The article was published in ŠUM | Journal for contemporary art criticism and theory. The issue is accessible by following the link.
In the era of ecological devastation and shifts giving rise to looming designations such as the Anthropocene, the vegetative reinstates its ascribed monstrous character, its role as the dark precursor on the illuminated pathways of our humanistic heritage. Amidst the post-modern nomos of the endless surface emerges a depth of vast magnitude, easily utilisable by the romantic enthusiasts as a possible return to the various origin-seeking endeavours and explorations of mysterious potentials of affectivity, although thereby yet again cultivating the expressive productivity of this ‘dark precursor’ by mistaking it for the sublimity of human affection.
To approach this alterity would, therefore, mean to accept its threat in full scope. Approach it without sidetracking too deep into the comforting paths of human experience. But what if our starting position for such an endeavour is that of art? What can or cannot art do for such an approach? Can art do without its inherent anthropocentric core? And what would become of art if it were reinvented in light of the conditions of these newly explored terrains?
These inquires present a potential focal point for dealing with the project-series Confronting Vegetal Otherness by the currently Amsterdam based artist Špela Petrič. The series of performances looks “[…] at plant alterity to reassess subjectivation, ethics, and our attitude towards dividual multiplicity.” It utilises knowledge gained in natural sciences, their inherent methodologies, to make apparent a certain middle ground between man and its vegetal other, or even more specifically, its inevitable lack and impossibility. As such, it brings art to its anthropocentric limits, although whether these limits get surpassed in any considerable way is open for discussion.
The first performance in the series, Skotopoiesis, meaning shaped by darkness, starts up the series by attempting to establish plant-human intercognition. It explores the limits of species specific Umwelten (the interactive unities of the organism and the world sensed by it–a certain sense-horizons that delimit the perceivable and imperceivable, the knowable and unknowable), all in order to mark the points where even the slightest contact between the being and its otherness can occur.
To explicate, the basic set-up of the performance involves a patch of germinating cress, whose sensitivity to light, its process of etiolation, to be exact (blanching, whitening of the plant when in darkness), is induced by the artist’s obstruction of the primary and only source of light. As the artist patiently stands in front of the light, ever more fatigued by the immobile stance, her muscles start to weaken and her height decreases (since the intervertebral disks start to lose fluid), while her shadow induces the process of etiolation in the cress, forming a patch of whitened and elongated plants in the form of the artist’s outline.
The meeting ground between these heterogeneous beings, both enclosed in their inherent horizons, interrelated only through the prism of otherness, thus arises in the fleeting process of height change. As one shortens, the other one elongates. Both becoming weaker as one spends its resources for a futile attempt to access light, while the other spends its fluids and becomes fatigued in its idle immobility.
Aesthetically speaking, there seem to be two distinct dynamics at play in this event:
– Most apparent for the viewer: the play of forms, where the rectangular shape of the patch of cress is inscribed with the form or outline of the artist. Thus, inscribing the cress through a semiotic process that has no apparent contact with the umwelt of the cress, but is a process solely present in the perceptional horizon of the human viewer, elucidating an anthropocentric dimension that is further backed by the inscription of the human form, shaping the cress in the artist’s own image that also elucidates the implicit biblical connotation of this gesture.
– The seemingly intended: the play of the diametrically opposite, although also complementary, processes or forces–the shortening and elongating–tied in an almost poetic equilibrium. This time, however, grounded in a biosemiotic process that brings the two divergent umwelten to the verge of meeting.
Whereas the first is based on the traditional pairing of meaning and will where meaning is produced in correlation with the messenger’s will to communicate, the latter disperses with this pairing as the semiotic process occurs in the rift between the vegetative and the human horizon, disregarding the interests or dis-interests of the subject’s will and thereby complicating the process of determining the messenger and receiver in the semiotic situation–since the usual conditions (intention, consciousness etc.) are not necessarily a given anymore (considering the semiotic involvement of plants that complicate even the distinction between the one and the many etc., and thus prop the use of the term ‘dividuum’ rather than ‘individuum’).
What does this mean for the artwork or art in general is unclear. On the one hand, the second dynamic eliminates the triadic relation between the artist, artwork and viewer, since the biosemiotic process, as well as its produced meaning, transpires solely on the limits between the horizons of the two ‘species’ where effects do occur (both of the parties react to one another), but are by themselves not translatable to the usual human-centric experience of the viewer. Which makes the whole situation meaningless in the context of the usual interaction with art.
On the other hand, the design of the performance reintroduces the triadic relation as it brings forth the first dynamic. Making it accessible to the viewer yet without being clear whether the two dynamics connect in any considerable way. Does the first help to mediate the second to the human-centric experience of art? Or do they remain completely unconnected or perhaps even counteractive in relation to each other?
As this rift between the two is (at least to a certain extent) apparent, the official leaflet for the project addresses it as follows:
“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.”
In general, this conceptualisation implies several presuppositions:
– The category of otherness, central to the project (as apparent from the title of the series), guarantees a certain openness to the unknowable, inconceivable or incomprehensible, approaching plant-life in light of the Aristotelian heritage that enforced the conception of the vegetative life as a dark foundation:
The undifferentiated ground on whose presupposition individual living beings are said to be alive is nutritive life (or vegetative life, as it was called by ancient commentators, referring to the particular status of plants in Aristotle as obscurely and absolutely separated from logos).
However, it approaches it by re-affirming its transcendent component, this alien and demonised nature, in order to disperse the mark of overzealous anthropocentrism.
– This transcendent dark foundation presents a rift for the ethical valuation, since the latter is heavily reliant on the epistemic accessibility of the valuated object (thus, if inaccessible in this manner, it is acknowledged simply as a demonic force). However, since plant life can be accessed (observed, measured) by using scientific interfaces, and since, furthermore, it is not accessible solely as an object (of observation), but also as a subject (of biosemiotic exchange), there is valid ground for expanding the scope of ethical valuation.
– If this were to happen, such ethical considerations would still lie solely in the scientific domain (tied to conditions of scientific perceivability and conceivability), making them unusable in most of everyday ethical judgement making. So in order to change that, which is where art steps in, a translation using a “human-friendly articulation” is needed.
As the artist stated, this friendly articulation is achieved by offering means of “[…] reflecting what could be a fracture in our phenomenological (non)consideration of plant life [, by searching] for modes of human existence that could be perceived as equivalent to plant life.” In the case of Skotopoesis, this would mean presenting the vegetating state of the artist-performer, whose spine shortens and the body fatigues while standing still for long periods of time, figuratively withering before the viewer’s eyes. The use of figurative measures thus present the necessary articulation that in our understanding ties in the two aesthetic dynamics mentioned above–tying in the event of the biosemiotic exchange with the art-related experience of the performance-viewer. Although, by using solely figurate means.
The performance as an art piece is, therefore, not carried out (in any considerable manner) on the biosemiotic level–thus dispersing with any possible considerations of new modes of art (i.e. new modes of production, mediation, and experience or consumption) –, but remains a simple, some would also say poetic, figurative endeavour.
To find out whether this is successful, meaning whether this is really what transpires in the event, we would thus have to find out, whether these figurative means (this “human-friendly articulation”) has the strength to, as stated, reflect “what could be a fracture in our phenomenological (non)consideration of plant life”.
What comes to mind, is that the ‘human friendly articulation’ utilises the same figurative representations that are already part of the symbolic field that ties the plant life to its subordinate place as a vegetative, dark foundation (dating back to the ancient Greeks), in order to express the similarity between the confronted entities. Which is not as much a problem of conceptualisation or execution of the performance as it is a problem of the regime of art that it relies on for its expression and articulation. The question is thus whether art has the power to divert from its Kantian foundation, where aesthetic judgment is conditioned by a certain communicability of judgements (a common sense or sensus communis). Whether it can divert from its symbolic predetermination.
To stretch the conceptual core of the performance, I also want to bring forth the lovely imagery of Vienna’s Schönbrun park or the Gardens of Versailles where human-plant relations (as most common) are perhaps best illustrated. What comes to mind when walking through the carefully moulded greenery are the responsive changes, growth that various plants show when met by gardeners’ trimming. How they take upon themselves the image of cultivation, the splendour of man’s power over its environment as well as the sublime potential of beauty and complexity that the plants possess (merely waiting to be brought out and developed in full potential through their encounter with their human counterpart). One could say that it is not so much the culture that moulds the greenery as it is the greenery that moulds the full potential of culture. And vice versa. Showing that there are no clear oppositional sides beyond relational becomings.
This figurative aspect of reciprocal conditioning and change can thus offer means of reflecting the fracture in our phenomenological (non)consideration, just as well as it can support and nurture its seamlessness. And even this is merely a best-case scenario, since how can it reflect the cracks of its margins if it does not leave the comfort of its seamless core?
This means that the problem lies in the very juxtaposition that the performance starts with. Not the one between vegetative and human life, perhaps most apparent, but rather between an “alien” expression (in need of an interface) and a “friendly articulation” (conveniently waiting at hand). It is the process of translation from biosemiotic processes to the figurative conclusions that leaves plant life at the mercy of our anthropocentrism.
But before we proceed, it is best to have a look at the dynamics of Petrič’s other performances in the series.
Plant-Human Monsters and Strange Encounters
Addressing the encounter between the human and the vegetal beyond mere figurative means, the remaining two projects, Phytoteratology. Ectogenesis: Plant-Human monsters (2016) and Strange Encounters (2017), do shed new light on the matter.
The latter, Strange Encounters, does so by attempting to arrange a meeting between a human and a plant in vitro.
Starting with the cell as a unit, the piece tends to level the ground between species–since “[a]s cells in culture we are fragmented, decentered, de-essentialised, outsourced, bettered, molded and viscerally spread over large areas”, according to the artist. Which means that we are positioned on a similarly de-esentialised and highly utilised plane as that of plants, for instance algae, whose cells are particularly popular in the pharmaceutical industry etc.
For the piece, the artist selected the “toughest” and “most resilient” types of cells of each kind (i.e. human and plant), carcinoma of the bladder and Chlorella (respectively), supporting her decision with the following reasoning:
– The genus Chlorella and its relatives are free living, single-celled photosynthetic algae populating a variety of ecological niches, from fresh and semi-salty waters to surfaces exposed to air such as roof tiles and recurrent puddles. It is both the smallest and the most abundant morphological form of a photosynthetic eukaryote.
– Cancer is a disease, but it also represents an actualization of the emancipatory potential of entities within the ecosystem of the body. Much like the single-celled algae, it is a pre-specialized assemblage of cells, an expression of the reproductive potential of a metastable cellular unit, allocating all available resources to indefinite multiplication. It’s also the most industrially productive form of mammalian cells–the raw material for research and vaccine/antibody production.
This being said, the artist clearly emphasises that what she performs with her work is a certain process of “selecting, monitoring, documenting and narrating” thus addressing the power relations implicitly at work in the project. She goes on to state: “The cancer and the algae negotiate the space I allow for them.”
Unlike the second project in the series, Phytoteratology. Ectogenesis: Plant-Human monsters (2016), where phytoteratology (from greek: phyto–vegetal, teras–monster) creates “phytopolutant”, informational compounds between the human and the plant (using human sex hormones extracted from the artist’s urine to induce genesis of vegetal embryos) and thus bypasses the previously present and problematised role of the observing human subject by incorporating it in the actual “meeting” of the two species.
The artist’s hormones inform the embryos of “thale cress“ (Aarabidopsis thaliana) of the artist’s presence, to which they respond by developing into a peculiar form, evoking a cross-species reproduction free of the inherent bind to their bloodlines and/or of its usual moralistic appendix of meaning.
Both projects enact a dynamic that does not rely solely on reciprocal causing of effects, layered with a figurative dimension in order to produce the desired meaning (utilising the inter-relation as a means of inter-human signification), but delve into direct inter-species confrontation, exposing (rather than signifying) the necessary conditions of this meeting, thus eliminating the dynamic of Skotopoiesis that relates to the structure of traditional art experience, eliminating the usual understanding of art resources and effects by putting forth a certain research situation, whose effects are expected to be of epistemic and ethical nature.
However, as such they don’t present “[…] 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”–as is the case with the whole series. The confrontation is a materialised potential, a singular fragment of future reality, already showing its first sprouts, although isolated “in vitro“, also, and especially, a reminder of the spectator’s persisting isolation from its vegetative other.
The performative aspect thus hands over the scientific base to the primary premise of the series, which is:
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?’
It elucidates a more subtle figurative process (than in the case of Skotopoiesis), but a figurative process nevertheless, using the seemingly ineffective result, the limited scope of the performances, to make palpable a certain despair, an existential loss of the human experientially isolated in its umwelt, and the mourning of empathic limitation so tightly tied with its anthropocentrism that it leads to vast destruction and hurt. Thus marking the return of the triangle of art mediation (the artist, the work, the viewer), which brings forth the drama of the human inability and its horrific consequences that constantly hover over the implemented scientific and ethic research. Offering the viewer a chance for catharsis in the depths of these complex existential experiences and their correspondent affects.
The duality in the dynamics of Petrič’s performances is, therefore, still present. The elucidation of the ridges of understanding and the consequential impossibility of inter-species empathy utilises the conceptual, scientific core as a means of artistic experience. But as such, by its basic structure, it already seals the fate of their result: inscribing the established inter-species relationships with the human-centric structure and code of meaning and understanding. Making art useless when confronting the vegetative other as it satisfies itself with mere mourning (and its inherent self-centred delight)–isolating itself from its chosen counterpart almost by default.
The analysis, thus far, brings us to a problem that is as much a problem of the series Confronting Vegetal Otherness as of art in general. As the series starts with a strong reminder of the biosemiotic dimension of plant-human relations (its inherent expressivity), the continuation of the series cuts ties with it, since it gives way to a different kind of expressivity: that of articulation, or more specifically, “human-friendly articulation”–as conveniently offered by means of art.
This positions the series in the vicinity of conceptual apparatuses that utilise “the vegetative” to create topologies for a new “image of thought”, since it inherits some of their problems. To take Deleuze for example: his re-creation of the concept of expression in light of his reading of Spinoza and Leibniz leads him to confront (together with Guattari) the regime of representation, perhaps most clearly in Anti-Oedipus, where expression on the side of the unconscious as theatre (i.e. expression as an “idealist category”) is juxtaposed and confronted with expression as production (i.e. expression on the side of the unconscious as a factory, a workshop). This shift from one to the other speaks volumes when roughly transposed to the context of art (in its wider sense), where the subject of expression still brings up only romantic imagery of creativity and authentic affectivity. However, when we look into the parts where Deleuze specifically addresses art in line with his “orientation in though”, some concerns definitely arise. To use only the issue pointed out by Rancière:
And the same is true for literary text: instead of filling up with the disorder of haecceities, it centers itself imperiously on the heroic figure of the eccentric who reveals its actual meaning. Deleuze, I’ve been saying, wants to substitute one ground for another, an empiricist English ground for a German idealist ground. But these seemingly surprising returns of a crudely Schopenhauerian metaphysics and of a frankly symbolist reading of texts show that something comes to thwart this simple substitution; in place of the vegetable innocence of multiplicities it imposes a new figure of struggle between two worlds, conducted by exemplary characters.
What Rancière finds problematic is (for him) a rather simple use of symbolist reading to define “the rupture of literature as such from the system of representation”–supposedly treating literature as a patchwork, but focusing and utilising only the main figure (Ahab, Bartleby, Prince Myshkin, etc.), that is a certain “return to a poetics of the story and its hero” that seems displaced in the context of approaching the “rupture of literature from the system of representation”, especially when considering the contribution made by Deleuze (and latter on Guattari) to the differentiation (and re-creation) of the notion of expression.
Here, similarly as with Petrič, a kind of unspecified and unreflected figuration steps in exactly at the point where practices (in both cases) need to “hold on to their strengths”, but fail to do so. Which raises the question of what actually transpires when art is faced with the otherwise consistent conceptual cores of various disciplines and traditions of thought. What causes the “loss in translation” that leads to a certain inconsistent and displaced duality in these types of art practices and practices of thought, which are becoming increasingly prominent in the “art world” (for lack of a better term)? What even causes the need for translation (its inherent presupposition of a strict duality between the fields that leads to the implementation of “human-friendly articulation”) in the first place? And finally, how to understand the bundle of figuration-articulation that seems to consistently cut the “expression” from its alternate dimensions?
The central problem is therefore not so much in the inconsistency of a certain art practice, since it also occurs in the field of critical writing on the subject of art, but more so in the snares and obstacles that occupy the relationship of art and other disciplines or practices of thought–especially when considering the supposed immense potential of interdisciplinarity, prominent in the art-centred discourse since the late 1980’s.
However, this should not downplay the relevance of these snares and obstacles for artistic (or other) means that are constitutive for these art practices, neither should we overlook the role and responsibility of the practices at addressing these issues head on. It comes down to a certain unwillingness to go beyond the established means of art presentation and overall design, a certain “contemporary art style” that is idly utilised to cover the spots where “knees shake and focus blurs”. Instead of making them apparent or utilising them for their own gain, a figuration (often overlaid with the mysticism associated with term “poetic”) stands in as a shortcut to what we call and treat as art.
Confronting Vegetal Otherness stands as an ambitious project that touches on the possibilities and potentials of art in a post-anthropocentric matrix, yet loses consistency when manoeuvring between various means of how to achieve this. It stands trapped in the duality that is simplistically implied with the term “bioart” (i.e. the juxtaposition of natural sciences and art; the “scientific” and the “artistic”) without knowing how to transpose it into an immanent problematic field. It thus “preaches” post-humanistic principles of today and tomorrow, yet “practices” the humanistic principles of yesterday, to put it harshly.
In this respect, it is not so much an exception, but rather the norm of a more general trope of practices and approaches for addressing (or “reassessing”, as stated at the beginning) the chosen problematic. It becomes an example of the problem of schematism that the impetus of interdisciplinarity failed to deconstruct over the past decades and touches on more than mere fallacy of categorisation, as it fails to reach and address the inherent problematic of its constitutive means.
By outlining the cross-disciplinary conceptual fatigue, it thus gives new meaning to the term “post-conceptual” art. Yet if it is able to find the “strength”1, it may just reengineer (and not only reassess) the foundation of art.
AGAMBEN, Giorgio, “Absolute Immanence”, in: AGAMBEN, Giorgio et al., Introduction to the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, KHALFA, Jean (ed.), London and New York, Continuum, 2003, pp. 151–169 and 200–201.
DELEUZE, Gilles in Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
FAVAREAU, Donald (ed.), Biosemiotics Volume 3 – Essential Readings in Biosemiotics (Anthology and Commentary), Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer, 2010, pp. 42, 81–114.
PETRIČ, Špela, “Confronting Vegetal Otherness – An Inquiry into Phutonic Principles with an Emphasis on Plant/Human Intercognition”, in: Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Špela Petrič – Confronting Vegetal Otherness (Skotopoiesis), Ljubljana: Galerija Kapelica, 2015, pp. 2–6.
PETRIČ, Špela, “Strange Encounters”, 2016a, available from: <www.spelapetric.org/projects/strange-encounters/strange-encounters-blog/> (last accessed on 17 August 2017).
PETRIČ, Špela, “Confronting Vegetal Otherness”, 2016b, available from: <http://www.spelapetric.org/portfolio/skotopoiesis/> (last accesed accessed on 13 September 2017).
RANCIÈRE, Jacques, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.