Interview with Herbologies/Foraging Networks

Photo of a plant from Herbologies/Foraging Networks expedition to Kurzeme, Latvia (Photo: Bartaku)

In Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time, I: The Fault of Epimetheus, Stiegler makes the following statement, “Innovation is inevitably accompanied by the obsolescence of existing technologies that have been superseded and the out-of-dateness of social situations made possible...adapt or disappear.”1 Applying this statement to the current network systems that we engage with on a daily basis, one might say that online network culture has transformed our relationship with people as much as industrialism had done so with the land, mediating our experience of each other through data, text messages, and on-demand catalogues of our personalities. But, the flow of information through network systems is not a new instance. In Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked: The New Science of Networks, Barabasi cites the spread of Christianity as a major instance of social networks at play – albeit all executed orally.2 If this is true, it begs the question: how does today’s incarnation of network systems transform oral technologies? Does it render them outdated, or does it have the potential to take on a new incarnation?

The Herbologies/Foraging Networks occupies a critical space in trying to transform oral traditions/knowledge associated with foraging for what would seem to be increasingly disinterested generations. Initially instigated by Andrew Gryf Paterson as a Scottish man’s way of learning about the cultural heritage of his resident country of Finland (as well as the connections between the surrounding Baltic region), Paterson and cohorts Ulla Taipale and Signe Pucena have established an open architecture project that has included iterations of the WindowFarms workshop to exploratory installations on folk pharmacy.

You might ask yourself why focus on oral traditions and foraging? Foraging has previously been an important cultural touch point for Nordic countries, illustrating many social and political relations. The displacement of this knowledge marks a fundamental change in the socio-economic conditions at hand as the following discussion between Paterson, Taipale and Pucena further explains.

Lisa Baldini: Much can be said about the application of networked systems and open architecture to art practices, how have they evolved Herbologies/Foraging Networks? What do you think you need to be mindful of when you undertake such methods? Do you have trouble letting go when someone takes something in a different direction?

Andrew Gryf Paterson (SCO/FI): A key ambition of this 'Herbologies/Foraging Networks' project was to gather and facilitate a group or network of people who are interested in the idea and potential of WindowFarms, foraging (both in the rural and urban context), wishes to learn more about plant knowledge, as well as, those who were willing to get involved in workshops and help constrUTt installations, document and promote the topics. Personal and social networks as well as open calls for workshop participants were used.

Signe Pucena (LV): I think one of the successes has been the topic of herbs. At least in Latvia, I find that people are very open, and willing to share their experience with different self-medicine experiments - the results of the 'Folk Pharmacy' installation during very public 'White Nights' Festival in September allows me to say that.

Thinking about the last question, you could look at it in the form of the organization of activities, or about real experiments; for example, if somebody starts experimenting with Amaritis (a poisonous mushroom) after reading stories in our booklet, we need to be mindful of the open nature of sharing information. Sure, we are not giving directives of use. However, in general, I don’t mind if there is somebody who takes a different direction. I look at it as a new perspective.

Ulla Taipale (FI/ES): Just wanted to add something to what Signe said about Latvian openness in sharing, I found it incredible; there were situations in Aizpute that a group of us (Herbologies guests in SERDE) just knocked on a door of a local person -- without organizing a meeting in advance, carrying cameras, recorders etc. -- and the person welcomed us to her garden, showing and sharing her “secrets” of growing plants, recipes and conservation methods. In such a small community, to reward this hospitality and generosity by generating a booklet out of these encounters in various languages could be very important for the person interviewed and could work as an impulse for other people to note and share their traditional knowledge related with herbs and plants.

Unfortunately, these skills and knowledge are nowadays often under-valued and –estimated, for example, by conventional medicine. With the help of common, wild and easily cultivated plants, people could heal less serious illnesses and aches, just by collecting and preparing certain mixtures and helping themselves without commercial pharmaceutical products.

Flower picking during Herbologies/Foraging Networks expedition to Kurzeme, Latvia (Photo: Andrew Gryf Paterson)

Picture from Herbologies/Foraging Networks expedition to Kurzeme, Latvia (Photo: Ulla Taipale)

Lisa Baldini: When I first read about your project, the translation of oral technologies into something more for a "digital native" struck me. Do you feel that you have achieved this translation?

Andrew Gryf Paterson (SCO/FI): It’s a good question and also one which highlights the use of term, which is a bit fuzzy...“Digital natives” could be understood to be those who have grown up in the computer age. When I wrote this in early project descriptions, I was meaning those below my generation (now in their mid-thirties) and especially younger (those in their 20s). I was hoping that through some, if not all our work, we could bridge the information sharing gap between generations -- in particular between grandparents (age 60 and above), who, for the majority, grew up without the ability to publish, to share knowledge and experience. I write from the perspective of Finland where nearly all Finns under 50 have access to the Internet, and more than half of age 65-79 are also online; however, as social networking and sharing websites are only about 5-6 years old for the majority, one could argue that no one is native in this format of using the Internet.

If we reflect upon the demographics of participants, and those who have associated with the networks' Facebook page, it is clear that the project appeals almost twice as much to women than men, and the largest age groups were between 25-44 years. Our activity in the Latvian Kurzeme expedition involved the most teenagers, due to collaboration with a local youth project, and also with the most elders. Our Finnish presentation events attracted young adults, students and professionals related to the cultural scenes of Helsinki and Tampere mostly, as well as wild plant experts, gardening and 'green activist' enthusiasts.

One of things I have found interesting in this project is reflecting upon my own age group, mid-thirties, and how much of the knowledge about wild plants has been traditionally passed down by grandparents and maybe parents to grandchildren. From our discussions here with people who grew up in Sweden & Finland, some learned from grandmothers… But parents maybe didn’t know as much, as many moved from countryside to city in 1970s. While those of us who grew up in Western Europe didn't feel like they learned much from either our parents nor grandparents. This is of course a generalization, but several felt WWII, commercialization and modernization were significant factors which distanced one from common countryside knowledge. For those who grew up in the former Communist countries, the necessity to know these things, to augment diet and supplies, meant that this inter-generational exchange happened easier and more commonly.

Signe Pucena (LV): From my perspective, oral technologies are more connected with national memory and/or knowledge, which can be passed verbally onto the next generation or, indeed, any person. This phenomena we can still find in Latvia’s countryside. Within the topic of “herbologies”, there are many recipes (about how to use herbs), which we can find in books and on the Internet, but many of them live only in people's minds, found via kitchen experiments and long years of experience. I believe that after we document, record and publish these stories, the results can get into the range of interest of the "digital native". In the production of the Kurzeme mid-summer expedition, the biggest part of all work was to transform these memories, experiences and ways of doing things (information) into a form that could be shared (digitally).

Lisa Baldini: Do you think, then, that people are taking these oral traditions for granted?

Andrew Gryf Paterson (SCO/FI): If we consider the oral traditions related to plant gathering and use, we have focused on bringing and meeting people face-to-face, in the context where the knowledge has been gained and experienced by the teller. Our documentations, which are site and culturally-specific, hopefully encourage others elsewhere to do the same where they are. As there are few organized ways to appreciate people's life-ways, traditions, and learning from elders, then the effort that SERDE makes to do so with local Latvian students and in our shared international expedition of last mid-summer is special. It is our role as younger cultural activists and producers to show that these traditions are valued and are not taken for granted.

Lisa Baldini: What’s been the best way to illustrate your findings and reach people? Do you think the workshop has come across better than trying to data visualize the project?

Ulla Taipale (FI/ES): All the workshops related to the program, organized during Pixelache Festival and during Kurzeme Expedition were hands-on workshops, and we could see people getting really excited by touching, smelling, tasting, mixing, and finally eating or drinking stuff created. The best way is to be a part of the real act of doing, and then share this knowledge afterwards, proving that it is not so complicated, that the means and tools do not have to be so sophisticated, and that a homemade tincture really tastes good! When it comes to the Kurzeme Expedition, gardener-forager Ossi Kakko led some spontaneous foraging tours in the surroundings of SERDE, in a very free and unplanned way.

To do foraging (of something more than information), you have to go outdoors, to urban park walks, woods, dumpsters or gardens. To document these foraging tours, or workshops, enables presence-based sharing, giving the impulse for more people all over the world to follow these practices in their own neighborhood.

Herbal Tinctures Hebologies Workshop led by Signe Pucena (Photos by Regine Debatty)

Making of Windowfarms Finland (On Wheels) from Pixelache 2010 (Photo by Andrew Gryf Paterson)

Lisa Baldini: What is the potential impact of these types of workshops?

Ulla Taipale (FI/ES): When it comes to the VivoArts workshop by bio-artist Adam Zaretsky through his DIY-biotech lab, he hopefully made people to question and re-think actual global bio-policies. Coinciding in March 2010 with the EU countries deciding about a new genetically modified potato “Amflora” entering the European markets, Zaretsky introduced participants to very low-tech means of extracting DNA from an organic, unnamable mix of stuff and confronting them with a disturbing interrogation -- that this could be released or introduced to the cells of a living being, to himself or to a plant.

Lisa Baldini: In previous discussions, you said that there was a political undertone to the project? Can you speak further about this? What makes this situation particularly controversial for Nordic countries?

Andrew Gryf Paterson (SCO/FI):There are several political aspects that sit in the background -- one which is related to the work that SERDE does in developing cultural heritage materials as art or cultural productions. Who has the ability and rights to identify and document intangible cultural heritage? Usually, this is an UNESCO or national government led attribution, with proposals and candidates subject ideally being promoted from the communities themselves. I argue that grassroots intangible cultural heritage activism can be supported or led by artists and cultural workers.

The second lies in commercial encroachment and regulation in traditional herbal and foraging practices and the patenting (or enclosing) of plant knowledge by larger corporations.

One angle is the regulation of herbal medicine and its distribution in the EU (in the form of The Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive, 2004/24/EC), which aims to regulate who and what can be sold as herbal products. It has been widely criticized and petitioned against by grassroots health practitioners and activists as it makes it difficult for small-scale practitioners to make a living from making, distributing and selling traditional herbal products due to the need to obtain certificates and licenses. Although the Herbologies/Foraging Networks program was not framed with this in mind, it does now present an alternative cultural perspective on the value of such products and a means of raising awareness in parts of the EU where human-nature interdependence is still valued strongly, such as the Nordic and Baltic countries.

Another angle to consider is that of Everyman’s (-person’s) Rights (known in Finnish as Jokamiesoikeus), which gives everyone the basic right to roam freely in the countryside, without needing to obtain permission, and allowing people to pick wild mushrooms, berries and flowers as long as they are not a protected species. Developed as an ancient unwritten code across many northern countries, this is now legally acknowledged in Nordic countries and others like Scotland.

In recent decades, a larger proportion of yields from the forests have been picked by cheap labor force originating from different countries -- earlier from Eastern Europe in the 1990s -- but increasingly in the past decade from Southeast Asia. There are problems with exploitation of workers, local prejudices, and increased risk of crippling personal debt. Difficult economic circumstances among local and trans-national workers alike have increased debate that the concept of Everyman’s Rights should also be regulated more. The question is who should have access, and for what reasons?

Lisa Baldini: Andrew, you said being a foreigner curious about the land that you live within motivated a great deal of Herbologies. How has the project brought you closer to Finland? What do you think you've learned about the culture that you wouldn't as an insider?

Andrew Gryf Paterson (SCO/FI): After visiting Katajamäki eco-commune in central Finland in 2006, where I met for the first time the wild plant expert Ossi Kakko, staying for a couple weeks at urban permaculturalist Nance Khlem's house in the southside of Chicago the year later, and visiting Signe (Pucena) in Latvian countryside many times since 2003, I realized that I knew very little about the native plants and traditions of their use in Finland and also that I didn't remember much from growing up in the Scottish countryside.

My years living in Helsinki have been strongly influenced by the Internet, network culture and artist-organizing practice, and I realized I could use these strengths to learn more on the topic of “herbologies”. My position as neither a native of Finland nor Latvia has given me the role of being a trans-national networker and connector between people living in these places who are interested in similar things in the Baltic Sea region. I think that if I was closely rooted to the land in these places, I would not have been able to spend the time that I have communicating between different people. This is one of the ironies I recognize from being involved with Herbologies/Foraging Networks. As the project becomes better known in the Anglo-sphere and more North American or UK-based people express interest in the project, I may also learn more about Scottish foraging traditions and groups.

1. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, I: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (California: Stanford University Press, 1998), 14.
2. Alberto-Lasa Barabasi, Linked: The New Science of Networks, (Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 2002), 3-4.

Previously, the Herbologies/Foraging Networks have participated in the media arts festival Pixelache. The practitioners will again be participating in this year’s incarnation from March 10th -13th.

Lisa Baldini is an independent curator, media practitioner and writer. She frequently collaborates with the Pigeon Wing in London and writes as the Arts Editor for PSFK.