Maxwell Fertik

POSTINDUSTRIAL PLAYBOOK++

There is no such thing as an undisrupted ecosystem. Every inch of the planet is impacted by industrial development and its chemical legacy has mutated the soil and water. As a response, this thesis is designed to promote abundant over extractive resources and visualize a post-industrial reality. It consists of a series of objects, writing and design research on the relationship of industry and ecosystem. In many ways it is a playbook++, laying out possible strategies or “plays’’ for making do with what exists around us amid collapse. Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) (虎杖), a plant that grows in the most degraded landscapes, is the central case study for this project. By making knotweed objects at three different scales, (silverware, table and raft), and discussing the xenophobic language around invasive species, this project investigates resilience and local resourcefulness within a post-industrial future.

A Contaminated landscape

This project does not pretend to be a solution but rather a highly contextual provocation to reframe our relationship to the post-industrial environment. At its core, is the disrupted Providence landscape and the ways nature and our minds have mutated accordingly. This thesis is not just about Japanese Knotweed but uses it as a window through which to discuss the entanglements of industry and ecology. 

The ++ that is seen throughout, is a symbol of abundance and addition.

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A raft made out of Japanese knotweed bundles bound together with rope and ratchet straps and capped with beeswax

“Knotweed raft” (2023) knotweed bundles, ratchet straps, rope beeswax

Floating Island

The first object, in collaboration with Augie Lehrecke (FD 14), Matt Muller (FD 14) Alexandra Ionescu (NCSS 21), Hope Leeson (Critic, NCSS), and Holly Ewald (UPP Arts) is a floating island made of knotweed bundles. Each bundle was harvested from either Mashapaug Pond, Morley Field in Pawtucket or East Side Train Tunnel Valley. At its roots, it is an Island made of invasive species in the middle of a polluted pond. Using the pollution of Gorham Silver on Mashapaug Pond as a case study, this raft will use their byproducts to instead regenerate the environment.

In essence, this product develops the bed for a floating wetland as a way of containing but also harnessing this abundant resource. It has a discursive function, referencing the introduction of invasive species and ornament, as well as bundles, subverting a symbol of fascism. It also has an ecological function of providing a bed for plants to grow and extract toxins that resulted from chemical waste. In this way, the goal is to craft a postindustrial cycle based on abundance rather than extraction.

Structuring repair

The second, Indeterminate Structures of Repair addresses the entanglement of human and nonhuman growth made tangible by invasive species. It also calls for the need to harness this relationship to develop reparative networks in humankind. Combining sculpture and research in design for the end of the world, these forms put forward a novel material from the local flora to provide agency to non-human nature.

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a structural sculpture with crossbars made out of hardened knotweed pulp

“Indeterminate structures of repair” (2022) knotweed pulp, sodium alginate

In order to make this recipe, you will first have to industrialize a whole region, introduce a species with no competition and wait for a century of mismanagement and collapse. Then, you will need to find and identify a significant patch of land that is occupied by Japanese knotweed, it won't be hard to find. The leaves are wide and flat and almost heart-shaped. They are almost never alone so once you find one, you will find many. The stems look similar to bamboo with clearly delineated nodes.

1. Harvest by carefully slicing the stem above the ground. Its rhizomes can extend almost 20 ft wide and 10 ft deep so one might want to avoid the task of full removal.

2. Next, slice the stems into manageable pieces and soak them overnight in water. The next day, you must drain the water and boil the stems for 3 hours with a few pinches of calcium carbonate to help it break down and enough water to cover the stems. Then, after draining the hot water, you must pulverize the stems with a hammer until they are flat and fibrous.

3. Finally, place the stems in a blender with some water as needed and blend to a fine pulp. You will then drain this water well to find their damp Japanese knotweed pulp. At this point, you can add gum arabica to make paper or add gum arabica and some sodium alginate to make a structural paste that can be molded or cast as desired. Using a dehydrator and or freeze dryer will vastly speed up the drying process too.

4. Assemble the parts as you wish using a mixture of knotweed powder and wooden sticks. These pieces will grow into each other with time.

Knotweed “silverware”

The third object, at the hands-on scale, deals directly with history and context. These act as a critique of Gorham Silver by casting “silverware” from knotweed powder and covering the ends with actual silver done using an electroplating method.

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a knife fork and spoon made with cast knotweed powder and electroplated with silver on the ends

“Knotweed ‘silverware’ version 2” (2023) cast knotweed powder, sodium alginate, electroplated copper and silver

Silver is in the DNA of Providence soil. Even if it is microscopic, the effects of the fine silver industry of Providence left traces locally. Gorham Silver Manufacturing, at its peak, was the largest fine silverware manufacturer in the world. The complex was a 37-acre industrial site that included over 30 buildings located between Mashapaug Pond and Adelaide Avenue in the Reservoir Triangle neighborhood of Providence. The complex was in continuous operation from its opening in 1890 until 1986. The Smithsonian archives of American art show the Gorham foundry over 700 times in its inventory of American sculpture. Today, the area has been hastily redeveloped with a high school and shopping plaza while the soil and water continue to leach trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), into the groundwater. These chemicals were used to clean metal and machine parts.

Nonetheless, silver is not only a symbol of immense wealth but equally, environmental degradation. While masterful in its contribution to decorative arts, everything silver represents today is that of contamination and disregard for natural systems. Not to mention the environmental racism toward the Narragansett Tribe who once called Mashapaug Pond their home and for thousands of years, worked to steward this land.

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a series of six pieces of assorted cutlery made of cast knotweed powder and electroplated with silver

“Knotweed ‘silverware’ version 1” (2023) cast knotweed powder and electroplated with copper and silver

This cutlery is meant as a response to the environmental impacts of Gorham Manufacturing Company, nearly 50 years after they shut their doors. While producing fine silverware for the wealthiest families, locally and abroad, Gorham dumped toxic solvents and polishing agents into Mashapaug Pond Today this area, once fishable/swimmable, is completely overrun by invasive species and toxic algaes that thrive in these disrupted environments. As the ecosystem begins to recover, this project questions, how might we work with this “new wild” instead of trying to eradicate it? How might we use the tools of function to subvert the model of growth?

1000 Plants Side Table

In collaboration with Sam Aguirre (MFA FD 24), we created a small side table out of knotweed pulp mixed with paper and cotton pulp and cornstarch as a binder. Designed with inspiration coming from industrial, concrete infrastructure, this object embodies similar values to the Indeterminate Structures of Repair but with an added element of function. This table is made out of the organic post-industrial byproduct and degrades back into the earth once its usage is done.

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a side table made with Sam Aguirre with a tubular hole through the center made of knotweed and paper pulp

“1000 plants Side Table” (2023) made with Sam Aguirre (MFA FD24), knotweed pulp, paper pulp, cornstarch, cardboard

Local Histories

The context exists at the crossroads of two histories: the first is Providence, Rhode Island. Providence was once (1890-1900) home to five of the largest factories in the world. For tools (Brown & Sharpe), files (Nicholson File), steam engines (Corliss Steam Engine), screws (American Screw) and fine silver goods (Gorham Silver).

By 1950, many of these major manufacturers moved on and left much of their infrastructure and waste behind. Gorham Silver, for example, left an incredibly toxic legacy on the Rhode Island environment. Once the largest fine silver manufacturer in the world, Gorham was in every high society household in America, even the Lincoln White House. Today its former home on Mashapaug Pond is practically poisoned with heavy metals and dioxins left behind by the silver dynamo. Today it is currently undergoing an ongoing but endless bioremediation. Mashapaug Pond was once the winter village of the Narragansett peoples who have been continually displaced by these industries are then left with a poisoned body of water that is teeming with toxic algaes and will take years of healing and repair to make it swimmable or drinkable again. The soil around this pond, as well as every other formerly industrial site is also weakened, and full of toxins, unable to supply plants and animals the proper nutrients or immunity to thrive. Think about what happens when nothing else can survive in an environment, who can live in these conditions?

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a photo of industrial rubble at Morley Field, Pawtucket at the former site of the Microfibres factory

The industrial rubble at Morley Field, Pawtucket at the former site of the Microfibres factory. This area is filled with knotweed and construction materials. Credit: Maxwell Fertik

Unintended Consequences

The second timeline begins in late 1700s Japan, on a rocky, lush mountainside in Nagasaki prefecture:

Japanese Knotweed ((虎杖) is native to the most volcanic regions of Japan but was documented by white, European botanists on Mount Unzen in Nagasaki. It is a hardy, tall, rhizomatic perennial that resembles a more leafy bamboo with stunning white flowers. It spreads via rhizome like ginger or turmeric, reproducing via cloning and branching horizontally underground.

This plant was introduced to soil in Britain in the late 1700s. However, it was officially brought to Britain from a Volcano in Japan by the famous German botanist, Philippe Von Siebold. He knew it would gain popularity due to the 1800s obsession with anything Eastern or Japanese at the time and its popularity was thoroughly bolstered by “exoticism.” Around 1850, a specimen from this plant was donated by Siebold to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. By the 1870s, there were even sightings of hybrids between two different types of knotweed documented in Britain. The beginnings of its rapid spread could have been noted at this point but were largely ignored due to its popularity.

By 1904, it was documented in North America, and by this time, a hybrid was renamed Mammoth Knotweed for its sheer size and magnitude, growing as tall as 16 feet at times. Clearly, this plant that is accustomed to rocky, volcanic soil had no trouble thriving in the American soil with no natural predators. By 1950, the plant escaped cultivation and spread in Rhode Island although it was likely well established at least 50 years prior. This coincides with the industrial decline in Providence and the resultant polluted soil; the perfect environment for it to thrive and dominate with nothing competing with it and nothing to do but grow.

A Precarious existence

Moving into the end of the 20th century, the legacy of these once magnificent mills is a weakened and toxic environment, perfect for Knotweed to thrive in. If it can handle volcanic soil in Japan, the polluted soil of Providence is even less of a challenge. And today, the once domesticated, contained knotweed runs free in the contaminated soil.

Abandoned and decaying mills become a crucial part of the Providence identity. The sites of these once industrial dynamos soon became home to rapid invasive growth with zero predators and no reason to stop. This is largely due to poor soil health, poorly managed demolitions and hasty removal efforts. Its habitat is human-made and we are largely responsible for its introduction and its rapid spread.

But yet the language around Knotweed and invasive plants remains violent. The language is often militarized and xenophobic too. Especially around plants that originated in Japan or parts of Africa, (Japanese Knotweed, Japanese Barberry, African Beetle) the blame and the responsibility is placed on the “alien” plant that is “not from here.” Instead of grappling with structural issues of mismanaged land, polluted ecosystems and weakened ecological immunity, we chose to go to war with these plants by trying to eradicate them and dumping herbicides onto the soil to get rid of them instead of considering the possibility of structural changes or working with the environment instead of against it.

Cooperative Knotweed Field Day

As a way of supplementing the objects, this project involved the community of Providence and Pawtucket in a knotweed field day in the valley beside the East Side Train tunnel. Tapping into the fort thunder listserv and the RISD community, this event allowed the public to engage with and learn about knotweed and explore this prime post-industrial site. This site represents an area of neglected industrial infrastructure filled with knotweed but by engaging with it, it is also a perfect place to imagine this vegetative utopia, a forest of abundance.

Not only was it a gathering with a purpose, to harvest more knotweed for my raft, but it was a way of involving the community in a hands-on activity around invasives that respected the plant and acknowledged its power over that region instead of seeing it as an enemy. The group also learned how to make bundles from the material which brought about many ideas about lightweight building materials, plywoods, or even shelters made from these bundles. Of course, none of this is new. Building from what we have around us has been done by indigenous communities for thousands of years. But by bringing back into the present and using an organic byproduct of industry, this project envisions a vegetative utopia based on abundance over extraction and embraces the entanglement of industry and invasive ecosystems we set in place.

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five people, in a forest of knotweed near Gano Park, actively harvesting the plant onto a tarp

Harvesting knotweed at the Cooperative Knotweed field day. Credit: Arvind Bhallamudi

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five people carrying completed bundles of knotweed through a parking lot on Gano Street in Providence

Carrying the completed bundles of knotweed down Gano Street. Credit: Arvind Bhallamudi

Afterword

In the end, this project envisions an alternative mode of design based on abundance over extraction and a utopia of radical care for even the most hated weeds. Japanese Knotweed was one example but there could be thousands of others in a thousand other disrupted landscapes.

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A living forest of newly grown knotweed near MLK Elementary School in Mt. Hope, Providence

The vibrant forest of knotweed that introduced me to the plant, a year later after being fully bulldozed. Across from MLK Elementary School in Mt. Hope. Credit: Maxwell Fertik

This project can tell the story of knotweed and its introduction to postindustrial Providence but this story can be told in so many others. These are just three ++plays that consider post-industrial resilience but this project challenges designers to consider the disrupted landscape as a human-made space that is troubled but abundant with possibilities.

We close by asking: What will artists and designers bring to the end of the world?

a video of a knotweed raft floating in Mashapaug Pond in Providence with the swan in the background

 

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