“Artistic Research into Science”A Perspective on Nana Petzet’s Reconfiguration of Artistic, Scientific and Ecological Systems
Idis Hartmann and Tim Jegodzinski
The artist Nana Petzet works conceptually and realizes her projects in a range of media including installations, performances or artistic research projects. Her temporary light installation Light Trap Hamburg (2015/2018) represents a pioneering work of light art, drawing attention to the problem of light pollution in public spaces which are likewise habitats for non-human beings, especially insects. Thereby, Nana Petzet has made a crucial contribution to the discourse on the ecological effects of light art and artificial light in the era of the Anthropocene.
In the Anthropocene, humans have become one of the predominant factors influencing the Earth’s biological, geological and atmospheric processes. Based on this thesis the scientific and political debate on climate change, ecological crises and human interaction with the Earth system has gained a new focus, since it has been scientifically proven that global changes have been caused by humans and, in many cases, they are irreversible. Consequently, the question of human responsibility – along with humankind’s pivotal position in the sense of anthropocentrism – and questions concerning of a moral, ethical and political pressure to act and a better coexistence of human and non-human beings have been raised, anew and with urgency. In the process, alternative terms have been proposed, not least in order to avoid once more lending the human being, the anthropos, a prominent position and to point out that not all humans bear equal responsibility. With the notion of abandoning an anthropocentric perspective, Donna Haraway speaks of the Chthulucene, for instance, which means the “Chtonic”, the earthbound, and brings into play an entire array of non-human actors with whom we are in a joint, sympoietic process of co-becoming, or the Capitalocene, describing the responsibility connected with capitalism. Clémence Hallé and Anne-Sophie Milon have summarized the numerous neologisms in A (Hi)story with a Thousand Names. *1
Nana Petzet, together with biologist Bernd Reuter and a team of scientists and volunteers, has investigated in which way the city marketing project Blue Port affects insect diversity in the port of Hamburg. During this spectacle the harbour is bathed in bright, short-wave blue light that simulates a blue hour and particularly attracts insects. Nana Petzet built a light trap equipped with corresponding blue light sources, mounted it on a boat and studied the diversity of nocturnal insects in the harbour ecosystem. She thus demonstrated how the city, illuminated by spectacles such as Blue Port and advertising in general, itself becomes a light trap – and the night disappears. It is not least this work that has triggered a fundamental rethinking both in light art and in urban planning.
All of Nana Petzet’s works tell of a vital interest in ecosystems, cycles, networks and the relationship between living beings and their environment and is marked by the interweaving of different spheres, for example, art and nature, art and science. While she draws on the epistemic potential of art, she is critical of the concept of artistic research – after all, according to Petzet, all good art is also research. She conducts what she herself calls “artistic research into science”, this is to say, she concretely questions the sciences and their practices themselves. *2 Petzet’s approach thereby proves compatible with the thoughts of philosopher Judith Siegmund, according to whom one can only reasonably speak of artistic research if “art could be arranged or formed in such a way that, where applicable and in some specific cases, it contributes something to the practice of research.” *3
For instance, in her performance Rational Scientific Art (1987, project week, auditorium of the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich), where Petzet introduced – in a lecture supported by fourteen painted panels – the award-winning fundamental physics research on the theory of gravitation by a certain Prof. Dr. Roland Zoschka. However, like the figure of the professor himself, the research was fictitious. The scientific terminology, the multitude of formulas on the display panels, apparent correspondences with school knowledge of physics and staged queries from “critics” in the audience all nonetheless left the recipients uncertain about the authenticity of the matter, despite the ironic undertone and the evident art context of the performance. Petzet thus brings into focus the power of scientific lectures in suggesting truth through their rhetoric, staging and visualization. “Natural science is declared as art.” This sentence from Rational Scientific Art is not only to be read as an expansion of the concept of art as such, it also points to the “artificiality” of acquiring scientific knowledge, stated at a time when authors such as Donna Haraway or Bruno Latour are only beginning to examine the construed and situational nature of knowledge in a network of actors, and long before the latter are on everyone’s lips. Petzet initially studied the science theorist Karin Knorr-Cetina (The Fabrication of Facts, 1984); later she also read Bruno Latour’s writings. But she also refers to scientists such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who had shown that the measuring process, the observation within the microcosm of elementary particles, always has an influence on the observed phenomenon, which with second-order cybernetics then finally leads to the observation of observation.
Theories and the question of the empirical verifiability of their observability are thus often the focus of Nana Petzet’s work, as are themes explored in equal measure by art and science, for example, matter and materiality, concrete and abstract space, or elapsed, experienced and abstract time. Besides this, her projects are always accompanied by a proper dose of wit and irony with which she satirizes science’s claim to objectivity and truth and demonstrates the absurdity of many theoretical models.
The performance and installation Reversion as the Realization of Negentropic Processes in the Macroscopic Realm (1992), for instance, examines time and phenomena of entropy. While human experience suggests the irreversibility of time, science assumed the fundamental reversibility of physical processes until Ilya Prigogine was able to demonstrate the irreversibility and historicity of physical and chemical events with his theory of dissipative structures. *4 In Petzet’s work, Prof. Dr. Roland Zoschka, in turn, attempted to restore a glass destroyed by sound waves to its original state in a process known as “reversion”. Against the background of the thermodynamic definition of entropy, he considered this to be possible.
The work Schrödinger’s Cat (1992), in turn, comments on the tragedy and brutality if Erwin Schrödinger’s well-known thought experiment were actually tested in a real experiment with a living animal. In Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment, a cat is locked in a closed space with a tiny amount of radioactive substance whose atoms will decay with a certain probability within a certain period of time. The decay, measured by means of a Geiger counter, triggers the release of poison gas that kills the cat. As long as the box is closed, there is a state of indeterminate overlapping, meaning the cat is simultaneously dead and alive. With the observation, the measurement, the state of the system changes. Schrödinger intentioned to show the incompleteness of quantum mechanics and to point out that quantum mechanics is misinterpreted as a “blurred” model when, for example, the indeterminacy in quantum physics is verified by means of macroscopic experiments in which evidence is gained with the aid of direct observation and sensory perception. At a time when the interpretation of theories and the exploration of quantum physics was still in full swing, Petzet’s work posed the question of how we want to deal with such scientific findings and models, including their possible applications.
Petzet also addressed the question of the (ir)reversibility of time and the processuality of matter in the work The Thousand-year-old Room or TYOR (1988). Within the framework of a “research programme on the relationships of the human organism to the surrounding external world”, this “novel complex ageing simulator” was used to investigate the ageing of living spaces, accelerated by a factor of 103. With the help of a simulated climate, an artificial sun, a dust machine, with assistants who wore and damaged the room, and craftsmen who renovated it every few days, the room aged by a thousand years in 365.26 days. Panels with diagrams and lectures served to provide information on the project. Wall and floor samples were presented like serial art. Though, of course, such scientific simulations of alteration and ageing do exist, here, they appear completely absurd – with the effort and gain in knowledge entirely out of proportion. Using real individual cases, the artist thus empirically pursued philosophical questions, similar to the thought experiment of the “Ship of Theseus”, pondering whether an object loses its identity when many or even all its components are replaced one by one. Above all, however, with these works Petzet was preparing discourses on materiality in art that were to unfold in the 2000s.
For her work Model Test Red (1991), for instance, Nana Petzet painted a series of 73 identical, monochrome pictures, each divided into three fields, painted in acrylic, oil and egg tempera. Petzet then sent the red canvases on journeys to exhibitions. During regular control examinations, she documented the traces on the paintings resulting from the participation in the art world with its travelling exhibitions and the biennials that were increasingly being staged in the 1990s. The canvases became objects of scientific investigation, “models of painting”. *5 Petzet was thus among the first to demonstrate how not only the social context of the institution influences the production and reception of art, but also how art objects change under the material conditions of global art networks. It is the material situatedness of art objects, their transformations within the stakeholder networks in which they are interwoven, that take centre stage. The concrete-abstract paintings are understood here not only as objects, but rather as being involved in a process. What is more, her preoccupation with the concept of art, with systems and materiality also led Nana Petzet to a new perspective critical of institutions.
Nana Petzet has also increasingly continued her research on material cycles with a focus on ecological systems and recycling processes. She developed the CPR System (Collecting, Preserving, Researching) (1995–2001) – as an alternative to the Green Dot. The Green Dot system takes over the task of recycling, removes it from the “consumer’s” sight, helping him or her to ease their conscience, whereas the CPR System is designed for local recycling and valorisation by the waste producer himself or herself. They are asked to collect all waste, clean it and then creatively make something out of it, repair it or repurpose it. While recycling often produces a material with inferior properties, including high transport and energy costs, Petzet introduced an entire upcycling system, and this at a time when the term had only just been coined. Petzet – productively yet with a twinkle in her eye – nonetheless reverted to traditional techniques and non-fiction books, such as Aus Alt wird Neu, Bastelarbeiten für unsere Soldaten (Old Becomes New, Handicrafts for Our Soldiers, 1944).
These works likewise focus on the process the object undergoes during its life cycle, along with its agency at the centre of attention. In a consumerist or throwaway society, she literally understands rubbish as a “valuable material”, with an inherent potential that calls for recognition. Rather than simply declaring everyday objects as art and assigning them artistic value on the conceptual level, she asks whether, in times of ecological crises, we can judge the value of an everyday object more sustainably by adopting an artistic perspective. She draws on the potential of art, which has always explored objects and materiality in order to be able to use and repurpose them creatively; even the title CPR – Collecting, Preserving, Researching – refers to the core tasks of the museum. Petzet resorts to handicraft, domestic and DIY techniques, repairs, restores, reworks, reprocesses. She is also interested in a social practice in which ideas are exchanged, in which energy footprints, the consumption of resources and transport routes involved are noted, including the method of LCA or “life cycle assessment of the total amount of waste”. The CPR System proposed by Nana Petzet was rigorously implemented and exemplified in the Self-Experiment: Living According to the Slogan “Collecting, Preserving, Researching”, Nýlendugata 15, Reykjavík (1997-1998). During a six-month stay in Iceland, she collected her family’s waste, recycled it and displayed it in her house. When Nana Petzet’s great-aunt Erika died in 1999, her estate became part of the artist’s collection – serving to illustrate the exemplary preservation of everyday objects by a generation that had experienced the scarcity resulting from two world wars.
In Nana Petzet’s work, the object thus becomes apparent as an actor in a network or system, as involved in a constant process. “Waste” is only a transitory condition the object passes through. The art object, similarly, is not conceived as a readymade that ends up in the ruins of the museum, but as an intermediate stage. The exhibition becomes a temporary storage facility: the bottle dryer is reused to dry washed-out milk cartons or as a postcard stand. Waste is understood as a recyclable material, while art regains practical value. But Petzet goes even one step further and questions the repurposing of waste as an aesthetic everyday object. A certain number of baskets made of plastic bags and doormats, room dividers or toiletry bags made of milk cartons are enough for a household, so that, ultimately, one is obliged to think about avoiding rubbish.
Moreover, beyond focussing on the European context, Petzet also has looked toward Africa, where, by necessity, an upcycling culture had developed early on, as Petzet shows in her artistic research on Recycling in Addis Ababa (2011-2012). With the project Community Cooker (2017), Petzet in turn refers to the communal cookers used in Africa that are fuelled by plastic waste. These, of course, pose ecological and health risks. While, placed specifically near a waste recycling plant in Germany, they draw attention to the fact that a lot of plastic is still being burned in Europe as well.
In Cataloguing the Collection with HIDA MIDAS (2000-2017), Nana Petzet expands her conception of the CPR System to include decidedly institution-critical questions. On site at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, she catalogued her waste collection using the art inventory system HIDA MIDAS, originally developed to assess the complexity of artworks, their manifold relationships among each other and with other entities. It so turned out that, with some adaptation effort, the inventory programme was surprisingly well suited to record a collection of waste. Petzet thus not only makes apparent that art objects can be described as actors within a network – as they are produced, used, damaged, repaired, collected and composed of different parts, have different functions and pass through the hands of different owners – but also that an art inventory system can be suited for recording all kinds of everyday, recycled or waste objects. The work, therefore, exemplifies that such a system can be used to sketch or trace the network of actors of a given object. Yet it also raises fundamental questions about art itself, for example, what distinguishes an art object from other objects today.
Looking at Petzet’s website, one first comes across a diagram that reminds of an actors’ network. It shows how Nana Petzet began many of her recent projects: with a drawing based on four terms outlining the possible actors and their possible relationships with each other. This preoccupation with circuits and networks with which Petzet investigates the relationships between objects and their environment – their relationality – eventually allowed her to adopt an ecological perspective in another complex of works.
She has dealt intensively with the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, who devoted himself to the behavioural research of animals in the 19th century. He was a pioneer of ecophysiology, exploring how the physiology of living beings is directly related to the environment. He was not interested in the modern methods of his time, based on dead specimens, but above all in living animals and the observation of their behaviour. For his passionate observation of insects, he set up a garden especially for this purpose to serve him as a laboratory. This observation in situ was still directly linked to contemplation, aisthēsis, and thus art. Fabre was also a poet who likewise interwove art and science in his work.
Especially now, in the age of the Anthropocene in which our relationship to nature and science is being reconfigured, the close observation of living individuals of the animal and plant world is gaining new significance. Katherine Hayles, for example, following Vilém Flusser’s essay Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, emphasizes the importance of establishing a non-hierarchical, symmetrical relationship with non-human beings and recognizing their agency if one wants to understand them not only biologically but also in their phenomenological experience of the world. *6 Flusser distinguishes between two methods, one based on scientific findings of biology and “intersubjective” scientific practice, which tends to abandon the standpoint of the subject towards an object to be inquired into and where the counterpart to be explored really “concerns” the humanbeing. *7 This “subjective science” becomes evident in amateur scientists and naturalists who observe nature and other living things not only from an object-scientific perspective but are also motivated by a personal passion, like Fabre and Petzet. It bears the potential for a new coexistence with the living fellow beings on this earth.
In her artistic science studies, Nana Petzet is therefore not primarily oriented on the latest scientific methods – obtaining knowledge abstractly and with the aid of digital technology using big data – but is instead guided by field researchers such as Jean-Henri Fabre, whose working methods she updates in her artistic practice. She is concerned with the real and concrete individual case, not the abstract or even virtual data quantity. She proceeds empirically and starting from observation. Thereby, the living being or object of her observation remains an individual. Recipients of her artworks thus get to know the actors – insects, animals, etc. – as cooperation partners, living beings with whom they potentially can enter a novel kind of relationship.
Against this background, the potential of the work Robby Rabbit Ethogram, presented at the group exhibition Say it isn't so. Art Trains its Sights on the Natural Sciences at Weserburg Museum für moderne Kunst in 2007, becomes evident. For this work Nana Petzet replicated the basic features of her living room – complete with rabbit hutch – and placed her real-life pet rabbit Robby in it, who had been allowed to bounce around freely and without restrictions in the artist’s home. Not least on account of the domesticability of rabbits, their much-noted loyalty and their sociality towards their human family, the House Rabbit Society is committed, among other things, to teaching people how to keep rabbits as species-appropriately as possible within their own four walls. *8] These characteristics of rabbits then also lead to the fact that in the case of Petzet’s installation, one is immediately reminded of Donna Haraway’s remarks in her The Companion Species Manifesto, in which the author refers to the dog sport of Agility, among other things: In the essay’s initial guiding question, “How might we learn ethics and policies that allow significant otherness to flourish by taking dog-human relationships seriously?” *9, one may be inclined to replace the word „dog” with “rabbit”, and recognize in the pet’s demonstrated hurdling activities a kind of rabbit agility. Jumping hurdles is indeed an interspecific, athletic form of activity that – coming from Scandinavia – has been practised between humans and rabbits in human living rooms and gardens, for instance, already since the 1980s. Combined with countless behavioural studies, in the form of short videos accessible on the artist’s homepage, and the handwritten and meticulously elaborated diary-like protocols with documentary character, a complex, very personal rabbit ethogram emerges that bears the potential to reflect on new or different forms of coexistence with our, not only cuniculus-like, fellow earthlings.
The Peutegrund(August 2008 – February 2011), concerned with the mapping and care of an endangered biotope in Hamburg’s port area, funded and carried out as part of the Art in Public Space programme of the Hamburg Department of Culture, was also committed to close observation. Contrary to its classification as a suspected contaminated site, Petzet’s project aimed at drawing attention to the biological value of the ten-hectare area located amid a primarily industrial environment. The biological value of such a biotope surrounded by commercially used landscape lies above all in the increase of biodiversity and species diversity, as the garden and landscape theorist Gilles Clément states in his Manifesto of the Third Landscape. *10 In the same spirit, but using mapping and film as a means, Nana Petzet also documented the fauna and flora she perceived during her explorations of the area. She thus once again became involved in a differentiated network of actors consisting of the creatures and plants on site, biologists, political actors – BUND – and the Hamburg Port Authority. Petzet was able to successfully convince the latter, namely in the frame of an art-based action, to sustainably remove the knotweed growing in the biotope, and which originally comes from Japan and contributes to the reduction of biodiversity in the area. To this effect, Petzet initiated a clearing operation of parts of the knotweed. The resulting biological waste product again served as a basis for her artistic design: by revalorizing and reprocessing the plant material to create, for instance, objects hanging from the ceiling, presented at a boathouse adjacent to the biotope. Drawing on the potentials and strengths of actors from different social fields, Petzet succeeds in involving them in a network. She enriches this with aesthetic interventions – which are not least conducive to the sensual-emotional mediation of a biologically highly complex process – and as a result achieves an overall effect on the real-political level.
Nana Petzet took a similar approach for Yamuna Sustainability Park, a project initiated in connection with the Yamuna/Elbe Project exhibition curated by Ravi Agarwal and Till Krause in New Delhi: the Yamuna River flows through New Delhi and is surrounded by floodplains that overflow during floods. Recognizing the value of these floodplains, owing in particular to their relative absence of human intervention, Petzet made them out to be refuges of biodiversity, contributing to the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity of the river landscape. In one area of the floodplains, the Delhi Development Authority had started work on a controversial park, for which parts of the natural vegetation of the floodplain had to be levelled. Nana Petzet took this as an opportunity for artistic interventions which, not least based on their aesthetics, were intended to unleash activist potential or at least shake things up. For a start, she reverted to the medium of photography to document sections of the flora and fauna living in the area. For the presentation, Petzet chose common protest aesthetics by presenting the photographs in wooden frames and stands reminiscent of posters or placards at demonstrations. Not only to emphasize the cropped nature of her photographs, but also to break with a pure protest aesthetic and visually provide an eye-catcher, one of the corners of the wooden frames was always missing; they all had five corners instead of four. In addition, the artist used the added value of art, namely to be allowed to imagine or to be able to open up spaces of imagination, and created a display board in the entrance area of the exhibition presenting her version of a Yamuna Sustainability Park. Here, too, the underlying motive envisaged in her sustainable version of the Yamuna Park is the significance of near-natural biotopes, as is the emphasis on social aspects, because farmers should be able to pursue agricultural activities here.
Harmas KGV (since 2020) is a model plantation with twenty highly endangered native wild herbs in an allotment garden on a sand-lime sediment: a barren piece of land, a nutrient-poor, dry biotope where neophytes, prohibited invaders, also tend to settle. In this project Petzet again cooperates with scientists, amateurs and hobby artists and organizes workshops.
Petzet views art as a possibility to create networks from which, based on the interplay of different actors, something new emerges in a sympoietic way and which go beyond an artistically staged social practice. The recipients likewise become actors in the network: gardeners, insect collectors, collectors, preservationists, (amateur) researchers, etc. Similar to authors like Donna Haraway or Bruno Latour, she calls for a new way of looking at the systems we are living in – underscoring, in particular, the potential of an artistic perspective in obtaining a relational and processual understanding of the object. Against this backdrop, it is certainly rewarding to (re)read Nana Petzet’s oeuvre, in the age of the Anthropocene.
Idis Hartmann (*1983) studied law and art history at the University of Tübingen and art theory and film studies at the University of Sydney in Australia. Since 2010 she has been working at the ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe as a curatorial and research assistant to the director Peter Weibel, in the interim as a freelancer and since 2022 as a research associate. From 2014–2018, she was curatorial assistant to the artistic director Peter Weibel of the lichtsicht – Projection Biennale in Bad Rothenfelde. She is also working on her dissertation project on Models of Complexity. On the Relationship between Installations and Systems with Prof. Dr. Barbara Lange at the Department of Institute of Art History of the University of Tübingen, where she also worked as a lecturer.
Tim Jegodzinski (*1988) studied art history and empirical cultural studies in Tübingen and Hamburg. In 2020, he completed his doctorate on living animals in installation art, since the 1990s with Prof. Dr Barbara Lange in Tübingen, where he also held teaching assignments in the field of contemporary art. Since 2022, Tim Jegodzinski has been teaching information literacy at Mainz University Library and will be a lecturer at the Institute of Art History at Mainz University in the winter semester of 2022/2023.
*1] Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (eds.), Critical Zones (The MIT Press, Cambridge/MA, London, ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, 2020), pp. 44–49.
*2 Cf. Nana Petzet’s art in the context of the natural sciences: Susanne Witzgall, Kunst nach der Wissenschaft. Zeitgenössische Kunst im Diskurs mit den Naturwissenschaften, (Nuremberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2003), pp. 214–222.
*3 Judith Siegmund, “Poiesis und künstlerische Forschung,” Wie verändert sich Kunst, wenn man sie als Forschung versteht?, the same (ed.), (Bielefeld: transcript, 2016), pp. 105–121, p. 117.
*4 Ilya Prigogine, Vom Sein zum Werden (1992); Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Das Paradox der Zeit (1993).
*5 Christiane Meyer-Stoll, “Arbeiten an der Erkenntnis: Nana Petzets Rational Scientific Art,” Nana Petzet. Der Tausendjährige Raum. Reversion. Schrödingers Katzen, exh. cat., Kunstraum München e.V. (Munich, 1993), pp. 4–7, here p. 6.
*6 Nancy Katherine Hayles, “Speculative Aesthetics and Object-Oriented Inquiry (OOI)”, Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism, Vol. 5, 2014, pp. 158–179; Vilém Flusser, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
*7 “This implies a double gesture of using the biologist’s knowledge but also going beyond it into what can be known only because of the deeply shared relationship. […] we must liberate ourselves above all from a model according to which existence is the meeting of a ‘transcendental’ subject (a mind) with objects; of a ‘self’ with a ‘world.’ According to this model, for example, knowledge would be the meeting between the one-who-knows with what-is-to-be known.” Hayles, 2014, p. 166.
*8 Cf. website of the House Rabbit Society: https://rabbit.org/ (accessed Nov. 7, 2022).
*9 Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), p. 9.
*10 Cf. Gilles Clément, Manifest der dritten Landschaft (Manifesto of the Third Landscape), (Merve, Berlin, 2010).
“No Trespassing”Interview with Nana Petzet on the Idea of the Free River Zone and her Project In the Peutegrund in the Port of Hamburg
The interview was held in October 2019.
Till Krause: What was it that brought you to participate in the Free River Zone?
Nana Petzet: The Free River Zone interests me, in the sense that it deals with fundamental issues that I have been working on for a long time. It examines whether we should use all land and how we can allow intensively used and excessively regulated natural spaces their own dynamic development again. I especially see correlations with my project In the Peutegrund, which I worked on from 2008 to 2011. The Peute is also located on the Elbe island [like large parts of the Free River Zone], but on the opposite, northern side, on the Norderelbe. Already in 2008 I referred to the Heuckenlock and considered it as “reference biotope” for my not exactly “pristine” project territory in the industrial area Peute.*1 With the Free River Zone, you are, of course, not referring only to the small nature protection area of the Heuckenlock, but to a much larger area.
TK: Right, it includes streets, dykes, villages, rural land, allotment settlements, a freeway, jetties for oil tankers, social housing areas, mansions, a cemetery…
NP: When I was thinking about the poster for the Free River Zone, it was specifically the Heuckenlock that was interesting to me. Yet the given task wasn’t that easy for me, especially since I usually work on projects developing over long periods of time, comprising a variety of media and involving different experts. Here, the challenge to me was: how do I say it all in a single image?
TK: You have quite evidently integrated the “joint action” underlying this picture, the collaboration with experts and process-oriented approach that generally plays a major role in your work, into this “single image”: in the authorships of all those who significantly contributed to the realization of the poster. You ascribe such a high value to the input of the reptile breeder Florian Häselbarth, the photographer Helge Mundt and the GFLK that you cited them in large type in the middle of the picture.
NP: And after all, for the preparation we undertook several inspections of the Free River Zone, with Ravi Agarwal, with Katja Lell and with Friederike Richter.*2 These guided walks were similar to the research with experts that is important in my work, and in this case, it is you who are the expert. You are so familiar with the area, know every corner. I remember even crawling around under some freeway bridges. And again and again observations in terms of: how are the riverbanks reinforced; can the river flow freely, is it allowed to spread?
Coming to think of it, it almost appears like a miracle that this one picture actually came about. It is special to me, in the sense that I cannot speak about this poster the same way I speak about, for example, the Light Trap.*3 I cannot analyse it conceptually. What is implied by the glass cover? I couldn’t say. It simply became necessary in dealing with the crocodiles, to keep them from escaping into the cold Elbe. Originally, I didn’t intend to use a glass cover – but this is super!
TK: I actually didn’t plan on asking you for explanations regarding your poster, because it is more about seeing it with your own eyes and not being served a tailored interpretation. In this sense, I like how you are saying that you are not able to explain everything in the poster linguistically. But I do have one question concerning the poster, and that is about the depicted landscape. You said that Heuckenlock was the actual point of reference for you. Why then did you take the picture at a beach for bathing and barbeques near the Süderelbe bridges, and not at the Heuckenlock?
NP: I wanted people to instantly recognize that the picture was shot in Hamburg. The bridge is important in this regard. If we had taken the photo at the Heuckenlock, one would have seen the place as some kind of wilderness but would not have thought of Hamburg. The jungle-like quality that I perceive in the Heuckenlock is embedded in the crocodile, so to speak.
TK: When Ulrich Kahle saw your poster in our Free River Zone room at the Kunstverein Bamberg last weekend, he immediately recognized the bridge as the Süderelbe bridge.*4 As someone who is not from Hamburg! This bridge is indeed one of the few landmarks in the Free River Zone where it becomes clearly visible: this is Hamburg territory.
NP: And yet many people from Hamburg don’t know the area. And they don’t necessarily know the Heuckenlock, either. Even people who are interested in landscape and nature protection often haven’t heard of it, which is amazing. Last year the city had launched a poster campaign on Hamburg’s nature protection areas. Written over a photo of the Heuckenlock were the lines: “Amazon Delta? No, Heuckenlock!” So, this jungle is right on our doorstep!
What I find interesting in the Heuckenlock is that it is kind of a “remnant” – and how spatially limited it actually is. I mean, it’s really extreme, the way it is squeezed in between the dyke and the fortified embankments. Still, even though the area is so tiny, you can immerse yourself into it and imagine that the entire Elbe island once looked just like it [including the city districts of Wilhelmsburg and Veddel and the entire port of Hamburg]. Fascinating!
TK: Is this the reason why you considered the Heuckenlock as a reference area for the project In the Peutegrund?
NP: Yes. The Peutegrund initially was used agriculturally and for urban purposes and then reclaimed by nature through storms and broken dykes. Whereas the Heuckenlock, so I assume, has never been cultivated, or at least parts of it never have.
TK: That is a widespread myth, but I think it’s not quite right. The area, small as it is, nonetheless consists of different sections. The extensive reed areas that used to be harvested, for example: inhabitants told us how they once had the right to cut reed there for the roofs of their houses. So, this was also a form of agricultural land use. Or, if you now follow the publicly accessible path leading through the woody area, you come upon old fruit trees, pollard willows, artificial bumps in the ground, old paving, ditches and so on. Therefore, I would say we are clearly looking at a cultural landscape, one which, however, due to its unfavourable location along a state border, has been used relatively sparingly and, moreover, was later not fully dyked in and thus even today has certain properties of a tidal riparian forest.*5 But just some time ago, about fifty years back, embankments and dykes were built, and what today is seen as so valuable and at the time existed on a much larger scale, was extremely reduced in size.*6
Please tell me more about the Peute project. It is interesting in the context of the Free River Zone and the whole port area.
NP: In the frame of the Elbinsel Sommer 2008 [Elbe Island Summer 2008] of the International Building Exhibition [IBA Hamburg], I was invited to develop a contribution for the exhibition Kultur/Natur.*7 I was free to choose any topic having to do with nature and the Elbe island. Through Harald Köpke from the BUND [a non-governmental association for environmental protection and nature conservation], I became aware of a small biotope in the industrial area Peute. It is the only piece of land there where the tidal flow exerts a certain influence, although it lies behind the dyke. A stretch of original marshland, left over from the development of the port, wildly overgrown, with a shallow pond at its centre. A biotope which has been able to develop undisturbed since the 1970s, small, about 6.5 hectares in size. It is HPA*8 property, which was one of my prerequisites, as I wanted to learn more about how the adverse interests of the port and nature protection would affect the development of a specific wasteland in the vicinity of the port. Initially, I began to explore the biodiversity and the history of the Peutegrund.
TK: But, as it appears today, it was not a remaining piece of wetland but a silted-up, unused port basin, the extension of the adjacent Peute port.
NP: No, the Peutegrund, according to my information, is an old marshland that has been dyked in since the 17th century. At first the terrain was used for agricultural purposes. It was always separated from the neighbouring Peute port by a dyke. After the Second World War, people without domiciles built huts on the territory. A pieced-together environment emerged, a mixture of allotment gardens and workshops. I know of a boat-builder’s workshop, for example. The legendary flood of 1962 first flooded the surrounding dyke and then caused it to break – two people died on the Peutegrund. Afterwards it was assumed that the land could still be preserved as a useable area, but during all floods that followed, the entire area was under water. Between 1977 and 1978 a sheet pile wall was built to protect the Peutegrund environment that was high as the current dyke line of 7.3 metres above the standard elevation zero [NHN]. The dyke on the Elbe side of the Peutegrund, the Peuter Elbdeich, was likewise heightened and broadened, so that it extends like a promontory to the Peute port. Businesses were resettled from the Peutegrund onto this dyke and from then on, people were no longer allowed to work, live or garden there. The Peutegrund was thereby separated from the flood-safe area, for the low dyke between it and the Peute port had not been raised. During particularly high storm surges it is flooded. A drainage pipe was laid through the area, allowing the water to flow off at low water. This pipe is equipped with a backflow trap to keep the regular high tides from penetrating into the Peutegrund. Since then the owner, Strom und Hafenbau at the time and HPA today, has not undertaken anything else there. That’s quite a long time, long enough for a biotope to develop all by itself in the Peutegrund. For the HPA, it was merely a grey spot on the map, a place reserved for future development or some other suitable use for the port.
TK: But hadn’t you found out during your explorations that the backflow trap in the drainage pipe was defect and the flood therefore could enter into the Peutegrund?
NP: Yes, indeed. And Elisabeth Essen, who has lived on and next to the Peutegrund since the 1950s, told me that someone had destroyed a valve in the pipe, so that the flood would feed the pond in the Peutegrund and one could go ice skating and play curling in the winter. Consequently, the area was to a certain extent exposed to the tides. These circumstances have brought it closer to the conditions required for the development of a riparian forest, thus the preconditions for the typical native vegetation of the entire Elbe island, which had disappeared almost completely.
This is why, for me, it suggested itself to first focus on the plant and animal life and record the found species in photos and films. I went to get the official data entry form for Hamburg Biotope Mapping from the environmental authority. The last survey had been conducted in 2003 and only comprised plants and the habitat types, so that we wanted to see what had developed there since. I carried out inspections with the ornithologist Günther Rupnow from NABU [Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union]. With the entomologist Frank Röbbelen, I searched for butterflies and grasshoppers; Andromeda v. Prondzinski charted the vegetation, and with Harald Köpke we analysed the water animals.
I filmed and held interviews with the inhabitants. And I dealt with the HPA. My project took place in the frame of the International Building Exhibition and thus in the context of an urban development programme. The owner of the property, the HPA, as a successor to the Strom und Hafenbau [Office for River and Port Engineering], is also a municipal organization. This is the reason why I wanted to make direct contact with the HPA, in order to get the permission for mapping, filming and clearing knotweed. The permission was denied with reference to the classification of the area as a “potentially contaminated site”. I carried out my actions anyway. As a result, the HPA wanted to sue me. So, I went to HPA’s press officer and showed him my film on the area. Then they left me alone.
Just at that time, the HPA had destroyed many valuable biotopes in the port area. Especially at the Rethe, the Blumensandhafen and the Hohe Schaar, important wildlife refuges for water birds were thereby lost. Compensatory measures, from the HPA’s point of view, should be implemented outside of the port area, surely not on one’s own property, so that one always has free rein for activities related to the port industry. The HPA is much worried about the possibility of biotopes developing on port areas that lay fallow for longer periods. Biotopes that become so ecologically valuable that the land cannot be used for commercial purposes in the future. In order to avert such developments, stretches of land are sealed preventively or lawn areas are laid out.
Before this backdrop we – the BUND and artists – jointly worked on the improvement of the species diversity of the Peutegrund, with the aim of preserving its conservation status and thereby to withdraw the area from being grabbed by port or urban development projects. In the frame of the cultural programme of the International Building Exhibition – and as a provocative act – we undertook an intervention on this HPA property: a biotope management action. We cleared knotweed. The invasive Japanese knotweed had spread extremely densely; we cleared it from a small part of the Peutegrund and exhibited the knotweed stems in Elisabeth Essen’s nearby boat shed.
This action was perceived by the HPA as a clear signal. The area was fenced in, and every ten metres a sign was put up saying: “Private property, no trespassing, HPA”. Before, anyone could go there and do whatever they pleased, truck drivers, hobby anglers, everyone. But as soon as someone makes something public regarding the value of the biotope, the alarm goes off! It was precisely this conflict of interests that I was concerned with. I actually perceived the prohibition signs as a part of my project. Just how much wilderness is wanted on the Elbe island? And once it is there, what is it worth? Couldn’t even this dyke by the Peutehafen be removed? It is already full of holes, anyway. At this spot, it would be an easy chore to give a little bit of freedom back to the river. Of course, everything that has been developed there so far would be destroyed, but there would be a real tidal flow.
TK: The tidal flow would, I believe, disappear again very fast, as the Peutegrund is a dead end and lacking the necessary water flow. The river would carry more sediments in than it would carry out. Soon after the opening of the dyke, the area would thus rapidly silt up and would resemble today’s condition.
The situation in the “reference biotope” Heuckenlock is quite similar. Between Heuckenlock and the Elbe for the most part lie revetments, rock embankments for the canalization of the river, but also for protecting the Heuckenlock from strong currents and the danger of being washed away. Several river branches lead into the nature protection area, as far as I know all as dead ends. More specifically, this nice, elongated branch of the river called Heuckenlock, which one crosses on the public Heuckenlock path, is permitted only a very small backflow into the Elbe at its eastern end, actually no more than a runlet through a tiny gap in the revetment. This means that there is no regular flow of water throughout the area, including all associated alterability and potential erosion caused by the river. An interplay between land and river is thus hardly given; there only exists an extremely controlled remnant of the much-vaunted freshwater riparian forest. Lina Güssefeld*9 had suggested, based on the outcome of her thesis on the revetments at the Heuckenlock – a thesis topic initiated by our project – to consider a more extensive water flow through the Heuckenlock. The responsible person at the district office and the Stiftung Lebensraum Elbe [Elbe Habitat Foundation] had listened very attentively to the suggestions but then decided not to change anything at this point – it seems to me that they were worried about the unpredictable destructive forces of the river that could wash away the nature protection area. And we are well aware of how this high level of forces results from the deepening of the river Elbe in favour of container shipping.
But back to Peutegrund: didn’t you say at one point that through your art project the Peutegrund was recognized as a biotope worthy of protection?
NP: I wouldn’t put it quite like this. First of all, the area had attained a legal protection status already before 2008, even if it was the lowest there is. But what was so paradoxical was that the biotope had “depreciated” itself due the strong distribution of neophytes and would have lost its protection status if we had not intervened through “gardening”. Indeed, it was based on the art project that things got started, but in collaboration with Harald Köpke from the BUND. It was three or four years later, owing to his initiative, that the HPA actually created another two small ponds and removed the knotweed – a bit more extensively than what we had achieved, with roots and all.
TK: Is the Peutegrund therefore now defined as a so-called compensation area?
NP: Nope, not quite. Creating a precedent must be avoided by all means! Still, the HPA ended up investing money for ecological upgrading measures on the territory. Now, that was a novum. It would be interesting to follow up on the matter and find out how those responsible at the HPA see these things today.
TK: May I ask you something else about the action you initiated for removing the knotweed? Andromeda v. Prondzinski, who helped you with the mapping of the Peutegrund, has drawn up two posters, a postcard and an accompanying text, opposing the judgmental classification of plants into indigenous and non-indigenous, against the concept of the invasive species and against elimination activities regarding “non-indigenous” plants. You were familiar with this position, and yet you went ahead with this removal action. Why?
NP: Yes, Andromeda thought it was wrong. But I always find it interesting to carry out exemplary interventions into the system; they reveal other aspects than when you merely talk about things or write or take photos. These kinds of actions also make conflicts visible. I work with contradictions and contradictory claims. We destroyed nature in order to protect it.
Besides, I am not quite sure whether I find it right or wrong to intervene in nature protection areas and to reduce what you don’t want to have there. When you see that native plants in a small, remaining biotope are being overgrown and also endangered animal species are disappearing, then I can understand how you can get the idea of intervening. During his inspection of the Peutegrund, Frank Röbbelen had detected a population of striped bush crickets. The native tall herbaceous vegetation, providing a habitat to the striped bush cricket would have been displaced by the Japanese knotweed. The knotweed, with plenty of support by the Armenian blackberry and the Canadian goldenrod would have been quite successful in displacing the reed and tall herbaceous vegetation and taking over the entire area. This would have resulted in the biotope basically degrading itself with regard to species diversity and the protection status. Without our action, there might be a storage hall in its place today.
TK: But you have often spoken of the concept of “self-reinforcing dynamics” and of “self-developing biotopes”. For Andromeda, I believe, the idea of “leaving things alone” also plays an important, overall role. And in the scope of the Free River Zone Project, this idea concerns not only natural processes but from an artistic perspective is extended to encompass much more – actually all phenomena around us. For me the thought plays a role that is embedded in everything – whether it be a thing or a living being or just a simple gesture or movement – there is something that is there on its own account and for this reason could be “left alone”. I can’t really describe this in detail, not as a systematically analysable line of thought or action, but instead as an attitude or a relation. Doing things and admiring them for their own sake is an essential aspect of art. In this sense, the Free River Zone Project is not a nature protection endeavour, – despite the fact that it corresponds to such intentions in many regards – but it is more of an artistic projection onto a landscape with its very many different phenomena.
NP: Why did you choose the Süderelbe, of all places?
TK: The impulse was actually this strange contradiction between the existence of the freshwater tidal riparian forest and its simultaneous radical prevention based on the way the river is being engineered with its rectilinearity and rock embankments. The complete classification of the entire territory in view of functionalizing the river as a transport route and water drainage system. The solid and the liquid, the static and the ever-changing violently collide at the Süderelbe; both aspects are present in a very accentuated form. This is a very special situation, which incited me to choose the area as a model region and to scrutinize it also beyond its riverbanks.
In your art I recognize the method of picking up on certain themes that spark broad societal debates (such as waste recycling, for instance) – including their underlying regulations and symbols (such as the dual system with the green dot) – and then you adopt the role of their top-top advocate and play it out intensively.*10
NP: And which, above all, I take very seriously.
TK: Take seriously as a game.
NP: Well yes, I playfully make myself an advocate of nature, and I take regulations and laws very seriously and, in a sense, process them in my work. There are, for example, environmental impact and feasibility studies, life cycle assessments, rules for the protection of biotopes, the determination of the biotope status along with all the possibilities connected to them such as the possibility to issue a complaint with the EU. Everyone, including policy makers, urban developers and the HPA, everyone claims that environmental protection is extremely important to them. And what happens, when you actually take it seriously? This is how I proceed. And if, based on this playful adoption of a hundred-percent nature protection perspective, I encounter questions, contradictions and limitations and thereby get myself into hot water, then it gets interesting, then the contractions inherent in the declamations and declarations of intent come to the fore. What do they imply? What are the consequences? In what kind of contradiction are you principally caught as a human being, when you want to preserve, protect or re-establish nature?
Amidst all play, protecting nature is a genuine motivation for me and a great concern. It takes priority over other topics in my work. But the playful approach to the subject is important, because it allows me to delve into the overall issues much deeper. I am currently reading the book Homo Ludens – A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga, written in the 1930s. He explains all our cultural achievements from the stance of play and play, in turn, as something that takes place in a sportsmanlike contest, which originally also was of sacred character. He suggests that all spheres we designate as culture had their origin in play but had notably diverged from it over time. At least, no one sees a court hearing or a major construction site as a game or as possessing playful aspects. In the art of his time, Huizinga can no longer determine this; he sees it more like social play of connoisseurs and laypeople. The way I understand art, I can make its origin in play experienceable.
The one condition is: play must take place within a clearly defined, staked out frame, and it must be distinct from ordinary life and its requirements. Like a chess board, a football field or, indeed, the field of art. The field of art is a playing field: it has certain non-serious qualities, has its own set of rules. And these rules, then again, must be taken very seriously, otherwise it’s no fun. If I am playing a game of chess, for example, and someone says that his knight can do what the queen can do, then he is a spoilsport and it is no fun to play with him. In art it is only much more difficult to explain what the rules are. But there are rules. We have a clear idea of what is art and what isn’t.
TK: Yes, the rules are incredibly present in art and yet so difficult to describe. At the same time we go against rules all the time, throw them overboard and, then again, stick to them.
NP: And there is competition. There is this ambition: “Now I will find the right picture!” We are in a contest with ourselves and with the colleagues. Of course, there is also the art market. It is a playing field on its own, and it is quite clear who is up front and who isn’t. And I am nowhere to be found in that arena, basically non-existent. I never sought to enter the competition in this field. However, the art market lacks one essential qualification in terms of play character: the game doesn’t have its purpose within itself. Here, mercantile objectives take priority. The primacy of commercial aims is detrimental to art’s character of play. Yet there remains another contest that I am quite aware of: “How can I add something interesting to it all or even expand it?” This is the market of ideas I would see myself as belonging to, where I feel challenged. It is an imaginary competition, ideally purely an end in itself.
TK: You mentioned the delimiting frame, the importance of boundaries for the playing field. How would you relate that to the Peutegrund or the Free River Zone? You are very serious about nature protection and its rules, but as play. At the same time your activities merge with those of the environmentalists of BUND and NABU. Even you yourself are involved as an environmentalist at heart, not just as an artist. These aspects conjoin and mix. This is how other concerns and wishes enter our art projects, other games, references and purposes; the boundaries of the playing field become blurred, perhaps perforated.
NP: Yes. This is always a difficult question for me. What part of this is art? Where are the boundaries of art? Isn’t it all about the environment? A lot of art considers it as its principle task to explore the conditions of art itself. I don’t do this. Of course, I know that I actually also do this by doing what I do. Through my art I am constantly touching on these questions and shifting given boundaries. But I don’t focus on them as a topic.
This thought of play helps me. For joining play is freedom. Within the rules there is freedom. In the ancient tragedy there is the mask of the actor, right? My mask is my practice of digging relatively far into all kinds of non-artistic subjects. When I am in good shape, I can relate to these themes and use the right specialist terms so well that everyone thinks I’m a biologist, for example. I can speak as though I were one, but I’m not. And that works like a mask that I put on, as if I were playing classical theatre. Based on this mask, I have the required freedom, can undertake daring moves within the game or extend the moves of nature protection with those of art and vice versa. Within the non-seriousness of artistic play, I can handle and move serious themes very freely and extensively.
With the Free River Zone, you also have staked out an artistic playing field, but a very specific one: a part of the city of Hamburg and a corner of Lower Saxony, all in all a rather large area. It really exists but as something hypothetical, as a playing field for art. Within its scope all kinds of things can now happen, according to art rules. It is about something very concrete and within it, it is about freedom.
*1 Heuckenlock: an area with nature protection status within the Free River Zone. See Lina Güssefeld’s and Michael Struck’s as well as Jacqueline Neubecker’s contributions in this book.
*2 Ravi Agarwal and Katja Lell: see their contributions and interviews in this book. Friederike Richter oversaw the Free River Zone billposting for a long time. She took many of the photos in this book and supported the project in various ways.
*3 See footnote 1.
*4 In the frame of the group show Natur als Argument, Kunstverein Bamberg, Stadtgalerie Villa Dessauer, 2019.
*5 The development history of the Heuckenlock area has been more precisely described by Michael Struck: see chapter 2.5 in Investigations into the Fluvial Dynamics Occurring at the Bank Revetment of the Süderelbe along the Heuckenlock Nature Reserve.
*6 See the chapter The Map 1:5000 Neuland-Ost in this book.
*7 See the book: Anke Haarmann and Harald Lemke (eds.), Kultur/Natur: Kunst und Philosophie im Kontext der Stadtentwicklung, (translated here as: Culture/Nature: Art and Philosophy in the Context of Urban Development), Jovis Verlag, Berlin, 2009.
*8 HPA: Hamburg Port Authority, public-law institution, successor to Strom und Hafenbau
*9 Lina Güssefeld (Friel), geographer, substantially contributed to the Free River Zone Project from 2012 to 2013. See her contribution in this book: Investigations into the Fluvial Dynamics Occurring at the Bank Revetment of the Süderelbe along the Heuckenlock Nature Reserve.
*10 See the website, www.nanapetzet.de, and refer to the books: Nana Petzet, Sammeln Bewahren Forschen. Das SBF-System 1995–2001, (translated here as: Collecting Preserving Researching. The CPR System 1995–2001) published by: Künstlerstätte Schloss Bleckede, Salon Verlag, Cologne, 2001; Nana Petzet, System SBF. Inventarisierung der Sammlung. Metainventur, (translated here as: CPR System. An Inventory of the Collection. Meta Inventory). Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nuremberg, 2003.