Seeds From Elsewhere is a project by They Are Here that began in 2016. Its aim is to re-animate a dilapidated play area in Finsbury Park, bringing together young asylum seekers and refugees, family, friends and other professionals.
Each participant is supported to grow flowers, plants or edible produce from their respective homeland. We are also in the process of designing a greenhouse and pizza clay oven, extending the parameters of our collective activity. Throughout the process we literally and metaphorically ask ‘What can grow here that’s not from here?’ Beyond this more tangible gardening activity, the project seeks to create a space that embraces, maintains and produces a diverse set of social relationships between people with different residency status. It is supported by Furtherfield, an organisation exploring the intersection of networked culture and contemporary art.
It was July 2016, less than a month after the results of the EU referendum, when our project commenced. Although the impetus to begin was not a conscious response to the referendum outcome - the timing is not insignificant. Our initial steps were taken in a toxic political atmosphere at the height of an intensified and indiscriminate rhetoric against migrants.
Artists were faced with new variations of old questions that resurface in turbulent times: What is our role in protest? Do we have a particular responsibility as artworkers to engage with a given political landscape? What are the capabilities and limitations of art in local, national or international governmental politics? Is it in the multiple ways that a work is circulated and produced that its politics should be sought? How is the work funded and credited? Which voices are included in its development, or excluded? How is the work talked of and written about by the various partners supporting its production?
In these seemingly small details, a larger political statement is embodied rather than solely visually evoked. At the same time, we reject a ‘one-or-the-other’ stance.
Establishing and administering a small community garden should not negate working with others on larger-scale efforts to effect change at the level of local government or beyond. Bridges should be made between all levels of activity. The same fluid hierarchies and acceptance of hybridity that we cultivate with Seeds From Elsewhere, we encourage on ever larger scales. We aim to generate continuity between the ethos of how we are working on the garden and how national and global resources are considered and decisions made.
Keeping things complex
‘Participation is not always progressive or empowering’, ‘Realise your own privilege’, ‘Critically interrogate your intention’, ‘Presentation vs representation - Know the difference!’, ‘Do not expect us to be grateful’, ‘Art is not neutral’, ‘It is not a safe-space just because you say it is’, ‘ Do not reduce us to an issue’. These notes are from Rise’s guidelines, ‘10 Things You Need to Consider if you are an artist not of the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Community looking to work with our Community ’ authored by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director. ‘Rise’ (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees) is the first refugee and asylum seeker welfare organisation in Australia to be completely run and governed by those it seeks to help: refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees.
In a polarised media landscape, where tabloid headlines shout loudest, the reduction of a diverse group of people to an ‘issue’, has been one of the most problematic aspects of recent public debate. Recognising that Seeds From Elsewhere is a slowly gestating project affords time for us to slowly get to know the participants individually. These, to date, hail from Albania, Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia, Romania, Afghanistan & Nepal. Rather than seeking to ‘represent them’, we are co-workers on a set of shared goals.
Importantly, this work functions as a hybrid activity, with multiple points of access and identification. For the young refugees, the garden can offer a respite from various kinds of bureaucratic limbo. It can also simply be a place to chill in a tolerant environment. In the longer term, there may be be the potential for employment opportunities in the garden. At the same time, the work functions within the tradition of many conceptually driven socially-engaged artworks, notably Wheatfield - A Confrontation (1982) by Agnes Denes, Edible Estates (2005 - ongoing) by Fritz Haeg and Parkwerk (2014) by Jeanne van Heeswijk.
The project has also become a means of considering the language and rhetoric used against migrants, as well as that of sympathetic media. The recurrence of botanical language as metaphor (soil, roots etc) is striking. Essays by US-based anthropologists Dr. Lisa Malkki and Dr. Stefan Helmreich have been particularly insightful. The latter quotes biologist Banu Subramniam, noting that these terms ‘resonate unfortunately with xenophobic anti-immigration language in the United States and Europe’:
“The parallels in the rhetoric surrounding foreign plants and those of foreign peoples are striking ... The first parallel is that aliens are ‘other’ … Second is the idea that aliens / exotic plants are everywhere, taking over everything ... The third parallel is the suggestion that they are growing in strength and number … The fourth parallel is that aliens are difficult to destroy and will persist because they can withstand extreme situations … The fifth parallel is that aliens are ‘aggressive predators and pests and are prolific in nature, reproducing rapidly’ ... Finally, like human immigrants, the greatest focus is on their economic costs because it is believed that they consume resources and return nothing.”
Becoming attuned to language is a vital part of a larger and never-ending exercise in developing cultural and individual self-awareness as to how we speak, itself inseparable from how we think.
Democracy and Maintenance
Our fortnightly group meetings in the garden are rich in debate and banter. Working on a garden is an unceasing process. Like the growth of plants themselves, it cannot be rushed without compromise. This notion of maintenance is akin to a healthy democracy. Rather than an invitation to vote every four years, democracy must be attended to daily; it is comprised of multiple systems collectively supporting each other. Beyond physical access to a voting booth, there is the need for both protection and scrutiny of the media, investment in an education system that encourages voters to make informed choices, the space for satirists, philosophers and artists to critique power and the continual analysis of our own presumptions and privileges.
They Are Here: Helen Walker & Harun Morrison FRSA