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Nieuwe Instituut’s First Year as a Zoöp

Earth Day marks the Nieuwe Instituut’s first anniversary as a Zoöp. On 22 April 2023, the Rotterdam-based institute celebrates becoming the first organisation in the world to enter into a ‘cooperation with all life’. Since then, nature-inclusive landscape architect Maike van Stiphout has been representing the interests of our other-than-human colleagues and partners as Speaker for the Living. She represents the interests and voices of the fish in the ponds and the sedum on the roofs, as well as the bats on the façade and the silverfish that stow away with the new acquisitions in the National Collection. But what does this mean in practice for the way we worked last year? We’re pleased to take you through the first steps of the joint learning and development process.

20 April 2023

Speaker for the Living Maike van Stiphout (centre) with Nieuwe Instituut general and artistic director Aric Chen (right) and business director Josien Paulides. Photo: Wietske Nutma.

Testing ground

In the spring of 2022, the Speaker for the Living and the Nieuwe Instituut’s Board of Directors signed an agreement officially making the institute a Zoöp. The decision to operate as a Zoöp is an example of the institute’s ‘testing ground’ approach, which we apply to all our activities. We experiment and innovate in our exhibitions, public programmes, research and archival practices in a way that unites theory, design and practice.

Work on the construction of the new ‘New Garden’ at the Nieuwe Instituut. Photo: Klaas Kuitenbrouwer.

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Work on the construction of the new ‘New Garden’ at the Nieuwe Instituut. Photo: Klaas Kuitenbrouwer.

Recovery of the biosphere

When an organisation becomes a Zoöp, it commits itself to fulfilling a conscious and active role within a healthy larger whole. On the way to a symbiosis with the other life forms in such an ecosystem, the Zoöp sets itself concrete goals with corresponding interventions and constantly examines and evaluates them. Fixed assessment moments and targets are set in an annual cycle. The learning process goes beyond philosophical abstractions about humanity’s position in the world and transcends conventional forms of sustainability policy, which rarely go beyond limiting the damage that we, as a company of humans, cause to other lives. A Zoöp aims to actually boost the well-being of the ecosystem, actively contributing to the recovery, resilience and strengthening of the biosphere.

Josien Paulides (Nieuwe Instituut), Iris van der Lee (Gemeente Rotterdam) en Jan Scholten (Cultuurtechniek gemeente Rotterdam) zetten de laatste van de 1000 rietvoorns uit in de vijvers van het instituut. Foto Jan van der Ploeg.

Students from University College Utrecht get to work for a week to establish exactly who lives in the New Garden. Photo: Klaas Kuitenbrouwer.

Hundreds of fish

In the run-up to establishing Nieuwe Instituut as a Zoöp last year, we had already done preliminary research and made all sorts of preparations. During discussions about the large-scale greening of the Museumpark, for example, we urged the municipality to halve the surface of the car park and to lay it out so that sunlight, rainwater, seeds and pollen could reach the soil. As part of this initiative, we also proposed an alternative and varied planting plan for the deepened ponds, enabling a rich living environment to flourish there with new reed beds, waterlilies and other bankside, wetland and floating plant species. To create a balanced environment in the ponds, hundreds of fish were released there at the end of 2022 in the presence of business director Josien Paulides.

At various points in the development of the fledgling Zoöp, art school students, researchers and experts – some notable, some unexpected – have taken measurements and come up with possible design solutions for the issues they encountered.

Photo: Sjoukje van Gool, participant in the Being Zoöp photo workshop, 2023.

Zoöp awareness

In 2022 and the first months of 2023, we devoted ourselves to interventions large and small that contribute to objectives related to mobility, the use of materials, the so-called ‘life-supporting capacity’ of the institute’s building, garden and ponds, and the ‘Zoöp awareness’ of both staff members and visitiors, as well as to stimulating the application of ecological principles in the urban development of Rotterdam. For example, two workshops allowed institute staff members, under the guidance of artist Patricia de Ruijter, to practice using meditation and photography techniques to observe their surroundings from a more-than-human point of view.

Impression of a floating pavilion, showing the opening in its base. Image: courtesy of NLÉ.

Floating structures

A current milestone for the Nieuwe Instituut as Zoöp is the construction of the floating pavilions for the exhibition Water Cities Rotterdam. By Kunlé Adeyemi, which opens on 14 May 2023. It is worth noting that, in the preliminary phase of The Podium, attention was paid to non-human stakeholders only at a late stage. Then for The Energy Show’s floating solar collectors on the ponds, design adjustments were made on the recommendation of the Speaker for the Living. In Water Cities, however, the Speaker was involved from the very first proposal. As a result, the floating structures are actually able to strengthen the life-supporting capacity of the ponds. The intervention by landscape architect and ‘nature optimist’ Thijs de Zeeuw also helps visitors to the floating pavilion to see the world from the perspective of the fish.