On the Way of the Potatoes
Taking “discarded” potato varieties as her point of departure, Åsa Sonjasdotter reflects on agricultural monoculture: monocultures result in an imbalance in ecosystems. EU regulations are the source of an imminent loss of diversity because, for economic reasons, they permit only a limited number of varieties. Since 2005, Sonjasdotter has been conducting field research on the origins and (by now already historic) diversity of potato varieties. She has planted “old” potato varieties in a number of locations, referencing the EU regulations in this way. She documents her project on the website potatoperspective.org.
Last year, you showed your project in a number of contexts, among others the Bucharest Biennale, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Princess Gardens in Berlin and the Den Frie art centre in Copenhagen. How did your experiences vary?
The project functions in different contexts. In Copenhagen, I turned the Den Frie exhibition rooms into a sales platform for the potato varieties. Visitors could pack the potatoes in paper bags and take them home. In the Princess Gardens, a Berlin neighbourhood garden, I planted a potato field outdoors. The situation in Los Angeles was again different, because the host institution was a major museum. Things were more bureaucratic there, and my success consisted in the fact that an institution that moves so slowly made a potato field possible at all. The group exhibition entitled EATLACMA was curated by the American artists’ group Fallen Fruit. Five of a total of ten artists’ gardens that had been planned could be realised. The harvest was a major event with 50 participating artists and 7000 visitors, many of whom had never seen how potatoes are grown. Some dug like crazy, even adults.
After Los Angeles you first went off to harvest. The garden itself had been installed as a conceptual art work, i.e. you had sent the curators a set of instructions. Did this procedure function well?
Yes, it did, and it has already functioned well a number of times. For instance, people have often asked me to send them potato varieties. The Norwegian artists Søssa Jørgensen and Geir Tore Holm run the project Sørfinnset/The Nord Land in a former school building in northern Norway. There, they plant old potato varieties I’ve sent them, in addition to local varieties. They have reconceptualised my project within their community, and in a few years, many villagers began planting these varieties themselves. The village is a typical shrinking village of this area, and planting the potatoes was a way of reconnecting with activities that were customary there in the past. Jørgensen and Holm organised a potato contest for the biggest and most unusual potato to which I was invited. We ate the potatoes later. For me, the project was very successful, because the people appropriated it for their own purposes and their activities were out of my hands. Communicating my instructions to the museum in Los Angeles was much more difficult, because this institution was not prepared for producing new works. In this sense one might say that the responsible parties were very courageous, because they accommodated a complicated project along with its organic parts. But as an artist I had to make a lot of compromises.
Do you always work with the potato varieties that are available in the respective country?
Yes, I mostly work with the seed potatoes to be found in the particular region. But actually, all potatoes are migrants, except for Andean potatoes. The varieties I planted in Los Angeles all have a strong connection to the USA. They were twelve varieties that together constituted a narrative that I titled “The Way Potatoes Go.” For example, there is this gigantic potato, Russet Burbank. McDonalds uses exclusively Russet Burbank, a century-old variety, because it contains so much sugar that the fries caramelise and therefore stay crisp for a long time. By the way, this potato is a natural abnormality. For me, it’s a symbol of the American Dream.
Could you also work with other vegetables instead of potatoes?
I don’t know. Before I got the inspiration to work with potatoes, I was dealing with the theme complex of public space and the bio-political question of knowledge and power. I wanted to let diverse opinions have their voices be heard. Today, urban space has become a hyper-regulated commodity. I’ve worked with architects and proposed transforming the facades of city halls into large-scale communication surfaces.
Where do you see the connection to your potato project?
When I started working with potatoes, I was drawn by the same beauty, not by the diversity of voices, but by the diversity of potato varieties. I see the diversity of potatoes as a metaphor for the spectrum of knowledge. In this context, Foucault’s question about knowledge and power becomes interesting. Who has access to knowledge and who has control over it, and how are both manifested? So the projects aren’t all that far apart at all. People sometimes send me photos of their potato harvests, I cannot and do not want to control my projects.
So the point here is communication?
Right. The varieties I work with are varieties that are not approved for commercial distribution in the EU. The reason is that they are not commercially interesting enough. Most simply do not meet the EU standard DUS: durability, uniformity and storability.
That doesn’t sound like producing food any more.
That’s probably because they are standards for industrial agriculture. The varieties I work with were being raised long before the idea of industrial agriculture and the granting of use rights arose. The old varieties belong to no one: they are common property, just like folk songs.
You have worked with researchers for some projects. What part do researchers play in your work?
In Romania I worked with a biologist from the national gene bank, Dana Constantinovici. She travels throughout the country and collects and preserves cultivars that are in danger of extinction. We share an awareness of the beauty and power of diversity. Sometimes farmers can tell her about varieties they ate as children. What is being lost there is not just a cultural heritage, but also something that could be of significance for the future of potato cultivation.
What exactly is stored in a gene bank?
If you want to preserve a potato variety, you have to plant it again and again, each year. In the gene bank, the meristem is grown, the part of the sprout containing the genetic information. It is planted in glasses on a medium that slows growth, producing a kind of bonsai potato. This is something I also worked on together with Constantinovici. She wanted to bring varieties that had almost died out back into circulation among the farmers. My contribution to the Bucharest Biennale was a kind of platform. There was an interesting economy in our cooperation: we supplemented each other complementarily without bringing money into the picture.
You teach at the Academy of Contemporary Arts in Tromsø in northern Norway. How does your teaching relate to your artistic work?
The fact that the Academy dealt with the various meanings of art and ecology had already been decided before my time, and was one of the reasons why I was interested in this job. This academy is located on the so-called periphery, geographically speaking inside the Arctic Circle. But when one is there, one notices that the place has its own centre: a centre for the knowledge and experiences that the region has to offer. So therefore the entire question of “periphery” and “centre” is determined by pre-established criteria and hierarchies. And here we are back again with the issue of knowledge and power that I spoke about earlier. The word “bank” is even contained in “gene banks,” so there’s a great deal of value stored in them.
She works as a freelance author and curator in Berlin.
Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2011