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Red Hook Plant Interventions
Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux
The process of identifying wild plant species in the NY neighbourhood of Red Hook while attending a residency there offered incredible insight into the life of plants: We learnedthat amaranth grain (Amaranthus) was of crucial significance tothe growth of the Aztec civilisation and that horseweed (Erigeroncanadensis) was the first plant to develop a resistance toglyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the U.S.A. Weconsidered what the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) can teachus about deep time with its indefinitely viable seeds. We readabout, then observed how pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)manages its resources by releasing a chemical into the soil todiscourage seed germination, instead relying on birds to further its spread. Finding out how revered and expensive the ubiquitousgoldenrod (Solidago) flower was during the Elizabethan era gavenew meaning to the value of plants.
All of these species were easily found in a few block radius from theresidency. By illuminating what is marginal and overlooked, in thiscase wild plants, we engage critically with our relationship to oursurroundings. After spending time getting to know our plantneighbours, we considered different ways in which we couldrespond to and amplify their presence.
Red Hook Ball Fields
The Red Hook Ball Fields became a site of particular interest. The ball fields are a large, dedicated sport and recreation area near the public housing and waterfront. Most of the ball fields have been closed to the public for many years after it was discovered that the soil is severely contaminated with lead. The contamination is a relic of Red Hook’s industrial history and was caused by fumes, dust, smoke, and slag from a nearby secondary level lead smelting facility during the 1920s and 1930s.
With the contaminated fields now contained within high chain-link fences, these off-limit zones take on the appearance of zoo enclosures. The city’s remediation plans have experienced numerous delays, allowing a microcosm of an ecosystem that would otherwise be suppressed by human activity to flourish. In ball field #3, young trees have grown so tall that they drop their seeds over the fence onto the running track below. A bounty of pokeweed berries provide important late season food for birds, countless heath aster flowers sustain swarms of flying insects. Pollinators are present in much higher numbers than elsewhere in the neighbourhood, birdsong are noticeably louder. Tracks through the long grass and undergrowth are evidence of squirrels and other small mammals making a safe haven within these areas.
We began to explore the potential of activating the site and devised a simple didactic intervention: Assuming the aesthetic of estab- lished city and park signage, we created vinyl banners that illustrate some of the plants that are present and elaborate on their charac- teristics, folkloric associations, cultural significance, and medicinal or culinary uses. We installed the banners on the chain-link fence alongside their corresponding plants. We observed people stop- ping to read the banners while circling the running track.
City officials have stated that the fenced-in areas have been left to grow wildly in an effort to repel interest and discourage people from breaching the fences and using the contaminated fields. Through our intervention, we instead draw interest back to the site and the plant species that are present.
We harvested local plant material to process into dyes using natural techniques that draw out the pigments from the plant matter. With these dyes we experimented with making works on paper that are
a point of ongoing exploration. We also dyed yards of cotton fabrics that became the basis for interventions and sculptural works.
Government buildings, private homes, ships, and local businesses fly flags in the neighbourhood. The American flag is most promi- nent, but also noticeable is the POW/MIA flag, NYC flag, pride flag, and numerous promotional flags, including a huge array of branded flags outside Red Hook’s infamous Ikea.
We began to reflect on how the sum of the flags flown (and the absence of others) in a community can stand to characterise and communicate collectively held social values.
With the naturally dyed cotton fabric from our harvesting experi- ments, we created five flags of our own; goldenrod, sumac, wild tarragon, pokeweed, and reed. These flags were temporarily re- turned to the neighbourhood and flown in-situ, amongst the plants that produced the pigments. Working within the format and tradition of flags, we created a marker, a symbol, an emblem for the plants that quietly live here in an effort to celebrate and amplify their presence through these ephemeral site specific interventions.
Coincidentally, after many years of waiting, initial remediation work at the Red Hook Ballfields got underway during our time in Red Hook. This offered us a brief window of opportunity to install our plant flags onto free standing steel poles surrounding the ball fields. Only a day later, these poles were a completed chain-link fence, preventing entry to the area.
Miranda Bellamy and Amanda Fauteux would like to thank De-Construkt and Laura Arena for facilitating the time and space necessary to develop these projects. Amanda Fauteux’s residency at De-Construkt was supported by the New Brunswick Arts Board and the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation. Merci le Conseil des arts du Nouveau-Brunswick et Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation pour votre soutien.