Migration’s Silence Witnesses: Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change

Migration’s Silence Witnesses: Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change

In a complex work, Wake, 2000, prior to Seeds of Change, Maria Thereza Alves identified several construction sites in Berlin that she considered suitable for an artwork based on investigating the botanical history of the earth by way of seed germination. In addition to taking core earth samples and organising appropriate conditions for germinating whatever seeds had lain dormant in the soil, the artist conducted an extensive investigation of records relating to the history of that part of Germany and the movements of goods, animals and people, including refugees and soldiers. Amongst her findings of the Charlottenstrasse/Französischestrasse site was the link between Berlin and Alsace-Lorraine (from which Huguenots had fled, amongst them gardeners). Furthermore, as she comments: ‘During the 1800s, the rise of nation-states also affected the field of botany. Priority was given to national studies of flora.’ With the successive exchanges of Alsace-Lorraine between Germany and France, ‘unlike conventional botanical studies, the research from Alsace-Lorraine documents not only the flora but also how political changes affected that flora.’ Species specific to the region had to be added or subtracted from the national inventory.1 In addition, Alves locates lists of flora included species from all parts of the world, representing seeds not only legitimately introduced by trade, but also ‘piggybacked’ into Germany on clothing, shoes and baggage, animal fur and hooves, and so forth. Bismarck’s attempts to create a German national state and identity, to be reflected by the ‘national’ flora of his Minister’s Garden, once in the vicinity of Alves’ Vossstrasse/Behrenstrasse site, would undoubtedly be thwarted by the lack of respect given by plants to national borders.

That flora do not escape the politics of national identity is signalled by the fact that most nations have ‘adopted’ a flower as a national symbol, as if it were somehow exclusively contained within its borders. But how and by what criteria are flora defined as state-specific?


If there can be said to be a ‘founding moment’ to globalisation, it is the so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas in 1492. According to the philosopher Enrique Dussel, until then Western Europe had been a fairly insignificant territory on the periphery of the known civilised world to the East. Following its disastrous Crusades, Europe found its attempts to forge an overland route to this fabulous world of wealth and knowledge blocked by Islam and the Turks, forcing it to seek a sea passage. When Portugal controlled the eastward sea route round Africa, Spain had no alternative but to develop the westward passage across the Atlantic, opening the oceans to globalised mercantile shipping. With the increased lucrativeness of the trans-Atlantic trade routes, the eastern trade routes fell into relative decline, leading to the rise of wealth and hence of technological and military power of Western Europe. For these reasons, Dussel describes this era as the beginning of modernity and the first politico-economic ‘world-system’. The major countries to capitalise on this mercantile expansion protected by military sea power were those on the western seaboard of Europe. As Dussel describes it, when Spain – supported by its colonial ports in Flanders – lost its initial advantage, power shifted to the more economically pragmatic, that is, proto-capitalist, largely Protestant countries, first Holland, then England, and later, of course, with full-blown capitalism, the United States. 2

As we well know, this early globalisation did not follow a path of equal exchange between Europeans and the peoples they encountered in the ‘new’ territories. New natural resources and markets had to be secured by annexing territories and establishing colonial settlements, and by cheap labour organised to work the mineral mines and monocrop plantations, all safeguarded by a military, technocratic infrastructure in which the ‘natives’, if they could not be coerced, had to be violently subdued or eradicated. With the global extension of European empires, human trafficking (indenture and slavery) became as lucrative as the trafficking of goods and raw materials, eventually displacing peoples to Europe and the Americas not only from Africa, but also from the Indian subcontinent and SE Asia. As has often been said by postcolonial commentators, modernity began with the traumas of cultural dispossession and displacement. In the decolonisation period following World War II, the majority of, now mostly voluntary, immigration patterns into Europe retraced the old colonial trade routes.

The growth of European imperialism from the late 17th century to the early 20th century cannot be divorced from two further major socio-political changes. Firstly, the industrialisation of both agriculture (the sequester of arable land into vast estates) and manufacture, leading to the massive migration or displacement of people from rural to urban areas; and secondly, the rise of the political entity, the nation-state, demarcated and policed by more or less distinct (if sometimes contested) geographical borders, the concomitant demand for a coherent national identity and the gradual expansion of citizenship rights across a population usually administered by the nation’s governing elite as if it homogeneously shared the same cultural narratives and descent, language, aspirations and beliefs (a fallacy even within the small geographic territory of the United Kingdom). But imperialist and nationalist interventions severely altered the relationship between geopolitical boundaries and cultural and ethnic boundaries and the distribution of power among diverse populations. The assumption of national homogeneity is not sustainable in states whose boundaries include federated ‘nations’ or ‘peoples’ – defined as possessing distinct social organisations, worldviews and symbolic systems and hence distinct cultural identities and ways of constructing subjectivity. This is especially so when considering the subjugated position of indigenous nations within settler nation-states, whose early legal status as nations was subsequently reduced to that of one ‘ethnic minority’ amongst others in a melting pot where differences, it was assumed, would dissolve into an Anglo-Saxon model of identity, effectively rendering indigenous peoples as foreigners in their own homelands. Thus, despite the vicissitudes of several hundred years of enforced assimilation and disempowerment, political sovereignty, land and resource rights, educational priorities and cultural survival remain on the agendas of indigenous peoples under settler states.

Nor is this assumption tenable in nation-states comprised of culturally and ethnically diverse diasporic populations. Whilst they do not, like indigenous nations, claim political sovereignty and land rights, since in their search for a new belonging, they accept the principles of integration, they may come into conflict with the nation-state over minority ethnic rights (the citizen’s right of social and political participation without prejudice and discrimination) and familial and cultural affiliations that extend geographically beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.

Boundaries –geographical, cultural or social – create binary oppositions: inside/outside, native/foreigner, citizen/non-citizen, cultural authenticity/inauthenticity, assimilation/isolation, and so forth. The foreigner is whosoever does not belong to the defined group, indeed, within the European schema, native and alien are mutually constituted by the very act of definition. If the foreigner was historically defined according to the jus soli (law of the soil) and jus sanguine (blood tie), under most modern, democratic nation-states, the right of citizenship has not been dependent on atavistic criteria of belonging but defined legislatively. It has been the general tendency in liberal democracies to grant rights of citizenship under jus soli – with the implication that ethnic and religious affiliations were outside the legislative mandate of the state – or if an individual accepted the social and political terms of the nation: nationality, or ‘naturalisation’ as it is quaintly termed. (One notable exception was Germany’s application of jus sanguine, which granted citizenship rights to ethnic Germans in Russia, but denied them to Turkish settlers in Germany.) Following hundreds of years of human migration, in our ‘multicultural’ societies, specific cultural practices now exist alongside new mixed ethnic urban populations and syncretic cultural processes where multiple historical trajectories may or may not coincide. Nonetheless, we still confront tensions and disjunctions between what constitutes cultural and ethnic identity and national identity and citizenship, testing the human capacity for hospitality and hostility.


It is the context of these complex issues of migration, belonging and national identity that the work of Maria Thereza Alves addresses, especially the body of works collectively titled Seeds of Change, which provides us with unexpected relations between the old mercantile shipping routes and the biodiversity of flora adjacent to European and Scandinavian ports, several of which were implicated in the slave trade.

Seeds of Change extends the artist’s strategies of archival and botanical research into specific sites of interest, involving historical research, map referencing, core-sampling of soil and seed germination, this time in connection with the ballast discharged on, mostly, designated sites by ships before they entered port. As Alves points out here, ballast represented all kinds of materials picked up by ships in exchange for unloaded cargo and would therefore contain and transport seeds from the ballast point of origin to the country of deposit. Alves’s ballast narratives therefore retrace the shipping trade routes that effected the illegal entry of plants, which, in Europe at this juncture in time, may be so familiar as to blur our concept of what does and does not represent an ‘authentic’ European flora; that is, like people immigration, seed immigration problematizes the means by which national identity and belonging are defined. As Alves also points out, the biodiversity of British flora has accelerated only since the 18th century with the introduction of alien plants that without doubt subsequently ‘escaped’ the confines of their ornamental or ‘landscape’ gardens. Most significantly Alves points out how this affected the English landscape.

The question of native/alien, inclusion/exclusion, however, remains a controversial political issue, even in botanical terms. In Kew Gardens’ website devoted to their Millennium Seed Bank Project, set up to preserve the ‘rarest, most threatened and most useful species known to man’, the threats to plants are listed as: ‘climate change, habitat loss, invasive alien species and over-exploitation.’3 One might wonder about ‘invasive alien species’. If the rights of citizenship and belonging are to be granted by jus soli, then the successfully rooted ‘alien’ literally claims such rights. It goes against the grain of nature’s own processes to censure alien species because of their inadvertent dissemination and successful colonisation of specific ecological niches. Alas, this is also true for humans; the global movements of humans have ensured that nothing stays securely in one ‘place’, intercultural exchanges blur the distinctions between inside and outside, and belonging must be a constant process of negotiation.

Alves’ artistic practice is itself a form of negotiation. Unlike scientific research it is not concerned with the determination of universalisable principles but with uncovering the buried socio-political histories and realities of locality: it is about reintegrating ‘lost’ stories into contemporary local narratives. In this respect, Alves’ excavation of dormant seeds in layers of soil yields an elegant and surprising ‘eccentric’ reading of the historical archive and the familiar forms and usages of documentation, insofar as the ‘archive’ is as much about what it conceals as what it potentially reveals, or is allowed by its administrators to reveal. Throughout this process of excavation, Alves functions less as an ‘exemplary’ authorial artistic subject than as a mediator and catalyst in projects often involving the collaboration or advice of non-art professionals (for instance, the botanists Drs Heli Jutila and Bernd Machatzi), local civic officials and the participation of local communities. In Marseille, Alves’ first Seeds of Change work, the artistic aim was to produce a garden administered by local residents and a reminder of the maritime history of the city and its involvement with Africa and the Americas via the slave trade and other colonial practices. The progress of the project was unfortunately thwarted by a change in local government. However, the subsequent Seeds of Change project in Pori was fully developed and is exemplary in its engagement with the local people and the symbolic role of the botanical stranger in the circulation and exchange of shared interests among the community.

If the customary role of art is to prompt a dialogue amongst its viewers ‘after the event’, as it were, around an already prescribed object, in Alves’ case the dialogue begins prior to the emergence of the work; indeed, whilst the artist initiates the project and controls its final outcome, the work’s trajectory is conditioned by the conversations and the various local knowledges brought to the project by its advisers. This approach has been called, amongst others things, ‘dialogical aesthetics’,4 drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of certain structural forms of literature capable of simultaneously articulating differing meanings, interpretations and points of view. At base, the aim of this approach is to disengage art from discourses that maintain its distance from everyday realities in order to explore its relation to the wider socio-political sphere. By analogy, Alves’ Seeds of Change projects address the vexing questions of agency and belonging beyond essentialist definitions of race, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. There is acknowledgment that, whilst one may speak from positions informed by specific cultural experiences and perspectives, these are modified through the reconfiguration of social and historical narratives, by which the ‘native’ and the ‘alien’ may come to balance the relations of hospitality and hostility and recognise a political solidarity in shared experiences, interests and goals.


1 Maria Thereza Alves, Wake: A Project for Berlin, Berlin: DAAD/ 4FREE exhibition at BuroFriedrich, 2000, pp 14-15.

2 Enrique Dussel, ‘Beyond Eurocentrism: The World-System and the Limits of Modernity’, in The Cultures of Globalization, (eds) Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998, pp 5, 13-21.

3 According to the MSBP, the project is in collaboration with several countries, which choose and keep for their own bank seed samples selected by themselves. A second major seed bank is to be built in a concrete room deep in the permafrost of Spitsberg Island in a collaboration between Norway and the independent international organisation Global Crop Diversity Trust. See kew.org/msbp

4 Grant Kester, ‘Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-engaged Art’, in (eds) Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp 76-88.


In 2015, the most complete realisation of Alves’ Seeds of Change project, Seeds of Change: A Floating Ballast Seed Garden, was publicly presented in Bristol, then European Green Capital. Alves’ had initiated the Bristol project in 2007 for the exhibition Port City, noting the direct relationship between the city’s transatlantic trade in African slaves and ballast. The Floating Ballast Seed Garden was subsequently designed in collaboration with the designer Gitta Gschwendtner, using as base a local concrete grain barge, and sponsored by Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol Botanic Garden and Arnolfini. The accompanying introductory pamphlet to the project notes that its enthusiastic reception had given rise to sixteen new garden spaces across the city. (‘Welcome’ by Aldo Rinaldi and Helen Davies, in booklet Seeds of Change: A Floating Ballast Seed Garden, Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol Botanic Garden and Arnolfini, 2015, p 5.)

Original version of text published as ‘Maria Thereza Alves: Seeds of Change Marseille: Migration’s Silent Witnesses’, in Going Public ’08: PortCitySafari, (ed) Claudia Zanfi, Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2009, pp 101-111. (Italian and English)