Between 2014 and 2018, the biodiverSEEDy project (funded by the Norwegian Research Council) researched and worked to advance the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. This included work with indigenous farmers in Mexico and research on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In 2018, the project held an art exhibition to capture, communicate and conserve interconnections between nature and culture in living seeds.
The artworks were exhibited for one night only in Tromsø, before being packed inside sealed boxes and transported to Svalbard, just like the seeds in the Seed Vault. Here, the sealed boxes of artworks were ‘planted’ into the permafrost of the mountain in coal mine no. 3. This is the same site that the Nordic Gene Bank (now NordGen) used for its security back up of seeds from 1984-2008 and that provided the original inspiration for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Here the artworks will remain in permanent storage as the first deposit in the Svalbard Ark, resting forever in the mountain alongside the seeds in the neighboring Seed Vault.
The exhibition – titled “Forgotten Stories of Frozen Seeds” – was the result of a collaboration between scientists in the biodiverSEEDy project, professional artists and farming communities from all around the world. The project was led by Dr. Fern Wickson, Senior Scientist and Research Leader at GenØk – Centre for Biosafety in Tromsø. The aim of the exhibition was to raise awareness of the work of the Global Seed Vault and the importance of social, cultural and ecological connections to seeds. To create this exhibition, an open call was made for artworks exploring the interrelationships between agricultural seeds and their cultural and/or ecological contexts. Based on the submitted proposals, four international artists were selected to be involved – David Voros, Sara Schneckloth, Mollie Goldstrom and Mary Robinson.
Farming communities from around the world were also invited to ‘sew the story of their seed’, and contributions, with received from Brazil, India, the Philippines, Kenya, Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States. These contributions were made into a quilt that was also deposited in the mine together with the artworks. During the exhibition in Tromsø, each of the participating artists spoke about the inspiration behind their works and the scientists discussed why art is important for agricultural biodiversity conservation. Before depositing their work in the mine, each artist also read a statement that they sealed in the box together with their artworks for permanent interment.
“Through this event, we want to remind the world of the interconnections that exist between nature and culture and to honor the important work farmers perform in generating and maintaining diverse agricultural plants,” said Dr. Fern Wickson, leader of the biodiverSEEDy project and creator of the Seed Cultures Initiative. “Although it represents the closing event of our 4-year scientific project on agricultural biodiversity conservation, it is just the beginning of a campaign to better conserve the cultural connections of seeds. All of the scientists and artists involved would really like to see this continue as an annual event that creates a kind of complimentary vault for the stories of seeds.”
The biodiverSEEDy project, funded by the Norwegian Research Council, has investigated both in situ and ex situ approaches to crop diversity conservation, which includes freezing seeds in genebanks and supporting traditional farmers to continue their practices. The project found that while both approaches were clearly important and necessary, there was significant scope to improve the interactions and interconnections between them.
“While the Global Seed Vault is clearly an incredible and important achievement, many people feel that something significant has been lost when we freeze seeds as a way of conserving them,” says Dr. Wickson. “What we documented to be missing is the sense of deep cultural significance and meaning these seeds have for people, as well as knowledge on aspects such as their various culinary uses or ecological interactions.”
One of the project’s main conclusions is that developing more ‘biocultural’ approaches to crop diversity conservation could help address some of these concerns. “The conservation of agricultural biodiversity could be significantly strengthened by actively collecting the cultural stories connected to seeds and working to also conserve these for posterity in some way. This could be done through a kind of complimentary Vault like the one we have begun with this exhibition, or by enriching the type of information that is recorded in the passport data that accompanies the seeds,” says Dr. Wickson.
Flor Rivera representing artworks submitted by a global range of small-holder farming communities.
Between 2014 and 2019, The Agri/Cultures Project (funded by the Norwegian Research Council) researched different cultures of agriculture and worked to have this knowledge inform and shape policy-making. The researchers compared the social, biological and technical networks of relations of agro-ecological, certified organic, chemically-intensive and genetically modified agri-food systems. All of the knowledge generated through this project was then collated in the interactive website www.seed-links.com, developed as a pedagogical tool to allow people to explore different agri-food systems and better understand the impact of their own food choices.
The Agri/Cultures.Seed-Links exhibition was created as an event to mark both the culmination of the Agri/Cultures Project and the launch of the Seed-Links website. The exhibition also created the second deposit of artworks on seed cultures in the Svalbard Ark.
In 2019, an open global call was made for visual artworks that specifically spoke to the bio-cultural connections in agriculture and the links seeds have to society, ecology and culture through their presence within agri-food systems. Any archival medium was welcome, but all proposed works were asked to fit within the boxes used to store seed deposits in the Vault.
Almost 100 proposals from over 25 countries were received and the international jury made a selection of artworks in two tiers. Artists selected in the first tier were offered sponsorship to travel to Longyearbyen, Svalbard to attend the exhibition, speak about their work, and to physically inter their works in the mountain. Artists selected in the second tier were invited to send their works for inclusion in the exhibition and in a group box for deposit in the Svalbard Ark.
The artworks were exhibited for one night only in the town of Longyearbyen on Svalbard. This exhibition included talks from the leader of the Agri/Cultures project and founder of the Seed Cultures Initative, Dr. Fern Wickson, and the manager of the Global Seed Vault, Åsmund Asdal. At the end of the exhibition, a silent ceremony was held to pack and seal the artworks inside the black boxes for storage in the permafrost. The following day, the artists deposited their boxes of artworks in Frøhallen (the room for seeds) in mine no. 3, administed by the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (SNSK). This room in mine no. 3 is the site Nordic Gene Bank (now NordGen) used to store back up copies of its seeds from 1984-2008, and the site that provided the original inspiration for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is also the site of the ongoing 100 year seed experiment. Here the artworks will remain in permanent storage as the second deposit in the Svalbard Ark, resting forever in the mountain alongside the seeds in the neighboring Seed Vault.
Although the Global Seed Vault is an incredible and important achievement, many people feel that something significant has been lost when seeds are frozen as a way of conserving them. One of the things that is missing is the sense of deep cultural significance and meaning seeds have for people, as well as knowledge on aspects such as their various culinary uses or ecological interactions.
The creation of The Svalbard Ark and the deposits within it represent an ongoing effort to recognise and celebrate the important interconnections between biological and cultural diversity and to conserve the cultural heritage connected to our relationship with seeds.
The artists selected in tiers one and two for the 2019 deposit in the Svalbard Ark were: