Forming roots with more-than-human collaborators - TENT Rotterdam | Platform voor hedendaagse kunst Forming roots with more-than-human collaborators - TENT Rotterdam | Platform voor hedendaagse kunst

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Forming roots with more-than-human collaborators
Forming roots with more-than-human collaborators - TENT Rotterdam | Platform voor hedendaagse kunst

Forming roots with more-than-human collaborators

Long read

Starting from Lucie’s project “How I fell in love with the enemy”, Marika Vandekraats and Lucie Havel discuss the relationship between unruly natures and human perspectives. The work centres on Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant species known for its resiliency in urban environments. Lucie explores the properties of the plant by means of biochemical experiments, which result in papers, pulps, dyes and paints. Through her work, perspectives of how nature is viewed through the lens of the human are challenged.


The conversation brought up questions of material research and more-than-human collaborations, such as “Why do we centre the human?” and “how do we share space in a precarious world?” In a written exchange, Lucie and Marika attempt to untangle these questions and give attention to the often overlooked non-humans that shape our world.

Marika: You’ve been working with Japanese knotweed as a research topic since 2018. The plant is known as invasive and hard to control, capable of growing through concrete and urban infrastructure. Its tenacity is made clear as its roots resprout and extend metres deep into soil, making its removal extremely difficult. Can you tell me how you first encountered knotweed and elaborate on what led you to start your research? How has your relationship to knotweed shifted to where it is today?

Lucie: It is always difficult to talk about relationships when two different species are involved. Especially when there is no language, not even body language or facial expression to communicate. I first came across knotweed in my studio garden. In the second year of gardening, I began to wonder why I was planting new plants in pots when I didn’t even know what was growing naturally in the soil outside the planters. So I set about getting to know what was already present. That’s how I met Japanese knotweed.

When I started my project, one of my questions was: “Can humans adapt to their environment?”, a question that foregrounds humans rather than plants. This question flowed from another question: Can I offer an alternative to our exploitative attitude towards our environment through my art practice?

I sought the answer in the concepts of adaptation versus exploitation. In the latter case, humans adapt the environment to their interests and try to exploit all the possibilities it offers. In the first case, humans would adapt to their environment.

To adapt to the plant, it is important to get to know the plant well first. I have read a lot about Japanese knotweed. I have read about its history, behaviour and biology. I also got to know her through material research. Deriving materials from the plant, I decided to let the chemical processes develop naturally. That is, without accurately measuring the time, temperature, or pH value. Instead, I just waited for the process to complete. Plants approach their processes the same way, without measuring every step. By adopting a similar approach,I tried to get as close to the plant as possible. When history narrates your subject and attempts to direct its future, it becomes impossible to see it as a passive object.Then you see its strong characteristics and urge to grow.

Knotweed in studio garden | Photo by Lucie Havel
Knotweed rhizome and stems | Photo by Lucie Havel
Preparing for transport | Photo by Lucie Havel
Dyeing experiments | Photo by Lucie Havel

My practice is also deliberately “low cost and low tech”, which forces me to base my actions on the properties of the plant. When I started the project, I thought this would hinder me. But in fact, there hasn’t been an experiment that hasn’t been successful in one way or another. Over time, I have come to feel more and more grateful to her (by her, I mean the plant).

It seemed to me that through observation I was becoming increasingly passive, while the plant, or my idea of it, seemed to become active and more important

Today, I can’t approach Japanese knotweed only as a material because it has gone from being an object to a subject. In my opinion, that would be to devalue it.

M: You mentioned how you began your research considering the human’s relationship to the environment, which then brought the question of “why do we center the human?” For myself, I find the use of terms such as “anthropocene” very difficult to step away from because this is the positionality we have as humans: we have limited means of communication and understanding with non-humans. I see you reject this notion and push it within your work by noticing the capabilities of the knotweed, transforming the plant into papers, pulp, dyes and paints. This type of work starts to become a non-verbal conversation between you and the plant, one in which you notice the many sides of it.

I was sharing your work with an artist I met recently, who told me about a term they coined with their collective Sunflower Soup: “Plantiarchy”. This made me speculate what power would look like if dictated by a non-human? What are your thoughts on this, in particular with the knotweed and its usual portrayal as being “invasive”?

L: Before I try to answer your question, I’d like to come back to your thoughts on the use of the term “Anthropocene”. We all use this term to designate a new geological era dating from the beginning of humanity’s significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. I use it too. But I think it’s misleading because it’s not all humans who are responsible for these transformations, but specific civilizations. Commercial agriculture, for example, has always played a major role in the degradation of ecosystems, not only by degrading the soil but also by creating land ownership and the need to defend it.

We mustn’t forget that there are still people today who have chosen other ways of living with nature.

As for your comment on anthropocentrism, I agree that it is not desirable to “paste” a human experience onto non-humans. Nor is it desirable to consider that non-humans do not have their own point of view or experience of the world. Between these two positions, there is a gap that our cultures find very hard to bridge. Animist cultures manage better than we do, but they do so by means of belief, which has become a “forbidden” concept for us since science is the source of truth.

I love the words of Francis Hallé, a great French botanist, about trees: “Trees don’t walk but they move, they don’t have lungs but they breathe, they don’t have hearts but they circulate, they don’t have brains but they find solutions”. This is a beautiful illustration of the fact that we are as different as we are close to each other.

L: What would Japanese knotweed do if it had the power? I think the answer is: not much. By coincidence, I read an article last week about a case in the south of France where scientists were trying to define how the plant spreads. It seems that 80% of the spread was anthropogenic. All varieties in Europe originate from the first knotweed that was brought over by German botanist Phillip Franz von Siebold. Before then, the plant is not believed to have ventured outside of Japan. It is not certain that Japanese knotweed would have chosen to leave Japan to follow Siebold to Europe.

Invasiveness is not a property of the plant but a behaviour due to an imbalance in its environment. The question I’m asking myself is this: What imbalance is at the root of human invasiveness?

M: I love this quote you mentioned from Francis Hallé. It really helps to illustrate these forms of liveness that we often justify as biological definitions, and instead opens up the question of what is alive and what is living together on a shared planet?

It reminds me of Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s book Matters of Care, in which she writes about care ethics between humans and more than human worlds. She has a way of framing care as something that isn’t symmetrical between humans and non-humans, as in we may give care to a worm, for example, but the care isn’t intentionally returned to the human by consuming waste. The worm doesn’t help the compost for the sake of the human, the worm does it for itself but the act becomes an act of care for many in an entangled ecosystem. Care instead becomes framed as an obligation towards something, not something that is symmetrically reciprocated. It becomes separate from a transactional relationship.

I had to laugh at your answer to Japanese knotweed and power. You’re totally right, it’s not its (her) choice that it’s (she’s) here. It’s not a choice of the plant either to be named as a weed. It’s through human interferences that plants become unruly, placed outside of their initial ecosystems and then grow in unbalanced measures. This sort of fascination with a manicured lawn or orderly green spaces in cities has spurred a desire to eradicate the weed, when often this labour of weeding reduces ecosystems and continuously disentangles multispecies ecologies.

I am curious though about your research between sheep and knotweed. In Sustaining Small Acts, a part of your installation includes some sheep fleeces that have been dyed and felted. The fleece are sourced from a sheep herd based in Rotterdam that are guided to green spaces in the city to graze overgrown plants. This I think is a really interesting example of this form of entanglements where the desire of the human in maintaining green spaces gives sustenance to the sheep herd through food. Could you tell me more about this relationship and your thoughts on the forms of obligation and care present–be it between sheep and knotweed, herder and sheep, or you and your forms of care through display?

L: It’s very interesting that you raise the issue of care. I’ve never really thought about the reciprocity of care in an interspecies relationship, but it seems logical to me that it should exist as long as a social system is involved. Within a group, the individual can calculate the influence of his action and, in this way, the attention paid to a member becomes an investment in the group.  In this video, which has gone viral, it’s hard to deny that the care is mutual between Mama and Jan van Hooff.

Jan van Hooff visits chimpanzee "Mama", 59 yrs old and very sick. Emotional meeting

L: But as I mentioned in the video presented at TENT, the interactions between species are poorly studied.

Coming back to knotweed and sheep, the first link for me has been the material. When I was walking around my neighbourhood, I came across a flock of sheep that were eating the knotweed. As I was using wool for my research into dyeing with Japanese knotweed, it seemed logical to me to use this wool. This anchored the project in a landscape that was no longer just a visual fact but a continuity of interactions. At this point, I didn’t know that I was lucky. I understood later that sheep don’t instinctively eat Japanese knotweed. It is something they learn to do.

That brings me to your question about the forms of obligation and attention present in the various interactions. When the different interactions don’t take place in a defined social environment, it seems to me that care consists in keeping in mind that the object of attention is actively involved in the environment.  We fail to consider the countless interactions that take place in everything, every minute of every day. This is tragic because it leads us to reduce the non-human (and sometimes the human) to a single role or function. From this point of view, the care provided is also reduced to the proper functioning of this single role.

In my work, I try to express the complexity of interactions. For example, in the colours of Japanese knotweed: the molecules of the plant that I use for dyeing are allelopathic molecules. These molecules are specially designed to interfere with the environment. As for the attention I pay to the presentation of my work, it’s a way of expressing my respect and restoring value to a plant or an animal that has been too devalued in my eyes.

M: It’s interesting that the sheep learned to eat the knotweed. It really shows how the urban environment starts to play a role in how animals adapt to differing conditions – something that we as humans should also take into consideration rather than changing conditions to better suit human desires. I am currently researching the colonial history of the strawberry, and was reminded of a story about an American strawberry producer’s attempts to genetically make a strawberry better suited for impending climate disasters. They were doing this by hybridizing the strawberries with wild strawberries found along the sides of highways. The logic was that if these strawberries could grow in the pollution and dust of highways, perhaps they could survive future droughts that farmers are facing. The hybridization worked, but the fruit wasn’t tasty enough to sell.

This brings me back to the sheep and the knotweed: their meeting was conditional to all the other human interactions in place–the shepherd’s route, the control of green spaces in the city, the global routes to which the plant made her way to Europe–yet their meeting leads to sustenance. Biodiversity for the area and food for the sheep. Whereas, in the case of the highway strawberry, its conditions are not good enough for human consumption, regardless of environmental value.

I’m noticing that your use of “she/her” pronouns for knotweed is arising in my own writing too: Can you illuminate on your use of pronouns for the knotweed? How has calling the plant “her” pronouns impacted your view on the research?

L: I’ve been waiting for your question on the use of pronouns. It’s funny because I don’t really do it on purpose. It has a lot to do with my poor English, because we don’t have something like “it” in French. Although, I remember when I was twelve and starting to learn English, I rebelled against the use of the pronoun “it” for animals. It seemed to me that the use of “it” expressed a desire to deny our similarities with them. Since then, I’ve never managed to use it for animals.

In the case of Japanese knotweed, all the varieties we have in Europe have germinated from the first plant that was brought over from Siebold, that being a female plant. Female knotweed is not able to produce pollen, so instead, the plant adapted and started reproducing through her roots. Because of this, all knotweed in Europe is female. So, I started saying “she”. I don’t know if that had much influence on the project, because calling the plant “she” is self-evident in French. What did have an influence on the project is the use of the singular “she” instead of “they” to talk about knotweed. That led me to consider the plant more as an entity than as a biological object.

The Former Owner, TOISON 2, sheepwool, indigo, reseda 120/113 cm (2022), Lucie Havel | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn
The Former Owner (2021-2022), Lucie Havel | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn
TOISON 8, sheepwol, indigo, Japanese knotweed 135/95 cm (2021), Lucie Havel | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn

M: While thinking of your use of pronouns, I thought of this essay from the Indigenous botanist researcher Robin Wall Kimmerer called “Nature Needs and New Pronoun.” In it, she states that  “In [I]ndigenous ways of knowing, other species are recognized not only as persons, but also as teachers who can inspire how we might live.” I think of your relationship to the knotweed in this sentence as one that has transformed throughout your collaboration as you learn from her, responding to what results come from different interactions. You also refer to your investigations as parts that make up a portrait. I am wondering, how do you decide what is the next piece of the portrait you will make? What guides your material decisions in developing your research to reveal the many sides of knotweed?

L: In fact, it’s difficult to talk about a decision. It all came about much more naturally, like a path you follow. The first time I worked with Japanese knotweed, I wanted to make paper. At the time, it seemed like the most direct way of creating something with the plant. But when I cooked the plant to make pulp, the cooking water turned dark red, like blood. It was really intriguing! So I started to use this extraction using what little I knew about dyeing. And I used the fibres with the little knowledge I had of paper making.

I didn’t know much at the time and I was lucky enough to be able to take a masterclass from the French natural dye specialist, Michel Garcia. He really taught me to look at the plant from a biochemical point of view. After that, every piece of information I gathered was turned into an experiment by developing (simple) theories and simple methodologies to explore them. The observations from these experiments led to other questions to be resolved. It’s a process that takes place day to day and looks like an investigation game.

HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ENEMY, Lucie Havel (2018-ongoing) | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn
HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ENEMY, Lucie Havel (2018-ongoing) | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn
HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ENEMY, Lucie Havel (2018-ongoing) | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn
HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ENEMY, Lucie Havel (2018-ongoing) | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn
HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ENEMY, Lucie Havel (2018-ongoing) | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn
HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ENEMY, Lucie Havel (2018-ongoing) | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn
HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ENEMY, Lucie Havel (2018-ongoing) | TENT (Exhibition: Sustaining Small Acts) | Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn

M: This biochemical approach can be seen in the work on show at TENT with the desk arrangement you made in exhibition space. In the room, you’ve arranged a table with measuring containers, a scale, various chemicals, and an open sketchbook with detailed recipes for the experiments. I find the presentation generous as it invites the viewer into your process.

To conclude, I want to bring in a quote from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: “Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves.” What do you think we are able to learn from the resiliency of the knotweed as humans living in an unpredictable and precarious world?

L: It depends whether we are talking about ourselves as individuals or as a species.

If I, as an individual, wanted to learn from the plant, I would look primarily at its roots and its interconnected structure. That’s where her resilience lies. To translate this to our scale, it would mean investing time and attention in our “roots” or let’s say our “base”. I’m thinking of our family or close friends, those who can support us in difficult times. Interconnection, on the other hand, would enable us to broaden our knowledge base as much as possible. This would make it possible to find solutions to the challenges posed by an unpredictable world. I’m thinking here of relatively short circuits linked to their environment.

If we look at the species, the problem is different. At this level, I think we have more to learn from precarity than from resilience. Precarity defines our limits. Japanese knotweed lives in her country of origin in an environment that makes her more precarious than here in Europe, where she has no competitors or predators. Without precarity, it becomes invasive, just as we have become invasive after eradicating our own predators. Since we don’t suffer precarity as a species but inflict it on other species, we should at least define our own limits.

About The Dialogue Room

How can we make time and space for sharing thoughts, inspiration, and the things that currently occupy our minds? From this question we have initiated a series of ongoing conversations with divergent Rotterdam-based artists. The Dialogue Room is an editorial platform where we publish these conversations as long reads, with online access to related artists’ projects. The platform simultaneously functions as an impetus for both contributors and readers to slow down, and to give time to enrich our perspectives and our imagination. Independent from exhibition and event calendars, the conversations held in The Dialogue Room provide an occasion to delve into the ongoing research, lived experiences, references and reflections running through artistic practices.


Marika Vandekraats (she/her) is an artist from the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, also known as Vancouver, Canada. Her research focuses on the human entanglements tied between nature and capital to frame extractivist processes that have irreversibly affected the climate. Her work takes shape through video, sculpture, text, and performative installations that utilize archival research to challenge its context. Currently, this process takes shape through a collaborative publication about the strawberry, bringing attention to its colonial history and its exploitative present. Marika has a MA in Art Praxis and Critical Theory from the Dutch Art Institute (2022, NL) and is currently based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Visit Marika’s website.

Lucie Havel (Lesparre-Médoc 1973) grew up in a part of France once described by a sociologist as the last hunter-gatherer area of Europe. The discussions she started very early with her fellow students, who were hunters themselves, about the role of humans in nature have always followed her. She graduated from Bordeaux at the Ecole d’Arts Appliqués de la Gironde in 1999 and moved to the Netherlands a year later. Since then, she has been working as an autonomous artist in Rotterdam. Visit Lucie’s website.



Edwards, Justin D., Rune Graulund, and Johan Anders Höglund, eds. Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth: The Gothic Anthropocene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. “Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching ‘It.’” Yes Magazine, Spring 2015.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. Posthumanities 41. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. First paperback printing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Hallé, Francis. La Vie des Arbres. Les petites conférences. Montrouge: Bayard, 2019.