Purple Magazine
— The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

julia watson


photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

style by MASHA ORLOV

australian architect and designer julia watson researches global indigenous technologies and design, looking for “lo-tek,” symbiotic, and nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. for her, the answers to the future of design lie in radical indigenism, past and present.

ANFISA VRUBEL — Let’s start with the personal. What first compelled you to embark on this area of research, to travel the world documenting old traditions and practices?
JULIA WATSON — I studied architecture back in Australia, at the only university that conducts research on indigenous culture, design, architecture, and spatial organization. In my second year, I took a course called Aboriginal Environments, and it blew my mind. I studied taboo in the landscape, places where people were not allowed to go. It was all about mythology and the magical otherworldly relationships to the landscape and nature. I became fascinated with what it meant for a space to be sacred. How do you preserve sacredness? I started traveling to sacred sites around the world, trying to understand why some were conserved by Western frameworks of conservation, while others were not. Then I worked on a project in Bali, on the subak, which are beautiful rice terraces that are controlled by the priests and which have been around for more than 1,500 years. Looking at these terraces, I realized that there’s incredible technology that we haven’t thought of as such. And that led me to try to redefine what technology actually is. Fast-forward 12 years: all these trains of thought coalesced around an idea, and I was able to write Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism. The book weaves together ideas about indigenous knowledge and technology, and opens a discussion about them.

ALEPH MOLINARI — That’s a beautiful dimension — that it began as a spiritual quest. I was just reading History of the Lie by Jacques Derrida. In the text, Derrida defines two visions of the future: the future (le futur) and what’s to come (l’avenir). He touches upon the sacred and quotes Martin Heidegger, who wrote that “the sacred is the trace of the fugitive gods, leading toward their possible return.” It’s in keeping with the idea of the messianic as part of the future. You tend to the land and create a space where the gods can return. But the interesting thing is that now, we are the gods who are going to return to these sacred spaces to inhabit them.ANFISA VRUBEL — Or the future generations. So, how do we keep the land habitable for them?
JULIA WATSON — Yes. You can think of it as stories. Take, for example, the Khasi, who have the living root bridges. The story of the Khasi is that they came from seven families who lived in the sky and who then decided to come down to Earth by climbing down a tree root bridge. So, the lineage of the Khasi people is the lineage of those families who came down and stayed. These stories tell you about the sacred elements within the landscape. The mythology constructs a worldview and an understanding of gods and ancestors. We live with our gods. The interesting thing about TEK [Traditional Environmental Knowledge] and the technologies that come from it is that it is a knowledge, a practice, and a belief system.

ANFISA VRUBEL — Can you tell us what you mean by “radical indigenism”?
JULIA WATSON — Radical indigenism is a term created by the Cherokee professor Eva Marie Garroutte. She wrote about radical indigenism as a way of relooking at and rethinking about indigenous knowledge and practices that until now have been thought of as “primitive.” What technologies and practices are out there? And what new understandings can they teach us about climate change and resiliency, sustainability and symbiosis — and transitioning to a new form of existence?

ALEPH MOLINARI — And how does that differ from contemporary technology? There are some traits that you list that are also present in modern technology — a reaction to the environment, an ethos behind it, a way of solving problems for society.
JULIA WATSON — I think that depends on what technologies you’re talking about. For example, carbon capture technology is based on the economics of capitalism. There’s an environmental understanding behind it, sure, but it has to make economic sense to be scaled. It doesn’t work symbiotically with its natural environment — it is a mechanical process born out of industrialization. It’s also probably not born out of scarcity; it’s not made out of biodegradable materials that go back into the environment and get exchanged into other life forms. It’s a dead infrastructure.

ALEPH MOLINARI — I guess what’s at the heart of it is an incompatibility between the metabolism of that technology and its environment.
JULIA WATSON — Yes, the symbiosis. A carbon capture technology doesn’t construct our worldview, and it doesn’t change how we engage with nature. I think that’s the real difference. “Lo-TEK” technologies require an engagement with nature — man working with nature in a close way, without a hierarchy. They respond, adapt, and change based on an open-ended system.

ANFISA VRUBEL — Is it also a question of different mythologies? Perhaps we, as part of Western society, are mythologizing the wrong things. We are mythologizing the idea of infinite economic returns in a finite natural system; we are mythologizing progress and material abundance in a system that is constrained by scarcity. How is Western technology mythologized, in your view?
JULIA WATSON — I talk more about the “mythology of technology” as an understanding of how to think about technology today. Often, technology creates modernization and efficiency, and reduces people’s workload. Indigenous technologies do not come from the illusion that there are infinite resources, but from an understanding that there are checks and balances, that there’s a limit, an ecological footprint. That’s a completely different way of conceiving what technology is. These technologies have been systemically erased or ignored. Typically, these communities exist where a colonial force came in and erased their culture, erased their existence. And it keeps on occurring. Now, rather than colonial forces, there’s more of a shift toward a global mythology of technology where Western technology is seen as the most advanced and we have to keep progressing in that direction. But that direction has failed us and has brought us to this point. We talk about the concept that modernism has failed us because look at where it led us.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Very Mark Fisher. We are living with the promises of capitalism that never came, the lost futures.
JULIA WATSON — There are so many exclusionary factors. Specifically, the dominant modern mythology about what technology is and isn’t. We talk about the loss of biodiversity and that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. But we don’t talk about the fact that the biodiversity is there because of technology. Technologies that we haven’t even recognized as technologies yet. Technologies that are resilient in the face of climate extremes because they have evolved within a particular context. They have evolved mostly in places where most of the population doesn’t have a voice in the climate change conversation.

ANFISA VRUBEL — Do you think that the future is in the past? In other words, do you believe that Lo-TEK technology can be a resource for the future?
JULIA WATSON — When we talk about technologies that are going to save the world, we talk about high tech or about carbon capture or about forests or wetlands in their pristine state without humans doing anything except strolling through them on a boardwalk. For most people around the world, that doesn’t make sense. You need to live in your environment and to get resources in a sustainable way that allows the environment to keep regenerating, so that the landscape doesn’t become sacrificial. A lot of the old knowledge and practices are about that. And they are being lost everywhere around the world.

ANFISA VRUBEL — Is it possible to achieve a hybridization of high tech and Lo-TEK?
JULIA WATSON — The hybrid hasn’t fully been explored yet. We are looking at the technology of the living root tree bridges and asking how they can be adapted to a city. Could they be adapted as a canopy to reduce the urban heat is land effect? Can they be adapted to a living facade on a building? In the Philippines, people adapt hill- sides that are nearly 80% vertical slopes. Could that be a way of rethinking facades on buildings?

ALEPH MOLINARI — What technologies, specifically, can be scaled to urban environments or contexts with large populations?
JULIA WATSON — There are specific technologies that have been scaled and which are allowing human beings to live in a certain level of abundance and progress without destroying their environments. There’s the Indian stepwell system, an indigenous water-management technology that was made defunct by the English replacing it with plumbing. There are water-cleansing technologies that are also a food source — like the East Kolkata Wetlands, where they clean the water without any chemicals through a symbiosis of sunshine, fish, algae, and bacteria. There are agroforestry systems like the one used by the Chagga people, who live on the southern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and who have managed to add 950 new medicinal and food species into a tropical forest the size of the municipality of Los Angeles. It’s a huge-scale intervention that has made the Chagga one of the wealthiest and most educated communities in northeastern Africa. And there is also pyro-technology that allows controlled burning of the land in order to mitigate wildfires. When you have a wildfire that burns 20 million acres of land and spreads toxic air from Australia to New Zealand, and you can’t breathe the air, does it matter if it’s in a city, or does it matter that everything is connected? That brings us to the point that what happens outside the city still impacts the city — the agricultural systems, the air, the water.

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, is it possible to construct a modern city without steel and concrete? Do you see the implementation of these technologies as a way to create a new materiality within the urban context?
JULIA WATSON — I think that you can be inspired by the general principles of some of this technology and by the idea of symbiosis. I don’t think we’re going to get a purely utopian city that is made from a technology dating back 6,500 years. But then again, who knows? I don’t know where the engineers or the material technologists are going to go. And maybe we are going to be forced to do something like that. There will be limits imposed on us by climate change, and perhaps the cities of the future will be more responsive to ecological footprints because of those types of ecological limits. Maybe in 100 or 200 years, we can get a city like that.

ANFISA VRUBEL — And maybe not necessarily a city. Maybe those designations are going to become increasingly antiquated. What happens thousands of miles away will come back as a downstream effect regardless.
JULIA WATSON — Yes. I’m not the first person to say that the concept of cities is redundant. Cities are resource sinkholes.

ALEPH MOLINARI — There’s an aspect that I find interesting about new technologies. There are material engineers who are doing advanced additive manufacturing, creating algorithms where machines can print the most solid structures. And the structures that the algorithms are coming up with closely resemble the arteries around the heart, the joints of the bones, or even the structure of tendons. In the end, the message is to imitate nature and its metabolism and to reinsert that technology.
JULIA WATSON — Or maybe in reverse. If the most advanced algorithms come up with the same structures as life, that means life has already optimized them. What if these technologies are already the most optimal, advanced, and sophisticated? That is fascinating to me.

ALEPH MOLINARI — What’s preventing society from implementing Lo-TEK technology? What do you think is the bottleneck for this integration?
JULIA WATSON — There are multiple factors that condition a failure to integrate. For now, I think the fact is that investment in these technologies doesn’t offer economical gains for the people who are the most powerful. It offers potential economic gains for the most disempowered. Also, I think that the infrastructure isn’t there. Our general way of living isn’t there. Policies, building codes… It also depends on what context you are thinking of. Are you thinking of New York, Boston, or Los Angeles? Or are we thinking Tehran or Shenzhen? In each different place, you can puzzle together what would be an appropriate hybrid. Is it knowledge transfer? Is it migration? Is it a set of general principles? Or is it a multitude of the things that generate new forms and new mythologies for civilization?

ANFISA VRUBEL — In your book, you talk about the importance and power of setting, about the sanctity of the land and local contexts, as well as generational and historical connections to the land. In the face of growing urbanization, migration, and displacement, how can we achieve a deeper connection to place? Is it a prerequisite for a meaningful ecological consciousness?
JULIA WATSON — There is a broader prevalent social issue, but the deeper root is our lack of engagement with nature, seeing ourselves apart from nature. This severing has disrupted the way people individually connect to the land. There’s almost a colonial PTSD. It’s a mindset of the industrialized world, of modernism. And it’s a mindset that got us to a point where we are completely extractive and polluting. We live in a way that poisons us in every form and in every way, every day. We need to understand that humankind cannot exist without natural systems. In all of my explorations of sacred landscapes, I have come to understand that sacredness is about human survival. The things that the indigenous cultures say are sacred in their landscape — like water, trees, and mountains — are sacred because they allow humankind to exist. From that mountaintop, you get volcanic soil that contains potassium, magnesium, and sulfates that make the crops grow when it comes down with the rain. From the rain, you can drink the water, and it gives you life. The trees give you clean air. So, all of the stories and mythologies that frame the indigenous worldviews are about their relationship to their environment. And that’s the connection that is lost and that we need to reexplore.

ALEPH MOLINARI — In the introduction to The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault talks about several examples of knowledge that could not have come through trial and error. He examines how indigenous cultures knew that there were minerals inside the mountains, that certain plants had health benefits. It’s a kind of language that has been lost through that disconnect. In a way, it’s about regaining that sensibility and understanding. The problem is that the world takes us in the opposite direction. It takes us into a simulation.
JULIA WATSON — Yes, but we let it.

ANFISA VRUBEL — I’m glad you are pushing in the other direction because it’s critical.
ALEPH MOLINARI — The technology we use today is protected by patents and copyrights. Do you think there’s a need to give back to these indigenous communities for using their technologies? Because their technology is not patented.
JULIA WATSON — We need to figure out how to make sure intellectual property laws protect communities. What happens to these communities when huge engineering corporations or cities take up these technologies, and indigenous knowledge becomes an accepted form of technology? Do they get reparations? Every single day, the fishermen outside the city of Calcutta clean half of the water for the city. Yet they live subsistence lifestyles, with dire food and health vulnerabilities. Their government doesn’t give them a single cent, even though they save the city $21 million in water filtration costs. I am currently talking with a professor at USC who’s a genomic scientist about how his industry is devising how to give reparations to indigenous communities. For example, you can get a genetic sequence from Papua New Guinea to make an inoculation for a new disease, but whoever makes the drug makes money and not the community who gave their genetic data. What does that community ever get in return?

ALEPH MOLINARI — Yes, because if not, you enter into the same colonialist mentality. Looking at your book, which is beautifully photographed and diagrammed, I can’t help but have a post-colonialist perspective on it. These indigenous communities look idyllic, but they are going to be exploited again through that exoticization. Then their technology is hybridized, and they become the object of study, like they have been for hundreds of years of colonialist culture. How do we prevent further exploitation?
JULIA WATSON — They’re not idyllic. The main agents for disenfranchisement or any form of subjugation of these communities are often the dominant non-indigenous governments who claim authority over their territories, in nearly every single case. Not all the systems are looking perfect, either. The Tofinu in West Africa, for example — their system feeds a million people with fish traps, but they have begun to destroy the mangrove community in the process. They have reached a point of saturation, outgrown their ecological footprint, and are now destroying their own environment. Nothing is idyllic and pristine. These nature-based technologies are scenes in nature, so they are not going to look industrial. We have a view of interactions with nature as being idyllic. I myself am on an incredible course of learning, being taught by indigenous communities how we can all do things better.

ANFISA VRUBEL — What makes you optimistic for the future? Are you a dreamer or a pragmatist?
JULIA WATSON — I am a futurist, so I am inherently inspired by the future. As an academic and a practitioner, I lie between being a dreamer and a pragmatist because I dream about what the context of a possible alternative could be, then I have to suspend a certain reality that exists today in order to design that alternative future. The idea of indigenous thinking to save the world is so sophisticated and amazing. These movements need to coalesce around more than resistance and transform into a worldview. And not a universal worldview, but a worldview that is contextual and about where you live and how you live.

ANFISA VRUBEL — Maybe that’s the problem: trying to envision a cohesive and unified vision of the future, thinking that the world is going to look any one specific way. That’s probably where we encounter these ideological blocks.
JULIA WATSON — Yes. Indigenous thinking says that there is no one top-down approach; all these interdependent individual units work toward a common goal and the common good. Maybe that’s part of it — the idea of going from being the extractor to the custodian, and how that manifests across humankind’s understanding about what our place on Earth is. We exist to be custodians of the planet and to guide life and to protect it.



[Table of contents]

The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

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