of the garden, an extension of the garden. The artists who created these pieces did a wonderful job of extending the garden into their artwork, and that’s I think what makes it so very, very special. A lot of these pieces might not look as exciting if they were just plunked in the middle of the MOMA or the DeYoung or something. They would look interesting, but they wouldn’t have the same meaning. And that’s what I hope you’ll all get out of this, that art can be just a transition into the garden. It doesn’t have to be a separate thing…So I hope that you’ll find this as exciting as I do. And I hope that it will present a doorway for you to get out into the garden and enjoy the art that’s part of the garden.”

List of speakers:
Dr. Paul Licht, Director, UC Botanical Garden, Welcome
Shirley Watts, Natural Discourse co-curator, Introduction to Symposium
Mary Ann Friel, Natural Discourse co-curator, Overview of exhibition
Ronald Rael, “Material Provenance” (SOL Grotto)
Steven Oliver, “Art That Ceases to be a Commodity”
Gerard Dosba, The International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire
Dr. Marie Csete, “Structure and Function in Stem Cell Biology,” Division Director, AABB Center for Cellular Therapies, Bethesda, MD
Dr. Alejandro de Avila, “Blood on a Fountain,” founding director of The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca

*Visits to the Oliver Ranch are arranged only through membership in non-profit organizations. For example, the UCBG is arranging a visit for its members in 2014.