The Emergent Plantocene

Weedy Vegetal Agency, Radical Embodiment, and Ruderalism X Action(ism)

By andrea haenggi and Christopher Kennedy

In this essay, members of the artist collective the Environmental Performance Agency (EPA) share research from an embodied fieldwork [1] practice in collaboration with New York City’s ruderal [2] landscapes. This research draws primarily from past experiences at the EPA’s former headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a 1900 square foot urban “vacant” lot. We introduce the concept of the Emergent Plantocene as an alternative to the Anthropocene epoch, foregrounding the value and wisdom of urban spontaneous plants, otherwise known as weeds. As frontline climate survivors, urban weeds are already initiating a process of remediation which we argue create opportunities for physical “meetings” or encounters that allow for new practices of decolonizing, healing and resistance.

This was first presented as a live performative field report at the School of Visual Art’s Houthouse Archives conference in 2018, showcasing two bodies interacting with a One Square Foot Weedy Urban Ecosystem from a neighboring lot near the EPA’s former site in Brooklyn. During the presentation, we used a camera to project real-time footage of this “weedy island” allowing conference attendees to both understand and sense the Emergent Plantocene through embodied engagements. The aim was to make visible dialogue with this system, notably a plant called Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), and to cultivate sensations that bring us closer to a new kind of plant consciousness through interactions with the ruderal.

In the context of these spaces we share our idea of the Emergent Plantocene: a space for acknowledging the vegetal, the Other, the marginal of the marginal. Throughout this essay we center the voice of Mugwort, offering a beyond human voice to understand the value of ruderal landscapes as spaces for liberation that strengthen body-plant connections.

Weedy Vegetal Agency: The Encounter

… react. In the action take a reaction. Can you feel it? Move inside my sensorial root tissues. The root cap entangled, around, inside. … enter. … lick your sugar, transport it. One more time, … glide around your surface. You change … change. Your chemical properties … take in…as lovers do…in darkness we stay. [3] (Mugwort Report #1, Spring 2017, EPA’s headquarter)

During our fieldwork at the EPA headquarters in Brooklyn, we removed a small layer of topsoil to observe the rhizome root pathways of Mugwort. At the time, we noticed Mugwort’s roots entangled with a Coca-Cola can. The roots seemed to push, rub, glide, and press through this porous, oily, and dark matter. On other occasions, we witnessed Mugwort ensnared with bits of iron and plastic, its plant body making use of post-industrial infrastructure found around the city. In these encounters we recognize that Mugwort is already reacting to a newly introduced human layer: adapting, thriving, and decomposing the material of human disturbance.

Yet despite Mugwort’s persistence, their ingenuity often goes unnoticed because we lack a basic understanding of many common plants as well as strategies for noticing and interacting with the built environment. Many researchers have termed this a form of “plant blindness,” or our inability to recognize or notice natural features we interact with daily (Kritzinger, 2018). This has contributed to, among other things, a sense of disconnection and apathy toward our plant allies and the socio-ecological systems we are connected with, particularly those labeled as invasive, alien, or exotic — both human and nonhuman.

In response, the Emergent Plantocene invites new ways of noticing, thinking, and being with multispecies networks found along the margins because they offer a specialized form of knowledge apropos for our precarious era of climate change and social inequity. In the latent space between the human and plant body, we ask: what would it mean to seek wisdom from the teachings of spontaneous urban plants? To acknowledge that humans and nonhumans are inextricably linked and that we reach to a humanity that is rooted in the humus of the ruderal.

At the EPA we use movement scores among other strategies to structure these encounters, encouraging new states of awareness through exercises that help participants “let go of our fixed association of [the] biological… based on our human selves and limitations” (Marder, 2013). We consider this within the broader context of the Anthropocene, which many artists and scholars like Donna Haraway (2015) have begun to critique. Haraway in particular reminds us of how important these multispecies encounters can be, remarking: “We have a mammalian job to do, with our biotic and abiotic collaborators, and co-laborers. We need to make kin… Who and whatever we are, we need to make-with — become-with, compose-with — the earth-bound” (p. 160).

Well… can’t stop…no stopping …well-being… is reaction in reception. yes…yes the wind changes…change and…and companionship being is an old trade inherent…and…and storage of memories is real. Well, yes …heat …bring it on…acid rain…bring it on…toxic soil … bring it on … carbon dioxide in the air …bring it on… (Mugwort Report #2, Fall 2017, EPA’s headquarter)

In the early fall, we measured the growth of Mugwort from an evening of heavy rain with our finger. The Mugwort had grown a length of a fingernail overnight.

Communication through Radical Embodiment

On April 30, 2018, we unearthed the One Square Foot Weedy Urban Ecosystem[4] from a nearby site adjacent to the EPA’s former headquarters. The site was used for more than 25 years as an auto repair shop and an illegal dumping site. Despite its relatively small dimensions, this 1 square foot is a dynamic network of ruderal plants, urban soils, detritus, bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms that coexist to support life in some of the most challenging terrains on our planet.

During a summer return to the lot, we noticed a substantial change to the ecosystem; the plants had become something new. As a witness, EPA agent Andrea stood in the middle of this 7-foot tall field of plants for 15 minutes. She had an overwhelming sensual experience, reporting: “They were all so loud. I felt dizzy and it felt too powerful to exist with them.”

The lot was home to a variety of ruderal pioneer species: Japanese Knotweed, Horseweed, Sweet Wormwood, Mugwort, Tree of Heaven, Black Nightshade, Palmer Amaranth, and White Mulberry. These weedy systems have a particular kind of vegetal agency, exhibiting abilities to adapt to the architecture of the city, hybridize and alter their genetic code, change their seed dispersal strategy, and model enhanced mechanisms for absorbing CO2, among other things (Ziska, 2004).

While the encounter is a critical access point to the Emergent Plantocene, communication is key as well, unfolding through forms of radical embodiment. We understand this as a nonverbal, physical “being-with” that allows the invisible to become visible. Scholars like Anna Tsing (2018) talk about this as a kind of “attunement, a way of making [the] body and the body of roots and fungi align for just a little bit.” She says, “while many scholars are interested in the consciousness and communications of other organisms…I think there’s more that we can do to bring ourselves into the worlds of other species. We can begin to experience what their social life and livelihood is all about” (para. 5).

So what would we gain if our powers of observation were anchored in a “meeting” with the vegetal — a dialogue and conversation rather than merely witnessing or passively viewing? What is the more-than-human significance of radical embodied knowledge, especially in an age when we rely on abstract quantifications to maintain a sense of truth?

To approach the question of “meeting” a feral landscape we search for other languages and create choreographic situations that allow for the destabilization of traditional sensations, inviting unfamiliar and uncomfortable “multi-sensorial” meetings with spontaneous plants. This offers a new form of “measurement” or (data) based on “what the plant(s) is telling us.” This “meeting” is a shared space where humans and plants both have feelings and “being.” To enter into this “meeting” place, Ursula K. Le Guin (2015) suggests: “Well one way to stop seeing trees or rivers or hills only as natural resources, is to classify them as fellow beings, kinfolk…To subjectify, is not to co-opt and colonize and exploit. Rather if it is done honestly it involves a great reach outward of the mind and the imagination.”

During our presentation at SVA we shared four strategies for physical meetings and communication of radical embodiment with the Weedy Urban Ecosystem:

Physical Meeting 1 Tracing with the tongue the plant-bodies edges

Physical Meeting 2 Sense with the back of your hand the plant body stem tension

Physical Meeting 3 Breath with the plant cells

Physical Meeting 4 Dance for the plants with your hair

These strategies are the basis for EPA embodied scientists to co-construct deeper movement scores, essential to making our case for The Emergent Plantocene. In these scores, we notice the patterns and relationships of diverse “beings” is similar to “polyphonic” music, separate, yet simultaneous melodies that create music together (Tsing, 2015, p. 24).

ReAction: Ruderal Actionism

During the winter, when snow would descend onto Mugwort’s branches, it became clear how responsive the plants are to their environment. As more snow accumulated, the branches would reach closer to the ground. Upon winter’s end, the Mugwort’s tall branches would create a full horizontal-like net, pressed down onto the ground while also entangled with various car repair junk material.

EPA agent Andrea remembers the site before its transformation into an Urban Weeds Garden [5]. The compacted soil and industrial activity had triggered severe coughs, respiratory issues, and dark particles emanating from the nose. Once the site was “rewilded,” Mugwort and neighboring plants began to adapt and even absorb some of the soil contamination. We were able to sense the system reacting to the site’s conditions, preventing the migration of heavy metals like Iron and Cadmium into the air. Our body became a tool to sense the changes that occurred on-site, which ecologists like Peter del Tredici (2010) term phytoremediation, the process by which plants break down or transform contaminants in the soil or other substrate (p. 134).

At the EPA, we recognize this ruderal landscape is a partner in restoration. To be with the plants that co-construct this space, is to become at once entangled. Not as a separate entity, but rather something interconnected and latent within the body. We cultivate — to be the Urban Weeds Garden. The Garden not as a noun, but rather a verb.

In exploring the animacy of language, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses the complications of how we use particular words in the context of ecology and conservation, as well as the ongoing struggle to secure personhood status for living systems. She says, “When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and let’s it live (p. 55).”

To be the ruderal is an emergent space, a space of actionism, it is real.

Spontaneous urban plants also show us the reality of globalized systems within the context of disaster capitalism. They create new hybridized habitats within the densest urban centers around the world. They are beginning a diverse process of cleaning and healing, showcasing how we can do things differently. In her work with indigenous communities, Robin Wall Kimmerer (2015) further explains that in the West in particular we don’t have a language to talk about plant-human relationships. She remarks, “restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise (p. 338).”

What’s more, the conception of the Anthropocene limits us to a human-centric vision of what this change can and should be. The Emergent Plantocene advocates for new ways of relating, of taking ruderal action by allowing a reaction; of going beyond thought experiments with our bodies and attending to the very real conditions of life in the margins. This confronts the reality of how many of us are socialized towards a conception of independence and private ownership. In our fieldwork at the EPA, we are working toward an intimate fieldwork of “interdependency.” adrienne maree brown (2017) touches on this in her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. She explains: “The idea of interdependence is that we can meet each other’s need in a variety ways, that we can truly lean on others, and they can lean on us. It means we have to decentralize our idea where solutions and decisions happen, where ideas come from” (p. 87).

A Soil Bank of Urgency

The soil seed bank is the latent potential of an ecosystem; a collection of seeds stored deep in the soil that emerges through weather, disturbance, and cultivation. Some seeds like those from Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) can lie dormant for over 40 years and still be viable, while other species have recently been shown to germinate after a century-long dormancy period. The soil seed bank horizon is thus a living archive of past knowledge, a physical history of past successes and failures, a dynamic web that connects the surface layer to the humus below.

Our bodies are active soil seed banks, filled with innate energy that is often repressed by Western systems and the demands of globalized capitalism. A kind of hyper-dormancy that we may not realize we are experiencing. The Emergent Plantocene is a call to interact and connect with the soil profiles within, and to be in dialogue with the marginal spaces around us, in whatever form they take.

At the Environmental Performance Agency, we look to these spaces of contamination because in these places the plants make their own choices; the agency is real, and there is so much we can learn. Our entanglements with the ruderal offer survival strategies of adaptation, a way of confronting our current ecological crisis. And perhaps, more than anything, new ways of relating to our plant friends and more-than-human allies.

Notes

[1] We conceive of fieldwork as an embodied practice of collecting sensorial and cultural data, both drawing from and reimagining methods used within socially engaged art, community science, and kinesthetic/somatic movement work.

[2] Ruderal comes from the Latin word, rudus, or rubble. A ruderal landscape is an environment comprised primarily of disturbance-adapted species, or organisms who exhibit opportunistic qualities in sites such as roadsides, railway tracks, highway ditches, “vacant” city lots, and the edges of farms or agricultural operations.

[3] Each section includes a small excerpt in italics written in the voice of Mugwort, and in red to signify love, urgency and the energy of the Emergent Plantocene.

[4] After the One Square Foot Weedy Urban Ecosystem was reclaimed it was brought indoors and placed on an outdoor balcony surrounded by a black plastic bag. The system was watered occasionally until it’s transport to SVA in November of 2018. We did this to better understand how to sustain this multispecies networks with very little soil, and contained within a plastic bag during the summer heat in New York City.

[5] The Urban Weeds Garden was a 1,900 square foot lot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn at 1067 Pacific Street, that was allowed to rewild over the course of a year. During the course of 2017, EPA agents identified 41 species of spontaneous urban plants on site, in addition to dozens of urban organisms, animals, birds and other lifeforms. The Garden was host to a variety of creative workshops, engagements and embodied research.

References

brown, a. m. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.

del Tredici, P. (2010). Wild urban plants of the Northeast: A field guide. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Harraway, D. (2015). Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities. 6(1), 159–165.

Kritzinger, A. (2018). ‘Plant blindness’ is a real thing: why it’s a real problem too. The Conversation. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/plant-blindness-is-a-real-thing-why-its-a-real-problem-too-103026

Le Guin, U. K. (2014, May). Anthropocene: Arts of living on a damaged planet. Keynote presentation at UC Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz, CA. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/97364872.

Tsing, A., & Elkin, R. S. (2018). The politics of the rhizosphere. Harvard Design Magazine. №45: Into the Woods. Retrieved from http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/45/the-politics-of-the-rhizosphere

Tsing, A. T. (2015). The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marder, M. (2013). Plant-Thinking: A philosophy of vegetal life. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Wall Kimmerer, R. (2015). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Ziska, L. (2004). Characterization of an urban-rural CO2/temperature gradient and associated changes in initial plant productivity during secondary succession. Oecologia 139(3), 454–8.

Originally written and developed for the School of Visual Art’s Houthouse Archive’s conference, November 16–18, 2018.

Andrea Haenggi (she/her), Swiss-born, is breathing and working at this moment in Lenapehoking — now called Brooklyn, New York. Calling on plants as her guides, teachers, mentors, and performers, her dance and eco-social art/fieldwork practice creates a form of theater called Ethnochoreobotanography, which simultaneously explores issues regarding decolonization, ecology, feminism, power, labor, and care. She has performed and exhibited locally and internationally in theaters, galleries, and on outdoor living land and received her latest research residences as an “embodied scientist” at the Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich, Switzerland (2019) and at Wave Hill, Bronx, NY (2020). She holds an MFA in Creative Practice from Transart Institute/Plymouth University UK and is a Swiss Canton Solothurn Dance Prize recipient. In 2017, seeking to expand her art-activist approach with spontaneous urban plants (aka weeds), she co-founded the art collective Environmental Performance Agency (EPA), whose primary goal is to shift thinking around the terms environment, performance, and agency.

Christopher Kennedy is an artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. With a background in environmental engineering, Kennedy re-imagines field science techniques and new forms of storytelling to develop embodied research, installations, sculptures, and publications that examine conventional notions of “Nature,” interspecies agency, and biocultural collaboration. He is the assistant director at the Urban Systems Lab, The New School, a lecturer in the Parsons School of Design, and co-founder of the Environmental Performance Agency. Kennedy has worked collaboratively on projects shown at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, the Levine Museum of the New South, Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, the Ackland Art Museum and the Queens Museum.

Christopher Kennedy an artist-designer and educator. He is the assistant director at the Urban Systems Lab, The New School.