Benjamin A. Huseby’s book Weeds and Aliens – An Unnatural History of Plants was Torpedo Press’s outstanding bestseller at Printed Matters Art Book Fair last weekend. We interviewed Huseby to learn more about this ongoing project.
Interview by Lisa Andrine Bernhoft-Sjødin
LS: Weeds and Aliens – An Unnatural History of Plants features photographs of plants found over the span of five years, restricted to the space between your home and atelier, 2 kilometres apart, in Berlin. The subject matter is the plants we call ‘weeds’ – the ones we don’t want in our garden, in our urban landscape, the unwanted. At first sight the book reads like a practical guide to edible plants, with explanatory texts accompanying each photo. But the three additional texts within the publication go into much deeper issues. Could you tell me first about the project leading to the release of your book?
B.A. Huseby: Well, I started by collecting plants en route between my home and studio on the edge of Mitte and Kreuzberg in Berlin. This restricted me to a 2-kilometre area. The plants I collected were edible and often had some kind of other useful value, but they were otherwise known as ‘weeds’ – the common plants we have all around us, but don’t cultivate, such as the Dandelion, the Daisy or the Greater Plantain.
LS: They’re very much beautified in a sort of romantic light – soft and natural – so I’d say that through your eyes, their importance is restored. And you prefer the term ‘plants’ to ‘weeds’. Why is this important to you?
BH: Yes, I don’t use the term ‘weeds’ much; it’s not a biological term. The only way to define them is: plants that grow where we don’t want them to. There are no weeds in nature; there are only plants. These plants we often call weeds have specifically adapted to our way of living, and thrive in it. We find them all over our cityscapes, on our building sites, in our ruins and cultivated fields.
LS: In your essay in the book, ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’, you discuss this manner in which we talk about unwanted plants as similar to racism.
BH: Yes, it’s insane how we talk about plants and habitats. Recently it was claimed in a rather excellent PhD thesis that the BBC’s Gardeners’ Question Time was providing the forces of the far right with racist rhetoric by way of the language they were using to describe wanted and unwanted plants. We use terrible words, very much a protect-and-defend lingo: protecting what we see as native and the purity of the local nature. Everything unfamiliar is seen as unnatural, threatening and needing to be terminated. Much of this language of conservation, could, if transferred to humans, be seen as the language of ‘race biology’. Funnily enough, both the first major classification system of plants (Carl Linnaeus) and race biology have their origins at the University of Uppsala.
LS: The photographs in the book are accompanied by outlines of the flora, which lends it a practical dimension, though your essay is a highly polemical piece. How do the photos and your writing correspond with each other?
BH: The writing that accompanies the photographs is very much written from the angle of the enthusiastic botanist or gardener in me. I guess it’s a way of writing that owes a debt to the legacy of Elizabeth David – a hugely influential British food writer. And it slowly evolved into this practical guide to some common plants in the urban arena. It’s also there to give some much-needed balance to ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’, the concluding essay. These are my thoughts and notes while working on the project and it is much more polemic. It doesn’t have the same flow as the former texts. Instead, it opens up for a discussion around our anxiety about the ecological crisis we’re currently in. I believe the end of this world will come. By that, I don’t mean the Earth, as such, but the world as we know it. I’m playing with the idea that this book could be like a practical handbook for after the disaster. It’s part of a discussion of what life or world we want to build from the ashes. I’m thinking about the relationship between humans and nature. You could even say there’s a sci-fi dimension to it, where I welcome the end, since what might come after is potentially so exciting.
LS: This idea of evolving ecologies and sci-fi seems to be reflected in the photograph that directly follows the section on fungi, Calvatia gigantica/Giant Puffball, which depicts a man holding up a giant fungus that completely obscures his head. The fungi are shot in the same manner as the preceding plants, but no text accompanies them. Is this a playful take on what our future could hold?
BH: Yes, absolutely. Fungi are beautiful, truly alien life forms – somewhere between plants and animals. There are four times more bacteria and fungi in the human body than our own cells! And that’s interesting to me. We have this notion that technology will help us, and change us into these higher beings with unearthly and techno powers, but why not hyper-earthly beings, somewhere between human and fungi?
LS: In the additional two texts, Ashkan Sepahvand’s essay ‘Between Angel and Sage’ and Natasha Ginwala’s poems ‘Dedications no. 1, 2 and 3’, issues of identity and migration are explored further. In what ways do these plants highlight these issues?
BH: Ashkan and Natasha, who are close friends of mine, provide more theoretical weight to the subject matte, by way of overlapping, but also very different, personal experiences of migration and identity. All three of us met in Berlin via other countries. I came there from Norway, with a Norwegian/Pakistani background, Ashkan came by way of the US, with an Iranian background, and Natasha by way of India, with an Indian background. We’re all migrants, and we’re all ‘brown’ bodies, and we’ve all at times experienced a sense of not belonging. The plants we describe as weeds have followed in our human migration patterns all over the world. Take for instance, Fat Hen, which is the photo alongside Natasha’s poems: in Europe it’s considered a weed, while in India it’s cultivated along with spinach. My point is that our whole notion of the constant is false: the world and we are in perpetual movement, and it makes no sense to speak of native and non-native. The habitats of the world have always changed in what I call evolving ecologies, and it will continue to do so. This way of thinking also applies to people and nations, but we too, are constantly moving, blurring the lines. The contributions of Ashkan and Natasha communicate this, through issues of identity and migration, and being ‘other’. Where Ashkan’s essay talks of migration, time and memory, Natasha’s poem is written from her mother’s garden in India, which mirrors the sense of locality with which my photos were taken.
LS: How will you continue to work on these issues?
BH: I’m currently developing a kind of garden of both unwanted and vanishing plants for Henie Onstad Art Center. I want to challenge what we see as insider and outsider, what we see as natural and unnatural, wanted and unwanted. These are plants that are suitable to the habitat of the art centre’s sculpture park, or rather to the soil on which it lies. It’s a survey of how different plants can live side by side, a reconstruction of what might have been if it hadn’t been ‘cultivated’ into a park. The idea is that it’s a permanent installation/sculpture that will evolve slowly and even in 100 years it might still not be finished.
Benjamin A. Huseby is a Norwegian photographer, living and working in Berlin, Germany.
Objektiv was able to participate at NYABF with the generous help of OCA and the Royal Norwegian Consulate General.