— multimedia artist Christiane Huber and artist and activist Kasia Hertz in conversation with Nacre editor Anastasia Kolas

(The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow)

Białowieża, 2023, photo Sven Zellner

Anastasia Kolas: Welcome to you both, let’s maybe start with an introduction in your own words, and a few words about the project you are working one at the moment, and how it had brought you two together.

Christiane Huber: I’m a German artist, theater maker, and filmmaker. My background is in psychology and art, though right now I mostly work in theater and in film. Normally, I work internationally, but due to the pandemic these last few years I’d been mostly working here in Bavaria, in Munich. Some of my projects start with local topics, and refer to specific historical situations here, or topics that are in some way related to my biography — I have worked all around Munich, but also in the countryside where I’m from. I grew up on a farm around here, and also work with that context. The project that we wanted to talk about today is a project in progress that works with a landscape at the border between Poland and Belarus. I happened to meet Kasia, I don’t even know, probably through Instagram, or maybe I got informed about her organization when I was researching this area, and it went on from there.

Kasia Hertz: I’m from Poland, and currently live and work in Poland. I decided to come back here after a few years of living and studying in Germany, in Frankfurt-am-Main, and then Berlin. I’m educated as a visual artist, in performance and video, and later studied film directing in Berlin. I was planning to continue with filmmaking, in more of a documentary filmmaking direction, but this has changed. I came back to Poland in 2017, directly to the forest in the Polish-Belarusian border region. It was initially to make a documentary film. But because of the political and ecological situation here in 2017, I got involved and became more and more engaged and connected with the local community and the territory. What was intended as a brief visit has been prolonged and this is my sixth year of living in this forest. In 2019 my ex-partner and I started an NGO we called Kutura Kresu. The name works on a metaphorical level in Polish, so it’s hard to find an equivalent in English, but it could be translated as ‘borderlands’ culture’. We work very purposefully and consciously locally, and try to involve  in the dialogue as many local contributors as possible. The most important thing for me is to extend and spread the shared knowledge that comes from all sides of an issue. I want to include all the perspectives when it comes to regenerating and restoring the community, but also restoring and preserving the forest and the ecosystem. We trying to create a strong presence of local values, both from the present, but also from the past and, along the way, to find answers to questions arising in the process.

A: My first question to both of you would be about the purposefulness art-making that Kasia mentioned, when she described the unfolding of her work trajectory. Clearly there’s been a distinct cut in it, because of the circumstances, but people react very differently when faced with the same thing… So I’m curious how you both think about it, in terms of what art could or should do, and how you personally relate to its having or not having — purposefulness, however you might interpret that.

C: In a way, the purpose for me develops through working. Before the project I am working on now, I developed others, which dealt with the history of National Socialism in Germany. I was researching the Nazi history in relation to my own family, and I didn’t know when I started, what I’d find — will there be some kind of really terrible family secret there. Which was not the case, but I did discover some dark secrets about the village that I’m from, including post-war violence. So there was this personal truth seeking moment, where I thought, okay, I don’t want to keep silent about things that have to be talked about, and I would like to find an artistic form for it and go with that. And then one thing led to another, and this current project developed from there. So it’s kind of like a snowball sometimes. The people that I interviewed for the projects were found through the same principle — I’d be sent from one person to another, and so on. So my projects have always developed organically. And that’s also what brought me to the Belarus-Poland border. I wanted to write a requiem for a cow. It began with a question about the legacy of this cross-bred cow in Germany, the “Ur-Rind” , sometimes called Hitler’s “Jurassic Park” by the media. And that led me to the history of agricultural funding during the Nationalist Socialism period, when Nazis conducted cross-breeding experiments, with the bison from this forest area. So that’s how and why I came here. And then I found more purpose in the actual situation, in the crisis that’s been happening there for years. Or more like different, multiple crises, so urgent that I thought, okay, I have to work with what’s in front of me now instead. So then I met various people, like Kasia, who were sharing their knowledge. And Kasia, also sharing her apartment and her kitchen… And it was, despite the crisis, such a beautiful way of living and being together in the community.  At the moment the funding politics in Germany are in my way of continuing with the work I started there, and I have to see how I get through that.

Białowieża Forest, Poland, Sven Zellner

A: My question about purposefulness, I should maybe further clarify, was angling towards the tension between the Western cultural project and ideological purpose of say, social realism in (former) communist countries. So between liberal rights to be ambiguous, or to speak about oneself vs. this sort of state-led programming, or state-led designation of purposefulness, or objective-oriented art. And how you might relate to these legacies or categories today, as you conduct these social/art projects.

K: I would say coming from this Western art education, ideas and also practices, the questions of: who are we talking to, what are we showing to them, and who is the art produced for, are very important for me. Working in this local context means we produce these projects for a very limited number of people. I wouldn’t want to produce films or art here, that I would just show in the West and then nobody knows about it locally. And in the opposite sense: we were working on these performative pieces last week, with a few girls that came from Berlin, from the Otucha Collective. They are Polish and have connections to this region, and are trained and practicing a form of traditional ‘white singing’ from the region. The performances were held in the forest and in an open space, and in dialogue with the land. But in the end, the process clearly showed that there’s still a big question of how we can even begin to translate this local language, and local needs, to other forms of perception, or how it should be distributed from East to West. This clash is like an aftereffect or afterglow of the walls, and of past and present divisions. So I think one of the main issues and questions that comes out of it — is how to relate this local context to a global scale. Or how to bring the knowledge from Eastern Europe to the rest of the world. So it’s not recolonization again, or something happening that is still re-creating these existing caste systems. And it’s very interesting to think about these questions, and I still don’t have answers. I’m just observing for now.

C: I find what you just said also interesting in another way: I work both in the city and in the countryside, sometimes with the same topics. And I think a lot about how the same work translates to certain landscapes and communities. It might be something that perfectly fits here in Munich, but it doesn’t fit at all with the community I want to address in the countryside. So then I have to develop different versions of the work, because I don’t want to ignore these different needs. I really have to consider this across everything I do: I once wanted to go with a big parade into this  public space in the countryside. And then when I was there, I thought, no, this feels so wrong. It would just turn people away, because they don’t feel addressed. But it’s something that for example Munich people would like to come and see. And they would say, oh, that’s big, or that’s nice. So one has to question their own artistic tools.

K: Yeah, totally.

C: But on the other hand, I was surprised when I met you Kasia — that we had the same initial questions with which we were starting the research. It’s a very shortened version, if I say it like that, but it was about the violence that happened in this landscape, the Białowieża Forest at the Polish-Belarusian border. Both during the German Nazi occupation, and as a result of the violence that is happening here now, at the border… And we were both thinking about how the forest, or the landscape, is recording that history. We both had questions about how to deal with what is visible or audible, and isn’t, and how to translate it and transfer it into an artwork.

Screenshot, research interviews, Christiane Huber, camera Sven Zellner

K: That’s true, we did start with the same questions… Which actually was great for me to know. That it’s not only something from here, exclusive, but it can be felt by a much bigger community, from the outside. We do share though, a very similar sensitivity to the environment, that is very connected to the land. So I was really happy and excited to talk about these concerns with you Christiane, and I was wondering after you left, how did it grow or transform for you? Because it’s really interesting to know what happens when you are not from here, not speaking the language… Or when this environment is kind of foreign to you, since it’s site-specific work, we could say — how do you deal with this feeling that you are coming here as a person from outside and are immersed in these very local issues, and still feel like you have the right to do it, to represent this story? It’s of course necessary to invite people from the outside, I feel, to give us some perspective on things, so we don’t get too insular. I think in many ways the questions raised here are universal and global. And if you feel called to take part, you should do it and there shouldn’t be these borders again — that you cannot talk about something because you don’t belong, you know what I mean?

C: Yeah, of course, I’m asking myself what am I to this place? I probably wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have any Polish people on the team, or if I didn’t have a conversation with people who are living there, like you, Kasia, or Magda who grew up there. But there is also the question of what am I allowed to speak about, and what kind of artistic translation it finds. We were focusing more on sound for my project, but also did some interviews with researchers there, and I definitely want to film there because I think it gets a bigger audience than theater.

Since I was not initially working with refugees in the forest, like Kasia, I came there with an idea to focus on the sound of the forest itself, and the trees and the animals. I started this project with the animals, that’s what brought me there, and that still makes sense for me. But I want to see how it will develop, I don’t know yet. I’d spent a lot of time thinking about these terms: listening to the forest, or listening to the stories, or listening to voices. What does this listening do? Is it necessary? You hear so much about it in sound art context, about listening projects, healing practices… But is it really healing just listening to it? And what does it do? I’m in a bit of a limbo with the work of listening. I also think a lot about repetition — how things change by being repeated, and how to change things, or what to do with original voices. For example, if I work with propaganda voices, like voices from Nazis — how, and in what way, can one repeat these voices? You neither want to make it much easier to listen to, nor re-traumatize somebody. And how does one show the artistic change — is it that it’s just an artificial voice and not the real voice? This relates to the question of how to deal with violence in an artwork. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for years.

When I returned from Białowieża — I only spent a week there with Kasia. I probably couldn’t handle staying there longer, because it’s a place of such high tensions. When I was there, you could see the growing presence of the Polish military, and there was this moment where Belarusian helicopters were  hovering over the village. Kasia is involved with Grupa Granica, and so there were all these ongoing push backs happening on this borderland, and are still happening now. It’s very exhausting for people living there. Being there, you can feel that it’s so politically charged.

Landscape of Fear, documentary, dir Kasia Hertz, film still, 2022

A: This might be a good moment to ask Kasia, as a local observer, to tell us about the development of the situation: so starting with when you arrived in 2017, and what has happened since.

K: From where I stand now, I realize that I arrived just as one of the most dramatic moments in the recent history of the forest was unfolding. It was yet another shifting point in this forest’s history: the Polish right wing government — then ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party — got into a conflict with some leftist groups. PiS pushed for reinstating the old style of forest management, based on economic extraction and logging of the trees. To justify their own project, PiS used the argument that the bark beetle was spreading and it needed to be remedied. Although, of course, the bark beetle was coming from the environmental changes — the ongoing climate change and the drying of the land. There is less and less water in the forest, which is also the consequence of the water management from the communist times, when they regulated it and tried to straighten the rivers. This, of course, has had a long term effect on the forest. Together all these factors created the environmental change where the spruces are no longer capable of dealing with the bark beetle, which is otherwise a completely natural insect for these forests. But because of the lack of water, they don’t have the juices to protect themselves from it. So they started dying en masse. The forestry tried to pursue the narrative that it’s the consequence of bad governance. And if only the first tree would have been cut, then the whole epidemic of bark beetles would have been stopped, and the forest wouldn’t be dying. 

The conflict ended up spreading to the European level, because the forest is also UNESCO protected. And this created a huge storm around how we are governing nature, not only in Poland, but also in Europe, and how is the European Union involved in this decision making. What’s the deal of being in the European Union, if we can’t turn to democracy and decide as a nation about our own forests? Forest that belongs to everyone, as the constitution says, and not only to the forestry who treat it as their private property. So there was this huge socio-political conflict, and it resulted in deepened divisions in the local community, and incitement of fears, and mistrust and suspicion on different levels. And then there was pandemic.

In the meantime, another political shift was underway, this time around the wolf population. Wolves are strictly protected in Poland, but PiS is trying to change the law because they want to support their hunting. So many little things were happening at the same time. The pandemic had closed the forest, but immediately after there were reports that migrants, or actually, refugees, or people on the move were coming to the border and appearing in the forest. This was called “a hybrid war”, perpetuated by the Lukashenko regime. So we were observing, documenting everything, and learning how we can be present with this, and what we can do. 

Białowieża Forest, 2023, photo Sven Zellner

The militarized situation at the border had also changed the perception of the forest, and people started to be afraid to come here, which was a big issue for the local community, since tourism is the main source of income for most in the area, apart from forestry, which is another group of people here.  So if tourists don’t want to come here because they are told by the government that it’s a war zone and this whole propaganda is spreading, then who is taking care of the local community? No one. So the community has to start taking care of themselves. Because the local government is not working with or for the people — they are working against them. The good thing that started happening, as a result of all that, was the emergence of a civic movement. It merged people who had no way around it but to talk to each other and find ways to communicate against the divisions and political ideologies because they all love the forest. This has been a very interesting experience and learning process.

A: It may help to clarify some terms around this location and attempt to untangle them, if only precisely because it’s such a mixture of all the most painful things in one location — ecological crisis, neoliberal extractivism, populism, racialization and forced migration. There are different political interests colliding in this location: like you said — locals and the PiS Party, then there’s the European Union question mark against the local interests, and the third piece is what is happening on the other side of the border. The UN report that was just recently published has traced the trajectory of the migrants stranded at that border, and most of them came to Belarus, to cross into Europe, through Russia. So the hybrid war is conducted by Putin, in cahoots with Lukashenko (who essentially sold the country in exchange for staying in power, after the 2020 uprising in Belarus came very close to toppling his regime). This war is taking place on the territory of Ukraine and Belarus and borderland areas (and arguably in the Middle East and Africa too), involving many participants. But the question of weaponization of migration to me is a really important one, in that it’s impossible to “weaponize” it without Europe reacting in a certain way to the situation: meaning they are not giving safe passage to the people who are used as pawn in a hybrid war, and who find themselves at the border, which is of course against the Geneva Convention. So the invention of this hybrid war is not only that of Lukashenko’s regime (not to absolve him of any of his evils), but it is equally important to say it is absolutely contingent on European policies. On the fictive and inhumane rationalization that if they let people in — then Belarusian regime will be bring in ever more. Which is of course not true, because it’s far too logistically complicated. It was a calculated, horrible, gamble, and it worked out very well for Lukashenko, exactly as expected.

K: I know — the situation is ultimately in disagreement with Europe’s supposed ideology, and so-called “Western values”. What’s going on along the European borders is basically going against both local civic rights and European values in the end. The local government, PiS, have decided to build a wall without any referendum — they are not asking anyone for their opinion. They are just making a snap decision — we are building the wall and using public money for it. And there is silence from the European Union. This border wall also goes through extremely precious primordial forest, and scientists, voices that should be listened to, are not involved even when they are trying to ask Europe for help and support. It shouldn’t happen like that. There should be many voices included in the dialogue on whether this wall was necessary or not; and about what it’s going to do to the forest.

C: Of course we also know that the European Union is directly interested in this wall, or in this fence — they are involved, behind the scenes, because they want to “secure” the outer European border.

K: Yes, exactly, the whole surveillance system here has been quietly taken over by Frontex. So, covertly, they are the ones basically providing the equipment and strategies for the pushbacks at the border. And Frontex — is the European border agency.

C: What I find so interesting is that even in these few conversations that we had with the community there, you could tell some people feel threatened by the growing military presence, including by the Polish military presence there — but then others feel protected. And even when we had our small community gathering, there was this discussion about fences: how high your fence should be as a citizen in Białowieża. And it needs to be high enough for bison not to come into your garden. But someone who is a new citizen there, said she didn’t want it that high, but was still asked to build it higher. So it’s interesting how this question of borders and fences appears in different discussions, and in different forms.

K: Of course there is a division even amongst the local community, because some of them really support the army and feel safer. And the other part feels completely the opposite. After Christiane left, in these last three weeks, Belarusian helicopters flew over our territory of Białowieża. The helicopters were flying low enough to be photographed by some of the locals, the Belarusian flags clearly visible on the photos. This was later confirmed by MSWiA – The Ministry of Defence. Although initially they denied this had happened, and later claimed that the helicopters were flying too low to be visible on the military radars. The party wanted to show off ahead of the elections in October — so they started bringing Polish military to the border too. Now all these war vehicles are increasingly present on the roads, and soldiers are walking around with guns everywhere. And, while we don’t know what Putin is planning, definitely, from this side too — it’s a constant spectacle of power. And for the purpose of political gains, of course. 

A: It seems to be yet another iteration of the familiar method of pitting groups against each other and exacerbating conflict, the sort of politics designed to diverte the attention away from the realities of the European Union itself, which is struggling economically and politically. We could say that we are at the end of European model, or grand narrative, as far as “modernity”: a gated community of self-serving progress, stability and safety. Next to it there’s another thing happening too: Belarus used to be a buffer zone, and now it’s been basically absorbed, or is de facto occupied by Russia, and the problem is right at EU border. So in that sense, I’m also curious whether there’s still any communication channels with the other side, if some kind of relationship with Belarus is possible. Because I know that prior there were a lot of connections, both amongst scientists but also between the local communities, because obviously there are lot of historical links.

Scratching Trees #1, performance, Christiane Huber, photo Sven Zellner

K: That’s the question I’ve been asked the most recently. And I have so little knowledge about it. Because nobody knows. I was talking to some of the scientists from the Forestry Institute about that recently, and they said that they used to be able to go to Belarus, study the forest and collaborate. It wasn’t great, but it was possible. There were open ways to do it, and they did it quite a lot, there was a dialogue. And right now, this collaboration doesn’t exist anymore, and we don’t know what’s going on on the forest side of Belarus when it comes to activism. Maybe there are channels that are still active somewhere, but I would say it’s more on the Baltic, Lithuanian side. But Belarus is really like this gray zone that we don’t know much about.

A: Sadly, thought I am from there, and have family there, I don’t quite know what’s going on there either. And the Belarusian community, even outside the country, is pretty patchy and paranoid, not without a reason. To a degree, people can’t talk about many subjects, because they might be compromising those who are still in Belarus, on the ground, and putting them in danger. And it’s hard to describe the feeling around the thought, when you realize: oh, I guess I might never be able to go home. I’ll never be able to visit Belarus, see family, or access the archives. And so the question becomes — how does it feel for the rest of the world, to deal with these gray zones? Do we just forget them, leave them to their own devices? How are we to deal with these places that are increasingly isolated, where people are zombified, be it Belarus or North Korea? And what is our responsibility in relation to these places, here, in “safety”? 

K: That’s a good question, and it’s a lot to think about. I have some Belarusian friends in Poland that moved here years ago, and also in Berlin. And communicating with them, and trying to include their feelings and emotions in whatever we are doing is extremely important, since most of them still have families in Belarus. So they are in contact with them, but… They are worried constantly and live in this protracted state of fear and stress, and lack of knowledge, lack of certainty, or lack of stability. So I think including them is a job, it’s a responsibility. 

And then I would say we really have to go into spiritual work, too. There are so many levels we can work with, not only with intellectual resources and concepts, but also with really spiritual and emotional support – which can also be done with the help of nature. The fact that we share this forest and it’s divided into two because of history and ideologies… It’s still one forest. And it still has shared history and shared ancestors. My ancestors come from the territory of what is now Belarus, from Lida. So I also feel like some parts of my past are locked there, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go there and see the place where my grandfather was born. And he was also displaced. So this history of displacement, and lack of home and lack of access to your territories — is like a shared thing that we all have as Eastern Europeans in various ways. And this is something that I think we have to work through in the future. How to create this common story and the support that heals these wounds that are engraved in the land. For me, coming here and being here as close as possible to this territory, is a work in itself. Just this presence. I think presence is a really important thing that we rarely speak about. How do you take responsibility for the presence in this context of constant oppression of either ideology or fear-mongering that is used by different systems? So even this conversation for me is already very important, and helps.

I also wanted to say that Białowieża was founded by settlers from Belarus. Polish people came here quite late, which is even visible in the religious city division, because the Orthodox church is standing in the middle of the village, and the Catholic church was built much later, and it was built at the end of the village, not in the main center. So you can really feel the past here. Our lives, our cultures, have always been entangled around this territory, both ways, and the forest has been this connective tissue. It used to be much larger, spreading from the East, to the south, now called Palesse. It’s fascinating to learn how the divisions and movements occurred during the time, how the narratives have changed, circulated and influenced contemporary biopolitics.  Today the system and the ideologies have put people from the same region on opposite sides yet again. I’ve heard all these stories, the anger: the propaganda is spreading so quickly… 

C: Joanna Pawluśkiewicz was talking to us about this place in Teremiski (she’s an activist, artist, performer). And when I talked to her in relation to our project, she had a similar story to Kasia’s. She arrived from Warsaw because of this 2017 situation with the logging, and has lived here since. I just want to mention her in terms of this question of healing, because she also described how traumatized they were and exhausted from all that’s going on, and the emotional toll of working with the refugees. Before that they used to organize a summer comedy festival, there in Teramisky, where she said that all these different people gathered: the border guards, the police, the activists. And she described it as a very important moment for the community there… The festival is finally restarting this year again, after being closed during the pandemic.

A: About participation and coming together — it’s also about ability to be present, or participate, in either helping or healing. One can’t necessarily just pick up and be in Poland all of a sudden. It’s a question of finances, logistics, visas and passports. Then there are personal-political situations that might entrap people, or prevent them from being where they’d like to be. As is my case for example… It becomes, yet again, a question of resources. If you have them, you go and make a film about it. Which is not always a good idea, by the looks of this trailer, for example. Saviorism can easily slide into vanity projects. But these are the people who can, are enabled to talk about the present, and who can, therefore, work with memory and with the archive. And then there are those who cannot, are not permitted by the system, to have a voice. So as far as reacting and being involved, neoliberalism has stratified that too: who gets funding and support is bureaucratically and structurally privileged, besides it being very slow. 

C: I’m so happy that you brought up memory and who is allowed to talk about it, or work with it, or also who has the means or allowance to work with these topics. When someone’s doing a big production, like the recently released film by Agnieszka Holland, The Green Border, does it show the whole situation? Is it helpful or not? And what does it do with other projects that are done there? Or people who’d been working there, on the ground for a long time already?  This question of memory also brings me back to the forest, because what was so important for me to think about — is the memory of a tree. The tree’s lifespan and our lifespan. Of course, it’s so obvious that they have very different lifespans. But we hardly think about it when we walk through the forests — because in most of the state forests the spruces are not very old, they are mainly plantations. And then you go through Białowieża forest, and it’s a completely different thing. It has its own logic, and it does something when you walk through it alone. It has this healing aspect all by itself. These old woods, growing different kinds of mushrooms on, so many animals there… It’s a very special landscape we’re talking about. It has to be remembered that it’s all happening in a primordial forest. And when you’re there and you think, okay, this landscape is so much stronger, and it will survive everything — what does that mean to us?

K: I was talking to Tomek Smojlik , he’s one of the researchers here, mainly focused on the history of the forest. He said to me “you know, the most interesting part that people forget, is that even if there was an atomic bomb that fell into the forest, it might first look like it was completely destroyed, and people would say, okay, now it’s gone forever. But in 100 years, it would be here again. It would last because this forest has had this ongoing continuity, thanks to its biodiversity, which was never really cut or destroyed like in other forests.” So the question is: how can we think of the same regenerative practices, if applied to communities and societies? If the continuity is not really destroyed completely, and it has this regenerative property still, no matter what happens. What is at the core of it? Where is it coming from? There is this thing in the forest that everybody should have access to, to actually feel it and see it. So I feel really sad when I hear Anastasia say that she can’t come here. Because I feel like if these things were spoken about more, it would be more palpable, more visible for people to access and understand — how ecosystems found strategies and technologies to restore itself, and heal and collaborate.

Białowieża Forest, 2023, photo Sven Zellner

I feel like this narrative of the forest itself is very much excluded from the conversation, in the mainstream, and it could add so much value to it. I watched The Green Border, and it does a very informative, sensitive job. But I was sad that the forest, the main actor, was entirely missing from it. It’s not just any forest that people on the move are passing through. But it looked like that in the film. The forest perspective was not included. Maybe there was no space for it, or it wasn’t practical, in the context of political gains — it was released right before the elections in Poland. But that’s a huge part that is missing for me, especially as a person from the local community. I would say that in the film you can’t even tell that it’s this specific border region, there is no feeling of the locality. So someone is yet to speak about how local people are connected to this forest, and how hard it is for them to experience the trauma of other people and non-human beings —within— the forest. And what about the trees, animals, the whole ecosystem? How does suffering impact the extended living community as a whole? How does it wound and leave scars that must be taken care of somehow? This must be addressed, and this is a big theme I am only starting to work on right now, in many different ways, also looking at other forests and other places with similar histories of disturbance and oppression. 

A: You hear this kind of perspective in the contemporary discourse, in regards to the forest community perspective, or the connection to living in the forest — but it usually comes from Global South, or from indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere. This has been my problem with some of the international conversation, in rooms I’d been sitting in in Europe and North America, because it excludes similar perspectives from Eastern Europe, by absorbing the region into generalized “West”, or “North”, as perceived on a global scale. And it’s not the question of not listening to all these other contexts, as my rebuke is often perceived, as if it has to be either one or the other. It’s the reverse, listening to these perspectives and to the perspectives from Białowieża for example, or anywhere really. One has to be worried about the future of the forests and ecology in the region that starts at the Polish border and spans Eurasia…

C: Yeah, two thirds of the forest, if you talk about Białowieża, two thirds of it are in Belarus.

K: Thank you for bringing up the global south and indigenous communities of the south especially, because I feel something is really changing here, and a shift is happening globally, the return to ancestral knowledge of the land. I feel this big excitement, and get really emotional when I think that this just happened naturally, that we gathered here and with a very specific group of people we are trying to restore this knowledge, that was colonized and taken away, and cut and robbed and basically cleared out, but some of it is still there, preserved. And it’s of huge value, sharing knowledge and building bridges. I would call it citizen science. It’s very strong and present in Białowieża because of the activist groups, like House of Nature and Culture for example, whose work I really admire. One can find parallels here to similar initiatives in Amazonian forests, where the indigenous people are leading various projects, and inviting artists, architects, and scientists from the Western context to think together.

A: This an important distinction against this flattening that if you go somewhere, you’re necessarily appropriating, necessarily doing that colonial Western perspective, or erasure and replacement. But in fact, a certain global inter-connection needs to be activated across all these different channels of resistance, because otherwise we can’t recuperate from the current socio-political and ecological situations. It is obviously perpetrated by stronger, as in — more violent, and also globalized, forces that are very difficult to counter. And this forest — it houses some form of resistance, literally, historically, and maybe, like Kasia said, on some other level, in a form we don’t quite understand with the western scientific tools. 

C: I’m thinking about this one line: to whom does this world belong? It’s interesting what you say about this flattened discourse of appropriating land or appropriating history, appropriating knowledge. It took me some time to question it, because I grew up on a farm, where we lived from what the land produced. But this land, why does it belong to our family? Does it really belong to my family? As a farmer, you need this land to grow and to sell the harvest, but more and more I’m questioning this whole way of living, and being on the land. 

K: And the land, of course, doesn’t belong to us, but we belong to the land as the whole species. So I think it’s about dissolving the separations and the borders and the walls, and working with respect and humility. Humbleness is the key here. In Polish, it’s this word pokora, which I find really beautiful because it’s very strong. The origin of the word is from the verb “korzyć się” — to humble oneself, which means to show honor to something, pay respect. The verb from this word, which names the action or state of being, is “korzenie się” or rooting oneself, or directly translated to English could also mean “roots of a tree”. The English word “humility”, similarly, comes from latin humilitas  — the word for humus, meaning earth. So one could interpret it as — being humble means to be connected with the earth, to be in touch with one’s own earthly element (“from dust you were made, to dust you shall turn”). I think it speaks a lot about how our relationship to the earth should be reformed. 

Treblinka, 2023, photo Sven Zellner