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ABSTRACTS

Monika Bakke
Associate professor of philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland

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.

Ágnes Bakk, Kitti Gosztola, Kristóf Kelemen, Bence György Pálinkás
(Artists, Hungary)

Invasive Alien?

The spread of invasive alien species is one of the burning issues of ecology. These plants and animals are introduced into a new territory as a consequence of human intervention and they can spread easily in weakened ecosystems. People’s reactions to this phenomenon often follow the patterns of xenophobic hate. In 2014 the EU created a regulation on extermination and prevention of the introduction of invasive alien species. The species list was made based on costs and benefits analysis. This practice has many similarities with the EU-s migration policy, but it can be considered as a more violent version, because plants and animals have no inalienable rights. The black locust (Robinia p seudoacacia) is native in the US and it was introduced to Hungary only three hundred years ago. Nowadays it became the most common tree in Hungary and it has a huge importance both in economy and in culture. As a counteraction for the EU regulation, the Hungarian government elected the tree as a Hungaricum (a brand for traditional national values). This decision is the complete opposite of the government's migration policy. To point this out we are using the plant’s story as a fable in order to create a documentary theater performance and a documentary video on black locust.

Christiane Erharter
Curator, Vienna

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.

Isabel Hoving
Leiden University

The Queerness of Nature in Caribbean Writing:
Rethinking Race, Gender, and Desire Through Plants

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.

Adéla Kremplová
Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Nature Lost in Translation: Nature Construction in Leisure Venues

They say it is photographs that serve a nostalgic desire to stop time and conserve objects. Such desire reflects also in our approach to nature, which is often viewed in a similar manner (to) artefacts are in a museum. This can be best observed in two seemingly similar leisure venues, botanic glasshouse – following historical tradition and bio-dome - building on todays events, where nature is largely constructed by humans and their naturalistic display offers both intellectual and aesthetic encounters with plants. Both venues use different practices to nature construction and also their approaches to nature representation differs together with the message they aim to mediate to the public. Paradoxically the message is often lost on the way between the scientific foundation of the site and its aesthetic manifestation experienced by their visitors. The naturalistic representation of plants and their environment then results in idealized image of nature, one that is pre-digested to be easily consumed. This paper examines different methodological approaches to nature construction at two specific nature sites: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh glasshouse and The Eden Project bio-dome. Through comparative analogy of the various types of viewer experience with these sites I investigate the ways in which nature construction influence viewer interaction with vegetation and informs perception of nature’s character outside of these sites. Furthermore, the paper provides a corrective to how better understanding of aesthetic can not only help us deepen our experiences with the natural world and remove nature from the museum like pedestal.

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll
Professor of Global Art, University of Birmingham

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.

Chonja Lee
Institute for Art History, University of Bern

Germaine Dulac, Thèmes et variations, 1929, 35 mm, bw, silent, 195 m, 9’, FranceBallets botaniques: How early film makes the plant soul visible in France

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.

Elizabeth Loudon
Central European University, Budapest

Dialogue with Plants: The CEU Rooftop Garden and its Inhabitants

There is an emerging field in anthropology that focuses on multispecies ethnographies, allowing plant culture to take center stage.Plants may not speak our language, but a growing body of research suggests that they have a social life. Given this phenomenon, this podcast aims to raise awareness about the rooftop garden through an innovative and thought provoking exploration of plant communication. Gardeners often have relationships with the plants they grow that are molded by the nurturing process. Plants also nurture humans, nourishing their spirits and bodies. In many cases, the act of cultivating a garden over time strengthens an environmental ethic that values plants beyond the utility of the foods they produce.This podcast will provide an opportunity to explore these issues through an interwoven series of interviews, sounds from the garden, and personal stories about interactions with plant agency.
I will interview garden visitors, and some participants from the course on Organic Gardening. The product will be a podcast artwork that is approximately 20 minutes in length. I hope to emphasize the relationships people have with plants, and how gardens redefine understandings of nature and culture.

Christine Mackey
Artist, Northern Ireland

Seed Matter

To present a series of works that attempts a radical re-notion on the idea of the garden as a living herbarium that relates current investigations of the historical, political and biodynamical ecologies of plant life through the subject of the ‘seed’. The earliest endeavor began in (2008), Aggressive localism proposed practical and redemptive tactics towards man-made structures through the planting of native Irish wild-flower seeds, expanded further as a public event premised on a binding contract between artist and the public led to the distribution of seed bags Trade Off (2009). Instigated a research trip to Svalbard Seed Bank (2010), which led to the development of a long-term project Seed Matter (2010-2013), the basis of which stemmed from recorded conversations and interviews, photographic reportage, and archival research; followed by the re-commoning of a defunct military space The Potting Shed (2014). This proposed presentation, will encompass a narrative structure with key headings that outline the research material, sites of interest with a specific focus on the different agencies that emerge in the work through an assemblage of diverse ‘materials’. By deconstructing the utility of the herbaria as a repository of scientific knowledge, made evident through these projects, the singularity of its form can become a mutable and radical ecosystem performed through various sets of inter-related activities, processes and socio-environmental contexts guided by the ‘seed’.

Michael Marder
Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Spain, and Professor-at-Large at the Humanities Institute of Diego Portales University, Chile

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.

Uriel Orlow
Artist and researcher

Theatrum Botanicum

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.


Sendy Osmičević and Lea Vene
Curators and researchers, Zagreb

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.

Špela Petrič
Artist and researcher, Ljubljana

Vegetal Otherness, Intimately

My artistic research looks at vegetal life as the unchallenged frontier of estrangement, revealing the limits of human empathy as well as its anthropocentric underpinnings. Plants are, in their omnipresence, utterly foreign complexity and lack of identification elements allowing anthropomorphism, ideal subjects of study in an attempt to reexamine relations with the Other. The field of plant neurobiology has tried to uncover mechanisms of plant function by likening the physiology of plants to animal systems in order to raise awareness of the intricate, highly adapted life of plants; however, the plants’ cryptic chemically-based conversations, their biological inter-species networks, their centennial lifespans and non-centralized operation make them the benevolent aliens living among us. How can one draw together the world of human beings and that of plants, while resisting the temptation to sacrifice the specificity of either perspective and respecting the foreignness of vegetal life? The contribution lays out three performative projects – Skotopoiesis, Phytoteratology and Strange Encounters – through which I explore radical and novel modes of human-plant intercognition, which, while discovering the vegetal, delineate our own borders to be overcome.

Tatiana Safonova
Central European University, Budapest

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.

Åsa Sonjasdotter
Artist, Berlin

A muddy place for art

Photo: Åsa SonjasdotterThe 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.

Patrícia Vieira
Georgetown University / University of Coimbra

Phytographia: Writing with Plants

In this paper, I discuss phytographia as the encounter between the non-verbal language of plants that articulate themselves spatially in the world and literary writing. My points of departure are Walter Benjamin’s idea of a generalized “language of things,” and Jacques Derrida’s notions of “inscription,” the “trace” and “arche-writing.” I argue that plants inscribe themselves in human cultural productions and, especially, in literature, leaving their traces in art works and contaminating human language with their own forms of expressions. Phytographia is the term I
use to describe a vegetal-inflected fiction that strives to give voice to vegetal living beings. In the second part of the talk I will offer some examples of this phytographic writing, including the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Lost Steps (1953) and Wole Soyinka’s
play A Dance of the Forests (1960).

Stefan Voicu
Central European University, Budapest

Fungal (Dis)Connections. Ergot, Wheat and Global Commodity Trade

Throughout 2016 the global wheat trade was hampered by the ergot fungus claviceps purpurea. This fungus is considered toxic for human consumption because of the effects the alkaloids it produces has on humans after large intakes: spasms, diarrhea, paresthesia, mania, psychosis, nausea, headaches and gangrene. The international wheat standards set by the Codex Alimentarius in 1995 allows for a 0.05% m/m content of ergot, but at the beginning of 2016 the Egyptian agricultural quarantine agency decided to ban from the country wheat containing any traces of this fungus. Being the largest importer of wheat, with a 10% share of the total global wheat imports because of its heavily state subsidized bread program, the Egyptian ban disrupted global trade and further depressed prices in a period of glut. In this paper the agentive role of this fungus in making global (dis)connections between different entities is explored. It is argued that the interaction of fungi, wheat kernels, farmers, processors, consumers, government bureaucrats, international experts and traders creates hierarchically structured multispecies clouds, where human and non-human alliances and exclusions produce durable inequalities. This points out to the need to go beyond an anthropocentric understanding of the global capitalist system and redefine it rather as a multispecies biosocial system in order to understand its evironment-making thrust
.

Alan Watt
Central European University, Budapest

Dangerous roots: exploring autochthony’s problematic environmental appeal


Many environmentalists have valorized people and communities who have a close association with the land, suggesting they have an affinity with nature that modern societies lack. Vegetal metaphors of “rootedness” are frequently used to express this valorization, nowhere more vividly than in Heidegger’s Memorial Address, inspired by a line from Hebel: ‘we are plants which…must with our roots rise out of the earth in order to bloom in the ether and to bear fruit.’ The term Heidegger uses for this desired “rising out of the earth” is ‘autochthony’ (Bodenständigkeit). The concept, however, carries some significant political baggage – already a marker for Athenian chauvinism in the 5th century BC, it also figured in the controversy over Heidegger’s links with national socialism, and in recent decades autochthony’s strongest associations have been with xenophobic nativist movements in Europe and Africa. In this paper I discuss how environmentalists should respond to the dilemma these associations pose, examining three possible strategies of redemption(separating “good” from “bad” autochthony), rejection(dissociating environmentalism altogether from metaphors of roots), and reconfiguration (changing the vegetal metaphor, as Deleuze and Guattari attempted with their trope of the rhizome). I argue that efforts at redemption are doomed, and the choice must be between rejection and reconfiguration.

Bo Zheng
School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong

Weed Party: Plants and Politics in China

What roles did plants play in the history of the Chinese Communist Party? What roles might
plants play in China’s politics today? I have been investigating these questions in my practice
over the past five years, through a series of artworks realized as plant-based installations,
photographs, works on paper, and films. I would like to present a few artworks and discuss a
few ideas: we have always turned to weeds during political crises; we need plants to
transform the way we perform and imagine politics.

 

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Monika Bakke, Ágnes Bakk, Khadija von Zinnenberg Carroll, Christiane Erharter, Isabel Hoving, Adéla Kremplová, Chonja Lee, Elizabeth Loudon, Christine Mackey, Michael Marder, Uriel Orlow, Sendy Osmičević, Bence György Pálinkás, Špela Petrič, Tatiana Safonova, Åsa Sonjasdotter, Lea Vene, Patrícia Vieira, Stefan Voicu, Alan Watt, Bo Zheng

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