Founded by Patrick M. Lydon & Suhee Kang in 2018, The Branch is a space of community, ecology and art situated in Osaka, Japan. The space wholly draws on the environmental philosophy of natural farming as a sustainable way of being in and with the world that transcends agricultural practices.
The Branch recognises the interdependence and interconnectedness between humans and non-human Earth Others. In advocating for alternative values through exhibitions, and workshops, The Branch aims to foster and reclaim human and nature relations.
In an interview with Arts Help, Lydon shares the story and mission behind The Branch.
What was the source of inspiration for The Branch project?
Before starting The Branch, Suhee and I spent four years learning from Natural Farmers in Japan and Korea, during which time we produced a documentary film called Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness. When that film was released, we went on a screening tour of Japan and Korea. We visited something like 120 cities, and in that process we realized something that felt really profound. Before, we thought this movement for sustainable agriculture was about the countryside and what we typically think of as “farming” areas. But our tour, which took place sometimes in small towns, but mostly in big cities, we realized that it was city-dwelling people who benefited the most from knowing about sustainable food.
We all have been cut off from knowing where our food comes from, how it is made, let alone being involved in growing or processing it. Many people understand that. However, these audience talk sessions brought us somewhere deeper I think. There was a real sense of wonderment and emotion in people. Many people cried as they told us their feelings. I remember that point really distinctly, because it happened over and over in different cities, people would tell us that the farmers in the film were expressing a feeling they themselves had felt inside but had never been able to put into words.
So the tears we saw from audiences I guess were tears not of woe, but of joy, at realizing someone else felt the same way, and was actually living their life as an expression of that feeling. Some people were realizing for the first time that what they thought was impossible, is actually possible. Seeing that really affected us, too. So there was a point on this tour, where we realized that our work would probably be most beneficial if it were done in a city, and specifically, in a place that had issues with connecting to “nature” so to speak. Which, really, is just about every city in the world at this moment unfortunately.
The Branch reflects the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Zero Hunger, Sustainable Cities and Communities and Climate Action. Did you strive to meet these UN sustainability goals from the onset of the project, and if not what were your initial goals for the project?
Our work does happen to align with several UN Sustainability Goals. You could probably add to that Good Health and Well-Being, Responsible Consumption and Production, Life on Land and even Life Below Water because of the ways in which these goals are interconnected with how we produce food. But I generally do not consider the UN goals as aims for our work, because I think there is something underlying these goals that is actually more useful for me as a measure.
Our work is aimed at cultivating stronger relationships between people and the environment, to the point where we understand ourselves as ecological beings, relatives of all life on earth. Now, if we can cultivate this kind of mindset, a life based on equitable relationships, then most of the sustainability goals will come without having to enumerate them as global standards. They would grow naturally out of a respectful relationship with each other and the earth.
That is the way natural farming works essentially. Yet Fukuoka and Kawaguchi, two of the big Japanese masters of this way both noted that it is not about farming. It can be applied to anything you do. It is not a system of do this, do that, achieve that, but rather, it is a way of seeing ourselves in relation to the living earth around us, and taking action from that point of reference, rather than a point of reference written in a manual, which might not necessarily relate directly to you, your culture, or your local ecological situation. As best we can then, we try to work from a foundation of relationship building between people and their local nature.
The Branch is an ecological space embodying a more eco-conscious way of living, while combining the art of artists whose subject matter concerns the diverse relations between humans and the natural environment. Do you believe that art, irrespective of medium, can lead to social change, particularly with regard to sustainability?
We are generally of the Beuys school on this. Everyone is an artist, or at least, has the potential to be an artist. Or, even, Tarkovsky, who had this idea that good art deals with ultimate truths about our relationship to the world. I am of the belief that everyone has this capability to see a deeper truth in themselves and in their relationship with nature, and that if we work from this place of truth, it will bring into being an art (or a way of being and living) that is connected to and serves nature and people in an appropriate way. We might not always understand the product of artists as “sustainable” or “social justice” but if they are seated in this deeper truth, the beauty they create will play its part in social and environmental change.
There is a saying from the natural farmers that is related to this that consists of three words or characters (真善美). They translate roughly to: Truth. Goodness. Beauty. Just three words, or characters. If we read them in order, it creates a causal connection, so truth of mind brings goodness in actions, and goodness in actions creates beauty. Then, reading them backwards of course they become requisites, so beauty requires good action and good action can only come from a place of truth. Seeing them together, we find they are interrelated in multiple ways, dependent upon each other, inseparable.
This only touches on the concept, but even then, it breaks down our Western critical mind when it comes to looking at art this way, because it suggests that beautiful art cannot be untruthful or atrocious, although it might be painful or aesthetically ugly. In Japan, this value system — truth, goodness, beauty — is invoked by farmers, by artists, by businesspeople, by archers. It seems to have a lot to offer us in terms of building equitable and sustainable societies too.
Founded in 2011 and including a media and art lab, can you tell me more about the collective purpose of the City as Nature studio?
Although Suhee and I are the kind of “full time” artists or producers, the way we work is always in relation to other people, other organizations, other places. So we really think of ourselves not as a “studio” in the isolated sense, but as a loose collective of individuals and organizations working towards similar goals, empowering individuals, and communities to imagine new paths toward ecological sanity. That is always going to be a community or collective act.
All of your workshops at The Branch are offered on a “pay-it-forward” donation basis — whereby one person’s workshop experience is paid for through the donation made by another person who took part in the preceding workshop. Why choose donation instead of a traditional payment method for your workshops?
We grew up in societies that were based on the value of the monetary kind of capital, and because money is trumpeted as the value in these societies, it becomes really difficult to see other kinds of value as important, or even as existing at all. But when you look at it, whether it is an example from your personal life, or from something you have seen happen, you begin to notice that transactions of money tend to just end right there after the transaction is complete, but acts of kindness and gifts and love tend to reverberate and expand through time, even though we cannot really measure them.
So that was one intention which was shown to us by various teachers (activist Nipun Mheta, and a farmer named Ryoseok Hong come to mind, but there are many others), which is to realize that there are so many kinds of value in this world, and the monetary or measured kind is just one tiny little fraction of what value can actually mean. Is it really the most powerful form of value? We wanted to experiment with different forms of value.
Another intention is to have no barriers to learning, to participation, or even to a cup of coffee at The Branch. We grew up in the United States and South Korea, two places in this world that some would say are very privileged. We hold an advantage, gifted to us from previous generations, but also, from the exploitation of the earth and of other people. That is uncomfortable to accept, but it is a reality of anyone who lives in an industrialized country. When Suhee and I came to terms with that, we realized it was not a privilege to be taken for granted, but more like a responsibility.
At The Branch, those who have money can pay, those who have little, or no money do not have to pay. We do this for all of our projects. But, we do not tend to keep track of it. Again, realizing that value comes in and out of our lives in so many different forms other than the monetary — I think it is catching on around the world. Creative Commons, open source software, the opening of academic knowledge that was previously locked behind gates. Sharing knowledge and information freely is a requisite for just and sustainable human progress to take place at the rate it needs to. Is that an SDG? It probably should be.
Urban environments often tend to be isolated from the natural environment and The Branch Pocket Farm was designed to foster and reclaim the relationship between humans and nature. Why do you believe that it is important to incorporate elements of the natural environment, such as gardens and pocket farms into urban planning, especially in cities with dense populations and infrastructure?
That is right. The physical relationship is important. Our space does not have air conditioning, for instance. We have windows, so we are reliant on the summer breezes for cooling. Is it rough sometimes when the wind does not cooperate? Sure. It is. But that is part of reality. When our spaces become isolated from the environment, so too does the work that we produce.
That might sound like an unreasonable position, but on the other hand, is it reasonable to think that we can tackle climate change from inside the fairy-tale dream world of climate-controlled offices cut off from the reality of the climate? I think the worst solutions will inevitably come from such places, because your mind and work essentially operates in this artificial vacuum, reliant on technology, and cut off from reality.
But when you have no air conditioning and your windows need to be open, you suddenly realize things like, oh, maybe the gigantic asphalt car roads are actually not so great as we think, because you can hear it, smell it, see the pollution, feel the heat island effect. Then you start to think, well, maybe a park or a river would be better instead of that big street. But in a climate-controlled office, where you arrive and leave in a climate-controlled car, well, you never really have an opportunity to arrive at that thought. Of course, many of us do not have the ability to change our office or home settings, but at least getting out into the garden and putting your hands in the soil is a start. So we try to offer that, and a neighbour on our alley also runs a whole bunch of little urban farms that have the same aim. Get your hands in the soil.
The Pocket Farm was designed and built in accordance with the spirit of natural farmers such as Masanobu Fukuoka and Yoshikazu Kawaguchi. In comparison to monoculture and commercial farming, what are the benefits of natural farming for the health of both people and planet Earth?
Going back to this idea of alternative forms of value, the benefit of natural farming is, really, that nearly everything about your life and the environment improves the further you move away from industrial monocultures and toward diverse regenerative ways of working. Literally, everything improves, and there are hundreds of thousands of farms out there in the world where you can experience the truth of that statement.
The only thing that does not improve substantially is probably your bank account balance. Because natural farming is, well, it is not a rejection of money so to speak, but it offers so many other forms of value that the “money” value gets put into its proper place, as a subset of other more important values like health, community, ecological well-being, beauty. I have not met many people who, after really taking part in these other forms of value and seeing how these values are actually not reliant on money, did not sit down and re-consider how they can at least recalibrate their attitude towards value.
Would you say that The Branch project as a whole is opposed to the practices of capitalism and instead places emphasis on the philosophy of communitarianism?
Not opposed, of course. Capitalism can have a seat at the table, just like any other value system. But it should not have a voice so loud that it drowns out other forms of value. It seems pretty clear now, that most of the problems we experience today are not because of capitalism itself, but on account of the power we have given this one “ism” to solve all of our problems. It is not capitalism’s fault that it is not well equipped to deal with issues of equality or environment or moral values. But we need to recognize the limitations of capitalism, and that we cannot keep handing all of these problems over to it, expecting they will be solved. This is why trading one “ism” for another is also problematic. Whether it is communism or capitalism, society cannot rely on any “ism” and expect to succeed.
So we try to hold a space that entertains all ideas, yet while also staying rooted in the physical reality of who we are as living beings on a living earth. This means we try to hold a space where not only different people, different value systems, and different ways of thinking have space to be heard, but where the non-human beings also have a space to be recognized and be heard. Just as social justice requires an act of listening to and being accepting of other humans, so too does environmental justice require the act of listening to and being accepting of the needs of the non-human living environment. I guess you could put an “ism” on that too! But then we might be defeating the purpose.
Given the multispecies extinction and climate crisis currently facing humanity, what has the The Branch project come to mean and represent for you?
Hope. A small hope. Literally. The Branch is 33 sq/m (about 350 sq/ft), which holds our gallery, community cafe, office, and living space. The Pocket Farm is about the same size. But in these tiny spaces, people’s lives and their relationship with the environment can be (and have been) transformed. So I hold a small hope, that everyone, in every little corner, in every city, can put their energy and effort into re-gaining a relationship with their environments, becoming aware of different forms of value, and transforming the ways we can live with each other and this earth.
What advice would you give to individuals and/or communities seeking to create spaces with an ethos of sustainability similar to what you have created here at ‘The Branch’?
Go into a place that needs it. Meet with the community. Forge relationships. Learn about each other. Appreciate each other. Practice gratitude. Learn to be accepting. Work with truth, goodness, and beauty. Be aware, and when an opportunity to do the right thing comes and say yes and do it. Stay curious. Be in awe of the world. Also, really, be happy and put joy what you do. Especially in what seem like dire and conflicted times. The orchestra on the Titanic was playing while the ship went down. Try to uncover the beauty and joy in each moment of this life, while also helping others to do the same in their own way.
Find out more about The Branch here.
Support art and ecology projects by City as Nature or Final Straw by making a donation here.