In the spring and summer of 2023, Andrea Popyordanova, an artist and graphic designer, and Francesca Castagnetti, an ethnobotanist, spent time exploring one very particular space in the city of Sofia – Vartopo. It is a vast green area surrounded by residential neighbourhoods and characterized by its uncultivated landscape and its uncertain future as well. Andrea and Francesca organized a walk and a workshop there followed by the publication “A useless guide to Vartopo and its weeds”. The workshop and the publication were part of New Ecologies’ public program. Viktoria Draganova talks with them about the idea behind their collaboration and how we can step back and relate in a different way to nature.
*At the end of the material find a reading list kindly curated by Andrea and Francesca.
Recently, Andrea told us that your acquaintance began with a chutney you cooked together while studying in Edinburgh. Why has this moment remained so vivid in your memory?
Andrea Popyordanova We can talk about this chutney that we made together while we were both studying in Edinburgh, because this is really what has stuck in our memory.
Francesca Castagnetti It was in December, I was visiting a stonemason workshop in a cathedral, the one Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh. There’s the rest of an old orchard there. And, I noticed there was this beautiful pear tree that was laden with fruits. So we gathered a group of friends and got back home where we would usually gather, and we made chutney over a whole night.
Andrea Popyordanova I guess it was this memory of how fruit gathering and collective preparation of winter preserves can be a very warm experience, a bit like what people used to do before. Our grandparents used to do it every summer to be ready for the winter. And we intuitively did it without necessarily wanting to preserve for the winter, but more as a collective experience with our friends.
Francesca Castagnetti It was probably the first time we experienced that kind of community-making moment where we all gather for a common purpose, and food really brings people together. I realized what I was maybe missing in my day-to-day life that our grandparents maybe had to some extent, and then I wanted to recreate in some ways.
Andrea Popyordanova Italy and Bulgaria have this in common – they are very attached to the land, to fruits, to understanding the seasons and preparing something out of all the fruits throughout the whole year. And all the vegetables as well, just having this knowledge, quite a tenacious, no-waste kind of philosophy that predated any of the contemporary movements.
Last year when I was doing my project about the orchard trees in Sofia, I really kept going back to the memory of the chutney making. Back then I prepared an infused liqueur, in which I would layer all the fruits I could find in Sofia in the order in which they ripened throughout the summer. I organized a degustation of it and invited people to taste the flavour of Sofia. In addition to it, I also made a chutney, based on the recipe we had already tried with Francesca, and that’s when I started thinking of inviting her to Sofia to contribute to the project. Shortly after our conversation started, and when we talked, we realized that you’re more familiar with what grows on the ground, under the shade of trees, not so much the trees in which I was interested initially. So that’s how I think we found the direction.
Why did you decide to address the area of Vartopo in your project?
Andrea Popyordanova I wanted to offer a few ideas of places where we could start. I would always look for a place that was somehow fragile – because it might end up in a construction site, or its vegetation could be changing, or it could be changing in many ways. In the end it was Vartopo. I became familiar with the area through my family connections, as both sides of my family are located on opposite sides of this park. I had heard stories about it and had even visited the area once. It struck me as an unexplored and peculiar place, which further piqued my curiosity. When we visited it for the first time, we discovered the incredible diversity it holds.
Francesca Castagnetti We immediately drew a parallel in our minds between Vartopo and weeds. This comparison arose because of its peculiar status: it should be designated as a park according to urban planning, yet it cannot obtain that status. Similarly, it cannot be sold as private property since it has already been designated as a green area. This limitation restricts any other forms of development as well. The situation felt somewhat inconvenient, much like weeds that unpredictably appear where they are least wanted. This intriguing paradox became a central theme in our book.
Could you describe Vartopo for those who haven’t been there?
Andrea Popyordanova For me, there is a sense of quietness about Vartopo. Its most interesting aspect is that it is situated between various city elements yet not conforming to any of them. It exists in a state of ambiguity and it is none of them. In a way, it almost represents what Sofia was like before extensive construction took place. I find this state of being neither a park nor part of the built environment quite captivating. The impossibility of fitting into these predefined categories makes it quite interesting to me. Vartopo is stuck in this really uncivilised state, where nature thrives freely, unrestricted by urban constraints. It embodies an unexplored realm, growing in all directions without constraint or design. This quality of uninhibited growth adds to it, making it a distinctive place.
Francesca Castagnetti I was struck by its incredible biodiversity. And of course, with all those plants, bird species, insects, pollinators. And it’s very important that cities have maintained spaces like that. For everyone’s health, not just for the place itself, but for everyone’s benefit. And the other thing that I really liked about Vartopo is the fact that it is a pasture of the past – that’s probably one of the uses that it had in the past. And now it’s this beautiful meadow that you don’t expect to find there.
How did you approach the meadow during the walk you organized?
Francesca Castagnetti What I’m interested in my research and my practice is definitely to have a place-based research and a place-based practice. So it’s always important for me to find myself in a place and ask what does this place want to be? What’s my interaction with this place? And I guess for the walk and workshop, what we had in mind was to replicate what our first experience together in June was. So we literally discovered the place through, or rather we were introduced to the place by the plants. And obviously, the plants tell you a lot of things about the type of soil and about how it might have been used in the past, and so on. We wanted to definitely recreate that kind of letting the plants introduce the place, which is something that is found in the book again. The other idea was to allow people to get away from the humdrum of the city and just find a moment to connect to the place through all their senses, which again, is something that I’m personally really interested in. This is why we decided to have a tasting of the tea. We tried to invite people to really smell and listen to the soundscape and so on.
Andrea Popyordanova Sometimes the sensory experience makes you feel grounded, and it makes you really understand the place in a different way, not just with your sight. Because the initial way of experiencing a place for most people is through vision. But while we were in Vartopo, and after, we also had very interesting conversations about naming and classification, about scientific approaches to nature versus the traditional and empirical knowledge about plants that we get from our ancestors. So, we did a naming exercise as a way of adding to the sensory experience. And then, we also wanted the participants to take a piece of the place with them in some way. In the end, we decided to do it quite literally and compose this big cyanotype out of the plants that people collected and the names that they came up with.
Francesca Castagnetti It was also a way to invite everyone to create a personal relationship with one of the plants. When Andrea and I went to Vartopo for the first time, we noticed that we were drawn to different plants, and each one of us have affinities with some or others. And it’s beyond what you might know about the plant or not. Obviously, we have associations at times, but sometimes we just feel naturally drawn to one or the other, and that’s also really fascinating to explore.
Andrea Popyordanova Yes, and I think it does correspond to how people in the past were relating to plants; they would feel attracted to a plant because of its colour or because of where it was located. And then they would get to know it in some way or come up with a strange name for it, so that they could later share it with someone else.
When we were about to select plants to show to the participants in the walk, at some point, we realised that we couldn’t show all the plants during the walk because there are so many, so we decided to choose some that are not so well-known or that are usually considered weeds, and to talk about this quite polar relationship of people towards them. Also, as we visited Vartopo in June, and then a second time in July for preparation for the workshop, the landscape looked very, very different with just one month of difference. So we decided to also acknowledge this with the choice of plants and we selected plants that were either there the first time and had a strong visual presence in the space or were very present during the second time.
Tell me more about the publication “A useless guide to Vartopo and came out of your collaboration.
Francesca Castagnetti We already started the work for the publication before the walk, but we managed to include some things that came out during the workshop. For instance, it was quite important that the workshop would somehow inform the book as well. And, we included the exercises for grounding in the book so everyone can use it.
Initially, we wanted to make a guide, but we didn’t want it to be a regular botanic guide with botanically accurate drawings or accurate names like scientific names and descriptions that you could find anyway on the internet or in other books. Because sometimes those can really put you at a distance. And because we are somehow really influenced by what we’re reading, and we’re more focused on the information that is being given to us rather than on establishing our own relationship to the plant.
Which is why we came up with the idea of having a useless guide that invites people to go and establish your own relationship to the place and the plants. So there is some information about the plants, which was more a way to share the process in which we engaged. But we decided to partly conceal that so that the focus wouldn't really be on the information but would be on the plants themselves.
Andrea Popyordanova We decided to structure the book based on how we encountered the plants on our first and second visit, so the order is chronologically following what we saw on the meadow – the colours we noticed or where the plants grow there, this was quite important.
Another key part is the unfolding cover, which actually contains all the necessary information for understanding this guide. People can get inspired by it to use it even in other places because these plants are seen everywhere in Bulgaria. And they are probably not present in the city parks.
The instructions in our guide show how we can connect to a place and how we can relate to plants in a different way by observation, smelling, tasting. In the guide, there is even a recipe for tea from herbs that we served during the workshop. The grounding exercises are included, and there is a little bit of information about Vartopo because one of the initial ideas about this guide was that it is a book representing Vartopo in this moment of time, while it's still looking like this. “A useless guide to Vartopo and its weeds” is very connected to the place, but the knowledge about it could be applied in other places or circles.
How does this publication relate to your previous practice?
Francesca Castagnetti Being ethnobotanist, I think one of the most important roles that we can have is to act as mediators between different systems of knowledge, whether it is the dominant kind of Western knowledge, indigenous knowledge systems or folk knowledge. So there’s definitely a mediation role in that, on that level, but also between people and plants, of course.
Since I’m also training as a herbalist, I’m really interested in finding different ways, more respectful ways of relating to plants. I like that the book is very much an invitation to establish your own relationship to plants and trees and, to see plants in a different way – definitely not as inanimate objects but more like potential allies and beings that you can have some sort of conversation with by looking at the colours, by looking at where they grow, by looking at the other plants that grow around them. You can really learn a lot from a plant.
And I think there are some parts of the world where that sensitivity is still more present, or is more common. Luckily, in both Bulgaria and Italy there are still people who have that kind of way of relating to land and plants. But it is becoming more and more rare in general, and there is a common disconnection to the land and to plants and so on. So I guess the book really fits within my sort of wider intention to create more spaces for these practices to happen, where we can learn new ways, or relearn old ways to relate to plants and land.
Scientific publications don’t reach people in the same way in which an artistic approach would be able to do so I guess that’s why I was interested to collaborate with an artist to see whether this can bring your knowledge in a new light.
Andrea Popyordanova For me, it was crucial to invite somebody with a more scientific point of view, but not one with whom we’d work separately in our different fields. I wanted to invite someone who would be interested in exploring what a more artistic approach can do to their knowledge and what a collaborative process can bring towards the final outcome. We had a rough idea of what it would be like initially, but it all happened smoothly and with taking decisions together. So in the end, we wanted to be involved with both worlds, the scientific and the artistic, and find ways of sharing our knowledge with others.