I have for you this month a fascinating interview with New Jersey-based artist Anne Percoco. Anne is a co-collaborator on an art project called The Next Epoch Seed Library – it comprises a custom set of drawers and shelves filled with plant seeds native to the region. The project also consists of walks, workshops, discussions, an open-access curriculum, deep-time seed storage experiments, and other activities. I spoke with Anne about what inspired The Next Epoch Seed Library, another work of art called Indra’s Cloud, and what she hopes people take away from viewing her work.
Tell me about The Next Epoch Seed Library.
The Next Epoch Seed Library is a collaboration between myself and Ellie Irons. In 2015, we were both working with weeds and seeds in our own practices. During a studio visit soon after we first met, the idea of a seed library for weeds came up, and we ran with it.
We began by designing seed packets, going on some seed collecting walks together, and creating a small collection. Then, we had the chance to participate in a group show: Intersecting Imaginaries with No Longer Empty in the Bronx. We decided to build a custom set of drawers and shelves into an I-beam in the raw gallery space. The drawers held seed packets, including a special collection from the surrounding neighborhood, and the shelves held seeds in jars and some informational brochures.
Since then, we’ve broadened our activities to include more than just maintaining our collection, which is made available to the public in the form of a pop-up library that travels between exhibitions and venues, and is accessible by mail at all times. Our offerings now include walks, workshops, discussions, an open-access curriculum, deep-time seed storage experiments, and special projects. We also have a semi-permanent base at the Sanctuary for Independent Media’s Nature Lab in Troy, NY, where Ellie lives.
Where did the idea for the Library come from?
I was first attracted to this idea because of the seeming absurdity of carefully collecting, sorting, displaying, and distributing seeds of plants that easily propagate themselves on their own, even in the most challenging of environmental conditions. However, I quickly learned from Ellie, who has a background in environmental studies, that these intrepid plants provide tremendous benefits to urban and damaged landscapes. Many cities are lacking in green space, especially in underserved neighborhoods (an environmental justice issue). It turns out an overgrown vacant lot provides benefits similar to a natural landscape – it provides food and habitat for pollinators and other critters, absorbs excess stormwater, filters particulate matter from air, draws toxins from the soil, stores carbon and produces oxygen. Patches of weeds even provide mental health benefits to us humans: our heart rate and stress levels get lower as we walk past weedy greenery. Furthermore, weeds do not require intensive watering and fertilizing like cultivated plants and lawns. They are incredibly self-sufficient. For damaged and polluted landscapes, hardy weeds often act as healers. Their presence makes the land more habitable, allowing other species to move in.
We learned after starting NESL that there are a few organizations which are actively collecting seeds of wild cousins of our food crops, in anticipation of future pests or environmental challenges which they might face as climate change takes hold. These relatives may contain valuable mutations and adaptations in their DNA which can potentially lend their resiliency to our food crops. A few examples of wild crop cousins in our collection include: prickly lettuce (lactuca serriola), a relative of lettuce; Queen Anne’s lace (daucus carrota), a relative of carrot; and curly dock (rumex crispus), a relative of buckwheat.
What do you hope viewers of your art take away from the experience?
We hope that NESL prompts viewers to become more observant and appreciative of these humble but vibrant plants who live alongside us and are supporting us as we move through the sixth mass extinction. We’ve also experienced that handling plants, learning about them, and collecting their seeds is a tactile, pleasurable activity, which we enjoy sharing with participants.
Additionally, we hope that the binary concept of native vs. invasive species is broken down in some way by our project, particularly in the context of human-impacted landscapes. We cannot afford to label all non-native plants as harmful, as many provide important ecological services to urban and disturbed landscapes while other species struggle to adapt. Often the measures taken to remove these plants (such as herbicide) are quite destructive in themselves!
Indra’s Cloud is another fascinating piece of yours that speaks to environmental concerns. Please tell me about this work.
In late 2008, I was in residency in Vrindavan, India with a local environmental NGO, Friends of Vrindavan. For this project, I collected about 1,000 plastic bottles and sewed them together to create large half- and quarter-sphere domes. Friends of Vrindavan helped me transport the project in pieces to the bank of the Yamuna River, where I hired a boat for the day. I tied the overlapping domes of bottles onto the boat, which created a bulbous shape. From shore, the sculpture appeared to be a floating, plastic cloud. The boatman poled the sculpture around the town of Vrindavan on the Yamuna River, enacting a parikrama, a traditional circumambulatory walk meant to honor a town, temple, or deity.
The Yamuna River is widely known to be a physical manifestation of the goddess Yamuna, and it’s considered a blessing to bathe in her waters. However, the river itself is terribly polluted with raw sewage from Delhi and industrial effluent from surrounding factories.
The image of a cloud made of water bottles on the Yamuna River references a well-known local myth about water resources. In the story, Krishna persuaded the cowherds of Vrindavan that the rain their cows drink does not come from the sky, but from the land itself. Therefore, he encouraged the people to gift their yearly offering to Mount Govardhan instead of to Indra, the rain god. In revenge, Indra sent a dark storm cloud which released a torrential downpour onto the town, but Krishna lifted the mountain like an umbrella, with his pinky finger, to protect his friends. The story is a reminder of the interconnectedness of nature, that the water we drink does not come magically from the sky or a plastic bottle – it is affected by the land and everything that is done to it by humans.
As a result of this project, one frequent tourist group to Vrindavan transitioned from single serving plastic bottles to reusable dispensers, saving an estimated 3,000 bottles per year. This project was made possible with the support of Friends of Vrindavan as well as the Asian Cultural Council.
What do you think that art can tell us about climate change that other forms of communication (like news reports and other types of nonfiction) can’t?
Whenever I wonder what individual artists like me can possibly contribute to this crisis, I think of these two quotes in tandem: Rebecca Solnit wrote that “environmental problems are really cultural problems,” and Matthew Coolidge wrote that “art is the R&D of culture.” If these quotes are true (I think the first is true and the second can be true), then it makes sense to use artistic forms to investigate what is broken in our culture, what would allow us (Americans & members of other industrialized societies) to so casually and regularly undermine our basis for survival – and to pose alternative value models. For example, in my work both with NESL and in my individual practice, I try to find value in materials, places, and species that are widely considered worthless. I also try to elicit from viewers their attention to small details as well as empathy, both of which I think would be important for the kind of cultural shift we need right now.
Coolidge goes on to say that art is an incredibly flexible discipline. Because there are really no hard and fast rules, artists can connect disparate ideas and hold space for nuance and contradiction in a way that might be difficult in other fields.
What’s next for you?
NESL has three group shows opening soon: In the Weeds: Art and the Natural World at Wheaton College in Norton, MA; an installation at Swale House on Governor’s Island NY in connection to The CURB Banquet event, and New World Water at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. We have outdoor test plots currently installed on the campuses of both Seton Hall and Wheaton for our project, Lawn (Re)Disturbance Laboratory, and we’ll be leading two workshops at Wheaton next weekend.
For NESL, there are several things we’d love to do in the future, from creating a seed vault within a permanent public sculpture, to expanding our open access curriculum, to studying a particular plant that grows in Chinese copper mines, to just generally growing our collection and network of collaborators and participants.
In my personal practice, I’d like to remake a piece using pens that are running out of ink. Pens are such interesting everyday objects: disposable vehicles for expression, a connection between the body and mind. If anyone has empty or near-empty pens to donate, let me know!
(Top image: The Next Epoch Seed Library at William Paterson University. Photo by Anne Percoco.)
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.