I've walked across the Island many times, following desire lines that criss-crossed the wasteland, noticing the abundant weeds and wildflowers that occupied the site. These common medicinal plants grew on the footprint of what was once a large pharmaceutical site in the heart of Nottingham – the century-long home of Boots, trusted chemist and household name. In one corner, a tiled floor was still visible: the remains of a factory where workers had industriously processed, packed and distributed medicines to the world. These physical traces of the site’s history have recently disappeared under a car park, and after nearly three decades as an unofficial urban commons the whole area is earmarked for a massive redevelopment scheme. But I keep returning to the Island and the questions it seeded in me.
Looking at those tiles from the old factory floor, with elder, plantain and yarrow pushing through the cracks, littered with remnants of self-medication, I wondered what plants and powders were brought here to mass-produce saleable drugs. What’s the relationship between raw ingredients and a pharmaceutical product? Rawness brings to mind something tender, exposed, bodily. Rawness smells. Popping pills out of neat plastic blister packs, medicine appears a world away from the messy sensuousness of plants and bodies – history-less, immaterial.
Chemistry seems like magic, its processes of transformation largely performed behind closed doors. But nothing comes from nothing. Those pills have a story, and I have been following the traces of chemical compounds through history – through carbon chains, ingredients, plants, animals, humans, places and bodies of knowledge. As I zoom out from the pill in my palm, to the materiality of its making, I am taken on a journey through the history of medicine (1). From medieval wise women, lay healers and midwives; the violent suppression of the witch hunts, enclosure of land and knowledge; European colonial expansion; the 18th century battle between the apothecaries and physicians to control the making and administration of medicine; the invention of patents; to 20th century miracle cures, scientific breakthroughs and one of capitalism’s most profitable industries.
In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici describes the connections between the birth of capitalism, reproductive labour, the suppression and control of women's bodies and knowledge, and the enclosure of common lands and natural resources (2). Returning to the Island, I think about commons and enclosure. Whilst this piece of land has long been privately owned, for all of the years I’ve lived in Nottingham it has been a publicly accessible site – a rough, wild, green space in the city centre, with its own community of users. Over a number of years, I’ve worked with the Wasteland Twinning Network to document the Island and similar sites, collectively exploring the notion of land that’s supposedly wasted. When an area is described as a ‘wasteland’ who or what is it wasted for? And what existing histories and uses are erased? These places are often talked about by developers as a ‘blank canvas’, bringing to mind the term ‘terra nullius’ (nobody’s land) used by European colonists to justify occupation and displacement.
Vandana Shiva draws a link between this history and contemporary enclosures of lifeforms and knowledges: ‘Five hundred years after Columbus, a more secular version of the sale project of colonization continues through patents and intellectual property rights… The assumption of empty lands, “terra nullius” is now being expanded to “empty life”, seeds and medicinal plants. The takeover of natural resources during colonization was justified on the grounds that indigenous people did not “improve” their land… The same logic is now used to appropriate biodiversity from its original owners and innovators by defining their seeds, medicinal plants, and medicinal knowledge as nature, as non-science.’ (3) In 1995 a US multinational, WR Grace, was granted a patent for a neem-based pesticide. The neem tree has been used for thousands of years in India to make insect repellents, soaps, cosmetics, tooth cleaners and contraceptives. In a landmark ten-year legal battle, Indian campaigners finally got the patent revoked - establishing that traditional knowledge systems can be considered as 'prior art', and destroying the corporation’s claims of novelty and inventiveness.
In a workshop with medical historian Anna Greenwood, she talked about the invention of the tablet or pill as a breakthrough technology, enabling medicine-makers to concentrate, package and sell cures on a much greater scale (4). As healing, care and medicine became increasingly institutionalised and commercialised, these technologies of mass-production were key to birthing the pharma-industrial-complex. In 1900, a drug was first conceptualised as a ‘magic bullet’ (5). The idea that a specific medicine can target and kill a specific harmful organism is compelling, and has led to important research and medical treatments. But it removes medicine from the context of its own production and separates disease from the context of the whole body and its environment. It’s interesting that the militarized language of defense, attack and control became a fundamental way of thinking about immunity and health in western medicine.
In Testo Junkie, Paul B Preciado proposes that we are now living in the ‘pharmapornographic era’, where post-Fordist capitalism is formed around the ‘political management of the living’. He argues that biochemistry, media, pornography and war are our most profitable global industries, and offer a model for other forms of production: taking ‘its raw material from knowledge, information, communication, social relationships.. production is no longer situated in companies but in society as a whole.’ We are being confronted with ‘a new kind of hot, psychotic, punk capitalism.’ (6)
I am trying to understand the connections between these different kinds of ‘raw material’ and their exploitation – whether they are situated in plants, realms of knowledge, desire, or the cells of our bodies. I look at the pill in my hand. Its active chemical compounds have been synthesized in a lab using carbon chains from finite petrochemicals, to imitate those found in a bitter bark. The use of this compound is ancient, the trademark name was patented by a German company in the 20th century. The product is small and white, unassuming, easy to swallow. It will ‘kill’ pain and I am grateful for it. I am wary of glorifying plant medicine as ‘natural’ and ‘good’ in opposition to ‘unnatural’ pharmaceuticals - we’re still catching up with plants, the master chemists who create an amazing array of substances including some that are diabolical to humans (7). Exploding out the stories contained in a pill helps me to see the relationship between these substances, between knowledge, ownership, power and profit; to question the tools we use to understand and describe our health, and recognise their roots in other systems of knowledge.
References & links
(1)Starting with pharmaceutical sites in Europe, this research has focused on a history of ‘western’ medicine - which is entangled with european lay traditions, and healing practices and knowledges from around the world - often encountered, recorded and stolen through colonial exploration and occupation.
(2) Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body And Primitive Accumulation, AK Press, 2005
(3) Vandana Shiva, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, Green Press, 1998
(4) From Plants to Pills workshop
(5) The term ‘magic bullet’ was first coined by German chemist Paul Ehrlich in 1900, in connection to his research into antibodies.
(6) Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, Feminist Press, 2013
(7) Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World, Penguin Random House, 2001
Power Makes Us Sick: https://pms.hotglue.me/
Wasteland Twinning Network: http://wasteland-twinning.net/