Kimberly saunters into the Windmill Community Garden with ease. Her white and geometric print outfit is fitting for today’s journey. We sit together in a shady spot admiring Kristyna & Marek Milde’s Plantarium Tea Garden, a platform serving the local community to grow and harvest wild herbs for teas and infusions. I give Kimberly a quick overview of our planned journey, making allowances for wandering and some movement exercises. As a dancer, educator and architect Kimberly seems more than ready to move with the weedy plants and marginal ecologies nearby.
C: Have you noticed any changes to the neighborhood you’re in?
K: I was thinking about that and I’ve been in New York for about 10 years now. I came from architecture school and I started in Harlem, then moved closer to get my Masters in Architecture at the New School. So I moved closer there to 20th and First. And then to Brooklyn where I’ve been for six, seven years. Although 10 years might seem for a long time for someone who was not from here, in the grand scheme, I don’t feel like it is much time. I don’t have roots here, I don’t have family here. So in terms of what has changed for me? I feel like the longer than I’m here, the more the city unfolds for me. Like the more nuanced it becomes in my awareness of it.
C: And you’re in Lefferts Garden?
K: Yeah. Lefferts Gardens. So that’s an area that is changing, but slowly, like Crown Heights as you know, like Franklin, that’s all crazy. And then slowly it’s trickling down. I see some spots popping up on Rogers and more and more newer cleaned up fancy, establishments are popping up. But at the same time as I’m there, I’m realizing that there are existing establishments that have been there for a long time. Just now, I’m learning about them and I’m appreciating them more.
C: What do those changes feel like for you? Does it feel like a violence? Does it feel passive? Do you get a sense of the energy of your neighborhood?
K: Well myself as an insert, I felt quite closed. I lived there. Garaged my body there, then left to work in Manhattan. So as an agent of change myself, I wasn’t really connected and I didn’t really feel like I had much ownership over it. I realize I come from a privileged position to move into a place, but also because I didn’t have roots here I needed to find a place. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to stay there for seven years. Now in the last year and a half I feel like it’s been opening itself to me more and me also just wanting to spend more time there. Now I have an interest in building a relationship with the community.
C: What shifted for you?
K: I think it’s like just a growing awareness of how it’s necessary for us to be connected to our local environments. My interest is connecting to self, connecting to body, and connecting to land. I’m tying myself to more holistic and sustainable ways of living, and also realizing how we are relating to our environment that needs to shift. As well as becoming aware of the waves of urban change. But like I said, I don’t have family here so I know within my experience of 10 years of things that have changed, but I recognize that for people that grew up here, so it’s a very different experience for them.
C: Welcome to our first site. We did a department of building search and both of these sites were once homes, just about five years ago. They were actually in pretty good shape ironically. We can peek through here and see that it’s a nice field of Mugwort and other things popping up. What is your eye drawn towards?
K: My eyes are looking at the gentle curve of the topography and the most two evergreen trees right in the middle. I see that spinach, the Lambsquarter. That just makes me–
C: Evidence of somebody’s home.
K: Yeah I think about that (plant?) in someone’s backyard. But it’s funny you don’t see traces of the foundation. I wonder what they did, did they just fill it in? It does invite my imagination to fantasize.
C: Yeah. It’s just like, I think people see that (plant?) as something problematic for the neighborhood and yet they are providing some sort of ecological service. So it becomes an interesting sort of tension. How do you navigate identities as an architect and as an artist, a teacher, like how do you know?
K: That’s a good question. I’ve always been an interdisciplinary, a multicontextual person. I can’t even as I try, try really hard to give a definition to that. But it’s impossible. So what I like to think of is my life functioning like a pinwheel, like radial. That each of the pedals can be their own color and spinning together they create this beautiful whirling thing. In the middle there is a center that can be grounded and can hold it together. That’s the stillness in the movement, but also dynamism in the stillness. So all of it together, all of these practices are about knowing the world and knowing myself, knowing relationally how all these different things are interconnected. Lately it’s been a process of integration, which seems separate.
C: I mean do you have to code switch certain ways or do you feel like you always have an opportunity to sort of bring things together? Or do you feel like people are pressuring you to be certain, play a certain role?
K: Luckily I feel like I’ve carved out different places, routes and navigating socially or professionally through the city and a stubbornness that I can only be authentic. I can only be this. I’m a triple Pisces, if that matters. Sun rising, moon, and actually mercury too. So I guess what you see is what you get, inevitably, and very honestly. But also I think sharing this, the vulnerability of this process and not knowing it can also be very useful as an educator. As an educator or as an artist is one who’s trying to be as authentic with the world and with oneself as possible and always in process.
C: Yes. I love that. So we came across this alley which we are calling the Available Light Corridor. If you feel okay walking through.
K: Yeah, lets go!
C: It’s kind of this interesting in between space. A lot of interesting little businesses doing their thing out of here.
K: Is this the spinach?
C: No, sort of related. This is the Japanese knotweed.
it’s very unwanted. Its considered a blacklist plants. And a lot of developers say they see this on a lot. They will not develop actually because they can’t get rid of it. It’s like you pour chemicals, you dig it up, you try to explode it. These things come back.
K: So is it really from Japan?
C: Yeah, East Asia and there’s varieties of it all over the world. But in the UK it’s technically illegal to have it on your property so you could be fined or get in a lot of trouble for having it there. And of course not bring it across the borders. Which is interesting.
K: How did it originally come here?
C: Well, a lot of speculation. So a lot of folks think in the sort of ballast of ships coming over to New York and Philadelphia, different harbors, they were in the hay of things like storage crates or coming from animals that were brought over for livestock. And the seeds of those just spread. Some of them, especially the Asian plants were brought over of hotels to be ornamental exotic plants.
K: So this was maybe ornamental?
K: Yeah, it’s beautiful.
C: Brought over by some white colonizers as a pretty thing. And then it’s like____
K: Actually I was teaching with the center for architecture in Chinatown this fall and like east Broadway, that area is really like, there’s a lot of really fancy establishments or gentrifying white establishments that are coming in and making it seem super fancy. And there is a, there’s this movie theater, this art house, movie theater and Metro Graph. And I didn’t realize upstairs there’s a bar, hang out. It’s really peaceful. I went there to do a little work, and it was cozy, like white walls. I think white painted brick with dark wood and lots of like lush tropical planting. At the same time there was this eerie, unsettling feeling because all of the servers were like dark skinned and it felt very like tropical plantation.
C: Yeah, wow.
K: These beautiful ornamental plants that are there to beautify the space for this, the privileged consumer class.
C: Who can be there can be there? Who can afford it?
K: And the aesthetic. Are people not aware that it’s an aesthetic that’s being broadcast or like this is, you know, that tasteful New York… “come to Chinatown.”
C: Totally. The obsession with the house plants and the succulents lately. I don’t know, it’s such a funny… I love that people are excited about plants. But all the plants that you see commonly in these greenhouse stores, or Home Depot you know, they are all tropical plants. So you’re taking them from these colonized spaces. You’re bringing them into your home. Treating them as if they’re like these pets. There’s all this beautiful weedy species everywhere, native out there too. Why don’t we have plants like that in our home? why do we consider these tropical ones and beautiful and these things are really ugly?
K: As you said these are doing all this ecological work and medicinal work for our land and for ourselves too, right?
C: Yeah, yeah. I’m thinking about starting like a houseplant house business. Decolonize your house plants.
K: That’s awesome!
C: Pay me $200 and I’ll take care of everything for you.
K: Well, they can be like indoor air purifying like medicinal tea gardens.
C: And why not think about like some of these babies as was having space in your life.
K: Totally. Would they survive inside?
C: Well, that’s a good question. Yeah. We’ve been experimenting. Some of them just really don’t like it, which I totally get. They like a little bit of wind, movement.
K: The wild.
C: And they liked the fluctuation of the temperatures and if you put them inside and they start to wilt. Some of them love it though, so it just really depends on the species.
But it’s this kind of tension I have about like trapping plants inside. I’m just like, I want them to be alive all the time. I don’t want to trap these babies
K: So do you have plants inside?
C: I have a few.
K: What are the ones that you keep inside?
C: I have been cultivating some mugwort which really doesn’t mind being inside. I’ve got a Tree of Heaven in my house. I do have some snake plants, which are the tropical ones because they survive pretty much in any light. I don’t have the greatest light. and I’ve got some wild grasses that I’m always cycling through. They don’t mind it.
K: Like these?
C: Yeah. And also down here, these are called Fox Tail? Because they got this amazing kind of tail at the end which will become giant seeds towards September. Sometimes these grasses will have actually multiple cycles, which is interesting.
K: Through a season?
C: Yeah, totally brown in July. Then they’ll come back and harvestable by November. Which is really curious.
K: And do these have any medicinal function?
C: Well, you can definitely make us into a flour if you grind up the seed. So it could be a really nice protein supplements or a carbohydrate. One thing we’re trying to think about too, especially with the EPA, is that for plants to have a medicinal food sort of relationship, it still can be valuable. It’s still a plant, still an organism. It’s creating a habitat. It’s helping storm water retention. CO2 absorption. So a lot of people just go immediately to: can I eat it?
K: How does this serve me? Yeah, totally.
C: What is the agency of this plant and what does it mean to be in relationships with these plants? And when you get down to their level, the vantage point helps change your perspective.
K: I really appreciate that. I’ve cultivated a movement practice to push the boundaries of our pedestrian navigation through the city and change perspective. You can gain a greater appreciation of the other things that share space with us.
C: How do you think about making dance and movement?
K: Well, architecture and design environment definitely choreograph how we move. Through sidewalks. Like you’re allowed to be here. You’re not allowed to be there. We’ve been trained since elementary school. And we are seeing the world at eye level all the time, which really suppresses our capacity to know the world. So I started playing capoeira after architecture school and I loved learning this new language of movement where you go upside down and backwards to go forward. And that totally felt good to move my body in these different ways. I mean I’ve been dancing all my life but to come back to it after architecture school…it was very spatial to really recognize that we could move through spaces in different ways. So I bring this into my creative practice. Because where we put ourselves in the room influences how we see the room. And mostly we’re trapped or we have been socialized into just eye level viewing of everything.
C: So are you interested in interrupting? What are the structures for intervention for you?
K: Methods. For my Dance-atecture project I build site specific installations to facilitate different ways to move through a space. I disrupt how we would conventionally experience surfaces. I encourage engagement with surfaces that would otherwise be touched or walked upon. Changing elevation. Like that bench can also be a stage. Or moving up the bar or the rail create frameworks for different processes to invite a new exploration. I build labyrinths. And I’m not telling people to move in a particular way, but inviting people to move and engage in their own discovery process with these labyrinths.
I also do a movement method that’s a combination of parkour and contact improv. It’s called Par Kon and that one uses touch and rolling points of contact to have dialogue with the built environment. Creating ways we wouldn’t normally move in an environment and then placing a person in relationship to other movers too. It is interesting for me to engage with these movement practices and then reflect on how it can be translated back to the design process. I like to invite my students in on this too: How can your design partner with the occupant to expand the experience of a space? Or expand awareness of perception of the world around you?
Ultimately, beyond just problem solving- a design being a problem solver- can design help us live more deeply and more fully as humans.
C: How do non-humans experience architecture?
K: I’m feeling into that question. I would imagine that it’s very alienating.There is nothing there for them. Like for the bird habitats, for birds or rodents or insects. They are undesirable. We don’t design them in. Forgotten. They are alien landscape that non-humans have to adapt to.
C: I think about sometimes the plants. They just like to do so much with this really stark landscape. I wonder what they’re thinking. Somehow they thrive. What can they teach us about resisting monocultures and resisting a concrete slab, you know what I mean? By pushing out.
K: Working slow.
C: So the human created wasteland is maybe the opportunity sometimes.
This is a site we’ve been eyeing for a time. We are calling it the Bee Avenue Corridor. It’s kind of one of those weird, in-between MTA spaces.
K: In architecture when there is the space between two materials, that’s called the reveal. So you can have a reveal if you trying to match two materials perfectly. Desiring such precision can lead to a lot of headache, because the world is not perfectly orthogonal, 90 degrees. So when you create the reveal this tolerance can make it look cleaner and can accommodate differences.
C: So this would be a reveal?
K: Yeah, the reveal will allow for expansion and contraction of the different concrete slabs.
C: this little microworld down here.
K: So, this is moss?
C: I don’t know how’s it survives down here? SOmetimes you see giant trees growing out of here, like “Hi, guys! How’s it going down there?”
K: As I’ve been working in other parts of Brooklyn, like Sheepshead Bay: the subway doesn’t go there. You have to take a bus. Like these are communities that have been there for longer and, and in some ways buffered from waves of gentrification. Being here longer the city has been unfolding more. Look at those mushrooms, cool. And I’m curious as I’m at a point in my life where I’m thinking about where I wanted to really root, you know. Is this the appropriate environment for what I want to cultivate for my life, for like, is this soil fertile? I am in admiration of the communities have been able to withstand the chaos of the city. And really plant themselves and still retain a sense of identity.
C: You think it’s out of survival? Or do they feel there’s like a mechanism you think that they’re using?
K: I think building relationships with each other that’s both pleasurable and it supports our resilience. And so I’m seeing more examples of social ecologies in the place of familial ecologies to support families.
C: We’ve got these beautiful examples of biodiverse life surrounded by this plastic seize(?)
The survival here is so amazing to me, but the thriving of life is… chaos.
K: Are there examples of these kinds of plants that would not be able to grow without the chaos?
C: That’s a good question.
K: I like this urban landscape is, is a requirement for their survival.
C: I don’t know if…the EPA has two members one’s from Germany and ones from Switzerland and they both have been talking a lot about the differences between the plants we observe in Europe, the weedy species and the ones I see here. And they told me that, especially in the States, they’ve noticed things like Mugwort and Dandelion and some common weeds are actually much more robust here, larger. It might be like their genetic makeup is different here because of more abundance, of commingling of things and more disturbance. So I do think that because we live in a place where there’s so much development and like manifest destiny. This continues that, that it actually supports a lot of these weedy species and Natives, natives often reach a plateau. They kind of stabilize their system and the weeds actually need change. And that’s why they survived so well here in New York City is that digging them up, and shaking things around, and making a mess.
K: Oh wow.
C: Yeah, it’s really interesting.
K: And it selects for naturally select for heartier versions.
C: I love shifting the vacant lot becoming a sight of possibility and not a wasteland.
K: just by shifting perspective,
C: like getting down and at the end of the walk actually having a moment of communication with them. I think about what they’re feeling. It’s not about like blind empathy, but being more in relationship to these things pass by everyday. Which can be hard when you’ve learned that certain plants are good and certain plants are not good. I’m curious when you grew up, did you have anybody that was like a big gardener or did you learn at some point that these are weeds and these are not weeds?
K: I think mostly by delineation of these planters. What’s inside the planter? What’s, what’s not? But My, my dad was a very big like DIY at home kind of person. He like fully read drywalled the House that I grew up in and landscaped and put all this sod and built planters and I grew up in suburban St Louis, Missouri. So yeah, there was definitely you want this so you don’t want that.
C: And what do you think now? Do you have a range of plants you talk about with your students about?
K: No, but I want to more because I’m interested in continuing to develop a stronger relationship with the environment around me, in a real lived experiential way. As a person born in the Philippines growing up in the United States, being separated from my ancestral land, not having access to the wisdom of my ecological heritage. I want more of that. To feel connected and have a relationship through my cells and I’m not there. I’m here. So I feel like it’s my desire and also my responsibility as someone who wants to be accountable for my existence and be more fully human and connected. I want to learn more and gain a better appreciation of these organisms. There’s different forms of consciousness they share, share the city with. Yeah.
C: If you feel open, I would love to take you through a movement score.
C: So I’m interested in this script for awhile. So this is a score called “A brief romance with a weed”. I’m going to ask you to do is just take a moment to sort of survey and to move towards a plant that calls to you something that kind of catches your attention. And take as much time as you want.
K: Okay. I have more than one. I’ll start with this one here.
C: So once you get down low, you fall in love and this plant is now your lover. so that you observe and maybe even extend If you feel comfortable close your eyes.
This plant is in love with you. Think about everything it might say to you. What would you say back? What do you love about this plant?
K: (To the plant) Shall I proclaim my love for you plant? I love your broad and unabashed expression. I love your sturdy honesty and tenacity to grow in this rugged, rugged landscape of the city. I also appreciate your sweetness.
C: Now close your eyes one more time. You’ve broken up.
Think about what you need to let go of. What does this plant need to let go of, what do you need to let go of?
K: (To the plant) Okay. I understand that you live here and I live in Brooklyn. You’ve got your roots here and you’ve got your life and you don’t need me. But we can appreciate each other and still be friends.But my heart. I can’t take you home because you would die. And I want you to live. Happy.