Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.
– Susan Sontag
Part I: ‘The problem of perception’
KS: To begin, where and what did you study?
MC: I've had a passion for art since I was a kid. As a young adult, I went on to receive a BA in Photography at Yale and an MFA at the School of Visual Arts. Studying art got me interested in detail, observation, and a conceptual practice, while presenting its own challenges regarding the applicability of photography in a broader context. Photography provided an entry point for considering the arrangement of material, texture, and light—the framing of a view.
NS: I can see how photography would lead to your interest in framing, but what got you started in landscape design? Do you see your transition—from photography to garden and landscape design—as breaking the “fourth-wall” of photography?
MC: I grew up in the country before moving to New York City. So, my interest in a broader picture transitioned naturally into the "broader" picture of landscapes and environments. Even when I was taking lots of photographs, I developed a tendency to imagine the images I wanted to shoot prior to going into the field. For obvious reasons, this proved to be problematic.
Nevertheless, photography gave me an eye, per se. I'm drawn to scenes that appear to have an immediate message, but leave room for nuanced readings due to its richness of detail. Many of the techniques I acquired through photography find applicability in garden and landscape design—in seeing form, composition, color, relationship to light, etc. What differentiates a garden from a photograph is that there's this highly personal experience between the viewer and the garden that's more or less purely physiological—that to me is very interesting. And perhaps, because plants are associated with Mother Nature, the viewer is also also confronted with interpreting the garden's relationship to the world and to themselves.
NS: So, sense-perception—the awareness or apprehension of things through sensation—has long been a preoccupation of philosophers. How do you see yourself handling perception through landscape, through art?
MC: Well, I feel the need to try and reconcile the apparently obvious truths about our experience of the world with the possibility of certain kinds of perceptual error—how error can affect our shared beliefs, how our collective beliefs shape our day-to-day patterns.
NS: What do you mean?
MC: I’ll put it this way: especially regarding nature, there is so much we, as human beings, take for granted. I think a lot of this stems from perceptual error. We see a natural space and think it’s static, or permanent, or whatever. When it comes down to it, our mind just can't comprehend the totality of a constantly changing universe. The indeterminacy of things...no one mind can take it all in. That impossibility frames the illegibility and intrigue of nature and our relationship to it. Yet, I honestly believe that if we loosen our perception by letting a powerful sensory experience take hold of us—maybe one found in nature—our perception can function on a cycle of growth in step with that environment, shifting in tandem with a greater awareness. With that said, there are plenty of barriers that prevent us from seeing that. We like to think things are permanent, we like to put things in sterile rooms or inside of frames or on a white wall.
KS: So, from this philosophical perspective, it seems that our built environment could be viewed as a physical manifestation of perceptual error, or our illusions and hallucinations.
MC: Yes, what interests me are the gradations of illusions and hallucinations. Modern art is preoccupied with the intelligibility of this phenomena. I enjoy thinking in terms of gradients of illusions and hallucinations and their potential effects. It’s especially interesting to have a practice in New York City, where we surround ourselves with a cacophony of illusions and hallucinations—in ways that outwardly reveal these things.
KS: What do you define as natural versus man-made in an urban environment like New York City? What do you make of the inversion that occurs in a dense and vertical city like NY, where the built form becomes the ground and plants become figures?
MC: I think that inversion occurs in the densification of any environment; but, obviously, with New York, it’s on a massive scale. New York is as natural as anything. It exists, it’s as simple as that. I think the problem of perception comes into play when people insist on “othering” the city from the landscape, or vice-versa. Our challenge involves designing spaces that re-contextualize one dimensional mindsets or ideologies by demanding continued observation. I want people to see how the city is natural. This more total understanding might allow us to treat nature—and one another—with compassion. Since NY is so massive, it's impossible to grasp the total possibility of form. But, if we really think about it, a forest, or even the entire globe functions in the same way. Constant change. The error involves trying to separate it or define it as absolute. Plants are great because as objects they demonstrate this change, this aliveness. In plants, I find a rich, metaphorical association through this ever-changing nature. They’re like reminders of a larger change.
KS: Can you describe how hallucinations or illusions can function as a gradient?
MC: I look at sensory experience as an event. The experience of this event can be understood through how it is symbolized or filtered as a representation, or it can be felt intrinsically. I think the gradation of illusion occurs as a continuum between what is being perceived as a representation, symbolically, or what is being perceived as the real quality of that event. The quality can involve more fundamental aspects: that things are changing, that things are growing, or, even more subtle things, like how a plant flowers in late summer. The representational way of viewing an event is inherently a hallucination. Thinking the city is separate from nature is a representational way of perceiving the city.
NS: I see. So, you’re equating representation with hallucination and illusion?
MC: Well, when it comes to perception at least. I believe that we perceive in multiplicities—in symbols and words but also viscerally. I think plants help emphasize the simple, fundamental features of sensory experience because they’re alive, they’re actually full of moving parts swimming around, absorbing, producing, etc.
KS: The fundamentality of “being alive” contrasts the invented barriers, structures, or as you say, representations that you feel are hallucinations within perception.
MC: I suppose we can look at it that way. Really, I’m just trying to emphasize how perceptual error is tied to perceiving what’s constructed, what’s represented first—allowing that inherent bias to influence everything else you perceive. There is a human tendency to put the “subject” first, and not just “subject” as it relates to the individual. We often place a “subjective truth” accepted by many at the forefront of our perception. We call this ideology. Ideology can influence everything we perceive—so much so that when we see a plant, a space, a building—all we see is economics, social function, numbers, oppression, etc. Of course these ideologies are rooted in reality, and our “raw” perception; but, they are codified, representational versions of things that can be perceived “in the raw” as objects, as materials. I want to actually observe the world, maybe even be surprised by it.
NS: How does “observation” fit into all this. Is observing the same as perceiving?
MC: Without getting too semantical about it, I think observing is perceiving actively without thinking representationally. I mean, when you are looking at phenomena with an open mind—looking at the objects and appreciating their presence as materials, looking at their qualities, looking at what makes them what they are—form, detail, light, shadow, etc. Obviously aesthetic value can come from this, so can nostalgia. Yet these things are references and reminders; I almost want to advocate a child-like approach to these settings, a feeling the wonder and presence of the moment.
KS: Is that what you find beautiful about plants? Do you think landscape design brings out that beauty, or takes away from it?
MC: I may be biased, but obviously I believe landscape design has the potential to bring out beauty. With that said, much of the “discourse” of landscape design codifies and contributes to static understandings of environments—where people treat a natural space as a piece of furniture to be bought and owned. This is a problem for landscape designers. We obviously want to contribute to world betterment using landscape as creative, inspiring, or environmentally conscious. Yet, we’re stuck in a system that values what’s aesthetically pleasing or economically valuable as a landscape. More and more, we’re struggling to a means to give landscape design a voice as an art-form capable of redefining these systems, these structures.
NS: What is specifically frustrating about people treating a natural space as similar to any “room” in a home environment? How do you think the landscape designer can help facilitate an environment autonomous from the standard dimensions of the home?
MC: Well, I think it can come down to trying to design spaces that alter static perception. It isn’t easy -- and there are practical limitations involved with how the “business” of landscape design is carried out and conducted. Ultimately, we’re making things that disconnect us from ourselves, that disconnect us from what we’re familiar with in order to provoke the observation of something as it is without our baggage, perceptual or otherwise. I think if we can at least provide that, we’re helping develop a kind of profound awareness.
I’ll put it this way: especially regarding nature, there is so much we, as human beings, take for granted. I think a lot of this stems from perceptual error.
It’s especially interesting to have a practice in New York City, where we surround ourselves with a cacophony of illusions and hallucinations—in ways that outwardly reveal these things.
I think plants help emphasize the simple, fundamental features of sensory experience because they’re alive, they’re actually full of moving parts swimming around, absorbing, producing, etc.