The role other species play in shaping public spaces, and other insights from our first feral workshops
In the past couple of weeks, Feral Malmö held two inaugural workshops in Folkets Park of Möllevången (Möllan). The focus of these programs was to spend time noticing the other creatures that occupy our familiar urban spaces, and to gain some insight into the different ways people approach species in their community.
Folkets Park, as the name states, is a park. Making it a special type of urban space, and maybe its cheating a little that we started with a park where many otherwise unwelcome organisms are free to stay but still, for the many ecological allowances this and other public parks are given, it is still a space of tight biostandards and showcases many of the hallmarks of the urban habitat. And anyways Folkets Park, while it does have trees, grass, bushes, and a concrete pond, it is not a typical public park, it host restaurants, a reptile zoo, art exhibitions, a children’s theatre, a put-put course, and many things that make it a unique, and certainly human-designed living space for people and other species.
The popular park proved to be a suitable place to try out some ideas, and get a glimpse how people interpreted our guide for noticing others. From our two workshops we learned a great deal about the social influence of meadows, the controversial artistry of algae, and the challenging, solitary journeys different species must undertake to make their way through a world controlled by people.
Before we get into the many worlds of Folkets Park, I will start with a look at one, presented here in the form of a brief assessment of one of the park’s resident trees.
A Spy In the People’s Park
As seen (and exaggerated) by John Kazior
Even in the park a tree can find itself in the margin. Between walking paths and manmade ponds, the space all must be filled and it must fit well within in each box. Which makes this delicate stooping trees with beechy leaves, a fine addition to the park—to this box that hugs the bench and sidewalk. Some of the oaks, elms, and ginkgos—and well most trees around here, tend to be of an ambitious strain which can cause all sorts of problems for planning footpaths, benches, pools, and playgrounds. But a tree like this, that aims low with its petite figure, and short branches, might be an ideal servant of the park.
And yet, the scars of its multiple amputations might be evidence that this small old arbor may not be as innocent as it appears to be at first glance. If its hairy and gnarled skin is any indication of the creeper’s age, then one might guess this tree has seen many years in this park, and may have once hoped to grow larger and further, to provide a fuller shade like the behemoths that surround it on all sides. But we all have to know our place. The tree has no doubt learned. We cannot all be beautiful titans, free to reach as far as we like. No, some of us must be clipped and must find our position in the box.
And it may be a box thats soil is preoccupied with prickling bushes hoarding as much root space as the benign flora can manage, but this tree should rest contentedly—its lucky to have a place at all! And a place in a park no less! What brutality this tree has never seen outside the gates of Folkets Park. Here at least it may enjoy the sound of rushing water (even if it is from an artificial waterfall), which no doubt excites the root-endings.
No, the tree may not be esteemed but it has a prime position to keep an eye on us people who leisure and gossip in the park. And docile as it looks at first glance, perhaps we should be wary. Its branches hang low enough that it no doubt is a practiced expert in eavesdropping on unsuspecting pedestrians. And perhaps this tree has even made an industry of its small, surveilling stature. After all, it is covered in lichen—who we can all agree are among the most two-faced of terrestrial organisms.
For its age, and the sheer mass of people that walk through this park—that wander along the paths that perimeter this very tree—it may at this point be the most well informed creature in all of Möllan. All those great trees that shade this park aren’t bothered with the petty dramas of us tiny people, and if even they were, they wouldn’t be able to hear anything for all the wind blowing throw their branches, but this tree hears the many voices that speak low to the ground and has the patience to take notes.
I See You’ve Changed
If you ask someone to go out and find something, but not anything in particular, what would you expect them to come back with? If it was you who set about finding this unspecified something, how would you begin? When we asked our participants this very question, to go out and find something to write about, talk about, or draw about, we found that many participants (as I suspect most people would) had to first come up with a rationalisation for how and what they would choose to share.
Memory, aesthetic, familiarity or peculiarity, were all offered as incentives for why participants chose to look at and write about something. Thuy, a local to Möllan, had been watching the park’s open lawn over the course of the past couple of years. The field of green grass has in the past offered a place for many people to socialise, laze, picnic, party, etc. but over the course of the last year it has been under maintenance to restore the soft green bed that had no doubt been trampled underfoot.
Grasses and people illustration by Thuy
While Thuy looked at the regions of intense social gravity, participants Yanika and Victoria ranged into the margins. In the corner of the park, there resides a small hill. A space tucked behind the children’s theatre that could host just as lush a lawn as the centre is largely ignored, and what results is a quiet collection of life that holds a unique perspective on the many characters moving through the park (even if they are overlooked). It is a wonder if those living in that space prefer it that way.
Sketch of Folkets Park border region, by Victoria
“You never go there because you are not invited to.”
Consider the perspective of the feral flora, is it better to be loved to death by people, like the popular lawn, or entirely ignored, in the quiet corner? Either way, the dynamic is suspect, and may invite the troubling idea that people can only appreciate and enjoy a space if it has been strictly managed. Still, while the lawn is a space that has been anthropocentrically-designed, it is important to note the popularity of its free and unencumbered bed. Victoria and Yanika proved that we can appreciate a space even if it isn’t perfectly manicured and perhaps there is opportunity to diffuse the social gravity of the overworked lawn to be spread more equitably among the unexpected but nonetheless lively corners of Folkets Park.
Algae Unveil Controversial Redesign of Folkets Park Pond
The long narrow pond at the centre of Folkets Park has many aesthetic water features. It has a sizeable waterfall, water spouts, and in certain seasons giant plastic water lilies floating on the surface. Its pretty tasteful actually.
This pond or big fountain, must of course be maintained to keep it looking so. However, beneath the surface of the water, a number of different aquatic plants and algae have furnished the space to their liking. Participants Lizette and Otis, noticed upon close inspection that there were many layers of life to this seemingly artificial attraction. This object of spectacle, designed for beauty I would wager, has facilitated an underwater ecosystem.
This closed habitat is not only impressive for its vitality, but as another participant noticed, it adds several levels of aesthetic beauty to the fountain. Ellen, noticing the spiralling forms that the submerged algae form, as they have grown outward from the central fountains, is reminiscent to the kinetic paintings of Van Gogh. Algae, generously offering its stylings, free of charge. Still it seems that local facebook groups have called for the killing of these quiet artists (older generations can often be fearful of, and even violent towards, the avant garde), as they feel these many unkempt organisms are ruining the beauty of the pure-people-made fountain.
Algae & plant formations by Ellen
Like spaces of living and leisure, our workshop revealed that beauty is being interrogated in and outside of this unassuming pond. Still, I think the many of us in the workshop were of the opinion that art resulting from the collaboration between people and other species is something to be recognised and supported.
Especially because interspecies collaboration, while commonplace for most organisms, feels pretty challenging for a lot of us people these days. When we don’t look at other species as potential co-workers, neighbours, comrades, or companions, the result is isolation for ourselves and other species.
Take a bee, for example. This is a species that you might commonly associate with community or family because some species live in a hive of a many individuals. But as one of our participants noticed, a bee living the world built by and for people alone (and not bees) can be very disorientating for a single bee. “I saw a little bee that was just lonely, flying around.” Said Anna, “it was just constantly bumping into the sign and then bumping into the wall next to it. It made me feel really sad and sorry for the bee because it probably feels like a human in an airport with really bad signage, just trying to find its way.”
The lonely, disorientated bee by Anna
When we look at a bee or a tree, something else emerges for many people living in the city: uncertainty. Since we do not work with, or rely upon other species directly, we simply don’t know how a creature is feeling or if it is healthy or sick, or common or rare. Daniel recognised a tree that was almost a maple tree, but not quite. While its leaves were at least somewhat familiar, what made it odd was that its trunk was thick and tall while its branches were scrawny, making the almost-maple look disproportioned. What are we to make of this, when it is the first time we look and make note of it? When living in the city, most of the trees we know are unhealthy, die young, and totally displaced, so who are we (or even the landscapers that put them there) to know what’s good for the tree?
Let’s Get to Know One Another
In our workshop, we saw much of the same tension we ourselves feel when we start to look at other species in the city. When we look at other species, they are familiar but often so irrelevant to our living that we don’t actually know anything about them. Whether they are good or bad, “invasive” or indigenous, healthy or sick. We suppose that somebody knows and is maybe keeping tabs of things, but even when we don’t know, we lament the plainly-visible corrosion of an idea often referred to as nature.
Ultimately, this mystification that has occurred has left both us people and the species we live beside powerless and estranged from one another. It is the goal of Feral Malmö not to provide people scientific names of these modern plants and animals, or to regurgitate something easily divined from your favorite search engine, but rather to make an introduction and provide some tools for building your own knowledge of the spaces you (and many others) frequent.
In this first foray, we were introduced to many human and nonhuman characters. There were many great insights from our first feral workshops, and what you’ve read here is only a peek at the many great ideas and imaginings of our participants. To see more of what was produced, and to learn about future workshops or productions from Feral Malmö, stay tuned!
Many thanks to everyone who participated in our first workshops!
Our next workshop will take place on November 13th. If you’re interested feel free to get in touch with us via email or on instagram @feral.malmo