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The Geologic Life of Plants
The mineral dimension of plants manifests itself in their chemical composition, peculiar body plans, and metabolic processes. The latter have influenced the mineral evolution and now they are employed in phytoremediation and vegetal mining. Recognizing the significance of plant metabolism and designing novelty plant metabolic networks might be not only a necessity aimed at waste reduction and efficiency, but also an acknowledgment of multispecies agency beyond the biological. Contemporary art and design practices which take into consideration vegetal-mineral entanglements offer an inspiring contribution to the growing interest in the role plants play in shaping the geological future of the earth. Drawing on the notion of “geologic life”, the concept of “becoming-earth”, and various elaborations on materiality in forms such as compost and humus, I will investigate how art practices articulate the ecological significance of mineral dimension of the vegetal. I am going to consider SymbioticA’s project Adaptation dealing with the algal ancestors of plants significant in mineral evolution; the fossilized vegetal life in the works by Thomas Feuerstein; soil contamination and plants’ mineral intake in Kathy High’s & Oliver Kellhamer’s Nos Habebit Humus – The Earth Will Have Us; use of plant roots in vegetal mining in Geo Merce by Giovanni Innella & Gionata Gatto; and Allison Kudla’s installation State of Becoming elaborating on the vegetal body plans guided by laws of physics.
Wilderness creates Diversity: Discussing the plants of Kaucyila Brooke (USA) and Lois Weinberger (A)
The works of US-based visual artist, photographer and video maker Kaucyila Brooke (b. 1952) and the artist couple Lois and Franziska Weinberger (b. 1947 and 1953) differ in formal ways but deal with plants – and this will be the argument of this presentation – in a similar way. Both artistic practices turn the object "plant" into a narrative agent, into communicative agents and devices. Brooke’s and Weinbergers’ plants are neither metaphors nor allegories, not symbols or metonymies but mediators of social and ecological relationships: they become sexual (Brooke) and/or political (Weinberger) agents. In my presentation I will focus on key projects by both artists: Kaucyila Brookes long-time cycle "Tit for Twat"(1992-ongoing) which consists of large scale photo montages telling the herstory of the loss of paradise using it as the site of much confusion about human nature and the nature of human sexuality, her long time series “Burned… 1998-1999, 2001” of photographs taken after a lightning fire in Fall 1997 in Griffith Park (Los Angeles) and third, the photo series "The Last Time I Saw You” (2012) depicts waterfalls from the Columbia River Highway taken in Eugene, Oregon, the home town of the artist. These three projects I will discuss with the following projects by Weinbergers: “Laubreise” for which they installed a compost heap at the Austrian pavilion at the 53rd International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 2009, and “What is beyond plants is at One with Them“ created for documenta X in 1997 where indigenous plants and neophytes from South and South East Europe were planted along a 100m railway track of the Kulturbahnhof Kassel. Wilderness, I argue by quoting a wall slogan from a national park lodge in Upper Austria, creates diversity and diversity becomes a core issue in the works of Brooke and Weinberger when focussing on their artistic methodology turning plants into narrative agents.
The Queerness of Nature in Caribbean Writing:
Some of the most innovative Caribbean writers organize their texts around images of plants and flowers. Even when their novels do not seem to be concerned with environmental issues at all, but rather with globalization and exploitation, they abound with fragrant, creepy or dark references to flowers, insects, trees, gardens, and mud. Indeed, ecocritics will read these references as a critical reflection on the destructive environmental effects of colonialism and globalization. While such a reading is undoubtedly enlightening, it does not give us the whole story. References to nature and plants do more. The Caribbean texts I will discuss in my presentation, suggest that exclusionary practices such as racism, sexism and homophobia are all legitimized by oppressive notions of what is natural and what is not. A radical revision of traditional concepts of nature can therefore open a space for alternative, post-colonial and posthumanist imaginations of race, gender and sexuality. Through a discussion of several literary evocations of plants and flowers in Caribbean novels (esp. by Shani Mootoo, Jamaica Kincaid), I propose to read these references within an intersectional frame that brings together ecocriticism with Caribbean and postcolonial studies, the study of gender and sexuality, and posthumanism. In this way, I hope to show that plants can help us to rethink the relation between human beings and the environment, and human identity itself.
Botanical Drift: Economic Botany and its plant protagonists
The ‘useful’ and the ‘curious’ have been the two guiding categories of Economic Botany at Kew, and art sits traditionally without doubt in the ‘curious’ camp. Botanical Drift is a artist book project that addresses recent advances that have unmasked plants as sensory and communicative organisms, characterized by active, problem-solving behavior. To better grasp this ecological worldview, how plants interact with their environment, and to understand these organisms from different perspectives, the author curated a group of academics, contemporary artists, curators, and writers to carry out research, interventions and performances into the Kew Garden systems in 2014. Botanical gardens, documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display, and education, are well-tended areas infamous for their connection to European imperialism and its expansionist projects. Strictly exclusionary space in Kew maintains a resistance to a perceived botanical conflict, the conflict in botanical theory in which for instance a Māori classification system or a plant dancer threaten the established order. Marianne North’s gallery is a vegetal embrace of the human viewer both in conflict with Kew’s exhibition of plants and the botanical theories of conflict between species that has dominated since Malthus and Darwin. When considered in relation to the lobbying of Kew by the artisan collector William Colenso, the struggles that the Victorian plant hunter Marianne North had as she completed her paintings show some historical basis for the conflicts between art and science in which botany as a discipline in service of economic gain is in conflict with a recognition of plants as intelligent and sentient.
Along the 19th century various botanists and psychologists described the movement of plants as an indication of their soul. However, it was only in 1904 when Lucien Bull (1876–1972), Étienne-Jules Mareys assistant, made the first French time lapse film of a blooming lily that the plant movement could be aesthetically experienced. By the 1910s, the botanic time lapse was very popular and in the repertory of the big distributors like Pathé Frères, Gaumont or Éclair, who staged the movies as a proof of the closeness of plant and human species. In this paper, I aim to discuss the aesthetic properties of the early time lapse film and its media theoretical position within the fields of cinema, history of science and popular culture like magic shows, theater and dance. I elaborate on how the blooming flower at that time was a current motive in these cinematographic genres, how its images were connected to animistic ideas and how they continued or transformed the common feminization of the flower, e.g. in the serpentine dances of modern dance pioneer Loïe Fuller (1862–1928). I conclude the paper with the theory of French avant-garde filmmaker Germaine Dulac (1882–1942), who found the motto of her “cinéma pur” in the botanic time lapse, with the plant movement being not locomotion but metamorphosis. She considered the plant a sentient being and a cinematographic form, since its organically grown body renders temporality visible.
Dialogue with Plants: The CEU Rooftop Garden and its Inhabitants
Let’s not hurry to leave the middle: Lingering with plants
In Plant-Thinking I characterized plants as “the media of proto-communication between diverse aspects of phusis” (66). While developing the idea of vegetal mediation, I relied on Hegel’s dialectical approach, according to which plants are the first material bridges between the concrete universality of the earth and the purely abstract, ideal being of light. Nonetheless, dialectical thought is in a rash to abandon the middle, to make its saltomortaleand reach a new stage on the spiral itinerary of spirit. Far from unique to Hegel, such precipitousness is the hallmark of our thinking that hurries past the middle, resolved into the union of mediated terms or, as so often happens now, senses terror in the face of the encroaching end (of the world, of the planet, of life as such…). As a result, we are poorly equipped for dealing with mundane existence (be it human, animal or vegetal),which is invariably in the middle of things, in medias res, living through its finite “meanwhile.” In this talk, I propose to think mediation from the unsurpassable middle—the milieu, the place of plants and of place-ness itself, a relation irreducible either to the relating or the related. The outcome of this exercise should bring us closer to vegetal being and, as an added bonus, mitigate the dispiriting expectation and a fatalistic hastening of the absolute end.
I propose to present and discuss elements from a three-year research project and body of work called Theatrum Botanicum. Working from the dual vantage points of South Africa and Europe, the project considers plants as both witnesses and actors in history, and as dynamic agents – linking nature and humans, rural and cosmopolitan medicine, tradition and modernity – across different geographies, histories and systems of knowledge, with a variety of curative, spiritual and economic powers. Central to the project is a two-screen film The Crown Against Mafavuke (2016, 30') based on a South African trial from 1940. Mafavuke Ngcobo was a traditional herbalist who was accused by the local white medical establishment of ‘untraditional behaviour’. The film explores the ideological and commercial confrontation between two different yet intertwining medicinal traditions and their uses of plants, with slippages across gender and race further questioning notions of purity and origination. The second projection follows enduring herbal practices at rural and urban sites in Johannesburg, the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, showing chains of value and practice which include plant collectors, traders, traditional healers, local communities and users. Together these touch on larger issues around erasure and continuity, tradition and modernity, indigenous knowledge and alternative medicine in post-colonial contexts. The films also connect to research into local medicinal plant use, which fed into a medicinal plant garden that I have been developing alongside the project at Penfold Community Hub (across the road from The Showroom) in collaboration with local residents. Additional soundworks, photographs, a slide projection and video highlight botanical nationalism and other legacies of colonialism, plant migration and invasion, flower diplomacy during Apartheid, the garden planted by Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island prison, as well as the role of classification and naming of plants.
Seed for the future
Our project is a joint effort of ZMAG (Green network of activist groups) and GMK (Gallery Miroslav Kraljević) based on the artistic research into the potential of permacultural practices as models for creating sustainable, flexible and productive cultures through the observation of natural systems. Three basic ethicals principles are employed: care for people, care for land/earth and just distribution of goods. Having that in mind we are asked to automatically rethink our capitalist principles of continuous growth and uncontrolled exhaustion of resources. DIY principles and direct actions are inscribed in the core of permacultural way of thinking. Our project is envisioned as an educational platform that encourages interactions between artistic and permacultural researches. In 2016 our project was focused on alternative approaches to production and processing of food based on renewable energy resources and DIY philosophy. This year project is part of a broader research Seed for the future which is focused on promoting ecological seed production in order to preserve genetical diversity of plants. In collaboration with female art collective Ljubavnice we are exploring topics such as regeneration of seed, potentials of seed banks and biopiracy that further on invigorate artistic production tackling the interplay between nature and culture.
Vegetal Otherness, Intimately
Annuals as Perfect Commodities: Plants and People in a Small Flower Nursery in Hungary
Every spring people are buying seedlings and plants to decorate their balconies, terraces and gardens. Although plants themselves are associated with nature, their production is almost totally disembedded from natural environment. During my anthropological field research in a small-scale nursery in Hungary I have observed how annual life cycle of flowers is structuring work organization, and how plants are fabricated as commodities. This process is not straight forward, and as plants seem to struggle, they are seen as almost persons, that have their capricious characters. Simultaneously, workers themselves become parts of vital infrastructure for plants and are subordinated to plants’ needs. In a small-scale business the only way to gain profit is to reduce costs of heating, thus space becomes an important issue. This means that plants are kept in small pots close to each other as long as possible, and are repotted and relocated several times during their stay at the nursery. As the nursery is struggling to stay in business the demand on human labor is also growing. In my presentation I will discuss how dependency on plants’ growth and performance in capitalist economy transforms human-plant relations and create situations in which people are subordinated to plants.
A muddy place for art
The hybrid figure of cultivated plants – neither to be found in the taxonomic registers of the natural history museums, nor in the archives of ethnographic- or art museums – holds an odd space in the modern history of knowledge. Carl Linnaeus did not regard the cultivated plants, as they are but distractions of God’s divine order. And as much as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wanted to describe the truth about the metamorphosis of plants, he did not consider the processual dialogue between humans and plants as it has been carried out since deep time through breeding. Still, breeding triggers a surprising transformation and diversification of the plant’s sensuous and functional characters. An example: The “wild” apple is a bitter and rather small fruit of the tree Malussieversi growing in the southern Kazakhstan. Though the species appear in an abundant variation of taste, shape, colour and consistency, as it has migrated and adapted to a manifold of local climatic conditions. Its plenty is the result of intimate socializations, with humans as well as with other species. Considering human’s close relation to them, plants’ transformative capacity is surprisingly under-recognized within existing knowledge systems of either art or science. With departure in my own artistic work, this paper discusses theory and practice of co-species sensuous knowledge as it is carried out by and made manifest through breeding.
Fungal (Dis)Connections. Ergot, Wheat and Global Commodity Trade
What roles did plants play in the history of the Chinese Communist Party? What roles might