Rethinking deep seated and highly politicized notions of society is a difficult proposition. But this is exactly what last weeks Live Feeds challenged experimenters at the BMW Guggenheim Lab to do. The spurse collective enabled participants to developed a set of lenses to view the city through during Mapping Movements and Power Feed Back session on Wednesday. They then followed up on Friday, distilling the ideas set forth, on Wednesday and in precious weeks, and lead the group on an interactive experiment through the Lower East Side dissecting Migrations and Immigrations. The spurse collective introduced anthropologist Hugh Raffels into the fray, whom they had invited to act as provocateur during our discussions. These talks and ideas where tempered and augmented by focusing on actors that are not normally associated with these seemingly hot-button topics, these players included knotweed, the honeybee, starlings and bird influenza.
Each of these species and virus are not native to the United States. Some, having negative associations, are called noxious invasives, others are loved by many are deemed naturalized non-natives. Knotweed was introduced to the Americas in the late 1800’s by the nursery trades, honeybees brought by early settlers to produce honey and pollinate the newly planted fruit orchards (also full of otherwise non-native fruit trees). The starling was introduced by a fellow with his heart set on importing all the plant and animal species mentioned by Shakespeare. Bird Flu (AKA H5N1) was more recently introduced via infected bird species, a hybridized version evolved that could jump species and infect humans as well.
I was in a small group who set out to find Japanese knotweed, we spoke about how knotweed was introduced to the US and how it has spread so well since. We learned that it is edible and hasmedicinal properties. We searched the Lower East Side for a specimen to bring back to the other groups, who were on their own missions to find the other previously mentioned species. We spotted a couple plants behind tall fences before finding this specimen in the landscaped median of E. Houston Street.
Happy with our find we hurried back to the rendezvous point in the Sara D. Roosevelt Park across the street form the BG Lab. From there we charted a path to visit the site where each group encountered their assigned species. First up was the honeybee. We were led by that group leader into the adjacent Whole Foods grocery store where there was a bountiful section devoted to honey. The conversation shifted back and forth between the perceived exportation of the honeybee, the idea of domestication (or at least selecting non-aggressive species within the genus), terminology and commercial use in the agriculture industry to pollinate crops among other things in our discussion of the working class and now naturalized honey bee. We also talked about native bees, including the solitary mason bee and the bumble bee.
After this wonderful discussion we headed back to Sara Roosevelt Park and began searching for starlings. The individuals who where on the hunt for starlings took an unexpected turn and began talking more about pigeons than starilngs which seemed appropriate since they where also non-natives in this land and ever so prevalent everywhere.
At one point a couple passersby inserted themselves into our discussion. Well at least the female in the couple did the fellow was standing alongside her for awhile before retiring to a nearby park bench. She was very persistent in speaking her mind and it threw most of us for a loop, including myself. She seemed polite enough and had something to add to every topic we brought up, but she was definitely dominating the conversation. In response to knotweed she spoke about her daughter’s eating habits, on pigeons and starlings, her new puppy. On H5N1, something funny her daughter said the week before. It was all any of us could do to get a word in edgewise and became fairly awkward and uncomfortable. It became apparent that she was either stoned or a bit neurotic. We eventually had to physically move on, walking to another spot in the park, essentially excluding her from our conversation, in order to continue with the discourse we had started.
We went on to have a very high minded, nebulous, seemingly philosophical conversation about so many things that I didn’t quite understand what. As we tried to unpack all the baggage attached to terms such as invasive and immigrant, we dove headlong into the politics of place and species, opportunities and affordance created by histories and futures. It was really quite heady and in the end, impossible to recount with any notion of completeness or solidarity. So, I will refrain from trying to conjure the actual conversation here.
We didn’t discuss this point until after the fieldwork was actually over but of the most interesting and revealing observations of the day revolved around the intrusion by the incoherent woman and her commandeering of our group’s discussion while in the park. I think this demonstrated, in high contrast, the exact topic we set out to discuss, migrations and immigration, as well as the overall topic of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, “confronting comfort“. At first pass it seemed as if this woman was in outsider intruding in and co opting our conversation. But further examination afforded the revelation that she probably spends most of her waking hours in this park, I don’t know if she was homeless necessarily but she was definately a regular inhabitant of the park based on her banter with the other seemingly destitute park dwellers. In reality, we were intruding on her turf and possibly her home, albeit a public park. But in that intrusion and the subsequent interaction, we created another dynamic in which worlds collided. Our world of curiosity, fun, scavenger hunting and intellectual dialogue crossed the threshold of her world, of which I am in no position to categorize, label or speculate on any further. It was a very interesting, real world case study that only halfway registered in my mind as it was happening. The event was very telling in the way it was handled as I am willing to wager that if the conversation and fieldwork we were participating in was not actively conditioning everyone involved to completely rethink invasive species/behavior, we would have had substantially less tolerance for the disruption that was cause by the “intruder” and would have taken action to remove or otherwise disregard the intruder from our group in any other time or situation. The take on confronting comfort was interesting as well as it was a very uncomfortable situation for nearly everyone involved, yet we all let it persist and just happen for what seemed like such a long time. I’m sure we aren’t the only group this happens to in the city. I don’t think any more answers came out of the experience than did questions but it was certainly a serendipitous exercise in investigating the city and taking a closer look at what constitutes native and non-native as well as what is accepted (naturalized) vs rejected (invasive).