In the WEEDS: Camilla Berner

Kroyers Plads, Copenhagen, Denmark

When I want to know anything about Scandinavia, I ask my friend, Elin, who geographically lives in the US, but whose heart is in the Nordic World. She told me about Camilla Berner and The Black Box Garden in Copenhagen.  I have been corresponding with Camilla and she generously answered a few questions about the garden.

Overview of the garden

PO: How did the idea of Black Box Garden start?
CB:  As a close neighbor to the site, I’ve been thinking about doing a project here, ever since it was emptied back in 2004.  Closely linked to part of my art practice, I’ve followed the development of the vegetation on the site closely and seen how it has spread and grown more and more wild over the years.

Most people treat a wasteland site as a place of no value at all;  the vegetation is regarded as nothing, but weeds and the site is more or less just one big trash bin and toilet for dogs only.  The site Kroyers Plads, however, is actually very spectacularly situated in the middle of old Copenhagen, right on the harbor, which makes it one of the most valuable and hence most contested wasteland sites in recent years.

Back in 2007, I did a survey of all species at the site and conducted an afternoon workshop in gardening with some local kids, which in many ways where Black Box Garden was born.

Solidago canadensis and Calamagrostis epigeios
Canadian goldenrod and chee reedgrass

When I started gardening in April 2011, I knew the site had just been sold again and that the new owners were planning to build soon.  I decided as much as I would like to continue the experiment in gardening with existing vegetation only, I also wanted all aspects of this particular site to come forward and be articulated, either through the garden itself or through the action of gardening in a public space.  Therefore, I took on the performative role of always wearing a uniform when working in the garden. 

Melilotus albus
White Sweet Clover
I also decided to write a blog every day about the garden. On the blog, I reflect on what I do, how I feel about it, what I observe plant wise and about life on the site itself.  How do people react to my presence, which to some people is thought of as very odd.  What is nature in an urban environment and what is public space?  Who are the contributors and what is their responsibility?

Sedum reflexum or Sedum rupestre
Jenny’s Stonecrop or Reflexed Stonecrop
PO:  How did you start gardening?
CB:  My first day in the garden, I had to overcome many different things. I had to collect all the trash.  No garden looks nice with trash and especially not, if my mission was to change people’s perceptions about weeds in a garden.

I didn’t feel particularly courageous about it being public space and it being in my neighborhood.  As part of the experiment, I didn’t want to ask permission to do the garden as it was important to me to observe the reactions, both from locals and owners, but also to observe my own role.

After 8-10 days, I had forgotten about these worries and did the garden work regularly for 2-3 hours every day.  After 3 weeks, I found out that the owners, were a big real estate company and had plans…they were going to cut down all the vegetation and get rid of it.

Epilobium angustifolium
Fireweed or Great Willowherb or Rosebay Willowherb
I contacted the company and said I could do a garden out of what was growing there and so it happened.  In the garden, what I do is I look at the species, where and how they grow.  I make a path by clearing around the group of vegetation.  I select a path and cover it with sand (left on the site from a beach bar that here between 2001-2004). 

This way a nice aesthetic feeling is achieved and the plants are kind of highlighted and given a new status.  As work progresses it is not a decision of how to move through the vegetation – rather a reading of how the vegetation grows and that is what determines how the paths are made.

The title of the garden BLACK BOX GARDEN refers to the black boxes on a airplane and how they work as a testimony in case of a crash.  Likewise, the plants are a testimony of the history of the site, what soil is here and so forth.

Phragmites australis
Common Reed
PO:  How do you garden and have time for other things?
CB:  The garden and the blogging about it is pretty much a full-time job in the Spring, even with help from an assistant.  Currently, it keeps itself running with one-day a week of work.  Next season, I plan on some help from local volunteers.  The garden will keep existing until building starts in Autumn 2012.

Daucus carota
Wild Carrot or Queen Anne’s lace
PO:  What other projects do you have in mind?
CB:  Throughout most of my work, surveying and mapping play an important role.  It is part of the process, but also often an active part of the final work too.  When  revealing overlooked aspects of our environment and how we engage with it, there is an element of archaeology.

In 2008-2009, I made a piece called “Precious Things and Stuff We Don’t Like” which was a seed bank with seeds of all species from a wasteland site in a very densely built area of Copenhagen.  The idea of the work is on one hand to show the diversity of plants actually existing within a very little urban area (124 species within 1700m) but secondly by storing them for the future use it points to the issues of saving nature in relation to climate change and touches the notion of our perception of nature:  What do we save?

Camilla spreading sand in the garden
Photo by Sebastian Schioerring


All of the above photos courtesy of Camilla Berner

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