“I came upon this dead tree on top of this landfill. We call it ‘Kelo’, a dying tree that curls inwards as its vital liquids dry out. To imagine one could shrink into oneself. To turn round and round until you vanish. Freedom. Sooner or later your words will also merge with the earth. Or scatter in the sky. There they will pulse and vibrate with an energy you never had. We are one body. There is no distance between us. Me and you, the earth and the self, all spiral into one another. Nothing appears so far, nothing so distant. There is nothing immaterial about your message. They are like the strata of the earth. Your message moves these rocks. The tree keeps spiraling into itself.”
— Excerpt from the performance film WHERE from HERE (2020), Episode 02 (May 28, 2020 / Vuosaari, Helsinki, released 19 November 2020), performed by Ulla Varis
The performer arrives on a landfill in East Helsinki near the Vuosaari harbor. The landfill is high, but barren, like a Mesa in North Dakota or a Fell in Lapland. Not unlike an archaeological tell or mound found between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Its strange shape appears as an anomaly in the landscape. The way it springs from its surroundings might as well denote an ancient mountain that persevered the might of the glacier. The performer climbs near to the summit where the landscape opens to a verdant valley beyond, and a silent port locked down in the midst of a pandemic. This scene is part of a performance film Where from Here, filmed between Helsinki and New York, which explores virtuality as entangled with ecology.1
The landfill epitomizes an unstable territory. Despite the deliberate scenographic arrangement to make it look natural, the place Vuosaaren Huippu betrays its sordid past. It is an extractive landscape. Waste from daily lives is embedded in the gray soil – nails, cabinet handles, batteries, cables, and even golf balls. The ground is barren except for a few patches of green, dominated by large artificial boulders and concrete rocks. Chunks of cement, steel rebars, pieces of pipes and parts of rusted machinery poke out at various levels of the hill. A pungent odor hangs around the foothills ringed by a fence.
On the summit, the performer chances upon a discarded trunk of an old tree – a dying tree that spirals inwards as its vital liquids dry out. In Finnish it is called Kelo. This Kelo is the remnant of a Salix x Rubens, planted in the 1830s in Kamppi by Lasipalatsi, which collapsed in a tremendous storm on the night of 29 December 2003. On the following New Year’s Eve, firework rockets had reduced the tree to charcoal. What remained was the stump which now sits here on the landfill, a forgotten urban heritage, deteriorating by the day, facing annihilation by the forces of nature.
The landfill and the Kelo are two contemporary inscriptions of our environmental condition that spur the performer into reflection. Standing by the circle of rocks that frame the Kelo, the performer imagines how one could also shrink into oneself, like the dying tree, fed by the toxic emissions of the landfill. Nestled within the Kelo, she composes verses, a single line, then a couple more, which emerge in a stream of consciousness and evolve into a song. There is sadness, but also hope. After all, what is contained deep in the ground is nothing but our own waste, the results of our own actions. But why do we care about the wasted? Could we de-inscribe the landscape? Perhaps what is left to do is simply to empathize with it. Not fight it, nor be critical of it. By being attentive and compassionate to our failed landscapes, we might find new meanings to our wasteful existence. After all, “We care for things not because they produce value, but because they already have value.“2
“Landscapes are energy and energetic transactions.”3And landfills are nothing but mounds of energetic and extractive waste. The Vuosaari landfill is exactly that. It consists of two separate legacies of waste disposal by the city split into distinct zones: the first, general societal waste still detoxifying, having last been used in the 1980s, and the second, much of the earth displaced during the construction of the Vuosaari harbor. The landfill is undoubtedly a giant inscription on the land, what we call an Infrascape that “lies in between, in slow transformation awaiting the removal of toxic waste, a cleansing back to its original condition, towards de-inscription.” It is a site of “entanglements of energy, media and infrastructure, of successes and failures, of processes and extractions, of generation and labor.”4 It is like a monument to the city of Leonia, which refashions itself every day by throwing out yesterday’s belongings, as if resurrecting itself every morning, and yet trapped within the mountains of refuse forming the boundaries of the city.5 It is a reminder of what is pushed away to the edges to make way for the new and shiny, but what nevertheless exists and what we still have to care for.
Caring for the landscape varies between cultures and societies. It is a “global construct of aesthetic quality that is exhibited in different forms in different local conditions.”6 Caring is to engage people in planetary stewardship by connecting them from local contexts to larger environmental issues. Caring is also de-inscription, “tak(ing) erosion, breakdown, and decay, rather than novelty, growth, and progress, as our starting points”7 to reimagine the landscape. This performative scene from Where from Here presents a sensibility, that of an attentiveness to the damaged land, to reimagine it and empathize with it. The landscape of the dying tree and the landfill is not merely an inert object, with no intrinsic value, it is “enmeshed with human life in many more ways that is imaginative and material,”8 as experienced by the performer. It is undoubtedly “the combined spirit of dead plants, animals, water, humans, histories and events.”9 that we now have to care for. The performative act as such symbolizes an embodied practice of looking, examining and performing with the Earth that deeply acknowledges the horrors of our times.10