“No Trespassing”

Interview with Nana Petzet on the Idea of the Free River Zone and her Project In the Peutegrund in the Port of Hamburg
The interview was held in October 2019.


Till Krause: What was it that brought you to participate in the Free River Zone?

Nana Petzet: The Free River Zone interests me, in the sense that it deals with fundamental issues that I have been working on for a long time. It examines whether we should use all land and how we can allow intensively used and excessively regulated natural spaces their own dynamic development again. I especially see correlations with my project In the Peutegrund, which I worked on from 2008 to 2011. The Peute is also located on the Elbe island [like large parts of the Free River Zone], but on the opposite, northern side, on the Norderelbe. Already in 2008 I referred to the Heuckenlock and considered it as “reference biotope” for my not exactly “pristine” project territory in the industrial area Peute.*1 With the Free River Zone, you are, of course, not referring only to the small nature protection area of the Heuckenlock, but to a much larger area.

TK: Right, it includes streets, dykes, villages, rural land, allotment settlements, a freeway, jetties for oil tankers, social housing areas, mansions, a cemetery…
Nana-Petzet_Plakat_freie_Flusszone_Suederelbe

NP: When I was thinking about the poster for the Free River Zone, it was specifically the Heuckenlock that was interesting to me. Yet the given task wasn’t that easy for me, especially since I usually work on projects developing over long periods of time, comprising a variety of media and involving different experts. Here, the challenge to me was: how do I say it all in a single image?

TK: You have quite evidently integrated the “joint action” underlying this picture, the collaboration with experts and process-oriented approach that generally plays a major role in your work, into this “single image”: in the authorships of all those who significantly contributed to the realization of the poster. You ascribe such a high value to the input of the reptile breeder Florian Häselbarth, the photographer Helge Mundt and the GFLK that you cited them in large type in the middle of the picture.

NP: And after all, for the preparation we undertook several inspections of the Free River Zone, with Ravi Agarwal, with Katja Lell and with Friederike Richter.*2 These guided walks were similar to the research with experts that is important in my work, and in this case, it is you who are the expert. You are so familiar with the area, know every corner. I remember even crawling around under some freeway bridges. And again and again observations in terms of: how are the riverbanks reinforced; can the river flow freely, is it allowed to spread?

Coming to think of it, it almost appears like a miracle that this one picture actually came about. It is special to me, in the sense that I cannot speak about this poster the same way I speak about, for example, the Light Trap.*3 I cannot analyse it conceptually. What is implied by the glass cover? I couldn’t say. It simply became necessary in dealing with the crocodiles, to keep them from escaping into the cold Elbe. Originally, I didn’t intend to use a glass cover – but this is super!

TK: I actually didn’t plan on asking you for explanations regarding your poster, because it is more about seeing it with your own eyes and not being served a tailored interpretation. In this sense, I like how you are saying that you are not able to explain everything in the poster linguistically. But I do have one question concerning the poster, and that is about the depicted landscape. You said that Heuckenlock was the actual point of reference for you. Why then did you take the picture at a beach for bathing and barbeques near the Süderelbe bridges, and not at the Heuckenlock?

NP: I wanted people to instantly recognize that the picture was shot in Hamburg. The bridge is important in this regard. If we had taken the photo at the Heuckenlock, one would have seen the place as some kind of wilderness but would not have thought of Hamburg. The jungle-like quality that I perceive in the Heuckenlock is embedded in the crocodile, so to speak.

TK: When Ulrich Kahle saw your poster in our Free River Zone room at the Kunstverein Bamberg last weekend, he immediately recognized the bridge as the Süderelbe bridge.*4 As someone who is not from Hamburg! This bridge is indeed one of the few landmarks in the Free River Zone where it becomes clearly visible: this is Hamburg territory.

NP: And yet many people from Hamburg don’t know the area. And they don’t necessarily know the Heuckenlock, either. Even people who are interested in landscape and nature protection often haven’t heard of it, which is amazing. Last year the city had launched a poster campaign on Hamburg’s nature protection areas. Written over a photo of the Heuckenlock were the lines: “Amazon Delta? No, Heuckenlock!” So, this jungle is right on our doorstep!

What I find interesting in the Heuckenlock is that it is kind of a “remnant” – and how spatially limited it actually is. I mean, it’s really extreme, the way it is squeezed in between the dyke and the fortified embankments. Still, even though the area is so tiny, you can immerse yourself into it and imagine that the entire Elbe island once looked just like it [including the city districts of Wilhelmsburg and Veddel and the entire port of Hamburg]. Fascinating!

TK: Is this the reason why you considered the Heuckenlock as a reference area for the project In the Peutegrund?

NP: Yes. The Peutegrund initially was used agriculturally and for urban purposes and then reclaimed by nature through storms and broken dykes. Whereas the Heuckenlock, so I assume, has never been cultivated, or at least parts of it never have.

TK: That is a widespread myth, but I think it’s not quite right. The area, small as it is, nonetheless consists of different sections. The extensive reed areas that used to be harvested, for example: inhabitants told us how they once had the right to cut reed there for the roofs of their houses. So, this was also a form of agricultural land use. Or, if you now follow the publicly accessible path leading through the woody area, you come upon old fruit trees, pollard willows, artificial bumps in the ground, old paving, ditches and so on. Therefore, I would say we are clearly looking at a cultural landscape, one which, however, due to its unfavourable location along a state border, has been used relatively sparingly and, moreover, was later not fully dyked in and thus even today has certain properties of a tidal riparian forest.*5 But just some time ago, about fifty years back, embankments and dykes were built, and what today is seen as so valuable and at the time existed on a much larger scale, was extremely reduced in size.*6

Please tell me more about the Peute project. It is interesting in the context of the Free River Zone and the whole port area.

NP: In the frame of the Elbinsel Sommer 2008 [Elbe Island Summer 2008] of the International Building Exhibition [IBA Hamburg], I was invited to develop a contribution for the exhibition Kultur/Natur.*7 I was free to choose any topic having to do with nature and the Elbe island. Through Harald Köpke from the BUND [a non-governmental association for environmental protection and nature conservation], I became aware of a small biotope in the industrial area Peute. It is the only piece of land there where the tidal flow exerts a certain influence, although it lies behind the dyke. A stretch of original marshland, left over from the development of the port, wildly overgrown, with a shallow pond at its centre. A biotope which has been able to develop undisturbed since the 1970s, small, about 6.5 hectares in size. It is HPA*8 property, which was one of my prerequisites, as I wanted to learn more about how the adverse interests of the port and nature protection would affect the development of a specific wasteland in the vicinity of the port. Initially, I began to explore the biodiversity and the history of the Peutegrund.

TK: But, as it appears today, it was not a remaining piece of wetland but a silted-up, unused port basin, the extension of the adjacent Peute port.

NP: No, the Peutegrund, according to my information, is an old marshland that has been dyked in since the 17th century. At first the terrain was used for agricultural purposes. It was always separated from the neighbouring Peute port by a dyke. After the Second World War, people without domiciles built huts on the territory. A pieced-together environment emerged, a mixture of allotment gardens and workshops. I know of a boat-builder’s workshop, for example. The legendary flood of 1962 first flooded the surrounding dyke and then caused it to break – two people died on the Peutegrund. Afterwards it was assumed that the land could still be preserved as a useable area, but during all floods that followed, the entire area was under water. Between 1977 and 1978 a sheet pile wall was built to protect the Peutegrund environment that was high as the current dyke line of 7.3 metres above the standard elevation zero [NHN]. The dyke on the Elbe side of the Peutegrund, the Peuter Elbdeich, was likewise heightened and broadened, so that it extends like a promontory to the Peute port. Businesses were resettled from the Peutegrund onto this dyke and from then on, people were no longer allowed to work, live or garden there. The Peutegrund was thereby separated from the flood-safe area, for the low dyke between it and the Peute port had not been raised. During particularly high storm surges it is flooded. A drainage pipe was laid through the area, allowing the water to flow off at low water. This pipe is equipped with a backflow trap to keep the regular high tides from penetrating into the Peutegrund. Since then the owner, Strom und Hafenbau at the time and HPA today, has not undertaken anything else there. That’s quite a long time, long enough for a biotope to develop all by itself in the Peutegrund. For the HPA, it was merely a grey spot on the map, a place reserved for future development or some other suitable use for the port.

TK: But hadn’t you found out during your explorations that the backflow trap in the drainage pipe was defect and the flood therefore could enter into the Peutegrund?

NP: Yes, indeed. And Elisabeth Essen, who has lived on and next to the Peutegrund since the 1950s, told me that someone had destroyed a valve in the pipe, so that the flood would feed the pond in the Peutegrund and one could go ice skating and play curling in the winter. Consequently, the area was to a certain extent exposed to the tides. These circumstances have brought it closer to the conditions required for the development of a riparian forest, thus the preconditions for the typical native vegetation of the entire Elbe island, which had disappeared almost completely.

This is why, for me, it suggested itself to first focus on the plant and animal life and record the found species in photos and films. I went to get the official data entry form for Hamburg Biotope Mapping from the environmental authority. The last survey had been conducted in 2003 and only comprised plants and the habitat types, so that we wanted to see what had developed there since. I carried out inspections with the ornithologist Günther Rupnow from NABU [Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union]. With the entomologist Frank Röbbelen, I searched for butterflies and grasshoppers; Andromeda v. Prondzinski charted the vegetation, and with Harald Köpke we analysed the water animals.

I filmed and held interviews with the inhabitants. And I dealt with the HPA. My project took place in the frame of the International Building Exhibition and thus in the context of an urban development programme. The owner of the property, the HPA, as a successor to the Strom und Hafenbau [Office for River and Port Engineering], is also a municipal organization. This is the reason why I wanted to make direct contact with the HPA, in order to get the permission for mapping, filming and clearing knotweed. The permission was denied with reference to the classification of the area as a “potentially contaminated site”. I carried out my actions anyway. As a result, the HPA wanted to sue me. So, I went to HPA’s press officer and showed him my film on the area. Then they left me alone.

Just at that time, the HPA had destroyed many valuable biotopes in the port area. Especially at the Rethe, the Blumensandhafen and the Hohe Schaar, important wildlife refuges for water birds were thereby lost. Compensatory measures, from the HPA’s point of view, should be implemented outside of the port area, surely not on one’s own property, so that one always has free rein for activities related to the port industry. The HPA is much worried about the possibility of biotopes developing on port areas that lay fallow for longer periods. Biotopes that become so ecologically valuable that the land cannot be used for commercial purposes in the future. In order to avert such developments, stretches of land are sealed preventively or lawn areas are laid out.

Before this backdrop we – the BUND and artists – jointly worked on the improvement of the species diversity of the Peutegrund, with the aim of preserving its conservation status and thereby to withdraw the area from being grabbed by port or urban development projects. In the frame of the cultural programme of the International Building Exhibition – and as a provocative act – we undertook an intervention on this HPA property: a biotope management action. We cleared knotweed. The invasive Japanese knotweed had spread extremely densely; we cleared it from a small part of the Peutegrund and exhibited the knotweed stems in Elisabeth Essen’s nearby boat shed.

This action was perceived by the HPA as a clear signal. The area was fenced in, and every ten metres a sign was put up saying: “Private property, no trespassing, HPA”. Before, anyone could go there and do whatever they pleased, truck drivers, hobby anglers, everyone. But as soon as someone makes something public regarding the value of the biotope, the alarm goes off! It was precisely this conflict of interests that I was concerned with. I actually perceived the prohibition signs as a part of my project. Just how much wilderness is wanted on the Elbe island? And once it is there, what is it worth? Couldn’t even this dyke by the Peutehafen be removed? It is already full of holes, anyway. At this spot, it would be an easy chore to give a little bit of freedom back to the river. Of course, everything that has been developed there so far would be destroyed, but there would be a real tidal flow.

TK: The tidal flow would, I believe, disappear again very fast, as the Peutegrund is a dead end and lacking the necessary water flow. The river would carry more sediments in than it would carry out. Soon after the opening of the dyke, the area would thus rapidly silt up and would resemble today’s condition.

The situation in the “reference biotope” Heuckenlock is quite similar. Between Heuckenlock and the Elbe for the most part lie revetments, rock embankments for the canalization of the river, but also for protecting the Heuckenlock from strong currents and the danger of being washed away. Several river branches lead into the nature protection area, as far as I know all as dead ends. More specifically, this nice, elongated branch of the river called Heuckenlock, which one crosses on the public Heuckenlock path, is permitted only a very small backflow into the Elbe at its eastern end, actually no more than a runlet through a tiny gap in the revetment. This means that there is no regular flow of water throughout the area, including all associated alterability and potential erosion caused by the river. An interplay between land and river is thus hardly given; there only exists an extremely controlled remnant of the much-vaunted freshwater riparian forest. Lina Güssefeld*9 had suggested, based on the outcome of her thesis on the revetments at the Heuckenlock – a thesis topic initiated by our project – to consider a more extensive water flow through the Heuckenlock. The responsible person at the district office and the Stiftung Lebensraum Elbe [Elbe Habitat Foundation] had listened very attentively to the suggestions but then decided not to change anything at this point – it seems to me that they were worried about the unpredictable destructive forces of the river that could wash away the nature protection area. And we are well aware of how this high level of forces results from the deepening of the river Elbe in favour of container shipping.

But back to Peutegrund: didn’t you say at one point that through your art project the Peutegrund was recognized as a biotope worthy of protection?

NP: I wouldn’t put it quite like this. First of all, the area had attained a legal protection status already before 2008, even if it was the lowest there is. But what was so paradoxical was that the biotope had “depreciated” itself due the strong distribution of neophytes and would have lost its protection status if we had not intervened through “gardening”. Indeed, it was based on the art project that things got started, but in collaboration with Harald Köpke from the BUND. It was three or four years later, owing to his initiative, that the HPA actually created another two small ponds and removed the knotweed – a bit more extensively than what we had achieved, with roots and all.

TK: Is the Peutegrund therefore now defined as a so-called compensation area?

NP: Nope, not quite. Creating a precedent must be avoided by all means! Still, the HPA ended up investing money for ecological upgrading measures on the territory. Now, that was a novum. It would be interesting to follow up on the matter and find out how those responsible at the HPA see these things today.

TK: May I ask you something else about the action you initiated for removing the knotweed? Andromeda v. Prondzinski, who helped you with the mapping of the Peutegrund, has drawn up two posters, a postcard and an accompanying text, opposing the judgmental classification of plants into indigenous and non-indigenous, against the concept of the invasive species and against elimination activities regarding “non-indigenous” plants. You were familiar with this position, and yet you went ahead with this removal action. Why?

NP: Yes, Andromeda thought it was wrong. But I always find it interesting to carry out exemplary interventions into the system; they reveal other aspects than when you merely talk about things or write or take photos. These kinds of actions also make conflicts visible. I work with contradictions and contradictory claims. We destroyed nature in order to protect it.

Besides, I am not quite sure whether I find it right or wrong to intervene in nature protection areas and to reduce what you don’t want to have there. When you see that native plants in a small, remaining biotope are being overgrown and also endangered animal species are disappearing, then I can understand how you can get the idea of intervening. During his inspection of the Peutegrund, Frank Röbbelen had detected a population of striped bush crickets. The native tall herbaceous vegetation, providing a habitat to the striped bush cricket would have been displaced by the Japanese knotweed. The knotweed, with plenty of support by the Armenian blackberry and the Canadian goldenrod would have been quite successful in displacing the reed and tall herbaceous vegetation and taking over the entire area. This would have resulted in the biotope basically degrading itself with regard to species diversity and the protection status. Without our action, there might be a storage hall in its place today.

TK: But you have often spoken of the concept of “self-reinforcing dynamics” and of “self-developing biotopes”. For Andromeda, I believe, the idea of “leaving things alone” also plays an important, overall role. And in the scope of the Free River Zone Project, this idea concerns not only natural processes but from an artistic perspective is extended to encompass much more – actually all phenomena around us. For me the thought plays a role that is embedded in everything – whether it be a thing or a living being or just a simple gesture or movement – there is something that is there on its own account and for this reason could be “left alone”. I can’t really describe this in detail, not as a systematically analysable line of thought or action, but instead as an attitude or a relation. Doing things and admiring them for their own sake is an essential aspect of art. In this sense, the Free River Zone Project is not a nature protection endeavour, – despite the fact that it corresponds to such intentions in many regards – but it is more of an artistic projection onto a landscape with its very many different phenomena.

NP: Why did you choose the Süderelbe, of all places?

TK: The impulse was actually this strange contradiction between the existence of the freshwater tidal riparian forest and its simultaneous radical prevention based on the way the river is being engineered with its rectilinearity and rock embankments. The complete classification of the entire territory in view of functionalizing the river as a transport route and water drainage system. The solid and the liquid, the static and the ever-changing violently collide at the Süderelbe; both aspects are present in a very accentuated form. This is a very special situation, which incited me to choose the area as a model region and to scrutinize it also beyond its riverbanks.

In your art I recognize the method of picking up on certain themes that spark broad societal debates (such as waste recycling, for instance) – including their underlying regulations and symbols (such as the dual system with the green dot) – and then you adopt the role of their top-top advocate and play it out intensively.*10

NP: And which, above all, I take very seriously.

TK: Take seriously as a game.

NP: Well yes, I playfully make myself an advocate of nature, and I take regulations and laws very seriously and, in a sense, process them in my work. There are, for example, environmental impact and feasibility studies, life cycle assessments, rules for the protection of biotopes, the determination of the biotope status along with all the possibilities connected to them such as the possibility to issue a complaint with the EU. Everyone, including policy makers, urban developers and the HPA, everyone claims that environmental protection is extremely important to them. And what happens, when you actually take it seriously? This is how I proceed. And if, based on this playful adoption of a hundred-percent nature protection perspective, I encounter questions, contradictions and limitations and thereby get myself into hot water, then it gets interesting, then the contractions inherent in the declamations and declarations of intent come to the fore. What do they imply? What are the consequences? In what kind of contradiction are you principally caught as a human being, when you want to preserve, protect or re-establish nature?

Amidst all play, protecting nature is a genuine motivation for me and a great concern. It takes priority over other topics in my work. But the playful approach to the subject is important, because it allows me to delve into the overall issues much deeper. I am currently reading the book Homo Ludens – A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga, written in the 1930s. He explains all our cultural achievements from the stance of play and play, in turn, as something that takes place in a sportsmanlike contest, which originally also was of sacred character. He suggests that all spheres we designate as culture had their origin in play but had notably diverged from it over time. At least, no one sees a court hearing or a major construction site as a game or as possessing playful aspects. In the art of his time, Huizinga can no longer determine this; he sees it more like social play of connoisseurs and laypeople. The way I understand art, I can make its origin in play experienceable.

The one condition is: play must take place within a clearly defined, staked out frame, and it must be distinct from ordinary life and its requirements. Like a chess board, a football field or, indeed, the field of art. The field of art is a playing field: it has certain non-serious qualities, has its own set of rules. And these rules, then again, must be taken very seriously, otherwise it’s no fun. If I am playing a game of chess, for example, and someone says that his knight can do what the queen can do, then he is a spoilsport and it is no fun to play with him. In art it is only much more difficult to explain what the rules are. But there are rules. We have a clear idea of what is art and what isn’t.

TK: Yes, the rules are incredibly present in art and yet so difficult to describe. At the same time we go against rules all the time, throw them overboard and, then again, stick to them.

NP: And there is competition. There is this ambition: “Now I will find the right picture!” We are in a contest with ourselves and with the colleagues. Of course, there is also the art market. It is a playing field on its own, and it is quite clear who is up front and who isn’t. And I am nowhere to be found in that arena, basically non-existent. I never sought to enter the competition in this field. However, the art market lacks one essential qualification in terms of play character: the game doesn’t have its purpose within itself. Here, mercantile objectives take priority. The primacy of commercial aims is detrimental to art’s character of play. Yet there remains another contest that I am quite aware of: “How can I add something interesting to it all or even expand it?” This is the market of ideas I would see myself as belonging to, where I feel challenged. It is an imaginary competition, ideally purely an end in itself.

TK: You mentioned the delimiting frame, the importance of boundaries for the playing field. How would you relate that to the Peutegrund or the Free River Zone? You are very serious about nature protection and its rules, but as play. At the same time your activities merge with those of the environmentalists of BUND and NABU. Even you yourself are involved as an environmentalist at heart, not just as an artist. These aspects conjoin and mix. This is how other concerns and wishes enter our art projects, other games, references and purposes; the boundaries of the playing field become blurred, perhaps perforated.

NP: Yes. This is always a difficult question for me. What part of this is art? Where are the boundaries of art? Isn’t it all about the environment? A lot of art considers it as its principle task to explore the conditions of art itself. I don’t do this. Of course, I know that I actually also do this by doing what I do. Through my art I am constantly touching on these questions and shifting given boundaries. But I don’t focus on them as a topic.

This thought of play helps me. For joining play is freedom. Within the rules there is freedom. In the ancient tragedy there is the mask of the actor, right? My mask is my practice of digging relatively far into all kinds of non-artistic subjects. When I am in good shape, I can relate to these themes and use the right specialist terms so well that everyone thinks I’m a biologist, for example. I can speak as though I were one, but I’m not. And that works like a mask that I put on, as if I were playing classical theatre. Based on this mask, I have the required freedom, can undertake daring moves within the game or extend the moves of nature protection with those of art and vice versa. Within the non-seriousness of artistic play, I can handle and move serious themes very freely and extensively.

With the Free River Zone, you also have staked out an artistic playing field, but a very specific one: a part of the city of Hamburg and a corner of Lower Saxony, all in all a rather large area. It really exists but as something hypothetical, as a playing field for art. Within its scope all kinds of things can now happen, according to art rules. It is about something very concrete and within it, it is about freedom.


*1 Heuckenlock: an area with nature protection status within the Free River Zone. See Lina Güssefeld’s and Michael Struck’s as well as Jacqueline Neubecker’s contributions in this book. *2 Ravi Agarwal and Katja Lell: see their contributions and interviews in this book. Friederike Richter oversaw the Free River Zone billposting for a long time. She took many of the photos in this book and supported the project in various ways. *3 See footnote 1. *4 In the frame of the group show Natur als Argument, Kunstverein Bamberg, Stadtgalerie Villa Dessauer, 2019. *5 The development history of the Heuckenlock area has been more precisely described by Michael Struck: see chapter 2.5 in Investigations into the Fluvial Dynamics Occurring at the Bank Revetment of the Süderelbe along the Heuckenlock Nature Reserve. *6 See the chapter The Map 1:5000 Neuland-Ost in this book. *7 See the book: Anke Haarmann and Harald Lemke (eds.), Kultur/Natur: Kunst und Philosophie im Kontext der Stadtentwicklung, (translated here as: Culture/Nature: Art and Philosophy in the Context of Urban Development), Jovis Verlag, Berlin, 2009. *8 HPA: Hamburg Port Authority, public-law institution, successor to Strom und Hafenbau *9 Lina Güssefeld (Friel), geographer, substantially contributed to the Free River Zone Project from 2012 to 2013. See her contribution in this book: Investigations into the Fluvial Dynamics Occurring at the Bank Revetment of the Süderelbe along the Heuckenlock Nature Reserve. *10 See the website, www.nanapetzet.de, and refer to the books: Nana Petzet, Sammeln Bewahren Forschen. Das SBF-System 1995–2001, (translated here as: Collecting Preserving Researching. The CPR System 1995–2001) published by: Künstlerstätte Schloss Bleckede, Salon Verlag, Cologne, 2001; Nana Petzet, System SBF. Inventarisierung der Sammlung. Metainventur, (translated here as: CPR System. An Inventory of the Collection. Meta Inventory). Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nuremberg, 2003.

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