To water with stones

Infrastructures and climate change in drought agricolture

Watering without water and control over water have been practiced in tension over centuries in Sicily. The northward expansion of the Sahara desert and global temperature rise, which is expected to reach nearly 5°C under the worst case scenario by 2100, is causing Mediterranean vegetation to replace deciduous forests farther north and displacing humans, especially across Spain and Sicily. 34 But what if parts of Sicily could actually liberate themselves from water dependence by learning from historic practices of watering without water? What would it mean today to water without water as a form of emancipation from weather, and thus from water cuts, collective resource appropriations, increasing temperatures, and recurrent droughts? As temperate crops are arriving to formerly frigid zones, the possibility to grow drought-resistant landscapes under water stress could turn Sicily into an experimental site for climate adaptation—and for thinking of the architecture needed for new agricultural imaginaries. 35 What is Above is What is Below, a series of installations at Manifesta 12, was one initial attempt.

Volpe Astuta in Altarello was an agricultural residence that used to belong to the Sicilian Mafia until it was confiscated more than two decades ago and opened to the public for the common good. 36 Located on the remains of a historic citrus landscape at the urban edge of Palermo, the site still conserves an extraordinary mandarin grove. In the heart of the garden, a camera dello scirocco from the fifteenth century connects the medieval qanāt Xibene with the former palace above, which was demolished in the 1980s by a member of the Mafia to build his own modern residence. Repurposing 200 catusi found on site, the traditional tubes used to transport water were organized to direct not liquid water, but humid, fresh air toward an existing mandarin tree. Acting as a shading and humidifying device, the new microclimate around the tree reduces solar radiation and water stress by cooling down the space around it by means of a directed breeze.

Within the former city wall and amongst the open-sky ruins of a medieval church sits the garden of the Bastion of the Chiesa di S. Maria dello Spasimo. Arranged around five existing citrus trees, the new microclimate generates a passive cooling effect that helps trees endure harsh environments and allows them to fruit under limited water availability in an arid context. Revisiting the dry stone walls of the Jardinu Pantescu, it uses widely available blocchi laterizzi (hollow clay bricks) rotated on their side to allow air flow. The microclimate functions as a circus-tent-like structure measuring twenty-five-meters long by four-meters wide and accommodates seating in the double thickness of the enclosure.

Formerly known as Giardino dell’Alloro, the Giardino dei Giusti had a monumental bay leaf tree until it was uprooted in 1704. Today, it is an open space in the inner part of the old city surrounded by the remains of walls bombed during World War II that emulates medieval xirbe—Arab-Norman productive gardens planted in neglected urban areas or among decaying ruins. 37 Seven citrus trees grow inside. The new microclimate consists of color shade net enclosures patterned and sewn from readily available photo-selective agricultural netting, which is designed to influence biosynthesis, accelerate the ripening of the fruit through color wavelengths, and accumulate more phytochemicals. 38 Choreographing and synchronizing neighbors in the surrounding buildings, the fluorescent yellow nets were suspended over the trees from a height of thirteen to fifteen meters from their balconies, creating a shaded and ventilated zone to reduce water stress for the trees inside.

In collaboration with agronomists Giuseppe Barbera, Antonio Motisi, and their team from the University of Palermo, devices were fabricated to monitor the live performance of the trees in these three new microclimates. They recorded the humidity, sunlight radiation, and temperature variations inside and outside the structures sheltering the trees from June to November of 2018. Data was made public online and in the city itself, alongside the installations.

As contemporary versions of the Jardinu Pantescu, each microclimate valued different approaches to the reduction of water stress, engaging with the complexity of drought-resistant landscapes at architectural, agricultural, and sociological levels. Like food consumption habits, trees under water stress should prompt consideration of both individual and collective water footprints, and the economic implications of hydro-politics more broadly. 40 To tackle the multiple causes of water overdependence, awareness of the multilayered ways that environments and climates are co-constructed is as crucial as water itself.

*for notes refer to ‘What is Above is What is Below’, Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe, E-Flux Journal Architecture:

Credits photo: Cooking Sections, What is Above is What is Below, 2018. Installation at Manifesta 12, Chiesa di S. Maria dello Spasimo, Palermo.

The text was published on the occasion of the Between Land and Sea festival to present the event ‘Between facing the change and making a change’, curated by Aterraterra and organised in collaboration with CLIMAVORE x Jameel at RCA.

Aterraterra Lab is the base of Aterraterra (Fabio Aranzulla and Luca Cinquemani), a project that intersects agriculture, art and activism. In their garden in Palermo, they harvest wild food plants, flowers, medicinal and aromatic herbs and ancient, rare vegetables. Their interspecies and intercultural dialogue, in which all parameters are continually reassessed and negotiated between all the involved, flows seamlessly into dismantling neo-coloniality, industrialisation and dominant discourses through the research of plant and culinary histories and collaborations that bring marginality to the centre. Examples of this are the collective’s research work around the Ethiopian red aubergine (Solanum aethiopicum) in Italy, known only as the red aubergine of Rotonda (often ignoring the reasons for its arrival in Italy, linked to colonialism); or on the ancient grains that are so much celebrated today and which are not so ancient but largely created during the fascist era. A network of artists, activists, agricultural cooperatives, agricultural labourers, cultural associations, cooks, researchers, scientists, etc., both Italian and international, has formed around Aterraterra and the Aterraterra Lab programme.

CLIMAVORE is a research platform, an agency and a movement that questions how to eat as humans change climates. New human-made ‘seasons’ are blurring the lines between spring, summer, autumn and winter, or yearly monsoon events. Instead, periods of polluted seas, soil exhaustion or fertiliser runoff are more influential on our foodscapes. CLIMAVORE, a term coined by Cooking Sections in 2015, is a call to rethink a truly broken food chain, and move beyond a carnivore, omnivore, locavore, vegetarian or vegan diet to tackle these new seasonalities, while addressing the extractive and intensive practices that lead to them. CLIMAVORE collaborates long-term with marine biologists, botanists, farmers, chefs, fisherfolk, anthropologists, geneticists, environmentalists, oenologists, chemists, soil scientists, conservationists, herders, among many others living on the frontiers of the climate emergency. With bases in London, Skye and Madrid, CLIMAVORE facilitates the space and necessary action to transform food production, distribution and consumption in order to reimagine new horizons that can grow food while cultivating habitats.