Venice Architecture Biennale 2021

Emerging from the Primordial Soup, Again

An interview between Alice Bucknell and DEEP

Words by Clea Irving & James Deutsher, DEEP Energies

The American writer and artist Alice Bucknell’s film Swamp City (2021) imagines the Florida Everglades as a luxury nature resort for high-tech eco-tourism in a near future reality of severe climate disruption. The project premiered in OPEN at the Russian Federation Pavilion, curated by interdisciplinary architectural practice 2050+, for the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. Established in Milan in 2020 by OMA veteran Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, 2050+ is a platform that sits at the intersection of design, technology, environment and politics. Its name references the commonly-referred to time period ‘2050’, by which climate and emissions actions are measured against the state of the planet, with the ‘+’ as a hopeful gesture to what comes next.

In this thirty-three minute long video, Swamp City announces an exclusive partnership with The Evergreen Group, LA’s foremost luxury real estate brokerage. The video’s introductory advertisement begins with an overview of the future state of big cities like LA and NYC… “As rampant wildfires eat up what remains of California, and New York is reclaimed by the Earth’s rising tides, Swamp City invites you into an enhanced relationship with nature.” “Our algae biofuel-powered personal jets leave Manhattan and LA five times a day, 7 days a week. Slots are going fast, so call one of our licensed travel agents today! Swamp City: New Nature Begins Now.”

The video uses speculative fiction to address the rampant commodification of the Florida Everglades that is already happening today. The Glades are a vast system of subtropical freshwater wetland and ecosystems that once spanned the entire length of South Florida. Infrastructural development and concentrated efforts to drain the swamp over the last fifty years have shrunk the Glades to just a third of their original size. The Everglades supports a unique ecology that is not found anywhere else on Earth – as well as protecting Florida from rising tides, their survival is vital for a more-than-human future.

In the hyper desirable proposal of Swamp City, we are promised ‘luxury lifestyle co-existing with the new hyper-nature’, ‘fully automated green urban living’, ‘carefully curated climate positive landscapes’, and our favourite, ‘natural catastrophe insurance’. Swamp City is part video game noir, part ecological critique and part architectural vision project. It’s hard to tell the separation between utopia and dystopia. Can you tell us your motivation behind Swamp City? Is it a prophecy, a warning or a celebration? 

Alice Bucknell: This utopia-dystopia binary is something that I’m really interested in muddying the waters between. I’ve done it with previous projects like E-Z Kryptobuild (2020) and it stems from my larger interest in speculative fiction as a critical practise. My work is highly inspired by sci-fi and speculative fiction authors like Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K .Le Guin. While in lockdown, I was rereading the Parable series. Every time I read it, I just fall back in love with it. There’s been a lot of press coverage recently about how the series predicted a fascist, sexist and racist President uprising in the US, wanting to ‘make America great again’, and the connection between the wildfires in California and how mass displacement of those in precarious living conditions has become the new normal. Artists and writers working in speculative fiction often desire to speculate on a near-future scenario and then map it into the present using certain tropes. For me, it’s often contemporary architecture; the buildings that you see in Swamp City are all real. The gigantic car park with the solar panels is a reference to 1111 Lincoln Road by Herzog & de Meuron. There’s the Buckminster Fuller-designed Epcot Dome in Disney World. There was the Oppenheim Group logo – although it had to be removed due to a legal threat.. I’ll tell you more about that later. Having these references – whether they’re company logos, buildings or pop culture icons – does something interesting because it situates the story in the present along with a future abstract. It always expands from something that’s familiar.

Swamp City looks a lot at neoliberal industrial agriculture and ideas coming out of environmentalism, like the Half-Earth Project, which reeks of this neoliberal disaster management plan. If you’re not familiar with it, Half-Earth was proposed in 2016 and it’s the idea that we can solve the climate crisis by cutting the world literally down the middle, turning half into this neoliberal industrial agriculture production factory, where everything is homogenised with no biodiversity, monocrop fields and drones as far as the eye can see. On the other side, it’s rewilding the planet and letting nature take over. That was a serious idea: the dumb anthropocentric belief that we can do nature better than nature. Swamp City was definitely referencing Silicon Valley utopian ideologies, evolved from the counterculture of America in the 1960s and how it’s sublimated into incredibly individualistic, aggressively cutthroat and hierarchical understandings of freedom, and who gets to access it. Freedom from the apocalypse, let’s say, freedom from sea levels rising, real freedom from hurricanes or natural disasters or anything else, really.

So I work by referencing architectures that are familiar, referencing concepts coming out of contemporary theory across architecture, sustainability, ecology, design, and then taking these recognisable contemporary things and moving them into a future that’s slightly accelerated. By doing that, it blurs the line between the dystopian and utopian, because I feel that is the direction we’re heading in anyway. By accelerating it into the future, dystopia-utopia becomes less like a divide. If I can do it right, if I can succeed in blurring the two, it becomes less about this ‘either or’ relationship’ and it becomes more that this vision of the future is fucking terrifying. Hopefully people will watch the video and ask themselves: how do we make that not happen?

That’s strong. I’m thinking about speculative fiction and Octavia Butler, about the multiple and remixed references, the way that you infuse contemporary architecture, design, all these cultural signs through your work to both ground it and then allow the viewer to access a point of extrapolation. I’m thinking of The Drowned World by J.G Ballard, this image of The Ritz in London being overtaken as a swampland, with giant salamanders gliding past the submerged ruins. You mentioned the reference to the Oppenheim Group in your work, which had to be removed due to legal threats. It’s another point of contemporary reference feeding it to this speculative narrative. Could you tell us more about how it evolved?

Once this conceptual strategy gets extrapolated from an art and cultural audience and moves into another field, such as luxury real estate moguls in L.A., it gets very weird. These modes of parody and critique feel obvious and familiar in an art world context, but ironically, when the Oppenheim Group saw the video, it seemed to me that they thought that Swamp City was an actual development project. They did not understand that it’s a joke – or they were at least prepared to give the impression that they didn’t. Basically, I used The O Group’s logo in the original Swamp City video in parody of luxury developers worldwide, but before it launched in Venice, they sent me a legal threat demanding I remove it from the video. The O Group’s actual appearance in the video was neither here nor there so I decided to replace their logo with that of a fictional company, The Evergreen Group. In a way, the goal of the work – to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction – had already been achieved for me at that moment.

A similar thing happened with E-Z Kryptobuild, with property investors wanting in on the fake development project. I mean, this was during the pandemic when everyone was talking about billionaire bunkers, and the business for apocalyptic doomsday devices, and plans for how the 1% can live through the impending disaster narrative of our planet. In elite circles, survival was definitely becoming a hot commodity, a lucrative investment strategy. It made me wonder, what other projects like Swamp City exist in the real world and are already getting seed funding?

Great question! So Zuecca Projects presented Tropicalia at La Biennale this year also. It’s a proposal for the largest single dome, tropical greenhouse on the planet and it’s currently in planning, scheduled to be completed by 2024 in the north of France. It’s totally funded, they’ve got the models, they’ve got the gift store. It’s presented in a very architectural, urban planning context. I’ll read a bit from the press release:

Greenhouse Tropicalia’s visitors will be plunged into a tropical atmosphere, a unique and marvellous natural bubble under its crystal skin, with stunning coloured butterflies and fluttering hummingbirds waltzing from flower to flower. The show is sensual, exciting, idyllic and, above all, will soon be real. In 2024, the biggest greenhouse in the world will be constructed on the Côte d’Opale (France).

Tropicalia proposes 20,000 sqm of tropics, covered by an innovative dome rising upto 35 meters, a 26 degrees ventilated temperature, a luxuriant vegetation bathed by an exceptional light, a tropical forest adorned with the most beautiful orchids, birds, butterflies, fishes, and reptiles gathered into a unique ecosystem.

So how does your practice of world building in this speculative space relate to the stranger-than-fiction world that’s manifesting around us right now?

Yeah, that’s a really great question. When you’re reading it out just now, I was thinking about the Amazon Spheres in Seattle, which are also this really colonial gesture of amassing exotic wildlife and putting it on display in an urban environment under the guise of ecological consciousness. I know France has layered issues with the tropics as a colonial hangover so I’ll just say that it’s doubly disturbing that it’s happening in France. For some reason it seems realistic that it could happen.

Reality is in many ways stranger than fiction, especially in the speculative property and speculative luxury economy. When I make my work, I really look at commercials from this space, I look at these project proposals because a lot of it is extrapolating or using the language and the visuals and even the kind of cinematic pace and the audio of these projects and conjuring the exact same feeling as my work. A lot of the music in the projects is taken from airline companies, like the boarding music when you get on an international flight is all super dreamy. Norwegian Air, bless them, have uploaded every single Spotify playlist they use on flight. I was just listening to that for a while right at the beginning of lockdown. I was thinking, ‘I kind of miss the feeling, we’re going on an adventure kind of thing.’ I know there are studies that suggest that when you’re on a flight, you get really emotional and physiologically vulnerable. So everyone wants to drink a Bloody Mary or eat some olives on a plane or cry over a shitty movie, because the experience of flying is like sensory deprivation in a way. So your body opens itself up for a higher level of intensity. I think that’s the exact same thing happening with this boarding music.

I think working in speculative fiction you need humour at some point because often it’s quite scary, I think, for people to be brought into this imagined future world that looks horrifying and people just wanting out. So how can you get people to engage in a way that doesn’t terrify them? I think humour helps. It creates a kind of puncture or break in the narrative where people can laugh and not be terrified. I also think that this balancing act of familiar references in unfamiliar futures keeps people on their toes because they’re never quite sure what’s happening, or if it’s real or not. If you keep people constantly on this precipice they’re actually a lot more open to really listening and really getting into the worldbuilding because they’re in this constant state of flux of not really knowing.

Not knowing as a shared space. This idea of being at the edge of possibility, where there are references and touch points that you come into from your own experience, and it becomes a more or less likely scenario based on your knowledge of that reference and how it lands with you. This idea of phasing in and out of possibility, like the quantum thing. A speculation hasn’t yet happened, it could be one thing, it could be another. And maybe touching on one thing leads it down a certain path of speculation, which makes that outcome more or less probable.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Going back to Swamp City, and the swamp therein. Is this a fictional place of growth, the swamp? Or is it something to dread? I’m reminded of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him, all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.”

I was thinking a little bit about The Heart of Darkness while making it, and I was also looking at the diaries of Alexander von Humboldt, who was this German naturalist and proto-ecologist. He was the first naturalist to go to the Everglades and ‘keep a diary’ of his discoveries. It’s super fascinating because, to answer your question, The Everglades was to them both this overabundance of life, but also something deeply abhorrent and abject, in these colonisers understandings of the Everglades, and I think it’s largely because it’s something that’s unconquerable, even to this day.

To talk about the ways that Florida’s highways and infrastructure cuts up the Everglades, it was largely a project by Walt Disney. He was basically responsible for laying down the asphalt that forms Alligator Alley, which is this tiny two-lane highway that cuts across the Everglades, and the cross-state Florida turnpike. There were a lot of protests before that happened: people who knew the Everglades knew that it wasn’t just this fetid swamp, it’s a very shallow and very slow-moving river. The water acts as the detoxification organ of Florida, it’s constantly flushing out water into the ocean. Nowadays, because of a combination of factors like the lanes of asphalt that literally severed the Everglades, the natural filtration process can’t happen. With the rise of saltwater levels in the ocean, salinated water is feeding back into the Everglades and it’s fucking up the ecosystem.

Going back to these coloniser’s diaries, they grapple with this combination of a thing that is so life-giving and so rich in wildness, but also something terrifying because it can’t be conquered. That was something that I was super interested to interrogate with this project. I was using the figure of the alligator in a way. There’s so much crazy shit in Florida that I often feel the Everglades is read as a flatland death trap: you think of alligators and pythons and other spooky creatures that will probably kill you if you step in there. There’s not so much of an appeal for it, especially compared with the more flashy geographical beauty of the US like Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon. But in the future, when everything else is obliterated or maybe even before we get to that, how will the changing dialogue around ecology and practises like rewilding play out? We are already seeing a returned interest, almost a fetishization again, of the wild as an ecological strategy.

Swamp City imagines a return to nature, or this obsession with the idea of it. With the invention of AC, Florida was suddenly transformed from a site of wildness to a business opportunity. Swamp City extends this logic. It imagines that the same cycle of time, since AC’s opening up of Florida 100 years ago, has passed yet again. What might it be like in twenty, fifty or one hundred years in the future? Maybe in a moment of extreme ecological anxiety and apocalyptic ennui, there is a moment – the seductive wildness of the Everglades could be the perfect business strategy.

Your practice is like an olive to the palette of our future thinking, kicking us up to a higher level of intensity in our worlds of techno-deprivation, giving us the space to fill the gaps for ourselves and imagine a world that’s better than the one we sit in. Tools to work through future scenarios in rich and complex ways, you know. To quote Donna Haraway, we are ‘cultivating the arts of living on a damaged planet for ongoing flourishing’, there is no return, only evolution with, and through. We’re in this messy swamp of primordial evolution, so thank you for being a spirit guide!