" I was given the task of creating a space that would make people feel uncomfortable."   Wayne Zebzda

National Tropical Botanical Gardens Bio Diversity Trail project 2015

Andy Jasper director of Kauai National Tropical Botanical Gardens explains the "Crisis" portion of the Bio Trail:


Concept description – Crisis zone

A key part of the biodiversity narrative is to shine a slightly uncomfortable light onto the current situation – thinking about where we are – here and now – today.

Thinking about the narrative – from one direction the biodiversity illustrates a chronology of how the planet we live on became this incredibly beautiful place – but also know we have to also face facts – 90% of biodiversity on earth is found in tropical regions (it is why our botanic garden is here) but equally, in time, there is no other place on the planet that is losing biodiversity as fast as tropical regions.  This is why our biodiversity trail is so important.  Never has there been a time in the history of the planet that is has been more important for civilization to think about the impacts we have and what we can do to help prevent this loss.

But in order to do this we have to create a point in our story (our biodiversity adventure) when we have to ensure our heros (the visitors) think about why they need to do something that will change the trajectory the planet is on.  So, we know behavior change only comes from emotional engagement (i.e. people have to care) so we have commissioned an artist to work with us to develop a provocative concept that will reelect where we are today.

Wayne Zebzda is probably the only artist that I have met on these islands that is producing work that is conceptually challenging, is not afraid to use readymade objects and creativity to express meaning in three dimensional space.  He understands that for us our challenge is that the majority of the US population don’t engage regularly with the concept of biodiversity, nor do they realize what a pivotal tipping (crisis) point we are at.  So we have challenged him make our concept of juxtaposition of beauty with trauma to ensure we create a memorable and provocative encounter that will enable visitors to simply understand the stresses that are on the planet right now that are causing issues with biodiversity.

Wayne has a way to create three dimensional experiences that visitors can relate to on many levels.

Our concept was to create something that was different to the ‘beautiful garden’, that visitors could walk through our trail (one way will be through one of the most beautiful gardens on Kauai and on the other after walking past stories of how NTBG has been making a difference (saving plants saving people) to discover a dark, perhaps twisted world representing how man’s attempts to concur, tame and harness nature have often have had consequences.  We don’t want to over egg these issues because we want visitors to move on swiftly to think about solutions and how they can play a role.  But we do need them to ‘get it’ quickly.

So Wayne has worked with Wing and Andy to develop a concept that will use found objects representing a heavy industrialized time (from the disused Koloa Sugar Mill).

I wanted to describe the exhibit from the experience perspective:

• Travelling uphill from the evolution of biodiversity: visitors will finish the evolution of bd by a beautiful encounter of flower diversity it will be like walking through an imagined tropical garden (the type of thing hotel’s strive to achieve). They will see some metal in the background of this display but it won’t be clear what it is.  They will see a semi sculptural element that could be reminiscent of something that might be found outside the headquarters of a large corporate organization or even an eastern European modernist era.  Turning a corner they will think tey see a structure of an old steel building (this is in fact only an entrance way) but this building on one side will be complete, on the other will be disintegrating.  To continue visitors have to walk through a rusty doorway (10 feet high and 10 feet wide) the rusty door can move very slightly to make a metallic creepy noise ) the building is being reclaimed by nature so vines are taking over.  As visitors proceed they pressure gauges, dials and clocks that look like they are attached to a mini energy station – each gauge showing that a system is becoming overloaded, is under pressure and about to reach critical mass / boiling / crisis point.  This metaphorical tipping point is what we want our visitors to understand before they finish their visit because it is what motivates, inspires and informs much of our conservation and science.  Each dial will have a heading that reflects a planetary problem – global warming, pesticide or chemical use / petrochemical dependency / invasive plants in vulnerable habitats / etc.  all under pressure etc.  Although visitors will be outside the surroundings of this area will make visitors feel they are actually inside some kind of building that is disintegrating around them.  To the left open air – to the right pipes, large circular handles (valves) on large steel pipes that seem to be connected to some kind of elaborate machine that controls something that is bigger than the sum of its individual parts (a bit like the way the planet is really). The next thing visitors notice is a steam punk style boiler plate clad tank object that is oozing this incredible stream of gunk (this will actually be made of concrete) but will look almost like lava with bubbles of gas (glass ball-balls) emerging from something below.  This stream of gunk will flow to the path, go under it, and re-emerge the other side.  It will be dramatic and poignant (intentionally provocative).  Some visitors may notice a small square hole in the tank – and those really observant may peep into this to see that the tank looks like it contains a beautiful garden scene – a garden of Eden  - leaking into oozy gunk.  Surrounded by a small thicket of dorment trees  (these are actually made of aluminium piping.  Each tree of either white, silver and black bark, will be both intriguing and slightly disconcerting. The space is meant to feel slightly uncomfortable, to ensure Visitors notice it, but want to move on.  They see a large, stable, natural rock, although blocking the view of the next area, placed on the top of this 5/6 foot rock is a single Bergamia.  It is held up, physically and metaphorically, like an Olympic torch - representing how NTBG has been working for 50 years to save plants.  This one plant story is very iconic, and therefore carries the story of conservation and hope.  Visitors walk past this dramatic piece to discover a nursery potting bench with 50-100 bregamia plants in pots.  This mass planting is the first of a few in-situ conservation stories we want to tell in the redemption area and leads visitors into redemption stories of hope to inspire visitors to think about how they can make a difference, supporting the work NTBG and other BG’s do or even doing something to help.

• Travelling from food for thought and through the redemption area, visitors will have been endeared to the work of NTBG – passed the stunningly beautiful  hibiscus stories – from native to hybridized hibiscus, passed the inspirational breadfruit global hunger, and the motivational stories of real people taking a stand to make a difference in the world – often at personal risk – but always to the total benefit of the world.  These incredible stories will set the scene to tell the tales of our inspiring plant hunters, the inspiring accounts of our ex-situ conservation work in places like the Limahuli upper preserve (they may be romanticized a little – forgive us)  but are designed to create empathy and engagement.  Visitors turn a corner  to discover that much of this work genetic safety net takes place at NTBG HQ,  in our nurseries, they see benches of plants – the bregamia – and learn about this inspiring work.  At the end of the long nursery bench is a large boulder (5-6 foot high) with a single plant on top – held up like an Olympic torch - blazing a trail for elite plant conservationists of our past, present and future.  Visitors walk past this to discover what looks like a post industrial area – jarring, awkward and perhaps uncomfortable – they encounter ooze representing the loss of faith, they see rusting and twisting metal.  They see a series of dials, temperature and pressure gauges that are attached to what looks like a mini substation – this represents in an obvious way how the planet is under pressure – and they have to walk through an awkward looking (potentially noisy) doorway which frames a stylized sculptural element that looks like it belongs outside a large corporate entity, or some Stalinesque  / eastern European modernist place – but this frames a beautiful landscape - worthy of a tropical retreat – visitors exit the crisis area to discover beauty, flowers, and hope…  a beautiful journey to a refreshingly damp, shady, fern and moss clad gorge.


We have asked Wayne to work with found objects (partly to keep the area within budget, but also to represent an industrial era / heritage that is inextricably linked to NTBG as an organization.  The image above was used to aid discussion – to help artist and client to debate concepts as well as plan practical delivery within the space, budget, timeframe and other contractors¬.  It is hard to communicate how this process works but Wayne, Wing and Andy are completely aligned and are confident we will produce an element of an experience that will be so provocative and memorable (and in keeping with the garden) that it will help the biodiversity trail be the envy of other botanical gardens, will win awards and have the gravitas to place NTBG firmly on the public engagement and delivery of science education map.

We are currently working up an international collaborative evaluation project that will help us understand the impact of the bd trail on visitor learning.  I would not be entering into this research study if I was not confident that the trail will help place NTBG on this educational map.  I do understand, that we are intentionally designing something that will not necessarily be liked.  But if we want a visit to NTBG to be a memorable experience, it has to be both endearing, provocative and conclusive.  i.e. includes the three elements of every good story ever told.

I hope you agree.

With best wishes




Mahalo to David Pratt and Mike Tressler of Grove Farm for letting me access the Koloa Mill to scavenge for materials for this project. Many Thanks! WZ