Conversation between Gilles Clément, Marjetica Potrč and Guilain Roussel* (translated by Kate Davis)

Marjetica Potrč  La Semeuse is not a rational project, it was born out of the existing networks in Aubervilliers, from meetings among associations. It’s an organic project, born from the society in its effort to transform this present reality and visualize the future. It is this vision that is so important to me. La Semeuse has become a symbolic object, that’s the beauty of it. We even talked about it as a monument, not in the traditional sense of the word but as a symbolic object that a society needs in order to transform things. It’s not enough to talk, we have to act, come together around an object that we can visualize, that makes it possible to get things done.

Guilain Roussel  Yes, I think that La Semeuse crystallizes the needs of a lot of associations that have remained closed in upon themselves up until now. But there is a real desire to share ideas about what is happening at Aubervilliers.

Gilles Clément  Does La Semeuse create a network, ties between all these communities?

MP  Yes.

GR  La Semeuse is first and foremost a physical space where people can exchange seeds and plants for free, increase the number of those plants, and also where they can exchange knowledge. For example, in Aubervilliers there are the Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus(1) allotment gardens, run by an association that dates back to 1930 but which didn’t have much contact with other, newer shared gardening associations who, on their side of things, very much wished to learn from them. So we set up a gathering, every third Tuesday of the month to make these meetings happen, with a discussion about a subject, films, etc.

GC  Do you know the Semeurs Volontaires(2) movement? It’s a movement that was started about three years ago by people who were producing seeds from unlicensed vegetable plants, the ones that are not in the official catalog and aren’t supposed to be sold. These seeds are really interesting, first because they are a source of diversity and then also because they solve local, technical problems. What grows in Aubervilliers won’t necessarily grow in Bordeaux or in Besançon. And these seeds have been slowly taken off the official market because they’re too difficult to distribute and it’s more profitable for giant multinationals to sell very few seeds. In the early 20th century, the Villemorin seed catalog, just to give an example, was as thick as the Paris phone book. Today, it’s only three pages long.

GR  Like that food diversity tree that shows the decrease in the number of seeds available between 1905 and 1985 that you sent me Marjetica.

food diversity tree

MP  That food diversity tree is very interesting because it shows that today we really do live with less. To come back to Aubervilliers, now there are big development projects which the city supports because they will bring in funds. But people are living fine with what they have, developing other kinds of wealth.

GR  That’s the problem with developers who show wealth gradually. Aubervilliers is a microcosm and La Semeuse is trying to shine a spotlight on that – all these people from very different countries, with their plants. Plants that mean something to them, that they want to keep, to plant.

GC  Does the city support and protect these garden projects?

MP Yes and there’s one project that I really love called Les Petits Prés Verts(3), which really epitomizes this desire to transform unused green spaces into shared gardens. But who knows how long the local government will be able to resist the threat of real estate development? We are asking the question of how people can organize and influence the local government. And if the government will consider La Semeuse as a pilot project. Our project has come about at a very interesting time, and we want people to lay claim to it so that they can share their vision for the town.

GC  For a landscaper like myself, towns like Aubervilliers, Bagnolet and Montreuil serve as laboratories, with precise results that you can’t get in Paris or in other major cities. Around the world, populations have been pushed out to the peripheries of major cities, where they live together in a sort of cultural confrontation. To my mind, how so many people can continue to live together in a predetermined space with the possibility of local production becomes a vital question. It’s a question that is pertinent everywhere today. Every ten years, the equivalent of an entire French département of arable, cultivatable land disappears because of the poorly planned development of cities and towns. We have not yet realized the importance, the preciousness of land that produces something. So places like Aubervilliers where people have really been made aware become experiments, examples for a future life, for everybody, even if the model is obviously not transposable exactly as-is.
Another crucial question is production, what I call the principle of the recyclable city. Can society continue to live in a limited space with a high population density without destroying that space? Yes, by recycling everything the way it should be done, locally. For a gardener the model is obvious – you know how to make compost, sort things, recycle organic material without using complicated containers or plastic bags. But if we force a consumer society to recycle everything, we would have to redesign the consumer objects to make them recyclable. We wouldn’t have at all the same goals, the same way of life. For that, I think that vegetable gardens and gardening can become a model for society, for energy management.
In a place like Aubervilliers, we face the typical problem of limited space. It’s surrounded on all sides, it’s not very big, but then neither is the planet. It can’t expand, except vertically and we know that if we lodge a lot of people high up off the ground we only make the problem worse. There is a problem of demographics that we don’t want to get into. Of course, we’re not talking about regulating population. My proposal would be to develop education, increase everybody’s knowledge and understanding. That’s why I recommend schools to recognize diversity in cities; there’s one open in Viry-Châtillon, just to give people the ability to name their environment, to give a name to this or that plant. What has a name exists, deserves respect. What isn’t named does not exist and can be easily destroyed. So naming things is very important. Increasing knowledge in a place like this one, that helps protect the environment. But increasing knowledge in general is important, too, meaning allowing people, even the most impoverished, to understand the place where they live, the society that they are a part of, the state of the environment and the planet in general, to help them make informed decisions.
I dream of a recyclable city, of recyclable architecture… You’re an architect; how do you imagine an entirely recyclable house? That poses the problem of leaving no trace. If we leave no trace, history disappears. That idea is both almost unacceptable and intriguing. The Australian Aborigines left no traces. Their culture is immaterial. I don’t know if we want to get into that question, but it is interesting to consider. We can talk about all of these questions just with the Aubervilliers vegetable gardens.

MP  I did a research project in the Amazon, in the state of Acre. There they have “extraction reserves”, which means independently managed territories within the forest, nature preserves that are controlled and used by the communities that live there. The development of autonomous, sustainable agriculture and a lifestyle based on the forest’s resources went hand in hand with the idea of sharing. I’m interested in how these people consider the question of “togetherness”. It reminds me of the importance of the kibbutz movement in the early days of Israel. The Easter European Jews who moved to Israel came from cities. In Palestine, they started to garden with almost no notions of gardening, which was no easy job. And beyond gardening, they way they organized society was very interesting, with a rejection of private property, the desire to share, to live together in a different way. It’s a very important movement because it very consciously imagined the future. Thirty years later, the right-leaning government that came to power in Israel stopped subsidizing kibbutzim and they had to adapt to the economy, which led to a decline in the kibbutz movement. But now urban kibbutzim are springing up, and they offer another way to live in cities by sharing for example children’s playgrounds, cars, washing machines…

GR  A collective use of resources.

MP  Yes, what really inspires me in the urban kibbutzim is that the form they take is similar to cooperative housing in Europe. These two types of initiatives show that the society feels the need to be involved in resource sharing. The difference between the collectives in the 60s and today is that today they make more concrete efforts, they’re in response to today’s world. I think it’s very important that societies visualize the future. That’s why we are so interested in Aubervilliers, because there is that reflection there and we hope that La Semeuse, by putting it in relationship with nature, can facilitate that connection.

GC  Can you tell me more about this project in Acre?

MP  Sure, there’s a text available on e-flux journal called “New Territories in Acre and why they matter”. I went to the state of Acre after an invitation to the Sao Paulo Biennial in 2006. It’s a place that’s far away from everything on the border between Bolivia and Peru, but that’s very developed politically. Marina Silva, the former minister of the environment is from there and so is Chico Mendes. Over there, I could envision a future – the government of the state of Acre distributed half of its land to communities living autonomously in the forest. If these communities can survive in the forest, they say, the forest will survive, too. We should apply that to cities – if people can survive in cities, the cities will survive. The question is simple, it’s always a question of survival.
I wanted to go visit the native Ashaninka tribe, but I didn’t get the authorization because they are the custodians of their knowledge and their territory. It’s very interesting, this balance between togetherness and the need to protect their community’s knowledge from foreigners. In Acre, the government and the communities work together. The government accepts these communities’ autonomy and their values. Is such a thing possible in Aubervilliers?

GR  People who are used to being governed also have to become aware of their own public power so that they can organize. The simple act of creating a garden using local resources proposes a design for society, rather than the other way around, where you’re trying to make people fit into a society that has already been designed for them. That requires a shift in their mentality for people who are used to being told what is good or bad.

MP  To come back to La Semeuse. Initiatives like this can help change governments’ point of view. We need change, but for now it comes more from confrontation than from a desire to work together.

GC  There’s a very interesting example that shows what self-organization is also possible in discussions with government. In Peru and Ecuador, there is an Indian territory where there are oil reserves. The Indians refuse to allow oil extraction in order to protect the forest and the country is asking for the international community to help them. The Indians have made an agreement with the government for the financial profits that come from oil. That’s the first time that something like that has happened.

MP  That brings up the question of protecting land. The “extraction reserve” model in Acre is completely different from the one used in closed communities. It’s a type of democratic, participatory organization where people take responsibility for their own protection. It’s an organic model, quite the opposite of closed communities where the territorial safety depends on the ability to pay for safety.

GR  That makes me think of the Monsanto case from this past summer. India and the Indian minister of the environment brought Monsanto to court for having patented a local variety of eggplant. That’s pretty amazing, a state bringing a multi-national to court…

GC  The big scandal in Nagoya should also be looked at more closely, in my opinion. In October 2010 there was a summit in Nagoya, Japan on ecology and diversity that brought together more than 190 countries, not including the United States, and the aim of the meeting was to adopt a strategy to stop the erosion of diversity on the planet. It was the follow-up to Copenhagen, which was a complete disaster. All of these countries agree, which is very suspicious. The Nagoya Convention divides up the profits from selling off diversity in every country. The protocol agreed to (after 8 years of discussion prior to the summit) organizes how pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies will divide the profits to be made from genetic resources in countries in the global South, it’s done with patents and it’s dangerous. That means that the voluntary movement of seed-sharers and all actions that work to preserve diversity in seeds outside of the market, when you consider those events, become very important. Now, all you have to do is declare “I hereby patent the active ingredient in this orchid, it is mine and nobody else has the right to use it!” Standardization of a seed costs €200,000. Who can afford that except for industry giants?

GR  We brought up these questions during the last “La Semeuse Tuesday”, the necessity of preserving the widest variety of seeds to prepare for climate change for example. We talked about patenting with the example of nettle slurry.

GC  Yeah, using or selling nettle slurry is prohibited in France, even if the government says they will allow it, because it’s on a list of phytopharmaceutical products that are prohibited in the European Union. Amendments to the agricultural law won’t change anything because anything that is prohibited in Europe is necessarily prohibited in France. We need to get it out of that category. That said, there is now a push to pass that sort of law for herbal teas… Really, you can tell that all of these laws are intended to combat free access.

MP  It’s true, but the shared gardening movement in cities is a way, perhaps an unconscious way, to find alternatives, to promote degrowth.

GC  But not everybody has access to land. And not all local governments are willing to give access, to expand family gardens or to create shared gardens.

MP  For transforming public space into shared space, that’s what people really want. Because public space belongs to…

GC  … to nobody!

MP  … or to that 20th century view of equality for all that sometimes gives rise to areas that  are no-man’s-land…

GC  … that nobody really wants to use. You can’t plant potatoes in a public space!

GR  Yesterday, with my students we went to visit an individual’s private garden that they are in charge of redesigning. Another professor who was there felt that there was nothing to keep from the current garden and that we couldn’t do the project because there wasn’t enough money to cut trees, move earth, etc. I told the students “No, look, we can prune these spindle-trees to make them more like bushes” etc. This relationship to money is deeply rooted in landscaping culture, we don’t know how to envision things any differently.

GC  What Nature creates by itself is free, so it has no market value as defined by the society that we live in, so we can destroy it… Have you seen the film by Marie Tavernier, Délaissé (2009)? It’s about a little bit of vacant land by the Saint-Denis canal next to Paris. People from around the area come to spend time there. Sometimes somebody cuts the grass, but it’s not really maintained, it’s a wild little area, with local plants growing however. There’s an area for children to play, very basic. The film is a series of interviews. People explain why they come there; they don’t necessarily find the words, but we understand that they feel good there. It’s really nice. At the end, an architect comes and tells them that they’re going to completely transform the area and the landscape, with buildings and a regulation playground and “real trees”!

MP  Its always the same thing with development plans – by displacing people you displace the problems. Today a lot of people are refusing to move; it’s the same thing in Aubervilliers. We want to imagine a long-term future in the place where we live.

GR  We’d just like to address one point before we finish, concerning the idea of indigenous plants. There’s an interesting parallel between plants and humans, the fact that plants don’t have any borders, that they come and go freely. But in botany there’s also this desire to control things. There are good plants that come from here and we can keep them, and then there are those that we can’t keep. The sub-title of La Semeuse “le devenir indigene” (“an indigenous blossoming”) raises the question of when does a plant become indigenous. The famous Aubervilliers cabbage that the gardeners are so proud of, for example, comes from Milan. The largest harvest of Vertus onions, developed on the local Vertus farming plain in Aubervilliers, came from Mali. Is there a limit to when we can consider a plant to be indigenous?

GC  Personally, I don’t want to use those words anymore. A discourse that divides things into categories, plants, humans, animals into indigenous or exogenous is a dangerous discourse that aims to eradicate the foreign by preserving a historically accepted whole that must not change. It’s a negation of evolution, of the possibility for change, of interpretation that comes from meeting others. Everyday life is inventing new things, gardeners know that. Inertia doesn’t make any biological sense or any ecological sense. Ecology is the study of the relationships between living beings, it isn’t a principle about which ones are good and which ones are bad; any simplified black-and-white view is both dangerous and utterly outside of the biological reality. Ecology is a science that looks at the dynamics of the situation. Rather than saying that there are good plants and bad plants or weeds, we should say that there are plants. You know which ones you can do something with, but that doesn’t mean that the other ones are bad. It’s complicated because there are some plants that cause problems. In a small space, a plant can take up all the space. So if you want to have different things, you have to do something. That’s called gardening; it’s not necessarily about getting rid of something. I have giant hogweed in my garden. It’s an invasive plant so I keep it from spreading, but I don’t exterminate it.

GR  There’s a parallel in the vocabulary used. I’m shocked by how violent the language used by scientists to describe nature sounds: “that’s bad” “it has to be destroyed” “exterminated”. The answer lies in education, teaching people to look at things, to work with them.

MP  That’s why La Semeuse is so important, to make people aware. The project was born at a particular time, when people wanted to articulate the way they wanted to live together through nature, by growing vegetable gardens in Aubervilliers.

GR  There’s also the idea that simplicity can have political clout.

MP La Semeuse is sowing seeds for the future.


Conversation published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, January-April 2012

*  Interview conducted on October 4, 2011 in Paris.

1  Created in 1935 in the town of Aubervilliers, in the midst of a dense urban landscape, the Société des Jardins Ouvriers des Vertus is an organization that manages 85 garden plots on just over 2.5 hectares. They are a place for collective gardening and in their own way the gardens are a testament to the history of working people in Seine Saint Denis.

2  Created in 2008, les Semeurs volontaires is a movement that supports free exchanges of seeds that are not authorized for public sale and encourages planting them in private spaces as well as public space; this is also referred to as a farmers’ seed system.

3  Non-profit organization created in January 2009 in Aubervilliers for a shared garden located in the Villette-Quatre Chemins neighborhood.