Artist, educator, activist, and writer Oliver Kellhammer has described himself as an enzyme or a catalyst, rather than a creator in any traditional sense. This modesty allows his site-specific works to transpire gradually in unexpected ways, rejuvenating areas hurt by development and demonstrating life’s resilience in the face of climate change and global capitalism. Whether establishing community gardens in Vancouver and New York, or reintroducing prehistoric flora to regions changed by industry, Kellhammer's holistic work blurs the lines between activist intervention and artistic inspiration, working alongside and within the abundant creativity of the material world.
Cam Scott visited Oliver Kellhammer at the Green Oasis Community Garden in New York's Lower East Side to talk about ecology, economy, art, and process.
Cam Scott: Much of your artistic and critical work commences from and returns to a lived stake in urban gardening. You were involved in the founding of Cottonwood Gardens in Vancouver, a guerrilla gardening experiment that continues today, and gardening as activism seems to fundamentally inform your practice of reparative and non-proprietary land art. Maybe we could start by talking about how Cottonwood came about.
Oliver Kellhammer: It started out as a squatting movement in the early 1990s, which was basically just me making these little corrals of rubble on a strip of land that was at that point designated as a roadway. I knew from places like Los Angeles, even here in New York with the FDR Drive, that these highways typically go through low income neighbourhoods, they divide people, they take away access to green space, and so on. So I thought “I can’t let that happen”, and I made this twenty-foot square garden.
I was already interested in bioremediation. In Toronto, I did this piece with Janis Bowley, who is a longtime collaborator of mine, called Lead Down the Garden Path , where we tried to clean lead out of contaminated soil. So I knew that you could use buckwheat to pull lead from the soil, which is a common urban contaminant. We did the same thing in Vancouver. I made fake signs that said City of Vancouver Official Test Plot, and people respected them, though they were completely fraudulent. I made more of these plots, and once we figured that the soil had been somewhat cleaned, we started to grow potatoes. People started appearing from the neighbourhood asking me if they could have garden space, and I said: it’s not mine to give; it’s the commons, we’re taking it over, so if you’re okay with this, let’s do it. Little by little people came forward, and we partnered with another community garden and formed this larger movement, working with the Carnegie Community Centre, which services the Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in Canada. There were a lot of semi-homeless folks living in cars who were gardening, and many older Chinese people, from Guangdong and Pearl River Delta, places where folks of a certain age often had an agricultural background, and they taught me to grow things in a sustainable, permacultural way, though we didn’t know it was called that at the time.
Gradually the city became aware of what we were doing, part of which was getting rid of a lot of garbage. The city wasn’t enforcing its bylaws regarding illegal removal of trash, because it was a poor neighbourhood and they just didn’t care, it was considered a sacrifice zone. Suddenly the city wanted to take the gardens away from us to build this highway. But we had enough behind the scenes support from city council to get semi-permanent status and a long-term lease, and we started building infrastructure and greenhouses and so forth, and we got a lot of material donations, youth groups became involved. So this thing slowly took off and became a green education center. We were very interested in biodiversity in urban areas, we were doing small scale agri-forestry projects where we were growing small trees and harvesting them to disconnect ourselves from the supply chain of purchased lumber, so we would grow things like bamboo and willow. It was a model for the revivification of the commons. There were obviously disagreements between people, but it was interesting how people could be trusted to solve their own problems without having a centralized system of power. You’ll see that when we walk around here a bit, too, the gardens here are run by people but they’re very anarchic in a sense.
There’s a bricolage quality to them, people do something in response to something that suggests something else, so they develop in this very organic way. It’s continually changing and resilient and responsive to the participants at any given time. So it’s a sort of living design, co-design, open source design. As an artist, I’ve been working with this for most of my career. I work with communities, but I’m not an imposer. I’m like an enzyme or a catalyst. I tend to start things, but once I start, I prefer to keep things open so that people can come in and do their own thing. Then my role as an artist is almost invisible. Really, it’s almost homeopathic, going back to Joseph Beuys. That’s always been my MO working in these public spaces.
CS: You were involved in the North China Gardens in Vancouver, where you placed Means of Production, a collaborative and ongoing experiment in urban eco-forestry. Can you describe how that began to unfold?
OK: Vancouver is kind of a hippie city, in the sense that they ostensibly pay some mind to green issues. There was a park that was in a similarly low-income neighbourhood that was very abject, and a corner of the park that was even more so, where people would do drugs and throw dog shit, pretty low on the use-value scale. So I proposed to take this hillside and turn it not into a producing area, not for food but for material. I was very interested in our relationship as consumers to material, how the commons would allow us to change productive relationships, and the idea that we could produce materials ourselves for whatever we need. Again, I made a scaffold, I planted willows and bamboo and I worked with a youth group, the Environmental Youth Alliance. And today there are people growing plants for dying fabrics, instrument makers and basket weavers, people interested in bio-architecture who are working on dome-like structures out of living willow as a kind of lab. Every year as different people get involved you take a picture and its different. It’s in constant flux, and the only permanent thing is this monolith that has Marx’s idea of the means of production inscribed in granite, and that’s it, everything else is chaos.
CS: Marx feels like an appropriate central fixture, in consideration of the ways in which people are continually dispossessed of the commons in their midst.
OK: I teach at Parsons, and I ask my students ‘What is the commons?’ And they’re blank. ‘Is it a mall?’ And of course it is a mall, too. But this very notion that you have some rights over land that you don’t own is completely foreign to American subjectivity. And it’s sad. There’s been such an internalization of the notion of the private, even the parks. Certainly the parks in New York are intensely private spaces.
CS: There’s an enormous police presence in New York parks.
OK: Have you seen the towers around here? When you go down to Avenue D on the weekends, they have these cranes with guard towers on them. Around Friday afternoon when I go for a run by the river, they raise these towers up. And they have a satellite dish for command and control, and these giant spotlights set up all around the projects, like prison architecture in the city, to control the predominantly poor people of colour who live a block away. So sometimes you’ll be walking back at night from the East River Park and there are giant Klieg lights lighting up every corner, running on generators, and a tower with cops in it looking down on the block. It’s the Panopticon.
CS: Your own work does a good deal to challenge that kind of top-down optic on the city, which I think has a precedent in urban planning.
OK: I’m fascinated by botanical interventions, because I like plants. But I try to create social justice and ecological justice through botany, in the sense that if you allow people the chance to create their own environment—and gardening is widely seen as an innocuous activity—it is a way to deconstruct the power relations that govern urban space. And that’s how we won the battle around Cottonwood too. Because we were cleaning things up and growing potatoes, but what we were really doing is trying to stop the freeway. Vision Vancouver, the governing party until recently, was trying to sell it as a way of reducing car traffic, but they were just going to build another road through our garden, which wasn’t prime real estate. And I framed it for them very clearly, I said if you do this, you’re going against your entire brand. Destroying the oldest community garden in the city is not going to look good. And there were endless meetings with planners saying that we needed to think of the city as a whole.
CS: It’s always ironic to hear developers use that ecological, holistic language.
OK: You have to think about class relationships too. There’s always this thing: if you just allow the developers to do this you’ll be rewarded. To get low income housing you have to allow these giant new buildings to come in. Why is that automatically legitimate? That’s an interesting thing to think about as an artist: what is our role as cultural producers in decommodifying the city? It’s complicated, because artists are inveigled, and quite involved in commodity fetishism as well. You could argue that the art market here in New York is the high baroque of late capitalism. So how do you see yourself as somebody who identifies as an artist and an activist and is critical of the way capitalism has marginalized a large number of people? It’s a constant struggle for me. Do you legitimize yourself within institutions? That’s why I chose to work with the landscape itself. I always say about my work that it’s not about the environment, it is the environment. We are going to change this, because we—not the royal we, but in a qualified sense, the people that I work with—have this idea that we can design the city just as well as the forces of capitalism and possibly better and more compassionately. The whole figure-ground relationship between capitalism and non-capitalism makes it very hard to see the non-capitalism part. It’s very hard to get outside of it, but my work exists outside of it.
CS: Your work also seems also irreducible to representation; it’s not so much a cognitive map as an attempted array of non-capitalist processes.
OK: Yeah, and it’s gotten me into trouble too, because I don’t make objects all that often. Well, you can see some objects that I’ve made, but these are in collaboration with insects and mushrooms and so on. But mostly I work with people and ecological processes. So the question of identity, of brand identity as an artist and an individual commodity, my work tends to read as almost anonymous.
CS: Healing the Cut-Bridging the Gap was sponsored by the city of Vancouver, and is both a public artwork and a project of urban reforestation. You worked to replenish an area of overgrown ravine wounded by railway development, is that correct?
OK: It was a bridge redevelopment along a railway line, Burlington Northern, that had been badly damaged by construction, through one of the few pieces of intact forest in East Vancouver. The city took out a whole side of this ravine in order to install bridges to allow more traffic to pass. Having done that, they were going to build a vertical concrete wall, and invite artists to somehow address the bridges. It was béton brut, the most horrifically utilitarian structure. And I said I’m not going to fix these bridges, they’re just ugly. What people are really upset about is losing the forest. So here I am, this artist, I’m not an engineer, trying to convince the city that I’ll fix this, and that I can do it for less money than the wall would cost. Janis Bowley was involved in the conception of the project as well, but moved on by the time that it was implemented.
I placed hundreds of little willow cuttings that would adjust to the slippage of the soil, and then I installed birdhouses, with the idea that the birdhouses would attract birds which would bring in a seed rain. Everytime a bird defecates, it brings a seed surrounded by a puddle of nitrogen phosphorous, which is a perfect nutrient capsule for the seed. So the birds, once I built the houses—I call them FEMA houses for birds, because all the trees they used to live in were gone—started moving in, and they brought a lot of plants. The willows grew and formed a stabilizing framework, and now it looks like the forest it was before. But I have intellectual property rights so that they can’t wreck the forest again, which annoyed the city. It took a lot of lawyering to get that, but it’s a piece of public art. And when you see it, it doesn’t look like public art, it looks like a forest
CS: Unlike a lot of monolithic art, Healing the Cut ... transpires over decades. When did this project start, in 1993?
OK: In 1993—it took a while because of the lawyering. The only vestige of “art” is a telescope I bought with the leftover money, and a plaque that gives you the name of the piece. Otherwise you’re looking at nature just doing its thing. I was only the catalyst, you can’t force the trees to grow. I just created a set of conditions where that could happen.
CS: As you say, your artistic agency is effaced over time. Where is the telescope located?
OK: It’s right near Victoria Drive. The spot has become the main Skytrain hub for East Vancouver, so thousands of people go by every day, and none of them see it as art. I’ve talked to people many times and they wonder what this abject telescope is doing there. And the city thought it wasn’t going to last, that it would be vandalized or carried off, but that didn’t happen, because the local graffiti artists immediately started spraypainting these bridges, as soon as this virgin concrete had been erected, and this art was visible through the telescope. So these kids were maintaining the telescope in a high-crime area because it suits their purposes. I was mostly interested in the trees, but also in the social ecologies of these areas. Just by letting things happen and not trying to control the space, amazing things happen. There’s an ecology of graffiti artists, there’s an ecology of birds, there’s an ecology of trees, there are people who just want to enjoy the frisson of being on a bridge watching a train coming and going, so there’s a nice somatic sensation as well, even if you don’t care about birds. So there are all of these other subjectivities that overlap in this artwork in ways that I didn’t anticipate.That’s why I think of it as open-source landscape, and my original idea is not so much premeditated, its just to create a framework of possibility.
CS: Your site-based work seems a powerful critique of art world economics, and political economy more broadly, because of the indefinite time of its realisation, the durational aspect, the situatedness of the work. You don’t really produce discrete, let alone saleable, objects.
OK: Very rarely. This new stuff is an exception. I’m working with insects, mealworms, to erode styrofoam packaging into these scholar stones. So they are collaborations with a non-human partner. It started out as a joke, but now its a thing, as so often happens in one’s life. But I can’t really take credit for making these things. Take a styrofoam cup, somebody made that, somebody drank the coffee. I just found it on the street and fed it to insects and then took it away from them at a key point in its deconstruction.
CS: In these styrofoam sculptures, each eroded object already betrays a surfeit of design, as an artistic readymade. Looking at this cup now, there’s nice patterning on this side, all kinds of design features that you overlook if you’re simply thirsty.
OK: My wife’s a Zen buddhist, and she’s always teaching me things. There’s a Zen question, “What can I not do?” And as a design notion, I explore that with my students. In the Western tradition, we’re so obsessed with doing things, and controlling the outcome, that to give that up as an artist produces interesting outcomes. Things are interesting on their own. But it’s still a challenge for critics. A lot of folks say, you don’t sell stuff. I’m not interested in making commodities, and I’m not even interested in my own personality as a commodity, as a performance artist might have been traditionally. I’m just interested in being a kind of homeopathic presence. I was very influenced by Beuys as a young artist, I remember knocking on his door in Düsseldorf in 1983—he wasn’t there. But I was very influenced by his work. I don’t believe in homeopathy, I wouldn't treat myself that way if I was sick, but as a metaphor it’s very powerful. Tiny amounts of energy can have large-scale ramifications, and I see the artist as a tweaker, or a catalyst, not a raw material.
CS: This idea of “not-doing” informs a lot of your work. You frame your piece Concrete Island, for the 2006 World Urban Forum in Vancouver, in these terms, as something not-done.
OK: Exactly. I was asked to do a sustainable landscape in Vancouver, which had just started to enter a new climate regime of quite severe summer droughts. I was asked to come up with a way to envision a future of drought, and a horticultural landscape that would be mindful of that. And I thought, that’s a lot of work, to bring new plants there in a pedagogical or didactic way, and it’s not that interesting. So I found this island of weeds in the middle of this parking lot and thought, this is perfect. Nature did it itself. Nobody’s watering these things, they’re growing in the middle of this arid space. It was sort of an homage to J.G. Ballard. There were these concrete barricades that had been arranged in a rectangle, and I just rented stairs and made these little plaques. This is before smartphones, but we had flip phones, and you could punch in this number and hear a recording talking about these weeds and how they got there. And they were the perfect mirror of the human settlement of Vancouver. There was the native black cottonwood, which has been there since the Ice Age, it’s part of the native British Columbia flora, and the Scotch broom, and Himalayan blackberry from Asia, it was this palimpsest of human cultures, each having its own botanical symbiotes. I didn’t do anything: there was no making going on. But I framed something. It was problematic for people. This idea of the maker is such an important aspect of how we see artists that it’s almost a form of heresy to make nothing.
CS: A lot of your work simply acquiesces to something that’s already happening.
OK: Or a process that doesn’t need you. You can involve yourself in its own becoming, you’re a participant in a more passive way. I’m hoping that people have more sympathy for weeds in general. I was fascinated by the racialized language around weeds. If you used that same language around people you’d be rightly condemned.
CS: It’s so prevalent in nationalist discourse to depict certain people as invasive.
OK: I’ve been meeting with restoration biologists and they’re going on about Scotch broom as the “yellow peril.” And being married to a Japanese American, I’m thinking, can you believe the language that they’re using? My wife’s family was interned and went through the horror of that. And now it’s the Asian long-horned beetle, which is a bug that is eating trees in New York, and the Asian part is always emphasized as though it shouldn’t be here.
Last week I took my students from Parsons down to the East River, and there’s this very cool station down there run by the Lower East Side ecology center. They’re very interested in the marine biology of the river, and they maintain these cages of oysters, it’s part of the Billion Oyster Project. So we went down there and had a great little class, and the biologist down there was awesome and super knowledgeable. So my class is predominantly from China, Korea, there’s a few kids from the Bronx who are predominantly Dominican or African-American, and me, who is from Canada but Germany before that and living in the United States, so an immigrant a few times over.
The biologist pulls up an oyster cage and we’re looking at plankton and fish and various things falling out of these cages and we’re trying to put them in buckets and identify them. And this crab runs out of the cage waving it’s little claws, and she goes, “oh it’s an Asian shore crab,” and she stomps it into a pulp. And she says, “oh no, it’s not native.” And I’m looking around and none of us are native, I don’t think I had a Native American kid in my class. So the idea that this crab had to be killed because it was not native, she was completely guileless about it. And she’s a smart person, it’s not like she hadn’t thought about this stuff. This was fascinating to me, sad for the crab, but what sort of prelapsarian state are we trying to imagine here? The moment when Henry Hudson came here, when the Dutch cheated Native people out of their land? This idea that there was a golden time when everything was just right, it’s very Christian, like the Garden of Eden. And this idea that things are contaminated by immigration, I’m fascinated by the morality and judgement around that. This has contaminated all spheres of the world, not just human relationships, which is bad enough, but the fact that we’re talking about other non-human organisms as invasive or illegitimate, I’m fascinated by it. Who gets to make that call?
CS: Again, it seems important that the processes comprising Concrete Island are already underway, the weeds are thriving in the middle of a concrete plane.
OK: And underway in a self-organising sense. The black cottonwood is able to live with the Scotch broom and the Himalayan blackberry. They’re all considered problematic plants, but they’ve worked it out. It isn’t a monoculture. To quote Donna Haraway, it’s a thriving mess. And her thinking around this stuff is interesting, the idea that everything is a little messy and that things change. And yes, there have been spectacular problems, like rabbits in Australia. It’s not that we shouldn’t be careful about introducing new organisms. But there aren’t intact ecosystems anymore, everything is a big muddle. And the “what can I not do” question is a good way of looking at it.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Thain Family Forest in the Bronx. It’s quite spectacular, but they’re having this problem. Because the climate of New York City has changed so much, the old trees aren’t able to successfully reproduce. The conditions that they need existed four or five hundred years ago. The trees that are naturally coming up now are all immigrants, things like Amur cork tree, Ailanthus, Norway maple, they’re all foreigners, like me. And they’re coming up in the understory and the big trees are not reproducing, and the forest has become a muddle. In order to maintain purity, they’re actually sending grad students to rip out these interlopers. It’s a completely artificial forest now, because in order to maintain this level of purity, you have to go in there and kill shit. And there are other problems. The Hemlock tree is dying due to a specific pest, one that has always been a bit of a problem but is worse because of climate change. And the Hemlock, which is this iconic New England tree, is now dying out because of climate change. So you can grow new ones, but they’ll ultimately die. We can’t fix that without heroic, and I would say pointless, effort—unless you want to consider the forest as a museum piece.
CS: That idea of botanical purity has to be imposed on an environment from without.
OK: And it’s basically fascist. Hitler was well-known for hiring people to tear out non-German flora from the German forest. So we really need to be careful with this language of belonging. It’s a very fraught and complicated and dangerous aesthetic. And when you think about capitalism, I remember being accused during squatted projects of having no right to do this. But the city is the sum total of all the subjectivities and power relationships and cultural expressions of all its participants. And questioning the legitimacy of that power is fundamental to my work.
CS: Perhaps you could talk about the projects comprising Neo Eocene, which places trees that would have thrived at thermal maximum in different spots around the world.
OK: But also locally. There was a kind of global flora during the Eocene thermal maximum. [Approximately 55.5 million years ago, when the average global temperature was 8°C warmer than today.] We had forest in North America that closely resembled what was happening in Northern Asia and Europe. For example the dawn redwood or Metasequoia tree grew in England, Canada, and in Asia as well, it was a circumboreal, circumpolar forest. The eastern United States has the highest level of woody plant biodiversity of the United States, and part of China has a similar climate. There’s a tulip tree here that grows in China, there are sweetgums here that grow in China, so there’s this parallel. Eventually they were divided by climate change and speciated, but they’re still very closely related.
So my idea was to say, okay, climate change is happening. We broke it, we fix it. Industry is largely responsible for climate change, and Canada is known for its high levels of deforestation. I collaborated with Rupert Sheldrake, who is a botanist and theorist, and we decided to bring back these prehistoric trees that we knew existed in the fossil record. There were redwood trees growing in places like Kamloops, and you can find fossils of gingko all through the Okanagan. There’s not a lot of fossils on the coast because the rock is a different age, but they would have grown there. All these trees that are now limited to tiny pockets of Asia were vastly more common, all these iconic trees. So we planted them in this sixty-acre clearcut as “formerly native trees.” It was an art piece but also a botanical experiment, and it was worthwhile, because it happened to coincide with one of the driest years in recorded history in the Gulf islands of British Columbia. But of the many trees we planted, the ones that were native to California in particular grew better than the native trees. In this industrial clearcut, our sequoias and coastal redwoods were growing better than western red cedar and douglas fir. And that’s because they’re used to a higher level of heat because they’re fog feeders, they can suck water out of the air.
We had an interesting interaction with the covenant enforcer of the land, the covenant having been implemented as a gesture toward the environment by the logging corporation that used to own it. There are only certain commercially important crops that are sanctioned to be managed. And we got into these insane arguments with the people in charge of covenant enforcement saying, no, these are prehistorically native, you can’t say that the redwood isn’t native, it was native 55 million years ago, the last time the climate was as we have now made it. It became a kind of legal battle of what was considered 'native.'
Eventually we came to a compromise where we would only introduce the “exotic” trees to a certain percentage of the land, but it was fine because we’d proven that our experiment was working. It was an insane situation, that the perpetrators of this extreme change in the landscape, industrial clearcutting, would not want this experiment to take place because they too had bought into an idea of what legitimately ought to be there. But their view has changed a bit, because we’re losing all of these iconic species due to climate change. For example the yellow cedar, which lives in Alaska and Northern British Columbia, is dying out because it’s freezing, which is paradoxical when you think of global warming. But what’s happening is that there is less snow in the fall because it’s warmer, and then, when it gets cold, there’s less snow to insulate the roots, and these yellow cedars are dying in great swathes. They’re an amazing tree, they get to be a thousand years old, and are very important to First Nations ceremonial mask making, and now they’re dying. So why can’t we plant trees that are better adapted to these conditions, that have a genetic memory of them? Can you imagine giant gingko trees growing around Revelstoke, as they did once before?
CS: It seems that you are describing present practices of forestry or resource management as a repression of our knowledge of climate change.
OK: A disavowal, and it goes back to this issue of control. The idea that we can control the future by deciding that this land is for growing douglas fir, or corn, or whatever. It’s a constant battle between knowing and not knowing. We know that climate change is happening, and that people in forestry know this because they can monitor the meteorological impact as well as anyone else. And yet there’s this wishful thinking.
The same happens here with urban planning. This neighbourhood is going to be flooded, it has been flooded, it will be flooded again. There are some interventions that are happening, they’re doing work around the east river with porous pavements, trying to make it more absorptive, and our gardens are a key part of that as well. But it’s a drop in the bucket. And they’re still selling real estate, they just built lofts to the left of us that are going for millions of dollars. But we’re not in a normal situation, the future is unstable. And yet we’re not adapting our architecture or design. It’s not a problem of facts, we have the facts, it’s a psychoanalytic problem.
CS: Certainly the degree to which speculative markets and real estate actually depend upon a natural invariance …
OK: Predictability in any case, if not invariance ...
CS: That’s a better way to put it. In either case, many environmental factors that limit capital are presumed stable or ignored altogether.
OK: That’s the biggest mistake we make, that all of our capitalist assumptions are based on this level of predictability if not stability, and that’s dangerous. On the other hand, you could think in terms of martial arts, with this notion of movement space. People who are really good at martial arts know that nothing ever stays the same, you don’t know where the blow is coming from. You’re always in this space of flow. As an artist or designer it’s the same, and that’s where things start to become really interesting, when you’re working with the flow rather than against it. That’s what I try to do with my work. I think, this is going to happen, climate change is going to happen, and we have to work within that.
I’m just installing a show now with my collaborators Marina Zurkow and Una Chaudhuri up at Storm King. It’s called Dear Climate, and it’s hilarious, it’s doing very well. We’re thinking about the psychosocial aspect of climate change. We’re inundated by facts, but this project is about the disavowal, how are we dealing with that? None of us are scientists, but how are we dealing with people’s gut reactions and mental reactions to climate change? It’s part of our reality in a psychic way.
CS: Your first step in the Dear Climate project is to “Befriend the Climate.”
OK: Yeah, and to “Become the Climate”—it’s a bit Deleuzian in that sense. How do we wrap our heads around the reality of extreme flux?
CS: Climate poses a real challenge to a kind of everyday empiricism, where a pleasant day here is connected to vast changes in weather systems.
OK: We doubt ourselves, we doubt our experiences because we don’t know if they are legitimate anymore. I think it destabilizes people deeply. The way that we’ve created new descriptions of weather, like bomb cyclones; that’s a neologism, I’d never heard that before, and that every storm has a name now—I think it reflects a deep discomfort.
CS: Most people perceive these storms as antagonists of everyday life, but is the naming of these phenomena a way to befriend the climate?
OK: In a way. There’s an idea in Buddhism, too, that there’s not a separation between the self and the other, and you can’t other the climate. We are the climate. And it’s not just metaphorical, the anthropocene is us becoming the climate, through our industrial processes. It’s the Marxian notion of metabolism.
CS: Speaking of befriending, in Becoming Non-human/Designing Non-human, you write beautifully about thinking alongside a slime mould.
OK: Right, Lord Running Clam, my symbiotic slime mould. They unfortunately dried out, but I’ve got a little piece of them to be revivified. But Lord Running Clam is something that I have a very close relationship with, I joke about it being my personal service amoeboid. Something as relatively outwardly simple as a slime mould, which is not a mould, it’s a social amoeba, a sort of supercell, has profound intelligence and understanding of the world around it. And you can form relationships with something like a slime mould and learn a lot. I carried it to a ridiculous extreme, using the slime mould as an oracular presence, and I would ask it simple questions and it would answer through a simple maze, a magic-eight ball kind of thing, where it would stream towards a piece of oatmeal, which is what they prefer to eat. In a way it is completely absurd, but no more absurd than anything else. It would trend towards an outcome. The great thing about biological intelligence is that it’s not digital, it sometimes contradicts itself, it changes its mind, like we do. It has doubts, uncertainties. I love all that, that’s just the way we are. I think as a way of modelling human behaviour, using a slime mould is far superior to any sort of digital model.
CS: Using slime mould as a divinatory means, you’re actively relating to its indecision. And those personal projections comprise a whole relationship.
OK: It is a relationship, and that’s totally valid. That’s why I like Anna Tsing’s book [The Mushroom at the End of the World] so much. The matsutake mushroom is completely entwined and enmeshed in our own life. It’s a colonizer of disturbance but it needs to be the right kind of disturbance. It has this commercial value, but then there’s the question of whether it’s manipulating us to get around, so it’s a strange symbiotic relationship across cultures.
This is the new thinking in environmental science, the idea that we have these systems—what I call hyper-ecologies, or they’ve been called novel ecosystems, or emergent ecosystems, or ragamuffin ecosystems—which are composed of many provenances. So you have invasive species, Japanese knotweed, English starlings, homo sapiens, coexisting with a certain armature or scaffolding of indigenous flora and fauna. And things sometimes do reach a balance. It may not be the balance that you want, but it’s interesting to see these things play out. What can I not do, right? Sometimes things arrange themselves in interesting ways.
Donna Haraway talks about this, the muddle, the madness, the trouble of being with, as opposed to controlling. Deleuze talks about that to some extent too, this idea that everything is enmeshed and stratified, or in his terms rhizomatically intertwined. And it really is. Each one of these plants has various microbial symbiotes that are allowing it to absorb nutrients, each one of those symbiotes has symbiotes, we’re symbiotes, either by deliberating not removing the plant or by putting it there we’ve changed it’s fate. We’re all so profoundly intermingled. And that’s why these gardens are an interesting model for this kind of chaos …
CS: You’ve spoken of how the social ecology of this garden illustrates these principles.
OK: It changes, there’s a core group of people, but new people come in with ideas and chaotic tendencies, and the garden has to adapt and decide what it wants to be. But it remains this wonderful thing, there’s no central power structure, there’s not a planner. And that’s a profoundly reassuring thing, that you can design the built environment without having a professional involved. Not to slag on architects as such, but this idea of a central vision maybe isn’t the best way of designing cities. And urban planners are beginning to understand this, although they hate it, because they’re always seeking a spokesperson or a consolidated position, due to an intense development pressure.
In some ways, there is greater development pressure in Vancouver than New York. In some ways having a municipal government that’s nominally environmentally motivated is great. But it’s a very bourgeois, a very commodified, form of environmentalism. And it’s dangerous, because it treats the environment as a feature that enhances the capital value of the built environment, with no regard for the use value. “Green cities,” be careful of that, because the people who use that language tend not to be designing cities for everyone. The green becomes a mechanism for a certain set of values that corresponds to class privilege. Ashley Dawson [author of Extreme Cities] is very articulate about this greenwashing. It’s interesting, the city bikes program in San Francisco has seen pushback because people see it as a vector of gentrification. And I would have thought that bikes are a good thing, but people see a whole set of values embodied in that object.
CS: And bicycles imply a whole idea of unlimited access, for a particular kind of person who chooses to engage the city in this highly entitled, mobile way. Otherwise bikes are a great idea.
OK: Oh sure. The more bikes there are the better, because it removes pollution and congestion and so on and so forth. But the implicit critique is of this idea of mobility, that middle class people are used to being able to go wherever they want. It used to be that there were neighbourhoods where you couldn’t go. This neighbourhood, for example. It used to be that cabs wouldn’t drop you east of Avenue A, because it was too dangerous to stop a taxi. And that was scary and difficult, but on the other hand it allowed a certain type of world to exist that had its affordances, that was protected by its fence of menace from infiltration by big power structures. It was a kind of forbidden zone. And now going down to the East River Park to run, I’m probably perceived as a gentrifier myself even though I’ve been here for so long, but there is that racial privilege. The people down there now, they’re not poor people, you can tell by their shoes and the clothes they wear. Something has shifted and we’ve lost a lot of the inclusivity. I think urban planning has to be far more nuanced, we don’t want to displace, we have to create more opportunities. But now it’s all or nothing. And if it hadn’t been for the public housing projects along Avenue D, this area would be completely gentrified.
CS: It’s interesting on one hand to speak of certain material structures as a bulwark against that eventuality, and on the other hand to look at certain ideologies of planning. There is a defense of gentrification that borrows the language of spontaneity and flux to normalize displacement, as though it were just the ebb and flow, part of the metabolism of a city. But it actually corresponds to very concerted top-down projects and investments, and a huge amount of capital.
OK: Rezoning, that’s the other thing. Bloomberg was hugely responsible for rezoning and allowing certain types of structures to be built. It’s very much top down, it’s not a natural evolution. It’s a policy decision to privilege capital in the urban landscape. You know that book, Anthropocene or Capitalocene by Jason Moore? New York is what you would call the capital of capital, of the Capitalocene, and that’s why we need to hang on to these little pockets of not-capital, or capital prime or whatever you want to call it, desperately. It’s the idea of the adjacent possible that we talked about.
CS: You describe urban garden spaces like Green Oasis as lacunar.
OK: The urban landscape needs lacunae, not just in terms of capital but also in terms of control over design or visuality, shall we say. You could say that this garden was designed, but after more of a passive, incremental system of bricolage. Let’s call it emergence in the classic sense of the word. That’s Mike Davis’s point in Planet of Slums. He talks a lot about these ad hoc settlements, which we call favelas or slums or whatever. But they do have a sort of incredible logic to them, and there’s an economic and cultural life. They’re not entirely the hellhole that we in the North perceive them to be, though there are certainly huge problems. But people can just build things, and make okay decisions that balance their self-interest with their social world. For example, the problem of homelessness is so intractable, but I visited this place in Portland called Dignity Village, which is a collection of ad hoc houses by PDX Airport. And it’s run by homeless people, who collaborated with some builders, and they built these tiny homes. They’re all on cinder blocks because they’re not allowed to touch the ground, that would be property, but the city has leased them this parking lot. Unfortunately it’s in the middle of nowhere, but still, these people have set up this totally autonomous zone that’s self-governing. There are certain rules, you can’t drink or do drugs, and durational limits as to how long you can be there, but basically it’s an autonomous zone. I was given a tour and I was shocked. First, they served me hotdogs; when was the last time a homeless person served you lunch? And secondly, there was an incredible sense of pride, like ‘we did this, we run this, cops can’t just come in here and arrest people, they have to go through security and check in, and we manage our own problems, if somebody has mental health problems we give them resources and so on.’ It’s not utopia by any means, but people did this thing that’s sort of okay. And homeless people with homes, what does that mean? I guess they’re not homeless anymore, and it didn’t cost that much money. I think it costs $70,000 to keep someone in a minimum security prison in California, whereas if you gave somebody $20,000 a year to live they’d be fine.
CS: This garden is another place to consider the agencies of people and processes that are radically invisibilized or marginalized by development.
OK: There are different levels of engagement, but it really is just these very ad hoc cultural relationships that form, and people who’ve known each other for years form trust and alliances that way.
CS: What are you working on at this moment?
OK: I have a show opening in Ireland in June which is about bioremediation. Plastic is a huge issue, and you saw my pieces of mealworm digested plastic. Those pieces will be at the science gallery in Dublin, these picturesquely eroded pieces of styrofoam will be shown in this incredibly precious way on little plinths in an art gallery, it’s cracking me up. It’s out of a Houellebecq novel to think that this would be framed as high art, it was made by insects. It’s kind of great, too.
CS: There’s a visual analogy to the ruins of antiquity placed in museums. But you’re working with the difference between ruin and creation.
OK: I’m into ruin, that’s kind of my art form these days. I’m fascinated by dilapidation, and also the kind of assumption of anthropocenic objects and materiality into Nature 2.0. You know Mike Davis talks in Dead Cities about buildings as slow-release fertiliser, and the idea that for everything we create, no matter how toxic, there is a natural process that will subsume it. Like the radiotrophic fungus in Chernobyl; I know I lost a lot of relatives to premature cancer in southern Germany, but the radiotrophic fungus is doing fine. And mealworms have developed the ability to digest styrofoam, which is one of the most pernicious waste products. I’m working a lot now with fungus, finding ways to break down resin-based glues that are one of the contaminants in plywood and MDF [medium-density fibreboard], using biological models for breaking down anthropocenic petroleum-based materials.
CS: It’s an incredibly urgent thing for art to take up.
OK: And hopeful, too. I love that the things we’re most disgusted by, styrofoam and oil, are food for something. And we just need to collaborate with that lifeform, be it a fungus or an insect or a bacteria, to find ways to undo some of the damage that we’ve done, as opposed to pursuing some kind of techno-libertarian solution.
To learn more about the work of Oliver Kellhammer, click here.