andrea haenggi (she/they), Swiss-born, is breathing and working in Lenapehoking / New York City. Calling on plants as her guides, teachers, mentors, and performers, her body-based artist work evolves through somatic public fieldwork, dance and studio practice and creates a form of theater called Ethnochoreobotanography using choreographies, gatherings, performances, art installations and soft activist actions in response to decolonization, migration, feminism, labor, care and (re)-building multispecies futures. As part of this work, she co-founded the collective the Environmental Performance Agency in 2017.
How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments?
I grew up in a rural area of Switzerland, where my family lived on the outskirts of Boswil, a village of about 2000 people. My mom’s ancestry is alpine farming. Growing up with five siblings, plus an identical twin, the house was very loud, so I’d go out in the tiny forest up the hill and make my home. I made dens on the damp land and created stories of imaginative liberation; witches visited me often.
But that’s not the real beginning of my artistic collaboration with the natural world. I came to New York City many years ago for contemporary dance, and what attracted me when I started doing choreography was the city’s architecture and the intimate places that move us forward -- like being alone in a room looking at the city, which has millions of other rooms, corners, hallways, escalators, and the emotions and histories these places provoke.
And here’s where the story starts: In 2012, I got a phone call to come back to Switzerland to take care of my mom who had cancer. I had six weeks with her. My mom, who is very Catholic, said, “In two weeks I will be dead, and my mom will give me her hand, and then I can go.” She was ready. Well, her mom didn’t give her hand. So my mom said, “God will give the hand.”
So one day I came into her room to give her some food, and she said, “God will not take me.” And she took her cross and threw it against the wall. That was a deep shock for me. Then she said, “Nature will take me home. If I can hug my trees out there, that’s when I can go home.” She couldn’t really go outside. She was getting weaker and weaker, so my sister and I wheeled her out in the living room with the big window where she could see all her trees. It was just amazing. I’ll never forget her gesture. She looked out, and then she folded her hands together, and then she looked and me and said, “I’m ready.”
After she was gone, I went back to New York, and found out I was losing my loft where I’d lived and did my artistic practice for more than 10 years, due to gentrification. I realize now the loft was actually the size of our home living room in Switzerland. Does this mean I never really left my homeland? I just took it with me? But what happened when my mom died, I suddenly felt like I had no grounding any more. All the while, the “leaderless resistance movement” Occupy Wall Street continued to make an imprint into my skin, asking for action on social and economic inequality; grief and desire for new artistic direction that addressed social change haunted me.
There is a similar moment when the ground reattaches itself to my feet and I call it “landing.”
The new studio had to be affordable and as well to be on the ground floor, with the people. My partner helped and found a space in Crown Heights, Brooklyn at 1067 Pacific Street. We signed a 5-year lease for a 600 square foot former auto repair garage with a 1900 square foot urban “vacant” lot!
The second commitment I made: I would not decide what to work on. Rather, the place would tell me what the work would be. The place became the artwork, the 1067pacificpeople artwork, and the season told me the direction. I would move forward slowly. The first year, 2013, I called the year of Raw. I remember sitting in the cold – the wind would blow compacted soil with dark industrial particles into my nose and trigger severe coughs. I looked around and found a large plexiglass deli window in the trash across the street and created a temporary door to protect me from the wind.
Spring arrived and one flower came. The dandelion with the yellow vibration triggered my childhood memory of blowing their seed head.
The neighborhood was populated by auto-repair mechanics. They worked in these grey coveralls associated with manual labor, and I thought: how can I connect with them? I bought a grey coverall as well. We all became friends then. We all labored. I danced and they worked on cars. And plants came out of the ground, many of them totally unknown to me.
I remember in early 2015, spring came again. Now was the year of Love. Sitting again in the space, I wondered: Why am I distanced from all these plants so distanced? They are calling me.
At that time, I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was a guest on this land. I still had a very white-settler mindset. I asked: What would happen to my choreography, my dance, my artistic work, if spontaneous urban plants became my guides? They would be the teachers and also be performers. I wrote that down, and it is actually the hardest task I ever set for myself. Realizing you aren’t the main agent to create the artistic work, to find ways to create methods so they can be the agent for artistic work, is not easy because spontaneous plants grow on their own terms. Still, our journey started. My body became a tool to sense the changes that occurred on site. I was able to sense the plants reacting to the site’s conditions, preventing the migration of heavy metals into the air. I was able to breath easier and we shared the winter together.
Share with us one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.
I want to talk about three plants and the collaboration of work that came from them. The plants chose their places carefully.
Looking back, Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum) was really important to me. It thrived on the petroleum-soaked copper ground and was looking like a desert plant in the urban city summer heat. To hear Virgina’s Pepperweed being and language, I would listen to them from drawing, making movement scores among other strategies to structure these encounters, encouraging to hear their audible being and find unknown ways to meet and have a conversation. The drawings are Movement Herbariums. I would look at the plant, and every time it made a movement gesture in the air, I would make a stroke, a mark on the herbarium paper. Charcoal from a piece of burnt wood, left in our wood-burning stove, was the drawing tool. I would analyze the drawing through the lens of being a Certified Movement Analyst and take the essence of movement qualities into my body and dance the dance for the plant – repeating the process again and again. Over time, this became a small alphabet for this plant. This process led me to co-create the Urban Weeds Alphabet together with 20 spontaneous urban plants.
It took me more than two years to create the entire Urban Weeds Alphabet. In 2019, I performed Teaching a Human the Urban Weeds Alphabet publicly on stage where some audience guests were invited to participate as soil-mates.
One day, while I was dancing with the Pepperweed, they said: “You are on stolen land.” I have to say, honestly, I knew I was on stolen indigenous land, but I didn’t understand it on a cellular, bodily level until that moment. I was so shocked, I stopped moving. I wondered: What do I do with this?
That’s how I found other practices. For example, Mugwort (Artemisa vulgaris) sprouts in healthy clumps in one spot, but a few inches away it doesn’t grow, ceding the patch of arid rocky soil to the cheat grass (Bromus tectorum).
Mugwort told me: "You cannot do this practice alone." Mugwort has all these rhizome root pathways towards other roots and entanglements, even with a Coca-cola bottle. Mugwort told me I needed a community. And that’s how I came into the EPA, the Environmental Performance Agency, an artist collective with Christopher Kennedy, Ellie Irons, and Catherine Grau.
In our first meeting together, we went outside and listened to the plants, then we came inside to talk, then we went outside again. This is the idea -- that you’re not just talking for an hour together. You always go out again to do some sensorial practice, so that you are in dialogue with the more-than-human beings, to have their voice part of decision-making. It was 2017, when the prior president took office and started dismantling and defunding the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. federal government agency to protect the environment. So that day, our name EPA surfaced from the soil. EPA became a framework for how we can, through the spontaneous urban plants, have a conversation about environment, agency, and care for a more-than-human world and address social, climate and environmental justice.
moss (Bryophyta) plants such as disturbed urban Landeros (moss told me their name), kicked out from their home between cobble stones, called into my practice during 2020, the Covid-19 year. moss in Pandemic Times stays with me for the long haul. So Landeros and their moss friends here in the urban city taught me some principles based on intensive long-term observational field and studio work. One principle is: I say: “I’m slow." Landeros says: "You’re so fast." I say: “I’m soft” Landeros says: “Be soft with moist shapes to let the sharp edges disappear to nurture other beings.”
andrea haenggi's public fieldwork & studio urban moss practice 2020.
Also: when you see a moss, it’s not only one moss leaf. It’s hundreds of them together. They’re so compact. There are beings in them you don’t see. Landeros surprised me, a baby cockroach crawled out of them. So I learned to ask: Who are all these other beings, human and nonhuman, in my environment, and how close can we become? What is invisible?
Also: Landeros moss does not root into their substrate. Being close together with other moss beings leaves and their surface interaction play with various substrates here in the urban city from stones, to tree bark, to sidewalk cracks, to a brick, keeping them rooted by not being rooted. Being home without being rooted.
Also: when a moss gets stressed and goes into desiccation, it’s not dying like other plants. They have this incredible evolutionary process. They wait. “I’m just waiting.” And if the situation is right and water drops touch them, then they have no barrier. Every other plant has a barrier—a vascular system. And humans, we have barriers. We have to drink water, and water has to go through our tubes and vessels. But moss takes water directly into the leaves, so there’s no barrier. So what does this mean as a community, or as gatherings for future beings? That we have no barrier? The nourishment would soak in. We would swell. And then something else (the sun, in the case of moss) helps us glow.
This year is 2021, the year of Mossy Luminous Healing.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?
Here are things the plants are teaching me at this moment:
• Go out into your neighborhood – be face-to-face with a more-than-human being that calls you and ask them this question: “What advice do you have for me who wants to co-create with the natural world?”
• Take urban moss’s advice: be slower than you may think you are or want to be.
• Be like the wind and visit many times until the answer arises.
• Remember to say Hello and Thank You for the time they are giving to you.
• Allow the relation with the more-than-human being to grow in a time that is not human time.
• Be okay to ask other humans to be your soil-mates in the journey of meeting the more-than-human being. Natureculture is one word. Environmental Justice is Social Justice is Climate Justice.
• Allow time to find your artistic tools to meet the more-than-human beings, but remember movement and touch are our primary first language through which we learned to know this world. This may be a good place to start.
• Our bodies are active soil seed banks, filled with innate energy that is often repressed by Western systems and the demands of globalized capitalism. A kind of hyper-dormancy that we may not realize we are. Connect with the soil profiles within. Your ancestor beings are here to help you.
• Be aware if you are on land that is violated and harmed. Be clear when you are a guest and make sure you start to know who were the first inhabitants of that land and respect and be an ally with their future so the harm can be healed.
• Be okay to hear the plants’ stress as well their vibration of joy. Listen to what they want for their healing and to thrive.
• Share breath with them for finding regenerative, transformative new world-ing.
• The plants on your street has seen you already. It’s time to meet them.
Follow andrea's work at weedychoreography.com
Learn more about how to get involved in the Environmental Performance Agency
Image info: 1 (top portrait image): Fieldwork at Urban Weeds Garden, 2017; 2: Keep Lungs Active, NYC Covid-19 Pause, 2020; 3: Soil Ground at 1067 Pacific Street "Vacant Lot", Brooklyn 2013; 4: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinal), Urban Weeds Garden 2013; 5: Fieldwork at Urban Weeds Garden, 2016; 6: Urban Weeds Garden, Summer 2017; 7: Urban Weeds Garden dance practice, Summer 2016; 8: Movement Herbarium, Humulus Japonicus (Japanese Hops), 2017; 9: Teaching a Human the Urban Weeds Alphabet, Live-Performance, 2019 (photo by Katryn Butler); 10: Fieldwork with Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), 2017; 11: EPA meets EPA, Mugwort Planting, Washington DC 2018; 12: Public Fieldwork and Studio urban moss Practice, NYC 2020; 13: from moss/love moss performance gathering, East River Park, NYC 2020 (photo by Julie Lemberger); 14: Getting Physical at the Feral Edges, workshop in Red Hook, NYC 2018; 15: Care for All #demonstratingwhileisolating, Earth Day Balcony Protest Performance, NYC 2020