Blog > Building the Electric Garden... DIARY

︎April 2024, Sunjoo Lee has started working at Creative Coding Utrecht (CCU) located at Hof van Cartesius, as an artist in residence. The goal until mid-June 2024 is to build a prototype garden that makes electricity, with the resources from the Hof. This is a diary of every improtant step and thought in the process.

Diary Electric Garden > 001 > Ideation Session at CCU

︎ On Thursday 11th April 2024, an ideation session for electric garden took place at CCU / Hof van Cartesius.

The session was led by Sunjoo Lee, myself, with moderation of Niels Janssen, and the two invited participants were Kenny and Jamie from the Hof. The goal of the session was to ‘Tap into the group wisdom.’ The knowledge I needed the most was the professional advice on the ecology of the wet garden, and how & where to source the materials & tools needed to build it.

Kenny and Jamie were thankfully very supportive of the idea of the electricity generating garden, and the experiments needed to be done for it. They both have a lot of knowledge in permaculture. Kenny created the gardens in the Hof and he manages it, and Jamie is an enthusiastic composter who makes different shapes of worm hotels. 

︎Let’s go through the discussion of this day by looking at the sketches I made envisioning the garden.


0. This is a cell which is a basic building block of the electric garden. This is the basic minimal components needed to make the mud produce electricity. There is a plant, a pot of mud with some water, and two electrodes, one on the bottom and one on top of the mud. Electrical wires are connected to each electrode.

What needs to be done with the cell is that there should be multiple of these (preferably many cells like, at least 50) connected in parallel and in series. Especially it is important to connect them in series in order to get a higher voltage coming out of the cell complex. In order to charge a capacitor or a battery and to use that energy for powering a small electronic device, we need at least 3V, preferably 5V for most applications with microcontrollers. That is why it is desired to have many of these building blocks, to connect them up together. I do not have enough knowledge if the cells really need the container to completely isolate one cell from another. However from my limited amount of experience and knowledge from papers and internet articles, the cells work better when they are isolated.

1. Here is my first sketch. Obviously, this is a highly fragmented garden, every small cell contains one kind of plant, all of them isolated but stuck together into one plot. Kenny saw my sketch, and as a permaculturist he had to mention the one important truth about ecology - everything is connected with each other in nature, and they are interactive. Multiple species of plants and other organisms all depend on each other, and therefore isolation is not a desired condition for a garden. He suggested that the cells should be bigger, to compensate it a little bit, and there should be multiple species of plants planted in one pot together.

2. Now here is a new sketch, for a bigger cell. I thought it could work well if the cells would have multiple electrodes in each cell, and have the electrodes in the same cell be connected in parallel. And then each cell would be connected to other cells in series. Then we arrive to this new view on the garden, that has much bigger sized cells with multiple plants planted in each cell. Looks definitely more like a permaculture garden than before. The plants and animals will be happier too.

3. And then there is an option to install the electrodes in a pond. A lot of them in one big pond. I am quite sure that this will work too, but I will have to see how it would be to connect these electrodes in series. Will it be much less efficient than the isolated ones in my previous sketches? Or will it work as good?

4. I thought for a while that the plant roots give off oxygen to the soil. I know that it is very imporant to make an anaerobic environment for the anode, for the electrogenic bacteria to live in, for the battery to work. So I was worried about that the plant roots might touch the anode in the ground and disturb the anaerobic environment. I thought I would have to have some kind of protection against this scenario so I sketched out a terracotta cup making a barrier between the roots and the anode. However once I actually experimented planting plants in an unprotected cell which anode was located very close to the roots, and found out that it is not really that much of a problem. The cell just works without worrying too much about it.

5. Kenny made a list of ‘swampplants’ that can live in the wet garden, and can tolerate shade. The plot of land at the Hof where I can build the electric garden is a shady area, where the big tree and the tall building will be casting a shadow for most of the day. This will be a good place to let the garden stay wet, since there will be less evaporation from the sun, but it will not be a positive condition for most plants, and also for the anaerobic bacteria to get more food. Plants give off exudates through the roots, the excess nutrients they get from photosynthesis. The exudates will feed the bacteria underground, which will produce electricity. So therefore a shady garden is not the most ideal place, but I am willing to give it a try.
︎About sourcing the materials, There are a lot of stuff piled up in the Hof. We immediately started gathering stuff together, and after about 20 minutes, we already had a lot of buckets and different sizes of pipes for use in building the garden. All the pipes and buckets were laying at corners or in piles of stuff at different places of the Hof, and were anyways going to be thrown away around the 25th of April.

“Sourcing materials within 20 meters from where you are standing, this is really in line with permaculture!” Kenny said. Niels and I thought this was a great phrase to sum up the philosophy of the Hof, also concerning an important of building this garden. Do not buy, source them here, at the Hof. Recycle! 

︎︎︎ Materials gathered at the Hof, for Electric Garden

This is where a lot of new thoughts come in, for me as an artist and a designer. For the last few years of living and working as a professional new-media artist, I am  used to making artworks on demand, designing the process of production of art as efficiently as possible in terms of time and effort. Money was there for disposal so I would calculate the amount and buy in big batches from shops, and get them delivered to my atelier door. This gives me control over making installations of unified aesthetics, delivering the work on time, and spending working hours on only the inevitably necessary parts of the production. Time is precious and the shops are there to provide convenience. The artworks would then be exhibited in art shows or festivals, usually indoors, also with a certain kind of aesthetic that promotes commerciality, efficiency, speed, sharpness and human pleasure.

Coming from this background, I find myself getting into conflicting thoughts as I work in the context of this project, and the Hof. I really enjoy this process, because this transforms me in the way of working and also my values. When I was a young teenager of between about 12 to 16 years old, I had dreamt of becoming a designer for humanitarian goals and ecological justice. My idol was Victor Papanek. I had dreamed of designing a product in the future that can benefit the people and the environment in every step of the life-cycle of the product; production, usage, and disposal. I think this is almost an impossible and idealistic thought a young person can have, but it is still interesting to investigate the possibility of such a designed product from time to time. I lost touch of this way of thinking once I got into design schools and navigating through the competitive and precarious artist career. The sucess of an artist in a society does not often go well together with being responsible for ones’ actions towards the well-being of the Earth. 

I am very much used to designing things for indoor exhibition halls where climate is controlled to the maximum, and everything is in artificial order. But this ‘garden’ is at the opposite. It is messy, uncontrollable, changing, multitude of actors and priorities come into play. I should better think of it as building a system than an artwork, or even, as giving a basis for a system to start itself, and flourish. I will create an assemblage of different necessary players in a potential system. Once put together, they will start their own lives and interactions among them, rearrange themselves constantly, transforming the environment to fit their own needs. The seasons will affect them, they will adapt. Sometimes they will need help, and then the gardeners (including myself) will help them. But it is a work of care rather than control. It will also be an ongoing work that probably never ends, rather than a finite process.

6. The sketch of the garden has become something more of a combination of a lot of different sizes of cells. Some are bigger than others, some are very small. They are planted into the ground so that the walls of the cells do not stand too tall for animals to traverse over. Maybe there can be some rocks and stones between them, or some plants to live between so that more bridges can be formed among the cells. I wish that the ground will be covered with not sand but soil, so that it will over time become a green plot with a lot of small ponds.

Diary Electric Garden > 002 > Thoughts on Gardening

︎︎︎It is obvious that these sketches were still in the process of making, but I felt looking at them that I was bound to straight lines and orderly patterns.

I am not familiar with using recycled materials. The shapes and colors of pipes and buckets are not uniform, many of them even have big stains and broken parts. I was striving to make a design that will give some sort of orderliness to these diverse materials, so that the finished garden would be a designed piece with careful intention put to practice, instead of looking too much like a random clustering of recycled materials. I felt the need to set up certain rules for ordering them, and choosing certain materials over others. So that I do still make design choices, but be flexible enough to embrace the diversity and abundance of usable materials found at the Hof.

After sketching these, I went to the Hof again to look at how the plot actually looks like, to disillusion myself from the digital image. The actual plot of land was very slanted, much more rugged than the perfectly flat ground in the sketches. I felt big gap between the unlimited possibilities of forms and shapes being visualised within the digital 3d environment, and the physical reality of the land at the Hof. Even though these orderly containers built on a geometrical sand block is far from what I want to achieve, it triggers the question; how much do I want to transform the land to fit my wishes, and how much am I allowed to, in terms of ethics for ecosystems and the basic principles in permaculture? And how much am I willing to adapt my goals to the already existing environment?

Building and tending to a “garden” is a balancing act between human intention and the intention of natural ecosystem. The balance point and the way of balancing can be defined relatively flexibly in the context of a garden, compared to wildlife preservation. The gardener and the ecosystem enters a conversation, through the garden as the medium in between. The conversation can lead to many places. The garden can potentially be about anything. In the case of this Electric Garden project - if one intends to make the garden a power plant that churns out electricity to the very last drop a plot of land can provide, this is definitely possible and still can be called a ‘garden.’ Or one can put forward the value of creating a habitat for plants, insects, fungi, and bacteria far beyond the intention of creating electricity, considering electricity from this garden as a mere ‘by-product’ that just happened to be valuable for humans. These are the two extremes this garden can be, and there are many gradients of scenarios in between the two. I am excited to get into the maze of a conversation between myself and the garden, exploring the various shades and compositions of ecological values and human values in interaction.

︎︎︎I found myself delving into the term ‘gardening,’ coming from the context of the interventions I had done in natural areas, during Getbol Lab residency in 2023. For a month in July 2023, I stayed next to an intertidal flat at the shore of Daebudo, South Korea. It is an area at the west coast close to Seoul, which was once an island but now connected to the mainland through land reclamation. Huge areas of mudflats had been covered with sand and concrete, in turn became cities and industrial areas. There are still a lot of mudflats preserved and one of these mudflat areas was where I was staying at and trying out my interventions on. 

I was installing solar powered video cameras, floating objects that log environmental data from the sea, and robots that walk on the mudflat inspired by crabs. At the beginning, I wanted to find a way to make artworks that would be in perfect harmony with nature and install them at a natural area. With this restriction, I could only come up with artworks that would not use any electricity, let alone artificially made materials. I would have to use materials that are biodegradable in the short term. I once asked an artist; How do you deal with the fact that your artworks can harm the environment you install them in? What if the animals do not like your artwork in their territory? I do not remember exact words but she answered in approximately this direction;
“Then you would only build artworks that creates no tension. Trying to be completely harmless is a naive attitude, giving no room for the artist to face the world full of complexity and that contain conflicts. Anything a human does is inherently artificial, that is hard to deny. If you bring in something synthetic to a wild environment, you get to tell stories that have many layers creating meaningful tension. You can finally then experiment with different contexts crossing each other.”

At the time I could not completely grasp her words, but I am convinced by this thought now. I started to make electronics that either observe, or just reside and move within the mudflats, during the residency at Daebudo. I was curious what kind of tension they give in relation to the environment, and also what kind of experience I would have by making and installing them there. 

Here, I figured that the artworks, as long as they are artificial and contains parts that are not biodegradeable, should always be under maintenance. You can not make something like a robot and expect it to go freely out to the wild and live in it, and let nature take it over from there. The artist who creates it should not let it go out of reach, but rather put it in the context of constant conversation with nature, within the boundary of the artist watching over it. the artist should also be ready to take it out of the environment whenever removal is necessary. There should be a sense of responsibility in the process of intervention of humans in the wild. And I started to see this as the act of ‘gardening.’  When human intervention mixes with a natural environment, it becomes a hybrid - a mix of human and natural system. This is not a fully wild environment anymore, and also not a domestic one. It becomes a garden, something in between the two. I felt that a garden is a place of tension and interaction, more importantly a responsible playground to experiment with the hybridity of human and wild nature.

Diary Electric Garden > 003 > Permaculture Principles

︎I am curious to know more about Permaculture. Permacomputing has been inspired by Permaculture, and creating the Electric Garden requires professional guidance from gardeners who are knowledgeable about the plant ecosystem. What do the gardeners base their decisions on when there are difficult choices to make? What do you put more value on over others? If I am conflicted between the functioning of electricity making and the healthy ecosystem of the plants and animals, what are the guiding principles I should reference to when making that decision?

︎ I bought a book called Gaia’s Garden, a famous book to read when you want to learn about Permaculture as a beginner. It is a beautiful big and thick book, with rich information about the basic and intermediate knowledge about Permaculture. Here in the first chapter the author outlines the Permaculture Principles, which are very helpful in structuring my thoughts and questions in the perspective of an ecological gardener.

Permaculture principles (from Gaia’s Garden)

A. Core principles for Ecological Design
  1. Observe. Use protracted and thoughtful observation rather than prolonged and thoughtless action. Observe the site and its elements in all seasons. Design for specific sites, clients, and cultures.
  2. Connect. Use relative location, that is, place the elements of your design in ways that create useful relationships and time-saving connections among all parts. The number of connections among elements creates a healthy, diverse ecosystem, not the number of elements.
  3. Catch and store energy and materials. Identify, collect, and hold useful flows. Every cycle is an opportunity for yield, every gradient (in slope, charge, temperature, and the like) can produce energy. Reinventing resources builds capacity to capture yet more resources.
  4. Each element performs multiple functions. Choose and place each element in a design to perform as many functions as possible. Beneficial connections between diverse components create a stable whole. Stack elements in both space and time.
  5. Each function is supported by multiple elements. Use multiple methods to achieve important functions and to create synergies. Redundancy protects when one or more elements fail.
  6. Make the least change for the greatest effect. Understand the system you are working with well enough to find its “leverage points” and intervene there, where the least work accomplishes the most change.
  7. Use small-scale, intensive systems. Start at your doorstep with the smallest systems that will do the job and build on your successes. Grow by “chunking”- that is, developing a small system or arrangement that works well-and repeat it, with variations.
  8. Optimize edge. The edge-the intersection of two environements-is the most diverse place in a system and is where energy and materials accumulate or are translated. Increase and decrease edge as appropriate.
  9. Collaborate with succession. Living systems usually advance from immaturity to maturity, and if we accept this trend and align our designs with it instead of fighting it, we save work and energy. Mature ecosystems are more diverse and productive than young ones.
  10. Use biological and renewable resources. Renewable resources (usually living beings and their products) reproduced and build up over time, store energy, assist yield, and interact with other elements. Favor these over nonrenewable resources.

Reading this, I notice how many words this text uses that are similar to ones describing the fuctioning of electronics. For example principle number 5 says:
Each function is supported by multiple elements. Use multiple methods to achieve important functions and to create synergies. Redundancy protects when one or more elements fail.”

I find the words function, perform, methods, fail, systems, optimize, energy, and design familiar to the words in the context of building digital code or electronic hardware.

Also this ecological system building in gardens is very much in line with cybernetics.

A psychologist explains Stafford Beer’s viable system model as:
“Various systems overlap and dynamically interact with one another. This embeddedness of systems, Beer refers to as the principle or theorem of recursion. Viable systems have a recursive structure in that all viable systems contain, and are contained by, other viable systems. Continuous adaptation of these systems is required and the term autopoiesis refers to the capacity of a system to recreate itself but maintain its identity and purpose.” Maretha Prinsloo

And an explanation of information systems by Keller Easterling:
“Gregory Bateson analyzed potentials in human and non-human arrangements and exchanges as if they were information systems. He observed that a man, a tree, and an ax is an information system. Even those contemporary thinkers like Cesar Hidalgo who are foregrounding digital tools in complex economic formulations do not separate digital networks from the networks of people and “solids” in the world. All of these are information systems that “compute”.”
Looking through these theories, the world (whether a garden or an artificial system) is better explained in complex and changing interactions and interrelationships of elements (human or non-human) than objects with static characteristics. Ecology is about systems too, and thus building a healthy natural ecosystem shares principles with building well functioning (+autopoietic) systems in domains of firms and computers. 

This way of thinking gives an interesting ground in experimenting with cyborg systems - a merge between a natural ecosystem and an artificial system. 

Diary Electric Garden > 004 > Permacomputing Principles

︎The clearly outlined principles are especially useful, when I do not have any previous experience in creating a garden to base my decisions on. By checking the list of permaculture principles I know which ones I am practicing and which ones I am compromising in the name of structures necessary for the electricity making.

︎ To further relate gardening and computing, we can also look into the principles of permacomputing.

The easiest way to seek some guidance in practising permacomputing is to look into this website: permacomputing.net

Here we can find how permacomputing is inspired by permaculture:
In particular, permaculture inspires permacomputing to:
    • Recognizing the effects of computing to the biosphere, and trying to find ways to make these effects positive and regenerative.
    • Turning waste into resources and constraints into possibilities.
    • Explorative, imaginative and positive attitudes towards sustainable design, as opposed to "returning to the past" or "having to tolerate lesser resources".
    • Opposition to the mainstream technological industry while offering a tangible alternative.

Summary of Permacomputing Principles (for details, visit permacomputing.net)

Permacomputing is not prescriptive, but favours instead situatedness and awareness of the diversity of context.

  1. Care for Life: Prioritize the health of the Earth and its inhabitants by creating low-power systems that minimize resource consumption and waste.
  2. Care for the Chips: Maximize the lifespan of computing hardware, especially microchips, through repair, reuse of salvaged components, and designing for longevity and disassembly.
  3. Keep it Small: Emphasize small, understandable systems with minimal dependencies and complexity, encouraging human-scale solutions and abundance thinking.
  4. Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst: Design systems resilient to collapse while remaining open to positive possibilities, experimenting with new ideas and visions.
  5. Build on a Solid Ground: Rely on mature technologies and clear concepts, avoiding unreliable dependencies and understanding the historical and cultural contexts of computing.
  6. Amplify Awareness: Focus on increasing awareness rather than intelligence, emphasizing observation and understanding of the world and its contexts.
  7. Expose Everything: Keep information open, modifiable, and flexible, sharing source code and designs while visualizing internal states and environmental data.
  8. Respond to Changes: Adapt systems to evolving environments, avoiding obsolescence by writing new software for old hardware and modifying existing software.
  9. Everything Has a Place: Integrate computing into local ecosystems and cultures while understanding global contexts and appreciating diversity and the importance of both utility and uselessness.

This principle has some points in common with permaculture principles, of course the “care” mindset as their basis is the most important one. Others are; recycling existing materials rather than buying new ones, using renewable resources, building on existing knowledge, and amplifying flexibility (let one element potentially perform more than one function).

But computing with electronic hardware is within human domain and so is not as regenerative or adaptive as a natural ecosystem that is able to adapt and change by themselves. In this sense, the ‘human’ element in sustainable electronics is very important. without the human programmer/manager, electronic systems have very limited and short lifespans, and inevitably becomes harmful waste. Only when combined with the active human participant (during the full lifecycle of electronics) as a bridge or a medium between the electronic system and the natural metabolism of Earth, sustainable electronics can be achieved. The permacomputing principles are a lot about how human creators should act, while the permaculture principles are a lot about listening to and collaborating with existing natural systems.

In the principles of permacomputing, the last one “everything has a place” criticizes strict utilitarianism, and also explicitly says that uselessness has value. I think this explains the importance of of sensorial aesthetics (e.g. visually pleasing, playfulness, pleasing ambiance, emotional values), art, and natural  nonhuman centered environment integration into human utilitarian systems.

I find this principle especially important in art projects, since I sometimes get trapped in extreme utilitarianism (more in the sense of practical and logical thinking) when thinking about sustainability as the most urgent problem to tackle, to a point where artistic aesthetics and emotional value seems much less important than minimizing waste or consumption of energy to extreme measures.

Diary Electric Garden > 005 > Recycling Materials

I’ve spent a few days preparing the materials needed for building the garden. 

︎Most of the work were cleaning and repurposing the found materials. There were a lot of pvc pipes we gathered in the Hof that were thrown away. I went to Buurman, the wood workshop next to CCU where I could cut the pipes to smaller pieces, and in angles. I wanted to give them a slanted form so that they could be given an aesthetic. 

︎I also gathered some mud from two different ponds in Eindhoven and brought them to CCU. The more mud sources are mixed, the more diverse microorganisms will be available to generate electricity. I can Imagine that when there is high diversity, there is more chance of the garden’s ecosystem to stabilise, as the plants that start to live in the cells will take certain minerals from the soil, and give off other nutrients to the soil, and that condition will make certain species of microorganisms to flourish. I would have to give the soil as many species as possible, for the ecosystem to choose the most suitable one. I’m curious how the electricity production would change depending on the different seasons, since the rate of metabolism of bacteria changes drastically with temperature. It can be that some cells will function better in the colder temperatures and others would in warmer temperatures, depending on the most active species in each cell.
︎There are many little challenges in using recycled materials for production.

1. High Diversity, Low Standardisation _ The materials are all in different sizes, colors, texture and hardness. It is then difficult to standardize the production line and more time also goes into just measuring each material. More craftmanship goes into production, where otherwise would have been a fast and repetitive machine’s job. Every material recyled is hand-picked, precious and unique.

2. Identification _ Sometimes it is unclear what exactly the found material is made of. For example, when it is made in plastic, what kind of plastic is it? Many times old materials lack datasheet that points to its properties or its source. Therefore a good knowledge of materials is required to identify materials.

3. Limited Amount _ There is a hard limit in the amount of resource. The Hof can only give what it has lying around as waste, not more. I have to use the stuff that is available which is a limited amount.

4. Need for Cleaning _ The materials are dirty. There is a lot of dirt in and on the materials. Most dirt from soil is not a big problem, but cleaning is often needed. Some had tapes on them so I needed to remove the tapes and it was a very annoying job. 

5. Need for Repair _ The materials are often scratched or broken. This can be a plus or a minus depending on what kind of aesthetic we are aiming for in the end. But broken materials are not often desired for making something new.

6. Special Fabrication _ Since the material is being repurposed, modification is needed to fit the material’s design into a new function it should serve. Also, to give it a new visual identity further modification can be needed, sometimes an unconventional way of reform (cutting/shredding/pressing/melting/texturing/etc) can be done. Once the material gets a new form, it can let go of its previous identity or function, and be well embedded in the installation.

Diary Electric Garden > 006 > Building Day #1

︎On 21st May 2024, we started building the garden. It was an afternoon of a lot of digging. The gardening team(led by Kenny and Gian) gathered at the plot at 13:00 and for about three hours we had to break the ground with heavy shovels and dig into very hard compressed clay and stones. When the ground has never grown any plants for years, it can become so hard that it can be very difficult to dig into it.

︎We dug up most of the holes that needed the big pots in by the end of the afternoon. 

On the next day I brought an electric drill with auger drill bit. Then I was able to drill in some more containers and finish the basic structure of the garden.

Diary Electric Garden > 007 > Building Day #2-5

︎With Ko, we worked on building the garden further. Filling the pots with electrodes (mix of graphite felt and stainless steel) and mud. We tried to mix up different kinds of mud together. Garden soil + pond mud + compost from the Hof. And then we filled the pots with rainwater to make them into mini ponds. The garden was becoming a gathering of mini and micro wetlands. 

︎The electrodes, especially the anode that goes into the soil, will be a breeding reef for the bacteria that likes to attach onto conductive solids. After about a few days, the cells will start giving off electricity as a result of bacteria metabolism. And after about two months, the cells will reach their peak voltage and current. So we will have to wait a while until we can eventually harvest enough energy from the garden.

Diary Electric Garden > 008 > Plants in the Electric Garden

This is a list of plants in the electric garden:

︎ Water forget-me-not  |  Moeras vergeet-me-nietje  |  Myosotis Palustris/Myosotis scorpioides
︎ Barred horsetail  |  Japanse holpijp  |  Equisetum hyemale japonica
︎ Gypsywort  | Wolfspoot  |  Lycopus europaeus
︎ Golden Variegated Sweet Flag  |  Bonte (gele) dwergkalmoes  |  Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'
︎ Marsh violet  |  Moerasviooltje  |  Viola palustris
︎ Gewone dotterbloem  |  Marsh Marigold  |  Caltha palustris
︎ Bog Bean  |   Waterdrieblad  |  Menyanthes trifoliata
︎ Lizard’s Tail  |  Leidse plantje  |  Saururus cernuus

They are all swamp plants, zone 1/2 plants for ponds, and also suited for partial shade. This plot of land has little sun and more shade because of the surrounding buildings and the large willow tree next to it.

I hope they will like the new environment and thrive in the garden. There are some pots that are draining the water at the bottom, probably the silicone plugs that I put in to the holes are not working well. I think for these pots I will bring some moss and let it cover the surface of the wet soil.