|Confronting Vegetal Otherness – An Inquiry into Phutonic Principles with an Emphasis on Plant/Human Intercognition
Plants have undergone an evolutionary history resulting in organizational principles radically different from those of humans. When looking towards their embodiment, we stare at aliens living amongst us – vegetal beings we have recently come to scientifically understand as complex, continuous multi-species communities operating at time-scales and in expressions not perceptible with the innate human sensorial apparatus.
Artistic and scientific interfaces, which mediate plant time, their internal molecular processes and physiological responses, have been employed as the aperture through which the commonplace plant is given a human-friendly articulation. However, utilizing the crutch of interfaces, informing as they may be, somewhat misplaces the true challenge of post-anthropocentrism, which would not only bring the plant into proximity of the human, but also recognize the distinct properties of each organismal type as well as their relational context in ecosystems.
Although there has been a recent surge of post-anthropocentric conceptions of plant life (e.g. authors Matthew Hall, Michael Marder, Paco Calvo, Stefano Mancuso), Western cosmology struggles to find a pragmatic formula that would aid in incorporating this new knowledge and awareness into our everyday experience, precluding a change in the ethical perspective on the non-human Other, wherein plants represent a particular challenge since they are traditionally attributed with lacking interiority, autonomy, essence and individuality and hence fall through the sieve of contemporary ethical discourses.
As technological mediation becomes naturalized, the non-human subjects with which we interact become discernable, even though their expression is refrained to the milieu of the interface at hand. By overcoming our lack of perceptual capacity, these technological hallucinations inspire awe and fascination during a particular mediated contact, but the experience is scarcely transferred to plant life we encounter on a daily basis.
The plants’ disregard seems to match our own. With the innumerable animal, fungal and bacterial organisms at the reach of a leaf, a root or a flower, plants have sought partners and curtailed enemies throughout the natural world, (r)evolving around the human as mundanely as the human approaches them – through utility on one hand and damage control on the other.
My goal during the artistic research into phutonic principles (phuton (gr.) meaning plants, but also growing being) is to explore the possible biosemiotic cross-section of humans and plants at various levels of organization, challenging the prospect of intercognition – a process during which the plant and the human exchange physico-chemical signals and hence perturb each other’s state. Attention is brought to the materiality of the relation, which results in a perceptible manifestation, a change that can be observed in both partners of the exchange.
The process itself – artificial, novel and striving towards authenticity within the perceptual milieu – exerts immense strain on both vegetal and human entities undergoing the experiment. The confrontation of radically diverse living principles is an attempt of the human to humbly put her animality aside and surrender to the plant, transgressing the need for equivalence to achieve equality – an equality stemming from respect in the face of the subject’s (in)comparability with the Other.
The result of ce is not to be read as a pursuit of functional hybridity, but rather a conceptual enslavement of particular capacities of plants and humans with the purpose of recognizing the limits of compatibility, empathy and post-anthropocentrism. Through this liminal practice the artist hopes to test the capability of herself as a human to address and express her frustrating desire to understand plants on their terms. The transient, potentially unsuccessful intercognition and its artifacts make the body of the ephemeral artwork requiring ethical justification, calling for a discursive response on the topic of “how can we know the Other when empathy fails?”.
Skotopoiesis (meaning shaped by darkness) is the first performance from the series attempting plant-human intercognition. In this durational piece the artist and germinating cress face each, illuminated by a light projection. The biosemiotic process occurs through the obstruction of the light – the artist throws a shadow onto the cress for 12 hours a day, which results in the etiolation (blanching, whitening) of the plants. The effect is mediated by phytochromes, one of the plants’ non-photosynthetic light sensors. The diminished light intensity stimulates the production of auxin, a plant hormone that acidifies the cell wall, facilitating its elongation. The stems of the cress become long and pale, the leaves are sparser, all in an effort of the plant to grow from the shadow. As the cress elongates, the vegetalized artist shrinks – standing still for a prolonged amount of time decreases body height due to fluid loss from the intervertebral disk. Thus the evidence of intercognition is observed through the physical changes of the plant and human partner.
The work is produced by Kapelica Gallery and supported by funding from the European Commission – Creative Europe and Leonardo da Vinci LLP, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia, Municipality of Ljubljana, Slovenia and the Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
The project ‘Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Developing ethical frameworks for artists, cultural institutions and audiences engaged in the challenges of creating and experiencing new art forms in biotechnology and biomedicine in Europe‘ is led by artist Anna Dumitriu in collaboration with ethicist Professor Bobbie Farsides. The project is run by Waag Society in collaboration with Brighton and Sussex Medical School, The Arts Catalyst, Ciant, Kapelica Gallery / Kersnikova, Medical Museion, Capsula and Leonardo Olats.