Terraforming a Neighborhood | kulturpunkt

English Essay


Terraforming a Neighborhood

It's difficult to imagine that, in a thousand years, there will be something like "Trešnjevka", but the root system of the spruces along the railway allegedly has a good chance of surviving.

by: Luka Bekavac

Ana Kuzmanić, Wild Growth (exhibition cover). Source: Muzej susjedstva Trešnjevka

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It is late as I look at these pictures. It has nothing to do with hours, something else is wrong with the time: These multilayered scenes construct an artificial date, put me in a displaced perspective as if placing me on some gloomy lookout. It is over: I observe this common territory we once lived in, not as a cultural or historical framework but as a medium in which we used to spread like particles of dust (together with the sand, leaves, pollen, rime ice), captured on film that snapped some time ago.

* * *

Ana Kuzmanić’s Wild Growth primarily functions as a digital herbarium: dry, pressed plants, arranged in an album, the logic of which is not clearly evident: an illustrated taxonomy, a truncated classification, beyond genealogy and the alphabet. However, turning each page, one becomes increasingly suspicious regarding which phenomena are actually listed, what is the focus of these neatly-marked two-layered samples (date, exact location, name of the collector for each artifact from the collection).

This is certainly some sort of dispute with botany, if the latter is, "like any science, […] a product of society, a construct that seeks to ‘bring order’ to nature" (Ana Kutleša, in the introductory text). Weeds are the antithesis of such a conception of the System: "undesirable organisms" that suffer arbitrary, pragmatic segregation in order to "clear the terrain", free up space for the identity and prosperity of privileged cultures. As a factor of uncertainty, an agent of unplanned diversification, weeds belong to the layer of the plant network found "under the radar"; even as exploiters of nature, we inadvertently assist the processes we seek to suppress: "with the army, workers or refugees, in trucks, in cargo bags, the seed is a common stowaway" (ibid.), both a symbol and a real elementary particle of migration that the repressive system wants to stop, control or at least carefully surveil.

It is, therefore, a question of territory. Someone wants to adapt the territory to "life", to put things in order.

* * *

The pages of this album, however, are collages: the vegetation here is dead, we get to know the plants through documents on inanimate bodies. Could I then read Wild Growth as a complicated cold-case crime story? There are thousands of characters, but it is not clear what role these pressed, dry apparitions are playing, I do not know if the neighborhood is looking for a killer, if the neighborhood is the killer, if the neighborhood is the victim. Only one thing is certain: "We" certainly participate in these second-class still lifes; we are gathered in this herbarium together, as forensic materials, inhabitants of the same continuum, kindred entities, coresidents in that old, cut film. Still lives: scenes in which, quilted with each other, equally past, together we bear witness to that former life.

This is definitely also a story about ruins (see the cover of the exhibition!), but outside of stereotypical options (ruin porn, melancholic decadence, banal criticism of corruption); decay is an active practice here, the collapse is a counterintuitive genesis, spontaneous construction (only no one can tell exactly of what); more real than the real, it works even while we sleep, beaten by fatigue or resignation. I can imagine a book about it, published in the future, as it comes from the last century: Trešnjevka: A Ruderal History.

* * *

They now live at those addresses. It used to be "Magazinska", "Adžijina", "Jagićeva"; today it is Potentilla reptans, Malus sylvestris, Balotta nigra. These are the maps of New Trešnjevka: a series of empty plots where "plants were found", but they are actually the first residents, a census of some other city.

* * *

Hedera helix, first on the list: the "spiral" that connects incompatible levels. The explanation states that ivy is the thread that connects the living and the dead, the mediator (medium?) between the two worlds: It signifies the ability of eternal renewal, but also the superior power of the underground, an environment under different pressure where there is room for us only in a very limited sense.

In Kučerina Street, ivy covers the children playing (or is it ivy as a flock of children playing?) – an ambivalent sight, but it leaves the impression of a slow and relentless victory, a force occupying its habitat, some completely unspectacular untearability: We have always been here; we will, like the last flags, hang here even when all "your battles" are over. So, this is actually a story of immortality or resurrection? I do not think so; it is simply about cycles, nonlinearities, my confusion before the nonbinary distribution of the life/death line.

Following this, I try to think of a different diachrony, about the time of the plants, but it is not going well, the thread is constantly breaking, I'm stuck in our direction. In this race in terraforming, they have a 500-million-year advantage; it is very difficult to imagine that, in a thousand years, there will still be something like "Trešnjevka", but the root system of the spruces along the railway allegedly has a good chance of surviving until the twelfth millennium.

* * *

"Bringing order"? Yes, but there is also something like too much order. Eternal forms, the realm of ideality, total planning, controlled reproduction, five-year plans and agendas, learning outcomes and programmed processes: It is, in fact, death; the goals are, under the guise of inconsistent, mundanely-motivated apparatuses, the same: cryogenic politics, stopping history, abolishing time, obstructing life.

The opposite extreme, the nothingness of a different flavor: "chaos", noise and accidentality, a primary process, fluctuation without parameters and fixed points, entropic collapse into complete unproductivity, hostile environment par excellence – something unsustainable (or it is just that we are unsustainable in it).

"Unsuitable for life." Areas that are so labeled, desolations created by natural means or by the action of artificial destructive agents, can be submitted to a series of processes (variations in temperature, topography, composition of the atmosphere and soil, biological cross-section) in order to be tamed. Terraforming: perhaps too difficult a word, but the euphemism "adaptation" always obscures the reality of someone’s extermination.

Who is it, then, that is redefining the terrain according to their own needs? This is a story about the intertwining of vegetation and the social fabric of the neighborhood, about events "in between nature and society" (Kutleša); maybe that's why I don't see the forces clearly, I don't recognize the generators of events or the projected "outcomes"; in one moment Trešnjevka is someone's informal land art project; in the second, our settlements belong to the same category as mayflies or heralds of spring, ephemeral formations known to us only as "that which perishes."

* * *

They have the power to transform the scenes in which they appear: These become gloomy festivities, the celebrant looms over us as over figures frozen in a distant, black-and-white timeline. A completely different history of everyday life, sewn into ours: May Day hazels going for a swim; the Johnson grass waiting for a train on the platform together with women in traditional costume; the daisy fleabane accompanying a girl on a walk through the unpaved Žajina Street; the red clover (along with other functionaries) cutting the ribbon at an opening of a station; next to the Siemens factory, the ash following mother and children along a "black path"; the five fingers filming herself playing in the snow (dance of death?), while in the murky distance, in the grave gray of the mid-1970s, some buildings are springing up; in the end, all of this, old roads and new buildings, empty plots and yards are overshadowed by the looming black nightshade (only moderately poisonous).

However, they also turn contemporariness into "old photographs". The secretariat of the IX Gymnasium, pressed by a black locust branch as if by a layer of alien matter that pushes it into hypodiegesis, becomes the generic office of a state-owned company circa 1974-1975, part of a deactivated world.

* * *

All the accompanying materials to Wild Growth serve to pacify such impressions: a more pleasant balance is established between the residents of Trešnjevka (artifacts from the Neighborhood Museum, family photographs, private but well-known microhistories) and the inhabitants of the New York Botanical Garden herbarium ("wilderness"); the latter are still mere "specimens," and the former truly become the first: It is us, these are "human stories". The short texts accompanying each collage speak, admittedly, exclusively about plants, but the emphasis is on their value to us, the cultural and social history of these "weeds", with a staggering range of uses of each invasive species: food, medicine, dyes, firewood, preservation, construction, knitting, washing, from the production of furniture and instruments, fabrics, drugs and poisons, to magical and metaphysical capacities (ash as the axis mundi).

The process works: the links take us back to a safer, anthropocentric world (Plantea, Wikipedia), I remember that humans and plants have always lived together, parallelly shaping history and territories for millennia, and I wonder if this black cloud is really just my projection, some obscure symptom of the pandemic left-wing melancholy, maybe even a lazy reading error: I simultaneously look at the works of the Eastern Surf collective, and questions arise about the supposed virtuality of all visual representations, the "non-life" of photography (old required readings: technology as a spiritual medium, digital ghost creation) ...

But no, even so, no; I go back to the collages to check and it’s really there: Something is wrong, these are someone’s obituaries, regardless of the song of the weeds in the foreground. 

* * *

Somewhat later, as I flip through those pages again and ask myself new questions (if this were a photograph and not a collage, who would have taken it? who is looking at this?), it dawns on me that I have overlooked something quite evident. What is the background in this story, the undifferentiated surface on which the shapes stand out?

It is us: diffuse, grainy, "soft" images of ordinary, real lives recycled into black and white organic material that slowly decomposes and turns into nutrients, incoherent soil for growth and long life of something else, protagonists who – extremely clean, in the full color of the "present moment", with the buffer zone of the white passe-partout – take the forefront. We are not even the "past" (time is of little value here), we are the "precondition", we are here to enable something else to appear.

And it is here that the key to the dyschrony of this cycle, a short circuit with the chronology of plants, might lie: viewed from this higher narrative level, our history, with its accompanying structures (purpose, progress, logic), is actually a static continuum, passive mass, raw material from which they draw on resources for their world, for another story. Even if they are taxidermized, the images of their past lives are no longer a memory of "our world".

A possible subtitle for Wild Growth: Memories of Weeds.

* * *

Or could this all be a forced reading? It obviously deviates from the motivation of this cycle, and even the entire oeuvre. Kuzmanić has an entirely different sensibility: her work often deals with the past, but is never elegiac in tone, nor does it cultivate an atmosphere of mourning (even less apocalypse). The focus is always on the real everyday life of a community, hybrid and of a plural identity, sharply examined from a perspective of change, some possible future (even if unrealized, on hold, or "canceled"). The engine of her work is "the hope that the arts can become a platform for social transformation" (Artist’s Statement), a space of dialogue, learning, emancipation and empathy. Such poetics reads "culture from below" as the only fertile ground, perhaps a necessary precondition for the survival of the community. That is why many of her works are not only attempts to evoke but also to reanimate, kick-start collectivity, create atypically-profiled collectives where they no longer exist because they have "fallen asleep", forgotten or forcibly destroyed. Fragments of text scattered in public space in A change from the bench (2017), for example, act like triggers, pamphlets calling for a small but real revolution.

However, it is difficult for me to escape from those other tones: the thoughts, memories, dreams of these unknown voices are placed on the park benches in Voltino like memorial plaques, so the work also becomes an in memoriam to a neighborhood, even if, with this “ghostly” displacement, it also keeps a prospective quality ("it could all happen again, come to life again"). It Is All About Stars (2018), a critique of the tourist commodification of the Adriatic, temporarily turns a staircase in Omiš into a "haunted" location where someone's voices appear with flickering light projections and lament the disappearance of the world they lived in, the collapse of community spaces into a "ghost town". I follow this line back to Dialogue (2010): the waves of the Mediterranean erase multilingual inscriptions in the sand, reminding us of the meaninglessness of conflicts and borders from a perspective of time, erosion, matter, also taking away everything that was left of our fragile traces and collectives.

And so, we slowly return to Wild Growth.

* * *

For some reason, it is hard to make peace with the process in which we have been participating (for millennia): the unresolved and undefined state between those extremes of chaos and total order. What even is the "optimal" interval here? Someone wants to bring this story to an end, to pursue justice, to end uncertainty, they call it a problem, a "transitional period", a temporary negative trend that should be terminated once and for all.

But what if this interphase is not the source of all hardships but rather life, the structure of existence in a common environment? Using its hybrid composition ("documentary" facture, suggestion of fantastic scenarios, interference between them), Wild Growth may be looking for a language that would embody this uncomfortable balance. "The deconstruction of the dominant social readings of reality" (Artist's Statement) can look like this: mobilizing facts with fiction to open real spaces to some unpredictable events, unprogrammed interactions of "nature and society". To persist in this "trouble" of an unsettled score with nature, the inability to fully realize plans, the incompetence to theoretically master the horizon of what is happening to us, it may simply mean believing in a different future.

* * *

Then I remember: I really have no idea what I’m talking about. Kuzmanić announces a sequel ("final phase"?) to the entire project for 2022, perhaps as "spring", while everything I wrote about was a winter story, a hibernation essay. This is, thus, only the first part, half of the story (not in a chronological sense); after all, there are at least as many more on the maps of these habitats (the scarlet firethorn, common mallow, dead nettles, sorrel, paulownia, passionflower...). Wild Growth is actually a sampler, not a complete archive. To be continued.

* * * 

It's late. I haven’t managed to complete the text; I’m dozing in front of the TV, the papers slip from my hands every now and then and bring me back to reality. I'm trying to hide from the expiration of the deadline in unconsciousness.

Suddenly, as if in a trance, I see a professional gardener, a landscape designer, talking about his vast private garden: he is showing geometrically perfectly shaped trees, color-coordinated flower beds, well-thought-out paths, perfectly trimmed lawns, a greenhouse and a lake, all these carefully formed elements, as his life’s work, resembling more a sculpture park than someone’s backyard.

 * * * 

However, in the middle of all that, a plot stretches that is in complete chaos, an unarranged and uncultivated wild meadow, surrendered to the elements, to the work of nature, atmosphere and time, to the factor of chance in the migration of pollen and seeds. "This is a constant," he tells the camera as if explaining something irrefutable, mathematically certain: "This is the ultimate reality." After that, everything somehow falls apart, the logical connection between the shots and the voice-over breaks down, the controls are loosened. The end credits theme is starting to play. He says (or I add this in the secondary processing, I don’t know), summarizing the whole story: "Everything I’ve ever done, built on my own effort, will one day disappear. All forms will fade away, all structures will perish, as if they were never there. Only one thing will survive. The only thing that will survive, the only thing that will still be here, even a hundred years after my death, is this ‘empty plot’: that which I did not touch."


The article was published as part of the project MediActivism – Courageous young citizens test new ways to reclaim their cities, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union.

Objavio/la hana [at] kulturpunkt.hr 05.03.2022