Conservation involves selecting objects worthy of posterity through a process of care. Through protective action, a specific type of materiality gains immunity from the passage of time. Transformed into a memory object, it can then serve humanity as a vehicle for projecting the future and imagining new interventions in environmental development. Conservation requires singling out those processes of decay we wish to eliminate. These tend to be processes that alter the shape of the object and violate its integrity, rendering it unavailable as a culturally significant image. In short, the objective of conservation is usually to preserve the coherence of a certain idea or figure expressed through a material work, which also allows us to mobilize the specific interpretations it generates.
This text concerns the relationship between conservation and nature: it is an attempt to analyze methods of managing natural cultural artefacts that are leveraged as tools of memory. These reflections, which have led me to propose the concept of inter–species conservation, were set in motion by three works of art. My notion of care is premised on a fine–tuned attentiveness to processes initiated by non–human agents, and an emphasis on their relationship with the human species and the environment. I think of these reflections as an aesthetic, but also philosophical manifesto predicated on a detail–oriented awareness of life processes. The concepts of coming to terms with change and fully embracing what is beyond our control are postulates that hail back to the two–thousand–year–old texts of the Stoics. In the contemporary context, in a world where fulfilling dreams of “immortality” and “longevity” coincides with the exploitation of the natural environment, any psychological, philosophical, or ethical concepts that expose the impermanence of life and matter pose a direct threat to capitalist values. Fluid movement between change, permanence, and eternity entails deeply scrutinizing life processes and ultimately accepting the disintegration of the ego, memory, identity, history, matter, and capital. We can come to terms with this form of change by turning to the objects I will write about here – a defunct electrical substation (Joanna Rajkowska), a pallet of black oak (Karolina Grzywnowicz), and a photograph of camp barracks (Anna Zagrodzka). These authors often limit themselves to minimal interventions; they protect their terrain, observe the changes unfolding there, and shed light on the impact of non–human organisms. What kind of values do we preserve, and why? Can we engage non–human organisms in conservation? In Latin, conservatio means to preserve or save. The field of knowledge referred to as conservation requires competence in art history, chemistry, and artistic technique, combined with a high level of manual dexterity. We tend to think of this discipline as a sophisticated form of time management – the work of “freezing” time for the needs of future generations. Conservation slows down the aging process and strikes up a battle for immortality and against the decay of matter. It questions the stakes of preservation – the object’s significance in the present moment, and as an instrument for constructing the future. As a rule, conservation practices avoid exposing what has been lost in the process of “freezing” life and matter. They have little value for what has been diminished or killed. Conservation is closely bound to fundamental issues and cannot be reduced to a set of pragmatic tactics of material science pertaining only to objects’ cosmetics. We should instead think of conservation as a mental exercise in transcending human time.
Joanna Rajkowska proposes taking care of the ecosystem of a habitat found in an abandoned electrical substation in Wrocław’s Niskie Łąki Park – the Trafostation. Nested within post–industrial architecture, this habitat accommodates a range of organisms and materialities that have slowly taken over the site. Most months of the year, the building is hosed down with water that drips down the walls and soaks into the ground, where it is then diverted back to the top of the building. The Trafostation’s interior is equipped with a water pump and humidifier that increase the walls’ dampness in order to hasten the decay of the building. The building had been left derelict since it was vacated by its last tenant, an electricity supply company. The city authorities that own the property had no idea how to make use of this now–obsolete relic of the industrial past. It would have been easier to repurpose a church, theater, or even a shopping center. The Trafostation continued to fall apart unobserved until it became the chief protagonist of Joanna Rajkowska’s project. Before she could install the irrigation system in the substation, she had to ascertain if the building was inhabited. The producers of Rajkowska’s work, Centrum Sztuki Impart, were aware that someone occasionally made use of the space. Before they started working, the institution’s employees went to the park and had a conversation with a man they found lying down in the building’s interior.2 This encounter became a turning point in the project, prompting Rajkowska to think of the Trafostation as a “reserve.” Rajkowska, who could not participate, asked the Impart workers to document the event using photography and film. The conversation with the person inside was conducted through a hole in the wall. From that vantage point, the workers took a photograph of the man who was homeless, and whose situation was most likely critical. The man was almost completely covered by a duvet whose pattern referenced neoplastic aesthetics (connoting the compositions of Piet Mondrian or Theo van Doesburg). By giving the image permanence and including the photograph in exhibitions on the Trafostation, the memory object from Niskie Łąki gained another dimension. The procedures we use to cultivate a protective space are often exclusive. In the case of the Trafostation, creating a space for non–human entities involved the removal of the person who already inhabited the building. Rajkowska singles out this situation as part of the identity of her work, acknowledging the fact that the circulation of matter that she nods to with this project is never innocent.
For so many people, this building is just another abandoned, derelict site with nothing special about it – after all, so many things fall apart. The Trafostation is not remarkable architecturally, nor is its location exceptional. The plants that grow there grapple with stark conditions. The damp environment produced by the proximity of soil and water slowly turns brick into powder. Algae then appear, followed by many other species. As a result, the creepers and forest plants the artist introduced to the landscape struggle to survive. The Trafostation was chosen by chance: the artist and organizers’ logic behind singling out this particular place was driven by logistics. While caring for this decaying architecture, they lacked a defined protocol for evaluating the space. Rajkowska’s aim was not to portray the Trafostation as a remarkable site, but rather to draw attention to its singularity. This is a “whatever place” or “whatever building” or “whatever ecosystem.” “Whatever” does not, however, mean “any old,” “useless,” or “lousy.” This entity appears to be featureless, but perhaps it is its very attempt to disguise itself as nothing spectacular that should make us be doubly vigilant and consider what in fact happens to us when we take a closer look.3 Does Trafostation – “a place without qualities” really deserve our care? Why invest time, energy, or funds in a decaying building? And why would we accelerate the decay by flooding the structure with water?
At the heart of the thinking behind the Trafostation lies the conviction that the observation of uncontrolled biological processes can deepen our reflection on the status, function, and values that we invest in nature. Rajkowska also alludes to the tumor her daughter developed by revealing the potential of transforming matter whose agency becomes visible, say, when we observe the development of a disease. Succumbing to uncontrolled forces is inherent to how biological beings operate. Multiple sclerosis also haunts the history of the Trafostation. While working on the project in Wrocław, Rajkowska spent time with her cousin who was suffering from MS. Observing the changes taking place in him, she began to reflect on her own attempts to hasten the decay of human things as one way to mitigate the human race’s devastating impact on the planet. The same logic informed her reflections on tumors. “Sometimes I think about cancer as a solution of sorts,” Rajkowska writes. “It is, after all, a very efficient system for reducing the species.”4 Here, cancer is defined as a biological tool for population control. It is a force for neither good nor ill. Rajkowska is not looking for a model of an ideal or healthy ecosystem. “My target is not biodiversity, nor is it the creation of an ecological model. This is not a scientific activity. This is a gesture of resignation, shifting the emphasis somewhat, with us humans withdrawing from a domain considered decidedly human – architecture. My point is to change the way we look both at our human creations and at the power of plants or water.”5 The artist wants the Trafostation to provoke reflection on forms of life that survive and develop with minimal human input. This perspective is akin to the thinking behind nature reserves, where human intervention is restricted to a minimal scale. The inter–species conservation that the Trafostation represents for me is premised on exposing the vital forces that take over the material traces of human existence. In our memory, the image of the electrical substation slowly gives way to a new vision of the nature reserve cultivated on its remains. On the other hand, we have no agenda to restore this legacy to its “former glory” – so what can we really do with it? Is the spectacle of decay and the simultaneous flourishing of life an appropriate starting point for a new kind of monument? How does the definition of commemoration change when it is carried out by “deeply scrutinizing life processes”? The care we bring to the remnants of human culture might violate the image of the place we know from the past and instead draw out its potential to change. It is harder to acquiesce to this style of conservation when it comes to spaces marked by tragedy, or places that articulate a warning about the scale of human oppression. When such places are taken over by vegetation, and their tame image falls apart to be covered by yet another layer of growth that hides all inconveniences from the public gaze, many of us might rush to concede the therapeutic effects. Unlike memory, which sets out to reconstruct institutions, the act of accepting the “dissolution” of our visualization of the past might come as a comfort.
In 1957, a group of architects led by Oskar Hansen took this notion of the “healing” effects of nature’s reappropriation of our spaces as the starting point for their design for a monument to the concentration camp Auschwitz–Birkenau.6 Their proposal was based on the principle of Open Form – a concept that relates to artistic activity as a framework for viewers’ individual interpretations. According to the logic of Open Form, the objects or situations proposed by the artist or designer are timeless, since the artistic gesture leaves a margin for change and for new processes and circumstances to unfold. Hansen’s plan for Auschwitz was to build a road that would cut across the camp. The documentation of the design shows a synthetic sketch of the plan with a strip of white sand and an asphalt road along which visitors could stroll. The design stipulated welding shut the main entrance to the camp and allowing everything but the designated pathway to become gradually overgrown. In this schema, the barracks and their surroundings would slowly lose their familiar appearance and become instead a poignant testimony to the time that had passed since the Holocaust.
For our purposes, the Open Form concept that underwrites Hansen’s proposal for the monument in Auschwitz can be described as a conservation method that does not erase the past but instead provides an alternative representation of it. The image of the rows of wooden barracks in the camp resonates for most of us, as if it came from a postcard. The intention here is to reproduce the past in its status as the “frozen there–and–then.” Hansen’s team’s gesture transforms this figurative narrative into an abstraction: the single line of the road we follow as we observe the tragedy of Auschwitz buried under subsequent layers of experience.
A similar process is intended for the Trafostation. The image of the electrical substation is slowly eroded. In this way – according to the artist – we can finally experience the “spectacle” of matter and come to understand the relationship Whitehead describes that binds change to permanence and eternity. The transformation is intended to provoke our reflection on the scale of the ever–expanding Homo sapiens and the incessantly shrinking space for the non–human.7 It is not a tragedy over and done with, but rather a premonition of an ongoing crisis and looming catastrophe that has motivated Rajkowska to carve out a space that will be safe from unrestrained human exploitation.
Anna Zagrodzka is likewise interested in undermining the coherent image of memory objects. Her photographs comment on conservation practices at former Nazi extermination sites. The care extended to such places often has a selective reach, for what matters most in the politics of commemoration is the general image of the camp and a few select elements usually tied to the oppression and murder of prisoners. Zagrodzka sheds light on precisely those objects defined as less significant. These are the details that have the chance to forge a new pact with the natural world, now that they are beyond the protection of conservation practices that might seek to exploit them directly. When I look at one photograph Zagrodzka took of a building that compelled her, I find it conveys not only the materiality of the camp but also the sense of past and future we encounter at the Trafostation, implementing the idea of architecture “taken over” by non–human organisms. A ruin that was once part of an active concentration camp has a different cultural gravitas than some arbitrary building. As a result, the ruin becomes more inextricably embedded in the identity machine that constructs collective memory. People might describe the absorption of such architecture back into the natural environment (revitalization) as a form of neglect dishonoring the memory of a given event.
The battle to preserve a coherent image of history persists on different levels, permeating the microscopic scale to which Zagrodzka has invited us. She has also taken an interest in specific laboratory procedures that slow down the process of the transformation of matter. Zagrodzka’s photographs document the process of identifying the “enemy” – organisms that can be treated with appropriate biocides. Once we account for the persistent proliferation of non–human forms of life on the walls of the camp, we see that defending a building from dereliction is a Sisyphean task. The artist herself creates “survival media” using material samples from sites she finds interesting. In the lab, she examines these samples for traces of bacteria and fungi. She deposits the material to be analyzed on a degreased glass slide held over a flame, along with some drops of sterile water. In these sterile conditions, isolated from random forms of life, she can observe the structure and proliferation of filamentous fungus and mold under the microscope. It is not Zagrodzka’s objective to discover a new biocide, but to capture a photographic image of non–human organisms that might help us grow accustomed to similar life forms. The importance of her work is compounded by the fact that many species of fungi (such as the genera Alternaria, Acremonium, Enyodontium, and Poria) and various kinds of bacteria found on the wet walls can be hazardous to human health. The photographic documentation carried out by Zagrodzka on a microscopic scale not only enables us to adopt the “hygienic” perspective that prioritizes exterminating certain fungi. It also gives us a chance to appreciate the resilience of their survival. In this case, there is little room for spreading out a safety net for the non–human, since this would require abandoning the spaces colonized by these organisms. At the same time, the very act of observing the plurality of life processes taking place on the building wall alludes to the prospect of conservation as an inter–species activity. This does not necessarily come hand in hand with a desire to support non–human life. It is a matter of exposing the many human interventions that undermine our idyllic narrative of living in harmony with the environment. Any discussion of inter–species conservation in the context of death camps should not take for granted that we would forego protecting the living matter present there; its emphasis should fall instead on the processes unfolding on a microscopic scale. When we observe processes of transformation in the environment, we can approach an understanding of the extent to which the structure of the barracks or the space of the camp is affected by biocidal interventions on non–human organisms.
The work of Karolina Grzywnowicz offers yet another perspective on inter–species conservation. An object made of black oak is the material product of chemical and biological processes that kept the matter in compact form over a thousand–year timeline. Grzywnowicz’s intervention entailed transforming this matter into a pallet, thus sealing the tree’s fate as raw material that can be sold. With this gesture, Grzywnowicz draws attention to the fetishization of “natural” conservation processes while ruthlessly laying bare the problem of environmental exploitation.
Grzywnowicz’s impulse to make the black oak pallet was prompted by ongoing controversies in Poland over the state of Białowieża Forest, and public outrage over the notion of reducing this primeval forest to a source of timber. The forest’s legal status is heterogeneous; some sections have been defined as biologically unique, while others have not been given protective legal status as nature reserves. The Ministry of the Environment is currently planning drastic interventions on the management of this forest as well as other nature reserves throughout Poland.
Postulates calling for protective status for the forest as a whole have been under debate for decades but unfortunately, this has yet to yield tangible results. A crucial issue complicating this discussion is the perception of the forest as a space in which some areas can be singled out as more valuable than others. This same logic is applied to aggregations of plants: some are deemed inviolable, while others are condemned as fit for removal. This approach makes it easier to justify exploiting nature in the area, since one can always designate an area that “does not merit” protection.
The problems haunting Białowieża Forest stem from the way we appraise nature, define its function, and strategize the scale of human intervention. This is really a matter of hierarchies of languages and value systems. The media portrays this as a confrontation between foresters on the one side and academics on the other: the harvesters versus “nature’s warriors.” “Look how much precious timber is being wasted” versus the “human degradation of a uniquely complex and diverse ecosystem.” The stakes are high and require effective arguments, so most contenders operate within the safe zone of a generally recognizable value system. For me, the conflict over Białowieża Forest exemplifies a tendency to identify our own well–being as a species with the welfare of the natural environment. By the same token, it bears testimony to our spiritual relationship to the non–human world. I believe that many people intuitively invest trees with meanings much more complex than those they attach to discussions on clean air, building materials, or furniture. When I look at the art, poetry, impressions, deeds, and words of the many people engaged in environmental activism, I can see that the fight for nature coincides with the search for a path to reconnect with a sense of wholeness much larger than us. As a result, I find that expressions such as “biological merit,” “loss of biodiversity,” “destruction of habitat,” and “UNESCO protection zone” conceal a sense of disappointment with the values of global capitalism and a longing to “tune into life processes.”
Grzywnowicz exposes the commodity status that we have imposed on the black oak. The cargo pallet’s rudimentary form is an abstraction made of organic material. A few planks of timber have been nailed together to give the impression of something durable and strong. We can also see this object in a different light: as a butchered tree that took part in a complex symbiosis with the environment for a thousand years, first as a living plant, and later as its remains.
By commercial standards, black oak is a rarified commodity because its “conservation” requires conditions that cannot be achieved under short–term policies of nature management. To qualify for certification as “Polish ebony,” timber has to be buried in the ground or submerged in water for a minimum of several hundred years with no access to oxygen so that the tannins latent in the oak can react with the iron salts and produce the oak’s characteristic color. Every oak tree transformed according to this procedure and discovered on Polish soil belongs to the State Treasury. In practice, however, this wood is not so difficult to obtain. It can be purchased online or on site as a raw material or in the form of furniture. Working closely with a joiner named Stanisław Kardas, Grzywnowicz selected an oak tree and determined its age at the Archaeometry Laboratory in Cianowice, using a test conducted by Marek Krąpiec, a professor of engineering sciences. They ascertained that the tree was some 1,350 years old, dating back to the 7th century. The oak has been identified as Quercus robur L., also known as a common oak, pedunculate oak, or European oak. The tree has been transformed by environmental factors, having been embedded in alluvium for so long that its hue and the structure of its tissues have been altered.
The black oak pallet’s exhibition on Cracow’s Szczepański Square during the 2017 Unsound Festival was dramatic. Today, the luxurious materials now commonplace in the heart of the city (such as marble, granite, and sandstone) stand out against a backdrop of the less refined product of burning carbon: the heavy smog that plagues the city. Petrified plant remains, exploited to excess in the geological basin, are the very same materials that yield the city’s daily curse, taking a toll on the health of its inhabitants.
In this context, Karolina Grzywnowicz’s black oak pallet is a memory object conveying the narrative of an organism that has succumbed to conservation in favorable environmental conditions, becoming a raw material of enormous value. Fossil wood is valued for its durability and hue, neither of which can be produced synthetically. In the context of inter–species conservation, we can think of the fossil wood in Grzywnowicz’s pallet not as a luxury material but as one stage of a complex process that started with a fallen tree that then took part in biochemical reactions with its environment. These transformations were then interrupted by a human intervention that extracted the matter from its surroundings, turning it into a utility commodity. This changed the nature of the processes affecting the oak’s internal structure.
Lying at the bottom of the lake or bog and deprived of oxygen for a long period, the oak had a greater chance of resisting decay and preserving the integrity of its matter. As fossil wood, each piece of black oak contains mineralized elements that help us begin to imagine the bonds between our bodies and the transformation of other–than–human organic matter. In fact, petrification processes were responsible for creating man in the first place. The material appeared some 500 million years ago in the history of evolution. Latent in the material were forms of life that ultimately led to the creation of structures necessary for bone tissue. As Manuel DeLanda has written, it is as if organisms, by this gesture, affirmed that geology does not concern the planet’s “primitive” levels of evolution, but provides instead a basis for thinking about new ways of functioning by looking at the primitive bones that would later develop into the full skeletal system.8 The emergence of this bone structure allowed for greater ease of movement, ultimately allowing humans to colonize the earth, air, and water more effectively. As DeLanda emphasizes, bones are the memory of our mineral “roots.” They are the living material most easily mineralized, and they link us back to the world of rocks.9
Fossil wood therefore links us to different ages. It evokes associations with the material past (fossils), but at the same time, we tend to treat it as a material that has retained its vitality. The wood continues to function, so it is still “alive.” It ages, gives off a specific smell, and becomes inhabited by micro–organisms. Wood often conjures intimate associations, evoking a sense of the familiar tied to the home. Wood connotes warmth. For Jean Baudrillard, these associations are a form of “a high–priced nostalgia.”10 “Substances are simply what they are: there is no such thing as a true or a false, a natural or an artificial substance.“11 Cement, plastic, wood, glass – all these materials are equally “authentic.” Baudrillard claims they only differ in terms of how they are used. Materials considered to be natural are utilized as elements that generate a given place’s “atmospheric value.”12 In this context, wood is merely a “simple cultural sign” implying specific connotations. In the case of black oak, the processes that cause it to harden and become durable generate the wood’s meaning as a cultural sign. Even though synthetic materials may have similar properties, we only grant the “right to age” to wood and never plastic, and I would not necessarily reduce this to “luxury nostalgia.” Perhaps there is more to the story. Perhaps we recognize that wood was once a living organism, and that we are only coming into contact with its material after–image. Looking at Grzywnowicz’s pallet, we come to realize what complex relationships this object must have gone through before it could be revealed to the world of culture as “black oak.”
Inter–species conservation is a subversive and ultimately slightly ironic proposal that stems from a lack of resolution over the dilemma that pitches brutal, capitalist exploitation against “green” capitalist exploitation, the socialist exploitation of biology for human use, and the biocentric narrative of the rights of nature constructed by human perception. The sense of care generated by this approach aims to decentralize the human subject as the most effective agent in the environment, confronting the human species with the complex reactions by which the ecosystem – of which Homo sapiens is merely a part – “endure” and continue to transform. Inter–species conservation is vitalist: it affirms the multiplicity of connections taking place within material, as well as the dynamic transformation of the organic into the non–organic, and the non–organic into the organic. The subject (and object) of interest for this kind of conservation is the memory of the relationships that facilitate the life and metabolism of any entity, placing less focus on the preservation or construction of a coherent image of materiality.
My thanks to Urszula Zajączkowska, PhD, for her consultation on this text.
Translated into English by Anda MacBride
Proofread by Eliza Rose
Aleksandra Jach is a curator and works at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź.