The Harrisons' Future Gardens at the UCSC Arboretum

Newton and Helen Harrison, Survival Piece #3: Portable Fish Farm (1971).
Newton and Helen Harrison, Survival Piece #3: Portable Fish Farm (1971).

In 2018, the Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS) launches a major site-specific environmental art installation by Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden.

UC Santa Cruz Emeritus Professors of Art Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison have collaborated as an art making team since the late 1960s. Pioneers of the Ecological Art movement, they are known in the world of contemporary art simply as “the Harrisons.” In the spring of 2018, the IAS and the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum will open A Future Garden for the Coastal Zone Between San Francisco and Big Sur, the Harrisons' first multi-year, publicly accessible, site-specific ecological installation in the United States. Combining plant science, environmental studies, and landscape design, Future Garden will occupy three historic geodesic domes in the Arboretum and the surrounding landscape to explore the impact of climate change on the Central California coast. 

For nearly fifty years the Harrisons have worked with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners and other artists to propose sustainable solutions to ecological challenges and the crisis posed by climate change. Their projects have been shown in major exhibitions, museums, art festivals, and galleries around the world, and their work emerges from a single directive:  because people have affected the environment to its detriment, people must also act now for the survival of plant and animal species threatened around the globe. In 2016, Prestel press published a monograph surveying the Harrisons' career, encompassing forty-five years of groundbreaking work at the forefront of art and environmental ecology. 

At the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, Future Garden will provide a tangible example of how people can, to use the Harrisons’ words, “take responsibility for a deeply stressed planet” and create a future in the face of unfolding environmental crises. As IAS director John Weber says, “Future Garden will elegantly and provocatively model the need for creative strategies in the struggle against the central existential threat of our time, global warming." 

Newton Harrison speaks inside one of the domes to be used for Future Gardens.

At the Arboretum, the new installation will occupy three 1970s-era geodesic domes and the surrounding landscape, all renovated specifically for the Harrisons’ piece.

To shape Future Garden, the Harrisons are working with scientists on the UCSC faculty, the Arboretum’s scientific staff, and graduate students to fill the three domes with plant ensembles carefully selected to test their compatibility and resiliency under different three possible future regimes of heat, irrigation, and climate consistency. Scientific consensus holds that every place on earth will be warmer by as much as four degrees Celsius over the course of this century, and rainfall will be increasingly unpredictable. By producing conditions that mimic possible future conditions, Future Garden aims to explore and demonstrate the possibility of propagating, “in the now,” as the Harrisons have said, novel plant groupings that can “self-complicate into future ecosystems that will live and flourish as temperature increases due to rapid climate warming.” This will, as Newton Harrison explains, “assist the migration of species” into future ecosystems and help ensure that there is a future at all. 

Newton Harrison meets with Arboretum staff and contractors about the rehabilitation of the domes.

Arboretum director Martin Quigley says, “We cannot imagine a more important or timely piece to present at the Arboretum. As a university-based Arboretum, we are committed to promoting research on plant conservation. And, we are huge proponents of arts programming to aid in teaching and learning about plant conservation."

Future Gardens creatively and imaginatively expands the Arboretums' scope, while drawing on the expertise of its staff, its value as site for teaching and learning, and its status as a beloved public amenity in the Santa Cruz region. With a growing membership base and a dedicated voluteer corps, the Arboretum offers Future Garden an ideal site for a long-term art and plant science installation. 

Plants for Future Garden will be progagated from seed by the Arboretum.

Future Garden for the Coastal Zone Between San Francisco and Big Sur is a project of the Harrisons' Center for the Study of the Force Majeure.

In 2010 the artists founded the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure at UC Santa Cruz to pursue strategies that blend art and science to respond creatively and at vast scale to global warming and climate change. The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure brings together artists and scientists to design ecosystem-adaptation projects in critical regions around the world to respond to climate change. The UC Santa Cruz Future Garden is one of the center’s major current projects. According to Newton Harrison, “the concept for the Future Garden is easily replicable and could be applied to mountain, prairie, or other biomes; it is of modest cost; and it has the potential to greatly benefit the environment.” Harrison sees the Future Garden projects, at U.C. Santa Cruz, at the UC Sagehen Natural Reserve in the Sierra Mountains, and on the Tibetan Plateau as sites of experience and learning, but also as beacons of hope.