Weedy Resistance: Multispecies Tactics for Contesting “The Age of Man”

We welcome Ellie Irons, an artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY, as a guest on the blog . . . click for her own website, or see her bio under the “Who we are” tab.

resistance (Biology): Ability (of an organism, tissue, or cell) to withstand a destructive agent or condition such as a chemical compound, a disease agent, or an environmental stressor. (American Heritage® Medical Dictionary)

Seed sorting and packaging at the Next Epoch Seed Library winter headquarters at Wave Hill, January 2017.

It’s mid-January 2017. Two of my collaborators, Christopher Kennedy and Anne Percoco, and I are hunkered down in our winter studio, stuffing seed packets for the Next Epoch Seed Library and reading passages from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. We’ve been out protesting on and off all week, and the inauguration and the Women’s March are looming. As we sort seeds from chaff and drop them into glassine envelopes, we muse on the efficacy of protest, and what our strengths are as socially engaged, environmentally oriented artists. Handling the seeds takes me back to the summer months of harvesting, and reminds me how life-affirming it was to move through urban public space with a group of fellow foragers, movements orchestrated by the gestures necessary to gently remove seed from plant. A moment later Anne remarks on the latent power held in the weedy seeds we’re sorting. They’re ready to resist whatever the city throws at them come spring. Chris wonders aloud what a league of wild-plant lovers might do to throw rocks in the gears of the patriarchy.

And so Weedy Resistance was born.

At the moment we’re gathering pebbles: amassing the pieces of an open source, collaborative platform for exploring “multispecies tactics for a shared world” within the human and more-than-human communities we have access to here in New York City. Formed organically and with many entanglements, we’re pleased to be a nebulous gathering of associations, interests, and conversations spread across disciplines, institutions and interactions.

For me this all started years ago, when I was a frustrated studio painter, recently transplanted to New York City, and casting about for a new creative outlet. Searching for something that would ground me in the city and revive my creative practice, I began to wander the city’s liminal zones, climbing into vacant lots and exploring decaying parking lots. That something I was searching for presented itself in the form of spontaneous plant life: a broad assortment of easily overlooked photosynthetic life forms who have entangled themselves with humans and are often written off as weeds.

The author collecting seeds at the site of the first iteration of Chance Ecologies in Hunters Point, Queens, July 2015. This location is now under development and no longer publicly accessible. Photo credit Dan Phiffer.

It was around this time, as I was getting to know my city’s spontaneous plant population, that I first heard the term “Anthropocene”. It struck me immediately. I was both intrigued and wary: fascinated by the geological implications and the epistemological possibilities, but troubled that it drew in its wake tag lines like “Age of Man”, which, as a feminist and skeptic of an anthropocentric, progress-driven world view, I strongly rejected. Since that time my relationships with the Anthropocene concept and the world of weedy plants have evolved in tandem.

Both pursuits have led to me to connect with communities of engaged, critical people who are passionate about the biosphere and humanity’s place within it. While the Anthropocene dialogue provides a broad, abstract framework for engaging with deep time, global futures, and cumulative human impact, attending to weediness grounds me in the here and now, asking me to look closely at the more-than-human lifeforms with whom we’re co-creating our immediate habitats. From these beings, I’ve gained a new perspective on the absurdity of separating humans from the rest of the biosphere. And I’ve learned that weeds are good at resisting all sorts of things, from lawnmower blades and herbicides to binary categorization systems and calcified notions of human exceptionalism. It’s taken a little while for me to reconcile these two strands of my intellectual and creative life, the global and the hyperlocal, but of late they have come together.

Documentation of “Green Borderland” a performative intervention developed by the author in collaboration with interdisciplinary artist and choreography andrea haenggi, August 2015. Photo credit Dan Phiffer.

This convergence has in arisen in part thanks to the efforts of a range of thinkers who’ve made fertile ground of the Anthropocene conversation, using it to stage pushback against reductive, singular notions of “Man” and “Nature”. From formative writers I’ve thought with for years, like Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, who’ve provided an essential new lexicon (Haraway’s Chthulucene, Tsing’s disturbance ecologies) to many, many newer-to-me thinkers coming from disciplines ranging from anthropology to sociology to plant ecology, reading has provided indispensable context and motivation for my continued examination of environmentalism and conservation in the face of global climate change.

Chance Ecologies gathering at NESL’s winter headquarters, January 2017. Photo credit Anne Percoco.

These exciting theoretical leaps struck me deeply due to their confluence with the embodied learning I was experiencing alongside a multispecies community of plants, artists, foragers and gardeners. Starting with walks, workshops and public fieldwork associated with projects like Invasive Pigments, and growing into longterm collaborative work like the Next Epoch Seed Library, Chance Ecologies, and the nascent Environmental Performance* Agency, working closely with wild urban plants and the humans who are attentive to them has been a revelation. It’s allowed my collaborators and me to recognize that we’re at the beginning of a long process: eroding the myth of civilization defined against wilderness, handed down over centuries of settler culture, will not be easy or comfortable.

In this early phase of Weedy Resistance our goal is to reach to the very edges of our networks and beyond to interface with folks in other fields and communities. We’re seeking fresh perspectives on fostering small-scale, community-level resistance that challenges human exceptionalism alongside other intersecting forms of oppression. We’re doing this work in the long shadow of the Anthropocene conversation, which has popped up in many zones of cultural practice, art included. Inherent in this framing is our commitment to embracing other visions of the current epoch, including calls to decolonize the Anthropocene (including here on this blog) or to reconceptualize it as the Capitalocene, Plantationocene, or the many armed and ample Chthulucene. Unpacking and analyzing the loaded nature of the language at our disposal for discussing plants and people is another important task. At our first Weedy Resistance gathering in early April, which was themed around borders, Chris read from B.A. Huseby’s book Weeds and Aliens:

There is talk of invading species, blacklisted plants, brown snails…botanists even talk of keeping genotypes ‘clean’…The implications of an ill-thought-through conservation strategy are immense in terms of what it means to be human. Nationalism is represented in the ways we equate national identities with flora – we talk of what belongs within national space, even if plants grow over several continents. Plants have no national or political borders….I would like to see a mixed ecology – one that is still evolving, moving, migrating – rather than one contained in some botanist’s obscene concept of purity.

Wild urban plants (sprouted from seed as part of NESL’s seed viability testing) attended the first gathering of Weedy Resistance, hosted by the Parson’s Transdisciplinary Design Studio. Photo credit Dan Phiffer.

As he read this passage, the audience consisted not only of thirty or so humans, but also an assortment of about fifteen wild plant species that thrive in close association with dense populations of people. They sat quietly around the edges of the room near the windows, spikey sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) bursting exuberantly out of a repurposed yogurt container, morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) sending tendrils up a makeshift climbing structure of cardboard and electrical tape.

Anne Percoco at the first Weedy Resistance gathering, reading passages from “Making Do: Uses and Tactics”, from de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. Photo credit Dan Phiffer.

As we humans made our way through an afternoon of discussion, with topics ranging from energy democracy and adventure play to environmental nationalism and the border wall, we returned repeatedly to the question of what plants and ecological systems might have to teach us about political resistance and cultural intervention. We asked questions like: What can we borrow from our more-than-human neighbors? How can we cultivate more reciprocal relationships among humans and plants in urban environments? What do we miss in our ongoing “plant blindness”? The plants didn’t answer in any language our human cohort was capable of sensing, but I’m quite sure they were chattering among themselves. The human conversation, with presentations by Zhaleh Afshar, Oliver Kelhammer, and Eve Mosher, was recorded and archived. We’ll do the same with our upcoming gatherings in May (Networks) and June (Flux), and anything else that pops up in between.

This archiving and sharing is another essential aspect of Weedy Resistance. It’s part of a commitment to openness, participation and iteration. Like a good weedy super-organism, we hope to see the seeds and spores of these gatherings carried far and wide. We make no artistic or intellectual claims on this endeavor. The ingredients for this coalition are pre-existing, dispersed, and cumulative over time, some free floating, some already linked. We simply hope to provide a few more nodes around which networks of resistance can coalesce in this challenging period. Finally, we offer this loose coalition as a tonic against another damaging myth: that of the isolated artistic genius acting alone in their own interest. We refuse this fallacy: it is impossible to act independently, as artists or beings, now more than ever. If we New Yorkers hope to truly inhabit the world invoked by Haraway’s naturecultures, acknowledging the agency of weeds, as both allies and instigators, is a good place to start.

A series of photographs from the author’s ongoing “Feral Landscape Typologies” project: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of a “Vacant” urban lot, May-October 2015.