The need to name and the stories we tell

Looking back at Local Color Meetup#2 by Hannah-Rose Fleishman

Although nature does not care where one species ends and another begins, humans have always categorised and named the natural world to make sense of it. The way research is defined and the way knowledge is shared, is strongly embedded in our culture and our values concerning the natural world. At Waag’s TextileLab we challenge a merely mechanical, reductionist and objective approach to research. We ask ourselves if we can do research in a more holistic way and further, if we can embrace and value a sense of wonder, intuition and care in our research? 

This approach is visible in the Local Color project. At its core Local Color operates as an exploration into the city as an enabling environment, adding a layer of functionality to public spaces by transforming green urban areas into dye gardens for local production. This project is driven by an impulse to produce natural pigments in our urban environment and create a local value chain. Also in Local Color we research, categorise and name biochromes (colours coming from natural resources) that can be found in the city that might be part of the local value chain we are uncovering.  On the 18th of January 2024, Local color hosted a public meet up called The need to name and the stories we tell. During this meet-up four plant researchers gave presentations about their work with a strong emphasis on the cultural context in which their research is embedded.

Maarten van Bodegraven

Plant enthusiast Maarten van Bodegraven started with a presentation about the origin and function of botanical gardens in the city throughout the centuries. Creative researcher and natural dyes specialist Cecilia Raspanti talked about the importance of creative taxonomies to understand the world of possibilities and about the needed attitude of a researcher. Plant philosopher Norbert Peeters spoke about our (changing) ideas concerning plants we consider weeds, focusing on words such as ‘native’ or ‘exotic’. Doctor and artist Marjolein Hessels showed how different ways of doing research merge in her work and stressed the importance of care when working with the natural world.

Norbert Peeters

During the meet-up, Norbert Peeters offered a fascinating introduction to the topic of weeds and why we understand them as unwanted matter. Peeters is a plant philosopher driven by all the different answers to the question: ‘what is a plant?’. He looks at the plant as a philosophical object and investigates how it changes over time. His current investigation attempts to digest the history of and attitude towards weeds. Here he poses the question: What is (a) weed? The word in itself, like the thing it describes, is hard to define and control. Weeds have a tendency to be unruly – to play by their own rules. Norbert passed around a book so that audience members of the Local Color meetup could write down words for weed in their own languages. After reading them together, we were not surprised by the overwhelming negative connotations. Weed in English, onkruid in Dutch, mala hierba in Spanish, piante infestanti in Italian. The Cambridge dictionary describes a weed as any wild plant that grows in an unwanted place but Peeters posed the question: is it possible to push against an instinct to ‘restore order’ or to keep things within their bounds? Additionally, Peeters explained that there is not a lot of identification of weeds in scientific literature while plants are extensively documented and recorded. Weeds somehow get grouped into a large pile labelled ‘other’, ‘unwanted’ or ‘out of place’. Peeters encouraged the listeners to dig into this pile, not only to give a level of status to all living matter and their stories but also to further understand what our relation to ‘unwanted’ matter can tell us about being human. 

Cecilia Raspanti

In a similar vein Cecilia Raspanti, one of the lead researchers in the Local Color team  reflected on her research as a never ending process of learning to see. She acknowledges the overlooked and finds beauty in things out of place. In this way Raspanti’s research into plants and natural dyes becomes tied to uncovering plant matter’s hidden or quieter stories. This can be understood as a more gentle approach to research based in a world where we tend to use matter as a pure resource. Raspanti described her relationship with plants and natural dyes as a process of falling in love. She stated that in the beginning of this relationship you timidly learn, notice and discover. “You slowly learn to see all the things that make the plant matter so beautifully alive. This is followed by a sense of caring and growing, which moves to an organizing of knowledge – naming and relating – a taxonomy.” Within this approach storytelling becomes central. While some research lives comfortably within the confines of a book, it became apparent listening to Raspanti speak that her research is one that appreciates a lot more air. It lives on in conjured up smells and textures, in a shared delight for the vibrancy of colour and in the stories we choose to tell.

Marjolein Hessels

For artist Marjolein Hessels, the question of being forms the foundation of her practice. She stated, “What moves me is a curiosity about life”. Her background in both medicine and art-making has led to an intersectional practice placing the spiritual and the scientific alongside one another. She reflects on this by saying that within this configuration “Things that are not tangible and measurable can exist.” This theme of intangibility exists within Marjolein’s beautiful embroidery pieces. Marjolein breaks down her process into four steps. First she starts by choosing a plant intentionally and then dissecting the plant’s body. She then draws teas from the different plant parts. Following this, she soaks silk thread in the teas to dye them different colours and lastly, she embroiders a plant portrait with the dyed fibres. In her work there is a clear play between seen and unseen, visible and hidden, physical and spiritual. The plants represent the physical world and the colour that they give represents the unseen world, offering a lens into some of the hidden lives of the plant that you do not see at first glance. This is and will always be a partial lens or an attempt at listening and understanding. During the Local Color meetup Hessels remarked that “Plants are beings that we live with, if we only understand them scientifically we ignore important parts of their being.” She followed on by saying “by transferring a plant to silk an intentional part of the plant appears”.

A lot can be learnt from the different approaches to research introduced during this meet up and the things they have in common. To conclude, the Local Color meetup: The need to name and the stories we tell is within itself a repository of narratives. Further, it  showcased the connection between culture and the way we see the world around us and the way we shape our research and its questions. If we want to see possibilities, we need to be aware of the way we see, name and structure the world.