Wild ideas | RSA Journal Issue 4 - RSA

Wild ideas

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  • Picture of Lee Baker
    Lee Baker
    Music producer and painter
  • Arts and culture
  • Community and place-based action
  • Environment
  • Health and wellbeing

When studies showed even images of nature could have a positive effect on wellbeing, Graphic Rewilding, a public art venture on a grand scale, was born.

In 2019, studies appearing in Frontiers in Psychology showed that just a 20-minute walk in nature is enough to significantly improve mood and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. That a walk in nature improves your mood may seem unsurprising. What’s not so obvious is that studies showed that even exposure to simple images of nature can have a positive effect on the mind.

This is a finding with potentially massive ramifications given that (according to the Barcelona Institute for Global Health) more than 60% of city dwellers in Europe live in areas with insufficient green space. A 2012 study by Camiel J Beukeboom, Dion Langveld and Karin Tanja-Dijkstra showed that viewing images of nature increases activity in brain regions associated with attention and emotion regulation, as well as increased alpha-wave activity associated with relaxation and meditative states.

Enter the Graphic Rewilding project, our mission to improve quality of life through nature-inspired public art.

Extinction of experience

I’ve always said that Watford, where I grew up, was ‘a brilliant place to leave’. To me it was a dull, urban satellite of London and, like so many kids who grew up in similar urban environments, I had, for many years, a total ambivalence to real nature. I was far more at home rummaging for car parts in scrap yards than playing Poohsticks in the local river.

At some point long after leaving Watford, I read about a phenomenon known as ‘the extinction of experience’, where people simply forget what nature actually is, and so lose empathy for the natural world. I thought, “that was me!” Based on a complete lack of experience, I grew up with zero connection to (or interest in) nature.

It is perhaps for this reason that my artwork has always seemed to exist in, and attempted to tackle, the questions raised by urban environments. I loved the attitude and output of artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, who manipulated natural environments, but the countryside was not my natural stomping ground. So I adapted their ethos of working only with the materials available to them, and applied it to the local scrap yards which, ignoring health and safety, were happy to pile cars up for me and let me paint them. Studying fine art in Newcastle in the 1990s, I was able to explore a city with more than its fair share of dereliction and degradation, and I used the detritus that I found washed up on the shores of the River Tyne in my work.

I can’t tell you how relaxing I have found it to wander, often on virtual horseback, through the epic and beautiful landscapes of games like Horizon Zero Dawn or Ghost of Tsushima.

Lee Baker

Waking up to nature

Then, something extraordinary happened. About 10 years ago I had what I can only describe as ‘a bit of a breakdown’. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, and for six months the only thing that could soothe my troubled mind was drawing flowers. As I recovered, I wanted to dig a little deeper into why this made me feel better, and soon I was on the precipice of an epic, exciting – and slightly out of my intellectual depth – research rabbit hole.

In attempting to analyse my therapeutic flower drawing, I realised that my ability to find happiness through nature and my evolution towards a more biophilic sensibility came not through walks in the woods, but through my passion for nature in art. Not just paintings, prints and graphic design, but also tattoos, television, social media and, also, believe it or not, through video games.

I can’t tell you how relaxing I have found it to wander, often on virtual horseback, through the epic and beautiful landscapes of games like Horizon Zero Dawn or Ghost of Tsushima. Or imagine, during a high-speed supercar race in Gran Turismo, pulling over on a lay-by just to take a look at the stormy sunset on the horizon.

Ridiculous, right? But tests by Giovanna Calogiuri of University of South-Eastern Norway have shown that people who are exposed to nature in virtual reality and video games experience lower levels of stress and higher levels of positivity compared with those who are exposed to virtual urban environments. I wasn’t the only one who was garnering the benefits of nature, one step removed.

The city is our canvas, and in London alone we have covered nearly 4.5 square kilometres with our artworks.

Lee Baker

Enter rewilding

Bolstered by all the thinking around ‘virtual nature’, we founded Graphic Rewilding as an artistic counterbalance to the severe lack of green space in cities. We wanted to create vast, flower-inspired, maximalist, positivity-inducing artworks and immersive environments in often-overlooked urban spaces. Our vibrant images of nature are set in opposition to the grey concrete jungle, and though these may not provide the same environmental and psychological benefits as real nature, our experience and all those studies we read had convinced us that our art could inspire people to connect and empathise a little more with the natural world – and hopefully mitigate some of the negative effects that a lack of exposure to green space could cause.

So far, it seems to be working. In the early days of Graphic Rewilding, we created a project inspired by Victorian pleasure gardens on some ugly, unused, asphalted land on a busy road in Earl’s Court, London. We had discovered the Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure garden that flourished in the 19th century. The original gateway still exists, and our artistic interpretation was a colourful blend of sculptural gateway, flower art and planting. As soon as we opened it to the public, people flooded in and used the space to play, eat lunch and just to relax. People told us there was hardly any public green space in the area and that even our theatrical garden was a hugely welcome addition to their community.

And this isn’t an isolated reaction – we encounter this type of response time and time again. The city is our canvas, and in London alone we have covered nearly 4.5 square kilometres with our artworks.

We begin a project by researching the area, including the local flora and residents! This helps us to create images that act as the basis for a creative immersive environment. Our nature-inspired installations have given building facades floral makeovers, added meadows to billboards and graphically rewilded entire streets complete with floors and street furniture. We have also reached into the digital realm, with mobile-animated augmented reality experiences enhancing our work.

How fascinating that our brains can be hacked to suspend disbelief and believe that, though we are not interacting with real trees, rocks or animals, we are still benefiting from a totally imagined nature scenario. I now believe the possibilities for aesthetic appreciation are boundless. We want to create gardens of our imagination and, as David Hockney puts it, “a new nature”, one that invites viewers to see their surroundings in a fresh and exciting way.

Baker & Borowski is an artist–curator partnership between music producer and painter Lee Baker and sculptor and placemaking specialist Catherine Borowski. Since 2017, they have worked together to bring art into the everyday urban landscape. After 27 shows collaborating with some of Europe’s best-known artists, they began their current public art venture, Graphic Rewilding.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal issue 4 2023.

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