Inter-Species Conservation

Aleksandra Jach

Every scheme for the analysis of nature has to face these two facts, change and endurance. There is yet a third fact to be placed by it, eternality (...).1

Alfred N. Whitehead

Conservation revquires a selection of objects worthy of conservation, made possible by providing care. Through protective action, a certain type of materiality gains immunity against the passage of time. Becoming an object of memory, it acts as a vehicle for humanity to project its future and imagine a possible intervention into the evolution of the environment. Conservation requires selection of the processes of decay that we wish to eliminate. Most often these are processes, as a result of which the shape of the object loses its integrity, which makes it impossible to use it as a culturally significant image. In short, in conservation, the point is usually to preserve the coherence of a certain idea or figure, expressed through a material work, and through it also the possibility of experiencing the interpretations it inspires.

This text concerns the relationship between conservation and nature; it is an attempt to analyze methods of managing natural cultural artefacts employed as memory tools. These reflections, which led me to propose the concept of inter-species conservation, were inspired by three artistic works. The basis of such a concept of care is a finely tuned attentiveness to processes taking place through the participation of non-human agents, and a concentration on the relations between them, the human species, and the environment. I understand such actions not only as an aesthetic but also a philosophical manifesto, based on a finely tuned awareness of life processes. The concept of coming to terms with change and a full acceptance of what cannot be controlled are postulates that can be found, for one, in the two-thousand-year-old texts of the Stoics. In the contemporary context, in a world where the fulfilment of dreams of “immortality or “longevity is combined with exploitation of the natural environment, it is the case that psychological, philosophical, and ethical concepts that aim to expose the impermanence of life and matter confront capitalist values. Free movement between change, permanence, and eternity requires fine-tuning into life processes, thus an acceptance of the disintegration of the ego, memory, identity, history, matter, and capital. It is possible to attempt to come to terms with this kind of change by means of the objects of contemplation that I intend to write about here a defunct electrical substation (Joanna Rajkowska), a pallet of black oak (Karolina Grzywnowicz), and a photograph of camp barracks (Anna Zagrodzka). Often, the authors limit themselves to minimal intervention; they protect the terrain, observe the changes taking place, and emphasize the impact of non-human organisms. What kind of values do we preserve and why? Can we also involve non-human organisms in conservation?

In Latin, “conservation means preserving or saving. The field of knowledge referred to as conservation requires competence in art history, chemistry, and artistic technique, combined with a high level of manual dexterity. The discipline is usually considered some kind of sophisticated time management “freezing time for the needs of future generations. Conservation slows down the aging process, enters the battle for immortality or for the slowing down of the decay of matter. It questions the price of preservation the significance of the object for the present time and in constructing the future. Usually, conservation avoids exposing what has been lost in the process of “freezing life and matter. It does not value what has been reduced or killed. It is closely in touch with fundamental issues, and so conservation cannot be perceived as a set of pragmatic solutions in materials science and the cosmetics of objects; conservation is best regarded as a mental exercise in transcending human time.

Joanna Rajkowska proposes taking care of the ecosystem of the habitat in an abandoned electrical substation in the park in Niskie Łąki in Wrocław the Trafostation. This habitat in a setting of post-industrial architecture serves different organisms and materialities that slowly take control of the place. Most months, the building is hosed down with water that drips down the walls and soaks into the ground, from where it is again directed to the top of the building. Inside the Trafostation, there is a water pump and a system to increase the humidity of the walls in order to hasten the decay of the building. After a previous tenant an electricity supply company stopped using the building, it was left derelict. The city authorities the owner of the premises had no idea how to utilize this now obsolete relic of the industrial past, which was not a church, theater, or even a shopping center. The Trafostation kept imperceptibly falling apart, until it became the chief protagonist of the project by Joanna Rajkowska. It was necessary to establish whether the building was inhabited before the infrastructure to bring a water supply into the substation could be installed. The organizers were aware that occasionally there would be someone in there. Directly before the start of the works, the Impart employees went to Niskie Łąki and conducted a conversation with the man, lying inside the building.2 This encounter with the man became one of the turning points in creating the idea of the Trafostation as a “reserve. Rajkowska, who could not participate in the event, asked the Impart workers to provide photographic and film documentation. The conversation with the person lying inside the building was conducted through a hole in the wall. From that vantage point, a photograph was taken of a homeless person probably in a critical situation. The man was almost completely covered by a duvet with a neoplastic design. By providing permanence to that image and using the photograph in exhibitions related to the Trafostation, the memory object from Niskie Łąki gained another dimension. The shaping of a protection space requires specific procedures, often exclusive. In the case of the Trafostation, the creation of space for the non-human element involved the removal of the person from the inside of the building. Rajkowska acknowledges this situation as part of the identity of her work, taking into account the fact that the circulation of matter that she portrays is never innocent.

For many, this building is just another abandoned, derelict site nothing special about it, after all, so many things fall apart. The Trafostation is not remarkable architecturally, nor is its location anything special. The plants growing there face a difficult situation. The damp environment at the juncture of soil and water slowly turns brick into powder. Then, algae appear, and all the rest, so creepers and forest plants added by the artists struggle to survive. The Trafostation was chosen by chance, in fact it was logistics that had led the artist and the organizers to this particular place. Taking care of decaying architecture needed a definition of a process of evaluation for this kind of space. Rajkowskas aim was not to show that the Trafostation was in any way remarkable, but rather to draw attention to its individuality. This is “any place or “any building or “any ecosystem. “Any does not, however, mean “any such as may be, “useless or “poor quality. This is an entity that appears to be featureless but it is the very fact that this entity is trying so hard to confuse us with the fact that there is nothing exceptional or spectacular about it that should make us doubly vigilant and provoke us to ask what in fact happens to us when we look at this place.3 The Trafostation “a place without qualities as a subject for care? Why invest time, energy, or funds in a decaying building? And, what is more, why accelerate the decay by flooding the structure with water?

At the heart of the concept of the Trafostation there lies the conviction that the observation of uncontrolled biological processes may provoke reflection on the status, function, and values that we invest in nature. Alluding also to the tumor that her daughter developed, Rajkowska shows the potential of transforming matter, whose activity can be captured for example by following the development of a disease. Succumbing to uncontrolled forces is an inherent aspect of the functioning of biological beings. The history of the Trafostation has also been accompanied by multiple sclerosis. While working on her project in Wrocław, Rajkowska spent much time with her cousin, afflicted by that illness. Observing the changes taking place in him, she began to think about her actions that aimed to hasten the decay of human things, as one kind of answer to the problems for the planet caused by the human race. This also applied to her conclusions about tumors. “Sometimes I think about cancer as a solution of sorts, Rajkowska writes, “it is, after all, a very efficient system for reducing the species.4 There, cancer is defined as a biological tool for controlling the size of the human population. It is a force, neither for good nor for ill. Rajkowska is not looking for a model of an ideal, healthy ecosystem. “My target is not biodiversity, nor is it the creation of an ecological model. This is not a scientific activity. This is a gesture of resignation, shifting the emphasis somewhat, with us humans withdrawing from a domain considered decidedly human architecture. My point is to change the way we look both at our human creations and at the power of plants or water.5 The artist wants to ensure that the Trafostation enables a reflection on life, which survives and develops with a minimum of human input. This is a perspective that is very close to the ideas behind nature reserves, where human intervention has been kept as minimal as possible. The inter-species conservation, which the Trafostation represents for me, is based on a premise of exposing the vital forces that take over the material traces of human existence. In our memory, the image of an electric substation may slowly blur in favor of our vision of the nature reserve that it is being created on its remains. What can be done, however, with any legacy which for various reasons we do not want to restore to its “former glory? Is the spectacle of decay and simultaneous flourishing of life an appropriate idea for a new kind of monument? How does the definition of commemoration change when it is taking place in the form of “fine-tuning into life processes? The care provided for the remnants of human culture may not support the image of the place that we know from the past, but rather focus on its potential to change. It is more difficult to acquiesce in such a form of conservation of the memory object when it comes to spaces marked by tragedy, places that represent a warning against the scale of human oppression. When such places are taken taken by vegetation and their tame image falls apart, to be covered by yet another layer of growth that will remove from the public gaze all that is inconvenient, many of us feel the therapeutic dimension of such a process. In contrast to memory, which sets out to reconstruct various institutions, such an acceptance of the “dissolution of our visualisation of a particular aspect of the past arouses positive emotions.

A “healing dimension of the reclaiming of some spaces by nature provided the starting point for the concept for a monument for the concentration camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau that in 1957 the team of architect Oskar Hansen produced.6 This proposition was based on the principle of Open Space a concept that understood artistic activity as a framework for viewers individual interpretations. The objects or situations proposed by the artist or designer were timeless, since the artistic gesture allowed room for change, for a process to take place and new circumstances. Hansens plan for Auschwitz was to build a road that would cut across the camp. The documentation of the project design shows a synthetic sketch of the spatial layout, with a strip of white sand and an asphalted road, along which visitors could stroll. The idea was to weld shut the main entrance to the camp and allow everything but the designated pathway to become gradually overgrown. In such a scheme, all the barracks and their environment would slowly lose their familiar appearance, poignantly bearing testimony to the time that had passed since the Holocaust.

In the context of our reflections, the Open Form concept that underlay Hansens proposal for the monument in Auschwitz can be described as a method of conservation that does not erase the past yet provides an alternative representation of it. The image of the rows of wooden barracks in the concentration camp has a ring of postcard-like familiarity to most of us. The intention is to reproduce the past in its role of “frozen there-and-then. The idea of Hansen and his team transforms this figurative narrative into abstraction: a line, a road that we follow as we observe the tragedy of Auschwitz buried under yet more layers of experience.

A similar process is intended for the Trafostation. The image of the electricity substation is slowly being erased; in this way according to the artist it is possible to experience the “spectacle of matter, to understand the relationship, which Whitehead writes about, between change, permanence, and eternity. The transformation is intended to set in motion reflection on the scale of expansion of Homo sapiens and the incessant shrinking of the space for the non-human.7  It is not a tragedy that has already taken place but rather a premonition of an ongoing crisis and possible impending catastrophe that has motivated Rajkowska to mark out a space to be excluded from unrestricted human exploitation.

Anna Zagrodzka is also interested in undermining the coherent image of memory objects. Her photographs are inspired by conservation that takes place on the sites of former Nazi extermination sites. The care extended to such places does not always apply to all elements within the area, because from the perspective of the politics of commemoration, what matters is the general image of the camp and its most important elements, usually related to the oppression and killing of prisoners. Zagrodzka pays attention precisely to the objects defined as less significant. They are the ones that have the chance to enter a new pact with the natural world, because they are no longer protected by any conservation related to their direct exploitation. The photograph of one of the buildings that Zagrodzka found interesting represents not only the materiality of the camp but also, to my mind, the past and future of the Trafostation, implementing the idea of architecture “taken over by non-human organisms. A ruin that is a remnant of a concentration camp has a different cultural gravitas than any random building, and for this reason it is more difficult for it to escape the mechanical identification that construes collective memory. The absorption of such architecture by the natural environment (revitalization) may be called neglect of the memory of a given event.

The battle for the preservation of a coherent image of history continues on different levels, also at the micro level, to which Zagrodzka has invited us. She is also interested in specific actions conducted in laboratories, which make it possible to slow down the process of the transformation of matter. Zagrodzkas photographs document the identification of the “enemy or the organisms that can be treated with appropriate biocides. The defense of the building against dereliction is a Sisyphean task, if one takes into account the persistence of the non-human proliferation on the walls of the camp. The artist herself creates survival media with samples of matter from the places that she finds interesting. In the lab, she examines such samples for the presence of bacteria or fungi. On a degreased glass slide held over a flame, she places drops of sterile water and the material to be analyzed. In the aseptic conditions, in isolation from random forms of life, it is possible to observe under the microscope the structure and proliferation of filamentous fungus, or mold. Zagrodzkas actions do not aim to discover a new biocide but to obtain a photographic image of a non-human organism, in order for such a representation to make us accustomed to similar life-forms. This matters all the more, since the many such fungi (for instance of the genera Alternaria, Acremonium, Enyodontium, and Poria) and the various kinds of bacteria present on the wet walls can be a hazard for human health. The photographic documentation carried out by Zagrodzka at a microscopic level not only enables us to adopt the “hygienic perspective that mandates a focus on possible processes for exterminating some of the fungi but it also gives us a chance to appreciate the persistence of their survival. There is little room there for spreading a protective umbrella over what is non-human, since that would have to mean an abandonment of the spaces colonized by such organisms. However, the very observation of the plurality of life processes taking place on the wall of the building means opening up the prospect of conservation as an inter-species activity. This does not automatically signify a desire to support non-human life, but it is rather related to exposing various human interventions that undermine the idyllic narrative about living in harmony with the environment. Thinking about inter-species conservation in the context of extermination camps does not assume that one gives up the protection of the living matter present there; its emphasis is on the processes taking place at a micro level. Observation of the processes of transformation in the environment allows us to come to an understanding of the way in which the structure of the barracks or the space of the camp is affected by the biocidal interventions undertaken in relation to the non-human organisms.

The work of Karolina Grzywnowicz provides another point of view on inter-species conservation. An object made of black oak is a material result of chemical and biological processes that have enabled matter to remain compact for a thousand years. Grzywnowicz, with her intervention that transformed this matter into a pallet, has sealed the fate of the trees status: it has become raw material for sale. In this manner, Grzywnowicz is drawing attention to the fetishization of “natural conservation processes that take place in nature, while at the same time ruthlessly highlighting the problem of environmental exploitation.

For the artist the direct trigger for making the black oak pallet was the discussion taking place in Poland on the state of the Białowieża Forest, and the criticism of the reduction of this primaeval forest simply to a source of timber. The legal status of the forest varies; some parts of it have been defined as biologically unique, while others have not been given the legal protection appropriate for nature reserves. The Ministry of the Environment is engaged in making drastic interventions into both the functioning of this forest and other similar nature reserves in Poland.

The postulates that refer to the provision of protective status for the entire forest have been under debate for decades, unfortunately with no tangible effects to date. It seems that one of the most significant issues is the perception of the forest as a space in which some areas can be singled out as more valuable than others. This also applies to the level of plant aggregation: some are deemed inviolable, others fit for removal. This approach makes exploitation of nature in the locality easier to justify, since it is always possible to designate an area that “does not merit protection.

The problems linked to the Białowieża Forest stem from the way that nature is valued as well as the definition of its function and the scale of human intervention. What we are dealing with here is a class of languages and value systems. According to the media, this is a confrontation between foresters on the one side and academics on the other. The combine harvester versus “natures warriors. “Look how much precious timber is being wasted versus the “human degradation of a uniquely complex and diverse ecosystem. The situation is grave and requires effective arguments, thus the majority of contenders operate within the safe zone of a generally recognizable value system. To my mind, the clash over the Białowieża Forest exemplifies the identification of our human well-being with the welfare of the biological environment and by the same token, is a proof of our spiritual relationship to the non-human world. I believe that, intuitively, many people invest trees with much more complex meanings than is apparent from discussions about clean air, building materials, or furniture. In the art and poetry, in the impressions, deeds and words of the many involved in environmental action, I can see that the fight for nature coincides with seeking a path to regain a connection with a whole that is much greater than we are. I therefore think that expressions such as “biological merit, “loss of biodiversity, “destruction of habitat, “UNESCO protection zone conceal a disappointment with the values of global capitalism and a longing to “tune into life processes.

Grzywnowicz exposes the status of a commercial good that we have imposed on black oak. The simplicity of the form of the transport pallet is an abstract made from organic material. A few planks of timber have been nailed together to give the impression of something durable and strong. It is also possible to view this object differently: a butchered tree that for a thousand years had a function in a complex symbiosis with the environment, first as a living plant, later as its remnants.

From the commercial point of view, black oak is an exceptional commodity, because its “conservation has relied on conditions that do not obtain under a short-term policy of nature management. To qualify for the name of “Polish ebony, timber has had to be buried in the ground or under water for a minimum of several hundred years, moreover with no oxygen, to enable the tannins present in the oak to react with the iron salts and acquire its characteristic color. Every oak tree transformed in such a manner and discovered on Polish soil belongs to the State Treasury. In practice, however, such wood is not difficult to obtain. It can be purchased online or in situ, as a raw material or in the form of a piece of furniture. Working closely with the joiner Stanisław Kardas, Grzywnowicz selected an oak tree, and the Archaometry Laboratory in Cianowice (with the test conducted by Marek Krąpiec, a professor of engineering sciences) confirmed its age assessing it be some 1,350 years old, i.e. dating from the 7th century. The oak, has been identified as Quercus robur L., commonly known as a common oak, pedunculate oak, or European oak. The tree has been transformed by environmental factors, having spent such a long time in the alluvium that the structure of the tissue and its hue have been altered.

The exhibition of the black oak pallet in Szczepański Square in Krakow during the Unsound festival in 2017 was dramatic. Today, the luxurious materials that are now to be found in the heart of the city such as marble, granite, and sandstone are on display against a backdrop of quite a different and less refined product of burning carbon: the heavy smog that plagues the city. The petrified plant remnants, exploited to excess in the geological basin, have become the daily curse of the city, with an adverse impact on the health of the inhabitants.

In this context, the pallet made from black oak by Karolina Grzywnowicz is a memory object about an organism which has succumbed to conservation through favorable environmental conditions, and this has made it a very valuable raw material. Fossil wood is valued for its durability and hue, impossible to achieve in artificial conditions. To reflect on fossil wood in the context of inter-species conservation is to regard Grzywnowiczs pallet not as a luxury material but as a stage in a complex process that started with a fallen tree, which entered into biochemical reactions with its environment. These transformations were interrupted by human intervention that resulted in the separation of the matter from its surroundings, turning it into a utility commodity. This changed the character of the processes that affected the structure of the oak.

While lying at the bottom of the lake or bog, and for a long period deprived of access to oxygen, the oak had a greater chance of not succumbing to decay, thus preserving the integrity of its matter for longer. As fossil wood, each piece of black oak contains mineralized elements, which helps us to begin to imagine the bonds between our bodies and the transformation of other-than-human organic matter. In fact, it was the process of petrification that created man; it appeared in the history of evolution some 500 million years ago and it involved some forms of life, leading to the creation of a new structure for bone tissue. As DeLanda writes, it is as if, with this gesture, organisms affirmed that geology does not concern the “primitive levels of evolution on this planet, but that it is, rather, a basis for thinking about new ways of functioning by the means of primitive bones that were later to develop into the full skeletal system.[8] The arrival of this structure provided the opportunity for greater ease of movement, thus also more effective colonization of the earth, air and water. Bones, as DeLanda emphasizes, are the memory of our mineral “roots, living material that is the easiest to mineralize and which links us back to the world of rocks.9

Fossil wood is thus our connection to different ages; it evokes associations with the past of some materials (fossils) and at the same time it is treated as a material that has retained its vitality. The wood continues to work, so it is still “alive. It has a specific smell, it ages, it becomes inhabited by micro-organisms. Associations with wood are often intimate in character, evoking something familiar and homely. Wood equals warmth. Jean Baudrillard calls these associations “luxury nostalgia.10 “Substances are what they are and there is no point in dividing them into natural and artificial materials, real, or false.11 Cement, plastic, wood, glass all these materials are equally “authentic. Baudrillard claims that the only difference between them is how they are used. Materials considered natural thus play the part of elements that create the “ambiance value of a given place.12 In such a context, wood is simply a “simple cultural sign that implies specific associations. In the case of black oak, these are the processes that cause it to harden and thus become durable. Synthetic materials may have similar properties but it is particularly to wood, and not plastic, that we have granted the right to “age, and I would not necessarily reduce this to “luxury nostalgia. Perhaps, there is something more to it a recognition that wood once used to be a living organism, and that what we are dealing with now is its material after-image. Looking at Grzywnowiczs pallet, we come to realize what complex relationships this object must have gone through before it could be revealed to the world of culture as “black oak.

Inter-species conservation is a subversive and probably slightly ironic proposal, which stems from a lack of agreement on the answer to the dilemma of choosing between brutal, capitalist exploitation, “green capitalist exploitation, socialist exploitation of biology for human use, or a biocentric narrative about the rights of nature, constructed by human perception. The care that results from this approach aims to decentralize the human subject as the most causative agent in the environment, confronting the human species with complex reactions that make it possible for the ecosystem of which Homo sapiens is a part to “endure, and thus keep transforming. Inter-species conservation is vitalist it affirms the multiplicity of connections taking place in material, as well as the dynamic transformation of the organic into the non-organic, and the non-organic into the organic. The subject, as well as the object, of interest for this kind of conservation is the memory of the relationships that make life and the metabolism of each object possible; there is less focus on the preservation or construction of a coherent image of materiality.

My thanks to Urszula Zajączkowska, PhD, for her consultation on this text.

Translated from the English by Anda MacBride


Aleksandra Jach curator, works at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź.

* Coverphoto: Joanna Rajkowska, Trafostation in Niskie Łąki park (Wrocław). Fot. Patryk Szelawa, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and l'étrangère gallery in London

[1] Alfred N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Pelican Mentor Books/The New American Library, New York, 1997, p. 88.

[2] Impart the Festival Office was in charge of the implementation of Joanna Rajkowskas project. This link provides detailed information about the people and institutions involved:, [date accessed: 17 January 2018].

[3] I have been inspired by Giorgio Agamben and his “whatever singularity that cannot be contained in measurement and representation. For a philosopher, this is a means of avoiding the choice between the universal and the particular. This singularity is important, because it exists, and its value is composed of all the attributes, and especially the possibility and the potential.

[4] Obieg materii. Od-swajanie. Joanna Rajkowska talking to Ola Jach,, [date accessed: 17 January 2018].

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Apart from Oskar Hansen, on his team were: Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz, Julian Pałka, Lechosław Pałka, Lechosław Rosiński, Edmund Kupiecki, Tadeusz Plasota, and Zofia Hansen.

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Zone Books, Nowy Jork 1997, pp. 2627.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] Jean Baudrillard, Drewno naturalne, drewno kulturowe, tłum. Dorota Jędruch, Autoportret, no. 1 (48) 2015, Krakow, p. 54.

[11] Ibidem.

[12] Ibidem, p. 55.