An Interview with Anne Percoco and Ellie Irons by Milcah Bassel
“Sometimes, just the promise of change is enough. Weeds can remind people of the tantalizing possibilities of abandonment, what might come after, what life might be like.”
Freida Knobloch, “The Bad Seed”, Cabinet Magazine, 2003
“Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away.”
Gary Snyder, “The Practice of the Wild: Essays”, 1990
On an unseasonably warm Sunday early last December, Anne Percoco invited me to join her and Ellie Irons for a seed collecting excursion to Snake Hill. A fifteen minute ride from our meeting point in Jersey City grew to thirty, and two missed exits later, we found ourselves at the base of a steep, rocky outcrop. Snake Hill protrudes awkwardly from the Meadowlands of Secaucus, NJ, standing at an intersection of the Turnpike and the Hackensack River. This was my earliest encounter with Anne’s and Ellie’s collaborative project now known as the Next Epoch Seed Library (NESL).
The current iteration of NESL, and the most ambitious to date, is on view through May 13th at William Paterson University, in Wayne, NJ. It is part of Living Together: Nurturing Nature In the Built Environment, a group exhibition curated by Kristen Evangelista.
The conversation that follows is based primarily on a recorded interview with Anne which took place in my studio on April 17th. Additional insights were contributed by Ellie via email correspondence.
M Would you start by giving a brief description of the project?
A Sure. NESL is a crowd-sourced seed bank that’s dedicated to wild urban plants (weeds). We collect seeds from these plants, and they become part of the collection, which is available to be added to and withdrawn from by anyone.
M And this is a project that you have done more than once now?
A We began last fall, and so far, we’ve shown the piece in a few different exhibitions. For these shows, Ellie and I create a special collection of seeds from the immediate vicinity of the gallery, and, whenever possible, we like to make our installations site-specific. For example, in the No Longer Empty show Intersecting Imaginaries in the Bronx last fall, we built a cabinet of drawers into a steel i-beam in the gallery space. We also are part of a show called Emergent Ecologies in May, in a Brooklyn warehouse scheduled for demolition. For the William Paterson show, we used paint to highlight the unique architecture of the gallery walls, which form a freestanding square. The whole gallery is inside an atrium, which is great for plants.
M Is it the first time NESL has had the opportunity to take over that amount of space?
A Yes, definitely. In addition to the library structure that houses the seeds and brochures, we included a seed sorting station, a plant propagation area, a sitting area with a bulletin board for community contributions, and a few enlarged microscope photos of seeds, taken with the help of RISD Nature Lab.
M I love this idea of viewing the urban landscape as another frontier of nature. NESL pays attention to sidewalk cracks, junkyards, construction sites, highway underpasses. You enter into an adventure of miniature, sometimes microscopic worlds and witness how animated they are, living and propagating simultaneous to our more visible, scaled up, sped up, technologically driven city lifestyles.
A Definitely. We normally use the word “sublime” to describe the feeling of admiration we get from looking at very large natural phenomena, like mountains. When we start paying attention to seeds, I think we might experience the sublime of the very small, and awe at the fact that these invisible, intricate processes are happening everywhere, all the time, without our help or knowledge. Living in a city, it’s easy to forget that there are other creative forces besides humans. I think it’s useful to be reminded of wildness by the presence of weeds.
M Where did some of these plants originate?
E Some, like the common dandelion (taraxacum officinale), existed in what is now Europe more than 30 million years ago, before the continents were in their current positions! Taraxacum officinale is considered native to Europe, but occurs throughout the temperate world. It was purposefully introduced by European colonists for its medicinal and nutritional properties, most likely in the 17th century. Of the 40+ species currently in the Seed Library, around half are considered native to the Eastern United States, meaning that they were here when European colonists arrived. The rest have far flung origins, ranging from Japan to North Africa to Central America. Like the population of contemporary urban centers, these plants have made a home here.
M You are dealing with these plants that are often treated as unwanted, intrusive, and invasive.
A We often get this question: “Why are you promoting these harmful, invasive plants?”
M Does invasive mean they don’t allow other types of plants to grow? Do they kill other species? Or have we just decided that we don’t want them?
E An invasive plant proliferates and forms monocultures often at the expense of other species filling similar niches. Often, the native/non-native binary is used to make the distinction between plants that are more or less desireable, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. The issue becomes complex in urban situations where we’ve changed the landscape so rapidly and dramatically that there is no way the original assemblage of native species can survive there anymore–a “novel ecosystem”. Novel ecosystems call for novel assemblages of plants and animals that are able to adapt to the new normal of city life. As Peter del Tredici points out in his Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, the common plants we find in our city centers are the “de-facto natives” for this habitat in the age of globalization and increasing human impact.
A As Ellie said, NESL’s perspective is more an urban perspective, because that’s where we both live. There is so little green in the city. The “desirable” species require lots of care, and weeds can take care of themselves and provide a whole host of ecological services, such as lowering the temperature in the summer, protecting against flooding and erosion, providing food and habitat for other species, etc.
M In your “Species Guide” brochure, you introduce “Seed Quality Icons”. In addition to indicating whether a plant is native or introduced, you also show if it’s toxic, medicinal, or edible, which implies a beneficial relationship. If people knew that these weeds growing in the concrete in front of their house were medicinal, their attitude might change.
A In fact, Queen Anne’s Lace, which you always see on the side of highways, that’s a carrot. I knew that, but it just recently occurred to me that I can eat it.
M Is it an edible carrot?
E It is, but the root gets too woody to eat in mature plants- get ‘em before they flower!
A They’re going to be growing in front of my house. I’m going to pull them up and eat them. One of our contributors, Rena Lee, has studied foraging practices by different communities in New York. She told us this story that in a park in NYC, the maintenance crew removed a section of mugwort. The Chinese American foragers wondered, “why would they remove such a useful plant?” and sprinkled mugwort seeds so it would grow again.
M That’s really funny! And beautiful.
(Note to reader: Be very careful when eating wild plants! Best to ID plants using multiple sources and to watch them for a full year to be sure you know what they are.)
M Would you talk a bit about the concept of the Anthropocene?
A The word “Anthropocene” is used to indicate a new epoch in which humans are a geologic force.
E Geologists haven’t yet decided we’re in this epoch, so it’s still hypothetical. We’re interested in it because, although it’s controversial and problematic in many ways, it gets at a lot of the tensions that come with trying to promote sustainability and ecological consciousness in an era defined by massive resource depletion and increasingly chaotic climatic events.
A What we are getting at by using this word, and the words “Next Epoch”, is a future in which nature looks different than it does now. What was a good place for certain plants and animals to live may no longer be good for them. Domesticated plants are generally very fragile species. They need certain conditions: pesticides, water, fertilizer, the right temperature, but weeds don’t need those things.
M So weeds are indifferent to the largely negative impacts of human progress and development.
E What weeds do need to thrive is disturbance and change, the kind of conditions humans create in spades. If we end up in a situation where we’ve disturbed massive amounts of the planet, we’ll need plants that are up to dealing with that situation- plants that can begin the task of regeneration and re-emergence, laying the groundwork for a liveable landscape.
A Some species are thriving because of our impact. I’m sure there are examples of plants that grow best in cities.
E Specific examples are mugwort, lambsquarters, even dandelion, which does better in shorter grass that’s been trimmed by a mower than it does when it has to compete with grasses living out their full lifecycle and competing with it for light.
M So back to what you said before, are you thinking about the future in a dystopic, even apocalyptic light?
A Yes, totally.
M In the sense that human life may come to an end?
A Not that specifically, but just that things may change drastically, and we would have to adapt. As difficult as it would be if that actually happened, it’s exciting to think about. I read a book of post-apocalyptic short stories called “Wastelands”, edited by John Joseph Adams. In the conclusion, Adams asked “why are we drawn to these kinds of stories?” He says that it allows us to think about starting over or what we would do differently next time.
M A hopefulness embedded in something terrifying.
A Yeah. These plants embody resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. I think these are admirable qualities.
M How do you hope to engage people through this project?
A We feel that the project is strongest when it involves other people. The show is participatory: visitors are welcome to handle anything in the installation and take seed packets. We have 4 or 5 people who are regular contributors, artists whose work also has to do with weeds: Christopher Kennedy, Rena Lee, Corinne Cappelletti, and Eva Perrotta. Also, I think it is a lot of fun to lead walks, and we would like to do more of that, even as an excuse to visit unusual places, or to bend down and touch plants.
M Do you think about NESL in terms of activism, education, science, metaphor, or poetry? Or a combination?
A Definitely a combination. Ellie comes from a science background. She was an environmental science minor in college. She is doing these experiments in the gallery, trying to get seeds to sprout that she’s treated in different ways. For me, it’s both poetic and political, to paraphrase the artist Francis Alÿs, who used these terms in the title for one of his exhibitions.
E Agreed – it certainly does have a poetic angle, however I see our efforts as practical, too. Every time a vacant lot disappears beneath a condo or a parking lot in Brooklyn, where I live, we lose a whole swath of spontaneous urban greenery. If NESL gets in there and collects seeds before they’re gone, we’re preserving the legacy of that weedy space, both metaphorically and potentially physically, if the plants sprout elsewhere.
M Could you talk about what a traditional seed bank is?
A In community seed banks, people save seeds from their garden and share them. There’s also the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is above the Arctic Circle. They are collecting seeds from crops from all over the world and are storing them in case of global catastrophe. NESL is probably more similar to Svalbard in mission, but more similar to the community seed banks in scale. The difference is that we’re saving seeds from weeds, which seems kind of contradictory.
M It does! Because the seeds are already so good at mobilizing themselves through our urban spaces and taking hold almost anywhere.
A I think that’s part of what makes this art. In addition to being practical, as Ellie said, it’s the poetic gesture. Saving these seeds in this way means that we are assigning value to them.
M Let’s talk about the aesthetics of the show. You have put a focus on information, poetic and scientific ideas, and the possibility of a shared communal resource. The visual aesthetic is DIY, practical, but pleasant and inviting: part greenhouse laboratory, part domestic space, part Thomas Hirschhorn monument. Yet the functional is housed within these sculptural elements, and the information within beautiful imagery. Your scaled-up version of a birdhouse brilliantly houses seed packets, a written log for when they come and go, reading materials, and a monitor with video documentation of all stages of seed collecting and sorting. On one wall there are inkjet prints of enlarged microscope photos of seeds, which are just beautiful to look at. The surfaces and textures resemble alien landscapes, places for the imagination to roam.
A Yeah, they’re pretty sculptural too, some of them.
E And I enjoy the challenge of working with found forms of life and found materials, and seeing how much we can get done with “weedy” approaches to all aspects of the work. This means scavenging and cobbling together a lot of the material we work with. This is already a natural part of Anne’s process as a sculptor, and something I’m finding fits very well with my understanding of the project.
A The wood used in the central structure is 95% repurposed: from previous projects, an old bed loft, drawers we found on the street. We created a string of bunting from plastic bags. Also, we are thinking of the seed packets as artist multiples and part of the book art tradition. We recently sent some seed packets to Martha Clippinger to sell at Zine Machine Printed Matter Fair in Durham, NC, and this ties into the idea of the library, thinking of seeds as the containers of information, like books.
M What is the future of NESL?
A I am hoping to build a very small library branch in an abandoned cornfield in Pennsylvania in a couple of weeks, as part of the Holes in the Wall Collective residency, The Maize. We’ve also talked about making ceramic sculptures that the seeds can be stored in, because that has been a method used to store seeds by Native Americans. The fired clay is very dry, so it will preserve the seeds, possibly for centuries. We have thought about offering some sort of subscription service like a “seed of the month” club. And also, more seed-collecting walks. With others, whenever possible. More exploring.
Milcah Bassel is a multidisciplinary artist based in Jersey City and Tel Aviv. Her work is an experiential investigation of body-space relations incorporating installation, hand-made objects, drawing, photography, and performance. She holds an MFA in Visual Art from Rutgers University (2013) where she is currently a part-time lecturer.
Ellie Irons is an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. She works in a variety of media, from walks to WIFI to gardening, to reveal how human and nonhuman lives intertwine with other earth systems. She studied Environmental Science and Art at Scripps College in Los Angeles and received her MFA from Hunter College, CUNY.
Anne Percoco is a Jersey City based environmental artist producing public artworks, gallery shows, web-based projects, and publications. Her artistic process is resourceful, responsive, and playful. She earned her MFA from Rutgers University and shows her work in New York, New Jersey, and further afield.