In this interview, Gilly Karjevsky from Soft Agency speaks with Ola Knychalska and Krysia Jędrzejewska-Szmek about their work as the Zakole Group visiting and guiding groups around the wetland of Zakole, near Warsaw, to observe, research and embody its current biocultural complexity and possible futures. Drawing from parallel experiences of working in such environments – a major water infrastructure reclaimed by urban nature and its subsequent cultural re-activation – this conversation explores ideas on other-than-human rights to the city and biocultural restorative urban planning.
Zakole Wawerskie (meaning “Warwer's meander” in Polish) is a surprisingly wild wetland located between the developments of Gocław and Wawer, in the immediate vicinity of the Trasa Siekierkowska and Trakt Lubelski highways in Warsaw, Poland. The wetland hides an old river bed of the Vistula that used to meander there, as well as former floodplains of the river. Zakole includes a number of naturally diverse areas, such as peat bogs, an alder forest, and vast meadows inhabited by numerous creatures. It serves as a natural habitat of one of the largest numbers of bird species in the Polish capital. Zakole plays a key role in the municipal water circulation system, preventing the increasingly acute droughts and severely frequent floods, while wetlands and their biodiversity are crucial in staving off the planetary climate and environmental catastrophe. The question of urban development in this area has been the subject of a tacit conflict for many years, as landowners on the site urge for a decision about their future to be made.
Gilly: Tell us what kind of landscape Zakole is, but also a little bit about the journey that the group took to arrive into the place.
Ola: We started working with Zakole in the framework of a European project collaboration between Krytyka Polityczna and Erasmus in which the main topic was the right to the city. We decided to work with climate change and how to connect it to the right to the city issue. Then we met Krysia, who took us to Zakole Wawerskie, the swamp area, which is maybe not in the center of Warsaw but it is very much in the city – it is part of the city. We went for a walk there, falling in love with this totally wild urban area where there is coexistence between people and animals, which led us to reflect on non-human rights to the city. We decided to organise gatherings between people and other-than-human animals in urban nature. The main intention was to combine various cognitive methods or apparatuses: scientific, artistic, philosophical, and activist with embodied ways of learning; to advocate and observe and collect moods and knowledge, and at the same time maybe challenge the perception which is created by one specific science. We did it by inviting experts from these fields to visit Zakole at a very slow pace. We invited them for a walk and then we interviewed them to collect this knowledge and published it on our website. We realised that knowing the place in an embodied way is an approach that works for us.
Krysia: It is important to mention that when you visit the place, it is really extreme. There is a main highway running alongside. So you have this wild green area with this immense sound of the city. There are a lot of mosquitos and you keep on getting your feet wet because the water is deeper than you would expect. It is rather a place that is very poorly known and we found out that some of the neighbours, people who own land there, think of this place as a very bad one – that it is dangerous, unorganised and not useful.
CREDIT: Zakole Group
Ola: Activist practice sometimes means coming to a place and fighting for it, just like in Puszcza Białowieska, a thousands of years old forest that was being cut down on the border of Poland and Belarus. There was a huge protest which ended in a conflict and touched the local community. Sometimes the activist approach is to give the protectionist solution. I think that here we are not trying to find a protection for Zakole – we would love to just protect it somehow, of course – but rather trying to get closer to the perspective of other-than-human animals who live here. While we cannot advocate on their behalf, we can imagine things. This part is very important. Similarly, we try to hear people who live around Zakole, which can be very complex and intense. There is a tension of many layers of coexistence. We try to just observe it and understand it, without necessarily giving solutions.
Gilly: I think you are touching on a very interesting point, that there is a form of nostalgia in protection and preservation, the need to keep things “as they were”. But maybe a transformation within urban space, which also includes different natural environments, is not necessarily always bad. There is an urban ecology, an urban nature within the city, which can migrate from area to area. Ultimately, it is about ecological balance and the protection of species, but that doesn't have to mean protection of one specific space in one specific way. But then within abandoned urban ecological biotopes, these kind of unofficial countryside spaces – which both the Floating University Berlin and Zakole are part of – it is not necessarily the worst thing in the world that it evolves or changes. We are also facing this at Floating; we know we will have to go next summer and that the site will be transformed again for the next four years and we do not know if after that we will come back or not. The question is what do we want to focus on now. How do we see the place, our role, how do we see the benefit the city takes from this place, and how do we relocate this benefit rather than preserve it as it is? How does your practice at Zakole stay with “the now”?
Krysia: The time that is in between activities often gets lost. When we began, we had to walk a lot, and keep on carrying food to the site and this became a method by itself – “carrying things together”. At Zakole everything is so slow, because you physically can’t move fast in this space. We developed different slow activities over time, such as workshops of empathic drawing, where the focus was not to create a pretty image but to tune into the perspectives of the other-than-human-beings that live here. We’ve also held performative readings together with an eco-poetical school who did some experimental learning as well. We entered directly into a very dense field of reeds and surrounded by them we were reading the Hydrofeminist Manifesto of Astrida Neimanis. It was quite interesting how the power of a text changed when we stood with our feet in the water and the reeds were all over us.
We also had performative beaver walks, where a performer and dancer collaborated with a biologist who researches the animal. We really focused on cross-disciplinary learning processes. After a year, we met again to reflect on how things went. We heard that for some scientists it was a completely new experience to dedicate so much time and thought to how our bodies function in space together – that thinking about our bodies and looking at them and working with them is something that could be useful in the scientific process. One scientist working with mushrooms said that when she visits Zakole her body is absent, she is just a learning machine. It was quite interesting to confront this kind of hard science attitude with the body of researchers. Does the researcher have a body of their own? We try to find the path that means not only adding two perspectives but somehow getting a mixture and pushing the boundaries of each discipline and of the people who create it.
Gilly: What other methodologies have you developed that enable this shift?
Ola: One stems from how the site is accessed – we had to go through very thick bushes to get to it, so we then invited people to also experience it, walking silently. After this, last year we created a camera obscura, a black box in which you could observe the area using a totally different tool in a kind of similarly meditative moment.
CREDIT: Zakole Group
Krysia: The black box covered two square meters and you could see the landscape of Zakole, but it was very blurred and upside down. I think that the camera obscura was the starting point to talk and to meet. It was surprising how important it became to have a kind of safe space in this wild site, as it was often overwhelming for people.
Gilly: In allowing for other experiences of the wetland to emerge, a practice that allows different connections to the place, there is more incorporeal connection and understanding. Would you say that parts of your technique are layering experiences together? Entangling embodied experiences and cognitive experiences to confront each other, extract from each other or even contaminate each other?
Ola: I think that contamination is a good word. There is a word that we use in Polish: wielowiedza, which could be translated as “multi-knowledge” but I think that some of the sense is lost in translation. It is kind of contaminated knowledge, also involving the idea of passive knowledge, which is also a topic for us, especially passive knowledge in science. During the walks we leave a space for what we call individual passive knowledge – we encourage exchange in pairs about the shared experience but sometimes we simply allow everyone to live it without giving an answer or a meaning.
Krysia: I can answer from my individual perspective. I originally studied biology and then I studied art as well. During my biology studies I went to many peat bogs and mires and I had a lot of data about it. It was always concentrated very much on identifying species and naming ecosystems, checklisting it and here, during the first walk, I had a feeling that for the first time I felt what a peat bog is. It is a mystical thing for me but you have to have a welcoming setting to feel that because you can otherwise feel very instrumental about this stuff. I think it is also about leaving a place for not knowing. It is unlearning the need to name everything.