In Zaartpark Breda you can find a demarcated piece of land with a surface area of 49m2, where the municipality of Breda will no longer carry out maintenance for the next 20 years. According to the agreement concluded with artist Gerrit-Jan Smit, anyone can intervene within these 7 x 7 meters, except the local government. For the summer residency, artist Penelope Cain was invited to observe the area. This article is written by Maja Irene Bolier, and is accompanied by the observation of Penelope herself. This article is a speculative conversation between Penelope Cain and Maja Irene Bolier about the feelings of moles, storytelling for humans, and land ownership.
When I arrive at the 49m2 location in the Zaartpark Penelope Cain is busy zip-tyeing flags to large sticks. The flags are sky blue with a picture of a mole on them, the mole has been adorned with a golden crown. It’s a lovely day, The Netherlands is surprising us with a hot week nearing the end of the summer. I mosey around the 49m2 touching the plants that have been allowed to grow freely inside the space. When I look down it seems I am having an allergic reaction, bright red welts are springing up all over my bare legs. Luckily, I have some antihistamines with me and the rash seems to calm down quickly so we can continue with the interview.
Within no time I am asked to take part in a short performance, a performance which is part of an artwork I am yet to learn anything about. Penelope flies a drone up above the square and gets her camera ready, then we each walk towards the 49m2, holding a flag over our shoulders, place them in their designated corners, then walk away out of the scene. I feel like I am part of some sort of ritual. That I have been thrust into some kind of ceremony. The bystanders in the park, people walking their dogs or walking themselves, look over with curiosity but don’t come and ask us any questions about our ritual, they leave us to it.
Penelope and I are both Australian artists currently based in The Netherlands, although I have been here a lot longer. It is nice for me to listen to someone speak in the same accent as I do and I feel a twang of homesickness as we talk. Before I ask about the work, I am curious to find out how she discovered 49m2 and how we both ended up here today.
P: Witte Rook invited me to observe and possibly make some work in response to the 49m2 and I thought it was quite interesting, partly because of the perspective of the commons. A commons is a shared recourse, something shared amongst many and not owed by one, which is what the 49m2 originally established by Gerrit-Jan Smit is, but now is evolving into an art-commons where artists are invited to work in this site with a light and temporary touch, like a testing site.
In my practice, I am interested in initiating land-based conversations either with the land or with the ecology in the land. When I first came to the site, it was the beginning of spring and it was a lovely day. They had just mowed around the 49m2, the grass was mowed really flat around the square and they had also mowed over all of the molehills. Inside the square, the grass was short but unmowed and you could see a few molehills there and I thought, that’s interesting…on one level it is kind of a refuge for moles. Of course, the moles are underground and not constrained by the above ground boundaries, but it does mean that this is the one place in the park where their molehills never get trampled on because it is already a preserved site. So, I began to think about what a kingdom for moles would look like. I thought maybe it would look exactly like this because moles live underground, they probably don’t care about what the land or territory above ground looks like, but what they would care about is below ground access and rights for movement… so that’s when I came up with the idea to make some flags. Flags for the kingdom of the moles.
M: I am curious what the moles think about it.
P: I did this speculative writing around what a flag for a mole would be – if a mole was asked, what would they like their kingdom’s flag to look like? Especially as they are almost blind and below-ground dwellers. How would a mole even describe the above-ground; the sky, the ground and the air when they mostly have this really intimate relationship with the soil… In the end, I went with a slightly childlike and playful drawing of a mole and I used colours that I thought a mole may possibly recognise if of course, they could even see in colour. I think a mole would maybe be interested to know the colour of the sky, as they poke their nose up out of the soil when they make their molehills, and they would also know at a skin level the colour of the earth that surrounds them all of their lives, so I worked forwards from there.
M: Are you doing this to create some sort of mole awareness?
P: Not particularly, it’s not a work really ‘for’ people, but is a gesture to talk about the other-than-human, through the signifiers we use as humans to talk about land-based rights, such as flags, territories and kingdoms. But it is of course also just a playful speculative gesture, in a small patch of land in the middle of a large park.
M: This isn’t the first time you have included animal life in your work…
P: I am interested in ideas around decentering the human from these considerations about land and land-based storytelling. Last year I was commissioned to undertake a project around lichen, as part of a wider idea around rewilding concepts. In this, I made a video that’s a lichen love story. It is an interspecies love story between an algae and a fungus that come together and make lovely lichen, told from the perspective of the protagonist, a small yellow fungal ball, and told at lichen-time, where one human year is a lichen-second. It’s a purely speculative story. But if you approach from a more serious perspective, how else do we better understand and maybe care for the planet and the ecosystem unless we come at it from a decentered position? These stories have to have an entry point that is relatable for humans, so I playfully used the idea of a ‘love-story’…Of course, lichen is a multi-species bacterial-level symbiotic entity, and the video is made to be viewed by humans, not lichen, but in this way telling stories about the other-than-human from a decentered position is an approach touching on that taken over the aeons by First Nations peoples, where places, animals and plants are all viewed on the same level as humans, rather than below ‘us’, and are all woven together in multispecies stories, to make sense of the world. We humans are storytellers and that’s how we better understand our position in the world, through storytelling.
M: On your website, I read that you have a research science background, can you tell me more about how science meets your art practice?
P: I have a biological science background and a lot of my work is solidly informed by the relevant scientific research. During the lichen project, I spent a lot of time reading the scientific literature, and spent time with a lichen expert – I was able to look through electro-microscopic images of lichen, with the actual algae located, or maybe even cradled within the fungal grasp, and we spoke about how that fungus and the algae may have ever met up. I very much enjoy being able to access the story from both sides, the scientific and the poetic side.
M: Can you tell me more about the process of this (ed. The Kingdom) work?
P: I had come in with no preconceptions other than to spend some time at the site and make something site-responsive, I spotted the molehills which sparked this idea of a kingdom for the moles and an other-than-human ownership of a site in a park. In a site like this in a park, the public that comes here every day have an informal sort of kinship with the area, so it was also important to me that the intervention I made was accessible to understand, but I also hoped that it may open up some thinking around ideas of ownership beyond our human understanding of the term. The flags talk about territorialisation, about nations, about nation-states. I am hoping that people look at these and go “Wow…there’s a mole on a flag, does it mean the moles own this land?”
M: Now that I am thinking about moles, I am starting to see these molehills everywhere and realise that they have quite a big territory that we are not even aware of… maybe Holland is a kingdom for moles and we just don’t know about it.
P: How would you know? Maybe they are just letting us live here.
M: At first, I was thinking, territory and land ownership is a very human thing… and often in my eyes, not a positive thing but in nature animals also claim land for survival… Can you tell me about the performative aspect of the work? What we did today with the flags.
P: In the performative element we all walked around the 49m2 and ‘planted’ flags in each corner in a symbolic gesture of claim, on behalf of the moles. Flags have such a long history of this gesture of carrying and planting and claiming – it’s like as soon in social evolution that we humans made cloth we wore some of it and made a flag from the rest. Flags seem to me to be a heavily embodied object, whenever you see a flag there’s the implication of a human previously carrying it. I was wondering how you found that act of walking with the flag over your shoulder, how did it make you feel?
M: Well, because we were doing it for moles I didn’t mind, though I usually see a flag as a negative thing… but now seeing them with moles on them makes me happy. It’s a joyful flag. Yet, it still felt ceremonial and walking with the flags had kind of a weight to it even though we were doing something light-hearted. It’s so strange to think that holding a piece of material up can be an act that holds so much meaning…
P: So true. The action of raising a flag takes me back to being at school and from an Australian perspective, the broad and difficult issue of flags in Australia, with our problematic colonial settler history.
M: …and in Australia of course it is the English flag we would use in school, so in a way when we do use the flags we are sort of colonising, or being made part of the colonisation, putting an English flag up on stolen land.
P: Also, that implication of the body that comes with the flag – it’s a settler body as well. It is never a sharing body. However, I don’t think this work draws on that too much, maybe, given the other-than-human entry point. I’ve also been thinking about the increasing interest globally in granting nature ‘personhood’ – from a legal perspective – giving rights to nature through a personhood status. There are an increasing number of natural places that have been given legal personhood, like the Whanganui River in New Zealand and the Atrato River basin in Columbia. The thing about giving nature personhood status is that it then provides legal status, so nature can counter human action through a court-based system. So, I was sort of wondering with this work how to touch on those ideas – if you wanted to give personhood status to a piece of land, how would that evolve? What if part of that process was to have a flag for the piece of land and for the moles who live with it, and you could roll forward to a path towards personhood status? And it’s super interesting we have to call it personhood status, that a river has to have personhood status to be valued…
M: …to be respected? Once again, we are anthropomorphizing nature.
P: Right, but because the judicial system revolves around humans and human rights, the only way we can operate within that system is to allocate nature a personhood status, which is perverse but also maybe the only way to work forward. We humans are so wrapped up in our own species and can’t imagine from the perspective of anything else, so it’s not surprising I guess that our legal systems have the same biases, and the anthropomorphizing you mentioned may be the only way…
M: …that we can give nature a voice? I think if you listen well enough nature is speaking all the time, but we have forgotten how to communicate. Though I’m listening to this plant now, it is communicating very loudly at me to stay away or it will give me a rash.
M: What do you hope will happen with the flags the next four weeks? What would you like people to feel?
P: I hope they feel a sense of interest, curiosity, and possibly, a bit of joy?
M: And how would you like the moles to feel?
P: Unhassled, and that they have the right to roam.
After this conversation, I continued through the park, suddenly very more aware of the nature around me. Nature in the Netherlands is definitely not as loud and as evident as in Australia, but if you take the time to look around, it’s there… and who knows, you might just be standing on a kingdom.