Secret Gardens: Rahel Aima on Maria Thereza Alves's Seeds of Change

2018 - 2019
The funny thing about ships is that you have to weigh them down to keep them afloat. Historically, stones, soil, sand, wood, and bricks placed inside a ship's hull have provided this weight. At the end of a voyage, the ballast is dumped, to be repurposed as building materials or to settle as soil. It becomes a pedological archive: A portion of the ground beneath Manhattan's FDR Drive is built from the rubble of British buildings demolished during World War II; the area came to be known as Bristol Basin. Meanwhile, Liverpudlian stones that were a by-product of the trans-atlantic cotton and tobacco trades make up Savannah, Georgia's iconic cobblestone streets. Sometimes, ballast creates new terrain, too, as is the case on Lilla Norge, an island off the eastern coast of central Sweden that blooms with Norwegian flowers found nowhere else in the area.
Ballast similarly anchors Maria Thereza Alves's project Seeds of Change,1999–. Like people, seeds can unexpectedly find themselves far from their homelands. They travel in the bellies of animals and amid ballast in the hulls of ships before being discarded as waste on new shores. These seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years before a chance upheaval exposes them to light, causing them to sprout. Seeds are patient, after all: In 2005, Israeli researchers were able to germinate a two-thousand-year-old date-palm seed; the resulting plant was subsequently dubbed the "Methuselah" tree. Seeds, like colonized populations, bear buried within them the capacity to endure despite the most oppressive of surroundings. In 2012, a team of Russian scientists announced that they had successfully grown a flower from a thirty-two-thousand-year-old squirrel cache of seeds buried in Siberian permafrost. They failed to germinate the seeds but were able to extract cells from their placentas and grow new flowers. The next year, the flowers—which were identical to one another but had narrower petals than the same species of flower today—produced seeds of their own.

Like the best time travelers, seeds are storytellers. Since 1999, Alves has been using these inadvertent hitchhikers to unspool violent histories of colonialism, transnational commerce, migration, and resource extraction. After researching a city's ballast sites, she takes soil samples, germinates whatever seeds they contain, and consults scientists and archives to identify the flora, later displaying them in gardens. Previous iterations of the project took place in the European port cities of Marseille in France; and Dunkirk, Exeter, Liverpool, and Bristol, in England; and on Reposaari, a small island that was once Finland's largest port.

In each location, Alves reverse-engineers horticultural history to question what it means to be indigenous to a land. Consider the species Japanese knotweed and kudzu. Both were initially introduced to Europe and North America from Japan as ornamental garden plants, which is to say, as plants that can be controlled and contained. Today, they are billed as invasive alien hordes, kudzu in particular, which has gained the moniker "the vine that ate the South." Parallels between this extension of xenophobia to foreign-origin plants and the present-day rise of nativist sentiment are clear, if sometimes over-determined. For example, in Bristol, where Alves planted her garden on a floating river barge, the selection of flora included rocket and marigold. Both plants are beloved for being quintessentially English, and are semiotically loaded as such, but they are also relatively recent products of the shipping trade—the marigold is, in fact, native to the Americas.

A year after winning the biennial Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics, Alves transposed her project to the Americas. The resulting multiyear installation, Seeds of Change: New York—A Botany of Colonization, has displayed flora propagated from ballast seeds in several locations, first as a living installation at the Aronson Galleries at the New School (which sponsors the List Center Prize) in New York this past November, followed by iterations at Manhattan's High Line, and at Pioneer Works and the Weeksville Heritage Center, both in Brooklyn. Just as the movement of ballast stones is not unidirectional, this New York chapter of her project briefly traveled to Michel Rein in Paris in February and March before returning to the city this spring.

This time, Alves's process differed, because many of New York's ballast sites—Red Hook, Inwood Park, and the Gowanus Canal, among them—had been built up and were inaccessible. Instead, she turned to historical records to identify four hundred plants from seven sites. Working with students and faculty from the New School and children from Pioneer Works' community youth program, she grew seeds from these plants last summer. At the New School, the plants sprouted in plywood boxes alongside some rather lovely botanical sketches of tumbling saltbush, perennial wall-rocket, annual mercury, and common vervain, all so-called indicator plants that signal the presence of ballast. Watercolor maps plotted local ballast sites (including Bristol Basin), and a cerulean-washed diagram of ship arrivals used snaking arrows to identify the sources of the city's ballast: elsewhere in the United States and Europe, but also Cape Verde, Cuba, Haiti, Barbados, and Brazil. A map of the Long Island coast makes the role of the slave trade explicit: As Alves's neat print explains, smugglers used to stealthily unload their enslaved cargo there so as to avoid paying city tariffs.