HD video, sound, 16 minutes
Introduced by Elinor Morgan
Habitat 2190 follows the construction of the nature reserve Fort Vert at the site of the so-called “Jungle”, the former migrant camp in Calais, France, addressing the ways in which an imagination of nature is weaponised in the governing of borders, interrogating the intersecting mobilities, rights and co-existence of human and nonhuman life.
Elinor Morgan: Habitat 2190 unveils tensions around what is valued and cared for in contemporary Europe. It charts complex discussions around the protection of rare species within EU legislation and pits this against the lack of care for humans seeking sanctuary through migration, who find themselves outside of the protection and regard of society. How did you come across this dichotomy of priorities and what drew you to work on such contested ground?
Hanna Rullmann: The first time I was at the site of the future reserve (early March 2017), it happened to be on the same day as a visit by the then-minister of Interior of France, Bruno Le Roux, who was going to be taken on a tour around the area, to see the construction works. The nature organisations involved (Conservatoire du Littoral and Eden62) had put up presentation plaques on the fences that showed the landscape design, the planned construction works, the projected habitats and endangered species of plants and birds, etc. There were also signs that prohibited access in order not to disturb “renaturing processes”. At the time, the land was still littered with remnants of the migrant camp, which had been violently evicted and destroyed October/November 2016, and the idea of a nature reserve on what was practically a wasteland seemed quite out of place. Looking at the landscape design, it was also obviously meant to prevent access and new settlements: besides fences, there would be large lakes, ditches and high sandbanks around the entire perimeter of the site.
Over the years, both French and UK governments have used extreme measures of security and control against people trying to cross the Channel from Calais, in the shape of walls, fences, flooding, violent police raids and evictions, deprivation of basic needs and legal aid. With so much UK funding (an estimate of over 150 million pounds as of early 2019) enforcing these measures, then UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s “hostile environment” reaches well into French territory. So, following that first visit, I wanted to understand where the idea of constructing a nature reserve at this location sat within this history of state violence and “hostile environments” so often seen in Calais and other places in Europe. This led to over two years of research on the weaponisation of “nature” and conservation management in security measures and the way it depoliticises and obscures border violence. And eventually the making of this film together with Faiza Ahmad Khan. It's also important to point out that this is not an isolated work: over the past years there has been a lot of research done on the instrumentalisation of environment in the governing of borders in various places in Europe (the Alps, the Mediterranean, the work of Lorenzo Pezzani/Forensic Oceanography and Riccardo Badano for example) and the US-Mexico border (the work of Jason De Leon, Juanita Sundberg).
EM: For the video you undertook conversations with a range of experts and workers. What did you uncover about the judgements and decision-making processes inherent within the construction of the site as a ‘natural’ environment?
HR: The whole project was framed as a “return to nature”, which meant, practically, that conservationists were consulting centuries-old maps to see what the landscape would have looked like, as well as the stripping of 20 centimeters of top soil to lay bare dormant seeds of 60 to 70 years ago. They also removed invasive plants that were seen as “waste”, in order to make room for those plants considered to be “native”, especially a highly endangered orchid (the liparis loeselii) that was observed there some 15 years ago. This idea of “renaturing” implies a number of assumptions of what it means for a landscape to be “natural” and reveals a very particular process of picking and choosing what belongs in a place and what doesn't. The reappearance of the orchid in particular presents a confrontation and negotiation of rights between what is considered worthy of protection and what is not, and between what is perceived as naturally belonging and what is considered invasive. Playing into imaginaries of nature as unconstructed and apolitical, it is also an attempt to erase unwanted histories and habitations. As the site's former manager mentions towards the end of the film, “to restore an ecosystem is always a choice”.
EM: At the heart of Habitat 2190 are those people who were displaced from staying on the site when the refugee camp was destroyed, yet we never see any figures in the landscape.
HR: For the film we wanted to capture the kind of quiet erasure perpetuated by the construction of a “natural” landscape, to make the precise invisibility of this recent history of border violence visible. The film is meant to challenge commonly held ideas of what a natural landscape is, beyond what it looks like, revealing its political makers not through visual representation, but through audio and scientific and legal documents, to trace this process of erasure through the experience of observing it.
EM: What influenced your decision to use close up shots of surfaces to make a formal and textural study of the location?
HR: The film draws on two visual narratives, the first being this observational perspective, for which the footage was filmed from the observatory on one edge of the site. This is the only way of getting access to the space, as the reserve is currently fenced off, and it’s mostly used by bird watchers,—echoing questions of what becomes visible or remains invisible in a so-called natural landscape, and the position of the public within it. The second narrative focusses on the way the landscape is constructed through environmental policies, national endangered species plans, scientific classifications (rooted in colonial heritage), etc. Addressing this formally, the imagery follows a line of abstraction, demarcation and commodification. This is also why a variety of legal and scientific documents are featured in the film: as “nature” is classified and put into law, it simultaneously becomes a legal or political instrument.